Back Row Thoughts – Blitz Catch-Up, Part 3

The task is complete. After a few more days and three more viewings, I have finished all the feature length films that have gotten at least one Oscar nomination this year. All that remains are the Shorts, which will be released theatrically and online this coming Friday, April 2. Each of our final three films are up in a single category, two of them among the major ones. One of these three nominees also has a marquee win under their belt, so don’t be too surprised if they get to take the stage on the big night.

These are the last official reviews of the 2020 canon, so let’s get to it.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Directed by Lee Daniels, this is the second major biopic about the life of iconic singer Billie Holiday, after 1972’s Lady Sings the Blues. But unlike that Diana Ross-led success, which was based on Holiday’s autobiography, this film is instead based on Johann Hari’s academic study, “Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.” It’s an interesting take, as it focuses much more on the persecution of Holiday as a drug addict and an early figure of the Civil Rights Era rather than her artistry and personal demons.

Andra Day stars as Holiday, and she’s up for Best Actress after her surprise win at the Golden Globes. She was also nominated for this role at the Critics’ Choice Awards, losing out to Carey Mulligan. For what she’s asked to do, which is a lot of nudity and singing, she does very well. A fantastic singer in her own right, this “Lady Day” is able to emulate Holiday’s voice perfectly, particularly when performing “Strange Fruit,” the song based on a poem about lynching that supposedly put her in the FBI’s crosshairs, as J. Edgar Hoover apparently considered her a disruptive force. Seriously, if Hoover had any kind of positive legacy, this has not been the year for it, given all the movies that have taken (deserved) shots at him on and off screen. He doesn’t appear in this film, instead using Narcotics officer Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) as the primary antagonist, looking to exploit Holiday’s heroin addiction as a means to arrest her and remove her messaging from the public consciousness.

There are some intriguing ideas on display here, but for the most part it comes off as a missed opportunity. Great actors like Trevante Rhodes, Natasha Lyonne, and Leslie Jordan are all wasted in thankless roles, and the film has a very confusing edit to it, including random moments where the picture changes to grainy black and white as if it’s archive footage, but it’s still the same actors.

But really, it’s the screenplay that fails the hardest. I know I’m about the last person who should be criticizing a film for gratuitous cursing, but there are scenes where every other word begins with “fa,” “fu,” or “n.” You can figure out which words those are for yourself. I don’t necessarily mind that, but it’s obvious when it becomes a crutch and substitute for actual, meaningful dialogue, and this film hits that saturation point about 15 minutes in. Also, given the source material, I’m flabbergasted that Daniels didn’t devote some time to the naked hypocrisy of Anslinger, whose lifelong morphine addiction is also mentioned in the book. I mean, it’s right there! White G-man with a drug addiction tries to use a black woman’s addiction to silence her? How do you let that go?

Grade: C

Love and Monsters

A fun little flight of fancy, Love and Monsters is the latest entry in the recent subgenre of post-apocalyptic rom-coms, similar to Zombieland and Warm Bodies. And while this film doesn’t quite rise to the level of its contemporaries from a comedic standpoint, there’s certainly enough to enjoy here that it’s worth your time.

In this dystopian future, an asteroid plummets towards the Earth (think Deep Impact), only the world is able to stop it by launching a fuckton of nuclear weapons at it. The rock is destroyed, but the nuclear fallout causes mutations in all cold-blooded animals on the planet, allowing them to grow to extraordinary size and they eat about 95% of the world’s population, forcing the survivors into underground bunkers. Joel Dawson (Dylan O’Brien from the Maze Runner series) is one such remnant of humanity. When the monster attacks broke out, his family was killed and he was separated from his girlfriend, Aimee (Jessica Henwick). After seven years in the hole, Joel is able to make contact with Aimee, living in a different bunker, via ham radio. Lonely about being the only single person in his bunker of sexed-up couples, and annoyed at his own cowardice in battle that prevents him from helping, Joel sets out on a weeklong journey to find Aimee’s bunker and rekindle their romance. Along the way, he picks up a stray dog named Boy, and gets basic survival training from Michael Rooker, a grizzled hunter, and Ariana Greenblatt, a young girl with solid instincts. Along with The One and Only Ivan, Ariana Greenblatt is oddly enough in two different films in the Visual Effects category.

