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A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Oscar 2021 - way too many coming attractions!!!

The Oscars are happening today.  

And I’ve read many an article or analysis, which I think generally true, that the world doesn’t very much care, and that the ratings are going to plummet as they have for other award shows, and even for a lot of sporting events.

But, I care!  

I’m not sure what I’ll be doing for my live blog.  If all goes well, I am going to have some fully vaccinated family members joining me in my (very large!) hotel room for at least part of the evening, and might not be able to give my full attention to the posting.  So I’m putting a little more effort into the pre-show this year.

In spite of and because of the pandemic, I ended up seeing as many or more of the nominated films as in a typical year, all in theatres.  I went some six months in 2020 where I saw only one movie, a fan favorite welcome back of Superman: The Movie at a theatre in Connecticut that opened for around three weeks in June before closing its doors to allow the cobwebs more time to cob, and which has yet to reopen its doors. That was it, from March 8 until mid-September.  But, once theatres were able to reopen in NJ and CT, and I was able to start going, I realized, putting it simply, that I needed to go.  I say that unapologetically. I went three months of 2020 without having an in person conversation beyond the “conversation” at the check-out register.  And then another three months where I might have had a handful of days if that with an employee joining me in the office but were mostly more of the same.  That wasn’t sustainable.  I, my sanity, needed something, and hopping on the quite empty commuter trains to go to the quite empty movie theatres seemed safe enough.  I never dreamt that I would know when the hourly trains from Stamford were headed back to New York City.  And a few weeks later, theatres were allowed to reopen in New York State, outside of the five boroughs.  And I went.  Manchester, Stamford, White Plains, New Rochelle, Garden City, Westbury, Bellmore, Hoboken, Elizabeth, South Orange, Paramus, Red Bank.  I went, and I went, and I went, and I went some more. And when the theatres could finally reopen in New York City on March 5, the IFC Center had a “what we missed” series where I could fill in a lot of the blanks.

There are eight moves nominated for Best Picture, but I feel like there’s only one, and that’s Nomadland.  I’ve done a full review of that elsewhere, and I’ll add links to this post down the line.  It’s a beautiful movie on so many levels, and a movie that achieves greatness through modesty.  I’ve seen it three times, all on IMAX, and would happily see it again.  I saw it on a private screening, with one other couple in the IMAX, and on opening weekend with fewer than ten of us. 

Promising Young Woman was the consensus favorite of a three-movie blitz over Christmas, and the pre-shows I’ve read elsewhere call it, perhaps accurately, the nominee that’s lost the most from this weird year, where a conversation-starter of a movie was never able to get the conversation started.  It’s got a brilliant lead performance by Carey Mulligan.  It’s got a clever script.  It’s got some good supporting turns, especially by Bo Burnham who has as much a tight rope to act in the quiet supporting role as Mulligan does in the lead.  It’s a movie that’s of the moment but doesn’t drown in it.  It’s got an ending that’s uplifting without losing the internal truth of the lead character.  Emerald Fennell, the writer and director, nailed this one, and is deservedly nominated in both categories.  If Nomadland were to lose, which would be a stunner, this is the movie I’d wish to see it lose to.

The Christmas blitz also included Wonder Woman 84 and News of the World, all as part of private theatre rentals. Which deserve a mention.  Cinemark was the first chain I saw doing these, allowing up to 20 people in for a private viewing for prices that went into the mid double figures for off hours oldies in markets with less expensive tickets to $200 for new movies, and I think these covered a good chunk of the payroll at a lot of Cinemark locations.  AMC then acted like they had invented the idea, and had prices approaching $400 at better performing locations in the New York market.  I feel a little uncomfortable about the idea, how people with a spare $150 could see a movie more safely than people without, but even now as business is starting to pick up there are some Cinemark multiplexes with five or more screens used solely for the viewing parties.

New of the World was perfectly fine, and Wonder Woman 84 I both liked more than expected (for me, the first movie underperformed against the reviews and expectations I had gong in while the sequel overperformed) and loathed for some of the laziness of the script and film-making.  

