Art Vs Commerce: Oscar Bait and Endgames (2010s)

2016

So last time, talking Crash, I mentioned that everyone assumed Brokeback Mountain was the frontrunner right up until the moment they opened the envelope.

Well, that was nothing, as it turns out.

This year, two minutes after the envelope got opened, we still thought it was La La Land. They’d started their acceptance speech before we knew the actual winner.

Now that’s an upset.

And The Oscar Goes To…

Moonlight chronicles a young man named Chiron, growing up poor and gay in the ghettos of Miami, tormented by his classmates and neglected at best by his addict mother (Naomie Harris). The film gives us snapshots of Chiron’s life at the stages: 1) as a child, finding some sanctuary with kindly drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, winning an Oscar and driving a large amount of the movie’s hype despite a fairly small role) and his girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monáe), and in friendship with Kevin; 2) as a teen, having lost Juan, getting closer to Kevin than he expected, until his primary bully pushes things too far; 3) as a grown man, now a dealer like Juan, dealing with his now-sober mother’s attempts to reconcile, and reuniting with Kevin.

And then it just… stops. But since it’s based on a semi-autobiographical play, we can assume Chiron does okay.

I saw more of the story this time than when I saw it in theatres. It’s about the three moments key to Chiron grappling with his identity, his identity struggles being flagged by titling each segment after one of the names he’s known by*, and more significantly his sexuality. Each segment revolves around a moment of Chiron coming to terms with his sexuality: asking Juan why bullies call him the F-slur and finding support from Juan and Teresa; having his first kiss (and some hand stuff) with Kevin only for the prime bully to corrupt and twist this one moment of happiness; and finally, for the first time in his life, openly being honest about who he is when he and Kevin reunite. Where Chiron goes from there, and what role the seemingly bi and romantically entangled Kevin will play, we don’t know. These three moments take him from sad and lonely child to adult with his first real shot at happiness and then it leaves us there.

Which didn’t work for me at the time, but yeah, I see it now, I get this one a little better on rewatch. And the impossible struggles of one impoverished black kid might not seem as important a story as the life and great work of Oskar Schindler or a blistering indictment of American slavery, but it has to be more important than “Two white people achieve their highly improbable dream careers but sadly don’t get married.” A lot more people’s lives are like Chiron’s than Seb from La La Land, all I’m saying.

And after years of controversy over how overwhelmingly white the nominees were (three biopics were nominated for Best Picture in 2015, and only the guy playing Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t get an acting nomination), the Academy needed this one.

(*”Little,” the name the bullies use; “Chiron,” his name, and “Black,” which Kevin called him.)

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at number five, in between The Godfather and All About Eve. I’m telling you, their top ten has some serious receny bias, because even after coming to know it better this is not in my top five, that still feels too high.

Where did I rank it? I have it at number 35, over the odd but sweet sci-fi romance Her and under… um… La La Land. Okay that looks bad, I know it looks bad, it’s just… do I think Moonlight deserved the Oscar more than La La Land? Yes. Did I enjoy La La Land more? Also yes.

What was I rooting for? Not, in fact, La La Land. That particular year I was all in on Hidden Figures.

The Box Office Champ (Domestic)

“A Star Wars Story” was going to be a whole series of movies when Disney relaunched the brand. Saga movies (the ones with episode numbers) every two years, and anthology movies in between, filling gaps and showcasing popular characters, and they kept pitching movies nobody wanted but seemed gung ho about the prospect.

Rogue One began with the first untold story we ever heard about: the Rebellion winning its first major victory over the Empire and stealing the plans for the Death Star. And to do this they invent the tale of Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father Galen (Mads Mikkelsen, not the villain?) is forced to help build the Death Star by the fiercely dickish Director Krennic (oh, that’s why Mads isn’t the villain, Ben Mendelsohn, most punchable face in sci-fi, is here). Years later, Jyn is plucked out of some non-specific prison by the Rebellion, as Galen has… okay it’s all really complicated, let’s skip to the end, Jyn eventually leads a team of somewhat lovable misfits and expendable Rebels to steal the Death Star plans and send them to the fleet and then thirty minutes later it’s A New Hope.

That last part? That should be the whole movie. This desperate suicide mission against an Imperial stronghold. Attempts to infiltrate, the grim nature of the fight, the moments we lose each member, you can fill a movie with that. Sounds exactly like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad from all indications. Instead there’s a long road to get to this moment, everyone dies, only two heroically, and I’m left with questions. Questions like why the Rebellion and rebel fighter Saw Gerrera (Forest Whittaker) parted ways. Saw’s described as “too militant,” but after watching the Rebel Alliance in “action” I assumed “too militant” meant “actually rebels a little,” because I guess the movie needed a scene where the soldiers want to do the Big Mission but those fat cats in charge don’t have the nuggets. Seemed like padding to me but here we are.

It would be one thing if they’d spent the first hour building up the cast as people we know and care about, but by the time the mission starts, they each still only really have one quality: Jyn has daddy issues, Cassian did bad things but wants to do a good thing, K-SO is sarcastic, Fenric is a nihilist, Chirrut is spiritual, Chidi is indecisive, Baze likes Chirrut, Morgana is a bookworm, Jimmy Scrambles likes milkshakes, and Bohdi is… a pilot, that’s all I got, and I wonder how many of you even remember all those names. You probably think I made some of them up to prove a point.

