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Understanding Screenwriting #94: American Reunion, Mirror, Mirror, Damsels in Distress, & More

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Understanding Screenwriting #94: American Reunion, Mirror, Mirror, Damsels in Distress, & More

Coming Up In This Column: American Reunion; Salmon Fishing in the Yemen; Mirror, Mirror; Damsels in Distress; Act of Valor; Titanic; A Bad Spring for American Television 2012, but first…

Fan Mail: A short note before we get into the mail. A day or so after I sent US#93 off to Keith, I read in the paper that Ernest Callenbach, whom I mentioned in the review of the Pauline Kael biography, had passed away. He was the long-time editor of Film Quarterly, starting in the early days when there were not a thousand film journals around. He ran my first published piece, a 1977 book review of two biographies of screenwriters. He was supportive of many young critics, including the redoubtable Stephan Farber.

David Ehrenstein has his usual entertaining comments, especially about Pauline Kael. He thought her essay on Kane made it sound as though Welles had “scarcely anything to do with it at all” with Kane. Like David, I had read her earlier reviews, especially of Chimes at Midnight (1966), and I thought in “Kane” she was not trying to tear Welles down, just promoting what Mank had done.

“IA” took me to task for thinking Kael was a coward for not writing more on screenwriters. He may be right, but given the dealings Howard Suber and I had with her, I’ll stick to my opinion. IA did point out that Kael never wrote anything, about screenwriters or otherwise, on the scale of “Raising Kane” again, which is what I tried to suggest in my comments about her not have the capabilities to do a much longer piece. As to how serious Kael was on doing a Johnson biography, I would assume that if she and her agent were trying to get my research and spreading the word that she was doing a bio of him, then she was pretty serious, at least for a time. Kellow’s book is already long, and I am sure that if he came across the Johnson business he probably felt it was not that important in the full scope of her life. As to her writing about screenwriters in her later reviews, she may well have, but not with the enthusiasm she showed earlier.

American Reunion (2012. Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Adam Herz. 113 minutes.)

Not as good as #1, better than #2, and way better than #3: In my book Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays, I had a chapter on the first three American Pie movies, since I wanted to discuss writing raunchy comedies. I put the chapter in the Not-Quite-So-Good section of the book, since that would have been my average grade for the three. The first was a very good script, the second not-quite-so good, and the third one was truly awful, with only one laugh in the entire film. I have not seen the four direct-to-DVD sequels and even a gun to my head would not make me. But since I had invested so much time in thinking and writing about the first three, I thought I would give the new theatrical film a shot. It turns out to be pretty good, and corrects several of the mistakes #2 and #3 made.

The first film, American Pie (1999), was written by Adam Herz, based on his teen years in the ‘80s in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, which becomes East Great Falls in the films. What Herz managed was a nice mixture of the sentimentality of the John Hughes films of the period and the raunch of the 1982 classic Porky’s. We follow four high school seniors, Jim, Kevin, Paul, and Oz as they go on a quest to lose their virginity by the time they graduate. So we have a solid, if overused, structure. What makes it work are the characters. Jim’s an Everyguy who gets caught masturbating by his parents in the first minute-and-a-half of the film. He’s bad at sex, but hopes he has a chance with Nadia, a sexy foreign exchange student. When the chance comes, he comes too, but too quickly and too often. Then he is left going to the prom with the geeky band-camp nerd Michelle, who in perhaps the greatest payoff line in American cinema history, turns out to be a highly sexualized lover of musical instruments, especially the flute. Kevin is hooked on Vicky, a cute blonde girl who doesn’t quite know if she wants to have sex with him or not. Vicky gets sexual advice from Jessica, “a very knowing but not completely cynical friend,” as I described her in the book. Jessica is potentially a more interesting character than the other girls, but Herz never quite figured out what to do with her, and by the third film she disappears completely. Paul has been encouraging rumors about his sexual prowess, all to no avail. Oz, on the advice of a college girl he fails to score with, pretends to be sensitive to get Heather, yet another cute blonde. A hanger-on of the group is Stifler, whose continuing gross-out antics make our four nicer than they might otherwise seem. In the end Jim gets Michelle, or rather she gets him; Kevin finally has sex with Vicky, but it’s a goodbye fuck rather than “this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” fuck, since she is going away to college; and Paul ends up with the oversexed Stifler’s Mom. I cannot remember what happens with Oz and Heather.

American Pie 2 (2001), with a story by Herz and David H. Steinberg amd screenplay by Herz, picks up one year later. We get less of Paul, Kevin, and Oz, and alas more of Stifler. He gets invited to spend the summer with the boys as they try to score at the beach. Stifler is a very one-note character, better in small doses than large ones. I am sure he is great fun to talk about in the story meetings, and probably great fun to write and act, but the more we see of him, the more obnoxious he becomes. This is even worse in the third film, American Wedding (2003).

For most of #2, Jim is trying to improve his sexual skills, since Nadia is coming back to town and he wants to do her right this time. After the premature ejaculation sequence, which was broadcast to the whole school, she was sent back to the Czech Republic, at least partially because Herz did not really want to deal with the difference in sexual sophistication between her and Jim. Doing it as a one-joke scene with Michelle was good enough for the first film, but it was not until #2 that Herz begins to deal with the issue. Jim contacts Michelle, who is at band camp, and gets her to give him lessons. But Michelle was a one-joke character in #1, and we now know what Michelle is really like. In the writing Herz goes back and forth with Michelle, sometimes the goofy nerd and sometimes the sexy girl, and it gives Alyson Hannigan whiplash trying to butt together the two. Hannigan’s performance in #1 was pitch perfect, but only for #1. On the DVD of #2, they have Hannigan’s screentest for #1, and her performance there would have been much better as a leadup to #2, but the focus on her goofiness in #1 makes #2 a mess in terms of her character. The “teaching scenes” between Michelle and Jim in #2 are great (you will never think of preheating an oven in the same way), and there are more of them in the deleted scenes. At the end of #2 Nadia returns, but realizes Jim loves Michelle. Paul ends up yet again with Stifler’s Mom, whom he appears not to have seen in the years since the first one.

American Wedding (2003), with a screenplay by Herz, is a mess. Instead of being about sex, it’s about a wedding, and Herz brings nothing fresh to the material. People behave totally out of character. We are introduced to Michelle’s parents, who have no character at all. A party with two women who may just be dancers or may be hookers (that’s sloppy writing) should have been a great scene, but is just never jells. Oz does not show up, nor does Jessica, nor Nadia, for that matter. Paul and Kevin are reduced to sidekick roles. Michelle is as divided a character as before. You can see why Universal went to straight-to-DVD for the next four.

When Universal decided to go back to the original cast for the fifth Fast and Furious sequel, Fast Five (2011), they found it grossed more than the sequels without the original stars. So they gave American Reunion a shot. This time the writers are the writers of the Harold and Kumar movies, but they pick up on what the Pie movies are all about, and improve on at least #2 and #3. First of all, Michelle is now a consistent character. She and Jim are married and having recently had a baby, they are not getting as much sex as they would like. That allows Hannigan to be both sexy and to show her us her goofy “band-camp nerd” faces. It also makes the movie again about sex, which is what most high school reunions are really about. Ralph Keyes, in his 1976 book Is There Life After High School?, wrote that he had never seen as much cleavage as he had at the various high school reunions he went to for research.

