This review briefly touches on some of the plot setup for this film. You have been warned.
The MCU has always been a little bit self-serious. Even in the films where comedy was the primary mode of storytelling (i.e. the Guardians and Spider-Man films), one has a distinct sense that though the material is self-aware, it’s not especially zany or eager to become playful with its subject matter, particularly on the crafts side. There are no star wipes, no cuts-to-black in the middle of proceedings, and zero freeze-frame lining the walls of the most popular and easily the most successful franchise – both critically and commercially – ever committed to digital rendering. There aren’t even any transitions where one frame bleeds into another as if characters are invading the narrative to take over its main thrust. Most of it, to be frank, is fairly straightforward comic-book storytelling, as straightforward as those things can be when dealing with a purple genocidal alien and a pair of best friends who take the forms of a tree and a raccoon. Generally speaking - and apart from the Guardians films – there’s not normally a ton of risk involved in directing a Marvel Studios film, at least not in terms of an audience being jarred by one’s sense of style; that can get boring after a fashion. In all truth, the MCU needed to get a little silly to stay fresh. It needed to evolve from a mere action/comedy franchise into something more akin to a fun exploration of what kinds of MCU stories can be told. And that, by far, is the biggest strength director Sam Raimi offers in directing the newest entry to the Disney juggernaut, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
As the titular sorcerer travels the multiverse with the help of newly-introduced multiverse-hopper America Chavez (Xochitl Gomez) in order to stop a fearsome evil from pursuing them and ultimately taking America’s power for its own, one can sense the Sam Raimi style bleeding into the frames from the edge until they consume the story entirely. There are multiple action sequences with genuinely silly effects – one in particular involving a classical music composition – and any number of transitions those unfamiliar with Raimi will no doubt notice as being distinct amongst the wider MCU. Raimi’s been no stranger to camp, ever since his original Evil Dead release in 1981, and it peppers Multiverse of Madness in some fairly significant ways. Another storytelling element to which Raimi is no stranger is horror; Multiverse of Madness is not a full-on horror film, but it does get significantly closer to that genre than any MCU movie has to date, though just how close Raimi was allowed to get is in question since Scott Derickson, the film’s original helmer, presumably left the project because Marvel didn’t want him to get too close to making an actual horror film. That said, certain images and moments are crafted with a horror element in mind, as is evident in certain sequences and with particular characters, especially the villains this time around.
Where the film runs into significant problems is its script, one that can’t seem to decide whose story it’s telling or how it wants to go about telling it. Whereas the initial Doctor Strange film had the benefit of being an origin story, thus only needing to set up one character, Multiverse of Madness carries the unwieldy task of not only introducing us to America Chavez, but to the multiverse at large, and all that it contains, both in its more brief appearances and its more significant layovers. That means a lot of characters and a lot of worlds to cover in a fairly short span of time, and it’s not always up to the task. Unfortunately, though the film certainly has at least a small arc for its titular hero, and he is very much in the center of the frame, the introduction of the wider MCU means that stories in which he’s involved can’t only focus on him now – even if he is, as noted, the title character. Because of all the setup involved, as well as needing to handle at least two other mainline characters’ stories, Strange feels a little bit pushed to the background in terms of development here. We know about him by film’s end almost as much as we knew at the beginning, and apart from some rudimentary introductory material, we don’t really know that much about what kind of person America Chavez is either. That said, MCU movies have bounced back from character development issues and over-bloat before – hell, even Iron Man 2 – the worst MCU movie – still coasts on the charms of Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johannson.
What Multiverse of Madness may not bounce back from is in how it handles the Wanda Maximoff character, whose MCU journey has been one of the most compelling of any of her cohorts across four movies and her own Disney+ limited series (though the number of movies drops to three if one considers she only briefly appears in Avengers: Endgame). It’s not to say that the place Wanda ultimately ends up in the film makes no sense, but on the whole, it’s merely a repeat of her emotionally-driven arc from WandaVision without the necessary developments taking place to get her back to where she needs to be at the beginning of it (I’m deeply sorry if that sentence is confusing, but keeping this spoiler-free means that will occasionally happen). There is one small line during the first act that hints at what might be driving Wanda towards this point of origin, but no justification for it or demonstration of its truth beyond what we already know from that series. Elizabeth Olsen, as always, acts the hell out of whatever she’s given to do, but her function in this film is more so as a plot device than as her own distinct character, ditto America Chavez for most of the film’s runtime. Wanda begins at an endpoint here without the MCU having earned that journey for her character, and while her story in this film may make sense in a vacuum, the question of how everything connects to the wider MCU forces it to confront a near-antithesis of itself without so much as a guide to who she is or who she has been.
All in all, Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness does bring some of that much-needed fun back to the film side of the MCU, where nearly everything has been soaked in dour, post-Endgame dread or multiverse acknowledgement/setup, and is able to bring some of that Sam Raimi zaniness to this world with a decent amount of success, but the script for the film can’t seem to handle the weight of what it needs to accomplish in the amount of time it has to accomplish it. Everything that doesn’t work takes up a lot of the spotlight from the things that do, and despite the myriad showcases of style, some fun cameos, and a healthy dose of zany horror, this MCU entrant may end up disappointing audiences on a number of levels. Perhaps this film needed to be longer in order to accommodate everything it needed to include and flesh out some of its more significant pacing issues, but – while I won’t say I wasn’t at least a little bit let down by some of its less favorable material – for my part, it is refreshing to see the MCU dive head-first into becoming something almost entirely different than what it’s been to this point.
I’m giving “Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness” a 7.6/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Latest from Director Robert Eggers.
In 2015, the Sundance Film Festival awarded its Best Director prize to one Robert Eggers, whose brilliant debut feature, The Witch, had just been shown to attendees, and was due for release in February after positive word spread from advanced screenings of the film. Eggers then quickly became somewhat of a curious name in the pantheon of auteur directors – at once a name to anticipate, yet entirely unpredictable as he began an era of singularity in filmmaking not seen since the early days of Ridley Scott (think Alien, Blade Runner). In fact, it was Eggers in large part who helped to usher in the horror heyday of indie studio A24, which distributed both The Witch and his subsequent masterwork, The Lighthouse. Committed completely to authenticity by way of period detail and an emphasis on realistic language, Eggers forged a path for himself with only two indie features under his belt, the latter of which received an Oscar nomination for cinematography. Enter Focus Features, with a larger playing field and a heftier budgetary capabilities than Eggers had yet experienced as a filmmaker, ready to take on the charge of bringing The Northman to the big screen. It may well be the smartest move the studio has ever made.
First viewed, The Northman can present something of a strange beast for the viewer: a tale of blood-soaked vengeance which fails to unleash the constancy of carnage its initial trailer insinuates (though it is nonetheless violent in bursts), but nevertheless remains as much an epic as director Robert Eggers ever could have promised, both in the scope of its narrative and the larger world it inhabits. Mythos and legend are not only alluded to but literalized as raven spirits and Allfathers appear on screen to assist Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) on his quest of vengeance; yet for all the bloodshed, there are equal parts mysticism and meditation to accompany it. Truthfully, with the state of the current blockbuster landscape, dominated by superheroes and held aloft by the scepter of IP, it would not scratch hyperbole to declare it a miracle that The Northman exists at all. And to exist in the state it does, a tentpole release imbued by near-total commitment to the authenticity of even its most disparate elements, an anomaly further.
What little fails to connect from Robert Egger’s latest delve into old-world cultures and hyper-specific language is a chunk of steel dropped atop the irons of filmmaking, its weight so miniscule it cannot hope to dent the material in a meaningful fashion, but a weight nonetheless. One scene of Nordic sport and a temporary slow-down of momentum aways into the second act (plus a slightly underdeveloped love story) is offset by breathtaking imagery, the film’s reverent dissection of vengeance as Viking lifestyle – along with all that entails – and a stunningly rendered Slavic raid, the intricacy of which is seldom seen in films of this scale. Patience may be required to endure Eggers’ two-hour revenge epic, but the film trusts its audience to find the experience withing such patience. Assisting the audience in this task is the work of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, their drum-backed score echoing through the film’s soundscape as swords and shields are splintered and thrust, as spells are cast and vengeance sought.
Yet without its stars, especially those closest to the film’s burning center, The Northman would be nothing more than a glorified Game of Thrones spinoff episode. Skarsgård, who stars as the film’s titular protagonist, has gone on record many times about his journey to getting the film made, and his commitment to its existence is evident in every second of his beastly, often unhinged Amleth. He is animalistic, occasionally to an unnerving physical degree, but just as often contemplative, emotionally challenged in key moments where his vulnerability is given a chance to shine (though not quite as bright as his beastliness), often in close context to Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, a performance that works on its own but still feels slightly off-key here. Nicole Kidman and Claes Bang, as well as an unusually imposing Ethan Hawke, fill out the supporting cast in expert fashion, while Willem Dafoe and Icelandic popstar Björk make the most of their time with naught but three scenes between them.
It can be a fool’s errand to attempt pinning down what makes Robert Eggers’ efforts in filmmaking succeed to such a high level only three films deep; perhaps it’s the commitment to authenticity, perhaps it’s the intimacy with which he tells such grandiose stories, but always, the explanation eludes those who respond to the director’s work the most. The Northman may not be an outright masterpiece, or even Eggers’ best film on the whole, but it is one of the most original and engaging true epics to hit theaters in quite some time. Those who insist Hollywood is “out of ideas” or “only ever makes sequels/reboots” would be fools to let it pass unseen. The dollar speaks in the movie world; let it sing the songs of the Valkyries.
I’m giving “The Northman” an 8.8/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Reviews the latest entry to the Wizarding World canon.
When the Fantastic Beasts series of films began, already a thinly-drawn idea spun from a concept so small within the world it inhabited that it barely affected the Harry Potter films from whence it originated, the basic conceit was a series of adventure stories centered around the travels of one Newt Scamander, a bumbling but loveable magic zoologist who traveled the world in search of magic creatures in order to document their existences. Now that this series is three films deep, however, it would seem that Newt is all but an afterthought, an obligation of having set up an entire first film around him and now being stuck with the character as controversial author J.K. Rowling’s bumbling scripts demonstrate more concern with wizarding world politics than with any of the wonder she became famous for having created.
