Saturday, May 8, 2021

Catch-Up, Part 6: Awards Bait

This is the sixth installment in my ongoing series of mini-reviews of newish movies I missed in the theater, because I literally haven't been to a movie theater in close to two years.

The movies I'm looking at today were all well received and with good reason: to the extent the word "objectively" means anything in this context, they're all objectively great films.

I hadn't meant to do a "movies for grown-ups" installment - I'm a strong believer that "good" and "genre" aren't mutually exclusive labels, and further that most "awards contenders" can be accurately classified under various genre labels. But I basically spent the last five articles siphoning off all the conventional genre movies - good and bad - I've seen, leaving... well... mostly a bunch of high quality films that didn't fit elsewhere. I don't want to sit on these forever - I saw one of the movies below back in January 2020 - so here we are.

Nomadland (2020)
Not a lot to say here aside from the obvious: it's beautifully shot and edited into something that feels closer to a cross between a documentary and poetry than a narrative film. This is already blurring the line between reality, adaptation, and story - it doesn't fit neatly in any bucket. On one hand, it's a moving and simple character study; on another, it probes into some darker aspects of how our nation operates.

It's a fantastic movie, so I feel bad admitting my main takeaway is that Eternals is in great hands.

Jojo Rabbit (2019)
I hate that I don't love more of Taika Waititi's movies. For the record, I did love Hunt for the Wilderpeople. And I've been getting into the series, What We Do in the Shadows, but the movie it was based on didn't really work for me. Same goes for the rest of his filmography - I liked them fine, but I didn't love them.

The weird thing is I should love them. I'm generally a sucker for this kind of humor, and I love absurdist settings and situations. His approach should be right up my alley. And it's not like I think the love he gets is unearned - I can watch these and appreciate how well they're crafted. He's a phenomenal filmmaker.

I think it comes down to a minor stylistic quibble. His movies are made to keep the audience at arm's length. He wants you to be conscious of the fact you're watching a movie, and he uses the fourth wall accordingly. He doesn't want the audience pulled so far into the film they get lost in the story.

Again, this isn't a good or bad thing, just a choice. But it's a choice that clashes with my personal preferences regarding movies (especially these kinds of movies).

I want to stress, this is a great film. The characters are fantastic, the direction is wonderful, the story is timely... it's fantastic. I'm not criticizing any aspect. I honestly wish I could toggle the part of my brain that kept me from enjoying this more.

Little Women (2019)
I'm a geeky man who generally prefers movies about spaceships and superheroes. If I'd been living in the world of Little Women, I'd have been one of the readers who was sad Jo's violent genre stories disappeared. This movie isn't from a genre I seek out.

A few years ago, someone convinced me to give the 1994 adaptation (that's the one with Winona Ryder) a shot. Their pitch may have involved overselling its holiday credentials (I've got a relatively liberal outlook on what constitutes a Christmas movie, and Little Women doesn't check enough boxes). At any rate, I watched that and was bored to tears. Nothing about the story or characters clicked with me.

So why in the world did I give another adaptation a shot? Simple. Because all the geeky reviewers I listen to who also like spaceships and superheroes swore this was one of the best movies of last year. So I gave it a chance, and...

Yeah, this movie rules. It just totally rules.

I'm not going to sit here and write at length about how amazing the cast was or how beautiful the film was. I'm not going to go in depth about how brilliant the structural changes were or how cleverly the movie explored the book's relationship to the author's life or any of that. I'd just be rehashing what a billion critics already said. And besides, while those aspects are a big part of what I appreciated this adaptation, they're not why I loved it.

What I actually loved about it was the humor and warmth. Moments that bored me in the 1994 version felt fresh and real here. It didn't matter that I knew the story or even that I had negative associations with it - I was riveted. 

That's a hell of an achievement. Check this out if you haven't already.

