Back Row Thoughts – Digging for Oscar Gold

I see as many movies as I can over the course of a calendar year, but it’s an all but impossible task to see everything that might be considered for the Academy Awards. This was especially true for 2019, as I had to track down two International Feature nominees that hadn’t been released stateside by the time they were given their recognition. Similarly, there are several categories that nominate via “Bake-Off” caucuses, where films and studios highlight only their technological or artistic merit in a certain discipline, which can often lead to a nomination for films that do not get critical praise (and that’s putting it lightly).

As such, when the nominations finally came out last month, I had five films to check off in order to complete my fourth consecutive year of seeing all nominees in all categories. I was able to meet the goal, but it was not without difficulty, particularly for Corpus Christi, as I described in the annual Blitz breakdown of International Feature.

But now that the work is done, and tomorrow we can just focus on the ceremony itself, it’s time to officially start closing the book on 2019, and to do that, I have to “review” the remaining five films. So let’s get to it.

Les Misérables

While only tangentially and thematically related to Victor Hugo’s masterpiece (and set in the city where he wrote the novel), France’s submission got a little bit of flack from the critical press, mostly because it wasn’t Portrait of a Lady on Fire. But to bash the movie because it wasn’t the one you wanted is beyond lazy and shortsighted. This is an important film, and a reflection of the social malaise under which the world operates, tilting dangerously close to the revolutionary attitudes that eventually descended into violence in Hugo’s era.

Taking place just after France won the 2018 World Cup, the film focuses on three policeman patrolling a poor neighborhood. Think of it as a French version of Training Day. Stéphane Ruiz (Damien Bonnard) is new to the force, and gets a first-hand education in street justice with his undesired mentors, Gwada (Djibril Zonga) and Chris, aka “Pink Pig” (Alexis Manenti). Chris likes the power of his badge, and he wields it in heavily authoritarian, sexist, and racist ways. Essentially, he’s a skinhead in all but name. Gwada, who grew up in the slum neighborhoods they patrol, is much more tolerant, and is willing to operate within the system and do some back channel negotiations to get what he wants. Both of them take to calling Ruiz “Greaser,” on account of his slicked back hair, a nickname he instantly resents.

The “misery” of the film centers on the marginalized minority communities, particularly young black Muslims. A boy named Issa (Issa Perica) is constantly getting himself into trouble, and in his latest scheme, he may have finally gone too far, as he’s stolen a lion cub from a travelling Gypsy circus, which he instantly uses for Instagram photos. Meanwhile, another teen, called Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly), gets into trouble with his neighbors for spying on girls with his drone. As multiple factions of adults (including a gang hustler who calls himself “The Mayor,” played by Steve Tientcheu) converge, things finally come to a head when Gwada shoots Issa with a flare, an incident coincidentally filmed by Buzz and his drone.

The warring factions all have an agenda, and they all make the same mistake, underestimating the artful dodgers that are the unsupervised kids. Between power-hungry gangsters, overzealous religious leaders, and cops who lead through fear, none are prepared for the moment when the youth say, “Enough’s enough.”

The film is very well shot, and masterfully edited. The lightly-controlled chaos of the entire day’s proceedings deftly jumps all over the map, but never in a way that comes off as slapdash or confusing. All of the characters are played to the hilt, with all the conflicting motivations making perfect sense, with the exception of Issa, but he gets a pass because he’s a stupid, impulsive kid who’s basically been shunned by his parents due to his mischief. He has no structure in his life, so his actions have the least amount of logic. The whole scenario serves as a microcosm of a world where the displaced are sick of being abused and cast aside, where racial and economic tensions leave the world sitting on top of a powder keg, and as the film’s ambiguous ending demonstrates (it’s French, they don’t know the meaning of the word, “conclusion”), even an act of human mercy may not be enough to prevent the downtrodden from lighting the match.

Grade: A-

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

I didn’t see the last movie, nor do I intend to. I’ve gotten all the information I need via clips and recaps. It’s Sleeping Beauty by way of Wicked, and like every other Disney remake, it probably sucks. This sequel, nominated for Makeup, sucks out loud.

Literally nothing in this film is believable. I don’t buy Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) as being secretly the good guy. I don’t buy all the CGI bullshit in her fairy realm (what they did to the three fairies from the original is insulting). I don’t know why Prince Phillip (Harris Dickinson) can be so utterly lacking in a personality, yet somehow Aurora (Elle Fanning) loves him. I don’t buy Michelle Pfeiffer’s evil queen for one damn second.

This movie is aggressively stupid. We literally have to go through a fake awkward “meet the parents” scene before the king and queen will sign off on Aurora marrying Phillip? Really? Also, before that scene, Aurora, and I’m not making this up, gives Maleficent a veil to hide her dark fairy horns, because the royal family might be uncomfortable. BUT THE FUCKING GIANT WINGS COMING OUT OF HER BACK ARE JUST DUCKY!