But, getting back to the Best Picture candidates:

Mank is godawful.  A great score (nominated!) and great photography (nominated) in service of a dull script and dull acting.  You want some David Fischer, rewatch The Social Network.

The Father is one of the many movies I saw at unplanned and unwanted private screenings.  I didn’t want to go theatres with too many people in them, but the number of private showings for really good movies...  It’s really good, with amazing acting, but I had to work harder to understand it than I really would have wanted.  If you’re a movie critic/reviewer you might well have gotten a copy of the screenplay or other press materials that make it more comprehensible, but it’s a movie that would be rewarding by repeat viewings for anyone else without justifying going back for seconds.  

Judas and the Black Messiah is an energetically made film, well-acted, but it’s a movie that tells me a lot about how Fred Hampton died without telling me enough about how he lived to invest me in how he died.

I’ve seen movies about failing farms for a long time now, like Places from the Heart with Sally Field in 1984.  Minari doesn’t add enough to the genre to justify its being a Best Picture winner.

Sound of Metal is a deserving nominee but not a deserving winner.  There’s a slow patch in the middle where we need to understand a little more about the lead character than the script allows us to.  Riz Ahmed deserves his Best Actor nomination in part because of his success in acting the part beyond what’s on the page well enough that I could almost not have noticed the  level of remove, but it’s there.

The Trial of the Chicago Seven is fine or better in lots of different ways.  I liked it, I’d recommend it, I don’t mind seeing it on the Best Picture ballot, but there’s no way I’m rooting for it.

Best Director, just like Best Picture, it’s either Chloe Zhao for Nomadland or Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman.  Thomas Vinterberg was nominated for Another Round, a Scandinavian movie about a bunch of drunk dudes, without the movie being nominated for Best Picture.

In Best Actress, there’s a sense that it might go to Viola Davis for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.  I’d again prefer Nomadland (Frances McDormand) or Promising Young Woman (Carey Mulligan).  This is one of the most problematic characters for me. Maybe it’s more the writing than the acting, but I think Vanessa Kirby’s character in Pieces of a Woman was a hollowness at the core of the movie, and I’d happily have her out of the category and Julia Garner from The Assistant in place of Kirby.  And I’d happily see Zendaya from Malcolm and Marie in place of Viola Davis.  Malcolm and Marie is indulgent and navel-gazing a little and has characters that aren’t the most pleasant, but it’s a beautifully photographed movie with really good acting and it’s thought provoking and gets into its characters.  It can be a bit of a dodge to use the “but what would you leave out” defense when someone says this person or movie was unjustly robbed of a nomination, but this is a category where I can hands-down identify performances that were overlooked in movies that were overlooked.

Best Actor is tough this year.  Riz Ahmed does the exact opposite of Vanessa Kirby.  He takes an underwritten role and turns it into an award-worthy performance in Sound of Metal.  Anthony Hopkins in The Father is a master class.  And then there’s Chadwick Bozeman in Ma Rainey, and there’s nothing about that performance that makes me think of Chadwick Bozeman over my overall “meh” toward the movie.

I rested my eyes through too much of Mank to evaluate Amanda Seyfried.  Of the performances I was awake for, I’m team Maria Bakalova.  Comedy is hard, and she is subsumed completely into the somewhat scripted and somewhat not comedy of Boras Subsequent Moviefilm.    For Supporting Actor, I was surprised to sit down with the ballot and realize I most wanted Paul Rici to win for Sound of Metal.  He’s the heart of the movie in so many ways, visions of the past and visions of the future and the paths that Riz Ahmed has. I can see him on the screen as I type, see the words and the signs and the face I saw when I went to the movie seven months ago.  

Original screenplay has to be Promising Young Woman.

Adopted screenplay, much as I like Nomadland this could go to The Father, or to Borat Subsequent Moviefilm or to The White Tiger, and I would be every bit as happy as if it goes to Nomadland.  I liked The White Tiger a lot more than the critical consensus, and I’m mostly happy to see that it got on the Oscar ballot.  

