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 as well as the previous one: the past few months’ worth of comfy-chair viewing as prep for this Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony, except this year I went overboard and decided to see how many the nominees I could catch from other categories, either free via legal means or via existing streaming-service subscriptions. As it turns out, quite a few, mostly documentaries but that’s not a bad thing.
But first, an Original Screenplay nominee I’d been curious to see for a while:
* First Reformed (Kanopy): Ethan Hawke is the minister of a dying old church, subservient to the local mega-church headed by Cedric the Entertainer, trying to perform his God-appointed tasks to a congregation of six while giving the occasional historical tours to passing tourists who just really like souvenirs. Things go topsy-turvy when a pregnant Amanda Seyfried asks Farther Hawke to counsel her husband, who’s developed a disturbingly intense fear of environmental doomsday and may be about to do something really stupid. I hadn’t expected climate change to be the front-and-center topic that inspires questions of faith, purpose, and the significance of our contributions to this world.
In his daily rut, Hawke is matured and reserved, but seeking deeper meaning in what he does, more so when a separate subplot threatens to cut his ministry drastically short. His attempt to play counselor forces him to deal with failures — his own as well as those spun far beyond his control — and leads to an unpredictable but apropos ending that reminds the viewer writer-director Paul Schrader was the same scribe behind Taxi Driver, another film in which the weight of this world in its decaying orbit threatens to crush a good man’s spirit. Hawke nearly succumbs to the same fate as Travis Bickle, but his ultimate salvation may lie in the humanist Moral of the Story that the real holy ministry is the friends we make along the way. I type that only half-jokingly.
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And now we present four of the five nominees for Best Documentary Feature, which is a new personal viewing record for me. I’ve heard great things about the fifth one, Free Solo, whose distributor thinks I should pay ten bucks to stream it this weekend. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA no. Each is ranked not in order of preference, but by my response’s word count, ranging from “Not Much to Say” to “I Could Go On for Days”.
* Hale County This Morning, This Evening (pbs.org): A series of video snapshots of black community life in an Alabama in all its joys and heartbreaks. A few personalities pop out with actual narratives edited in short, deliberately framed fragments like Lady Bird, but mostly it’s like watching several dozen Vines in a row, or flipping through a pile of photo albums that contains a few pretty shots, but the stars of those pictures never quite feel as deep for the beholder as they do for the owner.
* Of Fathers and Sons (Kanopy): A Syrian expatriate journalist returns to his homeland and gets himself embedded with a Syrian family whose father is raising his many sons in the ways of radical Islamic terrorism. The ride-along sees them through mundane joys of soccer and dinner, beholds the trauma when his day-job as a minesweeper hits a major snag, and follows the boys along at training camp, where they’re already used to gunfire and hope one day to grow up and fight back against Western civilization like dear old Dad. Watching it back-to-back with Minding the Gap makes for a despairing double feature about The Evil Males Do and the generations they’re teaching to be just like them.
(I like to think it’s no coincidence that women don’t appear on camera in this one till the 90-minute mark of a 98-minute film.)
* RBG (Hulu): The celebrated celebration of celebrated Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a bit less at the box office than my personal fave, the Mister Rogers documentary Won’t You be My Neighbor, but those in charge of such nominations really, really love her to pieces.
I didn’t find much use for the extended scenes of RBG fans exalting RBG fandom; I was here to learn more about her beyond “elderly liberal woman”, which was literally the sum of my RBG knowledge beforehand. Much more fascinating was the dive into her case history as a staunch equal-rights lawyer (including the one time she probably didn’t make a lot of Louisiana women happy), her ascent through the approvals process (with clips of her proceedings featuring Joe Biden’s long-lost hair), and the delicate balance she strives to maintain between being true to her political beliefs and upholding the impartial decision-making that’s ostensibly in the job description for her and her colleagues of varying camps.
Bonus points for surprise inclusions such as the time she apologized for slagging a Presidential candidate in an unseemly manner, and the caught-on-film evidence of her longtime friendship with Antonin Scalia, generally perceived as her anti-matter evil twin but who treasured their nonpartisan relationship even after that one time they rode an elephant together. It’s a curious snapshot of a bygone era before any and all American personal interactions became us-vs.-them binary-dichotomy battlefields.
* Minding the Gap (Hulu): Three teenage guys from Rockford, IL (a medium-sized Midwest industrial town that’s seen better days, like many we’ve driven through on our road trips), grow up as skateboarding buddies but then see their paths diverge as they get older, though the one thing they have in common is issues with their elders. The happy black kid had divorced parents, an abusive dad, no job ambitions, and occasional anger issues. Eventually he gets into low-level restaurant positions, gets his G.E.D., and slowly works his way upward to something resembling a happy ending. In comparison he’s the hero of the three.
The one with the most screen time, whose mom abandoned him at age 2, quit school, got a decent roofing job, had a kid before he turned 21, turned into a lazy drunk who beat his kid’s mom at least once, moved to Denver for a while at the behest of another girl he met online while effectively abandoning his own son and his ex, lived equally poorly out there, then moved back to Rockford and somehow got the roofing job back but was still an aimless drunk anyway. I kinda wanted to see him fall into quicksand and then have someone pour a dump truck full of bricks on it.
And the third member of the trio spent all these years making this very documentary as a way to work through his own family issues by putting the lives of everyone else in his life under scrutiny, up to and including the most squirm-inducing scene in which he interviews his own mom on camera just so he can grill her about his abusive stepdad, whom she took 17 years to kick out. She’s obviously super uncomfortable but agrees to it because she wants to make him happy after years of misery. He’s scarily nearly a doppelgänger of Abed from Community, someone failing to deal with their own reality and treating everyone around him like characters, except this is their actual life and not a sitcom.
