ALL ABOARD FOR OSCAR PREDICTIONS!

Don’t miss the train, Oscar!

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.

ORIGINAL SONG

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 FightStand 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”.

ORIGINAL SCORE

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.

COSTUME DESIGN

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.

SOUND

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.

mankverb: 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.

VISUAL EFFECTS

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.  

EDITING

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. 

PRODUCTION DESIGN

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.

CINEMATOGRAPHY

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?  

DOCUMENTARY

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.    

ANIMATED FEATURE

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. 

INTERNATIONAL FEATURE

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.

DIRECTOR

Thomas VinterbergAnother 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 ChungMinari: The beautifully observed intimate moments show how universal it is for a wife to want to punch a stupid husband.

Emerald FennellPromising Young Woman: Emerald fennel is a condiment used to flavor revenge served cold.

David FincherMank: 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 ZhaoNomadland: 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.

SUPPORTING ACTOR

Lakeith StanfieldJudas and the Black Messiah: Chances: Definitely no. The main star of this film is in the same category.

Paul RaciSound 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 JrOne 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 KaluuyaJudas 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.

SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Maria BakalovaBorat 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 SeyfriedMank: No. Though she does it very well, adding smarts and spunk to the classic Hollywood ingénue has been done a LOT.

Glenn CloseHillbilly 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 ColmanThe 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 YounMinari: 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.

ACTOR

Gary OldmanMank: 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 YeunMinari: 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 AhmedSound of Metal: Slight possibility. Ahmed combines aggro musician with desperate puppy dog and does it all in a sleeveless tee. 

Anthony HopkinsThe 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.

ACTRESS

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 DayThe 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 MulliganPromising 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 DavisMa 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. 

BEST PICTURE

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

MankCitizen 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.

THE UNITED STATES VS BILLIE HOLIDAY: Lee Daniels makes a trifle out of strange fruit.

Lee Daniels insists on keeping the wardrobe from all his films.

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.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League: The Pepsi of superhero films.

You’d be pissed too if you’d been raised from the dead just to find that Ben Affleck is still playing Batman.

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.

Zack Snyder’s Justice League is on HBOMax. 

I Care a Lot: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels II: Dirty Rotten Lesbians

“You wanna know how nasty a lesbian I am, punk? On a scale of 1 to 10, I’m an Ellen.”

There are lots of reasons you can not care for a movie: a premise done a million times; a screenplay full of clichés; hacky acting; ugly, clumsy camera work.

I Care a Lot has none of those issues. It’s an original story idea based in a part of our culture we rarely see in movies. The writing is clever and cracking. The acting committed beyond what many performers would feel comfortable adding to their resume. The direction is sly and cinematography stylish as hell. Even the music is wisely restrained.

Technically, it’s terrific. Why this can still be a ‘bad’ film to me comes down to its tonal hollowness. Granted, I watched it the night after I saw Nomadland, so the 180 really threw me. And there are ‘pitch black comedy/thrillers’ (the kind of labored description used for films like this) that I’ve enjoyed. 

But I Care a Lot takes a genuinely disturbing issue – the systemic, physical and psychological abuse of the elderly –  and says “there’s nothing we can do about it, so let’s just use it as set-up for a crazy thriller.” Some will argue that the lead’s exaggerated cruelty serves to highlight just how evil the system can be, but the film keeps undermining this conceit by trying to give us reasons to root for that lead. 

Warning: spoilers ahead. But then this is a movie gleefully wallowing in its spoil, so…

The film opens soberly, in a court hearing where a son argues that he’s being denied access to his mother, who’s being interred against her will by her court-appointed guardian. We feel for the guy and his unseen mother, which makes us question whether this can really happen or if it’s exaggerated for the plot. A little digging says it is accurate. Courts can indeed give legal guardians a shocking amount of power over an elderly person’s life, without ever hearing direct witness from that elderly person. Family can appear – or be made to appear – either naïve or opportunistic about the diminished condition of an elderly relative, with the impartial courts as the only way to insure their safety. It’s a tragic situation, and we enter the story with disgust for the villainous protagonist taking advantage of it.

