Best Pictures of 2020, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Extra Credit Reviews – 2020 Oscar Nominees Round 3

(sigh)

So, here’s the thing. There is one film that I really, really feel was snubbed this year, and  the fact that it is not one of the nominees I’ve been watching has left a bitter taste in my mouth.  So I’m going to try very hard to remember my bias as I review these last three films.  But all things being equal – I still feel that Jordan Peele’s Us should have taken one of the spots on this year’s list, and admit that a couple of the films I’ve seen don’t measure up to that.

So…yeah, something to bear in mind.

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This is probably going to be a controversial take, but….overall my reaction to this was a shrug and a “Meh”.

Look, this is not a pan. Empirically, I respect and recognize the talent of everyone involved. DeNiro is excellent as always as mafia insider Frank Sheeran; as is Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa, and Joe Pesci as Russel Bufalino.  Scorcese’s direction is, as ever, spot-on, with this tale of aging mafioso (literally).

But….honestly, it’s familiar ground for all of them, and I’m not a person who was ever all that into Scorcese’s Mafioso Tales anyway.  I acknowledge the quality of The Godfather, I acknowledge the quality of Goodfellas.  But those have always been empirical acknowledgements of quality as opposed to being stories that have grabbed me around the shoulders and shaken me up.  So this just felt like everyone was treading very familiar ground (except for Ray Romano, who has a fun bit as a mob lawyer).

So was it bad?  No.  But did I dig it?  ….again, no.

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So this was….serviceable?

I dunno, guys.  Again, it wasn’t bad – Damon and Bale have great chemistry.  But…sport racing never really was anything I gave a wet slap about in the first place, and while they did passing well with the human-interest background story involved in this biopic, it’s still the same kind of human-interest story I’ve seen before, where you have a guy who’s talented but hard to control and another guy who’s charming but determined and they have to learn to work together and overcome the obstacles that the corporate suits are throwing in their path.

Again, was it bad?  No.  But did I dig it?  No.  I think overall my take is like that old adage that “for the people who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they like.”  Not sold on it having been nominated for Best Picture, if I have to be honest.

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Now this is something else again.  Still not my favorite of this year’s crop, but at least I get its nomination.  And I did find myself affected by it afterward; the film ends with a title card from Sam Mendes dedicating it to his grandfather, “for telling us the stories.”

Thing is, that dedication comes after a harrowing hour-and-change of chaos and desperation and death and war and violence.  The whole thing is nearly in real time – so when someone dies, you see that in real time as well.  And you see a charge in real time.

Those are the kinds of stories that Sam Mendes’ grandfather was telling him.

And that brought me up short – my grandparents and father have no such similar stories they could have told.  My paternal grandfather was a veteran, but he was in the Seabees construction corps in Guam, and I don’t think he saw combat. My maternal grandfather was a metalurgist, and during the Second World War he was serving by doing scientific research.  Similarly, my own father “served” during the Vietnam War by designing subs under a military contract.

You hear of veterans telling their kids and grandkids “war stories” and it sounds like something quaint and charming, grandpa spinning yarns about his derring-do. But no – war stories are horrifying.  Even for civilians – Roommate Russ and I discussed this afterward, and he mentioned that his grandmother was a teenager in Germany during the Third Reich and told him many, many stories about what it was like because “she didn’t want us to come anywhere near that kind of bullshit.”

I’m grateful, for my father and grandfathers’ sakes, that they didn’t see direct combat.  But only in seeing this film was it driven home to me what I may have lost in terms of a visceral understanding of war by their not having that in their pasts.  Not to the point that I’d have wished it on them, of course, but I’ve realized there was a gap in my knowledge, and this film told me why.

….Right.  So that’s all nine of this year’s films (my previous reviews are here and here).

I’ve come down to three close favorites – the mind-blowing Parasite, the fairytale One Upon A Time In Hollywood, and – surprisingly, Jojo Rabbit. I wasn’t expecting to like that last one, but Taika Waititi saw something in the story and brought it out in a way that caught me. In my initial review, I forgot to mention Roman Griffin Davis, the brilliant child actor who plays Jojo –  amazingly, this is his first-ever film, and he does amazingly with the role. Taika Waititi also takes a concept that sounded like it could have gone so wrong and ends up handling it well.

I mean, likely none of those three will win (unless we are living in an age of miracles).  But I’ve noticed recently that the films tend to prefer for Best Picture tend to take Best Screenplay instead.  Jojo Rabbit and Little Women are both up for Best Adapted screenplay, and Parasite is up for Best Original screenplay – and I would have no objection to any of those three taking home a statuette.

Tomorrow I’ll be liveblogging the Oscar ceremony again (as I did last year).  Drop on by.  And for extra fun, Roommate Russ is posting his own take on the Best Picture nominees on his blog if you want to compare-and-contrast.

 

Best Pictures of 2020, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Extra Credit Reviews – 2020 Oscar Nominees Round 2

It’s been a bit of a week here at the Crash Course; I’m still working on the review for the latest film for the list, so in the meantime here’s a hot take on three more of this year’s Best Picture nominees.  (The first take is here.)

