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 ABC’s Best Pal Jimmy Kimmel, with brief notes on two Best Picture nominees and one nominee in another category for value-added variety.
* Hacksaw Ridge: The closest thing we have to a Christian nominee on the Academy Awards shortlist is also the bloodiest of the bunch. Mel Gibson returns from a wise hibernation spell once again to fuse faith and fury in telling the true story of Private Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector who yearned to serve his country in World War II without pointing a single gun at anything ever, who became a field medic and dispelled all accusations of cowardice when he rescued 75 men from an active battlefield. The first half of the movie, in which Doss is harassed and kicked around the barracks for sticking to his beliefs, is an amazing simulation of Twitter whenever someone disagrees with the majority-at-large, even giving us that one guy (in this case Vince Vaughn) who wants everyone to take him seriously but has this weird problem where he jokes and demands you respect his harshness in the same sentence. R. Lee Ermey he’s not. I’m not convinced he could handle a platoon in a Stripes reboot.
Before the blood flows deep and wide, Andrew Garfield’s young man of faith is a complicated embodiment of things Hollywood hates in its heroes: gawky, patriotic, nonviolent, Christian, and overtly Southern, accent and all, albeit veering close to threat level Cornpone at times. Right before the end credits, interview footage of the real Doss confirms Garfield isn’t that far off. But he’s the perfect role model for Gibson to reach “heartland” viewers, up until the part where his duties send him into the Battle of Okinawa, an expansive cutting board where men on both sides are randomly churned into pot roast chunks by ubiquitous stray gunfire and a solid wall of incessant explosions. While Saving Private Ryan meets Saw, the loyal, unyielding Doss keeps listening for that still, small voice from God telling him what he’s meant to do, and keeps on praying for every last ounce of energy to get him through the abattoir and bring the boys out of it alive and with minimal horrifying amputations. The music and imagery get a little manipulative by the end, but yanking hard on the ol’ heartstrings is kind of what true stories of WWII heroism tend to do when they’re done right.
Also starring: Hugo Weaving as Garfield’s abusive, alcoholic dad who convinced him how he didn’t want to live his life; Avatar‘s Sam Worthington (hey, I remember him!) as Vince Vaughn’s more respectable boss who learns to admit when he’s wrong; and Richard Roxburgh (Moulin Rouge, Van Helsing), who has to vouch to the U.S. Army and the viewers at home that some of the more intense Christian denominations do not qualify as Section 8 mental issues. Meanwhile back on the home front, Teresa Palmer — costar of such would-be blockbusters as Warm Bodies, I Am Number Four, and Disney’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice — is the Concerned Wife; Oscar nominee and Six Feet Under costar Rachel Griffiths is the Concerned Mom.
Fun trivia of note: Hacksaw Ridge is the first major-studio war film made in decades without a single F-word in the final cut. The spare harsh language barely reaches AMC’s TV-14 level. I was impressed. In today’s entertainment environment, such a move nearly counts as countercultural.
* 13th: The only nominee for Best Documentary Feature I found on Netflix is Ava DuVernay’s deep dive into the American penal system that incarcerates a seemingly disproportionate number of black men compared to other countries and compared to America’s own head counts from past decades. Rather than going after poverty or parenting, DuVernay’s target is a clause in the U.S. Constitution’s 13th amendment that technically allows slavery if the subjected in question are convicts. Theoretically it’s therefore in The MAN’s best interests to round up as many prospective chattel as possible by making petty laws stricter, lengthening prison sentences for minor crimes most likely to be committed by blacks, inventing the War on Drugs, and so on. (Fans of The Wire may be familiar with this discussion.) Presidents from Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton aren’t spared their culpability in the process.
The finger-pointing leans toward all-out conspiracy when it tries to diagram all instances of blacks-versus-police into the same thesis, but the case in general — the statistics, the interviews, the documented quotes — provides an eye-opening look at a side of American governance that’s too easy for white guys like me to miss. And one has to wonder, had DuVernay waited another year to make her doc, if today’s announcement about a potential revival of private prisons might merit a watchful postscript.
* Moonlight: Films about sexual awakening, sexual coming-of-age, or sexual themes in the forefront in general are officially Not My Thing, regardless of whether it’s my type or not. In this area I tend to have adverse reactions to movies that enthrall millions of other viewers. This means roughly 60% of the Criterion Collection is outside my boundaries, not to mention every teen sex comedy made after I grew up. It’s reason #726 why I’ll never be one of the internet cool kids, but it’s where I’m at.
Moonlight has a bit more than that going on. It’s been one of 2016’s most critically hailed films for its in-depth chronicle of one boy’s journey from bullied childhood to super painful teenage years to incongruous adulthood, following a path where no mainstream movies care or dare to tread. From a technical storytelling perspective, it’s a master class in economy and succinctness, implying entire brushstrokes with mere dabs, knowing which dots need connecting and which dots the viewer can connect for themselves, conveying the most important emotional movements while skipping backstory that may leave the viewer curious without leaving them dissatisfied. No flashbacks, no convoluted narrative twists, just a few forward time-jumps and enough clues to bridge the gaps without looking back. It’s to director Barry Jenkins’ credit that Moonlight cuts to the point, the heart and the nerve without bloating itself on exposition. If I wrote fiction more often, I’d be taking notes all through this.
The three versions of Chiron are all played by skillful unknowns, though my favorite is high-school Chiron, embodied by Ashton Sanders as one of the most realistically introverted teens ever to shamble across a movie screen with gangling awkwardness, uncomfortable silences, and eyes carrying the cumulative weight of a thousand hateful knockdowns. Also starring: Luke Cage‘s Mahershala Ali, equally a VIP here as li’l Chiron’s self-appointed Big Brother surrogate who cracks his protective shell but also happens to be a drug dealer; Naomie Harris (Moneypenny!) at times a pitiable mom and/or a frightening ghoul, too helpless with her own issues to parent much; Andre Holland (Selma, 42) as a cheerful old friend big Chiron reconnects with; and Hidden Figures co-headliner Janelle Monae as the Concerned Substitute Mom.
For those keeping track at home, that’s eight Best Picture nominees down for me, one more to go. A three-day illness wrecked my viewing schedule and put me behind, so I’m cutting it closer this year than ever. But my annual Oscar quest will be finished. Soon. Somehow.