What The Secrets of Dumbledore opts to do with the now-defunct foundation is reshape it into more of a political thriller, but the Harry Potter – and indeed Wizarding World – universe, wants to do it all in one go, rather than establish this as any sort of buildup from the jump. The foundational elements of this series have given way to something best left to mythos and backstory, that being the origins of Dumbledore and his infamous dual with the wizard Grindelwald. And in this giving, the series makes the most common mistake of any spin-off property attached to a well-beloved work: trying to be like that well-beloved work, rather than stand as its own entirely separate thing. It didn’t work for The Hobbit films when they tried to be Lord of the Rings, and it doesn’t work here.
The Secrets of Dumbledore is as dry and frankly boring as a film like it might have ever managed to be. To compare the experience, it’s like a dry chicken breast or roast; sure, there’s meat here, but no flavor, protein but nothing I would want to bite into for my next meal. I genuinely cannot remember ever sitting in a Wizarding World film and being outright bored. Though it does make some improvements on the mess that preceded it – Mads Mikkelsen is a better Grindelwald, the one ridiculous exposition scene is only two minutes long rather than eight, Jude Law gets a little bit more to do than last time, and it’s more tonally consistent – the scattershot script makes the film itself incredibly messy, bouncing from character to character as they traverse three different narratives, almost all of which feel like placeholders so they can stretch perhaps half an hour of actually interesting story to two and a half. This all-over-the-place narrative may not be quite as terribly conceived as The Crimes of Grindelwald was, but at least that film stuck to its guns and threw things at the wall; none of it stuck, but one could at least admire the audacity of its throwing arm. Secrets of Dumbledore, on the other hand, may be more consistent, but its consistency is in that rather than trying a bunch of things that don’t work, it hardly tries anything at all.
This is all before diving into the characters and performances, some of which work pretty well – as previously stated, Mads Mikkelsen and Jude Law are the best parts of the film regarding their individual efforts – and some of which couldn’t work regardless of how much of themselves the actor puts in. Eddie Redmayne is fine as Newt, but the film seems to have virtually no interest in him apart from how he serves the narrative of Dumbledore, rather than being his own character (remember, the lead character of the first movie whose story we’re supposed to have been following), ditto his brother played by Callum Turner. The problems arise when taking a closer gander towards the rest of the supporting cast. One can tell Dan Folger is a great actor as he portrays Jacob, but the character himself continues to be one of the franchise’s most inconsistent, charming and charismatic one minute, then making the dumbest decisions of anyone the next, ditto Queenie (Alison Sudol) who was one of the best parts of the first film and now feels like an afterthought, a ball to toss around whenever we need to give Jacob something to do. The strangest performance, however, belongs to Jessica Williams, whom I quite enjoyed in Booksmart, but here seems to have been directed to say every line the exact same way, sapping the character of any energy or charm she might have otherwise had. Listen to how she speaks her dialogue, almost as if she was told to do a British accent she can’t keep up, and you’ll see what I mean. (And, to state the obvious, it is not lost on me that Katherine Turner is hardly included in this movie at all after being the most vocal of the previous two films’ casts to speak out against J.K. Rowling’s notorious transphobia, and doesn’t appear in the main thrust of the film at all.)
For those attached to the Harry Potter universe and all that it entails, The Secrets of Dumbledore may contain some morsel of mediocrity that feels like success, but for those like myself who engage with this material more on the filmmaking front, that mediocrity will leave a sour taste. Improvement over poor quality is only improvement, but it will not make something good, and this film’s messiness betrays any interest an audience might have in its narrative by forcing them to wait over two hours before moving forward with it in a meaningful fashion. Perhaps the Wizarding World has one or even two more stories left to tell with these characters, in this space, but for all intents and purposes, the intrigue, the wonder, the magic is well and truly gone.
I’m giving “Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore” a 6.1/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down Sony Pictures’ Latest Comic Book Movie Release.
You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Sony Pictures’ latest Spider-Man spinoff universe movie, Morbius – a frankly lifeless adaptation of Morbius the Living Vampire – was meant to come out pre-pandemic, or even that its first delays were due to production issues and reshoots, rather than Covid itself, but what no one should be forgiven for is insisting on a theatrical release when its VOD numbers likely would have been much higher, and far more appropriate given its quality. Theatrical selection is far more specific now than it used to be, what with Covid-19 still being around – though in far less fatal quantities – and patrons being more likely to be choosy about how much time they want to spend in a movie theater given what we’ve all been through over the last two years. Time is precious to individual and collective alike, which is why Morbius may well be the most offensive film to see right now in that context. That’s not to say that it’s awful, or outright trash; in fact, it’s not even the worst comic book movie I’ve seen over the past few years (though not for lack of trying). It’s just a colossal waste of time, continually insisting that it’s far cooler than it is and entirely incognizant of how needless its existence ends up being.
The film begins with Jared Leto’s titular character (Dr. Michael Morbius) already at the cave audiences saw in both the film’s trailers, where he intends to trap vampire bats in order to extract their blood for medical research, and then immediately jumps back almost thirty years for the tiniest morsel of backstory before whiplashing us back into modern day with no reason why. The structure of this movie is so out of sorts that entire scenes take place without needing to, and those that are necessary don’t seem to take place in the order they were meant to. The cave scene itself seems to have been an afterthought to the whole proceeding, or shot as part of an entirely different telling of the story, one of two different versions that both show up here, forced together as if the puzzle pieces were made to fit, rather than designed to. In fact, the first third or so of the movie is structured this way, as if two different versions of the story were written but unfinished, and thus Jane the Virgin’d into the same film when that method rarely – if ever – works in storytelling.
Morbius is either all plot with no character or no plot with an anti-character agenda. Not only does the movie itself not seem to have any identity beyond “character for universe,” the characters themselves leave no lasting impact or legacy beyond their time on screen, and even then, the impact is generously dull. In the scene I mentioned where the audience is jumped back almost thirty years, we meet Matt Smith’s character, who is meant to have grown up with Leto as the rich kid with the same disease because there needs to be an excuse for him to be in the movie, but the film never really does anything with him beyond what it telegraphs in that scene. Ditto the film absolutely wasting the immense talents of Jared Harris by having him simply stand around and talk a little bit to Smith’s character about some things but giving him no actual motivation, no pathos, no depth, try as Harris might to infuse something of note into his dialogue.
And that’s the largest problem with this movie: no matter how hard Leto tries, or Harris, or even Smith as he and Leto let their decent chemistry carry a single conversation – no one can save this movie from its colossal level of inconsistency, of ideas, of writing, of character motivations, of essentially anything. Perhaps most hypocritical about the movie is how rushed its pacing is, given how simultaneously tedious sitting through it feels. There is not one single thru-line of the film that makes any impact on the world it inhabits, and no subplot it either seems to just skip to the end of or drop entirely. Characters contradict the very ideas the film is asking the audience to take seriously multiple times, up to and including the insinuation that because Leto’s character doesn’t mean to kill eight people, he’s assuaged of his guilt for doing so, even going so far as chastising another character for killing one on purpose. The film’s shooting style, occasionally finding some sort of sleek and modernist identity, abandons it every time an action sequence comes up, choosing instead to bring in everything trick people remember from 2005; in short, the action sequences look like shit, if you can see them at all, with visual effects so bad that everyone who complained about Black Panther should be required to pen a ten-page apology letter to Ryan Coogler for ever deigning to say so out loud. Even the film's two credits scenes (which both take place before the credits end) ring as completely nonsensical given the already established multiverse rules of Spider-Man: No Way Home. To dive further into why the movie doesn’t work may require spoilers, but honestly, doing a spoiler review for this one would mean watching it again, and right now I can’t think of anything I’d like to watch less.
Morbius may not be offensively terrible, or even all that batshit a comic book film on its face, but it is without doubt the emptiest to come out in quite some time to take itself as seriously as it does. Inconsistent writing and no characterization combine with a rushed pace to make a tedious film that doesn’t seem to have any actual ideas, of its own or even that it’s stolen from other, more successful creations of its kind. It has nothing to say, nothing that matters, and no identity. Theaters all over the world need movies right now that people can get excited to go out and see, that will get them pumped about going back to the theater, and there are a myriad of experiences worth having in theatrical settings – but this won't be one of them.
I’m giving “Morbius” a 3.8/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan recaps the 94th Academy Awards.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences held their 94th Annual Awards ceremony on Sunday night, honoring the best in film from the year 2021, and what a night it was. Before diving into the winners list, as well as the ceremony itself, let’s start with the one thing everyone is talking about, because it can’t not be addressed, the most infamous Oscars moment since the La La Land/Moonlight switcheroo: Will Smith slapping Chris Rock across the face after Rock made a poor-taste jab at Jada Pinkett-Smith’s health condition, a moment which stunned audiences and spawned every conceivable form of meme. Was this justified? Did Chris Rock deserve it? Did Will Smith go too far? My answer to all of this is that I have no definitive answer. I can condemn Smith for reacting in a violent manner towards words that I also recognize were deeply insensitive, but Black men have always been condemned for even the smallest of violent altercations when white men have been making movies about and celebrating those things for as long as the Academy has been around. Then again, far worse “jokes” have been made at the expense of Academy members and Oscars attendees (largely by white men), and none of the people who made those got slapped at all, even if they deserved to be (we don’t need to go into the Ricky Gervais or Seth McFarlane conversations here though). Unprofessional though it may have been, the Will Smith moment was seemingly fueled by a need to “protect” and “stand up for the honor” of someone who didn’t need defending (even as, in many ways, the Black woman in the United States is often the one most denied defense or protection), and many victims of domestic violence hear the same justifications for the heinous things that happen to them. The truth is, it’s not for me to say whether it should have happened or not. It did. And there’s nothing that can change the fact that it happened, live, and now it overshadows everything that the night was supposed to be about. Smith himself has apologized for the incident to Chris Rock and the Academy, as one can read about in this IndieWire article, and noted that it soiled the journey of the evening, but the damage is done and there is no changing the fact that what could have been a night about the Oscars turned into a night about a beef between attendees.
