Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s me jotting down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I Recently Watched at home. In this batch: one of this year’s nominees in one of the less ballyhooed categories; two past Best Picture nominees that should’ve been contenders; and two Best Picture winners with little in common except racism and car crashes.
* Virunga: I rarely go out of my way to catch Academy Award nominees in the other categories before the ceremony, but Netflix made this one so convenient that I couldn’t say no. This Best Documentary Feature nominee about a Congo gorilla orphanage caught in a 2012 rebel invasion crossfire received high praise from my son, who watched it in one of his anthropology classes last semester. At times it was hard to look directly at the stark you-are-there footage of African anarchy and mass murder in progress, and the allegations of behind-the-scenes string-pulling by the London-based oil company SOCO International — including journalist spycam footage of self-indicting interviews — give us all more reasons to lament the oil industry as a thoroughly corrupted career track and concept. The gorillas are fun to watch when all is well, but they and their noble keepers were in for a time of terror that needed to be exposed.
And to answer the burning question that MCC is always happy to verify: yes, there is a scene after the Virunga end credits. If you’ve still got the blues after the depressing “Where Are They Now?” epilogue and the Official SOCO Legal Department Boilerplate Response that shouldn’t improve the mood or opinions of anyone on Earth, sticking around to the bitter treats viewers to a happy pick-me-up: a clip of heroic guardian Andre Bauma twirling around his latest ward — a new, young, adorable, orphaned gorilla named Matabishi. Awwwwwwwwwwwwww.
* Moonstruck: Once upon a time in the ’80s, having Nicolas Cage costar in your film didn’t automatically ruin your shot at a Best Picture nomination. In a rare reversal of his last thirty films, here he starts with over-the-top histrionics and then slowly reels himself in until he’s a polite button-down fiancé by the end. The real star, of course, is Cher as a graying Italian-American Brooklynite who thinks star signs are pointing her toward a pre-dulled marriage with a harmless Danny Aiello until she meets Cage and decides to take charge of her destiny, or at least retool her hair and makeup.
Cher finds herself torn between the safe, older, unremarkable guy who’d guarantee she wouldn’t have to die alone, or the hotheaded, younger baker with a mangled hand, a chip on his shoulder, and a way with words once you calm him down. Meanwhile in the background, her mom Olympia Dukakis deals with an unfaithful husband and seeks insight as to why men chase after women in such stupid ways. Possible answers come after a frank discussion with a failed professorial lothario played by Frasier‘s John Mahoney.
The romantic bits are mostly charming (I didn’t agree with all of Cage’s advice), the insights go beyond “Women be different from men!”, and I wish I knew opera well enough to appreciate the levels it added to the film’s subtext, because I’m sure it added some. Cher, Dukakis, and screenwriter John Patrick Shanley all won Oscars for their work, but the movie lost Best Picture to The Last Emperor, which had larger panoramas, more war scenes, and fewer fans today. So maybe Nicolas Cage was a jinx after all.
(Fun contrived connection: whereas Virunga was filmed in the Republic of Congo, Shanley wrote the screenplay for the film version of Michael Crichton’s Congo. They’re like distant adopted cousins!)
* Nashville: Robert Altman’s deep, dark, detailed dissection of the world of 1970s country music turns 40 this year, which would be a better remembered moment if it hadn’t been beaten to the Best Picture Oscar by Jack Nicholson in a madhouse. The cast of zillions (Tomlin! Duvall! Ned Beatty! Charlie Chaplin’s daughter! a Carradine! dozens more!) take us on a tour of multiple level of Grand Ole Opry fame and fandom — the established, powerful patriarch; the happy Southern gospel choir; the once-respected singer who’s past her prime; the ingenue who can’t sing or write but will do anything to make it big; the free-love folk singers ready to harm each other behind the scenes; the lone black country singer who garners the thinnest of polite applause; the quiet, unsuspected psycho stalker; the nobody who wanders in at the right place and time; and enigmatic superfan Jeff Goldblum, who doesn’t try to sing but just drives a chopper around and follows everyone on tour and does whatever comes naturally, as you would. I’ve never watched ABC’s unrelated Nashville, so I have no idea if this resembles that at all, or if it’s closer to Empire, but as music biz takedowns go, forty years haven’t dulled its skewers.
* Driving Miss Daisy: Ever since Public Enemy and friends mocked this Best Picture winner in “Burn Hollywood Burn”, its street cred has never recovered. Admittedly, it’s possibly the most harmless, milquetoast film about minority oppression I’ve ever seen. I’d say “about racism” but you technically ought to allow for the part where Jessica Tandy’s widow is Jewish, which she repeats to us several times in case we forget, and later in the film has to cope with the offscreen bombing of her Jewish temple, which might’ve meant anything had we been permitted to see the damage, or an ounce of debris, or a single victim’s name or face.
Daisy tends to be mentioned only as a punchline, possibly on the basis that a man like Morgan Freeman’s genial, subservient driver Hoke never, ever, ever, ever, ever existed in all of history unless he was also furious and/or constantly plotting his way to freedom. Or maybe we’re supposed to denigrate him for being unreasonably gracious to his racist employer. Or maybe this movie is viewed as condoning Jim Crow merely by using it as a backdrop without showing its unequivocal revocation. Best Picture win aside, I think it could’ve used a stronger, bolder viewpoint, but I also have to wonder if today’s audiences are predisposed toward hating on films set in the South that contain too many southern accents. Just a hunch.
* The French Connection: In a DVD featurette for Bug, director William Friedkin confirmed that The Exorcist and The French Connection bankrolled the rest of his life and filmmaking career. One won Best Picture; the other left entire generations frightened and scarred. Before too many modern cops turned into grim ‘n’ gritty antiheroes, Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider showed us the anger, frustration, smart-mouthing, racism, corner-cutting, and prosecution failures that were part and parcel of the New York police beat before everyone decided edginess was cool. The part to study and praise is still that classic chase scene between Popeye Doyle in a borrowed car and a subway carrying an escaping killer. Remember when those thrills and speed and wrecks could be orchestrated without CG? Time for a refresher. But I’d almost recommend stopping playback before the “Where Are They Now?” epilogue, which is nearly as depressing as Virunga‘s.