Marla Grayson, played by Rosemund Pike with the commitment mentioned earlier, is that villain. Introduced in a form-fitting red dress and a blonde bob so severe she could cut your throat just by turning her head, she is clearly the devil in Nikita disguise. Why does someone who cares for the elderly have to look dowdy, this movie challenges us. OK, cool, we say, because it’s Rosemund Pike in great accessories. And why wouldn’t the Black male judge be such putty in the hands of this gorgeous white woman, the movie challenges us. Ok, cool, we say, because…actually not cool at all, but let’s move on.

Marla has built a successful business out of her guardianship con, with doctors and elderly care facilities and gullible Black male judges complicit. As Marla returns from her court triumph over the distraught son, we meet a young woman who appears to be her assistant, and secretly hope there’s more to the relationship because this actress is haw-haw-haw-hawttt

Our hopes are realized! Marla and Fran (Eiza Gonzales) are doin’ it, and Fran is a partner in the scamming. They get their crooked lady doctor friend – who is also hot though we don’t know her sexual preferences – to pass them one of her patients, a prime target referred to as a ‘cherry’. Pop! go our devious duo. 

Jennifer (Diane Wiest) is a wealthy retiree with no family, who has recently shown some minimal memory loss, which the doctor can exaggerate to recommend guardianship. We then get to see Marla’s process unfold. It is ugly, involving psychological abuse that turns physical later.

She immediately sequesters Jennifer in a care facility run by an accomplice, who drugs the old woman into compliance. While clearing out Jennifer’s assets for auction, the proceeds of which will go mostly into her own pockets, Marla discovers a fortune in undocumented loose diamonds hidden in a safe deposit box. Jennifer has a secret, and it shows up in the form of Russian mobster Roman (Peter Dinklage, thankfully sans Russian accent).

The story gets briefly shadowed by The Good Liar, in which Helen Mirren plays a seemingly helpless older woman who proves to be duplicitous. I Care a Lot quickly dodges, though, putting Jennifer under further abuse as Marla uses her in a battle of wills with Roman. 

The bleak, cynical tone shifts to dark comedy/thriller. Despicable as they are, Marla and Fran are devoted to each other, and so, so hot, that maybe we’ll root for them. They’re aided by the depiction of the mobsters, who aren’t the ruthless, efficient Russian mob we get in movies like Eastern Promises, but more like the crew from Barry, so hapless that Marla can easily beat them. 

Marla is supposed to be an irredeemable villain, but a great actress can’t help but to nuance a character. Pike lets barely perceptible flashes of concern cross her rigid features when threatened, and suggests a genuine love in her exchanges with Fran. As movie-goers, our demand for justice, for an evil character to get their comeuppance, is ingrained. Pike taunts us with this, her performance trying to unbalance our righteous indignation. As in Gone Girl, she challenges the way we see unflattering female characters.

After convenient escapes from the jaws of death/defeat, Marla and Fran manage to incapacitate Roman, who, being a mobster, has wiped out ways for the system to trace him. He is left a John Doe, and what does the system do with incapacitated John Does? It assigns them a legal guardian. Cut to Marla’s fabulous, knife-sharp stilettoes propped up on Roman’s hospital bed. This sounds like just the right ending for a movie like this. But it’s not. 

Marla and Roman make a deal, and she turns her scam global, upping her clientele of abused elderlies and their families from a few dozen to thousands. Her evil is swollen to hideous proportions as a seeming comment on rabid capitalism. How are we supposed to react to this?

Imagine how this gonzo, farcical tone would play if instead of elderly abuse, Marla was running a scam involving caging immigrants at the border with the complicity of local authorities and ICE. Both tragedies are all too real, so why is one of them ok as fodder for this style of filmic treatment but the other not?

Does a well-written plot and committed performance keep you watching? Yes. But as we’ve seen so much lately with tech billionaires and teflon politicians, you can admire the cleverness of something and still find it gross.

I Care a Lotis streaming on Netflix.

Nomadland: A road trip is just what we need right now, and Frances McDormand is driving.

She always knows something we don’t.

This New Age of Realism (Nouvelle Verite?) Hollywood is getting into lately – where documentary-style techniques and non-actors are woven into traditional story arcs played by trained actors – is as tricky as it sounds. The goal is to remove the artifice as much as possible, but if your lead is too polished, the light reflected on everything else ruins the effect.