Now, I’d like to take a (brief) moment to discuss the Academy’s insinuation that they may ask Will Smith for his Oscar back, given what transpired, as well as its condemnation of “violence in any form”: this is bullshit. No, it’s not bullshit that the Academy has opened a review into an incident of assault on their stage, or that they condemned Smith’s actions – that makes sense for them to do, given the circumstances. What’s bullshit is the “in any form” part; how often did this body celebrate and recognize films which promoted violent racists in heroic fashion? American Sniper was nominated for six Oscars and nearly won some of them. And it's not as if the Academy genuinely has much of a problem with scandal tarnishing a film industry worker’s brand; Harvey Weinstein, Roman Polanski, Casey Affleck, and Mel Gibson all still have their Oscars, and some of those were won quite recently, Polanski’s (who drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl) as recently as 2002 (Polanski won Best Director for The Pianist). If the Academy is genuinely attempting to get better at recognizing unprofessionalism at inopportune moments, then fine, but it is ridiculous to claim that the Will Smith moment was the awards’ darkest – as many online have been doing – when Native American Sacheen Littlefeather was publicly booed by Academy members in 1973 (as John Wayne was attempting to assault her with six security guards holding him back) after deigning to ask that the film industry not portray her people in brutalist fashions and the publicly mocked at the same ceremony and the following year by Clint Eastwood on the same stage. If the Will Smith moment is truly the Academy’s darkest, they must take a good look at why they’re considering that, and not the bevvy of darker moments staining their history, as their top choice. And Smith, unprofessional behavior or not, should not have to give his Oscar back. Now, let’s all please move on.
Several months ago, the Academy made the decision to cut eight of their categories for time, deciding instead to present them during the red carpet segment of the night, record the footage, and stitch them into the broadcast later on, edited for time. (Those categories were: Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound, Best Live-Action Short, Best Animated Short, and Best Documentary Short.) This, for many reasons, didn’t work at all, and was a terrible move by Academy President David Rubin in a bid to get the show to end by 11 p.m., which we all know did not happen. Compounding the issue further was the fact that this Oscars attempted to bring a more populist audience to its viewership and boost its record-low ratings by including things like Fan Favorite Twitter campaigns which immediately became jokes in and of themselves, a frankly bizarre performance of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” – which was not nominated for Best Original Song nor submitted by Lin Manuel-Miranda, who wrote the music for eventual Best Animated Feature winner Encanto – and some three-host bit segments that became even less successful as the night wore on. This move was supposedly brought on by pressure from ABC (which Disney owns), a move I’ve already talked about the ickiness of, which feels even ickier when one considers the only real movie-related advertisement viewers got – beyond James Bond and Godfather tributes and a second awkward In Memoriam segment – was for Lightyear, which Chris Evans was asked to present. Lightyear, notably, is Disney and Pixar’s next release. (Side note: the ad was just the second trailer for the film, which had already been released.)
More importantly, however, the move meant that viewers were robbed of seeing Dune win the first four of its eventual six Oscar victories (Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, and Best Sound) during this time, and the most unnecessary category in the whole affair – Best Original Song – took up most of the ceremony’s time again, even if seeing Billi Eilish be excited about winning was one of the night’s more adorable moments. We waited decades to see Hans Zimmer win a second Oscar, and he had to accept it in a bathrobe from across the ocean because it didn’t matter if he was there or not! Searchlight’s The Eyes of Tammy Faye also won in the Makeup & Hairstyling category, during which ABC bizarrely tried to convince people that she was being interviewed on the red carpet live, despite the fact that Chastain herself said she would be in the Dolby theater as her team was being celebrated. And of course, the shorts were presented during this time, the winners of which were The Long Goodbye for Live-Action Short, The Queen of Basketball for Documentary Short, and The Windshield Wiper for Animated Short, the only shortfall on my Oscars ballot. (Humble brag, I went 22 for 23. But it was also one of the most predictable years ever, so maybe it’s not that impressive.)
Moving on to the live portion of the show, some bits worked and some definitely did not. The opener of Beyonce singing her great song “Be Alive” live from Compton with all the costuming involved was great, and the show was going well for the first ten minutes or so…until it wasn’t. Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall didn’t seem to work very well together as Oscar hosts, although it was also by no means a disaster when they presented as a group, even if the movie costumes bit started strong but just got worse as it went on (the Spider-Man Schumer moment was amusing but didn’t make much sense). In all truth, Schumer ended up being the funniest and most successful of the hosts in her individual bits relative to the laughs she got and the lightness of her comedy (the ridiculous Kirsten Dunst bit and needless disrespect of animated films notwithstanding). I mean, come on, the movie flops joke? The “Melissa McCarthy said no” moment? The “Being the Ricardos wasn’t funny” material? Hilarious! Then the night turned straight-up weird when Regina Hall wouldn’t stop talking about how horny she was, even for men as young as Jacob Elordi and John David Washington, even going so far as to ask Denzel where his son was, which was gross and uncomfortable. Wanda Sykes had a few zingers like The Last Duel flop joke and her pretty good Academy Museum bit, but largely seemed there only for bits after a while, which wore thin about halfway through. West Side Story star Rachel Zegler’s joke about not having been invited to the Oscars initially was great, though, so you win some, you lose some. And, as noted, the cutting in of the pre-taped awards wasn’t a total disaster, but didn’t help the show in any meaningful way either (apparently the transcribed nominees’ speeches on the Academy’s website are, in fact, the edited versions cut together for broadcast and not the full thing).
As far as the winners are concerned, the night went largely as expected, with the safest and occasionally most boring choices winning the night. Dune added Best Cinematography and Best Visual Effects to its total of six wins for the night (all of which it deserved and all the recipients of which made sure to single out Denis Villeneuve’s iconic direction of the film), and the two least interesting winners in both Screenplay categories took home their Oscars too, those being Belfast in Original Screenplay – its only win of the night – and CODA in Adapted Screenplay. Will Smith and Jessica Chastain won their first Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress respectively, and Ariana DeBose finished her clean sweep in Best Supporting Actress by winning for playing Anita in West Side Story, making her the first openly queer Black woman to win an Oscar and the third person to win an Oscar for playing an updated version of a character which had won an Oscar before (those being Don Vito in The Godfather/The Godfather Part II and the Joker in The Dark Knight/Joker). Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win an acting Oscar by taking home the award for Best Supporting Actor, and the film for which he won – CODA – succeeded in a clean sweep, going three for three on winning all its nominations to be crowned Best Picture at the end of the night, which it achieved without a Best Director or Best Editing nomination, breaking decades worth of tried-and-true Oscars stats (no film has done this since Grand Hotel in 1933). Unfortunately, The Power of the Dog – my #1 film of the year and the more deserving Best Picture winner – went one for twelve on its nomination-to-win translations, with its only win going to Best Director victor Jane Campion, making it the second-worst win streak in Oscars history. That said, I did really love CODA, so its win here is more of an underdog’s tale I’m happy to root for than a genuinely bad choice (it’s no Green Book over Roma, that’s for sure).
To wrap things up on the recap, Questlove won an Oscar for his great documentary Summer of Soul (that’s the moment the whole Will Smith thing overshadowed), Encanto won for Best Animated Feature (a good movie, but not better than Flee or The Mitchells vs. the Machines), “No Time to Die” won Best Original Song (Billi Eilish is an Oscar winner y’all!), and Jenny Beavan won her third Costume Design Oscar for her stellar work on Cruella (Beavan had previously won for A Room with a View and Mad Max: Fury Road), with The Eyes of Tammy Faye taking home the award for Makeup and Hairstyling.
It certainly was a night to remember, but given everything that transpired, how it was all put together, and frankly how dull the whole affair was in retrospect (minus that one moment), it probably should be one of the most forgettable. To cap it all off, I’m afraid the Academy will learn all the wrong lessons from their miniscule ratings uptick and try to do the dumb Fan Favorite Twitter polls again (which themselves got hilariously and embarrassingly gamed by the chronically online Snyder-Heads), thinking that’s the cause of increased viewership instead of the fact that people just saw way more movies in 2021 – with available vaccinations, moderately increased theater attendance, more streaming options for viewers at home, and mask mandates/revamped cleaning protocols – than they did in 2020 when the pandemic era was still just getting started and theaters were shut down for several months at a time. Hopefully, that doesn’t happen, and movies are in a better spot next year, but the next time I see Ryan Reynolds at the Academy Awards, it better not be for Free Guy 2’s Fan Favorite Awards campaign.
A full list of the night’s winners (and nominees) is below.
So, what did you think of the Oscars this past weekend? Are you excited by any of these wins? How well did you do on your ballot? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Makes Our Final Picks for the Winner’s Circle at the 94th Annual Academy Awards
Hello, everyone, and welcome back to The Friendly Film Fan! Much has been made of the Oscars frankly ridiculous ceremony production choices over the past couple of months, from their not requiring vaccinations for attendees, to their cutting eight categories out of the ceremony entirely, to adding a musical performance for an un-nominated song when they cut the eight categories previously mentioned “for time,” to their refusal to invite Rachel Zegler who starred in one of their most-nominated films (later walked back as Zegler was added to the presenters list and thus will attend the ceremony), to adding five rounds of presenters (some of whom have nothing to do with movies), to picking three hosts seemingly at random, to rebranding the stupid Best Popular Film Oscar idea as “Oscars Fan Favorite” just to get Spider-Man more awards time than it deserves, to the frankly deeply obvious attempt by Disney (who owns ABC and ESPN where that “Play Along” thing is happening) to strongarm the Academy into removing most of the categories they’re most likely to lose to Warner Bros, to any number of other idiotic decisions the Academy has made in the past 30 minutes to appease everyone who’s never cared that much about them anyway and piss off everyone who still works in and loves the movie industry and world, myself included. Much has also been made of the Oscar races as they’ve been reworked and re-shaped into things almost no one saw coming from the time nominations were announced until now, but we’ll get into all that with the individual categories. For now, I have a few final thoughts before all is said and done.
