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


The Oscar winner and Box Office Champ of 2018 had one thing in common: “But what if the monster is kind of hot?”

Let’s start with the one that brought Monster Boyfriends to the Oscars and got Guillermo del Toro an Oscar for his Creature From the Black Lagoon slashfic.

And The Oscar Goes To…

As the opening narrations says… “Would I tell you about her? The princess without voice. Or perhaps I would just warn you, about the truth of these facts. And the tale of love and loss. And the monster, who tried to destroy it all.”

Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute foundling orphan with significant scars on her neck, is a night shift cleaning lady at a government laboratory, whose only friends are her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and aging gay artist Giles (Richard Jenkins). One night sees three significant arrivals to the lab: an amphibian creature (Doug Jones, master of creature work); Richard Strickland, the brutal government agent in charge of studying it (Michael Shannon, oozing patriarchal menace on every line); and Robert Hoffstetler, one of the lead scientists on the case (Michael Stuhlbarg, MVP of the 2017 Oscar Season). Elisa makes a connection with the tormented creature, and knowing the government plans to vivisect him, hatches a plan to break him out that eventually involves Zelda, Giles, and Robert… aka Dmitri Mosenkov, Soviet spy. While Strickland chases his prize, Elisa and the creature form a strange but touching romance that only really violates the laws of God and man when it implies that you can flood a bathroom floor-to-ceiling by wedging a towel or two under the door.

There is something happening with the colour green in this movie. It’s very significant. The lab, the amphibian man, the key lime pie that Giles buys as an excuse to see the Pie Guy (that’s how’s he credited and he’s a bigot so he doesn’t deserve a name), the Cadillac that symbolizes Strickland’s impending career success, Giles’ painted ad is initially rejected because the gelatin isn’t green enough… green is meant to symbolize the future, which is spelled out twice, and is attached to characters attempting to embrace the future, not mired in the 50s’ fake veneer of greatness. Elisa, Zelda, the creature. Also the lab being so filled with green gives a feel of being underwater, which is thematic in ways I shouldn’t have to explain, it’s a love story including a fish man. Amphibian, whatever, you see my point.

Guillermo de Toro’s visual style is seeped into every frame of the movie. The lab oozes subtle menace, Elisa and Giles’ apartments are filled with character, the world of this story is incredibly well designed and well built, which is not surprising, del Toro put a lot of passion and attention to detail into this movie. I don’t assume anything in it happens by accident, even if not especially Michael Shannon’s name appearing in the opening credits right when Richard Jenkins says “and the monster who tried to destroy it all.”

I especially like how every likeable character is someone who’d have been heavily marginalized in 1962, when the movie is set. A mute, a black woman, a gay man, a Soviet spy, a fish monster. Honestly here in 2021 the only one who wouldn’t still be marginalized in large parts of the world is the fish monster*, especially since the gay man has the audacity to also be old. The enemies are symbols of patriarchy, of the US Military Industrial Complex. Obviously the cruel and unpleasant Strickland, with the 50s ideal wife and house and dutiful kids he doesn’t seem to like at all, doesn’t put a good face on white patriarchal authority. But nothing digs the knife in like a line from the five-star general Strickland reports to when Strickland claims to be a “decent man,” which… the math ain’t back that but that’s not the point: “Decency… it doesn’t really matter. We sell it, but it’s an export. We sell it because we don’t use it.” Kinda says it all. And if that doesn’t do it for you, Pie Guy has a scene proving that “pretty” doesn’t always mean “good.” It’s primarily to motivate Giles to help Elisa but it also fits the theme.

(*You know I’m right, fish monsters would be treated better in the US than black people, there’s a whole Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt subplot about Titus being better treated as a werewolf than a black man.)

The scenes between Elisa and the Amphibian Man are all beautiful, filled with emotion, and Hawkins expresses every thought and emotion Elisa has throughout with perfect clarity even when not speaking through sign language (she has a voice in one fantasy sequence, other than that she signs, but sign language is still dialogue). It’s impressive visually, the characters are great, the cast is all impressive, I love the subversive commentary attacking what Conservative America considers “the good old days.” The other nominees of 2017 were mostly pretty bland, so I’m glad Guillermo Del Toro’s freak flag flew high enough to win Best Picture, and be the highest-grossing Best Picture since Argo.

If you’d like to know more about Monster Boyfriends, Lindsay Ellis is here for you.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: It’s at #8, under Spotlight and over… 12 Years of Slave? Okay now the recency bias is hitting hard, that’s definitely a little too high. A little. Not a lot. Honestly the Oscars need to do the weird stuff more often.