It did succeed at feeling different yet also still enough like Star Wars, although it did lean too heavily into “Here’s some familiar things!” territory. Using archival footage from the original movie to bring back familiar Rebel fighter pilots worked, having the two jerks from the Mos Eisley Cantina bump into Jyn and shout “hey watch yourself” felt like gilding the lily. Bringing back Jimmy Smits as Bail Organa was good, creating a horrifying CG replica of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin was unsettling. And unnecessary.

Look, Disney, I know you spent a lot of time and money on this digital de-aging tech you keep breaking out, but maybe eventually you’re gonna have to recast some people if you want certain characters to keep popping up, like you did with Solo. Why spend that money bringing a haunted wax replica of Peter Cushing to crude life when Charles Dance exists?

Also let’s be honest I know we all thought Darth Vader tearing through Rebel troops was badass and scary but did it add anything? And James Earl Jones was sounding a little tired. I get that his voice is so distinct that a day’s coming when we just can’t have Vader anymore but maybe we should let go rather than cram him into the Obi-Wan series.

This also started what felt like an alarming trend: using prequel movies to answer questions that didn’t need asking, or patching “plot holes” the internet liked to poke fun at. Using The Mandalorian to potentially explain the First Order, good. Devoting an entire subplot into why that vent blew up the Death Star so easily, unnecessary. I don’t need a Father Quest to explain why a moon-sized space station with a planet-killing gun attached has exhaust ports. But… this was hardly the worst case for that.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 84% from critics, 86% from audiences, respectable scores, like I say, it’s fine if you don’t try to unpack it too much.

Anyway that’s Rogue One. It’s… okay, and we were still super spun-up excited to have actual good Star Wars back so we flocked to it. But oddly it didn’t travel as well as a movie with “America” in the name.

The Box Office Champ (International)

The UN decides the Avengers shouldn’t just run around willy-nilly but answer to a UN panel, Steve Rogers says no, Tony Stark says yes, do I need a synopsis for this one? I feel I don’t.

Quick overview of the stuff we all know: the airport fight is perhaps the most purely fun action sequence in any superhero movie; the quieter confrontation between Tony and Steve over signing the Sokovia accords works just as well; the entire cast showed up to work, and if we’re being honest, Robert Downey Jr. turns in a performance more layered, nuanced, affecting, and to be frank human than the actual Best Actor winner that year*; Black Panther’s introduction is killer, Spider-Man’s is good too; the Steve vs. Tony fight at the end has the highest emotional stakes of any hero-vs-hero fight that year or since (even if it forgets that Tony had daddy issues, not mommy issues, and Jesus, Tony, you either understand Bucky was brainwashed or you don’t, pick a lane); Falcon and the Winter Soldier exists because Sam and Bucky bounce so well of each other even in their handful of interactions; Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo is one of Marvel’s best villains, like top three at least, proven by the fact that at time of writing he’s the best part of Falcon and the Winter Soldier.

(*Denzel Washington in Fences, I said it, I stand by it, I will never be done being mad at Fences, that movie is awful.)

Now let’s get into the deeper stuff.

After the Russo brothers delivered what might still be the best Marvel movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Civil War felt like a dry run to be handed the Big Game, the capstone Avengers movies. Those movies were always going to have an absurd amount of characters to juggle, and how they handled the daunting cast of this movie was going to be a good test for how they handled the next two. And they handled it great! Okay, sure, Spider-Man and Ant-Man are just there to a) fill out the airport fight, and b) get introduced to the main gang so they could easily slip into the big team-ups, but everyone else has their part to play. Everyone gets their moment, no one feels wasted.

The truly impressive juggling act is that while the sheer volume of characters and the impact on the shared universe make this basically Avengers 2.5, it also works as the third Captain America. It follows up on pretty much everyone from Winter Soldier: Steve and Sam Wilson’s partnership, Steve and Natasha’s friendship, Agent 13 being revealed as Peggy Carter’s niece, Sharon (in a perfectly written/preformed moment during Peggy’s eulogy), even henchman Brock Rumlow gets closure. The continuation of Bucky’s journey from Winter Soldier becomes the thing that turns the two factions on each other, which works better than the comics, where it came down to “Hey Steve, turn on all of your friends right this second or we arrest you.”

And while managing all that, it also does better and less blatant universe-building than Age of Ultron. They manage to address and largely fill in the biggest hole in Tony’s character arc, that being the gap between blowing up all of his suits in Iron Man 3 and having new ones like that never happened in Age of Ultron. And they’re the first movie in eight years to include an actual cast member of The Incredible Hulk, with William Hurt reprising General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. Is it weird that the first time we see the post-Ultron lineup in action is the movie where they split up? Yeah, kind of, but I get that they didn’t have time for another team-up before it was Thanos time, contracts were running out.

