Back Row Thoughts: The Good and the Bad in the Blitzing

This has been the quickest Oscar Blitz in the short history of me trying to pull this off. I’ll almost certainly never complete the entire ceremony before nominations come out, but this year was about as close as you can get. Apart from the three short film categories, which were released as bloc screenings on Friday (I’ve already cleared two of the three), there were only two films for me to see between nominations and Oscar Night, and now I’ve wrapped that up. In a couple of days I’ll see the Live Action shorts, which will complete all viewings for the 2018 season.

Normally I don’t bother with reviews for Oscar nominees I see after the calendar year is concluded, because even if I don’t like a certain film, on principle I’d still recommend seeing it because of the nominations themselves. Even if a movie truly sucks ass, it’s worth seeing to figure out why the nominated elements got their nod. But this year, I’ll make an exception, because there are just the two. The categorical breakdown of the Shorts is essentially a miniature review anyway, so it feels a bit odd to have just two movies from 2018 not get some sort of rating on here. Might as well, right?

So here you go, the shortest post-nomination Blitz in history!

At Eternity’s Gate
Willem Dafoe got a surprise nomination for Best Actor, so even though this movie came out months ago, I was compelled to see it. My hopes were not high, because it hadn’t gotten too many good reviews apart from Dafoe’s performance, but even I couldn’t fathom how bad this movie would be.

I’ve been a fan of Vincent Van Gogh’s work my entire life. “The Starry Night” is the first piece of art that ever truly captivated my attention and imagination as a child. And over the years, there have been some really inspired depictions of the artist’s life, from one of the all-time great Doctor Who episodes, “Vincent and the Doctor,” where Van Gogh gets to find out how appreciated he’s become but it’s still not enough to save his life, to last year’s phenomenal Animated Feature nominee, Loving Vincent, an astounding production animated entirely of thousands of oil paintings, blending the real-life actors into portraits Van Gogh painted during his life, and positing a sort of Citizen Kane-esque mystery about how he died.

But this? This was just dreck. Almost no time is spent on his artistry or personal genius, but rather a ton of focus was spent on his mental anguish. The art almost seems like a side plot, a distraction if you will, from the manic nature of Dafoe’s performance. Of course, Dafoe himself is out of place, because he’s 63 years old and Van Gogh died at 37. He looks a bit like the ragged self-portrait Van Gogh painted after he cut off his ear, but that’s for the entire film, which takes place over the course of several years, and therefore makes no sense. Similarly, the otherwise brilliant Oscar Isaac is horrendously miscast as Paul Gauguin, Van Gogh’s friend and contemporary. Both of them oddly speak with an exaggerated, almost Maurice Chevalier-style French accent when they’re speaking French, but then they speak English in their normal American voices, which is even odder considering Gauguin really was French while Van Gogh was Dutch.

There’s an odd laziness to the entire production, moments that are meant to be profound but just come off cheesy or worse. There’s a moment where all color simply drops from the scene and then comes back on, like Vincent’s been color-blinded by nature or something. Later, at an asylum run by the Catholic Church, he secures his release from a priest played by Mads Mikkelsen by essentially claiming to be a Christ-like figure, which just sounds patently absurd. Also, after he cuts his ear off, the director takes care to basically never show the left side of Van Gogh’s head for the rest of the movie. There’s one good look at it late, where you can see that some sort of prosthesis was made, but everywhere else you can tell they didn’t bother, so they just didn’t shoot from that angle.

There are basically only two interesting things in the movie. One is the depiction of Van Gogh’s death, which is more in line with a 2011 theory that he was accidentally shot by two adolescent boys who liked to tease him, and that the reports of suicide were a means to make sure the boys were not prosecuted for a tragic accident. This theory was also explored in Loving Vincent. It’s intriguing, but it’s still the official account that he killed himself. Second, early in the film an innkeeper’s wife gives Vincent a ledger which he uses for sketches, and is returned before his death, unceremoniously placed on a shelf and forgotten. That makeshift sketchbook was discovered only very recently, in 2016, so knowing that there’s “new” artwork to see from him is exciting indeed.

As for the movie, blech. Had I seen it during the calendar year, I would have included it among the 10 worst films of 2018.

