Well, it’s that time of year again. The end of April, that fabled time when the Oscars were 2 1/2 months ago unless there was a pandemic. Okay, obviously the big event this week is MORTAL KOMBAT coming out on Friday. But I’m still gonna enjoy watching the Oscars on Sunday.
As is my tradition, I made sure to watch all of the best picture nominees. Due to the pandemic I had seen fewer of them than usual when the nominations were announced, but it was easier to catch up since they could all be streamed. That was nice, though I will always treasure the time I had to take a ferry to the only theater in my area still playing HACKSAW RIDGE.
I had intended to do full reviews of more of these, but you know how it is – I decided to write about Godzilla movies and BLOODSPORT sequels and shit instead. It happens. So here are links to the ones I’ve reviewed and some thoughts on the ones I haven’t.
I didn’t even know what this was when it was nominated, but it’s an English language movie from French playwright and first-time director Florian Zeller, based on his own play about a woman (Olivia Colman, LOCKE) struggling to get care for her father (Anthony Hopkins, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 2) as he fails to understand that he has dementia.As I’ve mentioned many times before I lost my own father to Alzheimer’s, so I knew this could be painful, and honestly wouldn’t have watched it if not for my Oscar completism. But somehow it managed to be not too traumatic for me while also being the most accurate portrayal I’ve seen, at least in terms of Hopkins’ performance.
It’s cleverly written to make us as disoriented as the character. We see things happen and then when he brings them up later people try to explain to him that he’s mistaken. Time and situations shift unexpectedly. At one point his daughter is played by a different actress named Olivia, in this case Olivia Williams (THE POSTMAN). The daughter’s husband Paul (Rufus Sewell, GODS OF EGYPT) is a dick to him and we’re not sure if that’s all real or just his perception.
What is incredibly accurate to my experience with my dad is the way the father will be faced with these situations where he realizes he’s been talking about some delusion, or this person he’s been talking to as a stranger is actually a family member, and he’ll try to save face with a little joke and laugh and then move along like he knew all along. Of course I also recognize the anger and the sudden sobbing out of nowhere. And when he made accusations of being hit it reminded me of something that happened with my mom, who had so many other medical issues that we didn’t know until after she passed that it was Alzheimer’s causing her confusion. She believed a caretaker at a physical rehab facility had done something horrible to her, and obviously we had to take it seriously, so we moved her and the place put the employee on leave, but, you know… she’d also been telling us there were beehives on the side of her bed and that I had been killed in a street racing accident. This movie leaves you the same way – not wanting to assume he’s wrong, but also knowing he doesn’t know.
Anyway, obviously Anthony Hopkins is always good, but this is something extra special from him.
I’m actually surprised this didn’t trigger me much. Maybe I can have some distance from it because my dad was pretty damn far from an Anthony Hopkins type, and we managed to find good places to take care of both of my parents, and mainly because it wasn’t all on me like it was the daughter in the movie. But also maybe the passage of time and my attempts to talk about and process it all and say upsetting things about it in a fuckin Oscar preview have provided some healing. (Sorry.) Anyway, it can be scary to confront these things, but in this case I did it and I found out this is indeed a good movie.
JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH
This is one of the better ones. My take is that it uses the format of the undercover cop movie subversively by getting all the usual drama out of it but the people being investigated are the good guys and the investigators are the bad guys.
Also, shout out to Scott Thorough of Zebras of America, who had nothing to do with this but did score the previous movie by director Shaka King, who is also nominated for best original screenplay.
This one I was intimidated to write about because I’m no scholar of old Hollywood, and haven’t seen CITIZEN KANE since I was in my twenties, and I saw MANK kind of late after every more qualified smarty pants in the world had already written about it and moved on.
So my brilliant take on it is that I was surprised how fun it was. About all I knew about Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman, QUEST FOR CAMELOT) is that he wrote CITIZEN KANE and was an alcoholic. But the movie portrays his alcoholism in the old fashioned way: he always has a bottle around and you worry about him but he seems to manage, so why shame him? This is not a realistic or healthy way to look at it, but I didn’t have my heart set on wallowing in any muck.
I’ve heard pretty mixed opinions, but luckily the main criticisms are beyond my knowledge level. #1, it’s not different enough from RKO 281. (I haven’t seen it.) #2, the digital cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt (Mindhunter, Legion, Fargo, Raised By Wolves) is absolute trash because it looks nothing like the 1940s Hollywood movies the black and white is meant to mimic. Yeah – okay. Maybe? I guess my eye is not sophisticated enough. I thought it looked nice. I liked the use of outmoded pacing, like the car crash that lays him up that happens and then we’re immediately rushed away with a goofy wipe.
