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Critics' Conversation: Maher, 'Messiah,' 'Mank' and Other Oscar Odds and Ends

Courtesy of Focus Features / Courtesy Everett Collection; Warner Bros. / Courtesy Everett Collection; Netflix / Courtesy Everett Collection
From left: 'Promising Young Woman,' 'Judas and the Black Messiah,' 'Mank'
Two THR critics weigh in on what the Oscars mean after a year of despair, offer differing takes on the polarizing 'Promising Young Woman,' and assess the progress and frustrations of an Academy in transition.

DAVID ROONEY: So, it's the 900th day of the Oscar season that never ends, and we're all beaten down to sad states of broken surrender by the unrelenting deluge of awards punditry. ("Just hand out the damn statuettes!" he pleaded, quietly sobbing.) What gets to me at this point is not the mystifying breathlessness over who will win best editing, as if that's the climax of some nail-biting Barbara Stanwyck noir, but the proliferation of bad takes on an impressively diversified crop of contenders.

The worst of them was Bill Maher's insufferably glib segment renaming them "The Debbies: As in Debbie Downer… The 2021 Oscars, brought to you by razor blades, Kleenex and rope." Tee-hee. Dismissing the top nominees by simplistically labeling them as guilt-trip miserabilism is just smug superiority posing as news commentary. For many of us, this past year of depleted studio release schedules is worth celebrating simply because it allowed smaller, more idiosyncratic and thematically complex movies to find their way into a spotlight that frequently excludes them.

The past year has been one of isolation and introspection, as pandemic anxiety collided with the fatigue of toxic political discourse, gun violence and the ferment of racial inequality, fueled by irrefutable evidence of a law enforcement system that's profoundly broken. Sure, that might leave many people hungering for escapist entertainment, and, sha la la la, that ain't no crime. (Hello, Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar!) But just as many of us were edified by films that turned a serious gaze on some of the ills plaguing 21st century America — mostly with dramatic nuance and without didacticism.

There are potential winners in pretty much every category that I can happily get behind, with few, if any, blandly crowd-pleasing Green Book-type groaners among them. So, if this is the Oscar season that caps a surreal fever dream of a year, I'll take it.

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LOVIA GYARKYE: I generally don't agree with Bill Maher, but I was particularly struck by this sentiment in the clip: "Being sad allows you to feel like you are doing something about a problem without actually having to do anything." It's not by any means a new idea, but it is a reminder — especially for those who wield power — that knowledge and empathy are only part of the work. There are real ways that Hollywood and the Academy can contribute to bettering the material conditions of marginalized people. Nominating movies about serious issues can't be the end.

Still, films are important, and this year's Oscar nominees are a largely impressive bunch. Sure, I don't want all movies I watch to go down like medicine, but I do think for many viewers films can help contextualize and make more real the details of other people's lives — people they might, for whatever reason, never encounter. And those movies, as many of this year's nominees prove, can be educational, enriching and enjoyable.

I really liked Minari (Alan Kim, if you're reading this, I love you) and Sound of Metal. Both demonstrate the power of specificity in storytelling, how detailing the lives of individuals can yield universal truths and avoid the pitfalls of generalizing entire communities. That kind of clarity lays the groundwork for deeper performances, too, and I think the actors in both of these films are able to showcase the range of their talents. I was blown away by The Father, which I thought rendered the confusion and pain of dementia in a way I'd never seen before. I found it incredibly moving. And although I didn't find Nomadland as moving, I was impressed by Chloé Zhao's ability to portray nomadic life with dignity. Of course, this was helped by Joshua James Richards' lush cinematography and Frances McDormand's stirring performance.

The film that comes immediately to mind when I think about Maher's segment, though — because it makes you feel like you're engaging with an issue when you aren't — is Promising Young Woman. I really disliked it. (I know my dislike was real because after I watched it, I needed everyone in my life to know why I didn't like it, whether or not they cared). Admittedly, I came to the movie after all of the praise and hype, so perhaps my expectations were too high. But I don't feel like it meaningfully comments on anything, or ultimately says something you couldn't have figured out by following the news or talking to someone who has been sexually assaulted. And frankly, I was offended that most of the onscreen violence happens against women — and that the end of the film seems to leave viewers with the sense that justice, or even accountability, happens via the police. If anything, this past year has taught us that the opposite is true.