Oz, Kevin, and Paul are back, and given substantial storylines. Oz shows up with his gorgeous girl friend, but meets Heather again and sparks fly. Kevin and Vicky meet, but their relationship is still one of the weakest among the group. Paul seems at first to have become a man of the world, which is an interesting idea that the writers undercut later, although he does end up with Selena, a bartender who was very fat in high school but now, well, she’s not fat any more. We also get what amount to cameos from some of the other characters, including the flute. Jessica shows up way too briefly. I was so irritated that Herz did not give Jessica anybody to pair up in the first two that I wrote that maybe she could get together with the two girls in #2 that Stifler thought were lesbians. They weren’t and she didn’t. Well, she is now.

There is understandably a slightly more rueful tone to this entry in the series, which is also true about high school reunions. And they use that tone beautifully with Stifler. Yes, we are encouraged to laugh when he poops in an ice chest of some obnoxious kids, but the other guys are constantly calling him on his behavior, and as he realizes that finally high school may really be over, he is actually chastened. The writers then give him a great payoff scene, and Sean William Scott’s reaction when Stifler realizes what may happen is great. And we are actually rooting for him, something I never imagined I would even think, let alone write.

And now let us sing the praises of Eugene Levy. In all of the American Pie films and DVDs, he has appeared as Jim’s Dad. Well-meaning, trying to be helpful (clearing up the cable reception in #1), and often clueless. Jim’s Dad admitted in #1 he too has masturbated, but “Of course, I never did it with baked goods,” one of Herz’s many great lines. In Reunion, the writers know what they have with Levy and his character. They have written several funny scenes between Jim and his dad. Levy and Jason Biggs as Jim really get their mojo going and they are a joy to watch. We also get a bit of a rueful tone is some of these scenes, since Jim’s Mom died three years ago. So Jim and Michelle are encouraging Dad to date. Which leads to a couple of scenes with, well, whom would you pair off Jim’s Dad with? I can hardly wait to see the deleted scenes and outtakes of these two masters of the Christopher Guest School of Comedy.

Which raises the question of how much of those scenes, and the Jim and Dad scenes, may be improvised. It would not surprise me to learn that there was a fair amount of improvisation, but keep in mind they are all improvising off what they know of their own characters from the previous films, as well as whatever Hurwitz & Schlossberg have written.

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen (2011. Screenplay by Simon Beaufoy, based on the novel by Paul Torday. 107 minutes.)

Salmon Fishing in the Yemen

A river runs through Yemen: Torday’s novel is apparently the modern equivalent of what is called an “epistolary novel,” a novel told in the form of letters, as for example Chodelos de Laclos’ Les Liasons Dangereuses. Since nobody writes letters anymore, the novel for this one has emails, post-it notes, and assorted electronic conversations. That presents a problem for an adapter: how much reading do you want your audience to have to do? Beaufoy, whose credits include The Full Monty (1997) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), does a nice job of using the written word only when he needs it. And/or if there is a comic bit to be had, as with the character of Patricia Maxwell, the press secretary for the Prime Minister. Make sure you stick around for her last “conversation” with the PM.

Mostly Beaufoy focuses on his two romantic leads. The guy is Dr. Alfred Jones, an ichthyologist for the British government, who gets trapped into helping a Yemeni sheikh set up a breeding ground for salmon. Jones is sort of nerd, but charming in his own quiet way. He is brought into this by Harriet, a public relations specialist working for the Sheik. She is a lot more worldly than Jones is. Think Cary Grant vs. Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938), but without the slapstick. Salmon Fishing is more a conventional rom-com, but Beaufoy, and presumably the novel, sets up two hurdles for the couple. He is married, and the marriage is not going well. We don’t like his wife much, but she’s not awful. Harriet has just gotten involved with Robert, an army officer who has been sent off to Afghanistan shortly after they started their romance. So we have legitimate reasons why these two don’t fall into each other’s arms. And Beaufoy writes nice “friendship” scenes for them that keep us interested until the inevitable happens. Jones is willing to break up with his wife, although in one of Beaufoy’s nice touches, she’s not sure she does want to break up. Robert goes missing in Afghanistan and is presumed dead. He’s not, but when he gets back together with Harriet, he is extraordinarily gallant about giving her up. Jones is Ewan McGregor at his most charming. Harriet is Emily Blunt working at her usual high standard. The real find here is Tom Mison, who not only catches Robert’s gallantry, but is a hunk and a half as well.

As much as I love the romantic story, Beaufoy’s script doesn’t handle the political satire as well as it might. What we do get, particularly in Kristin Scott Thomas’s scene-stealing performance as Patricia, is wonderful, but just enough that you want more. A lot more. And Scott Thomas is so great that we laugh at her instant messages because we can imagine how funny they would be coming out of her mouth. To paraphrase one of my usual comments, that’s great writing for non-performance. Beaufoy also shortchanges the serious elements in the story. A little over half way through, the Sheik is the target of an assassination attempt. We only get a vague idea of why (religious fundamentalists are opposed to the Sheik’s plan), which undercuts the fundamentalists final attempt to screw up the whole project. I can see why, in both the writing and the editing, the film sticks with Jones and Harriet, but it would have had a little more substance if we had a little more of the politics. After all, His Girl Friday (1940) managed it, so how hard could it be? Yeah, right.

Mirror, Mirror (2012. Screenplay by Jason Keller and Melissa Wallack, story by Melissa Wallack, based on the story by Jacob Grimm and Wilheilm Grimm. 106 minutes.)

Mirror, Mirror

Butcher? Grub? Halfpint? Napoleon? Wolf?: With names like that for the seven dwarfs, we are definitely not in the Disney version of Snow White. But in spite of those names, this version is not as dark as Disney’s. The attempt here was to do a light comedy, family friendly version of Snow White. But Snow White is one hell of a scary story, and the tone does not sit quite right. The structure is functional and had potential. Snow White is a grownup whom we meet early in the film, held captive in the castle by the wicked queen. Snow sneaks out of the castle and meets the Prince, although she does not know he’s a prince until she meets him again at the ball. The Queen has her eyes on the Prince as a potential husband, and so arranges for Snow to be taken to the woods and killed. Needless to say, she’s not, and she falls in with the dwarfs, a band of thieves who hide their size by wearing stilts when they rob people. The dwarves do not have the richness of character Disney’s did. Christopher Finch’s 1973 book The Art of Walt Disney: From Mickey Mouse to the Magic Kingdom includes transcripts from the story and character conferences for the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and you can tell from them the time Disney and his people put in on character development. Keller and Wallack’s are short in character as well as height.

Snow does do some cooking for the little guys, but mostly she is there to become a warrior princess. I’m all for warrior princesses, but they are getting to be a cliché, and the training montage is uninventive. That is also true of the dialogue. When even Nathan Lane, as the Queen’s henchman, cannot get laughs, there is something seriously wrong with the script. The same thing happens with Julia Roberts’ Queen. Roberts can do evil, but she’s trying for diva here as well, and it’s not in her wheelhouse. Armie Hammer as the Prince is the only one who nails the tone, and that’s because he spends a lot of screen time pretending to be a dog. Hammer gives good dog.
Part of the problem with the film is that the director is miscast. He is Tarsem Singh. Tarsem was a student at LACC, although I don’t think I ever had him in class. I have followed his career and like some of his earlier films, especially The Cell (2000) and The Fall (2006). He has a great eye for exotic locations and sets, but the visuals here are not up to his usual standard. He also doesn’t seem to handle the workaday comedy scenes as well as he could. Hey, not everybody can be Lubitsch. And Keller and Wallack aren’t Samson Raphaelson yet either.