When movie people say about an actress “the camera loves her”, they’re typically referring to that light. It’s both technical – the way movie light plays on the planes of her face – and the intangible light from within. For a female movie star, especially one as lauded as Frances McDormand, the ability to switch that off is crucial for this mash-up to work.

The opening titles of Nomadland tell us of a real mining town in Nevada, ironically called Empire, that literally disappeared off the map (its Zip Code was cancelled) after the U.S. Gypsum mine there closed in 2011. McDormand’s fictional character, Fern, is from this real dead town, forced out alone onto the harsh plains of the American West after the loss of her husband, company-owned house and steady income. She becomes a nomad, living in her van, driving great distances for itinerant work and refusing every anchor offered her. She has no goal or lofty dreams, no destination other than the next gig that will keep her in gas and food. She’s resigned to be a ghost chained to the earthly plane by manual labor.

To make this film, director Chloe Zhao brought McDormand into the world of real houseless nomads of the American West, whom the director had met and interviewed prior. All the characters Fern meets on the road – except for one which I’ll get to – are non-actors playing versions of themselves. We anticipate a documentary-ish mood piece, where the actress herself, as much as her character, drifts among these people, listening to their stories along with us. ‘Making’ herself one of them works because of McDormand’s unmatched flexibility as an actor, and would be just enough of a layer for this experiment to become transcendent. We get these transcendent moments, but we do also get a scripted storyline that requires scenes in which McDormand has to act, has to show her movie star light, rather than just be.

I’m not saying it spoils anything. Watching McDormand act is a distinct pleasure. But it takes us out of the realism in those moments. Like I said, it’s a tricky mix.

Zhao focuses the narrative on three nomads, all playing themselves. We first meet Linda May, who befriends Fern and introduces her to the larger nomad community. Another woman, Swankie, became a nomad when she learned she was dying of cancer, and mesmerizes Fern with anecdotes about her experiences with nature. A man named Bob Wells leads a regular gathering in Arizona called the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous, where nomads support each other by passing along work opportunities, trading essential tools and knowledge, and providing camaraderie that, no matter how desirous of isolation, every soul needs. 

Then we meet a fictional nomad played by David Strathairn. He’s here for the more scripted storyline, to try to pull Fern toward that which she resists, which is settling down. The problem isn’t so much that he’s a recognizable actor thrown into a group of non-actors, it’s that we don’t need his character to understand Fern’s reasons for ghosting herself. What there is to be told she slowly relates to the characters we’re more drawn to, characters we never see in movies – real people living this kind of life. Nothing McDormand and Strathairn do together tears your heart out like an exchange between Fern and Bob Wells where they each open up about loss. 

It’s these scenes, Fern amongst the real nomads, that make the movie unique and unforgettable. The tales related feel as natural and eternal as the stunning landscapes they’re set against, even though some must have been practiced. Zhao likely heard stories in her initial interviews she felt were particularly beautiful or poetic, and asked the person to retell it when they shot the film. This actually makes the words resonate more, to have a careful director lightly fan them up into the starry South Dakota sky along with the embers from a campfire.

Many of the nomads point to the 2008 recession as what drove them into this lifestyle, but the way Zhao frames their world makes it more mythical. Using a dried-up mining town in the Old West to introduce the story, and then the endless horizons of the plains and deserts and badlands as a backdrop, she sets a nostalgic, ‘lost America’ tone that lingers over everything. It lends nobility to the characters that comes from our own nostalgia for unspoiled places and simpler times when people didn’t care so much about money and success. Zhao also goes to pains to avoid any sense that she’s exploiting the inherent oddness of these cultural outsiders, or turning them into victims.

This, in the end, is the biggest deal of this movie. It is not trying to roil indignation in us at what the cruelties of capitalism have done to these people, the way the world ignores them. It is not trying to make us feel guilty that our lives are more comfortable and safe. It does not let us laugh at them or pity them.

It simply and respectfully shows us the world they’ve created out of both necessity and desire, and what about that world brings them contentment. Maybe all this movie wants is for each of us to look at the world we’ve created for ourselves, remember what about it makes us content, and embrace that.

Nomadlandis currently streaming on Hulu.