As a pop cultural phenomenon that’s been going strong for seven decades, nothing compares to…well, Cher, bitch, but let’s talk about our second-favorite ageless septuagenarian diva, James Bond, who has a new movie out.
No Time to Die is promoted as the final appearance of Daniel Craig’s version of James, but as with Cher, we know not to trust that. I mean, how many Knives Out sequels can he do before we start screaming for him to get back into his Speedo’s?
Plus, this movie feels like the James Bond version of a ‘Cherwell’ concert. It’s chock full of references to the Bond canon, from the original Aston Martin to a secret submarine bunker to Louis Armstrong on the soundtrack. Bond even orders the ‘shaken not stirred’ martini, which Craig’s Bond rudely kicked to the curb in his very first outing, for a Heineken and their sponsorship millions.
If we could turn back time, which a movie can, the story starts with a flashback to the childhood of Madeleine Swann (Lea Seydoux), for whom James retired his 007 to settle down with at the end of the previous film, Spectre. Their relationship was so bland and the Spectre plot so weak that everyone involved really should have moved on. There are plenty French lesbian movies for Seydoux to be in.
Does James believe in life after love? Madeleine doubts this, so takes him to a structurally impossible Italian cliff town where his great love Vesper Lynd is buried because she drowned in Venice and female corpses aren’t allowed to leave Italy, other than Sophia Loren when she goes to Cannes. Pouty Maddy demands that James go say goodbye once and for all, but when he visits Vesper’s crypt, it blows up in his face. Everyone who’s ever tried to visit an ex while in a new relationship will sympathize.
What follows is the first of the big action set pieces we go to these films for. Like the evening dress slit up to the pudenda we know someone will wear in every Bond film, these action scenes are all the same in concept but give us just enough of a new design to elicit a fresh ‘wow’.
James thinking his new lover is so jealous she’d blow up his already-dead ex and try to take him out in the process would normally not make sense, but factor in that Craig has given his Bond layers of angst and paranoia previously not allowed in the invincible Bond character. So he puts Ms. Seydoux on a train to Bond girl oblivion and holes up in his Jamaican house, which has no walls. It’s nice to think Bond has gone eco, and sweaty clothes clinging to Daniel Craig is worth the popcorn in my lap, but for an assassin who has decades worth of targets on his back to live so exposed, uh, come on.
James is lured out by his BFF, CIA agent Felix Leiter. Let’s remember that Felix gave James ten million of our hard-earned tax dollars to gamble with in Casino Royale and call him what he is – an enabler. Felix needs James because in all this time there hasn’t emerged on the scene a single agent strong enough to match James’ prowess.
And this movie makes sure that includes the newly deputized 007, Nomi (Lashana Lynch). She’s a dark lady with a heart of stone, maybe because she’s forced to wear a brown slacks and blazer combo to signal she’s not a ‘Bond girl’. But more likely it’s because she’s completely sidelined plot-wise, just like a Bond girl. She always shows up late to the party, usually just to Uber James to his next appointment. And the few ass-kicking scenes she does get are not given the same verve as the ones given the other female characters. Ana de Armas, wearing the afore-mentioned high-slit gown, gets to perform Swan Lake with an automatic weapon. Nomi gets to push a henchman off a catwalk. In slacks.
The hype about the Bond franchise moving into the future with a woman of color as our new 007 appears to be a nothing more than a gimmick for a single film, as Nomi, overwhelmed by James’ bravery toward the finale, asks M to give James his old number back, which M does, just before James dies. What’s the MI6 rule regarding this? I certainly wouldn’t want that cursed number back, Nomi.
Like all the solid Bond films, No Time to Die understands the mechanics that make this franchise work, and delivers the action and locales and plotting we expect. And Daniel Craig understands what has made his portrayal of Bond more interesting. He is constantly sneaking off the pedestal the franchise tries to put James Bond on. He brought a vulnerability that is not supposed to be part of Bond’s DNA. He’s lost as many fights as he’s won. Triumphs were never clean and never final, as his Bond’s deepest injuries were emotional.
It is Craig who made a character formerly presented only as callous, ruthless and misogynistic killable. Both in the context of this film and outside of it, he wants us to do what few mega-franchise stars ever wants their audience to do – let him go. Move on as film fans, let him move on as an actor, let the franchise move on creatively.
The jury is out on how much the filmmakers agree with this. Nothing about No Time to Die suggests a truly fresh take is to come. There’s clear resistance to casting Bond as other than male, from both the filmmakers and the franchise’s core audience. Even when they’re as well-done as Salt, female-led spy flicks just don’t get the respect they deserve.
I smell an opportunity for the next Cher re-invention: No Time to Turn Back Time. Never mind who plays Bond when Cher is the villain stealing cheekbones from all the women in Scandinavia! Bang Bang!