Where did I rank it? I had it at number 11, over Argo but under Lady Bird. Look I liked Lady Bird and you’ll get no apology for it.

What was I rooting for? I knew it wouldn’t win but my number one pick that year was Get Out. Shape of Water was right behind it, though.

The Box Office Champ

As I said earlier… There were two ways the new Disney-ordered trilogy could go with Star Wars. They could cling to the familiar, hooking people with nostalgia for the original movie to sell the new one, or they could blow it up, take it in new directions, be bold and different.

Doing one of each might not have been the best idea. But goddamn I respect Rian Johnson’s attempts to say “No, you fools, we don’t have to retread the same ground, this universe can be so much bigger than what we’ve tried to pigeonhole it into.”

It’s a treatise on failure. Everything our heroes try to do goes wrong, often disastrously. Because, it argues, heroes fail. True heroes fail and pick themselves back up. It’s meant to be the dark middle chapter and boy howdy it hits that mark.

What Johnson did to make this one so much bigger than Empire Strikes Back was to flip the stakes. In Empire, Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO are in a pickle, but the Rebellion escapes in the first act. Not so here. Here the Resistance is hunted virtually to extinction. By the end of the movie, the entire Resistance fits on the Millennium Falcon, and Johnson makes us feel every loss. Each ship shot down is a ship they couldn’t afford to lose.

(Which… okay, the fact that the First Order apparently can afford to lose a few Star Destroyers, a dreadnought, their flagship, and Supreme Leader Snoke, and aren’t bothered at all bugs me a little. That’s some Infinite Respawn nonsense right there.)

It was big, it was bold, it was different. It’s the best looking Star Wars, with many of the series’ best shots: the salt skimmers, the fight in the throne room, Finn’s defeat of Phasma, the Holdo Manoeuvre might be the single best shot of all Star Wars. It challenged what the franchise had been and dared to dream of what it can be. And I do enjoy me a porg. Video essayists I like came out of the theatre so amazed, so thrilled, so excited by what they’d seen…

And then they went on the internet, and found that everything they loved was being held up as a failure by these angry, toxic fanbros, mad that Luke wasn’t a Badass, that Johnson answered every fan theory about Snoke’s true identity with “Oh who cares about Snoke, he’s dead, he didn’t matter,” that Poe was proved wrong and Admiral Holdo was proved right, that Finn had a character-defining arc alongside a new character who’s Asian.

Quick FYI: anyone who uses the term “forced diversity” unironically is racist. That’s not an opinion, it’s just math. “Forced diversity” implies that humans have a default setting, and any change to race, gender, or sexuality is an alteration of that default must be proved necessary, and that’s just inherently bigoted from its first premise, there’s no getting around it.

But somehow the toxic bros won. And half of what was amazing about Last Jedi… the idea that Rey doesn’t need famous parents to be a Jedi, Kylo’s continuing fall, Finn’s entire arc… got undone or at least neglected by Rise of Skywalker. A movie which I found okay, but thrilled, excited, and amazed pretty much no one.

Last Jedi isn’t my favourite, it’s at least 20 minutes too long, and watching characters you love screw up and get good people killed for two and a half hours is a rough ride, but it’s very impressive and made Star Wars seem so much bigger and then that didn’t happen. Thanks, fanbros, thanks for throwing a hissy fit spurred at least partially by racism (the racists also say they just don’t like “bad writing,” and Infinite Respawn aside it’s written exquisitely, the dialogue is great, so don’t pitch that) which spooked the studio away from being that interesting again.

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: 90% from critics, 42% from audiences, thanks to toxic fanbros review-bombing it, toxic fanbros ruin goddamn everything.