This is the least excited I’ve been for an Oscars ceremony in a long time, which is saying quite a lot, considering the pedigree of film involved. Regardless of how disastrous both the Academy’s and Disney’s leadership have been under David Rubin and Bob Chapek respectively, however, I am hopeful for the future. I’m hopeful that with a far more diversified and internationally recognized membership, the Academy can still surprise, as they did by handing Parasite Best Picture two years ago – a fact that still shocks and delights me to this day – or as they did by giving one of the Original Screenplay nominations this year to Joachim Trier’s phenomenal The Worst Person in the World. The wider range of stories available to be told, the better the good ones become in the telling, and the more interesting the world becomes as a whole. And I am hopeful that the Academy itself will be so emboldened by this year’s backlash to its worst decisions that next year will go almost in the complete opposite direction and force them to recognize that their ratings as they were are not coming back and that the best path forward is to honor, with some adjustments in diversity of body and method, the way the Oscars used to be – a movie awards show for movie enthusiasts specifically, not merely a concert for the common public.
With all that said, let’s get into the reason we’re all here. Here are The Friendly Film Fan’s Final Predictions for the 94th Annual Academy Awards!
Best Documentary Short
Will Win: The Queen of Basketball
Could Steal: Audible
Dark Horse: When We Were Bullies
Should Have Been Nominated: Coded: The Hidden Love of J.C. Leyendecker
The Documentary Short category is usually the one I look forward to most out of the Shorts categories as a whole, and there was some really fascinating stuff this year, from the bizarre history of Camp Confidential to the New York Times’ forensic analysis of the January 6 insurrection in Day of Rage, but none swept me quite so much off my feet as Coded, which recounted the subtle homoerotic works of artist J.C. Leyendecker, and all the artists he would inspire later on. It’s a real shame that wasn’t nominated, as it was the best of the shortlist, but you could do a lot worse with a win for The Queen of Basketball here – it’s brief, it’s charming, and its subject is a sincere delight to watch as she recounts her days playing the sport in her youth. Of the nominees, however, I would probably hand this one over to Netflix’s piercing Three Songs for Benazir. The only one of these nominees I haven’t seen, actually (and won’t get to see until after Sunday), is the Dark Horse candidate When We Were Bullies, which hasn’t made a huge splash in terms of notoriety but has had steady support the whole way here.
Best Animated Short
Will Win: Robin Robin
Could Steal: The Windshield Wiper
Dark Horse: Boxballet
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
Another category in which one of the key nominees was not available for viewing, I never saw Boxballet as of this writing; not that it matters much, because it seems Aardman Animation’s Netflix vehicle Robin Robin will probably take this one handily, and it’d hardly be a bad pick. What’s more bizarre is the inclusion of something like Affairs of the Art in the nominee pool at all – the film is simply so batshit insane and borderline incoherent one wonders how it ever got to this point as it rushes from thing to thing without taking a breath or making sense of any of it. Perhaps that’s the point, but it was not a film I connected to in almost any way. Bestia, too, is bizarre, dark, and discomforting, but that one actually does make a lot more sense if one knows the context in which it was made, and what it’s actually about. For my money though, this should be going to the stunning animation work in The Windshield Wiper, which isn’t exactly foreign stylistically, but feels the freshest out of these five choices. Or, at least, out of the four I’ve gotten to see.
Best Live-Action Short
Will Win: The Long Goodbye
Could Steal: Please Hold
Dark Horse: On My Mind
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
Having not seen everything on the Oscar shortlist for this category, I can’t really say whether anything’s missing or not, but the lack of enthusiasm for The Dress is a little strange (not that it’s easy to get hyped for such a downer film, but there really should be more support for it). Ala Kachuu is definitely the best-looking film in this category, but it’s almost 40 minutes long, and the longer ones don’t tend to fare that well here. This has been lined up for The Long Goodbye for a while, especially since the Academy really loves Riz Ahmed, who helped write it and stars in it, and it clocks in at a brief but nonetheless affecting eleven minute runtime. There does seem to be a little bit of support behind On My Mind, and films as weak against their competition as Please Hold have been known to win before (remember Two Distant Strangers?), so it’s not a total lock, even if no one else really has the key.
Will Win: Dune
Could Steal: N/A
Dark Horse: Belfast
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
There are no really egregious omissions here, and it’s fairly obvious that Dune is going to win this award, perhaps the surest bet of the night beyond Visual Effects, International Feature, and the Supporting Actor/Actress categories. If there’s any Dark Horse, it’s Belfast, but don’t expect it to be winning any derbies come Sunday night.
Best Visual Effects
Will Win: Dune
Could Steal: N/A
Dark Horse: No Time to Die
Should Have Been Nominated: Eternals or Godzilla vs. Kong or The Matrix: Resurrections or The Suicide Squad
Since no one else seems to want to, I’ll come right out and say that the Free Guy and Spider-Man nominations in this category are bad picks, and shouldn’t be here. The visual effects in both films are largely terrible (some of the green screen compositing in Spider-Man is downright atrocious), but I guess they were always going to be here, given how popular they both were at the box office, and this tends to be the spot where the most popular films do well. There are films that came out in 2021 with far cleaner effects than either of those, including but not limited to Eternals, Godzilla vs. Kong, and Matrix 4, but since none of those films are here, it’s all but impossible for anything to steal this award from the deserving and unbeatable sci-fi juggernaut that is Dune. If there is a Dark Horse here at all, it’s No Time to Die, whose visual effects are far more involved than you might think and honestly are excellent, given how seamlessly they’re woven into the film, but since that also has no chance at taking on Dune either, nothing is stealing this award from Denis Villeneuve’s epic sandworm tale.
Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
Could Steal: Adam McKay, Don’t Look Up or Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
Dark Horse: Joachim Trier and Eskil Vogt, The Worst Person in the World
Should Have Been Nominated: Mike Mills, C’mon C’mon or Fran Kranz, Mass
Somehow, Don’t Look Up managed a WGA win in this category and threw the whole race into chaos, but it doesn’t seem to have affected the Oscars that much in terms of what’s still expected to win (it’s just now far more possible than it was that Adam McKay’s deeply unsubtle script could pull an upset). The main battle here still seems to still be Licorice Pizza vs. Belfast, and while I would much rather see Paul Thomas Anderson’s ode to life in the San Fernando valley or the brilliant Nordic entry of The Worst Person in the World take home this award, my instincts are telling me Belfast is the smarter play here, and every time I ignore my instincts, it never works out for me. Plus, Belfast has won way more of these and has seven Oscar nominations (including one for Best Director for Kenneth Branagh, which means the Academy is thinking of rewarding him for something), whereas Licorice Pizza only has three nominations and some questionable moments in its writing that landed PTA in some hot water just before voting began (though it doesn’t seem that hot water has stuck around all that much).
Best Adapted Screenplay
Will Win: Siân Heder, CODA
Could Steal: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Dark Horse: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
Will it be CODA? Will it be The Power of the Dog? CODA did take home the WGA award for Adapted Screenplay (and as we’ve established, Don’t Look Up inexplicably won in Original), but neither The Lost Daughter nor The Power of the Dog was eligible to compete in those awards, so winning there was literally impossible for either of them. On the other hand, CODA also succeeded in winning the BAFTA for Adapted Screenplay, which those two challengers were competing for, so it’s pretty safe to say that Siân Heder stands a pretty good chance of winning this category as well, perhaps inevitably leading to a clean sweep for her AppleTV+ film here, in Best Supporting Actor, and in Best Picture. But, on yet another hand, CODA was not nominated for BAFTA’s Best Picture category, which The Power of the Dog won, so a win here for the Academy may not translate to a Best Picture win for CODA after all. Regardless, it’s a two horse race the whole way to Best Picture, and the winner of that race may well be decided here.
Best Original Song
Will Win: “No Time to Die,” No Time to Die
Could Steal: “Dos Oruguitas,” Encanto
Dark Horse: “Be Alive,” King Richard
Should Have Been Nominated: “So May We Start,” Annette
“No Time to Die” is a great song, and I’ll be very happy to see Billie Eilish win her first Oscar, but is it the best song in this group? Not quite – in fact, it’s not the best of the Bond songs either (though living up to “Skyfall” is a tall order no matter who the challenger is). “Dos Oruguitas” deserves to take this the most, but let’s not overlook the fact that Beyonce is also up for an Oscar this year. Rewarding one of the most celebrated performers of all time would be a good opportunity for the Academy to bring more casual viewers into the fold, and they really seemed to like King Richard, so it’s entirely possible that this is the award they give it, if only to ensure it’s recognized.
Best Original Score
Will Win: Hans Zimmer, Dune
Could Steal: Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog
Dark Horse: Alberto Iglesias, Parallel Mothers
Should Have Been Nominated: Antonio Pinto, Nine Days or James Newton Howard, Raya and the Last Dragon or Carter Burwell, The Tragedy of Mabeth
Hans Zimmer is winning his second Oscar, and there is no refuting this, especially since we know the famed composer created entirely new instruments just to capture some of the sounds he wanted – you don’t create new instruments without getting awarded or recognized for it somehow, and especially not if the film’s music is this distinct. If there is any support for someone outside of Dune to steal this, though, it’s Jonny Greenwood for his work on The Power of the Dog, which has a lot of support amongst both critics and industry professionals.
Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Will Win: The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Could Steal: Cruella
Dark Horse: Coming 2 America
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
Having not seen Coming 2 America, I can’t speak to its chances of winning, but it does seem to have a lot more support than previously thought, after having won at least one major makeup award, and very recently at that. However, it seems to foolish to predict anything except either Tammye Faye or Cruella for a win here; the former has a nominee in the current lead for Best Actress, and the other already has a character design award its poised to win, so neither would be especially surprising. I’m giving the edge here, though, to The Eyes of Tammy Faye, as the makeup work in that movie is not only excellent and uncannily recreates the televangelist to a frankly uncomfortable degree, but does a lot of heavy lifting in aiding the performance of the star wearing it as well. What should win, though, is Dune, not only for making Baron Harkonnen a terrifying villain on screen and bringing a distinct look to everyone outside of Caladan, but also for giving us Oscar Isaac in that glorious beard as he peers through his set of binoculars.