From reading interviews, I understand that writer-director Emerald Fennell wanted to retool the revenge thriller. But for me, the film doesn't go far enough in presenting a coherent alternative vision; it doesn't commit to total despair based on our reality, nor does it imagine a system in which abusers and assaulters would take accountability for their actions. I think the best criticism I've read of it is by Ayesha Siddiqi, who makes excellent points about how the film positions itself and what the widespread approval of it says about Hollywood's rush for redemption.

ROONEY: It's interesting that while there's definitely a counter-campaign in play, perversely misreading the front-runner, Nomadland, as some kind of pro-Amazon exculpation of the punishing gig-worker economy, Promising Young Woman has emerged as by far the most polarizing film in the race. It's notable also that the love-hate division is not drawn along gender lines, since women and men have landed in both camps.

I can appreciate the view that the film's vigilantism doesn't go far enough, and perhaps its stylized, sardonic edge to some degree blunts the despair that for me does course through its veins. Sure, it's not the most morally lucid movie to come out of the #MeToo movement. But I was on board for its rollercoaster unpredictability, even when I started to question the writer-director's grasp. Most of all, I found Carey Mulligan's high-wire act of withering rage and grieving brokenness mesmerizing. Would it have been satisfying to see her take out a few predatory creeps, like Zoë Lund in Abel Ferrara's Ms. 45? Probably very much so. But for better or worse, that's not the revenge thriller Fennell set out to make.

On a different note, it's a welcome development that five years after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, we have nine people of color among the acting nominees. I do think the Academy's push to diversify its membership is resulting in a shift in the type of films considered, as was clear in the jubilant underdog wins of Moonlight and Parasite in recent years. But there's still a ways to go. That seemed most apparent this year in the blind spot toward Spike Lee's vigorously alive Da 5 Bloods and the under-representation of Regina King's riveting One Night in Miami, a film that masterfully teases out thematic and visual expansiveness from a tight, four-character chamber piece.

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Though they were obviously in production well before George Floyd's murder and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter protest movement that followed, those films tapped into wounds that remain open decades after Civil Rights struggles were supposedly won. I know you weren't a fan of Judas and the Black Messiah, Lovia, and I'd love to hear your thoughts. But either way, making that the sole film about Black experience in the running for the top honor suggests that the Academy can only deal with one movie at a time about the myth of a post-racial America. Also of note: Not a single Black director made the cut.

GYARKYE: Honestly, I don't really expect much from the Academy when it comes to holding more than one space for a film that centers the narratives of Black people. And while this year's nominations indeed do feel like the beginning of a response to #OscarsSoWhite, I'm also disappointed that certain films about Black people didn't make the cut. (Justice for Regina King and Channing Godfrey Peoples!) Maybe it's because I'm interested in quieter stories about how Black people live and survive, but One Night in Miami and Miss Juneteenth were two of the best films I watched this year.

In the former, King and Kemp Powers did such a wonderful job rendering the source material for the screen, finding ways to make a story that largely takes place in a motel room incredibly dynamic. And the latter was simply gorgeous. I still think about the scenes in which Nicole Beharie and Alexis Chikaeze exchange soft kisses, playful jabs and knowing laughs — moments that add depth to the film's exploration of the relationship between Black mothers and their daughters. Real love undergirds the tensions between these characters. And similarly to Nomadland, Peoples' no-frills debut avoids sentimentalizing working-class people, which is so hard.

As for the one Black film that made the best picture cut, Judas and the Black Messiah, I have complicated feelings — probably stemming from my expectation that it would be something it simply is not: a Fred Hampton biopic. Instead, it's a film that centers an FBI informant whose motivations remain largely murky. I also had issues with the casting. Once you understand (or in my case Google after viewing) that William O'Neal and Fred Hampton were 17 and 21, respectively, LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya, talented as they are, don't make sense in those roles. To me, the film felt like a missed opportunity for a different kind of storytelling — one that focuses on the work the Black Panthers did in their communities instead of their brutal relationship to the FBI. I would have traded the shoot-out scenes for a more detailed depiction of movements like the Rainbow Coalition, which was a radical alliance between working-class people from different racial and ethnic groups.