Damsels in Distress (2011. Written by Whit Stillman. 99 minutes.)

Damsels in Distress

Hermetically sealed: In Stillman’s first three films (Metropolitan [1990], Barcelona [1994], and The Last Days of Disco [1998]), he was dealing with subcultures, often within subcultures. But there was always an awareness within the film that they were subcultures. In Metropolitan, we are with East Coast, upper class kids during the debutante season, but Stillman introduces to this crowd Tom, who is not part of the culture. Tom serves as a critical observer of the upper class and their attitudes, which gives the film a dramatic tension. In Barcelona, Ted, an American working for an American company in Spain, and his cousin Fred, an American naval officer, are outsiders in the Spanish culture.

In Damsels we are in a fictional East Coast college, and the outsider of sorts is Lily, who is entering the college as a sophomore. She is “adopted” by Violet, the leader of a trio of girls. Violet has a lot of strange ideas, but Lily only challenges them in a half-hearted way, so we don’t get that kind of tension in this film. Violet runs a suicide prevention clinic, where she mostly prescribes tap dancing as a way to overcome your troubles. The girls get involved with various men, but the guys are so skimpily drawn that it is hard to tell them apart. There is very little forward momentum in the film, just a collection of scenes with Violet and the girls that do not really go anywhere. They all live in a hermetically sealed universe with very little connection to the real world. That may be part of Stillman’s point, but it’s not very compelling on the screen.

Act of Valor (2012. Written by Kurt Johnstad. 110 minutes.)

Act of Valor

Action yes, characterization no: A friend of mine, the son of a Navy admiral and a retired worker with the former job classification of “I can tell you what I do but I’d have to kill you,” is going through a tough patch at the moment. His wife is in the hospital and he’s not supposed to drive, so I took him out for brunch and then we saw this movie. We’d been talking about his World War II childhood in San Diego over brunch, and the opening scene has the Navy SEALS doing a parachute drop over San Diego. He was in hog heaven.
You may have read some of the backstory of this movie. The incidents are taken from true SEAL missions, put together in one film, and made with real Navy SEALS playing the SEALS. The downside is that the “personal” scenes are flatly written, and the dialogue is as simple as you can get for the same reason that dialogue in porno films is simple: the “actors” can’t handle dialogue that goes beyond declarative sentences. The emotions are also as simple as you can get; do not look for any nuance or irony here. Kurt Johnstad, a former grip, is also the screenwriter of 300 (2006), so you know the dominant tone is going to be macho squared. The good guys are very good, and the bad guys, all of whom seem to have the same scar, are very bad. And our guys never make mistakes. When they attack a small village, not a single woman or child gets hurt. And their equipment always works.

The action scene writing is terrific. We get several major set pieces, starting with the rescue of an attractive woman doctor the baddies are holding in a jungle hideout. The suspense is unnerving as our guys go through the jungle. My friend noticed that the maneuvering of the rescue boats was smart, always moving to distract the baddies. The attack on the village and the attack on a factory/fortress are also exciting, and different enough so that the action does not seem repetitive. What my friend and I loved about the film is that there is almost no CGI. We are in the jungle, on the ocean, in the village, and we get the physical sense of the place and the action, which I often don’t in CGI fests. One of the reasons I always liked David Lean’s movies is you feel the jungle, the desert, the winter of Russia. Act of Valor is not a patch on those, but if this is the sort of movie you like, you’ll like this one.

Titanic (2012. Written by Julian Fellowes. 240 minutes.)

Titanic

No, not that one: And not that one. And certainly not THAT one. This is one of those projects that sounded great in the pitch meeting. It is, in case you missed it, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. So why not do a television miniseries on it? Special effects are getting less expensive, so we can at least match in small screen terms the King of the World. Surely, there are more stories to tell that were not covered in the many earlier films. Maybe, maybe not. But let’s get Julian Fellowes to write it. After all, he started the first series of Downton Abbey with news of the sinking, using it as a way to get into the characters and their attitudes (see US#70).

In writing about the second season of Downton Abbey (US#92) I mentioned that Fellowes writes at an American pace, with shorter, faster scenes than most English writers. That was wonderful in Downton Abbey, but it gets things off to a very bad start here. We get very, and I mean very, shorts scenes with a lot of characters. We have no idea who these people are, and there are not enough questions raised about them to make us want to come back to them. I suspect that this was shown in four one-hour episodes in England, but here ABC put the first three hours together on the first night, with the last hour the following night. In each of the four episodes, Fellowes follows one or more families and/or characters from before they get on the ship to the ship beginning to sink. Then in the next episode he follows the same path with another group. And another group in the third. I do have to admit, by the way, that I have not seen the 4th hour, since there was a power glitch in our neighborhood and it did not get recorded, but the pattern is clear in the first three hours. What that means is that just when an episode gets interesting, we stop and go back to the beginning. It is bigboatsinkus interruptus, to use the old Latin phrase for it.

Fellowes overstuffs the film with issues as well as characters. Yes, we get some discussion of the administrative glitches that led to the sinking, but we also get discussions of the British Empire, the Troubles in Ireland, possible war in Europe. Thematically the film is just as unfocused as it is in terms of character.

Ah, well, there is always Season Three of Downton Abbey on the far horizon.

Girls

A Bad Spring for American Television, 2012: In terms of new shows premiering on both cable and broadcast channels this spring, it has been a miserable season. And that seems to have affected some ongoing shows as well.

Girls is a new, heavily hyped HBO show (does HBO have any other kind?) created by Lena Dunham. I missed her indie film Tiny Furniture (2010) because it sounded a little too precious by half. I think I was right, because Girls is a little too precious by three-quarters. It’s about four twenty-something girls from good backgrounds who can’t seem to get their shit together and whine about it a lot. Over the years I have known and even been related to some women who behave like that. These reminded me of them, and I turned to my wife and mentioned one of them, as in “This show is like a roomful of ’Jennys.’” (No, I am not using real names here, for obvious reasons; and I should note that most of them have grown out of it.) One reason I loved teaching at LACC is that there I did not have to deal with a lot of people with overdrawn senses of entitlement, although we had a few. The women in this show assume that their parents should finance any harebrained scheme they come up with while they “find themselves.” Finding themselves in this case seems to involve having bad sex with men they don’t like. Well, if you don’t know how you can enjoy that, you certainly haven’t found yourself yet.

Veep is another new, heavily hyped, yes, HBO show. This one is created by Armando Iannucci, who has a great track record of political satire in England. We saw his skill in the 2009 film In the Loop (see US#31), where he widened his view to cover a bunch of American political and military people. And he got it right. Which is probably where the idea for Veep began. The new show is about the American vice-president, Selina Meyer, and there is the same kind of fumbling around we saw in In the Loop, but without the wit. The pilot episode, “Fundraiser” (story by Iannucci, teleplay by Iannucci & Simon Blackwell), has Selina making a number of verbal faux pas and trying unsuccessfully trying to fix them. The wit simply is not there, and the relentless use of the word “shit” makes it seem even less funny. There are more “shits” in an episode of this show than there are “vaginas” in 2 Broke Girls. In the Loop had its share of foul language, but it had more of a point than it does here.