Best Costume Design
Will Win: Jenny Beavan, Cruella
Could Steal: Luis Sequeira, Nightmare Alley
Dark Horse: Jacqueline West and Bob Morgan, Dune
Should Have Been Nominated: In the Heights or Spencer
Is Cruella technically a period piece? I suppose so, since it is set in the 1970s, but most of its costumes have little to do with what was commonly worn at the time, especially as its protagonist is literally a fashion designer whose outfits defy the time in which they appear. All one has to do to understand Jenny Beaven’s inevitable is see the trash dress unfurl from the garbage truck and it’s instantly known that Cruella is winning this award. It’s unlikely anything upsets in this category, but I’d give the edge for that to Nightmare Alley here. If nothing else, that movie is known for its design work above everything, so it should not be underestimated.
Best Production Design
Will Win: Patrice Vermette, Dune
Could Steal: Tamara Deverell, Nightmare Alley
Dark Horse: N/A
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
There’s no real dark horse in Production Design because there are really only two contenders that matter – the stunning creation of Dune or the sumptuous lived-in history of Nightmare Alley. Del Toro’s films are no stranger to this category, although they’ve never won the award, but Nightmare Alley is easily the most grounded of the auteur’s works, so designer Tamara Deverell won’t be battling against any sci-fi elements or outlandish creature design in order to capture the minds of Oscar voters who are more averse to that sort of thing. Nightmare Alley is a remake, however, and thus isn’t creating something entirely new so much as bringing vividly to life a world that the original 1947 film couldn’t quite conjure in as much detail. Dune, on the other hand, is more adaptation than remake, and thus almost entirely creation from start to finish, which lends it a lot more credence in this category. The ships, the palaces, the sandworms, the costumes all play into the different facets of Production Design as an idea, and to bring a world so vividly to life with little – if anything – to go on from previous adaptations, and make it look this stunning, is a feat all its own. Dune should take this category handily, but don’t be surprised if an upset falls to Nightmare Alley – filmmakers and craftspeople really seem to love that movie.
Best Film Editing
Will Win: Joe Walker, Dune
Could Steal: Hank Corwin, Don’t Look Up or Pamela Martin, King Richard
Dark Horse: Peter Sciberras, The Power of the Dog
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
While unbridled by an egregious lack of nominations for films that deserved to be here, Best Film Editing is nonetheless still a pretty tricky category. On the one hand, a win in this category hasn’t translated to a Best Picture win since 2009’s The Hurt Locker, even though a nomination here is almost essential to a nomination for the big prize. That said, CODA does not have a nomination here at all despite its current frontrunner status in Best Picture, and The Power of the Dog doesn’t seem to be the frontrunner in this category either. King Richard did win the ACE Eddie award for this category, so it has the best chance to steal from the far more deserving Dune, but don’t underestimate Don’t Look Up’s flashiness, even if it’s unlikely to propel that film to a gold statue. The Oscars tends to reward the most editing over anything else but it’s also generally tied to winning the Sound category (hence Ford v Ferrari’s win here two years ago in addition to its victory in Best Sound Editing). Don’t Look Up definitely has the most editing out of all of these nominees, but isn’t nominated in Sound at all, and since Dune is expected to win that category, a win here makes the most sense as well. Still, it’s unlikely The Power of the Dog walks away with only one Oscar on Sunday night, so if there’s an upset to be had, this seems like the most likely spot, along with our next category.
Will Win: Greig Fraser, Dune
Could Steal: Ari Wegner, The Power of the Dog
Dark Horse: Janusz Kaminski, West Side Story
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
Best Cinematography – one of the most absolutely stacked categories of the entire set – hasn’t been nearly as far apart of a race as many had predicted it to be, with Dune stumbling more than a few times to Ari Wegner’s magnificent work on The Power of the Dog. However, Greig Fraser did just take home the ASC award for Dune, and is having a huge moment having just seen even more of his stellar work debut in The Batman, so it’s a pretty safe bet that that Dune will win here too. Watch out for The Power of the Dog, though. It’s a lot closer to a win than you might think, and if that movie is to take home more than just one Oscar, it’s like Film Editing or Cinematography that it has the best shot at stealing.
Best Documentary Feature
Will Win: Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)
Could Steal: Attica
Dark Horse: Writing With Fire
Should Have Been Nominated: The Rescue
It was a genuine surprise that neither of NatGeo’s two documentary shortlisters made the Oscar nominations in this category, but even more surprising was that one of those was The Rescue. Not only was the harrowing tale of retrieval of a boys’ soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand one of the most riveting thrillers of the year (despite knowing the outcome), it came from a team that had won this award before in 2018 for their work on Free Solo, and The Rescue is an even better movie than that was. That said, this has been Summer of Soul’s to lose for a long, long time – since Sundance in January of 2021, truthfully. Questlove’s directorial debut is an excellent film, and fully deserving of a win here, but if you do check out anything else beyond that, show some love to Attica, a phenomenally well-directed account of the tragically-ended takeover at Attica prison in 1971 by Stanley Nelson, for which the documentarian won the DGA award for direction of a documentary. This category has been known to surprise before (though not very often), so if anything could steal the win, it’d be that.
Best International Feature Film
Will Win: Drive My Car (Japan)
Could Steal: The Worst Person in the World (Norway)
Dark Horse: Flee (Denmark)
Should Have Been Nominated/Shortlisted: Titane (France)
Although it’s not an above-the-line category, this is one of the other awards this year that’s pretty much all wrapped up. International films don’t get nominated in this category and Best Picture without winning the former, so Drive My Car essentially has this one in the bag. (But there is a lot of groundswell support for The Worst Person in the World, so it may be a closer second-place finish than we think. That film is also nominated in Best Original Screenplay.)
Best Animated Feature
Will Win: Encanto
Could Steal: The Mitchells vs. the Machines
Dark Horse: Luca
Should Have Been Nominated: N/A
Flee is to animated filmmaking what Spider-Verse was back in 2018: it just elevates the form in every conceivable way it could. Flee is the best example in years of what makes animation such an essential medium of filmmaking, and it represents what great movies can be when people come together to tell a story that’s really and truly special, which represents both the resiliency of the human spirit and the creativity of the human mind. It should be the obvious winner. As it happens though, Disney has this category pretty well locked up, and “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” is the most popular song of theirs since “Let It Go,” so this seems like a losing battle for everything else. It seems weird to talk about PIXAR, the once dominate studio in this category, as the Dark Horse candidate (how did we get to this point?), but such as it is, Luca does have some small groundswell support. If anything is gonna steal it, though, it’s probably The Mitchells vs. the Machines, which a lot of industry people, especially animators, seem to love more and more as it continues being discovered. In fact, it did win the Annie Award, but those don’t usually tend to have much bearing on the Oscar winners, given how Klaus won in 2019, but ended up losing the Oscar to Toy Story 4 anyway.
Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Troy Kotsur, CODA
Could Steal: Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog
Dark Horse: Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
Should Have Been Nominated: Bradley Cooper, Licorice Pizza or Mike Faist, West Side Story or Jason Isaacs, Mass or Anders Danielsen Lie, The Worst Person in the World or Woody Norman, C’mon C’mon
For a while, it seemed as if Kodi Smit-McPhee had it in the bag for his performance in The Power of the Dog, much like the film he stars in, Troy Kotsur’s momentum for his brilliant work in CODA has continued to surge through the industry awards with win after win, making him the first deaf actor to have won several of his accolades, and potentially the first to ever win the Oscars’ Best Supporting Actor category. That’s a milestone the Academy would be foolish to pass up, so it’s unlike they do that here, despite how good Smit-McPhee really is in Jane Campion’s adaptation. If there’s a dark horse here, it’s Ciarán Hinds in Belfast, whose warm-hearted grandfather character lends the movie its soul, and is largely the reason the grandparent characters are interesting at all. The real kicker for this category, though, is the “Should Have Been Nominated” section, any of which could have taken the J.K. Simmons spot, and all of which are far more interesting performances. Either way, this is Troy Kotsur’s award to lose, and god help us if we let him lose it.
Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
Could Steal: Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Dark Horse: Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Should Have Been Nominated: Ann Dowd, Mass
If there’s any above-the-line category that one could call a definite lock, it’s Best Supporting Actress. Ariana DeBose is dancing away with this one all the way off the Dolby stage, and you can put all the money in the world on that. (Though the support for Jessie Buckley in The Lost Daughter is stronger than previously thought, and swapping Caitríona Balfe’s Supporting Actress nomination for Judi Dench in the same movie is as gate-keepy as awards shows like this can get.)
Will Win: Will Smith, King Richard
Could Steal: Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Dark Horse: Andrew Garfield, tick, tick…Boom!
Should Have Been Nominated: Nicolas Cage, Pig
For an American to win Best Actor on a Brit’s home turf when that Brit is in the running for the same Oscar (and is not far behind) sure is something, so it’s pretty definite that Will Smith will most likely take home his first Oscar for his great work in King Richard, despite Benedict Cumberbatch nipping on his heels. Smith’s performance is great movie star material, so him winning is hardly any misstep on the Academy’s part, but Cumberbatch is on another level in The Power of the Dog. That said, the Dark Horse candidate is Andrew Garfield here, whose film tick, tick…Boom! wasn’t that far off from receiving a Best Picture nomination and does boast a spot in Best Film Editing. Industry pros seemed to love Garfield as Jonathan Larson in the Lin Manuel-Miranda directed adaption of Larson’s second musical work, and given Larson’s reputation in the industry, don’t be surprised if the shock win goes to the undisputed movie MVP of 2022.
