Friday, December 6, 2019

Oscar Bait Lightning Round: Knives Out, Dark Waters, Marriage Story, The Irishman

As I'd feared, the amount of time I have had to spend watching movies--over 40 in the past month!--has meant I have had precious little time to actually review any. That doesn't mean I don't have opinions about them, because of course I do! So allow me to spew some thoughts about these currently playing Oscar contenders.

I'm not sure a movie as fun as Knives Out will get the Oscar attenton it deserves, but with the Academy nominating up to ten films each year, there's no reason it shouldn't. Every member of the knockout cast has their moments to shine, but standouts are Jamie Lee Curtis as the de facto family matriarch, Toni Collette as the flighty but savvy daughter-in-law, and Ana de Armas as the nurse at center of the mystery.

Like many a classic Whodunnit, the death takes place in a mansion filled with the usual suspects, with almost everyone but a butler represented. Rian Johnson's clever screenplay goes back and forth from a Did Someone Do It? to a They Said They Did It! to a Wait, Did They Do It?, and for the majority of the movie you may be wondering if you're watching a Whodunnit at all.

If the film has any flaws, I'd say it's Daniel Craig's Foghorn Leghorn-accented Detective Benoit Blanch, but I just chose to pretend his awful accent was a long con and the detective's real identity will be revealed in a coming sequel. Fingers crossed.

Had Dark Waters come from any other director than Todd Haynes, it would be your standard "based on a true story" drama about the little guy fighting the powers that be. And in all honesty, it is that, with the added puzzlement that comes from knowing this came from Haynes, and yet contains none of his trademarked attention to setting or style.

It could be argued that this story of a corporate lawyer (Mark Ruffalo) who decides to go after DuPont, the type of business he usually represents, makes a good companion piece with Haynes's 1995 drama Safe. Both deal with the impact of environmental pollutants. But the subject matter is basically where the similarities end. Where Safe felt weird and unpredictable, Dark Waters isn't innovative in any way. Which isn't to say the story isn't important. I just think you'd get just as much entertainment value reading the New York Times Magazine piece it was based on, and without the obligatory "wife yelling at her husband for doing his job" scene from Anne Hathaway.

When I was a kid I saw Kramer vs Kramer and loved it, mainly because it was an adult story with a child at the center, and being an only child myself, I often felt like a child living in an adult's story. But that's pretty much where the identification ended, since my parents weren't in the middle of divorce (and are still married; congrats!).

Marriage Story, like Kramer vs Kramer, is actually the story of a divorce, with a young child at the center, but in this case, a little less focus is put on the kid. It's his parents' story, and at times, it broke my heart. It's certainly one of the best acted movies of the year (though Adam Driver's performance is a little stronger than Scarlett Johansson's) with one tour de force argument so intense and cathartic it brought me to tears.

I've often felt a little distanced from Noah Baumbach's films. They can be as stiff as Wes Anderson movies, but without the beautiful production design that can warrant the "these aren't actors, they're dolls" feeling. Marriage Story is the first Baumbach movie where the characters feel completely real and fully alive.

Through this awards season my main complaint has been that movies are too damn long, and then Martin Scorsese, one of my favorite directors, has to come along and release a three-and-a-half hour epic.

But here's the thing. It's on Netflix, and I'm not going to begrudge the length when its available via a medium I've spent six hours or more in front of when binging a series. Which actually leads to a common complaint lodged against The Irishman: that it should have been even longer, and a Netflix series.

Ah, but then it wouldn't be Oscar Bait, would it?

I was never bored through it's three plus hours, and in fact watched it in one sitting. I feared the CGI de-aging might be distracting, and perhaps on a big screen, it is. But I got used to it pretty quickly (less so Robert De Niro's freaky blue eyes). One thing they couldn't de-age is the fact that these guys are all in their 70s, and try as they might to look like spry 40-somethings through half of it, they don't always succeed, still beating up guys like the 70-somethings they are.

Scorsese doesn't have to make another gangster movie ever again as The Irishman is the perfect coda to his wise guy oeuvre. It's both a greatest hits album and a melancholy meditation on mortality, guilt, and regret.

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