Don’t Trust the B… in Apt. 23 has a familiar premise: semi-uptight June, a young woman from the Midwest, ends up sharing an apartment with Chloe, who we are informed gets new roommates then drives them out by her odd behavior, keeping their rent money. Square versus kooky. Hey, it worked for Laverne and Shirley and it’s working for 2 Broke Girls. But the “Pilot,” created and written by Nahnatchka Khan, is overstuffed trying to get the situation established and the characters introduced, not an uncommon failing of pilots. There was enough potential there for me to watch the second episode, “Daddy’s Girl,” also written by Khan. It was a lot cleaner (only in one sense) and sharper. June has decided not to date, but Chloe thinks she has the perfect guy for June. June says no, so Chloe sets them up to meet at a party. June is taken with Scott. And then learns he is Chloe’s dad. Freak out time. But he comes to the coffee shop where she has managed to find a job, they talk and end up in bed. And the next day Chloe’s mom shows up at the apartment. She and Scott only separated a week ago, and she is in a wheelchair. And she is played by Marin Hinkle (Alan’s ex in Two and a Half Men), so the scenes get lively. There are a lot of twists and turns and surprises. Alas, the last surprise is that June tells Chloe, who admits to having Daddy issues, that she (June) and Scott never had sex, but just “dry rubbed” for hours. Talk about the writers chickening out. The third episode, “The Parent Trap,” written by Sally Bradford McKenna, falls apart completely. Chloe gets an “assistant” by taking in a foster child and putting her to work answering the phone. Later we see a social worker drop in, and she has to be the most obtuse s.w. to not realize what’s going on. Chloe is flitting off to exotic places, leaving June to take care of the kid. Most of the episode is June yelling at Chloe for his lack of responsibility. The dialogue is very on-the-nose and not funny. Chloe is supposed to be a free spirit, but she is a little too far over the line for us to like her.

The L.A. Complex is a Canadian series on the CW network set in…Hollywood. Which leads to a lot of aerial shots of L.A. and one or two scenes shot on the streets in L.A. The rest is done on soundstages in Canada. It’s about a bunch of show biz wannabes who come to L.A. to Make It Big. And most of them end up in an apartment complex hanging around the swimming pool and humping each other’s brains out. Wait a minute, didn’t this used to be called Melrose Place? Indeed it did, and this is no particular improvement on the original. The actors are mostly people you have not seen much of before, but they are not incompetent, just not that compelling. And given the demographic that advertisers love, the oldest character, Raquel, is supposedly over the hill since she is pushing thirty, although I don’t know which side she is pushing from. There are no old people on this show, and there are no fat people. There were a couple of nice touches in the pilot, “Down in L.A.,” written by the show’s creator Martin Gero. Connor, a former resident, has just gotten the starring role in an upcoming series and has moved out. He is back for a party and hooks up with a newbie, Abby. The morning after she asks if he wore a condom. He says no, but then gallantly volunteers to take her to buy a morning after pill. And he’ll treat her to breakfast as well. Chivalry is not dead, just mutating. After she takes the pill, which can cause side effects, she gets word that she has scored an audition. She goes, but has not prepared a song, so she sings one of her own. Which in the world of this series impresses the hell out of the director. Until the nausea from the pill catches up with her and she vomits on the piano. Which leads to the director’s great line, “There is an old show business expression: when there is vomit on the piano, the audition is over.” I had not heard that expression before, but maybe it is just Canadian.

In US#92 I spoke too soon about the quality of the new season of Fairly Legal. For reasons known only to the showrunners and USA, they have introduced a new regular character. He is a very obnoxious lawyer named Ben Grogan. He’s only interested in taking cases to trial, winning at trial, and taking home lots of money. I suppose he is set up as a counterpoint to Kate’s more humane mediator, but mostly he is just irritating both to her and to us. And to make matters worse, in “What They Seem,” written by Tom Donaghy, there is a scene that suggests Kate may be falling for him. Then in “Ripple of Hope,” written by Robert Nathan, he kisses her. Ugh. And she kisses him back. Eewww. I know the ads make her look like a childish idiot, but up until now she has not been in the show.

30 Rock improved a bit in the spring, but then they tried another live show. In October 2010 they performed an episode live, and I pointed out the reasons it did not work in US#62. The scenes were longer than those in the filmed episodes, throwing the rhythm of the show off. The live audience response threw the actors off. The sets looked smaller and cheaper than those in the filmed version. Well, they tried it again in April with “Live From Studio 6H,” written by Jack Burditt & Tina Fey. They tried to shorten the scenes, which helped a bit, but it made it seem more like they were showing off that the actors could run around between scenes very quickly. They kept to just a few sets, and several of those were supposedly from television back in the ‘50s, so it didn’t matter than those looked cheap. The plot line was that Kabletown decided that TGS would no longer be live. Kenneth locked everybody up in a room to try to convince them to fight to keep the show live. This led to a series of parodies of shows supposedly done live in this studio. One was The Lovebirds, an obvious takeoff of The Honeymooners, with Alec Baldwin as Jackie Gleason and Tina Fey as Audrey Meadows. Another was a parody of The Dean Martin Show with Baldwin as an inebriated singer and Jane Krakowski doing a good Dusty Springfield impression. The problem was that these sketches all seemed like something from Saturday Night Live. Adding to that feeling was that from the beginning of the entire episode, everybody was reading off cue cards, with not a single actor looking at any other actor in the eye. Granted the script was not that great, but would it have killed the actors to memorize their lines? There is a great tradition in theater, film, and television of actors actually remembering what they have to say. Of course, it also helps if you stick with professional actors. Kim Kardashian did a cameo in the West Coast version, replacing Sir Paul McCartney, who did the East Coast version. Kardashian, whose performance skills do not include line reading, swallowed her last punch line and I couldn’t understand what she said.

In the same column in which I wrote about the previous live 30 Rock, I also covered the ending of that season of Mad Men. I said at that point, “I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait for the next season.” We had to wait eighteen months, but it is finally back, and I will deal with it in the next column. Or the one after that.

Tom Stempel is the author of several books on film. His most recent is Understanding Screenwriting: Learning From Good, Not-Quite-So Good, and Bad Screenplays.

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Short

Bet against a message of hope and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool.

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Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)
Photo: Grain Media

Our track record here is spotty, but we’re on a roll, having correctly guessed the winner three years in a row. Just as every film up for the documentary feature prize grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war, every one nominated for best documentary short concerns the aftermath of trauma. And this category’s history tells us that academy members are quite keen on a certain angle on the process of coping with trauma, which is implicit even in the titles of the films that won here but whose chances we underestimated, such as Mighty Times: The Children’s March and A Note of Triumph.

There isn’t a single dud in this bunch, but a few feel only half-formed. Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan’s St. Louis Superman, which earned MTV its first Oscar nod, concerns Ferguson activist and battle rapper Bruce Franks Jr. and his efforts to pass a bill recognizing youth violence as a public health crisis after being sworn into the Missouri House of Representatives. A powerful sequence set during a rap battle gives us a complete picture of how the trauma of his younger brother’s death—and, simply, living while black—has come to shape Franks’s politics, but if the short successfully attests to his accomplishments against all odds, it remains conspicuously tight-lipped about his home life and has a final title credits sequence tell us about his future in government that we wished it had actually processed on screen.

