Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s more like a newsletter in which I’ve jotted 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, the perfect representative for the Year of #MeToo on Bizarro World, with brief notes on our final Best Picture nominee (and one of the best), along with all the nominees I could catch in other categories before I ran out of time.
* Get Out: I heard such great things about Jordan Peele’s lacerating satire that I had it on my want list long before the Oscar nominations were announced. I waited patiently for it to show up conveniently on Netflix. And waited and waited, and then got fed up and blew some spare change on Redbox instead.
Also previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
This time of year is my annual Oscar Quest, during which I venture out to see all Academy Award nominees for Best Picture, regardless of whether I think I’ll like them or not, whether their politics and beliefs agree with mine or not, whether they’re good or bad for me, and whether or not my friends and family have ever heard of them. I’ve seen every Best Picture nominee from 1997 to the present. As of February 21st I’ve officially seen all nine of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I’m not sure I’ll be able to cover the others in full before the Oscars telecast on March 4th, but let’s see how far I can get before I burn out.
And here we land on nominee #9. I don’t do full-length reviews for home video, which is just as well because I’m not sure how much more I need to write on the one nominee everyone saw before I did. I laughed, I recoiled, I took too many mental notes to retain them all for this long.
I love Daniel Kaluuya’s vast array of distinctly different frozen expressions for the sake of conflict avoidance. I chuckled at Peele’s solution to many a fan’s argument about how many horror-flick victims would have been saved if only they’d had smartphones. I marveled at how far the cameoing Erika Alexander has come since The Cosby Show. I’m annoyed with myself that I didn’t recognize Lakeith Stanfield from Atlanta as “Gary” in the straw hat. I want a spinoff series devoted entirely to TSA Agent Rod. And I enjoyed — and continue to enjoy wherever possible — seeing other Twitter users point out new, little, complex details they keep uncovering with every rewatch. If Get Out wins, it would be the first horror film to do so since The Silence of the Lambs. It’s excellent company to keep.
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The rest of this entry was made entirely possible by the miracle of Netflix, whose kindnesses appear to have been a major boon to documentarians in particular.
* Mudbound: Nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Supporting Actress Mary J. Blige, and Original Song “Mighty River” as sung and co-written by Blige herself. Director Dee Rees and cinematographer Rachel Morrison capture landscape beauty and human atrocity amid the banality and sorrow of post-WWII Mississippi.
Jason Mitchell (Eazy-E from Straight Outta Compton) is a tank commander named Ronsel; Garrett Hedlund (the hero from Tron Legacy) is a fighter pilot named Jamie. The duo doesn’t know each other when they come home from the European theater, but they become good enough drinking buddies to swap war stories and ride with each other. Each has their challenges on the homefront — the white guy has PTSD to work through, but the black guy has to deal with the fact that he’s in utterly racist Mississippi, where his commendable service to his country means nothing, he’s still expected to “behave”, and he makes the major mistake of crossing paths with Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks as the ultimate evil grandpa. Historical traumatic horror ensues.
The guys barely appear in the entire first hour at all, which devotes time to laying a lot of groundwork. Ronsel’s poor parents (the nominated Ms. Blige, plus Rob Morgan, a.k.a. recurring hoodlum Turk from the Marvel Netflix universe) are subject to the whims of their reluctant landlord Jason Clarke, who in turn is mostly bitter that he got swindled into the position and is hugely failing his wife Carey Mulligan. Their relationships are a tricky mess that provide the context for everything that follows between our war-hero friends. Harrowing and hard to watch at times, by the end Mudbound slowly finds narrow paths toward glimpses of recovery and hope.
Every year most viewers have at least one film they think was robbed and should’ve been nominated for Best Picture. Having seen all nine nominees, I found Mudbound a cut above most of them, and can’t wait for the AMPAS nominating committees to stop looking down their noses at original Netflix productions like this one.
* Icarus: Nominated for Best Documentary Feature. After seeing his hero Lance Armstrong lambasted in the media for performance enhancement use and being stripped of honors, dedicated amateur cyclist Bryan Vogel sought to expose the world of shoddy sports drug testing by turning himself into a performance-enhancement guinea pig and seeing how many worldwide biking competitions he could trick his way into. When the UCLA doctor who designed his regimen declines to assist with the fraud phase of his plan, Vogel is instead referred to a Russian specialist willing to assist is his righteous vendetta. Vogel’s vision of being the Morgan Spurlock of biking takes a hard left turn when he learns the Russian isn’t any old specialist: he’s the man in charge of drug testing for all Russian sports…with nary a positive test result for any subject. Ever. Their collaboration led to the doctor defecting to the US, bringing thousands of incriminating files with him, and facilitating a major New York Times exposé in 2016 that rocked international sports in general and the Sochi Olympics in particular. And Vogel got it all on camera. A fascinating, accidentally journalistic journey to behold even if you’re not a sports fan. And for MCC end-credits fans looking for those unusual tidbits, let it be noted Icarus includes a “Super Special Thanks” to the bassist from Rage Against the Machine.
