Back Row Thoughts – Blitz Catch-up, Part 1

Now that the Oscar nominations are out, the annual Blitz is on in full effect. From the moment they were announced, I already had 13 of the 23 categories sewn up, enough for me to plan out my coverage on a tentative basis. I’ll go over all that tomorrow, but suffice to say, when all was said and done, more than half the fields were ready to go, and I had a decent outlook for the remaining 10. The three short film categories are still slightly up in the air, but things look good. They will be released theatrically on April 2, and on the ShortsTV website they have a link to watch from home, though it currently isn’t working. So it’s not guaranteed, but I’m like 95% sure it won’t be an issue. As for the other seven, I have nine films to watch to cover them all. Of those nine, only one presented a problem in tracking it down.

So that’s what this column and the next two “Back Row Thoughts” editions will tackle. As I tick off the remaining features, I’ll do mini-reviews here in groups of three. I won’t focus too much on the categories for which the films are nominated, mostly because I’ll break down those elements further when I cover those respective areas. I’ll look at them briefly, but the point here is to give an overall rating for the films, especially because in a lot of these categories, the nomination process is a “bake-off,” where the nominating Branch gets to focus only on the specific element they’re critiquing without judging the movie’s overall quality. As such, a lot of subpar films find themselves with a nomination and possibly an award (*coughSUICIDESQUADcough*). So the main point here is to analyze like they’re any normal film, just less verbose than I normally do.

Here are the first three films of the catch-up:

The Man Who Sold His Skin

This was the one I was most worried about, but thankfully, a friend of mine who obsesses over the Oscars as much as I do was able to find it. Or more accurately, another friend of hers found it, and she shared the info with me after a brief tease. Available online through the California Film Institute (for a $12 rental plus an optional donation), Tunisia’s submission to the Academy completes the International Feature category for the year, and I breathe a MASSIVE sigh of relief.

Anyway, inspired by modern Belgian artist Wim Delvoye and his living subject, “Tim,” the film is about a Syrian refugee named Sam Ali (played admirably by Yahya Mahayni), who finds himself distraught after having to flee to Lebanon and abandon his fiancĂ©e Abeer (Dea Liane), who later marries a mid-level diplomat and moves to Belgium. In a desperate attempt to see her again, Sam agrees to become a living work of art for Jeffrey Godfroy (Koen De Bouw) and his unscrupulous assistant Soraya (an excellent Monica Bellucci). As a statement against the commoditization of immigrants, Jeffrey tattoos a giant visa onto Sam’s back and puts him on display. This allows Sam to move to Belgium to pursue Abeer anew.

There’s a lot of good acting on display here, especially from Bellucci. I also really liked the underlying love story between Sam and Abeer. There’s some soap opera-level melodrama to be sure, but this is most certainly a unique take on the whole “things we do for love” motif. It also presents a poignant, if obvious, paradox about how a man will essentially sell himself into slavery for the dream of freedom. This is definitely a film worth seeing, and one I would have nominated myself based on the overall shortlist of 15 (of which I’ve seen 11).

Grade: A-

Pieces of a Woman

Vanessa Kirby has received Best Actress nominations from the HFPA, SAG, and the Academy for her performance in this film, and I can see why, as it’s very much a lead actress showcase. In some years this leads to a win, like Julianne Moore in Still Alice, and sometimes it doesn’t, like Glenn Close’s upset loss for The Wife. The sad part is that when you have these showcase movies, regardless of the actress’ Oscar fate, the rest of the it usually turns out to be trash, as if the only way to make her look great is to have everybody else suck at their jobs rather than just making a great film where everybody shines, but the lead actress shines brightest.

Set in Boston, the film is about the processing of grief following a great tragedy. If this sounds like Manchester by the Sea to you, you’re not alone. In fact, there were plenty of times when I screamed “I DON’T WAHNT HIM TO BE IN A FAHCKIN FREEZAH!” to my empty bedroom. Between these two films, all I can say is that I’m glad I didn’t stay in New England to have a family; they’d be doomed.