It’s an interesting look at a different time in Hollywood, at a perspective on authorship, on the responsibilities of an artist to their beliefs, and a reminder of how long variations of the same political shit we hear today has been swirling around this country. But I didn’t come away feeling like it was anything big or important. It was just a fun time. And I like seeing an obsessive dude like Fincher put this much work into just a fun time.
SPOILER FOR TINY BIT PART: Is it fucking crazy or what that Bill Nye the Science Guy has a small part as Upton Sinclair in a David Fincher movie? It sure is if you’re from Seattle and knew him from Almost Live! before he was a national figure.
This type of movie is also hard for me to write about, because it’s a straight ahead drama. It’s just about a family going through normal stuff. Yes, they’re Korean immigrants trying to start a farm in rural Arkansas in the ‘80s, so it’s very specific to their experiences. But mostly it’s just – here is a family. Here’s what they’re up to. We understand this dad (Steven Yeun, OKJA)’s stubbornness in trying to do what he wants to do, and also the mom (Hen Ye-ri, ILANG: THE WOLF BRIGADE)’s absolute frustration with him dragging her to live in a shitty mobile home working a shitty job checking the gender of baby chicks when she was reasonably happy with what they had in California.
And we know these kids David and Ann (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) are hilarious, especially in conjunction with their wonderful Grandma (Oscar-nominated Youn Yuh-jung, THE PRESIDENT’S LAST BANG), who David feuds with because she doesn’t fit his idea of what a normal grandma is supposed to be like. He rejects her so much he doesn’t even want the candy she brought from Korea. That’s cold. One of the big episodes in this saga is when David tricks her into drinking pee, but when he’s being understandably punished for it she feels bad and stands up for him. She loves that goofy little jerk.
Sure, there’s drama. Some major things happen. It’s emotional. Everyone is flawed. There’s a very real, very “I bet this is autobiographical” moment when the parents start fighting and the kids rush to their bedroom and start desperately making paper airplanes, which they use to throw a note to them to stop fighting. It’s clear that they’ve been through this so many times and this is their much-discussed emergency plan being put into action. The kid logic of it would be cute if it wasn’t so heartbreaking.
But overall it’s just kind of this beautiful slice of life where you get to know these people and this little place and you hang out with them as they try to figure things out. It has plenty to say about life without feeling like it’s trying to be about The Issues.
See, I have an okay start on writing a review right here, but I was afraid because, like with MANK, all the smart people who are more skilled at writing about something like this had already done it months before I saw it. But I do feel a little bit of a responsibility because I think it’s important to let people like me who are more of the MORTAL KOMBAT persuasion know that there are movies like this that we absolutely would love and should see. I actually had a pretty good angle I was gonna try if I hadn’t run out of time: I also watched Joe Lynch’s MAYHEM, in which Steven Yeun and Samara Weaving murder their way through an office building full of rage-virus infectees, and I was gonna try to do a double review.
The important point there is that Yeun is great and I love that he’s now an Oscar-nominated actor. Like many, I knew him as one of the longest-running characters on The Walking Dead, until his brutal, gory exit. On a show not exactly known for lovable characters, many viewers took his fictional death so poorly they entirely abandoned the show. But it was the right thing for him to do because he already has built up a really interesting body of film work, and he’s only getting better. MINARI gives him a complex character who has to shine through as likable despite his bull-headedness, and in MAYHEM he has to do it while being a douchey asshole businessman guy trying to regain his soul. In that one he also gets to go a little mega. There are many dimensions to Steven Yeun and I think we’re gonna see more of them.. He’s a movie star.
There is some truly great stuff in here, Frances McDormand (DARKMAN) is always good, and though maybe it doesn’t go into detail about all the ways working for Amazon can be horrible (which some people have criticized it for) I think you would have to be some kind of ghoul to watch it and come out thinking “Hey, that company is great, I’m so glad human beings are able to work for them!” In other words, don’t get mad at a movie for assuming you’re not a fucking idiot and have to have everything explained to you all the god damn time. Subtlety and understatement are not crimes.
However, I have plenty of issues with the particular way the movie combines fiction with real nomads portraying themselves, so I am not fully onboard the Nomadland Express. I’m just kind of half-heartedly jogging next to it.
PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN
Another one with many controversies. I love it though. This is the hippest and most “that was nominated for best picture?” of the bunch. It does deal with Important Issues, but in a dark comedy sort of way that is not normally rewarded by the very serious Academy people. In my review I compared it to HEATHERS. Did HEATHERS get nominated for best picture? In my opinion, no, no it did not. So I consider this to be justice for HEATHERS, somehow.
It definitely for sure has no fucking chance of winning in my opinion, but it’s cool that it somehow got nominated.