Actually, she wears McQueen, Galliano and Westwood.
Though Disney’s new 101 Dalmatians origin story Cruella is set in the London fashion scene of the 1970s, the visual inspiration is drawn from the darlings of edgy Brit fashion of the nineties and noughties. Anachronistic, yes, but fitting. Like Alexander McQueen, John Galliano and Vivienne Westwood, who appropriated the DIY street fashion of London’s post-punk youth and coutured it into looks a wealthy fashionista would wear, Disney has been selectively appropriating darker tones from other genres and studios to make their family fare more appealing to mature film fans.
Cruella is the latest step in the perfecting of this strategy, and it’s enjoyable if you just sit back and accept how it works. You know what punches are going to be pulled (violent deaths can only be alluded to; no blood, nudity, fucks, etc) so the surprise comes in watching how well many of them land. And as Disney has so many sacred cows in their IP, it’s refreshing to see them do a reboot.
The last time we saw Cruella de Vil was in the 1996 live-action version of 101 Dalmatians (and in the awful follow-up but even Disney wants to forget that). Both were before Disney got sexy, so we had Glenn Close pulling from her bag of silent-movie crazy-face to keep the classic villainess one-dimensional enough for an eight-year-old to understand and, more importantly, laugh at.
No one can laugh at Emma Stone’s Cruella. Neither she nor the script allow it. This is not a Cruella ripe for getting Nickelodeon slime dumped on her for the kiddie’s amusement. She is fully in control of the story. In fact, she narrates it.
With plot-driving triumphs aplenty and set-backs easily overcome, you might think this Cruella has been given too easy a path. But again, this is Disney. And it’s Disney taking cues from The Devil Wears Prada, a movie that’s become a cult classic with the exact audience Cruella is aiming for. It’s an audience that wants to see a young heroine with a relatable talent – in both cases the ability to look great in clothes – challenge an older icon to prove she’s worthy. And by the end give that elder the metaphorical slap in the face she had coming.
No one’s going to argue that Cruella is a brilliant film, or that it doesn’t have tedious aspects (the needle drops are relentless). However, the script is tight and full of details worthy of a good heist movie, gives us two big finales, and gives Emma Stone enough opportunities to strut past the expected beats of a Disney character.
The Emma given the real hurdle is Ms Thompson. The script puts her Baroness so much in the mold of Miranda Priestly that Thompson has nowhere to swing but for the fences. She’s there to be so awful a person that Cruella’s own narcissism seems tame by comparison, and it leaves a performance that’s fun to watch but a style of cartoonish that doesn’t match the graphic novel tone of Stone and the rest of the production.
Neither Emma, though, can compete with the real star of Cruella – the costumes. This might be a drawback to some, but to me, uh, yes, costumes can be a character. Just ask Daniel Day Lewis and his Oscar nomination. I’ll admit that Cruella’s 70s time period makes no sense, with the Baroness doing nothing but New Look silhouettes from 1950 while wearing Elsa Peretti cuffs from the future, and Cruella donning newsprint dresses and bondage-light while obsessing over a Victorian bauble that looks like it came out of a vending machine, but it is all done so over-the-top you have to respect. And it crescendos with a dress designed so diabolically that it eats other dresses! Who isn’t going to see this movie just for that, and invite Hussein Chalayan?
Look, I love a challenging film, but I’m finally getting to go back into my beloved theater after 14 months. Do I want to celebrate that by watching a family struggling to grow squash, or Emma Stone mugging all over London in fabulous outfits? Factor in that I am gay…
Cruella will be on Disney+ soon, if you still can’t get yourself into a theater.
First, a message from The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences:
Dear film-starved pandemic masses,
Despite reports to the contrary, we at AMPAS, the guardians of quality in filmed entertainment, have been just fine during this pandemic. While you’ve been digging through scraps on Netflix, we’ve been putting the finishing touches on our new, bazillion-dollar Museum of Oscar History. The housing crisis faced by the costumes from How Green Was My Valley and Seymore Felix’s Best Dance Direction Oscar has finally been solved. You’re welcome.
We have also done a bit of soul-searching during these times. Once we were told that ‘streaming’ is not a sexual act best done on rubber sheets, we felt for the poor cinephiles who have had to risk carpal tunnel syndrome to find anything decent to watch. So giving Netflix and Amazon Studios a total of 47 Oscar nominations helps fans feel that at least some of their couch time wasn’t wasted, and we will of course go back to shunning streaming services when our movie palaces reopen. (Please don’t mention the Cinerama Dome. It’s still painful.)
Secondly, and more importantly according to our au peres, we gave nine nominations to people of color in the acting categories, when eight would have been sufficient to reflect the US population. Good luck with the bitchy hashtags now, Antifa.
