Back Row Thoughts – The Blitz Campaign

We’re less than 72 hours away from this year’s Academy Awards, and as happens every year, I didn’t get to see everything before nominations were revealed. I did better than I’ve ever done before, coming up just five shy of pre-announcement totality, and in three of the five cases, the films weren’t readily available, with two pulled from theatres the moment they met the minimum one-week requirement, and the third not released at all due to different eligibility rules for its particular category.

That last one, A House Made of Splinters, I already covered in the “Back Row Thoughts” mini-series on the Documentary Feature shortlist, as well as the category breakdown earlier this week. But the other four films all had something in common. They were all surprise nominations spearheaded by unorthodox campaigns. So once they were nominated, I had to strap on my Blitzin’ shoes in order to track them down and complete my viewership for this year’s ceremony.

Thankfully, things weren’t too difficult, as the three films that received an acting nomination were on streaming services or VOD rental platforms. The fourth, a fraudulent nominee that only exists in its current form so that it could lobby for Original Song and get Diane Warren yet another undeserved nod, was a different story. It was eventually put on VOD for rent as well, but with almost no fanfare, with the announcement coming just a day before the release. Had that not happened, I basically had two options in order to cover, again, AN OSCAR-NOMINATED FILM! One was to simply ignore the movie and judge the song by itself. Strictly speaking, that’s all I need to do for the category. But the voters are supposed to consider the context for the song when nominating – a rule they seem to gleefully ignore – so I felt that setting the flick aside was only a last resort, because I buy my weed from Tegridy Farms. The second was to attend the Los Angeles Italia Film Festival this past weekend, where the project was being “feted,” and which would include public screenings and an online option. Thankfully it didn’t come to that, as it would have really fucked up my schedule for the final week of the Blitz to schlep my way up to Hollywood and the TCL Chinese Theatre in hopes of getting a seat.

But now that all the logistical rigmarole is done, how do these four films stack up? As always, I’m here with redux reviews for the final competitors, so let’s take a look at the conclusion to the 2022 canon.


Written and directed by first-timer Charlotte Wells (earning her a BAFTA for Outstanding Debut), Aftersun is basically two separate forms of a coming-of-age story happening at the same time. Paul Mescal stars as Calum, a 30-year-old father to 11-year-old Sophie (Frankie Corio), who takes his daughter on holiday to a resort in Turkey for some bonding during his birthday. For Sophie, the maturation story is the more standard of the two, as she reckons with changing perceptions of love and relationships. For Calum, it’s a less-explored situation where he has to take stock of his life and decide whether or not to get his shit together, especially while dealing with mental illness.

Both of these stories are strong, with the rapport between Mescal and Corio being simply fantastic. I really loved Sophie’s arc, which isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but it still feels novel because of the way it’s told from her perspective. There are other kids at the resort, but only one or two her own age. The rest are either older teens or much younger primary school children, and it’s up to Sophie to figure out how she wants to spend her time when she’s not with Calum. She’s basically presented with three options: One is to regress and play in the kiddie pool, thereby reliving recent memories; the second is to enjoy where she’s at in the moment, demonstrated by playing video games with another 11-year-old and having “kid dates,” and the third is to latch on to the older adolescents and get a crash course in hormones. The way she navigates these prospective paths, all while still trying to be her father’s daughter, is marvelous to behold.

Calum’s story is more one of arrested development (to counter Sophie’s accelerated one). He’s not a deadbeat dad by any means, but it’s clear that he wasn’t ready to have a family when he got his ex pregnant, and as he goes to the north side of 30, there’s a slow but deepening depression building up in him as he realizes that not only has he not achieved his goals, he never really had goals to begin with. He loves Sophie dearly, and displays a nice degree of emotional intelligence when explaining to her how he still loves her mother, even though it’s not romantic. Watching his girl grow up to already be brighter than him at a third of his age forces him to reconcile how he’s lived his life with how he wants to live it going forward, and there are some truly tragic beats in that internal struggle.

Where the film loses me a little bit is in the plot structure. There are scenes told entirely through camcorder footage, as well as time jumps to an adult Sophie (Celia Rowison-Hall) who seems to be trying to piece together who her father truly was as a person. Not to be outdone are the myriad smash cuts to Calum in a strobe-flooded rave club which is completely incongruous to the rest of the plot, what little of one there is. The movie operates more as a series of vignettes during this vacation rather than a straightforward narrative. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it needs to go somewhere, and there are moments where it feels like Wells can’t quite stick the landing.

Still, this is a charming and emotional film, led by two great performances. As I said in the video breakdown for Best Actor, I’d have probably nominated Mescal for Supporting Actor rather than as a lead, because this is much more Sophie’s story than it is Calum’s. But setting that nitpick aside, I was happy that I got to experience Aftersun, which I put off for weeks during its theatrical run because I couldn’t figure out what its Oscar profile might be, and thus didn’t know how to prioritize it.