There’s one truly great moment in this film. After a few setup scenes, the film essentially begins with a 25-minute one-shot opening sequence about the delivery of Martha (Kirby) and Sean’s (Shia LaBeouf) baby at home, with the help of a midwife played by Molly Parker. It’s tense, well-shot, expertly-edited, and given that this emotional whammy only ends with a cut to the title slate, it’s downright ballsy, and I appreciate that.

The rest of the film, sadly, is just a Lifetime movie of the week. Shia basically tries to rape Kirby at one point before sleeping with her cousin/lawyer (Sarah Snook). Martha’s mom, played by Ellen Burstyn (who is WAY better than this material), can have her entire character summed up by the words, “Old Jewish Mother.” The whole cast moans the name, “Martha” so many times that even Henry Cavill and Ben Affleck think it’s excessive. Also, I can honestly say with 100% certainty that I was a lot happier not knowing what Shia LaBeouf’s dick looks like. A LOT happier.

Kirby does the best she can with the material, mostly by countering the tired stereotype of an overly emotional woman by being completely stoic while the rest of the characters melt down around her, but that doesn’t do much to help. This entire movie is ludicrous tripe with a lazy visual metaphor of a bridge’s construction to symbolize the passage of time and Martha’s ability to “connect” with her pain. Kirby prevents the film from being a complete failure, but overall, this is garbage.

Grade: C-

The Life Ahead

There are some who believe this should have been submitted by Italy for International Feature. Those people are wrong. This is a trite, predictable remake of a remake of a standard-issue adoptive family drama, and despite the HFPA’s attempts to lend it credibility, it’s only up for Original Song, which only plays during the credits after you’ve endured 90 minutes of entry-level maudlin plotting.

A young Senegalese orphan living on the streets of Italy, Momo (Ibrahima Gueye) is your basic street urchin small-time crook. He steals antique candlesticks from an old woman (Sophia Loren) and tries to hock them, but to no avail. The elderly doctor who serves as his guardian (Renato Carpentieri) knows the woman, Madame Rosa, a former prostitute, and requests that she take Momo in, as she helps raise other children of sex workers in her rundown apartment building. As would be expected, they initially hate each other, then grow to love each other, because the plot demands it. Rosa is also a Holocaust survivor, but there’s no exploration of that. Momo happens to notice her concentration camp serial number tattoo, but has no idea what it means, and Rosa briefly mentions Auschwitz, happy that Momo is blissfully ignorant of such atrocities. Rosa eventually comes down with dementia and begins losing herself in memories, wandering off and falling ill. It becomes an inevitability that she won’t make it, and it falls to Momo to find a way to let her die on her own terms.

Now, Sophia Loren elevates whatever she’s in by the grace of her appearance alone, and I will admit it’s kind of bold for her son, Edoardo Ponti, to direct his own mother’s death scenes. But apart from that, there’s not much to go on. The nominated song is okay, a fairly standard Diane Warren ballad. And in a couple of scenes, Momo imagines a CGI lioness that protects him, and I chuckled because it looked more realistic and had more personality than anything in the horrible Lion King remake Disney shit out in 2019. I laughed even more when it turned out there was a character completely unrelated to these scenes named Nala. Otherwise, this is just mediocre. It’s not poorly made by any stretch of the imagination, but there’s literally nothing special about this movie, and if Diane Warren’s apparent stranglehold on the Music Branch hadn’t resulted in yet another nomination (her 12th overall and sixth in the last seven years), I would have never given this movie even a sideways glance.

Grade: C

***

That’s all for this edition. I’ve already finished film #4, so I’ll be back with the next three in just a few days. Meanwhile, keep it locked here for continuing Oscar coverage, including the tentative category calendar tomorrow!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Do any of them interest you? Would you get a tattoo to become a living art display? Let me know!

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