In all it basically boiled down to a vivid examination of what a wise man in my life once termed “Young Stupid Male Syndrome”, which he told me about while I was trapped in its stupefying throes and making some of the dumbest mistakes of my life. Except this is, like, me times three, setting aside the fact that I proudly underwent no “deadbeat dad” phase. Back in my restaurant days (1988-2000) I worked with a lot of teens and stunted adults not unlike this very trio, so this gave me hard flashbacks and confirmed that little has changed among the YSMS sufferers of today. Some escape it and live free; some make it their lifestyle and choke on it. This was interesting on more levels than its filmmaker/costar probably intended it to be.
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We conclude this moment of Oscars overkill with all five nominees in Documentary Short Subject, the first time in my life I’ve watched the entire category. Each is ranked in order from Pretty Good to Most Emotionally Indelible.
* A Night at the Garden (the official site): The shortest nominee is seven minutes of historical disquiet, comprising footage cobbled from several sources of a 1939 Nazi rally held at Madison Square Garden. (Some of this was in Frank Capra’s Why We Fight, but not all of it.) Over twenty thousand New Yorkers showed up for the chilling affair, patriotic and bigoted all at once. Seeing a long protester taken down by a dozen policemen is bad enough, but then one demented happy-dude revels in the moment with the most disturbing jig since the Leprechaun series.
This mere sampler’s official site is packed with so much commentary and other extras that I wish the editor/filmmaker had been able to take it a step further and incorporate some deeper research, narration, and interviews into the short itself, even if that would’ve meant lengthening it, but it would’ve hit harder than it does as a novelty Nazi Rally Supercut.
* Lifeboat (YouTube via New Yorker): If you think fugitives crossing the desert from Mexico to America have it rough, try being a North African fleeing Libyan traffickers by attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe. Chances are your boat’s flimsy and crowded with dozens of equally oppressed escapees, your only bathroom facility is the floor of the boat, you’ve never been on a large body of water and are just now discovering the thrill of seasickness, dehydration and exposure and starvation are your constant companions, and ultimately that journey is long and impossible and in all likelihood fatal. Enter the crew of Sea-Watch, a German rescue organization whose everyday mission is to accost those cheap watercraft and save their passengers’ lives…though I may have missed any mention of whether those passengers are escorted the rest of the way to freedom or returned to the homeland of their captors.
As a grim reminder of the alternative, the filmmakers also visit that African coast where the bodies of hundreds of would-be immigrants periodically wash ashore. It’s the horrifying cost when entire nations fall to pieces and can’t save themselves, and their populations realize they have to do something.
* Black Sheep (YouTube via The Guardian): A single stark interview with a black Englishman, the son of Nigerian immigrants, whose family moved out to the countryside to escape the violence of London only to discover they’d landed squarely in the province of racists. When his teenage self can’t take the daily epithet-laden assaults at school, he decides if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. With the help of a number of “beauty” products he sets about to make himself literally less black, using his bullies as his role models, and eventually finds himself accepted into their ranks.
A personal quest for mere freedom from violence instead becomes a descent into darkness, a transformation into a troglodyte, and an unexpected outlet for the aggressions suffered at the hand of his abusive dad, which you may note as a recurring motif in this year’s nominees and probably in the worst internet trolls out there. Bad parenting is in danger of becoming a storytelling cliché unless we stop letting it rule as a societal norm. Until then, such stories remain harrowing and deplorable and worth hearing no matter how unflinchingly honest and self-incriminating they have to be to teach such lessons.
* Period. End of Sentence. (Netflix): A delightful counterpoint to so much nominated machismo, the women of an Indian community finally tire of poverty, sexist oppression, and the flimsy sanitary napkins obviously designed by males who’ve never menstruated or so much as made eye contact with a woman on her period. With the assistance of one (1) male inventor who blessedly doesn’t stick around to hog the spotlight, these enterprising ladies set up shop to manufacture their own quality pad that’s actually absorbent (with a product demo!) and start marketing their own product called “Fly”, which seems like an odd name given that they don’t yet offer a version with “wings”, but whatever. The result is a true victory at the intersection of feminism and capitalism, topped off with one of the most stunningly pun-filled documentary titles ever.
* End Game (Netflix): Two years ago Netflix had a similar nominee in this very category called Extremis on the subject of permanent patients. I was concerned this might be more of the same, but the focus is a bit different. This time the patients are all terminal and, along with their families, have reached their last days and have to make the hard choice of whether to live out their series finale at home with their own stuff but fewer medical devices, in the hospital that can cure them no further, or in the comfort of hospice, viewed by some as a death sentence in itself. In addition to a few participating families of different minds on the subject, the cameras visit one hospice in particular that goes above and beyond to provide dignity and comfort and love, overseen by a fantastic doctor with a story of his own involving missing extremities and dogged perseverance.
The filmmmakers likewise respect the wishes of the patients, staying at a distance at certain times and joining up close when permitted. Though moments of happiness and warmth are frequent, the ups and downs of their fates can be hard to watch at times. It’s technically not a spoiler to confirm that yes, they all die in the end (think ER meets Game of Thrones, I suppose), but the final Dragnet texts confirming which of them died where was a facade-breaker to this middle-aged viewer who just had a relative pass away last year and who (Lord willing) will be facing more challenges and finales like these in the years and decades to come. Not everyone gets to choose any of the circumstances of their final curtain call, but we owe tremendous gratitude to the amazing professionals who make such choices possible.