Will Win: Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
Could Steal: Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Dark Horse: Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Should Have Been Nominated: Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World
Perhaps not the hottest or even closest race in the whole ceremony, but definitely the most unpredictable is the race for Best Lead Actress. It’s highly unlikely Kristen Stewart wins in this category, given how she was not recognized on the SAG longlist (SAG members make up the majority of the Academy’s actors branch), but then again, it was also unlikely she would be nominated, and look how that turned out. Also a surprising but absolutely deserving nomination was Penélope Cruz, snatching the spot most pundits (including myself) had predicted for Lady Gaga. Cruz doesn't seem to have won any awards, industry-wise or critics-wise, but there is a lot of talk about industry support for her on the ground, and given the sheer chaos this category hosts just in the nominees, it could still throw yet more chaos our way by rewarding her astonishing performance. Nicole Kidman is the only actress besides Jessica Chastain to win one of the major awards pre-Oscars, but that was the Golden Globes, which seem to have less and less influence on the Oscars each year, and she already has an Oscar for a role most people were fine with but unimpressed by, so it’s unlikely she takes home a second one. That leaves us with Olivia Colman and Jessica Chastain. Chastain has won a couple of the industry awards (one of them televised), but hasn’t exactly been on a hot streak with them all season long, though she is still the frontrunner of the category. The dark horse candidate though, is Olivia Colman, who’s stolen races twice now in which she was not expected to win. She bested heavy favorite Glenn Close in 2019 to take home the Best Actress Oscar for The Favourite and also took out other heavy favorite Emma Corrin for the most recent Best Actress Emmy Award for her work in The Crown. Colman is the queen of stealing races, and while it’s unlikely she steals this one, viewers should watch out for her nonetheless.
Will Win: Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Could Steal: Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Dark Horse: Steven Spielberg, West Side Story
Should Have Been Nominated: Denis Villeneuve, Dune
Since the Academy so rudely snubbed Denis Villeneuve of one of the top three spots he deserved, this race was over almost as soon as it began. With the DGA award handily won, it seems obvious enough that Jane Campion will likely walk away with this award as well, and she should. Her work on The Power of the Dog is undeniable; even if one doesn’t particularly like the movie itself or isn’t as interested in its many interweaving layers as some others, the method of control to bring a story as complex as that to life in such a vivid and precise manner is not something voters can easily ignore. The Oscars are also no stranger to Best Director/Best Picture splits, especially recently (it’s happened five time in the past nine years), so even if The Power of the Dog might be in trouble in Best Picture, Director seems pretty locked up tight. The only candidate here with a shot at stealing the win, though, is Ryûsuke Hamaguchi for his work in adapting the three-hour Japanese epic journey through the themes of Uncle Vanya that is Drive My Car. If there’s a genuine shock in a Best Director upset win, he would be it (even if Steven Spielberg is the Dark Horse candidate no one’s paying close enough attention to…somehow).
Will Win: CODA
Could Steal: The Power of the Dog
Dark Horse: N/A
Should Have Been Nominated: C’mon C’mon or Flee
And finally, we’ve come to it: the big one. Easily the hottest race in the whole thing at the moment (which doesn’t happen with Best Picture often), CODA’s momentum has surged to unprecedented levels following the start of Oscar voting and a string of industry award wins, including the SAG ensemble award and the PGA for Best Film, bolstered by a frankly killer Oscar campaign headed by its fantastic cast. The Power of the Dog held the top spot in many a predictions list (including this one) for a very long time, but it seems the tide has officially shifted toward CODA’s favor; if it wins, it will break a host of Oscar stats held for decades, including the necessity of a Best Film Editing nomination and the presence of a Best Director candidate. Frankly, The Power of the Dog deserves this more in my opinion as the far more complex, deeply nuanced, and challenging movie between the two, and it could still easily come out on top to be Netflix’s first-ever Best Picture win, but the Academy does have something of an anti-Netflix edge to it with its oldest members staunchly standing against streaming services (though CODA does belong to AppleTV+), and something tells me that if Roma couldn’t muster up all the right votes for a win there even with its Best Director win, Jane Campion’s interesting but uncomfortable homoerotic cowboy drama about generational cycles of abuse and repression may not be the thing everyone rallies around this time either. (Then again, Roma did have a language barrier to work against, and that was before Parasite broke that glass ceiling. POTD doesn’t have that added challenge to overcome with voters.) All that to say, I was a really big fan of Siân Heder’s heartwarming musical journey through deafness, so if CODA does win, I’ll hardly be upset, but I do wonder if we’ll look back in 5 years or so and wonder if the right decision was made.
And, at long last, those are my final predictions for the 94th Annual Academy Awards! What do you think of these predictions? Any we disagree on? What are you hoping to see take home Oscar gold? Let me know in the comments section below, and thanks for reading!
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan Names Its Best of the Year in Film in 15 Categories.
The time has come to reflect on and crown the best of the year in film, which can only be found here, on The Friendly Film Fan. Does the Academy choose the best in film by any objective measure? No. But I do. (I kid, I kid.) I do hope you all have been looking forward to this day as much as I have. Some of these races were quite close, others were wrapped up soon after they began; regardless, all nominees present are more than worthy of acclaim, though some have yet to be recognized with wins, even here. With all that said, it’s time to celebrate excellence. Here are your winners for the 6th Annual Friendly Film Fan Awards!
Best Sound Design:
The first thing one encounters when booting up Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 adaptation of Dune is not image, but sound. Sound of a voice, of a quote pertinent to the story we’re about to see in ways still not fully understood, and unlikely to be fulfilled until Part Two releases in 2023 or 2024. The sounds of Dune rumble beneath the film as the sandworms do beneath Arrakis, constantly present and beautiful, but also destructive and vengeful in their practice. The sounds of Dune could fill an entire score by themselves, and they may still be listened to by film enthusiasts for decades to come. Throat singing, bagpipes, chants, slow blades, sandworms, and all manner of ships come roaring to life with stellar mixing and editing in the sound department, so Dune is out selection for Best Sound Design.
Best Visual Effects:
Visual effects can be obvious or subtle, disclosed or hidden, graphically impressive or entirely invisible – such has been the case for many of the latter contenders with the Academy Awards. This is not the Academy Awards, but there are many times when our thinking does overlap; such is the case with Dune and its astonishing visual effects. From whole new effects systems such as sand-screens made to mimic a desert image to the creation of its signature creature, the sandworm, the effects of Dune pull the viewer into its world with an unshakable sense of clarity and awe. To bring both Caladan and Arrakis to life with such vivid imagery requires an immense level of craftsmanship unseen to this scale since Lord of the Rings, and Dune more than manages the task.
A great screenplay can be quotable, poignant, visceral, fast-paced, and intentional all at once, or it can be none of these or a combination of any of them sometimes and not others; the screenplay for Mass teeters on the knife’s edge between melodramatic and underserves, but never once makes any indication of tipping to either side of the blade on which it rests, and that is a razor thing blade. To tell a story like this between four characters talking in a room demands a script as interesting as the players in it; it demands the level of sophistication and nuance a film like Mass lives and dies on, and every word of Fran Kranz’ dialogue reinforces just how many angles conversations like it can take. If there is any screenplay more worthy of recognition in 2021, it has not yet presented itself to us.
Best Original Score:
As much as the sounds of Dune are integral to its makeup, the score of Dune is integral to its legacy. The themes of Arrakis and Caladan which mirror each other in various ways to the creation of instruments simply to capture sounds for the film, Hans Zimmer has crafted here his best musical score since The Lion King in 1994, a magnificent cacophony of sound and place so immediate one cannot hear the bagpipes, Arrakis’ vocal cry, or the beating drums and not know exactly where they are. It is without doubt the best and most rousing score of 2021.
Best Character Design (Costumes + Makeup & Hairstyling):
In creating memorable characters, both costume designers and the makeup department set out to create a distinct look that makes their character stand out whilst matching the film they inhabit, and no film brought about more distinct looks in 2021 than Disney’s Cruella, a staggering fashion saga oft told through a lens that cannot contain its ambition within four walls. Newspaper dresses and flammable disguises, Cruella not only elevates its title character’s status in the villainess world but embraces its ludicrousness by going all-out with the design of each character. In a year full of distinct looks, this one still stood amongst the best.
Best Production Design:
To realize a world on screen, especially one as well-known and held dear as those in Dune by those most passionate about its material, is a feat worthy of the highest recognition; as such, this year’s Friendly Film Fan award for Production Design goes to the team that created the ornithopters of Arrakis so vividly, filled Arrakis with painstaking detail reflective of this universe’s impossibly epic scope, and brought to life the first half of a novel previously deemed unfilmable. Dune is an achievement in Production Design unlike any before it, not concerned with recreation or reinterpretation so much as pure creation, as adaptation. Denis Villeneuve and company have built something monumental in the legacy of Dune, and if Part Two can capture the same magic, this text shall be remembered as the definitive guide to crafting excellence in the sci-fi genre post-Blade Runner.
Best Film Editing:
Combining re-created sequences of a dangerous rescue and mixing them with genuine documentary footage such that one can’t tell which is which is an astonishing achievement, but even more astonishing may be that The Rescue also uses its editing of these sequences to tell a story that builds on itself as it goes for almost its entire runtime. Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi put on a masterclass for documentary filmmakers looking to find a story by not only stumbling on one in the moment, but finding one in the edit bay, one of unparalleled heroism and bravery in the face of contentious forces and impossible odds. The story of miracles has always been marked by impossibility; The Rescue’s editing makes that impossibility a tangible reality.
Dune is filled with stunning images, but cinematography isn’t only about imagery; it is about capturing the essence of a story, the essence of what look best enhances that story, and no film quite captures the essence of itself by its photography in quite the way The Power of the Dog manages to. Ari Wegner’s expert capture of the New Zealand backdrop in which the movie was filmed evokes 1925 Montana with stunning clarity, each wide telling of the story’s isolation, its distance, each close-up more meaningful than most entire dialogue sequences from other works. This was the closest race to call for these awards, but in the end, Ari Wegner’s photography simply imbues this film with a look both reminiscent and simultaneously critical of old western archetypes.