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I’m listening to Adam Savage’s podcast as I write this (I’ve said before, Adam is the unaware grandfather of the list).  In one episode they discussed Joker in passing; one of his guests said that they would have liked this film better if it hadn’t been tied to the comics character, and I think I agree.  There’s very little “Batman” content anyway, save for some names and a bit of a gratuitous “hey let’s have a scene where the Waynes get shot in an alley” moment; the rest of the film is all about “society is grossly unfair to the disadvantaged and downtrodden”, and I think it would have been better if they’d just focused on that.  And no, this isn’t a glorification of violence and a celebration of the downtrodden rioting and overthrowing their oppressors either – Joaquin Phoenix’s “Arthur Fleck” is clearly an anti-hero, or at least the film makes a hard turn into presenting him as such in the last act (we learn that the nature of one particular relationship he had with another person was ultimately all his fantasy, and that should make you question how much else we’ve seen from his perspective is real as well).

Joaquin Phoenix was fine; I’m not entirely sold on it winning the day for Best Actor.

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I saw this during its original release, and…I mean, it’s fine, but I’m not certain why it’s gotten the Best Picture nomination.  This is the second time that Quentin Tarantino has set up an alternate-history timeline that I’m aware (he killed Hitler with Inglorious Basterds, and here he saves Sharon Tate), and I’m not entirely clear why he did when the rest of the film was actually a strong enough tale of Old Hollywood learning how to give way to the new.  A part of me almost wishes he cut out the plot thread with Sharon Tate (here played by Margot Robie) altogether, and focused just on Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Rick Dalton” and his long-suffering stunt double Cliff (Brad Pitt) – their tale is an interesting study of an aging actor coming to terms with aging out of his glory days, and how his own career is impacting Cliff’s much more tenuous career.

However, cutting out Sharon Tate would also mean you cut out this lovely sequence early on when Sharon Tate spontaneously stops into a movie theater to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew – she’s a new enough actress that she can see the show in relative anonymity, and gets to genuinely enjoy the audience reactions at her performance.  It’s a sweetly endearing scene, and I think I might have missed it somehow if it weren’t there.

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So Roommate Russ and I made for a really interesting audience for this – I’ve never read the original book, but have a bit of familiarity with the original story from other sources; I’ve seen parts of the 1994 version, and as a kid I owned a strange quasi-graphic-novel version, with another author retelling the story alongside a lot of single-panel illustrations.  Roommate Russ was himself completely unfamiliar with the story other than it was “young women coming of age or something like that”.  So we may have been a good test audience for seeing how Greta Gerwig’s playing around with the timeline affected the work.

I’m not sure if that’s a spoiler to state that.   But that was a really interesting move that Gerwig made – instead of following the March sisters chronologically, as the book does, Gerwig’s film jumps between the sequences with Jo, Meg, Beth, and Amy all grown up, and the sequences with them as younger girls.  So, we start with Jo in New York and with Professor Bhaer hovering around, and jump back to Meg and Jo trying to get ready for a fancy ball with Beth and Amy looking on.  Then forward to check in on Amy in Paris with Aunt March, and then back to the Christmas-without-father scene that opens the novel.

Plotwise, that did some really interesting things to the story. I filled Roommate Russ in on how the book is originally structured; we agreed that this take created more interesting tension.  We see the adult Meg struggling to make ends meet with her husband John before we see the teenage Meg at a fancy ball in a borrowed dress; when a disapproving Laurie meets her and she pleads with him  to “let me have my fun tonight,” it’s surprisingly poignant, since we have already seen where she will eventually end up.

Gerwig has also thankfully cut out a lot of Alcott’s original sermonizing.  I remembered there was still some of this in the book I read, and I also remember a lot of it from the sequel, which I have read.  There seems to have been a common structure to a lot of the chapters; one of the sisters would get into some kind of scrape, usually as a result of not listening to Marmee’s advice, chaos would ensue, and Marmee would gently chide them and they would quietly resolve to straighten up and fly right.  But the reason why the March sisters have been such vivid characters for so long is that they are characters – imperfect, independent, and spirited, and Gerwig lets them stay imperfect.

However – a lot of the early scenes (early in the movie, that is) felt weirdly rushed and choppy. Gerwig’s March sisters have a habit of all talking over each other at the same time, which does feel natural but also made it feel like I was racing to keep up with them all.  Also, more disappointingly, we miss out on a lot of the development of some of the relationships – we get only one or two scenes between Jo and Professor Bhaer, only one scene with Meg and John, and a scant few scenes with Jo and Laurie (and that’s counting the famous scene where she rejects his marriage proposal).  By the time Jo is turning Laurie down, we should have a much better understanding of why that pair is so fond of each other; but we haven’t seen them becoming fond of each other.  There’s that one dance scene that you see in the trailers, a couple quick scenes where they clown around in the background, and…that’s….kind of it.  Laurie actually has as many scenes with Amy and Meg as he does with Jo, and yet somehow we’re just supposed to get that Jo is the one Laurie is most into.

