Oscar Death Race: Documentary Shorts

Heaven Is a Traffic Jam on the 405 (seen Thursday, February 15, 2pm, YouTube): What a lovely portrait of an artist who both overcomes and channels her disabilities (lifelong severe anxiety and depression that led to electroshock therapy that led to brain injury) into unbelievably nuanced and moving statuary and drawings. It both shows the heights we can achieve despite drawbacks, and offers inspiration for those of us feeling hindered to just go out and try.

Knife Skills (seen Thursday, February 15, 3pm, YouTube): So this is a fascinating story. It’s about a restaurant, Edwin’s, in Cleveland, Ohio, that recruits, rigorously trains, and employs ex-cons. These programs, and the people who implement them, are simply amazing and can’t be praised enough. And the film does a good job of highlighting that fact without airbrushing away the inevitable setbacks encountered. It’s a film I’m going to immediately recommend to members of my family, in preparation for taking me up there for my birthday dinner. Ahem.

Edith + Eddie (seen Thursday, February 15, 4:40pm, Topic.com): I’m infuriated right now by what has happened to these people, by how they were treated. Edith and Eddie were nonagenarians who fell in love — a miracle within a miracle, really — and they were happily married in their church. But because Edith has “mild dementia,” which from what I can gather based on the film amounts to a very slight memory loss/loss of focus from time to time, and one of her daughters wants to institutionalize her (despite the other one taking good care of Edith and her husband in the home she’s lived in for decades), a guardian is appointed. The laughing, patronizing way this woman talks to Edith as they are essentially forcing her to leave her home makes me want to reach through the screen and slap her. Edith very clearly, very coherently, repeatedly says she does not want to go to Florida to stay with the interfering daughter, and that she DOES NOT LIKE THE WAY HER SON-IN-LAW TREATS HER. And this guardian, who is supposed to be working on Edith’s behalf, smirkingly tells her someone has been reading Cinderella to her. I swear, I wanted to scream at these people. I still want to. I hope there is karmic retribution in their futures for their actions in tearing these two harmless lovers apart for eternity. Fuckers.

Heroin(e) (seen Saturday, February 17, 10am, Netflix): The title is clever, because while the film is about the devastating heroin problem in Huntington, West Virginia, what it’s really about is the work of three heroines in the community, fighting every day to save lives. Jan Rader is the first female fire chief in the area, in addition to being a real-life Clarice Starling if Clarice never left her hometown. She’s on the front lines, literally saving lives as she administers Naloxone to overdosing people. She’s also going to the fire stations and passing out this essential drug, informing first responders on the guidelines to using it. And in the face of people who seem to sneer at the idea of saving addicts, she gives an emotional plea for the act of helping, of saving people 50 times if need be, of never giving up. Patricia Keller is the tough but fair judge all tough but fair fictional judges have aspired to be since the dawn of time, welcoming people into her “drug court” program, holding them accountable, and penalizing them when necessary. And Necia Freeman is an ordinary woman in the community, a Christian missionary, who was moved to bring food and support to the women on the street most affected by this epidemic. I love how loving she is, how open and nonjudgmental, how she understands that these girls often end up prostitutes just to feed their addictions, how it becomes their only hope, and how she admonishes the fact that the men soliciting these prostitutes don’t face near as many consequences. Huntington is a place I have history with, a place I have a lot of affection for, and it saddens me that it’s suffering so greatly under the pall of addiction — a card explains that this small city experiences an overdose rate 10x the national average — but these amazing women, so full of hope and perseverance, are an inspiration.

Traffic Stop (seen Monday, February 19, 8pm, HBO):

The traffic stop in question is not easy to watch, to be sure. Breaion King, waif-like, is tossed around like a sack of potatoes that Officer Richter is particularly mad at. And there’s just no reason for it to have escalated like it did. There just isn’t.

“Oh, but she was speeding.” Is this the punishment for speeding now? Being thrown bodily to the ground? Is that how you would expect to be treated if you were pulled over for speeding? Is that how you HAVE BEEN treated when pulled over for speeding? I’ve been pulled over lots of times, and I never would expect to be manhandled like that.

“Well, she was resisting.”  No, she wasn’t. She was asking questions, giving a little verbal pushback, trying to get out of getting a ticket. I’ve done that too. I’ve flat-out argued with the cop who pulled me over, telling him he was dead wrong, that I didn’t do what he said I did. I’ve rolled my eyes, and cussed under my breath and have shown zero respect for the police officer in question. I have never been treated as badly as Breaion was, despite acting far worse.