Some say that because streamers are crucial to the very survival of movies, the Academy has been forced to recognize the artistic merit of the more diverse films they make and show. But it is not our fault that traditional studios have avoided films about Black activists or White people who live in vans. The Academy does not make the films. We simply deem them important.
We hope you’ll admire our diverse and admirably depressing slate of nominated films and performances as much as we’d like you to. After the ceremony, don’t forget to visit our new Oscar Museum. It’s conveniently located next to the La Brea Tar Pits, where eons ago – even before silents – big, unwieldy dinosaurs got trapped in tar and were slowly eaten alive by nimbler creatures. So just turn left onto Wilshire from Fairfax, and ignore the irony.
Io Si from The Life Ahead: ‘Io Si’ is Italian for “I will”. It was Diane Warren’s response when an Italian reporter asked if she’ll always be nominated for an Oscar no matter how banal and repetitive her music is.
Hear My Voice,Speak Now, Fight for You: Talking about repetitive, this year’s onslaught of indistinguishable message songs join recent nominees I’ll Fight, Stand Up, and Stand Up for Something. If these filmmakers cared about getting a great piece of political music rather than trying to win over Oscar voters like Diane Warren, they’d get Lil Nas X or Run the Jewels instead of the guy from Hamilton.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Husavik (Hometown) from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga: Is the movie too silly for Oscar, yes, but the final act culminates in this deftly made pop ballad, a Bjork/Celine Dion lovechild with lyrics like “where the whales can live cause they’re gentle people”.
Minari: You’re the innocent little nominee this year, aren’t you, Minari? So allll those baby chicks you were molesting and tossing into buckets were perfectly articulated animatronic puppets? On your budget?
Mank: A male mink. Who’d best steer clear of Minari.
News of the World: Tom Hanks plays a 19th-century Confederate man who reads news to illiterate people. It’s nice to know that 150 years later, Tucker Carlson is carrying on the tradition.
Da 5 Bloods: Spike Lee added another great film to his wholly original illuminations of race issues, one which will join the list of shoulda-been Best Picture winners that weren’t even nominated. Here he has a Black Trump-loving veteran return to Vietnam to reunite over a lost comrade and search for buried gold. Lee gets that a spoonful of adventure helps the medicine go down, but Oscar wanted a needle in its arm this year.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Soul: The only one here that’s actually about music, so duh.
MAKE-UP AND HAIRSTYLING
Pinocchio: It’s best to put this nominee as far away from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom as possible.
Hillbilly Elegy: A nomination for Amy Adams’ widely-ridiculed wig proves that memes are now Oscar bait.
MANK: Make America Not Kommunist. New caps and tees, now at the Mar A Lago boutique!
Emma: Anya Taylor-Joy plays the most slappable Emma yet in this 115th remake.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: An actress like Viola Davis can disappear into a role without help, but the make-up here wiped out any traces of her left.
Pinocchio: In this twist on the classic tale, Italy’s Mayor Rudolph Guipetto crafts a blow-up doll whose mouth hole tightens when she says “you’re a brilliant lawyer!”.
Moolan: A cow disguises herself as a bull so she finally can stop having a fistful of semen jammed up her rear. But, alas, she accidently wanders into Minari.
mank: short for ‘movie wank’, which is when a shitty guy gets the girl because he’s ‘grown’.
Emma: Big deal. If you want to see a girl in a corset throw shade, watch Drag Race.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: I don’t know what was going on under Ma Rainey’s dress, but it was impossible to tell where Viola Davis ended and Ma Rainey began.
Soul: Ok, no. If you don’t have an entire production team sitting under a tent while a grip holds a boom mike in 110-degree heat for an actor doing 40 takes, you do not belong in this category.
mank: verb: to express gratitude by fondling someone’s neck and telling them they’d look better in heels. Usage: Governor Cuomo manked his aide for her hard work on the campaign.
Greyhound: Unfortunately, this is not about Tom Hanks getting on a bus that goes over a cliff.
News of the World: This isn’t the production during which Tom Hanks caught the virus. That was Philadelphia.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Sound of Metal: Besides a great lead performance, this film’s best achievement was giving aural life to the sounds experienced by someone losing their hearing.
The One and Only Ivan: Talking animals dolittle for me.
The Midnight Sky doesn’t sparkle much when the biggest star stays on the ground.
Love and Monsters: A giant alien bug movie that doesn’t have Casper Van Dien taking a shower is not a giant alien bug movie I need to see.
Mulan: Star Wars and Marvel were off the table, and Wonder Woman’s biggest visual effect was her running up a down escalator, so this race is wide open for Samurai Yentl.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Tenet: I don’t like movies that make me do math, but I do know that (x)plosions times (y)do people worship Christopher Nolan = visual effects Oscar.
Promising Young Woman: The trailer promised a young woman would be cutting some penises off, which didn’t happen, so no editing Oscar for you.