Those who know me might be chuckling to themselves and thinking that I may simply be saying that because Laurie is played by Timothée Chalamet (I became an instant fan after seeing him in Call Me By Your Name, but more about that much later in the list), so I hasten to add that poor Professor Bhaer gets even less attention, and the film is structured in such a way that by the time he shows up to try to win Jo over, some audience members may have actually forgotten who he is.  We similarly know little about Meg’s beloved John save for a scene or two.

On the other hand, there’s a lot that Gerwig has discovered in the novel about economics, and especially how women in the 1800s were kind of screwed over.  There’s a killer scene when Amy – who’s presented as a pretty pretty princess in the novel – delivers a devastating smackdown to Laurie about the economic realities that women in society face.

Florence Pugh is nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar this year, and rightly so.

Best Pictures of 2020, film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies, Oscar Extra Credit

Extra Credit Reviews – 2020 Oscar Nominees

As if the Crash Course wasn’t enough, I also try to make sure I see the Best Picture nominees each year by the time the Oscars are awarded.  I’m about halfway through the full list of nominations by now, so here are some quick notes.

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Marriage Story

The performances are spot-on. Not mad about the fact that Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson have both received acting nominations for this.  But it almost feels like the rest of the film didn’t trust them enough, and was trying to manipulate me into feeling a certain way.  Particularly the score – usually I like Randy Newman, but his score felt all wrong.  There were also a number of moments of on-the-nose symbolism that made me roll my eyes a little (someone should really have stopped Noah Baumbach from including a scene where Adam Driver’s character unironically sings the entirety of the song “Being Alive” at a karaoke bar).  One of the best scenes is one where they have no score, and nothing but Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in a room arguing; the film finally got out of their way and let them do their thing, and it finally worked.

Also – Adam Driver is ostensibly an avant-garde director, and they show a couple rehearsal scenes of his latest staging of Electra. There is no way that a director presenting the kind of work they’re trying to produce would be making enough to own a Brooklyn apartment, nor would such a director have won a MacArthur Genius grant.  That show would never have gotten beyond an off-Broadway run on East 4th Street and closed in two months.

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Parasite

Now this is more like it.  Roommate Russ and I both cynically agreed that it would probably get the “Best International Film” consolation prize instead, as it’s been nominated for both, but it is a very, very strong contender for the top honor.  It starts out with some moments of comedy, as the various members of the Kim family – a poor family living in the slums of a South Korean city – gradually insinuate themselves as employees to the wealth Park family, all of them faking their credentials and pretending they’re unrelated.  The Parks are either too oblivious to notice or too wealthy to care, though, and soon the Kims are happily enjoying their newfound fortune, even throwing themselves a secret house party when the Parks go out of town.  But the film very quickly brings in some scathing commentary about classism and capitalism, throwing in some intense twists and turns.  I’m annoyed that Song Kang-ho, who plays the Kim family patriarch, was not nominated for his performance.

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Jojo Rabbit

I was really uneasy about this film when I first saw the trailers; I may have even mumbled something like “Oh, Taika Waititi, what are you doing.” I was even more uneasy when I read the plot description of the book which inspired the film – it ends very, very differently.  The book is about a teenage Nazi Youth member who discovers that his parents are sheltering a teenage Jewish girl; he keeps their secret and gradually starts to get off on the fact that there’s a teenage girl who’s a practical captive in his house, to the point that after the war ends, he lies to her and tells her that the Nazis won – and keeps here there for several more months.

In the film, instead, Jojo is a ten-year-old boy. His intentions towards the girl are conflicted, but ultimately a little more pure; instead of a dark sort of predation, he develops a puppydog crush.  Nearly the whole film is from his perspective, so all of the goofy stuff you see in the trailer is his own innocent take on the situation.  “You’re not a Nazi,” the Jewish girl tells him at one point, “you just want to belong to a club.”  And she’s spot-on.  His mother (another tour de force for Scarlett Johansson) also senses that the “real” Jojo, a sweet little doofus, is somewhere buried inside, and she’s determined to hang in there and try to draw it back out.

Okay, yes, there are plenty of scenes with the sweet-faced little Jojo interacting with Hitler as his imaginary friend. But Waititi actually pulls off the right note here – he’s not playing the actual Hitler, somehow it’s clear that he is paying Hitler the way a lonely ten-year-old boy would imagine him to be.  If you’re familiar with the Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett book Good Omens – Jojo’s perspective is about the same as the kids in that book; they’ve heard of big scary concepts like war and torture, but are way too young to understand them, so when they play with some dark stuff it’s a sort of cargo-cult version where no one really gets hurt for keeps, and as soon as someone feels real pain they have second thoughts.  There’s a sequence when Jojo is at a Hitler Youth camp weekend lead by a delightfully bats Sam Rockwell; as the kids are learning how to “crawl behind enemy lines” or “throw grenades”, the whole sequence is scored by Tom Waits’ song “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up“- a pairing I thought perfect (and not just because I love Tom Waits, either).

 

….I did see One Upon A Time In Hollywood, but I think I may need to rewatch it for a review first. All in good time.