It doesn’t try to wrap up Steve’s character like Iron Man 3, which is good since we saw how that wrap-up turned out. And it’s also a little bit impressive that a year after Age of Ultron went out of its way to show the Avengers protecting civilians as much as super-humanly possible (which some people who need everything to be a battle of brands saw as a “fuck you” to Man of Steel’s final battle), the Russos yield that high ground completely by making this movie’s opening statement “Yes of course civilians died, civilians always died in Avenger fights.”

It does establish the trend of people finding Aunt May weirdly attractive as though they’re aware how old she’s normally portrayed (each Spider-Man reboot knocks a decade off Aunt May), but whatever, that’s mostly on Homecoming.

Very good superhero movie, proving the Russos were a better choice for the big Avengers finale than any more habitually abusive writer/directors from the last two movies.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 90% from the critics, 89% from audiences, it’s one of the top Marvel movies.

Other Events in Film

The acknowledgement of Batman V Superman: I almost spent the entire above entry compare/contrasting Civil War with the other “Main heroes punch it out” movie, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, but does anyone need to be told which of those was better? I still like large parts of it, especially the Ultimate Edition, where the character arcs still exist, but obviously it has problems. Suffice to say, Zack Snyder over-indulged all of his worst habits: excessive violence, gratuitous slo-mo, and only being able to resolve conflicts with someone heroically sacrificing their life. He tried to turn Batman and Superman into Rorschach and Dr. Manhattan, and that works so poorly that Geoff Johns was able to write a 12-issue series about how different they are. Man of Steel tried to bring Superman into the post-9/11 world. Batman V Superman made the unforgivable mistake of letting the world change Superman rather than the other way around. The titular fight only lasts a few minutes and is at most the second best action beat in the movie.

And of course, the cardinal sin of the DCEU, Warner Bros. tried to have their own Avengers without doing the legwork, and it’s mystifying how people in charge of making movies were the only people in the world who knew that wouldn’t work. Their number two mistake was over-committing to the vision of one filmmaker: by the time the studio found out how badly Batman V Superman played with critics and the general audience, it was too late to gracefully find another director for Justice League. And so did some truly desperate and ultimately harmful course corrections take place.

  • Elsewhere in Superheroes: Did the last second attempts to lighten the tone of Suicide Squad do it any favours? Not really. Did the film clearly have many, many problems that hashtag releasing the Ayer Cut wouldn’t fix? Absolutely. “One of their own betrays them” should not be the first movie, you send the Suicide Squad places the regular army can’t go so they shouldn’t have army backup, and Jared Leto is the worst big-screen Joker ever so giving him more screen-time wouldn’t have helped. Deadpool, on the other hand, was super fun, and worth the years Ryan Reynolds spent trying to make it happen; Dr. Strange has cool visuals but is basically just Iron Man again; X-Men: Apocalypse proved that employing Bryan Singer doesn’t guarantee you a good X-Men movie.
  • How did “City of Stars” win Best Song over anything from Moana, let alone everything from Moana? “City of Stars” wasn’t even the best song in La La Land. Honestly, that category gets it wrong so often…
  • Michael Bay made a movie about Benghazi. I hear it’s not as right-wing biased as you’d worry but I had no interest in seeing a Michael Bay movie about Benghazi.
  • The Witch serves as an excellent intro for creepy filmmaker Robert Eggers and swiftly iconic ingenue Anya Taylor-Joy, who recently won every acting award possible for The Queen’s Gambit. No I will not spell it “The VVitch,” that’s nonsense.
  • I am stunned, just stunned, that Moana did worse at the box office for Disney animation than Zootopia. I mean Zootopia is alright, but its no Moana.
  • The claustrophobic thriller 10 Cloverfield Lane is likely the best Cloverfield movie.
  • Which sequel to a big 2000s hit did we ignore harder, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny?
  • Shane Black makes The Nice Guys with Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling, and film as a medium is better for it.
  • I’m told that Lonely Island’s Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping deserves our attention.
  • The problems of magic-based heist sequel Now You See Me 2 begin but don’t end with failing to call it Now You Don’t. I mean it’s okay but a step down from the last one.
  • Independence Day: Resurgence tried to revive the franchise after 20 years and had the unmitigated gall to waste time setting up sequels.
  • Star Trek Beyond is likely the best reboot Star Trek, I still want another.
  • Actor/director Nate Parker makes a movie about an American slave rebellion, and makes the bold choice to reclaim the title The Birth of a Nation. Its Oscar hopes were dashed when revelations about Parker’s and the film’s co-writer’s past surfaced. They’re dark, there’s a reason you haven’t heard about Parker since.
  • Warner Bros. returns to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. They… didn’t think this one through.
  • The Founder, with Michael Keaton as McDonald’s co-founder Ray Kroc, is one of the key examples I think of when I think of Oscar Bait that didn’t land. The trailer ran on every Oscar contender I watched in 2016 but got nominated for jack diddly. It got old. Right next to it was Gold with Matthew McConaughey, which I got even more sick of, but that came out next year.
  • Peter Berg takes over “biopics about things too recent to have a biopic” from Clint Eastwood with Deepwater Horizon and Patriot’s Day, a 2016 movie about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Too soon, Peter.

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