The Trial of the Chicago 7: I don’t know how this director is considered so smart when he didn’t even recognize Borat snuck into his film.
Nomadland: The story of Jesus’ birth told by the Wise Man who brought disposable diapers.
Sound of Metal: This was also the name of a TimeLife compilation CD from 1988. My favorite was Dokken’s cover of I Wanna Dance with Somebody.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
The Father: Editing played a crucial role in telling this story of a mind caught in dementia, so this is where the film – favored by the Academy’s older voters – is strongest against its competition.
Ten it!: When a high-five isn’t enough, Ten it, dude!
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottoms: The follow-up to Ma Rainey’s Black Tops.
News of the World: Murder Hornets Sue Entomological Society For Slander. “It’s called ‘colonizing’,” said spokeshornet, “and you Americans are in no position to be labeling us”.
The Father: Like the editing, the set design was integral in putting us inside the character’s deteriorating mind. But Oscar is in the mood to spread the love in this year everyone got slammed, and this and cinematography are the categories for the old guard to reward Mank, which is not favored anywhere else.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Mank: The Hearst Castle sets must have emptied every prop house in Hollywood, not to mention massive builds like the pyre scene where we meet Marion Davies. The film is as much an homage to behind-the-scenes craftspeople as it is to the golden age of Hollywood.
The Trial of the Chicago 7: See? Today’s Bernie bros have it easy.
Judas and the Black Messiah: The team behind The Wiz brings us this remake of Jesus Christ Superstar with an all-Black cast.
News of the World: This is the Queen album that has ‘We Are the Champions’, a song this movie’s cinematographer will not be singing.
Nomadland: This category comes down to filmmaking that captured natural beauty…
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Mank: …or filmmaking that manufactured pristine, air-brushed images. Should we ask the Kardashians which of these Hollywood prefers?
The Mole Agent: This is the elderly-abuse movie that doesn’t have Rosamond Pike in it.
Time: Shot by a filmmaker who’s held onto her sense of art-school experimentation, especially in the brilliant editing,Time makes it appear as if this filmmaker has been following her subject – a woman fighting her husband’s excessive incarceration – for 20 years.
Crip Camp: The Blood Camp is on the other coast.
My Octopus Teacher: Not about the handsy priest who taught algebra at my high school, but instead a love story between a free-diver and an octopus. It’s the tear-jerker of the category, with stunning cinematography, but it’s not political in a very political movie year.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Collective: A movie about the Romanian press pounding the country’s ruling party, whose capitalism-embracing, culturally-conservative ideology relates to our Republicans. Despite the exposing of their deep corruption and blatant moral bankruptcy, the party is overwhelmingly reelected. This will strike anyone with Trump PTSD and nagging fears about 2024, so, all of Hollywood except John Voit.
Over the Moon: The movie equivalent of those badly-translated Chinese product slogans.
Onward: I wish. American animation just repackages the same ‘Believe In Yourself!’® message over and over. This one has fairies, and not the kind who lip sync.
A Shawn the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon: I get my quota of clay sculpting watching The Great Pottery Throw-Down.
Wolfwalkers: Thank god the animation branch keeps these more flowing, illustrative animation styles alive in this category, but it would be nice if any of them would ever actually win over another fucking Pixar movie.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Soul: Another fucking Pixar movie, and no, it is not breakthrough just because they finally put a Black character in the lead. Pixar is the Amazon of animation, and unlike that behemoth, we do have other choices, Oscar.
The Man Who Sold His Skin (Tunisia): And promptly fell apart.
The Man Who Kept His Skin But Sold Everything Inside Of It (Columbia, District of): The title of Mitch McConnell’s new autobiography.
Better Days (Hong Kong): Don’t count on it, Hong Kong.
Quo Vadis, Aida? (Bosnia and Herzegovina): While her double-named sister nations, Trinidad and Tobago and Sao Tome and Principe, relax on their tropical beaches, ugly sister Bosnia and Herzegovina is still obsessing about the war that Bill Clinton fucked up.
Collective (Romania): This and Another Round are both nominated in two categories. But a Best Director nom (Another Round’s Thomas Vinterberg) trumps a Best Documentary one.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Another Round (Denmark): If you don’t believe that Europeans are more evolved than we are, this movie shows four guys who determine to stay drunk all day, every day, yet never steal a goat, drunk text, or storm their seat of government.
WRITING: ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Dangerously ignorant voices are hard to silence, but with one scene Sacha Baron Cohen put the final nail in Rudy Guiliani’s coffin.
One Night in Miami: was all it took for me never to go back to Miami.
The White Tiger: It takes longer to find this film on a Netflix scroll than it does to get through Mumbai on a cow.
The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost: Where the hell were y’all last year? Was there a lockdown in heaven?