John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson’s gripping Life Overtakes Me, the only short in this category with Netflix’s muscle behind it, feels as if it could benefit from simply reporting on a relatively unknown matter: the dissociative condition known as resignation syndrome, a response to the trauma of refugee limbo that has been predominantly observed in children from the Balkans now living in Sweden with their families. The filmmakers vigilantly depict the day-to-day routines of parents struggling to feed their comatose children and keep their limbs as lithe as possible. But the short doesn’t offer enough context about the struggles that brought these families to Sweden and, like St. Louis Superman, it has one read a little too much between the lines, sometimes literally so, as information relating to the asylum process and evolving opinions about resignation syndrome is largely conveyed via on-screen text.

Yi Seung-jun and Gary Byung-seok Kam’s In the Absence plays out like a ghost story, and it’s much less withholding than both St. Louis Superman and Life Overtakes Me. Concerning the 2014 MV Sewol ferry disaster in South Korea, this hauntingly cool-headed short doesn’t lack for astonishing footage of the incident, some of it pulled from the phones of those who were aboard the ship; the shots of the protests that followed the incident, as well as the talking-head interviews from the families of the deceased, are no less harrowing. The filmmakers are ferocious in their condemnation of the various failures of communication that led to the deaths of hundreds aboard the ship, and one deserved target of their contempt is South Korea’s former president, Park Geun-hye. Still, if we have any reservations about our favorite short in this category, it’s over the way it risks leaving some with the impression that the Sewol disaster was largely responsible for the disgraced politico’s downfall.

Now, for those who couldn’t read between the lines of this post’s first paragraph: Bet against a message of hope, as we did in the past when we didn’t rally behind Music by Prudence and Strangers No More, and you may find yourself losing an Oscar pool. As such, In the Absence faces stiff competition from Laura Nix and Colette Sandstedt’s touching but somewhat featherweight Walk Run Cha-Cha, about a young man and woman who, 40 years after being separated during the Vietnam War, and especially Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva’s Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), which, spite of its cloying score, chronicles a resistance in a language that will be impossible for most to resist.

Learning to Skate in a Warzone tells the story of a school in Kabul that teaches young girls to skateboard and, by extension, take on the patriarchy. “I don’t want to grow up so I can skate forever,” one girl says at one point. Hopeful words, yes, but we can see their melancholic roots. The filmmakers may not have bombard us with images of violence, but you don’t walk away from this short without understanding the risk of simply seeing that girl’s face speaking those words, in a country where so many girls are destined to become prisoners in their own homes, and are more prone than boys to be the victims of terrorism.

Will Win: Learning to Skate in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl)

Could Win: In the Absence

Should Win: In the Absence

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Live Action Short

It never hurts to let this academy feel as though they’re just liberal enough.

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Brotherhood
Photo: Cinétéléfilms

If last year’s slate in this category reflected, as Ed pointed out, children in peril as the “fetish du jour” for the academy’s shorts committee, the trend certainly didn’t carry over into this year, with only one nominated film dealing with such subject matter. That said, it’s characteristic of this particular category’s history in that it’s among the most galling, sermonizing screeds nominated for any Academy Award this year.

Unlike such previously slated diatribes as That Wasn’t Me or One Day, however, Bryan Buckley’s Saria is explicitly a recreation of a real-life tragedy, a 2017 fire that killed 41 girls in a Guatemalan orphanage, potentially sparked by one of the girls in an act of political protest against their gorgonesque caretakers. That the entire episode touches on just about everything wrong with the world today means it can’t be fully counted out. But it’d be a lot easier to get in the filmmakers’ corner if it didn’t so strongly feel as though they turned the slow-crawling death toll into a bizarre sort of victory lap in the final credits reel. And Oscar voters haven’t been too tacit lately about their aversion of tough messages being shoved down their throats.

Among other nominees with seemingly very little chance at winning, Delphine Girard’s A Sister gave us major déjà vu, and not only from its narrative echoes of recent short Oscar winners The Phone Call and Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1. A well-made exercise in escalating alarm in miniature, this Belgian thriller centers around an emergency operator (Veerle Baetens) who quickly and professionally ascertains the coded cry for help from a caller (Selma Alaoui) being held hostage in the car of a dangerously irrational man (Guillaume Duhesme). Confidently but abstractly directed, the film joins a very long line of Eurocentric thrillers about domestic violence nominated in this category, including Miracle Fish, Just Before Losing Everything, Everything Will Be Okay, and DeKalb Elementary. And if these sorts of films always seem to get nominated, they also never win.

So what does? At this point, this category has a long-ish history of rewarding candidates that are either the only English-language nominee, the most hipster-friendly ironic in nature, or both (Stutterer and Curfew, to name two examples of having those bases covered). This year that sets up a battle between Yves Piat’s Nefta Football Club and Marshall Curry’s The Neighbor’s Window. The former has all the makings of a winner for most of its running time. In it, a pair of brothers (Eltayef Dhaoui and Mohamed Ali Ayari) in Tunisia find a drug mule—an actual mule, that is—wandering around because the pink headphones his handlers (Lyès Salem and Hichem Mesbah) placed on him are playing not Adele’s “Someone Like You,” which would cue the trained animal to return home, but Cheik Hadel. One of the two boys recognizes the mule’s stash for what it is, but the other one presumes it’s laundry detergent, rubbing enough on his tongue that he really should spend the rest of the short tripping balls. The EC Comics-reminiscent twist ensures that the short is never less than glibly cavalier toward geopolitical readings but also comes off like a damp squib compared to the declarative setup.

Similarly anecdotal, The Neighbor’s Window is a schematic empathy fable in Rear Window drag about a ennui-ridden, middle-aged mother (Maria Dizzia) of three captivated by the twentysomething couple (Juliana Canfield and Bret Lada) living in the building across the way. While the short’s milieu offers every opportunity to lean right into the brand of snarky irony that this category favors—the woman’s voyeurism is kicked off when she and her husband (Greg Keller) spy on the younger couple fucking in full view of the rest of the neighborhood—the film remains almost doggedly like a “we all want what we cannot have” teleplay updated for Gen Xers. Still, in that it validates the struggles of the world’s haves, it’s very much in play.

But we’re tempting fate and picking Meryam Joobeur’s Brotherhood as the spoiler. It centers around a Tunisian patriarch (Mohamed Grayaâ) whose oldest son (Malek Mechergui) comes back after years spent in Syria, with a new wife (Salha Nasraoui) whose face-hiding niqāb all but confirms the father’s suspicion that the son has been recruited by ISIS. It’s a minor miracle that the film doesn’t come off as one big finger wag, in part because it comes at the whole “world is going to hell in a handbasket” angle by highlighting mankind’s universal failure to communicate. Equally miraculous is that its shock finale doesn’t resonate as a hectoring “gotcha,” but instead as a proper outgrowth of its reactionary main character’s failure to live up to his own, presumably, liberal identification. Post-Green Book, it never hurts to let this academy feel as though, unlike Brotherhood’s doomed father, they’re just liberal enough.