Best Stunt Ensemble:
Stunts take a lot of work, but it is often the teams one doesn’t see on screen that make them happen in such fluid motion, and nowhere is fluid motion more precise, refined, or necessary that in Marvel Studios’ Shang-Chi. As a martial arts master, the title character’s hand-to-hand combat sequences needed to reflect his fighting style to unparalleled degrees, and certainly to degrees the MCU had not reached since Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It would seem they pulled it off, not once or twice, but three times in the same film, and all of this is done with grace, precision, passion. Each fight feels visceral, creative, full of energy. For any action film to have these qualities is good; for Shang-Chi to have them in such style is worthy of an award.
Best Supporting Actress:
Though several are worthy, no star shone quite as bright or quite as immediately as Ariana DeBose, playing Anita in West Side Story. The young Hamilton breakout not only embodies every quality that made fans of the material fall in love with Anita in the first place – her sass, her charm, her range of emotion – but also imbues the character with her own sense of place, of life, of rhythm which Rita Moreno (though she is wonderful) did not quite have in the 1961 film. Everything that makes Anita work in West Side Story is not only present, but enhanced by the performance of Ariana DeBose, and we will be there cheering on our own Best Supporting Actress winner come Oscar night.
Best Supporting Actor:
C’mon C’mon, much like The Worst Person in the World, is also about finding one’s place, figuring out one’s life as it begins to build itself around you; this time, however, it’s a child’s life as he is taken by his uncle so that his mother can take care of his estranged father. Woody Noman’s performance is an astonishing feat, not only for a British actor flawlessly perfecting an American dialect, but also of relatability. Norman understands Mike Mills’ wonderful script by imbuing it with a sense of curiosity, of the drive to learn and grow right from the jump. The film never treats him as anything or anyone but a deeply intelligent human being with childlike curiosities and childlike habits, as Norman turns from philosophizing to desperately needing a bathroom within the space of ten minutes of screentime. And through it all, he never once loses the viewer. This will be remembered by those who witnessed its greatness as one of the best child performances in any movie ever made, and the Best Supporting Actor performance of 2021.
Have you ever wondered whether your life was even in your control or just in the space you allowed it to be for the moment? Are you nearing what you feel may be the end of your adjustment period in life, unsure of who you’re meant to be or to be with, or what you’re meant to do? Renate Reinsve’s Julie in The Worst Person in the World, as she verges on turning 30, embodies every characteristic of a young woman attempting to figure herself out at an age when that time has passed for those around her. For those unsure, for those still searching, for all who wander and are indeed lost, Reinsve’s performance is not simply a brilliant showcase of unwavering commitment to character and talent to match the wonderful script, it is a call to embrace the unknowing. There is simply not a better Lead Actress performance to be found in 2021.
The Best Actor candidates this year all turned in remarkable work, from a career-best resurgence in dramatic tenderness to an undeniable and charismatic toxin to ambitious kings and tennis coaches. But none stuck out so much as a repressed rancher unable to reckon with what happened to him or how he might happen to others underserving of such villainy. Or is it villainy at all? Benedict Cumberbatch digs deep into The Power of the Dog, and comes out on a level few actors ever achieve. Vile, full of loathing, and eerily apathetic to the natural cruelty which he doles to others, Phil Burbank is imbued with a haunting pathos by Cumberbatch’s unwavering gaze, often steely but never fully resolved. It is for these reasons we award him Best Actor of 2021.
Direction is often about placing one’s fingerprints on something or removing them entirely. But this year, directing was about finding a measure of balance between those two ideals. Jane Campion’s work on The Power of the Dog is very much marked by her fingerprints, but they don’t overwhelm the film such that this is all one can see. To bring storytelling this complex to life, a steady hand needs to guide each part into its place without being too overbearing or too apathetic. Campion’s direction here embodies that balance by pulling phenomenal performances out of great actors, stunning imagery from her DP, and an acute sense of letting it all rest just so. There are fewer examples one will find of a director doing their job perfectly or near-perfectly than Jane Campion this year.
Best Picture is so much more than just “what was the best movie of its year?” In fact, it’s so much more than whatever our favorite movie of the year was, even if we wouldn’t say our personal favorites were the best based on craft or storytelling. Sometimes Best Picture is about an achievement that tells us not where we’ve been, but where we could go next. That is why Flee has won The Friendly Film Fan Award for Best Picture of the Year. Flee is what is possible when the stories that matter most are paired with the only way they can be told, where storytelling meets a brand new frontier rising up to it at just the right time in just the right way. It is what the future of Hollywood looks like: diverse stories told in a myriad of different ways that touch our hearts, consume our minds, and remind us of some of the deepest truths of humanity – resilience, courage, and an intimate sense of vulnerability from those who have the most need to guard themselves. A story like this, told in this way, comes along once in 20 lifetimes, and 20 years from now people will look back on this titanic achievement in animation not as a relic, but as an essential text. Flee is what movies are made for.
And those are your winners for the 6th Annual Friendly Film Fan Awards! We hope you all are satisfied with our winner selections (even in the closer races), as we aspire every year to represent the very best in what movies have to offer in our awards shows. Come back and be a part of it all next year too, if you like. See you then!
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan reviews A24's latest horror feature from returning director Ti West.
Over the weekend, a new horror film from indie powerhouse A24 released, entitled “X” (yes, that’s the whole title). This comeback of director Ti West is a 70s-set picture about a group of young people setting out to make what it is referred to in the film as “a good dirty movie” – porn and prestige filmmaking all in one place. It stars the likes of Mia Goth, Jenna Ortega, Brittany Snow, Scott Mescudi, Martin Henderson, and Owen Campbell. As the group arrives to a distant farmhouse, they are shown the boarding house where they’ll be allowed to stay. But something strange is going on with the land’s owner and his wife, and it will be up to this band of merry misfits to either determine what’s happening…or to survive it.
In as few words as I can put it, X is a good movie, to a fault. It takes some big swings, and mostly makes those into hits by being as bold and brash with its material as it could possibly be. The ride only gets wilder the longer it goes on – but don’t expect that wildness to hold all the way to the end. There’s a lot that works here, but there’s often almost as much that works against it, though to explain why may give away the game in some capacity. I’m not sure it’s even entirely possible to review it in any certain terms without spoiling it, but being that it did just release, I will do my best on that front. The truth is that the film is noticeably style over substance, although one doesn’t pick up on that right away. The allusions to old horror classics like the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre are obvious, but the film itself pretty much leaves them at that – allusions. The rest of it is filled with a lot of aggrandizing filmmaking – though one can tell director West is not aggrandizing himself; rather, he is aggrandizing the horror films of the 70s and 80s through his directorial style. That sweaty, summer-toned, sexy look is all over every scene of X, regardless of whether what we’re show is the film itself or the movie being made within it. In all this aggrandizing, however, whatever substance the movie has is pushed further downwards; it’s definitely still there, but it’s very much not at the forefront of the story here.
Is there a story here? There’s certainly a narrative: characters interact with each other and the world around them, things happen to them, they happen to things, there’s a clear beginning, middle, and end. But what is the movie trying to say exactly? That it is, in fact, possible to make a good dirty movie? Perhaps, and if that is indeed the point, consider X a success in that regard, but I won’t pretend to have loved it where I mostly just really enjoyed it, and part of that lack of infatuation with it does come down to the fact that the message of it doesn’t seem to be any deeper than “this is a slasher like the old ones you knew, and it doesn’t need to be anything else.” Many may call that simple or unpretentious, but for myself, I was still left wanting a little more.
However, that’s not to say that X doesn’t give us plenty of scenery to chew on. Its sexually-charged, hyper-stylized first half is a real treat to see, every performance toing the line between unhinged and charismatic – subtle or otherwise – and each scene laying down small but notable groundwork for how the rest of it is going to play out. Unfortunately, that incredibly singular first half with all its unexpected direction and character turnings eventually gives way to a second half that is essentially all horror with very little in the way of flourish. Once this thing morphs into a straight-up slasher (though with a noticeable wrinkle in that subgenre), all that sexy 70s-style pizzaz turns off like a light switch, as if a second movie has entered the fray; a good movie, to be sure, but one that feels a little bit at odds with what preceded it, stylistically at least. One part Texas Chainsaw meets The Nice Guys, and the next minute, a Halloween movie with an alternate Michael Myers.
And that’s really where the main problems lie. Despite all the good will it builds within the horror genre, and regardless of how many times Brittany Snow or Scott Mescudi end up stealing the whole show, that show never really gets around to defining what it really wants to be or be about. The words of the Sheriff at the end of the film (the main story takes place between a prologue and epilogue) ring in the audience’s ears: “one goddamn fucked up horror picture.” But is that really all X wants to be in the end? Perhaps, and perhaps that’s a fair shake, given how thoroughly A24 has been both largely praised and widely blamed for the rise of “elevated horror.” But just because a movie works on its own terms doesn’t mean that it couldn’t work on better ones.
Regardless of all the complaints I’ve made and issues I’ve attempted to address, I still thoroughly enjoyed myself watching X. Sure, it may be style over substance, but boy oh boy, that style sure is infectious. Maybe this is the move A24 needed to make in order to be done with “elevated” horror and simply produce something that doesn’t have to think about deeper meanings or the next way grief can be explored in some witch ceremony or ancient demon book. Maybe a straight-up slasher was the right move for a studio so associated with one kind of horror to make, and whether you love the idea of “elevated” horror or not will likely have a lot to do with how you view Ti West’s return to the silver screen. All that said, this one is still worth checking out, and it’s definitely the most fun, stylish piece of media in theaters right now that doesn’t feature a man beating up thugs in a batsuit.
I’m giving “X” a 7.9/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
The Friendly Film Fan reviews the studio's third-straight Disney+ release.