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Nomadland: The careful process involved in keeping this film as authentic as its source material is just one of the outstanding achievements of Nomadland.
WRITING: ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Minari: This film teaches us that with enough Mountain Dew, anyone can achieve the American Dream.
Sound of Metal: There were a tad too many missteps in this script, starting with the movie couple’s goth metal band being called Blackgammon.
Judas and the Black Messiah: Do they play Blackgammon?
The Trial of the Chicago 7: This is Aaron Sorkin’s category, and there are a lot of people who love any courtroom drama, but an ‘original’ premise it is not.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Promising Young Woman: Any movie that has Jennifer Coolidge asking a pediatrician “Do children have different parts than adults?” gets my vote.
Thomas Vinterberg, Another Round: This pattern of having a unexpected foreign-language director sneak into this category is proof of how large the Academy’s foreign membership has grown. Now, we just need their quirkier taste to start making winners, not just outlier nominees.
Lee Isaac Chung, Minari: The beautifully observed intimate moments show how universal it is for a wife to want to punch a stupid husband.
Emerald Fennell, Promising Young Woman: Emerald fennel is a condiment used to flavor revenge served cold.
David Fincher, Mank: Fincher is a craftsman first, so storytelling is not his strongest suit, and it shows in the lulls this gorgeous-looking movie goes through.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Chloe Zhao, Nomadland: One of the few sure bets this year, as (besides deserving it) she’s up against a little known European; two young, new directors with plenty career ahead of them; and an older, white man whose work, though highly accomplished, is slick and cold compared to Nomadland.
Lakeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah: Chances: Definitely no. The main star of this film is in the same category.
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal: No. His role lacked a juicy scene where he gets to act all over the place.
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7: Not likely. He’s viewed as a writer and comedian more than a dramatic actor.
Leslie Odom Jr, One Night in Miami: Slight possibility. He was singled out from a strong cast, for what qualities I honestly don’t know, as I thought the Cassius Clay character was more memorable. But as Sam Cooke he gets to sing, and Oscar has a soft spot for singer biopics.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah: Almost certain. The movie’s gotten a reputation as a story you should appreciate more than you might actually enjoy watching, but Kaluuya’s striking screen presence is the ‘worth it’ element.
Maria Bakalova, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Definitely no, but I wish a performance like this could ever win an Oscar. For an unknown, foreign actress to steal the attention from such a boisterous, iconic film character with her own wholly original comic persona is an achievement as big as any on this list.
Amanda Seyfried, Mank: No. Though she does it very well, adding smarts and spunk to the classic Hollywood ingénue has been done a LOT.
Glenn Close, Hillbilly Elegy: Slight possibility, but at this point, it’s hard to feel the ‘she’s overdue’ sympathy anymore. Close appears to be choosing roles based on their Oscar potential, with little concern for the parts of the script that aren’t hers. Albert Nobbs and The Wife were mediocre films at best, and Hillbilly Elegy is plain bad. To give her an overdue Oscar for this would be a cruel joke both to Close and the rest of the nominees.
Olivia Colman, The Father: Strong possibility. 2019 was the year of Olivia Colman on the big screen, and in 2020 she owned the small one. She’s as hot as a royal funeral right now, but she did just get an Oscar in a bigger category.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Yuh-Jung Youn, Minari: Strong possibility. Minari ntroduced us to a lot of things: chicken sexing, Korean produce, and this wonderful actress, who juiced a sleepy plot to its dramatic climax.
Gary Oldman, Mank: Definitely no. You don’t get another Oscar this year, Gary, but you do get my undying gratitude for keeping Tom Hanks out of this category.
Steven Yeun, Minari: Definitely no. A lovely, quiet performance rarely wins Oscars, and it doesn’t help to have the movie stolen by your mother-in-law.
Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal: Slight possibility. Ahmed combines aggro musician with desperate puppy dog and does it all in a sleeveless tee.
Anthony Hopkins, The Father: Possible upset, but will the Academy chance another clumsy PR misstep by letting an old white guy who was supposed to be retired take this Oscar from a young Black man whose career was tragically cut short?
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Highly likely. This is not a giveaway due to his premature death. His performance was like watching a bottle rocket bounce off the walls before it explodes, and was the only thing that broke the movie out of its stagey confines.
Vanessa Kirby, Pieces of a Woman: Definitely no. She explodes into the movie’s opening, then has her presence wet-toweled by a dour script and a director who thinks anyone wants to see Shia LeBoeuf’s penis.
Andra Day, The United States vs Billie Holiday: Unlikely. Just because Rene won last year for her solid mimicry of a music icon doesn’t mean it applies here. This movie was worse than Judy, and agreeing to a butt-fucking scene for shock value doesn’t tend to get an actor rewarded.