Spaceship Earth (2020)
Do I include documentaries in these things? Have I ever talked about a documentary on this blog in any context? Damned if I remember. But I want to say a few things about this one, mainly because it was a lot of fun. Also, while it isn't technically science fiction, it's science fiction adjacent to a degree that's absurdly rare.

The subject of the documentary is the 1991 "experiment" where eight people were sealed (well, mostly sealed - there were complications) in an airtight complex for two years. The goal was to create a sustainable environment made up of habitats from all over the planet. The idea was both inspired by science fiction and motivated by a similar drive: if we ever want to set up colonies on other worlds, this is what they'll need to look like.

The first third largely centers on the group behind the project, and they're hard to categorize. Part-hippie, part commune, part corporate think tank... I kept feeling conflicting reactions where part of me wanted to laugh at them while another part wishes I was alive back then and could have joined them. They're a fascinating group.

It's kind of a shame they conducted their experiment when they did. I feel like the concept could be executed much more effectively now using hydroponics and an improved understanding of biology. But good luck getting the funding together - I suspect that was a one-time deal, at least in this country.

At any rate, the documentary is worth a watch, just be prepared for the twist ending, when [spoiler alert] Steve Bannon shows up and takes over. Seriously - Steve Bannon. It feels like the studio interfered and made the director wedge him into the movie to set up a sequel, until you remember you're watching historical footage and all this really happened.

Hustlers (2019)
Hustlers is the kind of movie I'd typically ignore entirely, despite being able to hear every critic in the country hollering its praises at the top of their lungs. At a glance, it just doesn't sound like a genre I'd be interested in.

But, okay, funny story. A few years ago I got bored and watched "Seeking a Friend for the End of the World," a movie that received lukewarm reviews. And once I finished watching it, I vowed to watch basically anything else the mad genius behind it made for the rest of her career. Damn, that movie is good.

I wasn't disappointed in The Meddler, and I sure as hell wasn't disappointed in Hustlers. Lorene Scafaria is a master at juggling genres and balancing tones. Hustlers is more or less a mafia movie spliced with a drama about friendship, all delivered with humor. It's the kind of thing that shouldn't work, but Scafaria makes it look easy.

Track this down if you haven't seen it. And, for the love of God, also watch Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. Seriously. It's one of the most underrated genre films of all time.

Dolemite is My Name (2019)
After watching Dolemite is My Name, I tried explaining the premise to my wife and was mostly at a loss. In some ways, it's closest to Ed Wood, but that's not a fair comparison. If anything, this movie seems intent on dismissing just that sort of characterization of Rudy Ray Moore. The film is ultimately a comedy, but it's not an especially funny one. It's more interested in celebrating its subject's unique place in cinema and pop culture than in making jokes.

This is, at the end of the day, a character study. It's a biopic about a man who realized there was a untapped market for a particular type of entertainment producers didn't understand or take seriously. While I don't have a background with this character or the genre he worked in, I'm more than familiar with that theme - it's somewhat universal in film and television. And this movie handles it masterfully.

And that's not even getting into the fantastic character work and the beautiful visuals (this looks more like a movie made in the '70s than most movies made in the '70s).

If you've got a few hours and a Netflix subscription, this one's more than worth the time.

The Farewell (2019)
This is the sort of movie I rarely watch unless it’s set at Christmas, but my sister gave it a strong recommendation. And… yeah, it’s pretty great. It’s a dramedy about cultural differences, family relationships, and difficult moments. There’s not a great deal of story beyond the premise (which I’m not spoiling for a reason), but this winds up feeling like a feature rather than a bug. Characters behave realistically, which means growth and development are more subtle and internal than you’d typically get in this genre. I spent the movie waiting for “the big moment” and was pleasantly surprised when it went in another direction (it kind of had to – the movie’s based on a true story).

Beyond the fantastic character work, amazing acting, and nuanced look at cultural differences, the movie also features some stunning cinematography. It’s beautifully shot, to the point I’d recommend it on that fact alone (or at least I would if everything else wasn’t even better).

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