Grade: B+


I included Causeway in the November edition of TFINYW, not because I thought the film would suck necessarily, but because the trailer didn’t really give any indication as to what the story was about. All you could really tell from watching it was that it featured Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, and the city of New Orleans. That’s not all that much to go on, so I let it slide, especially because it was going to AppleTV, which I don’t have on my television (my roommates have it in the living room, which is how I was able to eventually watch it).

Now that I’ve finally seen it… I think I preferred it when I didn’t know what it was supposed to be about. Lawrence and Henry are both fine actors who I enjoy immensely, but for me, this was an almost complete misfire. I think the film means well, trying to tell a story about comparative trauma and recovery, but it ended up feeling like maudlin dreck, with the two principal actors seeming to compete for sympathy to the point where I basically had none.

Lawrence plays Lynsey (you know she’s special because her mother couldn’t spell!), an Army soldier who suffers a traumatic brain injury while on tour in Afghanistan. She returns to recuperate, first at a military hospital, and then to her hometown of New Orleans. From the moment she sets foot in the Big Easy, you can tell that all she wants is to leave as soon as possible. And if you somehow can’t tell that just from Lawrence’s face, don’t worry, she’ll talk about how badly she wants to redeploy at nearly the same frequency that Black Adam says he’s not a hero.

Taking a job cleaning pools, she runs into her first major obstacle when her rusty old truck breaks down on her first day. She takes it to a local mechanic named James (Henry), who befriends her because he recognizes in her the same pain he feels as an amputee, having lost his leg in a car accident on the titular Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. Initially forming a bond based on their shared sense of humor (and James’ affection for Lynsey’s old truck), things turn sour quickly due to silly misunderstandings and semantic arguments about their respective issues. There’s even a truly insulting moment where Lynsey walks back her plainly-stated lesbianism to give James a pity make-out session that is just pure cringe.

There are moments that resonate, mostly because I dated a woman who suffered a TBI for three years. There were odd scenes here and there where Lawrence displayed frustration and anger at her limitations that I have witnessed first-hand. The rest of the movie, however, is just phoned-in performances where both characters quickly cede their goodwill by just bitching about everything. As a man who constantly does just that, I know how off-putting it can be. By the end, it really felt like the best acting in the film was Lawrence pretending to enjoy seeing a fat man with his shirt off for five seconds.

If you liked this movie, more power to you, but it just didn’t do all that much for me. Both Lawrence and Henry have shown themselves to be capable of so much more than this entry-level melodrama, and while I’m glad the Academy is finally giving Henry the recognition he deserves, you’d have an easier time convincing me that he deserved a nod for Bullet Train.

Grade: C

Tell it Like a Woman

This, strictly speaking, is not a movie. It’s an anthology of seven short films that even the producers admit was only thrown together in order to commission Diane Warren to write “Applause” and campaign for Original Song. Because nothing says, “Let’s celebrate women as artists and creators” like an underhanded, disingenuous ploy to shunt the very people you profess to advocate for to the sidelines for the sake of shameless baiting that only gets by on a technicality. And if you think I’m just trying to be scathing for the sake of my own snark, go to the actual website for the film’s production company, and you’ll see that half the page is video links to different versions of “Applause,” with only the minimal space actually granted to the shorts.

And as for those shorts, yeesh. First you have Pepcy & Kim and Elbows Deep, two films based on real-life women who either witnessed or overcame life on the bottom rung. In the former, Jennifer Hudson plays a convict who’s trying to get clean in order to reduce her prison sentence so she can see her kids again, but she’s haunted by an imaginary, strung-out version of herself. In the latter, Marcia Gay Harden plays a doctor who visits homeless people being housed in L.A. hotels during the COVID pandemic, where she meets a vagrant named Val (Cara Delevingne) who suffers from a severe infection due to not washing herself because she refuses to shed the umpteen layers of clothes she has on. In both cases, the stories are nothing special, and the dialogue is insipid. I literally fell over laughing when “Val” screamed that her name was “VALIDATION!” No. No it’s fucking not. You cannot expect me to take anything you say seriously if you assert that your name is Validation. Fuck. You. That’s on one side of the equation, and on the other, the only real novelty to Pepcy is hearing Jennifer Hudson say “fuck” a bunch of times. But of course, the real problem is that, as these are based on real women, why not just do a short documentary on the actual women rather than making up this nonsense?

Following that are two films about domestic life that I think are meant to show appreciation for busy moms but instead only reinforce tired stereotypes and gender roles. In Lagonegro, Eva Longoria plays a seriously busy business woman who’s very busy with business in Europe until she learns that her sister has committed suicide. Going to Italy to set her affairs in order, it’s also revealed that the late sister had a daughter, and Longoria has been chosen as the girl’s guardian. Instead of making a nuanced decision about how to balance her work life and this sudden family obligation, the film uses one of the most cliché bits of emotional plot manipulation to foist adoptive motherhood upon her. After that it’s A Week in My Life, about a Japanese single mother of two very young children, showing her day-to-day life of working, cleaning, cooking, and putting up with her hellion of a son (her daughter, on the other hand, is a saint, because subtlety is for sexists). On the whole the idea and story look fine, until it literally ends with a deus ex machina where the daughter wins a heretofore unknown contest with the prize being a Roomba to help mom with the chores. That’s how you celebrate women, give them vacuum cleaners!