I am going to be the only person in the world rooting for Over the Moon to win in Animated Feature.

Documentary Feature, I’ll go with Collective.  I thought of seeing Time, but I can’t bring myself to.  All of the reviews and the audience score on Rotten Tomatoes and all the everything else, I just can’t.

I did see Crip Camp.  A lot of the pioneering work for disability advocacy was before I was politically aware.  A lot of time is spent on a sit-in during the Carter administration when I was a teenager, and it passed me by.  I’m interested in that history.  But the movie wants to say that all of that happened as a result of people going to a summer camp in the Catskills where they spent their nights as teenagers learning and plotting what would become the advocacy that led ultimately to the ADA, thus the title.  But there’s no support for that thesis at all.  What the movie actually tells us:  if you were a disabled teen with enough support at home in the 1960s or early 1970s that your parents could get you to a summer camp (for many of them, a summer camp way far out of state) for disabled teenagers, you had a stronger chance of having the structure and support that you could, in the late 1970s, participate in protests and sit-ins.  The existence of the movie is a feat all by itself because a lot of the main participants in events forty years ago aren’t with us today, but I wish the movie could have found a way to be more about the events, even looking a little at the events from the other side, from the POV of people in the Carter administration and some now/then on how they feel about slow-walking regulations, rather than spending as much time as it does on the thin reed of its premise.

Collective starts with searing and difficult-to-watch as-it’s-happening footage from within a Romanian night club where dozens of people died when a fire engulfed the premises starting a stampeded to closed and blocked exits.  It’s one of those stories that keeps repeating.  Happy Land in the Bronx, the Kentucky night club decades ago.  But it’s not so much about that. It’s discovered afterwards that the hospitals were using diluted disinfectants.  That burn victims were being sent to in-country hospitals without burn units that were supposed to have super duper burn units, that the care was so bad patients had maggots in them.  All of which the government would rather not deal with, until it’s forced to appoint a young public health advocate to reform from within,which lasts only until the next election when the government is booted out in favor or a return to le ancien regime.It’s a documentary about a great many things in under two hours, full of heroes and villains, twists and turns, deeply resonant to counties and political systems far away from Romania’s.  Quite excellent.

MLK/FBI is missing from the category, which is a shame.

Collective is also nominated in International Feature, where I’ve seen four of the five films, a much better percentage than usual.  Better Days is the film I didn’t see.  The Man Who Sold His Skin is the film that has no chance of winning.  

Another Round — I don’t know what to say about this.  I avoided seeing it for a while.  I don’t like movies about alcoholics and alcoholism, which can’t resist either glorifying something that should never be glorified, or asking us to wallow deep in the misery of it all, and this movie’s about a handful of long-time friends, teaching at the same high school, who set out to prove a thesis that we all function better with a moderate but not over the top blood alcohol level.  Great idea!  At least for me, this is like the greatest of great ideas - NOT!!!! - for a movie.  But as well as it’s done in the Oscars, nominated both here and for Best Director, I went.  If you want to ignore the scenes where one of the teachers does his best teaching ever while under the influence of alcohol, it avoids some of the glorification, but you can’t ignore those scenes.  It does show all of the main characters having some problems with work, family or friends, and one of them the problems get to be more than just a little serious, so it doesn’t show the behavior as being without risk or consequence of any sort.  But we get to the end of the movie and it’s suggesting alcohol as a fountain of youth.  Really?  I can’t separate myself enough from the morality of the movie to want to see it on an Oscar ballot, let alone winning.