SOUND OF METAL
I saved this one to watch last specifically because I thought THE FATHER was gonna be so heavy, and somehow I thought this would be more…. I don’t know. Rockin’ or something. But of course the idea of sudden hearing loss is terrifying, and I think this was the only one out of all the best picture nominees that got me crying at one point!
It’s not necessarily an all around bummer though. Very good movie. I recommend everybody see it. If you refuse to see it though you should still read my review of it because, you know. I work hard.
THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 7
Have you heard about these Chicago 7? They were various left wing activists who organized anti-war protests near the 1968 Democratic National Convention. The police beat the shit out of the protesters, as they do, then the scumbag D.A. John Mitchell (John Doman, MERCURY RISING) – who later had FBI agents hold his wife captive and beat and sedate her for talking to reporters about Watergate – charged these guys with conspiracy to incite a riot. This is their story as told by Aaron Sorkin (THE SOCIAL NETWORK, STEVE JOBS, MOLLY’S GAME), who originally wrote it for Steven Spielberg, but ended up directing it too. It’s the kind of thing Sorkin excels at: a play-like format (being a trial and all), a ton of characters who get to talk constantly and be witty and tell stories and explain and explain and explain. I watch this kind of thing and I’m very conscious of how formulaic and corny it is and also that in his hands it can be very entertaining.
But this is not his best, in my opinion. It’s not as focused or consistent as those three listed above. Sasha Baron-Cohen (TALLADEGA NIGHTS) has been nominated for best supporting actor for playing Abbie Hoffman, and I think he’s one of the funniest people in the world, but I also think he’s kind of bad in this, with a distractingly weird accent. Luckily the character is kind of a clown anyway, so it mostly just hurts in a few moments where you’re supposed to question your previous assumption that he’s an attention-seeking dickhead. I did like Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden – I thought he was great in THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING, kind of terrible but sort of in a good way but maybe not in JUPITER ASCENDING, and virtually unwatchable in THE FANTASTICAL BEASTS OF WHIMSICAL WHATZIT LAND, so my views of him are not set. But he does a good uptight-but-pretty-much-right-frustrated-with-these-other-idiots-not-taking-this-seriously kind of dork.
Mark Rylance (THE B.F.G.) is the undeniable MVP, Mark Rylancing the shit out of it in the way that of course Mark Rylance fucking would. Whatever problems I have with the movie go down pretty easy after watching his frustration trying not to say what a fucking idiot asshole the judge (Frank Langella, BRAINSCAN) is being. (And then saying it.)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt (HALLOWEEN H20: TWENTY YEARS LATER) also deserves credit for pulling off the sort of honorable assistant federal prosecutor. He clearly is skeptical of the assignment from the beginning, but takes the job seriously, then does that thing where you notice a little glimmer of righteousness in him and he makes a small gesture of being a good person and recognizing what’s right at the end. I’m pretty sure that and the whole Stick It To the Man feel good climax are mostly horse shit, but Sorkin is good at sculpting in this specific medium of horse shit.
The most compelling part of the story to me is the stuff about Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, AQUAMAN), who is not numerically calculated into the title because he insisted that he had nothing to do with these guys and was added to the trial to give the jury a scary Black guy that they can feel good about judging guilty. Although I watch more stuff about the Black Panthers than some and I’m about to complain about being inundated with ‘60s counterculture worship I actually was ignorant of this story of him being literally bound and gagged in the courtroom. I understand that there is some license in the way it was depicted, but this is close enough and it’s such a fucking forehead-vein-popping fury you get watching it. You can feel the helplessness of all the people in the room, even some of the people who kind of suck, knowing what this is, not being able to stop it.
By the way, the timeline is not accurate, but this ties in with JUDAS AND THE BLACK MESSIAH in that Fred Hampton is a character in it, sitting behind Seale in court to support him. Here he’s played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. (who will also play B.B. King in Baz Luhrmann’s ELVIS movie). Interestingly I thought Harrison seemed too young to play Hampton but I looked it up and he’s about 5 years older than Hampton was at the time, while Daniel Kaluuya is about 10. I guess it goes to show that age ain’t nothin but a number.
To me a weirdly bad part of the movie is a laughable score that seems to try to rock out in such a way as to imply ‘60s rock ’n roll. I understand wanting to avoid the FORREST GUMP needle drops or whatever, but you can’t fake that shit, it makes it seem like a clueless TV movie. The protest re-creations already don’t look very authentic, and then the music makes them a joke. I was shocked to realize that it was a composer I normally think is brilliant, Daniel Pemberton (THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E., KING ARTHUR: LEGEND OF THE SWORD, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE, BIRDS OF PREY). But I have been told this is because Sorkin has bad taste in music. I’ll buy that.
