The Oscars—the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It’s more fun to watch the Oscars when I’ve seen the films. The last time I saw the Oscar-nominated films at the Cinemark Theaters (Manchester, CT), it was 2020. The films were stronger, more distintive then than this year.

Thanks, Covid, for throwing everything into a cocked hat.

The pandemic isn’t the only reason this year’s crop had several not-so-hot flicks. Really, there were only three contenders for Best Picture'; one was a documentary.

Before I get into my long-winded review, let me confess—I didn’t see WEST SIDE STORY, CODA, or KING RICHARD. They were the late shows, and it was a long commute this year to the theatre in Hanover, MD, 100 miles round trip, or an hour each way, three days in a row. Also, I’m not up anymore for three films in a day.

I dislike the play WEST SIDE STORY, which I read side by side with ROMEO AND JULIET in the 9th grade. Sorry, Will and Lennie, but teenage love issues didn’t thrill me when I was a teenager. But, if you want an Oscar or a Tony, then take the role of Anita. Like Mercurio, she has the best lines.

So, you might find it strange I liked LICORICE PIZZA. It’s an odd coming-of-age or late bloomer story. It’s a bit fantastical, but sweet and innocent. Who’d’ve thought the 70s could be characterized as innocent? Well, compared to the cynicism of today, which has its origins in the 70s (thanks, Nixon!), it is. By today’s sensibilities, it’s a bit creepy that a 25-year-old woman prefers to hang out with an almost sixteen-year-old boy and his friends. She asks herself that question. The answer is straight-forward. She and her “boyfriend” come together, break apart, come back together whenever danger or trouble strikes. Love is there when the chips are down. And age is only a number.

Was LICORICE PIZZA a best picture contender? No, but it was a solid film, a charming antidote to the preceding film I saw.

THE POWER OF THE DOG is a terrible film, a message film that’s missed its timeliness. Yes, Jane Campion, we get it—toxic masculinity is bad, but the media’s been hammering that message home for several years. Also, most people recognize that living in the closet warps the personality.

The real sin? POWER OF THE DOG makes the viewer work too hard; the viewer has to infer too much of both narrative and character. For any movie/story to succeed, the viewers/readers have to care; even hating is caring. But I found myself utterly indifferent to these characters. George is an idiot; Rose is a drunk; Phil is an asshole; Peter is a creep. Are these archetypes or stereotypes? Given the laconic, overly compressed narrative, who knows? Who cares?

Kirsten Dunst worked miracles with not much material and deserved her nomination, but giving Jane Campion Best Director was an insulting sop.

After POWER OF THE DOG, I couldn’t watch CODA. I wasn’t up for a film that even remotely approached a message film.

I loved BELFAST. Was it a Best picture contender? Still dunno, but it was rock solid. The Troubles in a Protestant street in Belfast as seen from the vantage point of an eight-year-old boy. All the people on the street are working poor, so Brannagh shot it in black and white, with the only splotches of color coming from the “filims” Buddy sees with his family and the first fire of violence. Buddy imperfectly understands the adult issues, like back taxes and the Troubles themselves, so they’re disjointed in the narrative. Besides, Buddy is far more interested in getting eight-year-old Catherine’s attention; he goes to his grandfather for advice. Pop is spot-on, helps Buddy with his maths, and Ciarán Hinds should’ve won Best Supporting Actor. He stood out in this movie centered in family sticking together, loving each other, even when they have to have leave each other.

I think DRIVE MY CAR should’ve won BEST PICTURE; it did win Best International Film. It’s a Japanese film based on Murakami Haruki’s novella of the same name. I disliked the novella; the screenwriters got more out of it than I did. Anton Chekov’s play UNCLE VANYA has a crucial role in this film. Viewers hear its dialogue throughout the film. A famous stage actor and director loses his wife to a cerebral vascular accident, and he goes on with his life. His life includes staging a multi-lingual production of UNCLE VANYA (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Korean sign language) for a prestigious arts program. That program won’t allow him to drive, so he has to have a driver, who’s the same age as the actor’s late daughter would’ve been were she still alive. An actor auditioning for a role is a former lover of the actor-director’s late wife. Both his driver, who had an abusive mother who made her a smooth driver, and the former lover, a man with little self-control, help the actor-director confront his anger and guilt over his wife’s death.

Three hours of play rehearsals, performances, and existentialism—the viewer doesn’t care. It’s a compelling film with no easy answers, with only a hopeful note for an ending.

DRIVE MY CAR is such a counterpoint, the perfect Covid film, to POWER OF THE DOG (See how you do it, Jane?) and DON’T LOOK UP.

I walked out of DON’T LOOK UP after 45 minutes, when the NASA head turns out to be an anesthesiologist. Scott Atlas, anyone? Yes, it’s a Covid movie. Yes, it’s a send-up of the Trump administration’s lousy handling of the pandemic. Yes, it’s an assault on the superficiality of the media in general and the hideousness of social media in specific. I couldn’t take it, not needing to relive 2020 in a two-hour movie. I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready for it, but not now. It also has a few of my least favorite actors, including Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio. To stay through this flick, I’d’ve needed the astronomer’s Xanax.

NIGHTMARE ALLEY made up for the disaster of DON’T LOOK UP. It’s a smart, stylish, and stylized neo-noir based upon a noir novel published in 1947. There is a previous movie adaptation, but I haven’t seen it. This edition, directed by Guillermo del Toro, appears to be a faithful edition, tho’ the novel is another one I’m going to have to read before I rewatch the movie.

In muted colors, del Toro captures carnie life in the Great Depression. The Art Deco sets are fabulous, as are the costumes. Now, the narrative unfurls at a stately pace, setting up each piece of increasing horror until we get to the miserable end of Stan (Bradley Cooper)—the femme fatale (Cate Blanchett) is indeed fatal, the good girl (Rooney Mara) isn’t so good, but has the sense to flee when her moral red lines are crossed, and Stan gets what’s coming to him for forgetting the first rule of the con. No, there’s no easy walk to Easy Street. The horror of the slow-burn symmetrical ending takes a day to sink in.

I loved it, but many will not.

And that was the end of my personal film festival at the cinema because I missed going back for the live-action Oscar shorts. It wasn’t the end of my film watching. I streamed THE SUMMER OF SOUL after it won Best Documentary. It deserved its Oscar; in fact, it should’ve been a contender for Best Picture. Like DRIVE MY CAR, SUMMER OF SOUL had something to say and said it well.

THE SUMMER OF SOUL covers the 1969 Harlem Music Festival. It takes the footage shot for the festival and intersperses it with commentary from people who attended and/or participated in the Festival. It contextualizes the Festival in the turbulent, assassination- and riot-filled 60s. The footage sat, forgotten and unseen, for fifty years. Erasure of Black history is a depressing commonplace. In THE SUMMER OF SOUL, we see why the revolution won’t be televised.

As for the Oscar awards show, it was a red-hot mess before Will Smith earned his ten-year ban for slapping Chris Rock, who should’ve kept his mouth shut about Jada Piinkett-Smith. His joke about her hair was particularly cruel, given the circumstances. The Oscars need to take a hint from the Baftas—just get on with it. Hand out the awards and quit attempting spectacle. It fails every time.

Copyright KG Whitehurst