ROONEY: You have a point about the age factor being somewhat muddled in the casting, but the refusal to fit into a conventional biopic mold was one of the things I liked about Judas. I loved its visceral energy. I did think it illuminated the Panthers' community activity and the visionary outreach of Hampton with the Rainbow Coalition — especially after so many screen treatments that just reduced the Panthers to a badass militant organization questioning the value of peaceful protest.

But I'm so with you on Miss Juneteenth. The film seemed almost too quiet and dramatically understated when I saw it at Sundance. But it continued to resonate with me throughout the year, especially Beharie's exquisite restraint as a mother sublimating her own unfulfilled dreams through her daughter. It's that kind of subtle, unflashy work that too often gets overlooked in the awards roundups; it would have been great to see the emotional transparency of Beharie, Julia Garner in The Assistant, Yeri Han in Minari or Sidney Flanigan in Never Rarely Sometimes Always honored alongside, say, the magisterial thunderclaps of Viola Davis in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.

The richness of the acting in both male and female lead roles was remarkable this year. Disappointing shutouts for Da 5 Bloods' Delroy Lindo, Ammonite's Kate Winslet and One Night in Miami's Kingsley Ben-Adir made me wonder if it's time for the Academy to consider a more elastic approach to expandable categories — like the "up to 10" flexibility of best picture. (I have to confess, though, that I'm still puzzled as to why they don't just go ahead and make it 10, outright.)

Now, should we address the stale stank of Mank in the room? I mean, we all bow to the canonical importance of Citizen Kane, but this was not the backstory I wanted — outside of Amanda Seyfried's poignantly conflicted Marion Davies. David Fincher is one of our best directors, and if you exclude the cloying Curious Case of Benjamin Button, this feels like his weakest film.

GYARKYE: Mank was, for lack of a better word, boring. I found the screenplay unmoving and, at times, hard to follow; I can't remember how many times I had to rewind because I zoned out. I also don't care for The Trial of the Chicago 7. Perhaps it's because I don't appreciate Aaron Sorkin's brand of hokiness and trademark fast-talk, but I found it clumsy in its attempt to balance comedy, righteousness and the significance of its subject matter. It's hard to feel the weight of Bobby Seale being gagged and bound on screen when the moment is couched between jokey scenes.

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ROONEY: Those two definitely seem the closest of the best picture nominees to the Traditional Oscar Movie, and perhaps they're evidence of the Academy being in the midst of a transitional phase as membership continues to expand toward a more equitable representation across multiple generations and backgrounds. That would explain how we get a revolutionary-feeling win for a film like Moonlight one year and then a clunker like Green Book squeaking through just two years later. Maybe the idea of a 21st century Academy as a work in progress is what makes Nomadland this year's logical frontrunner. Social realism viewed through a poetic lens, the consecration of fresh talent not only with a woman director but also a person of color, but also a deeply respected acting veteran in the starring role and a focus on older people, a demographic often ignored in American movies. Aside from being good, it's got something for everyone in the Academy.

GYARKE: Can I just admit that I find it weird that the event will be held in person when for all intents and purposes we are still in the middle of a pandemic? Maybe I'm wrong, and after a year of isolation audiences will be excited for what apparently will, this year, be a "cinematic experience." (Although I'm not quite sure what that means.) There's also the fact that this is the first post-Trump Oscars. Do you think that will change the mood and atmosphere of the show?

ROONEY: I suspect that with Trump finally exiled to Mar-a-Lago (the dystopian Vista Del Mar) and a functioning government in place, there's going to be a less overtly political tone to the evening. But the majority of the nominated films are grounded in social issues — race, sexual assault, economic inequality, the flawed criminal justice system — so those inherently political specifics will no doubt factor in acceptance speeches.

More than that, though, I would hope there's going to be a shared sense of relief and optimism after a year of trauma. With so many questions now hanging over the recovery of moviegoing as a collective experience, it seems a no-brainer that Hollywood's biggest night will serve as a cheerleader to get vaccinated Americans — and audiences around the world — back into theaters. Having one of our most consistently inventive directors, Steven Soderbergh, at the helm stokes my expectations that we might actually get something fresh this year. And I'm dying to see how production designer David Rockwell transforms Union Station! We could all use a little glitzy distraction right now.

 

 
 

 

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