But most importantly, and this is what is so baffling about these Disney remakes in general, is that the writers paint themselves into corners that never existed in the originals – and never needed to – resulting in leaps of logic so baffling as to ruin any chance of enjoyment. There’s a henchman who has a powder to kill magical beings by turning them into non-magical things. And how is it hard to kill her, exactly? Giant magical trees are somehow powerless against a 100-pound waif sitting at a pipe organ. Maleficent and the other dark fairies are weak to iron, but then how do they survive? Everything we eat has at least some iron in it. Pfeiffer’s queen wants to start a war with the magical world because, reasons, but do you ever notice that it’s only in fantasy films and TV shows like this (or Game of Thrones, among many others) that women are warmongers? Literally every war in human history has been started by men, and yet we keep getting mass media like this that somehow has women being the intolerant murderers… based on what, exactly? I remember back in 2016 The Daily Show interviewed Trump supporters, including one old lady who was certain that Hillary Clinton would start endless wars if she got elected, even after it was pointed out to her that no American woman has ever started a war. It’s baffling that this is thought of as believable, and that these lazy remakes (and sequels to them) are considered “cinema.”

Grade: D+

The Lion King

Fuck. This. Movie. Fuck literally everything to do with this movie. Fuck the “live action” lie. Fuck James Earl Jones’ tired voiceover readings. Fuck all the Beyoncé bullshit. Fuck the photorealistic CGI animals that instantly lose all personality the moment they start talking. Fuck John Oliver as Zazu with even worse animal “news” puns than the original. Fuck the movie adding over 40 minutes to the run time while adding nothing to the proceedings. Fuck Billy Eichner and Seth Rogen trying to be meta. Fuck the Beauty and the Beast reference. Fuck the movie taking the original film’s best song – “Be Prepared” – and rendering it as a half-length monologue rather than an actual song.

But most of all, fuck Disney’s hubris at thinking this would actually make for a quality flick. Not only is it insulting to our intelligence to pretend this is live action when it’s 100% animated, but it shows just how little the company thinks of you as a person. All they did was learn to draw better, and even then, the lion cub in Les Misérables is more realistic. They succeed because they truly believe you in the audience are too stupid to know any better. There’s a scene where the adult Simba collapses on a rock, kicking up a cloud of dust mixed with the hair from his mane, which in the original floats to Rafiki somewhere else, letting him know that Simba is alive. In this monstrosity, that dust cloud goes through the most Rube Goldbergian odyssey imaginable, including getting stuck in a branch that a giraffe eats, poops out, and is then pushed along by a dung beetle until it falls off a rock and breaks apart.

A beetle. Pushing around a turd ball. With Simba’s hair. That still falls apart at the first obstacle.

If that’s not a metaphor for every Disney remake I don’t know what is.

Grade: F


I’m not a religious man, but I’m tolerant of those who are. I’m fine with religious stories, even in film. Hell, It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my all-time favorites.

What I don’t abide is bullshit, and Breakthrough is bullshit. Inexplicably directed by Roxann Dawson of Star Trek: Voyager and co-produced by Stephan Curry of the Golden State Warriors, the film is based on a Christian book by a woman whose adopted son fell through thin ice, drowned, and eventually recovered. She attributes her son’s convalescence to a divine miracle, and as a matter of faith, that’s fine. The problem is how the film insists upon its miracle, and in a failing of a lot of modern faith-based films, the resentment towards anyone who says otherwise, even when the film itself is lying to you.

Starring Chrissy Metz of This is Us and Topher Grace, the basic story is that a teenage boy named John Smith (so creative), played by Marcel Ruiz, fell through thin ice after celebrating a win by his high school basketball team. He remained underwater for several minutes before rescue workers could find and resurface him. By that point he had clinically drowned and had no pulse. At the hospital, his mother Joyce (Metz), prays for his recovery, and almost instantly, John has a pulse again. He slowly makes a full recovery, which is very rare, but not unprecedented, as the cold water slowed his metabolic functions and delayed brain death long enough for his heart to start pumping again.

Now, there is a good, inspiring story there, but it has nothing to do with Jeebus. It’s about a mother’s devotion to her son, about perseverance over long odds. It’s about a community coming together for a distraught family. But none of that is in this film. Instead, Joyce is essentially on the warpath, telling qualified doctors that they know nothing about medicine because God will save her adopted child. She tells all medical personnel and visitors that they are not allowed to violate God’s will and even mention a less-than-hopeful diagnosis or prognosis. She demands fealty from the entire community, essentially equating reasoned skepticism with blasphemy. The proselytizing is so misplaced in this film that the opening credits play “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars and mute out the lyric, “Hot damn!” because the swear words make Baby Jeebus cry. Even in the most saccharine moment of pure faith, when Joyce “surrenders herself” to God’s will, she immediately follows up by telling the doctors to alter their methods. Either surrender yourself and trust in others (supernatural or otherwise) or don’t. But you can’t have it both ways.

But apparently God and Jesus have no problem with out and out lies if it serves an agenda. Because while it’s perfectly fine to believe that the Almighty intervened to save your kid, I’m pretty sure He’d quibble with two major story points. One, Joyce has an initial ongoing feud with the town’s young pastor, Jason (Grace, who I’m certain got the role on surname alone), because he’s too “hip” and has Christian rappers at services. In reality, Jason Noble and Joyce Smith are great friends, and Joyce even considers him part of their family, and did so long before John’s accident. So you made up conflict for the sake of dramatic effect, but you’re going to preach to me? Yeah, fuck off.