And, see, it’s obvious the cops taking her in feel like they’re in the right. Officer Richter is clearly disseminating, exaggerating events to his advantage, but the other cops think they’re acting in good faith. I believe that. But then the one driving her in to the station upon her arrest, the one presenting himself to her as an ally, says the reason white people are afraid of black people is “violent tendencies,” and my stomach drops. He’s completely sincere, too, he thinks this is a valid argument, and a reasonable stance. It’s sickening, the casualness of it, the complete lack of awareness. Yet this is the reality so many people face, an insurmountable obstacle to overcome. How do we even fix it? Raise awareness, I guess, for a start. This little film is a good step in that direction.

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Oscar Death Race: Wonder

Nominations: 1 (Best Makeup and Hairstyling)

Seen Monday, February 19, 5pm, Redbox

Wonder

I freely admit I avoided this for a long time because of my aversion to schmaltz. I was worried the movie would be saccharine and twee. It’s actually quite sweet and charming.

I think what works is that the movie isn’t just about the little boy, Auggie, with the facial deformities. It’s about his friends, about his sister, and about her friends. It’s about how all of them are navigating this confusing, difficult world, and how they’re all a little bit broken and a little bit selfish and a little bit scared, but also so brave and so loving and so kind.

The film also has a great cast, from the amazing kids all the way up to Julia Roberts (incandescent, despite her best efforts) and Mandy Patinkin (just the best, in general). Daveed Diggs is, naturally, fantastic too. Even Owen Wilson is bearable!

There are a couple of conflicts that feel ineffectual in both set up and resolution, but they don’t detract from the overall film. It’s a good time.

Oscar Frontloading: Kong: Skull Island

Nominations: 1 (Best Visual Effects)

KongSI

Sigh. I’m just not into all these ape movies, okay? This one, for instance, is laughably dumb.

I’d actually heard a lot of people enjoyed it, and I knew, from the Academy press releases, that it had been moved to the short list in the nomination process for this category, so when it came on one of my movie channels in early January, I checked it out. And good for me, because I got it out of the way.

The CGI and visual effects are great and fun and super explode-y, and I’m okay with the movie getting recognized for them. But the movie itself is very corny — the plot is absurd and the characters are cliched — so I don’t feel like it needs to be any more recognized, if you know what I mean.

Oscar Death Race: War for the Planet of the Apes

Nominations: 1 (Best Visual Effects)

Seen Monday, February 19, 12:30am, Redbox

WftPotA

Never in my life have I felt the need to see a Planet of the Apes movie, and I could’ve gone the rest of the way perfectly happy to continue the streak. Alas, here we are.

It seems to me that I may have missed vital information by not watching the two earlier films in this particular reboot of the franchise? It felt like there were a lot of allusions to backstory that this film was trying to build on. I assume the Colonel is a returning character, because there is clear animosity between him and the apes right from the beginning that points to a pre-existing relationship, and we probably were supposed to meet the head ape’s family in an earlier installment so that [redacted] has more impact. There’s also some sort of virus that attacks quickly and somehow robs a person of speech, so naturally they should be killed because people who can’t talk are useless.

Look, I don’t know. I did like the big flat-faced orangutan though.

This movie is very violent, very white, and very male — there are like 2 female apes, tops, from what I can tell, and unsurprisingly a quick scan through IMDb reveals no black people playing apes because DUH. (I’m quite sure a lot of people far smarter than I have explored the racist symbolism of these films — a quick Google search provides several results — but this sort of white power fantasy porn the movie has going for it left me deeply uncomfortable.) There’s not a lot of nuance either, so be prepared to be hit over the head with lines and imagery someone obviously — mistakenly — thought were quite clever.

But, I mean, good job on the CGI apes, I guess?

Oscar Frontloading: Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Nominations: 1 (Best Visual Effects)

GotGv2

I really loved the first installment of this franchise, so you know I was right there when volume 2 opened. As happens so many times with sequels, though, I was pretty underwhelmed. It’s not that I didn’t like it, but rather that it didn’t live up to expectations. It was … fine. Maybe a little too jokey. Merely adequate in terms of plot.

I think this middling Marvel movie entry status will relegate the film to an also ran in this category, with the top prize almost certainly destined for Blade Runner or Star Wars.

Oscar Death Race: Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Nominations: 1 (Best Actor)

Seen Saturday, February 17, 10:30pm, VOD

RJIE

I don’t even know what the Academy is on about here. I mean, look, Denzel is a great actor. We all know he’s a great actor. He has the hardware to prove it. But this film is a mess.