Grade: D

Mirai
I confess that despite the short list of films to see, I was honestly worried that this one would pass me by. In 2018, right after the announcement of its entry for Animated Feature, Mirai played for one week at the local Laemmle chain of independent theatres here in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, that was also the week that I was back home in upstate New York introducing my girlfriend to the family and meeting my newborn nephew (he is, as the kids say, totes adorbs). I had another chance to see it in early January, as there was a one-time screening in Malibu. Unfortunately, I couldn’t secure a ticket in time.

After nominations came out, I was sure that it’d be back in theatres for a limited run. I mean, it just HAD to. But nothing. No word, no announcements, nothing. I went to the GKids website for the film (which I recommend for anyone trying to find this movie in the run up to Oscar Night), and the nearest theatre showing it was in Oakland. I actually considered going to Oakland just to see this movie. I ended up not going because a) there was a cheap flight, but as I was chatting with customer service the last two tickets got snatched up, and b) while I could have driven the six hours each way, my tires were severely low on air and tread, and I couldn’t risk getting stranded in central California, so I got new tires instead.

Thankfully, I got in touch with Laemmle via Facebook, and they assured me that despite the lack of announcement, they were working to bring it back. They just had to finish up some paperwork and arrangements with the distributor. Sure enough, a week ago they announced its return, and I got to see the first showing on Friday.

And man am I glad that I did! Directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who gave us such wonderful films as Wolf Children and The Boy and the BeastMirai is the first anime film outside of Studio Ghibli to earn an Animated Feature nomination (it was produced by Studio Chizu). It’s a simple tale of family love and sibling rivalry presented in the grandest of terms by some spectacular animation.

Told through an opening montage set to an upbeat song that sounds like something Neil Diamond or Richard Marx would have done in the 80s, the movie establishes the main family, a mother and father and their son Kun, who live in an abstract, narrow house designed by the architect father. The entire house is terraced with staircases leading up and down. At the base is the entrance alongside Kun’s playroom, then a courtyard, then the main kitchen/living room, then the parents’ bedroom. It’s a fully realized house about the width of a single-car garage.

Kun, who is no more than four when the film begins, has his entire world thrown into flux with the arrival of his baby sister, who is eventually named Mirai, which means “future.” Kun is initially curious, but becomes insanely jealous when his family’s attention shifts from him to the baby, as is natural. Kun lashes out for notice and validation, and even comes close to hitting his baby sister with his toy trains. Every time he gets scolded he only acts out more, crying helplessly because he legitimately feels that he’s not loved anymore.

One day, when he’s sent away, he walks into the courtyard and meets a strange man, who he comes to realize is a human version of his dog, Yukko. Yukko teaches him some perspective, because it was he, the family dog, who had the undivided attention of love from the parents before Kun himself arrived. This is but the first of several encounters where Kun interacts with human Yukko, his own mother as a child, his recently deceased great-grandfather, and most importantly of all, a teenage Mirai, who depends on him more than can realize.

I smiled and laughed several times, and there was a moment or two when I got a bit choked up. While I hope I was never that bratty, I definitely saw some moments of my rivalry with my own little sister when we were kids. Of course, we’re incredibly close now, even though we live on different sides of the country. She’s just had her own first child, and I don’t envy her the task of making sure her little guy doesn’t end up like Kun. The film also reminded me, in a sweet way, of the classic Simpsons episode, “Lisa’s First Word,” where Bart goes through the same bout of jealousy once Lisa’s born, only to realize the bond between them when she utters his name first among all others.

Mirai is a truly beautiful film, and Mamoru Hosoda is stating his case to be the next Hayao Miyazaki. Also, as a fun little post-script to this whole experience, while I didn’t have a grand adventure to Oakland, there was one really cool thing that happened with my viewing experience. After the movie was over, I and the other members of the audience were greeted outside the auditorium by a small film crew, and each of us was interviewed for NHK Japanese Television about our thoughts on the film. So if you watch Japanese TV and somehow see a promo for Mirai, and there’s a chubby bearded guy with a t-shirt that says, “0 Days Without Sarcasm” gushing over this movie, you’ll know it’s me!

Grade: A-

Join the conversation in the comments below! Are there any films left on the 2018 list you want to see? How are you coming on your own Oscar quests? Have you ever been interviewed for a TV story? Let me know!

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