Frances McDormand, Nomadland: Slight possibility. She’s always brilliant to watch, but is this gruff, plain-talking character so different from her 3 Billboards gruff, plain-talking character?
Carey Mulligan, Promising Young Woman: Strong possibility. This was a difficult character to make likeable. She wears a perpetual pout, is dismissive to friends and family, and her revenge mission is misguided. But Mulligan makes you root for her by slowly revealing the depth of the wound that keeps her so agitated.
AND THE OSCAR GOES TO:
Viola Davis, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: Strong possibility. It’s highly unusual to have both lead acting winners come from a movie that wasn’t nominated for any other major award. But McDormand has two Oscars already, and the other nominees come from films that got a lot of critical knocks, despite their terrific performances.
Every movie on this list, except Nomadland, is angry about something. We all have pent up pandemic frustration, so the question is: do Academy voters want to dwell on it, or move on?
Promising Young Woman: Depressed over her friend’s date rape and subsequent suicide, a woman lures men into potential date rape scenarios so she can scold them. Angry at: frat boys; parents who want grown children out of their house
Sound of Metal: A recovering junkie musician becomes depressed when he starts to go deaf and is abandoned by his recovering suicidal girlfriend. Angry at: cochlear nerve; drum kits
Judas and the Black Messiah: An FBI agent infiltrates the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers to bring down its powerful leader Fred Hampton. Angry at: systemic racism; another nominee wearing the same character
The Trial of the Chicago 7: A senile, biased judge presides over the trial of the men accused of fomenting the riots during the Democratic National Convention in 1968 Chicago. Angry at: judicial system; Bernie Sanders not being president
The Father: A old man descends into dementia. Angry at: mortality; walls; people who keep changing into other people
Minari: A Korean immigrant drags his wife and young son to rural Arkansas so he can fulfill his dream of farming, only to lose everything in a fire. Angry at: irresponsible husbands; paneling
Mank: Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz fights with director Orson Welles and pisses off political power-broker/Trump surrogate William Randolph Hearst. Angry at: right-wing media: people who expect something they paid you for
AND THE BEST PICTURE OF THE YEAR IS:
Nomadland: Nomadland has been the Best Picture frontrunner since it came out. Why? Because it has a tone unlike anything else this year. Yes, it showcases a small segment of the population whose lives can be romanticized by those who will never have to worry about living that way, which is 99.99% of the Academy. But the sentiment of finding a way through, and making peace with, trauma is universal. The other nominees spent their run time crushing its characters with that trauma, and while catharsis happens in the last act of most, as movie storytelling demands, Nomadland is catharsis from beginning to end. Those who find it inspiring rather than depressing are those more focused on being positive (however unrealistic) as they come out of pandemic trauma. Few would choose living in a van and traveling the American West to find peace, but it’s the sentiment that counts.
There are a lot of race issue films set in mid-century America getting our attention this season. Whether presented with detailed historical accuracy or stylized as stage plays, they seek to educate on the Black American experience during these decades, not just how awful it was, but how and why it got that way and continues to stay that way.
For Lee Daniels, this is all too high-minded. Movies aren’t supposed to be watched in a lecture hall. They’re meant to be enjoyed with bite-sized foods covered in cheese. And so, with messy snacks in mind, Daniels has made The United States vs Billie Holiday.
We open with a gruesome vintage image of a lynched Black man being burned by a white crowd, then cut directly to Andra Day over-styled to the hilt as Billie Holiday. She stands frozen, facing us directly, a red stage curtain behind her, immense white orchids in her hair, and a dress that barely hints at the time period. As a one-two punch, this intro seems designed for people who channel surf between true crime stories and RuPaul’s Drag Race. And other than when I sit my 90-year-old dad, nobody does that.
But Daniels digs right into to this formula, cutting stock footage from the era into his film in a clumsy attempt to lend a Ken Burns authenticity to his nighttime soap histrionics.
Day, a lauded recording artist, easily nails Holiday’s singing voice, and translates that into a plausible version of the woman offstage. She makes a valiant effort to hold up Holiday’s dignity, but Daniels prefers his actresses going at it like a Real Housewife after three daiquiris, so most of what we see of Day’s Billie is needle in arm, fighting and degrading sex.
To add insult to injury, Day is given no help steering this runaway train, because Daniels has surrounded her with a stunt cast that is far less successful at finding something to do with their poorly written parts. Mariah Carey worked in Precious because she didn’t play a woman concerned solely with showing side boob. Here, though, Daniels’ stunt players are written to type, and they aren’t the right type.
First up is that shady gay munchkin (Karen’s language, not mine) from Will&Grace. He’s in old lady drag as an interviewer grilling Holiday for flashbacks, and how are we supposed to focus on Holiday when Leslie Jordan is on the other side of the frame looking like when Drew Barrymore put lipstick and a wig on E.T.? Maybe this character is based on someone real, but it’s so silly and distracting that it’s not worth Googling.