Other Events in Film

  • The #metoo movement finally, finally brings down Harvey Weinstein, and he faces criminal charges for his many crimes. Some plead for sympathy by fearing for his health in prison, to which I say it wouldn’t be a problem if they’d arrested him twenty years ago.
  • This Year in Superheroes: Wonder Woman falls apart a little in its third act but remained the best thing DC had made in nine years; Taika Waititi turns around Marvel’s weakest solo franchise by throwing out basically everything about it and letting Chris Hemsworth be funny in Thor: Ragnarok; Logan gives High Jackman and Patrick Stewart one last spin as an aging Wolverine and a Professor X collapsing into dementia, and works very well; Spider-Man: Homecoming, the continuation of Marvel and Sony’s joint custody of Peter Parker, gets mixed but mostly positive reactions from fans, but does fail to give Peter an arc; Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has a stellar conclusion but a really talky second act; but are any of them as straight-up entertaining as The Lego Batman Movie? And the big story in superheroes…
  • What happened to Justice League: Zack Snyder delivers a three and a half hour rough cut of Justice League that’s less dark than Batman V Superman but not by enough, and after a family tragedy he can’t deliver the lighter two hour cut Warner Bros. demands, so Joss Whedon is brought in to cut it down, shoot more scenes to paper over the gaps from his cuts, which means cutting more, and also throwing in some more quips and banter and whatnot. Bad call, as it turns out, there was likely a way to just trim and hour and a bit off Snyder’s version and get a better product, and now Justice League is known mostly for the clusterfuck of its production, instead of for being a basically okay superhero epic that’s biggest flaw was setting up two horrible, horrible sequels that shouldn’t happen.
  • Fast? Furious? Fate of the Furious makes some people mad by redeeming Deckard “Guy Who Killed Han” Shaw, emphasises the feud between Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson by ensuring they almost never have a scene together, and also shows the over-the-top nonsense that makes this franchise so fun has plateaued. But thankfully not decreased. This is the first one I saw in theatres.
  • Vin Diesel also makes a long-delayed return to his number three franchise in xXx: Return of Xander Cage. He builds a racially diverse Fast/Furious style crew to back him up and win over international markets.
  • Jordan Peele, after years of sketch comedy and one movie with his partner in laughs Keegan-Michael Key, decides “Nuts to comedy” and jumps to horror with Get Out, a big hit that gets nominated for Best Picture and wins Peele an Original Script Oscar. So… I think we can call that a successful transition.
  • Jumanji gets a surprisingly fun revival with Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, as four teens are stuck in a video game and turned into Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black, and the always delightful Karen Gillan. Oh, Karen Gillan, such a good companion to big franchises, like… like a doctor who treats big sci-fi projects.
  • For the first time in film history (but not the last), a non-western movie cracks the top ten international box office, as China turns out in droves for Wolf Warrior 2.
  • The most profitable film in terms of return on investment is M. Night Shyamalan’s big comeback, Split.
  • Beauty and the Beast is a largely empty, pointless remake of the Disney classic, not coming up with a new angle like Maleficent or Jungle Book, but just adding some bits to smooth over internet nitpicks. But it made a billion dollars because “That again but with more autotune” apparently did if for a lot of people, and now Disney’s trying to remake their entire catalogue.
  • Kong: Skull Island gets us psyched for more of the Giant MonsterVerse. It’s solid Kong with a great ensemble.
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri only won acting trophies so we don’t need to unpack another Racist Cop Redemption Fairy Tale.
  • Power Rangers is a darker, grittier update to the “teens with attitude are slapped onto footage from a Japanese show” Power Rangers franchise, that apparently is all the standard beats of an episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers… preceded by ninety minutes of origin story, Jesus Christ, how are you going to make people wait the runtime of Shrek for the first Morphin’ Time?
  • Don’t worry, DC, you’ll never be the worst attempt to replicate the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not as long as Tom Cruise’s The Mummy is here to remind us of Universal’s Dark Universe, that time they dropped all their Minions/Fast& Furious money on locking major stars into new versions of classic Universal movie monsters. Somehow the fact that all of their top characters were public domain wasn’t the biggest problem. You don’t stop your movie halfway through to drop in a bunch of universe building through Batman sending Wonder Woman an email, or having Spectorium or Prodigium or Professor Wes Maxfield’s Academy for Halloween Monsters or whatever it was called show up to do exposition. You make a movie people like, and tease a larger world in the end credits, this is not rocket science. The Mummy managed neither.
  • Matt Reeves brings Planet of the Apes to a conclusion with perhaps the best one, War For the Planet of the Apes. I am apprehensive Disney wants to make more.
  • I don’t know that it was hit Steven King adaptation It that convinced Warner Bros. to put the horror guys in charge of DC Films, it could have been the Conjuring franchise, but it must have helped. They did give the director The Flash and looks like this time it’s actually going to roll cameras before the entire creative team quits.
  • Blumhouse’s technique of “But what if [recognizable thing] was a horror movie” pays off by making Groundhog’s Day into the impressively fun horror flick Happy Death Day. Clever move. Only having one victim you kill over and over must save some money.
  • Blade Runner 2049 proves that no matter how well they’re made, Blade Runner movies are doomed to be cult hits that disappoint at the box office.
  • I’m pretty sure I liked the “two decades later” sequel T2: Trainspotting? Pretty sure. It was weird watching Johnny Lee Miller transition back from TV’s Sherlock Holmes to Sick Boy. Well, they are both addicts…

Next Page: On black people and travel

Author: danny_g

Danny G, your humble host and blogger, has been working in community theatre since 1996, travelling the globe on and off since 1980, and caring more about nerd stuff than he should since before he can remember. And now he shares all of that with you.

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