There’s a good amount of comedy, and the underlying message is romantic, although misguided, which even the film points out. But what really sells the movie are the monster designs, which is why it’s up for Visual Effects. There are definitely some that really work, particularly a “boulder snail” and a killer giant crab. Others, not so much. For example, the first major beast Joel encounters is a mutated frog living in an inground pool. Now I am TERRIFIED of frogs. Have been all my life. It’s a story that I concede would be hilarious if it didn’t happen to me. But as it is, I freeze in place whenever I see a frog, no matter how big or small. I know they’re harmless, but tell that to my amygdala. As soon as I saw the pool water bubbling, I knew what we were in for, and yet, when it surfaced, I wasn’t scared. I laughed. The design was so cartoonish and comically bad that I thought it had to be a massive joke by the filmmakers. Turns out it was just shitty. As I said, some of the designs are spot on. Others, like this frog that if done right would have scared the crap out of me? No.

Still a fun, no stakes quasi date flick, though.

Grade: B+

The White Tiger

Based on Aravind Adiga’s Booker Prize-winning novel, The White Tiger elicited the biggest excitement from Priyanka Chopra when she announced the nomination for Adapted Screenplay, as she’s one of the stars of the film. Ramin Bahrani writes and directs this stylish tale of an Indian man crawling his way up from nothing to become a master among servants, cheekily taking a shot at previous Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire by noting that there’s no “million-rupee game show” to save someone from their situation.

Now, I’m not the biggest fan of narration as a literary device in film. There are exceptions where it works tremendously well – The Shawshank Redemption immediately springs to mind – but on the whole, narration is a crutch to gloss over something important when it would be much more compelling to show us. Here, it’s used by the main character, Balram (a brilliant Adarsh Gourav), to tell his life story to the Premier of China in a lengthy email seeking an audience with him as one of India’s rising entrepreneurs. It’s not the worst framing device, because it at least gives us a context for Balram to tell the story to us, but I still would have preferred showing to telling.

Anyway, Balram, smart from childhood, is referred to by one of his teachers as a “White Tiger,” a rare, glorious figure destined to be admired by all. Balram takes this to heart, and applies himself every single day to improving his life and economic stature, despite growing up in poverty, the death of his parents, and ingrained discrimination based on the caste system. He often uses a running metaphor of a rooster in a coop, with the analogy being that every rooster knows it’s going to be killed and eaten, but if you offered it freedom, it would never take it, because it knows its place.

He eventually finds himself in the employ of a wealthy family of “landlords” that essentially runs his village with an iron fist. He gets friendly with his chief client, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao), who was educated in America and has a balance of self-interest and progressive Western views, and his wife Pinky (Chopra), who was raised in America and finds the master-servant caste dynamic patently offensive. For a while everything goes well, and Ashok and Pinky insist that Balram think of himself as their equal, despite being their chauffeur. However, when one of them makes a terrible mistake, the lie behind that sentiment is revealed, and Balram is asked to take the fall for a crime he didn’t commit. From there, relationships crumble, and it’s up to Balram to finally seize his destiny.

There is some top notch acting on display here, particularly from Gourav, and the story alternates between light and dark with delightful skill. Even the soundtrack is fun. But what really struck me was the exploration of the caste system, which has fallen out of favor in recent years, but still exists. I remember learning about it in middle school, but I’ve never really seen it represented on screen, at least not in terms that were easily grasped. The idea that someone would aspire to servitude as a form of social mobility is just something that doesn’t exist in this country, and yet the film never feels preachy about it. Despite how unfamiliar the scenario feels to people like me who’ve never been properly exposed to it, the execution still feels natural and organic, and that’s to be lauded.

Grade: B+

***

That’s all for the Blitz Catch-Up. The category breakdowns resume tomorrow with Animated Feature, one of my favorites, and the Shorts are just a few days away. God I love this time of year!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Have you seen these films? Which was your favorite? How long would you survive in a world of giant mutant insects? Let me know!

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