And while I’m usually all in for Daniels’ male harems, giving Trevante Rhodes (the hottest of all the hot guys in Moonlight) an anal sex scene doesn’t quite compensate for giving him such a useless character. It’s a close call, though, considering the screen time his glutes get. For the vanilla flavor we have Garrett Hedlund, who can handle a CGI dragon fine, but a character that’s representing the whole of systemic racism in Jim Crow-era American law enforcement is above his pay grade. And he never takes his clothes off.
The most stunted of the casting is Natasha Lyonne as Tallulah Bankhead, an actress known to publicly flaunt exaggerated mannerisms whom Lyonne chooses to downplay even when everyone else is behaving like a room full of ADD kids off their meds.
This episode in Holiday’s tumultuous life sounds compelling, but maybe Daniels thought there wasn’t enough to it. Even at the time, Holiday was an admitted drug user, so the FBI’s attempt to catch her at it may have seemed anti-climactic. And the premise that the government wanted to lock her up just to keep her from performing Strange Fruit may have been true, but there were other ways for people to listen to the controversial song than going to see her live.
So Daniels sensationalizes her drug habit, her relationships, her quirks, even her wardrobe, which must have emptied the silk flower aisle in every Michaels in the greater LA area. He throws in side characters simply to frame an overworked narrative structure or fill a circus tent of woke representations. And the sex, come on. Do we need to have it suggested that this abused woman preferred rough (and often anal) sex in order to understand her better? That she lusted after every threatening male presence that came into her life? Or does this degrade the real Billie Holiday for no purpose other than a shocking scene?
Who knows how Andra Day justified taking this role, but she does commit to it, and though one can cringe at the director’s choices, she manages to create a Billie Holiday that is visceral and memorable.
The most frustrating thing is what a disservice this is to Billie Holiday. Daniels leaves us with the image of a screwed-up junkie, putting this image over the Holiday we knew prior to his opportunistic rendering – the one-of-a-kind voice who immortalized Strange Fruit as a devastating epic poem carrying the pain of an entire race. Why not structure the film around that, solidify Holiday’s place as an iconic American diva, rather than dragging her through the gutter like she’s a story arc on Empire?
Billie Holiday’s legacy made it through Jim Crow racism intact. Daniels just laid her out again for the crows to pluck.
The DC vs Marvel thing has been with us since superhero comics took off in the 60s. Some fans gravitated toward the more straightforward, earnest leanings of DC, others to the edgier personality Marvel developed. Taste is subjective (you say tomato, I say Batfleck…) so arguments as to which body of work is superior are futile. But when it comes to committing their respective properties to a filmed treatment, comparisons between the studios are inevitable, especially when plots parallel to the degree that Zack Snyder’s Justice League and the Avengers two-part finale Infinity War and Endgame do.
It’s understandable that when Zack Snyder set out to fix the mess that was made of his 2017 Justice League he brought the weight of his personal tragedy. His hand had already been getting heavier with each of his projects, though, and given unlimited control – and running time – to redo Justice League, he’s delivered a 4-hour trudge through the valley of darkness.
That kind of journey isn’t necessarily boring. But with this particular one, once you realize that there’ll be no twists on this path, that it’s just a straight slab of newly-laid asphalt through a dark landscape over which something shiny will occasionally fly, you wonder why you’ve been forced to walk so slowly. It’s not about the indulgent run time – Marvel took 5½ hours to tell their version – it’s about how the writers and filmmakers use the time. The end result here obviously won’t bother DC devotees, as again, they prefer more straightforward presentations and champion their heroes no matter how compromised the depiction. For the rest of us, well, it’s hard to get excited about a 4-hour movie led by Ben Affleck’s Batman when something like WandaVision, which was also themed around the grief-induced resurrection of a beloved hero, managed to pack so much more cleverness, surprise and delight into each 40-minute episode.
ZSJL and the Avengers finale(s) both center around characters with near identical backstories and super-abilities – Batman and Ironman. That Robert Downey Jr created a more memorable version of his character than Affleck did of Batman is well-accepted on both sides of the aisle, so we’ll move on from that. Like Ironman in Infinity War, Batman has to bring together a team of superheroes, some of them reluctant, to form a super-team because Only United Can We Defeat the Villain.
Both stories sport a planet-destroying baddie searching for a set of magical objects that when brought together will make him all-powerful. Which heroes and villains and narratives came first in their respective comics isn’t the point here. It’s which studio built a more robust cinematic universe around their superteam and super-villain, and thus allowed fans, both established and new, to become more deeply invested in the eventually outcome.