Second, the biggest bit of divine providence occurs in rescuing John in the first place. The firefighter in question, Tommy Shine (played by Mike Colter, but could his character name be any more obvious), in reality made two sweeps of the lakebed where John fell through, drudging the bottom with a pole. On the second pass, he found John and brought him up. In the movie, he hears a whisper to “go back,” and that’s how he finds John. This becomes a subplot, as the agnostic Shine at first believes it was his commanding officer telling him to try again, but as it turns out, no one near him said or heard anything, SO IT MUST HAVE BEEN GOD SPEAKING DIRECTLY TO HIM!

I could bludgeon myself right now and come up with something less stupid and manipulative. Because it’s not enough that a woman of faith saw what she believes to be a manifestation of her faith made real, we also had to take a non-believer and bring him into the flock. It’s all made up. The real first responder never mentioned ANYTHING like that happening. If you’re going to posit on divine intervention in a movie, it is best to actually have that intervention happen on screen, like the appearance of Clarence Oddbody in It’s a Wonderful Life for the entire third act. But here? We don’t get an angel, we just get the assertion of the supernatural, in a way that is 100% contrary to established fact.

There was a good story to be made here, even if it takes a high religious tone. But instead of highlighting the positive, this piece of evangelical propaganda instead turns Chrissy Metz into a Christian soldier ready to fight any doubters with ready-made lies. If I was religious, I would be calling on my church to ban this, not promote it.

Grade: F

Corpus Christi

Now here’s a religious movie I can get behind. Poland’s submission tells a story of redemption through action, and calls out the hypocrisy of so-called believers. Partially based on actual events, the film stars Bartosz Bielenia as an opportunistic sinner taking a chance to better himself and serve his faith, even if the entry point requires a lie.

Bielenia stars as Daniel, a juvenile criminal about to be released from incarceration. He’s getting out on good behavior because he has found his faith in prison, including helping out with masses led by Father Tomasz (Lukasz Simlat). Traditionally, when young boys are released from the facility, they go to a remote town where they work in a sawmill, but Daniel wishes to become a priest. He is discouraged when Father Tomasz informs him that no Seminary will accept a convict, but when he arrives in the town and visits the church, he is so adamant about escaping the fate of the bottom rung of society that he lies and says he’s a priest already, traveling on a pilgrimage. The local vicar is ill, so before he can even stop to breathe, he’s put in charge of all services in the town. He adopts Tomasz’s name for his seemingly holy purposes.

At first he’s able to just fake it as best he can, repeating past sermons he had in prison, and just trying to be a supportive member of the community. Outside the church is a memorial to six teenagers who died in a car crash, surrounded by daily mourners. Daniel tries to comfort them, and leads primal scream sessions, asking how it could have been God’s plan to rob these six youths of their lives. But then he learns the truth, covered up by the town mayor and the vicar’s assistants. There was a seventh victim, the man driving the other car in the collision. His widow has been harassed and vilified ever since, because the powers that be lied to the public, claiming he was drunk, when in fact it was the kids who were drunk and high, causing the wreck that killed them.

Daniel wants to expose the truth, but he’s fought on all fronts by policeman, politicians, and the grieving parents who don’t want to accept what really happened. It is only when they are confronted with handwritten letters they sent to the man’s widow calling her a whore and a murderer that they acquiesce and let the man be buried in the town.

This film uses the lens of religion (Poland is over 95% Catholic) to ask some very germane philosophical questions. Can you come to God through dishonesty? Can two (or more) wrongs make a right? Is the truth of paramount importance in all situations? If a man is willing to change his life and serve God, shouldn’t he be given the chance, regardless of his past?

These are all very important questions, and the only one that can be truly answered is the last one, and only when it comes to Daniel himself. For him, the answer is no, he should not be a priest, mostly because he’s still young and susceptible to temptations and vice. As a means of getting along with the town’s youth, he drinks and smokes pot with them. He even has sex with one of the locals. There’s nothing inherently wrong with any of this, but if he wants to be a priest, he can’t be doing that stuff. Maybe he’s trying to get it out of his system before taking the Holy Orders for real, but the film doesn’t really explore that angle.

This was the hardest film for me to track down, but I’m glad I did. Bielenia gives a tremendous performance, filled with passion and thoughtfulness. And the camera work is simply sensational. Again, I’m not religious, but I understand the importance faith has to many, many people. And if religious films were more like this, willing to look in the mirror and ask questions about what it truly means to be righteous, I’d go to them a lot more often.

Grade: A-

* * *

Well, that’s it for 2019 films. Tomorrow night is the Oscars, which will officially close the book on the year. I’m already hard at work on 2020, with one review already posted, and another coming in a couple of days. Thanks as always for taking the ride with me.

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see these films? Did you like them? Did you hate them? Do you want to cuddle a lion cub now? Let me know!

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