In the final three shorts we get to the only real quality. Unspoken is a tense, clever bit of suspense about how a veterinarian is able to detect signs of abuse when the victim doesn’t speak her language. The movie ends with Aria, a thoughtful and profound silent animated short about how the media dictates gender roles for both sexes, and how important it is to break out of these rigid boxes.

Sandwiched between them, however, is the nauseating Sharing a Ride, about a model and fashion designer who gets creeped out when a drag queen sex worker (or full-on trans woman, it’s never made clear) gets in the same taxi as her one night. She then goes through some weird dream sequences where she has a sudden epiphany about beauty paradigms and decides she’s now a much better person, so she finds the sex worker, talks to them, and dances in the rain with them while “Applause” plays in the background. Leave it to this oh so poignant presentation to make it so that the only person with a penis who’s not a piece of shit still happens to be wearing a dress.

Taking the seven together, the final grade comes by average. I give Pepcy & Kim a D, Elbows Deep an F, Lagonegro a D, A Week in My Life a C, Unspoken an A, Sharing a Ride an F, and Aria a B.

Grade: D+

To Leslie

Two years ago, Hillbilly Elegy was roundly mocked for its simplistic and insulting depiction of Southern folk and drug addiction, coming from a self-aggrandizing chode named J.D. Vance. Now, we have To Leslie, which is essentially the same film, only now it’s being praised as a pioneering work, and J.D. Vance is a U.S. Senator. What the fuck is wrong with this world?

The basic premise of the film sounds intriguing, about a single mother (Andrea Riseborough) winning the lottery but losing all the money, and trying to figure out where to go next. If that’s what the movie was about, I’d be all for it. Instead, it’s a Flight-level exercise in moral lecturing, an Afterschool Special with cussing. Because Leslie didn’t lose the money, she wasted it on booze because she’s an alcoholic.

After getting kicked out of the Texas motel where she was staying but not paying rent, Leslie moves in with her now college-aged son James (Owen Teague), who is willing to take her in on the condition that she doesn’t drink. She begins drinking precisely two seconds after she’s left alone. She then moves in with old friends (Stephen Root and Allison Janney) as a favor to James. They put her to work at their house, and demand that she doesn’t drink. She begins drinking precisely two seconds after she’s left alone. She even goes to the local bar, in the small town where her downfall was witnessed by all, and starts hitting on guys so that they’ll buy her booze. There’s pathetic, and there’s cartoonish villainy. This is the latter.

On the streets yet again, she spends the night sleeping outside another motel run by a man named Sweeney (Marc Maron). Not knowing her story because he’s not from the town, he takes pity on her and gives her a job as a housekeeper, including a room to live in (his room), on the condition that she doesn’t drink. Guess what happens.

The rest of the film is completely formulaic, from the sanctimonious shaming of the rednecks, to Leslie eventually getting her shit together when she suddenly has her “Come to Jesus” moment looking at a photo of her kid, to the manufactured third act conflict between Leslie and Sweeney that threatens her with relapse, to her eventual redemption and second chance at life and love. Yawn.

For what it’s worth, Riseborough does a good job, mostly because she so was so convincing at making me hate Leslie as a character. It takes a LOT for me to not have ANY sympathy for someone, but Leslie accomplished it in 20 minutes. I know people who deal with alcoholism and addiction issues, but you know what I don’t see? I don’t see people so hopelessly lost that they can be told to their faces multiple times that drinking is verboten, only for them to immediately get blitzed the second the other person’s back is turned. Even the worst offenders can last a few hours. This sort of characterization is borderline exploitative, but I can’t deny that Riseborough sells it for all its worth.

Apart from that, though, there’s not much to say. The moralizing is stupid, Allison Janney’s character is a cunt for no good reason, Stephen Root just disappears after his first couple of scenes, never to appear again, but is constantly referenced so you know he’s not dead, the subplot about the motel’s co-manager (Andre Royo) being a flower child goes nowhere, and while I love Marc Maron, Sweeney is such a simp that it’s kind of pathetic. He’d be an ideal enabler character if the script didn’t go out of its way to make sure he never enables Leslie.

This isn’t a bad movie. In fact, it has occasional moments of brilliance, and just like with Elvis, Andrea Riseborough does a TON of heavy lifting to keep this out of the basement through sheer force of will. But it’s also nothing special. It’s a plot we’ve seen a bunch of times, with one-note caricatures we’ve seen a bunch more, and a cognitive dissonance that somehow elevates this with one hand while damning Hillbilly Elegy with the other. I just don’t understand.

Grade: B-


And that does it for 2022 movies! Thanks as always for taking the ride with me. Now let’s get to Sunday night so we can fully shift focus to this year!

Join the conversation in the comments below! Did you see any of these films? Which did you like best? How would you reform the Academy’s campaign policies? Let me know!

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