Marvel was laser-focused on their MCU from 2008’s Ironman. Over the next 10 years, the studio spent 11 films just on the three core superteam members – Ironman, Captain America and Thor – and Avengers team-ups before arriving at Infinity War. These and the several other properties brought to cinematic life in the same time period included origin story films and sequels that seeded and began to weave together narrative elements that would come together spectacularly in Infinity War and Endgame. That’s something like 50 hours of back-story going into the finale.
As for origin stories and any seeding of ZSJL narrative elements, DC was so focused on stand-alone movies over the past decade that they left almost no crumbs for viewers to follow to a big event that brings big characters together. You have to give Snyder credit for trying to get so much done in 4 hours, but each time he has to step to the side to tell an origin story, we lose investment in the main narrative, which is already less complex (and thus less compelling) than its Marvel parallel.
Most of the origin asides are satisfying in themselves, notably Cyborg’s, which had been minimized in the 2017 version. By increasing Cyborg’s presence, Snyder has added much-needed dimension to the narrative: Cyborg is the only POC character on the (movie version) core team of the Justice League or the Avengers; he has a more emotional backstory; and he was created using one of the magical boxes the villain is after. Snyder’s cut has also helped right the behind-the-scenes controversy over Josh Whedon’s alleged harassment of Cyborg actor Ray Fisher.
Along with the stop-and-start pace, we get the full impact of Snyderstyle, which has soaring, beautifully-executed action scenes land with thuddingly flat character development (Cyborg an exception). Wonder Woman is in school-trip tour director mode, making sure no detail is missed, no matter how obvious. She’s not alone in this task, either. Most of the lines are delivered as if explaining plot points to an 8-year-old. Example: Batfleck spends the first two hours unsuccessfully trying to repair a fancy helicopter he designed. When, in a dire moment near the end, Cyborg shows up in the helicopter to rescue the team, Batfleck exclaims “He fixed it!”. Ya think? If I had been watching this in a theater, I’d have assumed some kid in the audience yelled that instead of the dark-souled character on screen that usually speaks in a barely audible growl. This style of writing and line delivery is a taste I know, and intended to be more like a filmed comic book, but it doesn’t do the actors any favors.
When there are sparks of personality to be had, Snyder chooses either to wet towel them (out of fairness to the less nimble actors, maybe?) or load them all onto a couple characters. In the case of the Justice League, those would be the young, fast-talking Flash and ornery iconoclast Aquaman. Yet few of Flash’s quips land, and Jason Mamoa seems so fed up with being presented as man-candy (“let’s do one more, Jason, and pull that shirt off even slooower…”) that he comes across more petulant than feisty. And speaking of Jason stripping, why if Aquaman has to de-shirt to go back into the sea, does he not have to de-pant? More logic and man ass would help any movie, would it not?
And let’s not get into how Superman is (not) used. Well, let’s get into the fact that he’s bare-chested half his short screen time, but otherwise, it’s a surprising waste of their biggest character. When the team uses one of the magic cubes to resurrect him, he appears hovering above Metropolis in the same outfit Aquaman uses to go back to the sea, and he’s pissed off. “He’s confused, he doesn’t know who he is!” Wonder Woman explains to everyone younger than eight. Evil Superman starts eye-lasering everything and everyone in sight, and as usual it’s well-executed, but this time it’s also a rare moment in the film that’s freed from formulaic character drudgery. Bad Superman even picks up the huge head of his own toppled statue and throws it at Batman, which shows that his dark side has a sorely needed sense of humor. The whole time we’re thinking, yes, goddammit finally, Zack, fuck with this character but good!
Alas, the underlying wholesomeness of Snyder and DC is not going to allow for that. Up steps Lois Lane, who quickly deploys Lesson 1 from the manual So You Have a Superhero Boyfriend. She calms the monster by welling up her eyes and whispering his name. He ceases the hostility, floats down and takes her to brunch.
As for twists, that’s all, folks! The team thwarts the villain and we get our poster shot of the restored Justice League (characters and franchise). The studio has deemed this a satisfactory conclusion for this one-movie series, as it announced there are no plans for the sequel hinted at in the epilogue.
This is a pretty telling indication of DC’s lack of faith in the universe they’ve cobbled together. You know they brought in every screenwriter from Dark Knight to Shazam! to try to get even 90 minutes of story out of Darkseid’s return to claim the Anti-life Equation, and there just isn’t enough there.
What’s to become of our beloved characters? Will Batman survive yet another recasting? Where will Wonder Woman go now that Snyder and Patty Jenkins ruined her most interesting nemesis in WW84? Will anyone follow Aquaman to another film if he won’t drop trou? Can we bear another second of Jared Leto’s Joker?
DC, if you really are interested in elevating your brand, in bringing more gravity to your universe, you have to push your boundaries. Limiting edginess to villains or corralling it into artsy one-offs isn’t going to do it. Evil Superman is your savior. Embrace his bare-chested badness.