* Strong Island: Also nominated for Best Documentary Feature. In 1992 director Yance Ford’s brother William was murdered one night in a NYC chop-shop, but the all-white grand jury chose not to indict the killer. With the proceedings sealed per standard grand jury protocol (which one attorney helpfully explains at length on camera), the family fell to pieces from not knowing what went wrong in what they thought was an open-and-shut case for justice. 25 years later, the family wants answers. Without knowing where the investigation would lead, Ford keeps the cameras up close and intensely personal as one member after another walks us through their history, their memories of William, their loss and confusion and rage. But Ford is caught off-guard when a series of phone calls bring more facts to light — some already known but too easily dismissed at first — that paint a story more complicated than “white guy gets away with killing a black guy” and arguably more dissatisfying than merely not knowing. A bit languorous in parts as the cameras keep rolling for minutes at a time without interruption, but Strong Island digs marrow-deep into regrets and guilt, and leaves so much raw vulnerability up on the screen that it’s impossible to finish the film without wishing more could have been done for the family in their time of tragedy.
* Last Men in Aleppo: Also also nominated for Best Documentary Feature. Obsessive Oscar viewers previously saw The White Helmets, last year’s winner for Best Documentary Short Film. That was a British production from outside, featuring multiple interviews in between rescue missions; this time, homegrown filmmaker Feras Fayyad is at the helm for this haunting feature-length ride-along with the Syrian Civil Defense, nicknamed the “White Helmets”, the volunteer first-responders who swarm around Ground Zero of every Russian Apocalypse Now airstrike and dig through the rubble for whatever they can find — whether it’s surviving children, babies, and pets, or just loose remains that deserve proper rites. Neither the film nor the city are for the faint of heart, and things get even tenser when the fighter planes begin targeting the White Helmets’ own bases. In between are moments of humanity — a children’s playground outing during a fragile ceasefire; new trees planted amid the chaos; workers using debris to build a fish pond — that define why these citizens stay in Syria despite the wartime Armageddon that has them forming rallies to curse the name of President Bashar Assad and wondering where their Arab neighbors are at through all their misery. As one of the White Helmets puts it to a child, a member of the next generation to inherit all of this, they survive entirely “by God’s grace. You’re a flower and you must see life.”
* Heroin(e): Nominated for Best Documentary Short Film. My wife and I drove through the town of Huntington, West Virginia on our 2008 road trip, but had no idea their future would count them among many places stricken by the headline-news opioid crisis. Filmmaker Elaine McMillion Sheldon turns her cameras toward three women trying to make a difference among the addicts: a fire chief who hands out expensive anti-overdose packs to her local squads for lifesaving use as needed; a judge who runs a Drug Court that reduces sentences for offenders if they stay in rehab and stay honest with her, but firmly and without raising her voice sends them back behind bars if they break their promises; and an outreach worker who passes out free meals and Christian tracts to streetwalkers trying to fund their habits the wrong way. What this trio does is a mere drop in the bucket compared to the number of lives lost or imprisoned for the sake of chasing that illicit euphoria, but some of the men and women they do save are on hand to express their gratitude and find ways to carry on the good work in their own right.
* The Boss Baby: Nominated for Best Animated Feature, beating other candidates such as Cars 3, Despicable Me 3, The Nut Job 2, The Emoji Movie, Captain Underpants, The Lego Ninjago Movie, Stop Trying to Make The Smurfs Happen, the one with John Cena as a Spanish bull, the treacly Christmas movie that everyone was really mean to, and Transformers: The Last Knight.
Wow. I mean. Animation studios, what happened to you guys? You used to be cool.
To be fair, The Boss Baby starts with a solid metaphor. An only child with doting parents finds his world turned topsy-turvy when a new baby shows up and demands all their attention. Suddenly our hero is ignored while Mom and Dad are at the beck and call of the new intruder. That’s relatable for anyone who ever had a younger sibling they never wanted. Casting Alec Baldwin as the interloper who’s taken over the entire household kind of works for anyone who doesn’t mind him pounding the same Glengarry Glen Ross joke into the ground for ninety straight minutes. From there the film changes topics to the perpetual attention-seeking war between li’l kids and pets. We know this is a real conflict in the real world, rife for exploring.
Eventually, predictably, that potentially nuanced groundwork is tossed aside in favor of body-fluid gags, lots of Baldwin yelling, and rollicking adventure that blurs the lines between our hero’s hyperactive imagination and the quote-quote “real world” that isn’t much different except the animation style gets intentionally cruder and there are fewer costumes. The nonsense level drifts into pure baby babble by the time we get to the part where an evil Steve Buscemi’s master plan involves launching a rocketship full of genetically modified cutesy dogs into orbit. Then ????? and then profit. The sad thing is, The Boss Baby probably was in the Top 10 of 2017’s mostly disposable animated films.
But to those who asked the burning question that MCC always likes to investigate, which in this case was probably no one ever, there is indeed a scene after the Boss Baby end credits! It’s a short, cute bit — our kiddie hero’s Gandalf-knockoff alarm clock (voiced by James McGrath, the director’s nephew) trying to shoo the audience out of the theater like a tiny ceramic Ferris Bueller. In case they hadn’t already run away screaming.