Will Win: Brotherhood

Could Win: The Neighbor’s Window

Should Win: Brotherhood

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Review: The Turning’s Horror Elements Add Up More to Insult Than Ambiguity

It casts its source as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored.

1.5

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The Turning
Photo: Universal Pictures

The cultivation of ambiguity has long been integral to the successful horror narrative. The oppressiveness of our fears is always somehow diminished following the explication of their source, and nowhere is this more true than in the subgenre of psychological horror, reliant as these stories are on our ability to trust the perspective of a particular protagonist. We see the world only through their eyes, and therefore we must decide what to believe is true about what has otherwise been presented to us as reality.

Henry James’s 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw,” previously adapted in 1961 by Jack Clayton as The Innocents and revisited now by Floria Sigismondi as The Turning, is a ghost story that revels in a sense of doubt on behalf of its audience. The novella tells the story of a young and inexperienced governess called upon to care for two children named Flora and Miles, following the death of their parents, in a sprawling mansion called Bly that may or may not be haunted. This is a straightforward premise that offers sinister delights because of our bearing witness to its narrator’s slippage—either into delusion, or into a world where the dead actually walk among us as spectral presences aiming to possess the innocent.

The Turning’s camera often tracks and frames its subjects in purposeful, often striking shots that manage to convey the bigness and intricacy of Bly without sacrificing intimacy with the characters. And the production design is steeped firmly in the tradition of haunted house films, every room and mantelpiece creepily cluttered with dolls and mannequins, gothic mirrors in every corner threatening to expose unseen inhabitants of dark and dusty rooms. The walls along Bly’s claustrophobic and seemingly endless hallways close in on the governess, Kate (Mackenzie Davis), like a vice. Sigismondi brings to the screen a lush and stylish perspective to her material, an attention to detail cultivated in her photography and music video work. And as Flora and Miles, the haunted children who Kate has come to educate and oversee, Brooklynn Prince and Finn Wolfhard deliver sophisticated performances that delicately suggest the inner turmoil of children who have been faced too soon with death.

There’s a pivotal moment around the middle of The Turning where Kate receives a package containing a sheaf of menacing paintings created by her mentally ill mother (Joely Richardson), delivered from the hospital where Kate visited her before leaving for her new post at Bly. The mansion’s stern housekeeper, Mrs. Grose (Barbara Marten), already skeptical of Kate’s merits, has clearly rifled through the artwork and taken note of its sender. Before leaving Kate to examine the paintings alone, Mrs. Grose archly raises aloud the question of whether Kate might have inherited any of her mother’s supposed madness, and this kernel of suspicion regarding the veracity of Kate’s observations about the house and its inhabitants unfortunately serves as conspicuous foreshadowing to the film’s careless conclusion.

In her book of essays The Collected Schizophrenias, which lays bare the experience of mental illness and the various stigmas associated with its diagnosis in contemporary culture, Esmé Weijun Wang writes, “Schizophrenia and its ilk are not seen by society as conditions that coexist with the potential for being high-functioning, and are therefore terrifying.” And it’s no wonder that the horror genre has plumbed the narrative possibilities of instability so completely, presenting countless protagonists over the years whose relative grip on reality provides a story with necessary tension. But the best of these examples use the destabilization provided by a possibly mentally ill character to make broader connections, speaking often, for example, to the subjugation of women in a patriarchal society, such as with the “madwoman in the attic” trope explored by Charlotte Perkins Gilman in “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Here, though, without any evidence aside from genetics to suggest the possibility of Kate’s cognitive disintegration, The Turning casts its source narrative—the psychosexual haunting of the house by a deceased former governess and valet who had once watched over the children—as a delusional fantasy through which to enact the effects of possible traumas that go completely unexplored. The film’s abrupt ending succeeds only at undercutting and cheapening everything that came before, dressing a vague yet potentially resonant paranoia about sexual violence and male predation as a simple case of undiagnosed mental illness, with no hint at all of the origins of these particular points of stress in its protagonist’s psyche. This kind of ambiguity—not about whether or not Kate has gone mad, but rather about why it actually matters—is a cop out rather than a display of control.

Cast: Mackenzie Davis, Finn Wolfhard, Brooklynn Prince, Barbara Marten Director: Floria Sigismondi Screenwriter: Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Short

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt.

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Memorable
Photo: Vivement Lundi

Another year, another reminder to take our prediction in this category with a grain of salt. Since 2002, when we first started predicting the Oscar winners, we’ve guessed correctly in this category only eight times, and five of those were in the aughts, when one or more Disney shorts consistently lost to considerably more outré productions. It was a long dry spell for the studio between For the Birds taking the prize in 2002 and Paperman doing so in 2012. Disney now perseveres more times than not, which is why we’re given pause by the fact that, even though this is only the third time since 2002 that the studio doesn’t have a film in the lineup, two nominees here could be described as “Disney-adjacent.”

One of those, Matthew A. Cherry and Karen Rupert Toliver’s charming and poignant Hair Love, had us busting out the hashtags (#OscarsSoWhite, #EverythingIsSoWhite, #WhiteWhiteWhiteIsTheColorOfOurCarpet), wondering if the guilt that AMPAS has about its diversity problems may be a victory-securing source of momentum. That Issa Rae, who saltily congratulated the men in the best director category when she announced this year’s Oscar nominees alongside John Cho, provides the voice for this short about a black father who learns to style his daughter’s hair in the absence of the girl’s mother feels as if it can only help.

At the same time, each day since the Oscar nominations were announced last week seems to bring one of those dreaded articles in which some anonymous academy member is asked about their picks ahead of deadline, and Michael Musto’s recent chat with one such voter has us convinced more than ever that guilt isn’t the average academy member’s chief motivator. Besides, Hair Love faces stiff competition from another Disney-ish, hit-‘em-in-the-feels candidate, Kitbull, which concerns the unlikely kinship that forms between a cat and a dog. It certainly tugged at our heartstrings, and in spite of the short’s bug-eyed cat at times alternately, and distractingly, reminding us of a mouse and an inkblot.

Perhaps inevitably, we found ourselves drawn to the more outré nominees. Siqi Song’s beautifully textured Sister doesn’t lack for memorable images, but my favorite is the one where the brother at the center of the short pulls on his giant baby sister’s outie-cum-Silly-String-umbilical-cord until the child shrinks down to size. This is an at once idiosyncratic and somber meditation on China’s one-child policy, but it left one of us wondering, in the wake of Nanfu Wang and Jialing Zhang’s One Child Nation being snubbed this year by the academy, if it would resonate with enough voters, and two of us certain that a sizeable portion of the academy’s more liberal members would take more than just the “I had fingerprints four weeks after conception” bit as something akin to a big pro-life billboard.

Remember this old Sesame Street bit? Eric sure did while watching Daughter, a striking rumination about the emotional distance between a father and daughter. Daria Kashcheeva’s expressionistic use of stop motion is haunting, even if the short, amid so much abstraction, doesn’t always evoke believable people. More approachable is Memorable, where the very nature of what can be believed and remembered is the governing principle. All the way until its stunning finale, Bruno Collet and Jean-François Le Corre’s confluence of styles (there are shades here of the “psychorealism” that won Chris Landreth an Oscar in 2005 for Ryan) is in profound conversation with the idea of dementia as a destructuring agent. We’re no strangers to wrongly betting on our favorite short persevering on Oscar night, but Disney consistently loses in years where it has more than one film gunning for this award, so we’re betting that the two Disney-ish shorts will split the vote and pave the way for a Memorable victory.

