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: we prepare for Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony starring Chris Rock and a crowd of soon-to-be-flabbergasted white folks with brief notes on the final Best Picture nominee, one nominee in other categories, and one tiny overlooked film that would make a great double feature with one of the other Best Picture nominees.
* Bridge of Spies: Steven Spielberg’s latter-day career trajectory seems to be arcing toward history professor, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but isn’t always mandatory viewing. I skipped the theatrical run of his true-story Cold War negotiation drama, which also happened to be the first nominee released on home video. It’s low-key and not terribly flashy, but it’s his best period piece since Saving Private Ryan. Most of the proceedings are men arguing and posing in cramped rooms with the occasional creative setup from old cinematographer pal Janusz Kaminski, but the trailer glossed over key sequences set in 1950s East Germany, where post-WWII soldiers are laying the foundation and first brick layers for the Berlin Wall. It’s a time where lines are being arbitrarily drawn, citizens are dragged to one side or the other whether they like it or not, and nuclear annihilation remains one potential future on the table.
(The one time it aims for movie action, in pilot Francis Gary Powers’ ostensibly harrowing crash sequence, I was too busy staring at the tiny CG pilot flapping and flailing and twirling in midair to feel the intended suspense.)
Tom Hanks largely dominates in an upstanding display of confidence, stubbornness, and unapologetic idealism as the lawyer ordered to bargain for the lives of American captives and flagrantly disobeying orders when he insists on reinforcing what makes America America. Part of the credit goes to co-writers Joel and Ethan Coen, who (according to the DVD featurette) were brought in chiefly to augment Hanks’ role. (The recurring “one-one-one” and “two-two-two” bits sound like them in my head.)
It’s not merely a Hanks showcase. Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Rylance is Russian spy Rudolf Abel, arrested in America but later swapped in a landmark deal between the two rivaling nations. Abel’s laconic pragmatism keeps him cool under all forms of pressure during his imprisonment, calmly accepting the things he cannot change, frustrated only when denied the simplest pleasures that keep him going, showing fear only briefly when he guesses at the fate awaiting him back home.
Other recognizable faces: Herc from The Wire as one of the lead G-men sent to capture Abel; TV’s Alan Alda as Hanks’ law-firm boss; Billy Magnusson, last seen as Max Greenfield’s shady real-estate partner in The Big Short, as Hanks’ gofer; Jesse Plemons (Friday Night Lights) as one of Powers’ teammates; and The Wire‘s Amy Ryan as the Concerned Wife with scenes written a bit better than average.
* 99 Homes: I first heard director Ramin Bahrani’s name dropped in the documentary and memoir Life Itself, in both of which the late film critic Roger Ebert pegged him as a rising star. 99 Homes wasn’t his first American feature film, but it’s one that should have put him on more must-lists than just Ebert’s. Former super-hero Andrew Garfield is a southern construction worker without paying gigs in a recession-scarred 2010, kicked out of his childhood home by evil real estate agent Michael Shannon, who barely notices him at first because he has plenty of other marks to con, regulations to skirt, delinquent homeowners to make cry, that sort of thing. Through a strange chain of events, a desperate Garfield ends up working for Shannon — helping him renovate abandoned homes, swapping large appliances for cash and vice versa, and later taking on the hard task of evicting other ordinary folks the same way Shannon evicted him.
Bahrani follows the uncomfortable realities from one frustrated family to the next, a long parade of folks who thought they bought into the American dream but didn’t understand the fine print, or the normal-size print, or how to read a contract, or how interest rates work, or the basics of exchanging money for goods and services. I winced in recognition at Garfield’s protracted front-porch argument with Shannon and his accompanying policemen, men in blue whose law-enforcement positions seemingly have them playing his company’s personal enforcers more often than they actually patrol their streets for law ‘n’ order. As Our Hero learns the ropes of this ugly business and finds out how much cash can be had if you work hard and stick with it, it’s not long before he gets used to the tough parts, develops a routine that becomes a knack, and slowly, unwittingly crosses the line between survival and greed. As a morally complicated dive into everything wrong with residential real estate in 112 minutes or less, 99 Homes was too small for Oscar noms but is a perfect fit inside The Big Short Cinematic Universe.
Other recognizable faces: Clancy Brown has a few scenes as Shannon’s corporate overlord (which, for animated Justice League fans, means Zod is taking orders from Lex Luthor); Tim Guinee from NBC’s Revolution as an angry head-of-household who refuses to fade away quietly into the loser montage; Christopher Berry (the chatty Negan henchman who recently held Abraham and Sasha at gunpoint on The Walking Dead) as another gun-toting edgy guy; and Laura Dern as Garfield’s mom, who becomes the film’s incredulous conscience, aghast at her son’s evolution from padawan to Sith Lord.
* Ex Machina: I went into this virtually blind. I’d seen a single photo of Alicia Vikander in brilliant, unsettling costume. I knew director Alex Garland was the screenwriter behind Danny Boyle’s simply amazing sci-fi trip Sunshine. My son had seen this and recommended it but refused to go into detail because spoilers. That’s it. I saw no trailers or commercials, read no reviews, noticed zero friends talking about it, didn’t even look it up on IMDb beforehand. When the Blu-ray showed up on Black Friday as an eight-dollar steal, I figured why not.
I was taken by complete surprise to see Domhnall Gleeson, star of sixty-five different films in 2015, show up in nice-guy mode as our quote-unquote “hero”. And then my eyes bulged three sizes too big as a deep-undercover Oscar Isaac entered the picture, lulled me and his guest into a false sense of comfort, and ever so slowly lowered his benefactor’s facade as the details emerged of his purported quest to develop the ultimate free-willed A.I. And even more slowly and subtly, Alicia Vikander’s inorganic ingenue emerged not as the MacGuffin, not as the damsel in distress, not as the walking evil Trek computer, but as the film’s true protagonist.
So, so much going on in what’s at surface level a slow-burn bottle episode for three, with endless debates to be had regarding property rights versus sentient rights, servitude versus liberty, sexism versus empowerment, and self-determination versus role assignment. Its Oscar nominations for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Screenplay are undoubtedly the categories where it most deserves to compete, though it’s been heartening to see it fare better in other competitions throughout this tumultuous Academy Awards season.
Even after the end credits rolled, it took me a while to shake it off and move on. Among other tug-‘o’-war tournaments going on in my head, I sat trying to figure out for myself whether the ending was ultimately feminist or sexist. I’ve since read a few takes in each direction, but here’s a link to the one I found the most thought-provoking, all about the spoilers from start to finish. I didn’t agree with every sentence 100%, especially where it conflicts a tad in matters of faith, but it’s an intellectually provocative take on the film’s panoply of nuances, certainly more socially attuned than anything I might’ve attempted to type here. Your Mileage May Vary.