Back in December of 2020, as Disney and Pixar’s latest animated feature Soul debuted on the streaming service Disney+ (with no theatrical release), the world was introduced to a new normal of which we were blissfully unaware. One more Pixar streaming release and nearly a year and a half later, the latest effort from the animation studio, Turning Red, has debuted on the service – as Soul and Luca before it – sans a theatrical showing. Whether this is fair of Disney to do or whether it’s fair that CEO Bob Chapeck only seems interested in pushing funding towards projects exclusively owned and operated by the parent company while others like 20th Century, Searchlight, or even Pixar get the short stick is a discussion for another time, but it must be said up front that Turning Red deserved a theatrical release. Now, onto the actual review.
There are moments when Turning Red feels as though it might transform into something brilliantly subversive, and many times, it’s a hair away from doing so. The main character often bucks from tradition, sneaks out of the home, refuses to heed her mother’s wishes, and generally rebels almost the entire runtime, and the movie not only posits this as a good thing, but something essential to a child’s development as they grow in their independence, especially if their trajectory is distinctly non-traditional. In theory, Turning Red should be one of the most underrated Pixar movies to ever grace a streaming platform. Unfortunately, the execution of those ideas is a little undercut by the fact that this is…well, a kid’s movie.
Animation style and any gripes or defenses of it aside, Domee Shi’s first entrant in the Pixar canon has all the ambition it needs to truly cut through some of Disney’s toughest material: parental disapproval and broken parent-child relationships. To its credit, the film doesn’t completely fix the relationship between Rosalie Chiang’s Meilin Lee (a.k.a. Mei Mei) and Sandra Oh’s Ming (Mei’s mother) by its end, but it also doesn’t really make a definitive statement on Mei’s eventual place in the story. We know how we’re supposed to read into whatever’s going on, but it just seems as though the film could have taken 30 minutes getting there instead of nearly two hours, and much of that is due to the story’s lack of focus.
When Mei is at school with her friends or interacting with her mother, the movie’s cooking well, and one can tell there’s a lot more meat on the bones than previously thought, but then the moment would come when that meat is meant to be revealed, and it’s just…kind of there. The film’s attempts at comedy work for what the movie needs, but still largely fall flat, and while many of the metaphors and what the story is meant to be saying work in thought, they feel sloppy in practice. Perhaps the sloppiness is partially intent, partially happenstance, but nevertheless, messiness in story is one thing and messiness in storytelling is another entirely. Most of this can be attributed to the fact that Mei’s friend characters aren’t that interesting or three-dimensional (Mei herself feels largely two-dimensional most of the time), but it becomes most obvious when the rest of the family is brought into the fold.
Mei’s father is not a character; he’s a mouthpiece for the movie to bounce jokes and character development off of, but we neve actually get to see him develop at all. He’s always around, but never engaged, always in the home scenes, but almost never necessary. His one big moment with Meilin pokes at a sensitivity most animated dads take entire movies to grow into, but the movie doesn’t seem interested in him as anything but a chess piece, a way to move everything else to where it can go while he just stays put where he is on the board. In fact, pretty much any male character in the movie is a one-dimensional piece of cardboard for the movie to use in pretty much every way except advancing the plot or bringing nuance to the story. That’s not to say that the men should dominate the story more – this is very much a story geared towards and for young girls – but it sort of felt as if they were just dropped into a story in which they didn’t really have a place.
Where I will give Turning Red its largest line of credit is in how it tackles female pre-pubescence specifically as something that’s awkward, gross, uncomfortable – as all pre-pubescence is – but also entirely and unequivocally normal. The film references periods in no uncertain terms, and I can’t remember the last time an animated movie had the sense to talk about menstruation with anything except cringey embarrassment at even touching the subject. It may seem like a quietly revolutionary thing for an animated film to do so explicitly, but it’s greatest contribution is how non-revolutionary it feels. One notices the jokes around it and the natural embarrassment a child feels going through it for the first time, but the film doesn’t use these as a way to shun or put down the event of having a period; in fact, Mei’s mother goes out of her way to help her daughter get through her “red bloom” (though obviously the movie is dealing with something else entirely in that moment). There are many other thing the movie does well – the animation looks great, the editing is sometimes ridiculously whimsical, it’s not a slog to sit through, there are fun gags and side characters, and there’s stadium scene that’s really neatly executed – but they’re all things Pixar has always done well, so this stood out as something uniquely praiseworthy.
Simply put, Turning Red may present itself as something truly of a kind with its peers, and to some it will be – which is a good thing – but by and large, it feels like Pixar on cruise control, just cycling through the motions until the next Pete Doctor project can show everyone how it’s really done. Maybe Pixar needed to be on cruise control for audiences to see just how much pressure is put on them for quality filmmaking at a level most people don’t expect from live-action projects out of more scrutinized studios. I will still fight for films like this and for their theatrical releases, regardless of whether I believe them to be as good as they have the potential to be or not; but cruise control still won’t win any races, and Pixar is starting to fall behind.
I’m giving “Turning Red” a 7.1/10.
Matt Reeves' take on the Caped Crusader is a Triumph of Noir Filmmaking.
Through the many iterations and adaptation of the Caped Crusader’s adventures, the Batman character has always been one of DC’s most beloved characters, both because it’s easier to make media content centered around a non-superpowered person (meaning much less VFX work is necessary) and because he belongs to inarguably the most iconic trilogy of superheroes ever to grace a comic book page, the other two being Superman and Wonder Woman. But that’s not what The Batman is concerned with – its aspirations are closer not to legends, but scandals, not to symbols or ideas, but to the pursuit or revelation of truth, whatever that means for a city as corrupt and seedy as the title character’s hometown of Gotham City. It’s a world and a character ripe for crime capers and film noirs, but for whatever reason, the closest anyone has come to making a straight-up crime drama in a Batman movie before now was in 2008’s The Dark Knight, which wasn’t so much about Gotham or the Batman character as it was about whatever was happening to them as the Joker made his arrival. The Batman is not that movie. Director Matt Reeves’ solution to taking on the Batman story is to start not quite at the middle, not quite at the beginning, and do what should have seemed obvious from the get-go: make it a detective noir story.
The Batman picks up just a few years into Bruce Wayne’s tenure patrolling the Gotham rooftops and alleys, which begins with Robert Pattinson’s voiceover not just explaining what kind of Batman he is, but what kind of story the film is about to tell; it’s one of seediness, corruption, scandal, darkness, and reckoning. Without diving too far into spoiler territory, the opening sequence of the film – just before Pattinson gives us his voiceover – is certainly the darkest a Batman movie has ever had the balls to put right up front, but it’s the nature of what we’re seeing and why we’re seeing it here that lends credence to the idea that while Gotham’s reckoning has come and gone, Batman’s is just beginning. It’s not only a reckoning well-formed and expertly told, but one that could only happen in a noir story like this.
What makes The Batman succeed where other “dark” adaptations failed is all in the eye of the beholder – that’s not me saying it’s a subjective opinion (though it is), but that what this film gets right is on display for all to see. The further we dive into the plotting of the film, the more beautiful it begins to look beyond what we’re shown for shock value or whatever was used in the trailers. Beyond the gorgeous wide shots, the striking color palettes, the makeup work, minimal use of visual effects, we see shadows. We see Batman emerge from them even as the camera has been focused on them for quite some time with nothing in sight. The only other Batman movie to get close to this was Batman v Superman when the dark knight first appears, but that movie never does that again. The Batman, by contrast, does it three or four times over the course of the film, and each time, it works, which makes Gotham’s lower-level criminals fear his being nearby, whether he’s actually there or not, and in turn lets the audience understand why.
Why is the big question posited by The Batman as its mysteries begin to unravel over the course of its three-hour runtime (a runtime which is felt, but not resented). Though it does back out of some of its more challenging material at one or two points, the answers to that question are nonetheless riveting to discover, especially when the script attempts to challenge some more traditionally held views on how the Batman story is meant to go and how the audience has become familiar with certain versions of characters the films rarely, if ever, actually explore. Few films about superheroes can challenge whether they belong on the pedestals we built for them, but fewer still can challenge whether their particular brand of heroism does more harm than good. That’s something usually reserved for anti-heroes, the answers usually falling along the lines of “I’ll go good” or “it doesn’t matter.” In The Batman, it does, especially where Paul Dano’s chilling, calculatory Riddler is concerned. “Unmasking the truth” is Riddler’s obsession, through violence or psychological terror, but we never wonder what it is he’s doing or how – we want to know why.
As Michael Giacchino’s instantly iconic score for the film blares through the theater speakers to signal the arrival of the Batmobile with all its cacophonous sound, we’re not obsessed with the epic car chase sequence or the many hand-to-hand fights leading up to this moment, but with what might happen after, since it might give us more answers to “why?” (though the car chase and those action sequences are excellent in practice as well). We’re not here for an action film, we’re here to help solve the mystery of what’s going on with the world’s greatest detective guiding us along the way. It’s the milieu of Gotham that intrigues most; who holds the power? What do they use it for?
The most intriguing of these social elite are the Penguin (Colin Farrell), who owns a nightclub in the city that Zoë Kravitz’s seductive Selina Kyle works at when she’s not parading around the Gotham rooftops herself (though the name “Catwoman” is never actually mentioned), and John Turturro’s Carmine Falcone. Waiting in the wings with naught but a few words to share and a lot of money to move around, these are the guys who make things happen, and the why of it all is what makes them the most interesting secondary villains to watch, even as Riddler remains the most captivating core antagonist since Heath Ledger’s Joker back in 2008 by taking down people exactly those kind of characters, though his focus is centered on Gotham’s social elite.
Reviewing a film like The Batman without discussing some of its more interesting elements in a spoiler-heavy fashion is a tall task – there’s not that much to spoil that anyone who watches the film won’t expect, but in describing how it all fits together and what’s great about it, there are some heavy-spoiler plots I can’t really divulge in a meaningful way. But, in summary, it’s an excellent crime noir with a visionary look, excellent sound design, an instantly iconic score, and performances that aren’t necessarily standouts, but that more than get the job done. Does it really matter if it’s better or worse than The Dark Knight?
I’m giving “The Batman” a 9.1/10
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.