Oscar Movie Reviews: La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Every year, Gini and I watch every Oscar “Best Picture” nominee… well, except for last year.  And then the Oscars sucked.

Because the Oscars get way more exciting if you’ve seen the films involved – it shifts from “Oh, Leonardo won!  Good for him!” to a frothing “I SAW THAT MOVIE AND HE WAS OVERACTING AND ROBERT’S PERFORMANCE IN THIS FILM THAT NOBODY SAW SOOOO DESERVED TO WIN.”

Which is, really, the point of Oscar movies: Nobody’s seen them.  Everybody’s heard about them, but if it wasn’t for the Oscars they’d be resigned to their tiny, art-house backwater, culturally irrelevant.  An Oscar win can take a movie that nobody’d heard of and turn it into a movie that people feel guilty for not having seen.

Now that’s power.

Anyway, so the Oscars haven’t been announced yet – but people who follow the scene know that there’s at least three locks on this year’s nominees, so we went to go see them.

La La Land.
This is the first musical I’ve seen in a long time where I didn’t buy at least one track off the soundtrack.

La La Land is beautifully visual; a lot of movies are basically old-time radio scripts set to film in that you can turn off the screen and the actors will tell you “QUEEN MORONA! WATCH OUT FOR THAT KILLER MANATEE!  NOOOOOOO!” Dialogue and sound effects will tell you all you need to know.

La La Land tells its story exclusively through visuals much of time.  And it’s clever, and creative, and a joy to watch…

And the songs are pretty forgettable.  Not that they don’t do their best, because the songs are rooted deeply to the storyline, and the story is a very good one about Hollywood ambition and love.  You may wind up remembering the songs because what the characters did during those moments the songs were playing, in the same sense that John Cusack could have been playing any song on that boom box hoisted overhead but it’s going to be Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” until the end of time.

But the songs themselves are meh.  They’re not offensive.  They’re nice.  They do what they’re supposed to do and leave.  And I think La La Land would have been a knockout film for me if the songs had been as memorable as the beautiful dance numbers and that wonderful ending and the chemistry between the two leads, but as it is what we have here is a musical number where the music is the weakest part.


Unfortunately, La La Land is also a tale about how Hollywood Magic Makes Things Wonderful and Isn’t It Hard To Be An Actor? – which means that regardless of its merits, La La Land is most likely going to sweep the Oscars like it did the Golden Globes, because there’s absolutely nothing actors like being told better than how wonderful they are.

La La Land is a solid B+.  This director’s impressed me; I loved his last film Whiplash, and now I’ll see his next film without waiting for the reviews.  But it’s picking up a lot of attention just because it’s kissing Hollywood’s butt, which is a shame because it’s simultaneously overrated and quite good.

Manchester By The Sea.  
This is a slow film – positively Stanley Kubrickian in its pace.  But whereas a lot of films try to take Kubrick’s measured sluggishness and instead become boring (I’m looking at you, VVitch), Manchester by the Sea leaves the camera on long enough that you’re forced to look at the humanizing elements of a dehumanizing situation.

The trick is that you pause the camera on someone, and leave it there until the audience starts to squirm a little and their uncomfortableness matches with the person on screen, and then they start looking for the tiny details about how this character feels.  Done right, you can make someone study a character just by refusing to look away – which means you need a cast who can give you the small details that make this hunt rewarding.

Manchester by the Sea is immaculately acted.  Casey Affleck is beautifully, instinctively, uncomfortable in his own skin.  And I don’t want to tell you what the movie is about, because part of the film is that slow grind of lingering on the “Why are we spending so much time on this mundane detail?” until the light blooms and you realize oh, yeah, that’s what this means.

It’s a super depressing film, but it’s not despairing. Bad things have happened.  People are trying to survive in the wake of them.  They’re doing their best to be kind.  They’re just… not always able.

(And this film would have been 15% better if they’d been a little more restrained with the melodramatic background music during the key scenes.  Still, well worth seeing.)

My friend Charles said that Moonlight was very good at handling complex relationships.  In the beginning, I didn’t see that.  The relationships start out simple – a young black kid is fleeing bullies in a poor neighborhood, and meets a guy who’s eager to help him out.  Cue father figure relationship.

But then you find out who the kid is, and why he’s being beaten up, and things get complex fast.

Moonlight follows the kid through three very critical moments in his life, played by three different actors, and he does not have an easy life.  In that sense, it’s easy Oscarbait because it’s pain-porn.  But too much of the Oscar pain-porn is a bleak howl of despair, and Moonlight works hard to find those small moments of happiness within the pain, and is trying hard to ask difficult questions about redemption.  And whether it can even be done.

And the final performance of the kid should win Best Actor, except it’ll probably go to Ryan Gosling because he’s playing an artist and he’s smooth and graceful and, well, basically Ryan Gosling.  But Trevante Rhodes plays the kid grown up, and he’s hardened into something angry and thuggish – except for these beautiful moments he does with his eyes, where he has to be cruel to survive but somewhere within is this beaten kid who only wanted kindness.

Moonlight is the movie I am rooting for to win Best Picture, currently.  (I may change my mind as I see the others.)  It’s the dark horse, because it’s a film about black culture, and frankly those can’t traditionally compete with the rah-rah isn’t Hollywood great? films.

But.  I bitch about going to see all the Oscar films.  I talk about how it’s a drag, and it is, because a lot of Oscar films are turgid arthouse circle-jerks.

The reason we go is because occasionally we stumble across a film as good as Moonlight.

Hidden Figures
Some of NASA’s greatest mathematicians during the Space Race were black and female.  This is their story.

This is a box office hit, and deserves to be.  It’s what I call simple-complex – it’s a drama, but the three lead characters are drawn in broad strokes (The intellectual visionary!  The fixer!  And the sassy smartie!), and the plot points are pretty predictable.  It’s not going to challenge anyone intellectually, because it’s the polar opposite of Manchester by the Sea – whereas Manchester holds the camera until you figure out what’s happening, Hidden Figures tells you outright and moves on.

Which makes it hellishly enjoyable.  You’ll laugh, you’ll clap, you’ll boo at the right times.  But you probably won’t be surprised, because in the end this is a feel-good film and what you think is going to happen largely happens.

Yet that is not bad.  Predictability isn’t a detriment when everything else is entertaining, and those three characters are smart and capable in a world that’s stacked against them – and what’s unusual is that almost nobody’s racist as white people today define race.  Nobody’s actively out to get our three black heroines – they’re merely enforcing the status quo, they don’t see themselves as bad guys.  One of the refrains of the film is “That’s just the way it is.”

It’s not a complex look at institutionalized racism, but then again when you’re making a cheery feel-good popcorn film you don’t want complex.  The point is made, and made well; nobody has to mean to be racist to wind up perpetuating racism.

Gini proclaimed this the best film she’s seen this year, and we’ve seen all these films this year.  I’m still giving the nod to Moonlight, but damn I hope this picks up a nomination.

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