I feel the need to say something about ‘60s nostalgia. I’m a middle aged man now, so if you do the math you can see I grew up during the ‘50s nostalgia era (watching Happy Days and Sha-Na-Na) and then the much more involved ‘60s one. I heard about the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. I heard all about Woodstock, saw the ads for Freedom Rock, learned how right they were about Jimi Hendrix being great. I watched The Wonder Years, I saw THE DOORS, 1969, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, GOOD MORNING VIETNAM, all that shit. I took their word for it that that was the most important shit that ever happened, the beginning of it all, the origin story of a new society, when the weirdos and long hairs and artists of the counterculture struck back and put this country on a path away from war and racism. Which hasn’t really panned out entirely, but still. Some improvements. On some fronts. Surely.
Since then there has been nostalgia for the ’70s, ‘80s, even ‘90s, but it doesn’t seem to me as adulatory, as ambitious in its claims of importance. That stuff usually seems more interested in pop culture references than in assigning meaning. But I might not be watching the right stuff, or I might just be irrevocably programmed by that ’60s stuff to take it for granted that that was canonically the most important modern era of American history and culture. I don’t know. Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur have certainly been elevated as tragic poets of their generation the way, say, Jim Morrison was. But I don’t see people of my rough age group trying too hard to shove our youthful views about selling out and shit on future generations. Whenever I start to write about it I have some kind of “nobody cares about this, old man” gag reflex that pukes up a bunch of shame. So maybe that’s part of it.
But all this is to say that other than the much needed civil rights era movies made by Black filmmakers, I’m getting over this ‘60s shit. To be fair, Sorkin is only about 4 years too old to be Gen X, and has said that he had to look up what the Chicago 7 was when Spielberg told him he wanted to make a movie about it. But he’s applying his center-left history buff smartypants mythmaking talents to the same orthodoxy as the older guys. He’s a very smart, very talented, very full of himself blowhard who yes, of course has become convinced that a key to everything going on in this world right now is the story of the trial of the Chicago 7. A story that has until now only been told in the 1970 BBC program THE CHICAGO CONSPIRACY TRIAL, the Herschell-Gordon-Lewis scripted CHICAGO 70, the 1987 HBO film CONSPIRACY: THE TRIAL OF THE CHICAGO 8, the 2010 animated documentary THE CHICAGO 10, and the 2011 film THE CHICAGO 8, plus several plays and books by historians and the people involved and stuff like that.
I haven’t seen those other ones, and I can buy that this might be the best narrative version. I kinda liked it. And certainly it has parallels to current events and things that ring true, whether through artistic design or universality. So I don’t blame them for making it. But it’s starting to feel like continuing to worship at the altar of these ‘60s paradigms can only hold us back. It really hasn’t saved us so far.
* * *
Okay, so what am I rooting for on Sunday? I don’t even know. This is a respectable batch of best picture nominees. CHICAGO 7 is the worst of them and it’s fine. My favorite is either PROMISING YOUNG WOMAN or MINARI, but I don’t feel strongly about which deserves to win.
I think despite all the incredible performances in the best actor category, it will be nice (and very emotional) to see the late Chadwick Boseman win for his great work in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM. It’s interesting that for this rightfully acclaimed final role, one of this era’s most regal super heroes gets to play a dick. A humorously cocky, very anguished, complicated dick. I haven’t seen all the nominees in the best actress category, but I think Viola Davis (OUT OF SIGHT) is incredible even for Viola Davis in that one. Her character is interesting in that she’s a huge pain in the ass and the more you get to understand where she’s coming from the more you start to think you know what? Good for her being such a huge pain in the ass.
I also want to mention that although ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI wasn’t nominated for much, it’s one of the movies that you hear about around awards season and then might forget afterwards but that you really owe it to yourself to check out if you’re interested in the subject. The whole ensemble deserves recognition, but I’m glad Leslie Odom Jr. (who not only gives a great dramatic performance, but convincingly sings as Sam Cooke) got a nomination.
In supporting actress I’ve seen all the nominees except HILLBILLY ELEGY, and I love all of them, but I’m kind of rooting for Maria Bakalova, because she just came out of nowhere and was so funny in such insane situations in the BORAT sequel, and you’re wondering who the fuck is this person, where did they find her, how did she do this? Of course, Youn Yuh-Jung (the grandma from MINARI) would also be a great choice, and she may have a more legitimate chance of winning. I’d be happy for that too.
Also DA 5 BLOODS, and specifcally Delroy Lindo, was robbed. So give it the best original score Oscar since that’s the only thing it was nominated for.
Anyway have fun watching the Oscars if you’re not just watching MORTAL KOMBAT over and over all weekend.