My biggest complaint is that the movie is scatterbrained. It’s not sure if it wants to be a quirky drama or a crime film or what. There are 2-3 intense, threatening moments, for instance, that don’t seem to go with the rest of the plot and stick out like sore thumbs tonally. More than that, though, the story structure is off. It doesn’t build in the natural pattern of action to conflict to resolution, so it left me feeling unfulfilled.

That inconsistency bleeds into the performances too, as Colin Farrell’s character vacillates between suspicious antagonist and righteous ally from one scene to the next. And Denzel doesn’t seem to know what to do with his character either. Is he addled? Is he a savant? Is he crafty? Or is he just pathetic and lost? Literally no one knows, not even him.

I understand how great Denzel is, and maybe voters were just thrown off by their sudden disapproval of James Franco and sort of impulsively threw in a filler vote for Washington out of necessity, but I guarantee there were better performances in better films that could have been recognized here.

Oscar Death Race: On Body and Soul

Nominations: 1 (Best Foreign Language Film)

Seen Friday, February 16, 6pm, Netflix

OBaS

I loved this.

A tender yet offbeat romance, On Body and Soul very graciously follows a woman with some mental challenges — though not specifically named, she seems to possibly be somewhere on the autism spectrum, with a definite aversion to physical touch, and a bit of social anxiety — as she attempts to navigate unfamiliar feelings of love. And it does it with a small connection to something somewhat mystical.

There are so many nuanced portrayals of desire, of confusion, of despair, of frustration, I wanted it to physically manifest so I could hug it. Just really beautiful.

Oscar Frontloading: The Greatest Showman

Nominations: 1 (Best Original Song)

GreatestShowman

When I went to see this, it had actually been out for a couple weeks, I think, but the theater was packed. It was very quickly apparent, however, that the majority of the people there didn’t realize The Greatest Showman was a musical. There was uncomfortable laughter every time a new song started. And yet, somehow by the end of the film everyone was clapping. It was one of the most unusual moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had.

The movie itself isn’t great, really, but it’s not bad either. It exists in that middle ground of movies you probably won’t rave over but you’ll enjoy in the moment. The music, particularly, is a lot of fun.

Invoking that sort of Moulin Rouge sensibility, with modern-ish songs set in a period piece (though Moulin Rouge used actual radio hits whereas The Greatest Showman‘s are all original), the musical numbers are exciting and catchy. They even gained some success outside the film, too, as Spotify informed me several of them were top downloads for a while. And the nominated song, “This Is Me,” was used heavily in promos leading up to the Olympics this month. So it has some cachet. I don’t know if it can win, but it’s nice the film got some recognition, at least.

Oscar Frontloading: Get Out

Nominations: 4 (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Original Screenplay)

GetOut

I admit I put this off, but I have a long and storied history of not doing well with horror flicks. So I waited, and waited, and waited for a time when my husband was home and could watch it with me. We cued it up On Demand one night finally, and braced ourselves just in case.

It was fan-fucking-tastic.

This movie is terrifying and horrifying, smart and funny, crazy and pointed. Jordan Peele pulls off something new and fascinating and scary that also has a real purpose. We were cheering and shrieking and crying and everything in between. It’s so inventive, you guys.

I don’t really want to say anything else about it, because it needs to be experienced, but it is definitely one of the best movies of the year, and against all odds, it really has a chance to win. It’s that good. And things are that wide open.

Oscar Frontloading: Dunkirk

Nominations: 8 (Best Picture, Best Director, Cinematography, Best Editing, Original Score, Production Design, Sound Effects Editing, Sound Mixing)

Dunkirk

I knew this was coming late last year. I follow enough critics to know this was coming. So when it came out on demand and on video, I set my cap to seeing it, and by virtue of my brother being 1) a great guy who really loves his sister and 2) an inexcusably late Christmas shopper, he picked it up for me on Christmas Eve and I watched it over my visit to our folks.

Funnily enough, my stepfather was “watching” it with me, by which I mean napping on and off in his chair, and if you’ve seen the movie you probably know it doesn’t really work as a background film. The structure is nonlinear, there is minimal dialogue, and there is virtually no meaningful character development. He didn’t like it. But the movie is great.

It’s a truly artistic piece, a war movie unlike other war movies. The characters are part of the whole, like pieces to a puzzle. They’re uniquely shaded, but not a picture unto themselves. Meanwhile the story, while not being trite or heavy-handed, tells of the fear and the courage, the triumphs and the failings of these men. It’s really kind of beautiful.

But not if you sleep through it.