Will Win: Memorable

Could Win: Hair Love

Should Win: Memorable

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Review: The Last Full Measure Trades Institutional Critique for Hero Worship

The film largely evades any perspectives that might question the institutions that put our soldiers in harm’s way.

1.5

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The Last Full Measure
Photo: Roadside Attractions

Speaking about the time when Air Force pararescue medic William “Pits” Pitsenbarger descended from a helicopter to aid wounded soldiers trapped in an ambush during the Battle of Xa Cam My, a former soldier, Kepper (John Savage), says, “I thought I saw an angel. There he was right in front of me, all clean and pressed.” Pits’s courageous actions during one of the Vietnam War’s bloodiest battles, where he saved nearly 60 lives and perished after refusing to board the last chopper out of the area so he could continue helping out on the ground, are certainly deserving of the Medal of Honor that he was denied for over 30 years. But writer-director Todd Robinson’s hagiographic The Last Full Measure is frustratingly limited in its scope, stubbornly fixating on the heroism of one man and the grateful yet tortured men he saved while largely evading any perspectives that might question the institutions that needlessly put those soldiers in harm’s way in the first place.

Following Scott Huffman (Sebastian Stan), an up-and-coming Pentagon staffer assigned to investigate a Congressional Medal of Honor request for Pits three decades after his death, The Last Full Measure takes on the point of view of an indifferent outsider who doesn’t understand the value of awarding a posthumous medal. Unsurprisingly, as Scott travels the country to meet with several of the soldiers whose lives Pits saved, he slowly comes to revere the man and the lasting impact of his actions. In the roles of these wounded survivors, Ed Harris, William Hurt, Samuel L. Jackson, and Peter Fonda each offer glimpses at the feelings of guilt and mental anguish that continue to haunt the men. Yet before we can get a hold of just what eats away at the former soldiers, and what living with their pain is really like, Robinson repeatedly whisks us via flashback to a dreadfully familiar-looking scene of combat, attempting to uplift the spirits with scene after scene of Pits (Jeremy Irvine) saving various men, all with the cool-headedness and unflappable bravery one expects from an action movie hero.

Throughout numerous walk-and-talk scenes set inside the Pentagon, The Last Full Measure manages to convey some of the countless bureaucratic hoops that must be jumped through to get a Medal of Honor request approved. But the murky subplot involving Scott’s boss, Carlton Stanton (Bradley Whitford), and a supposed cover-up of Operation Abilene, the mission that led to the ambush in the village of Cam My, does nothing but pin the blame for all wrongdoing on a mid-level Pentagon director. And even in that, the film’s only qualms are with a cover-up that prevented Pits from being properly recognized, with no thought whatsoever given to the disastrous wartime decisions that were also being hidden from the public.

In the end, Robinson’s portrayal of a scheming Washington insider suppressing the actions of an infallible, almost angelic fallen soldier lends the film a naively simplistic morality. By fixating on the good that came out of a horrifying situation, and painting institutional corruption as a case of one bad apple, The Last Full Measure practically lets the state off the hook, all the while mindlessly promoting nationalistic ideals of unquestioned duty and honor.

Cast: Sebastian Stan, Christopher Plummer, Samuel L. Jackson, Bradley Whitford, Ed Harris, Diane Ladd, Jeremy Irvine, Michael Imperioli, Alison Sudal, Peter Fonda, William Hurt Director: Todd Robinson Screenwriter: Todd Robinson Distributor: Roadside Attractions Running Time: 115 min Rating: R Year: 2019

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

It’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both sound editing and sound mixing.

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Ford v. Ferrari
Photo: 20th Century Fox

The movement to merge the two Oscar categories for sound into just one is finally picking up some steam after an academy subcommittee favored consolidation in December, but we regret to inform you that the exceptionally rational decision hasn’t yet been ratified, and thus won’t spare us one more year of double-feature kvetching. While the nominating members of the sound branch might know the exact difference between sound mixing and sound editing, and while compulsory Oscar blogging has forced us to know the exact difference as well, numerous academy members clearly don’t.

Case in point: Last year they awarded Bohemian Rhapsody its expected award in sound mixing, where musicals always have an advantage, but also an upset win in sound editing. Unless voters metabolized Singer’s violent blitzkrieg of a film and simply misremembered hearing explosions throughout, that’s not the vote of an informed electorate.

From our perspective as prognosticators, though, it’s not difficult to rationalize picking the same film to win both awards, especially in the absence of a musical. While there have been plenty of years we’ve carbon-copied our predicted winner in both categories only to see them split (even three ways, as in 2012, when Les Misérables took sound mixing, and Skyfall and Zero Dark Thirty tied for sound editing), getting one prediction right is better than getting none at all, especially in a year like this where, to judge from both slates, sound equals fury.

One thing’s fairly certain: You can probably go ahead and count out Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The new trilogy failed to add any more Oscar wins to the franchise, and, in fact, a Star Wars film has never won a competitive award for sound editing. Episodes seven and eight lost to, respectively, a chase movie and a war movie, and this year’s top two contenders here are arguably the exact same pairing. While 1917 is still considered by many to be a frontrunner for best picture, we’re pretty sure the onslaught of vintage motors roaring for the climactic quarter-hour of Ford v. Ferrari will get voters right in the dad spot.

Will Win: Ford v. Ferrari

Could Win: 1917

Should Win: Ford v. Ferrari

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Review: Guns of the Trees Wears Its Looseness as a Badge of Honor

The film is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

2.5

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Guns of the Trees
Photo: Anthology Film Archives

Jonas Mekas establishes the tone of 1961’s Guns of the Trees with a director’s statement, declaring that the “mad heart of the insane world” has prevented him from finishing the film. What follows, Mekas asserts, is “a sketchbook,” a “madhouse sutra,” “a cry.” And such a description aptly articulates the film’s melodramatic, self-pitying sense of yearning, which is driven by Mekas’s career-spanning need to contexualize the divide of artifice that separates artist from audience. To Mekas, sketch-like scenes represent a refutation of staid, insidious craftsmanship that can smooth out rougher and more resonant contours.

In the case of the quasi-fictional Guns of the Trees, Mekas follows a handful of young people in New York City as they hang out and grapple with the state of modern existence, decrying America’s involvement in Cuba, the development of the atom bomb, and various other atrocities that underscore the awfulness of the imperial machine. Occasionally, Allen Ginsberg reads his poetry over the soundtrack, his scalding free-associational verse conjuring an anger that the film’s characters can’t quite articulate, while providing Guns of the Trees with another element of the literary. A little of Ginsberg’s poetry goes a long way. What is the “hunger of the cannibal abstract” and why can’t man endure it for long?