Quo Vadis, Aida? is the movie I’d like to see taking the International Feature category.  Jasmila Zbanic wrote, produced and directed this searing movie about a genocidal attack by Serbian general Ratko Mladic, where over 8,000 men theoretically under the protection of the UN is Srebrenica were separated from their families, murdered, and buried in mass graves.  The lead, played by Jasna Duricic, is a UN translator trying to save her husband and sons.  It’s a real world version of the classic cliffhanger of the walls closing in, only there’s no escape hatch.  The lead performance and the movie are both absolutely top notch. The lead character’s a school teacher.  The movie could have ended with one of the massacres, the camera outside on a piece of military equipment studiously avoiding a view of what we know’s happening inside the building we’ve just left, but it goes on to show the main character rebuilding her life, kind of.  Back in school, teaching another generation.  But what’s she teaching them?  What is there to teach at all?  

Original Score - the best thing about Mank is the score.  James Newton Howard does a good one for News of the World.  Terrance Blanchard does a really good one for Da 5 Bloods.

Sound, I’ve seen only three of the movies.  Haven’t streamed Greyhound, didn’t see Soul.  Everyone thinks Sound of Metal will win for a movie that’s as much about the absence of sound as its presence, and I’m fine with that.

I don’t give a crap about make-up.  The category includes two movies I haven’t seen, two I slept through, and one (Hillbilly Elegy) where the make-up is so over the top...

Costume Design, a lot of the same movies and a lot of the same thoughts.

There are some beautiful movies in the Cinematography category.  Chicago 7 is nominated in part for managing to merge the real of the demonstrations with the shots from the cameraman, I would expect.  But if anything wins other than Nomadland, then (like Billy Joel(), I’m gonna start the fire.  Joshua James Richardson is named Joshua, after all, and Joshua deserves always to win.  But I saw this movie on IMAX thinking it was a little bit silly to head out to Paramus to see a movie that would open more widely in a few weeks on screens other than IMAX, because it’s just this little art movie about someone living in a camper.  But then, I watched the movie.  It’s a parade of glorious imagery, from the close-ups of Frances McDormand’s face to the desert glow at sunset to the Pacific coastal to an inside of a luncheonette counter at Wall Drug.  It’s rapturously filmed.  

Let The Father have Production Design.  I didn’t pick up on all the subtleties that the critics with their liner notes etc. etc. did, but from what I read there’s a lot of subtle stuff going on in this one.  I’d rather Mank take its award for Score.  Ma Rainey doesn’t have good production design; it reeks of the back lot.  News of the World and Tenet are fine choices as well.

The Father also makes sense for Film Editing, but all the movies in this category are quite well done.

VIsual Effects, Tenet.

Even this year, I decided not to spend hours sitting for the short features, when I never see them in non-pandemic years.

The LA Times has several good articles today on the Oscars.

One article I read said it’s a shame that the Oscars are giving us all of these depressing movies when we want fun, but Hollywood doesn’t make very many good fun movies any more.  The fun movies are almost entirely bludgeoning SFX spectaculars, and then when Hollywood does come up with a glorious piece of fun like The Prom, a lot of the critics dump on it.  But there’s something hopeful about Sound of Metal and Nomadland and Minari, even though they wear their dark well.  There’s something truthful about The Father.  Judas and the Black Messiah and The Trial of the Chicago 7 are stories worth telling and retelling. 

And Promising Young Woman takes the movie that isn’t supposed to be fun, that’s been made the no fun way, and makes it quite a bit of disorienting fun.  I’m thinking I should see it again.

And folks, the movies will be back.  

I wasn’t worried when WarnerMedia announced it was putting all its movies on HBO Max at the same time they went into theatres.  To me, it meant there would for sure by 17 movies with major studio booking heading into movie theatres in 2021.  There are some changes ahead for the film business.  There are going to be fewer places to see movies.  The South Orange cinema I visited a few times is closed.  The Landmark 57 West in New York City is closed for good.  The Mazza Galleria in DC, that’s gone.  More of this to come, for sure — more of this to come.

But I love going to the movies.  I’m not the only person who loves going to the movies.  It’s about the “going.”. My TV set and my iPad aren’t going anywhere, and aren’t going anywhere (two uses, purposefully).

Maybe it will be only 10 million people tonight watching whatever the Oscars have to bring, but I saw some great movies over the past year, and I can’t wait to see who wins.

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