Ginsberg’s bebop phrasing complements Mekas’s fragmentary images, which are alternately ludicrous and lovely. In keeping with the sketchbook concept, the film wears its unevenness and looseness as aesthetic badges of honor. A framing device in which two businessmen in white mime makeup wander a cabbage patch in near hysteria, in all likelihood embodying the ageless corruption of man, is self-consciously oblique and edgy, feeling like an earnest film student’s pastiche of 1920s-era avant-garde tropes. Other scenes, however, poignantly detail life in the early ‘60s, such as when a woman sits her husband down in a chair in their loft and cuts his hair, or when a man tries to talk his drinking buddy down from an intoxicated rant. These scenes have the humor and behavioral specificity of John Cassasvetes’s films, evoking the comforting rhythm of the little moments that come to define us.

Guns of the Trees belongs to an easily mocked beatnik era, when people discussed whether to conform or be free while listening to folk music and reading Ginsberg and smoking grass. At times, even Mekas seems to be on the verge of ribbing his subjects’ sincerity. For all their thrashing about, these people seem prosperous and more interested in speaking of revolution than in truly sparking it. Ben (Ben Carruthers) sells life insurance, prompting the film’s funniest line, when a potential client asks, “Don’t you still believe in death?” A young woman named Barbara (Frances Stillman) is gripped by authentic depression though, and her suicide haunts Ben, Gregory (Adolphus Mekas), and Ben’s wife, Argus (Argus Spear Julliard).

If the beatnik navel-gazing dates Guns of the Trees, Mekas’s docudramatic eye memorably revels in poetic details throughout. His protagonists wander through fields, which suggest the rice fields of Vietnam, and junkyards that testify both to the beauty and the waste of mainstream society. The play of light off the twisted metal of the trashed cars suggests found sculpture, while indirectly conjuring the wreckage wrought by the wars the characters protest. Such images, which include profoundly intimate close-ups of the characters’ faces, also anticipate the rapture offered by future Mekas “sketchbook” films such as Walden.

Mekas would go on to pare away the preachiness of Guns of the Trees from his subsequent work, as he increasingly honed a personal style that would make ecstasy out of the commonplace, utilizing multimedia and a restless syntax to suggest how memory intricately shapes life. Guns of the Trees is but one deliberately imperfect piece of a vast slipstream.

Cast: Adolfas Mekas, Frances Stillman, Ben Carruthers, Argus Spear Juillard, Frank Kuenstler, Louis Brigante Director: Jonas Mekas Screenwriter: Jonas Mekas Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 1961

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Animated Feature

Forky rules.

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Toy Story 4
Photo: Walt Disney Studios

Completist-prone Oscar prognosticators were dealt a merciful hand last week when the Oscar nominations were announced and Frozen II didn’t show up in this category. But the winning hand belongs to Toy Story 4, which likely lost the Golden Globe to Missing Link as a result of a vote split between the two Disney properties. Sentiment to reward the American-based production studio Laika is brewing, and the fitfully droll Missing Link will, like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, probably find favor at the BAFTAs, but Laika’s latest and most expensive production to date dramatically bombed at the box office. And while no one will be weighing between the film and I Lost My Body, a singularly and actively morose and creepy film that won’t appeal to the academy at large, this category’s short history tells us that the Mouse House is only vulnerable to the biggest money makers. Also, Forky rules.

Will Win: Toy Story 4

Could Win: Missing Link

Should Win: I Lost My Body

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Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Supporting Actor

Pitt winning here will seem like the stars are lining up given what went down when he was first nominated in 1995.

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Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
Photo: Columbia Pictures

We didn’t predict Anthony Hopkins to get nominated here, thinking that the Golden Globes’s enthusiasm for The Two Popes was a fluke. We were wrong, and he ended up becoming the elder statesman in an acting lineup that contains, on average, by far the oldest nominees. The person we predicted to get in instead, Marriage Story’s Alan Alda, is a year older than Hopkins, so we certainly weren’t betting the farm on any male ingénues.

On the other hand, it sure feels like spry 56-year-old Brad Pitt, who opened his acceptance speech at last night’s SAG Awards with a joke about having a Tinder profile, had this award in the bag the moment his Marlboro Man-ish handyman hopped atop his buddy’s roof to fix the antenna in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, whipping off his shirt to reveal a tawny, fully-abbed torso that scarcely seems to have aged in the nearly 30 years since he seduced the country in Thelma & Louise. He, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s co-lead, has a lot more to do throughout than just doff tees, but the “I’m still here” virility of that moment embodies the entire film’s love letter to old-guard masculinity in Tinseltown.

Not that anyone’s reading too deeply into it, not when there’s good old-fashioned awards numerology to fall back on. Within minutes of the nominations being announced, Oscar Twitter jumped on the fact that the best supporting actor slate this year is composed of acting winners from 1990 (Joe Pesci), 1991 (Anthony Hopkins), 1992 (Al Pacino), and 1993 and 1994 (Tom Hanks). Fewer pointed out that Pitt was also a nominee in 1995 for 12 Monkeys, losing out to the now-canceled Kevin Spacey. Which makes it seem all the more poetically like the stars are lining up when Pitt wins for a film whose finale proposes a rousing bit of alternate, corrective history in which the “good” guys obliterate the “bad” ones.

Will Win: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Could Win: Joe Pesci, The Irishman

Should Win: Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

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Awards

Oscar 2020 Winner Predictions: Documentary Feature

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology.

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For Sama
Photo: PBS

Few Oscar categories are bigger snub magnets than this one. And while the failure of Apollo 11 to secure a nomination this year was indeed surprising, it was not as telling as the omission of The Biggest Little Farm, a handsomely, if conspicuously, sculpted “pop” documentary that’s very much in the academy’s wheelhouse. It was almost as if the committee responsible for selecting the nominees here was sending a message by embracing, at a time of increased global instability, five documentaries that looked only outward: not at mankind’s possibilities, but at the ways in which we’ve become our own worst enemy.

When discussing the potential winner in this category, Eric and I were pulled in two different directions. “Doc will go American Factory and, by extension, the Obamas, right?” Eric asked. “Honeyland notched an Oscar record by being the first documentary to also be nominated for international feature. That has to mean something?” I asked. Which is to say that he and I, no strangers to this Oscar-predicting process, were sacrificing ourselves to rigamarole, forgetting that, at the end of the day, academy members vote with their hearts above all else.

Every film nominated in this category grapples with the nature of freedom in a world gripped by war and shaped by technology. American Factory specifically takes the closing of a Chinese-owned factory in Ohio as a jumping-off point for a study of the wiles of global capitalism, and it’s every bit as smart as you might expect from a film produced by the Obamas. A more sobering reminder of how the global order of the world has been cataclysmically disrupted in the last four years is another Netflix documentary, The Edge of Democracy, about Brazil’s own national(ist) sickness. It’s a harrowing lament, but it offers the viewer no sense of escape.

Which isn’t to say that the The Cave and especially For Sama, both filmed in Syria and in the midst of war there, are escapist. The two most viscerally powerful documentaries in the category confront us with the chaos of imperial domination. Both films center the female experience of war, but For Sama does so more shrewdly, positing itself not just as a chronicle of war, but an act of remembrance. In a film that doesn’t lack for gut-wrenching images of the dead, one particularly stands out: of a child, after being pulled from its wounded mother’s womb via C section in the wake of a bombing, being brought back to life. Combined with the scenes depicting the citizens of war-torn Aleppo finding humor in the midst of conflict, the film attests not only to the perseverance of the Syrian people, but to the possibility that the country might still be brought back from the edge of oblivion.

Will Win: For Sama

Could Win: The Cave

Should Win: For Sama

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