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Oscar Quest 2019: “The Favourite”

The Favourite!

The producers guarantee no one in the audience shall be snoring during the final minutes of this motion picture.

It’s that time again! Longtime MCC readers know 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, and look forward to pushing that statistic even farther back into cinematic history if only some kindly studio or lawyers would rescue Mike Leigh’s 1996 improv drama Secrets & Lies from its peculiar, long-standing Region 1 banishment. To this day it’s not available on a single streaming service, not even Amazon Prime. Seriously, I have been aggravated about this for nearly twenty years. CRITERION, I AM BEGGING YOU, PLEASE HELP IT AND ME IN THAT ORDER. Netflix? Kanopy? TCM? Anyone?

Ahem. Sigh. Anyway.

First in line is Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite, a film that checks off two squares on the 21st-century Best Picture Nominee bingo card: “British history” and “sexy-time nudity”, though not as much of the latter as I’d expected and yet more than I ask for in any given film, which is none.

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You Can’t Spell “La La Land” Without L.A.

La La Land!

After the 2014 Best Picture nominee Whiplash gave us a world where collegiate jazz is a nightmarish torture chamber of brutal perfectionism that only the most warped can survive, director Damien Chazelle rebukes his own darkest timeline with the nostalgic club jazz and vintage Hollywood set pieces of La La Land, an eye-popping, romantic pageant wired like an old-fashioned musical but keenly aware of our compromised 21st-century tableau that rewards far fewer dreamers than previous eras did.

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“Birdman”: Dancing with the Devil in the Broadway Lights

Birdman!

My expression most of the time while watching.

Two weeks ago we drove to the other side of the city to see Birdman in the only art-film theater in Indianapolis. I’m annoyed that it later opened more widely and is now showing at two theaters much closer to home, but there’s no use crying over wasted gas. Ever since then I’ve been struggling to translate my reaction into words that capture my enthusiastic response without being mere labels. There’s a scene about that, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

If you know the movie only from its elliptical ads, you’ll quickly learn Birdman is not slapstick superhero spoof. This isn’t Condorman or Superhero Movie with better effects and a more famous cast. Satire is one of the film’s numerous modes, but costumed metahumans and the summer action blockbusters they inhabit are just a couple of the many subjects facing the scrutiny of director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel), who’s more interested in deeper goals than in brainstorming cheap Batman jokes.

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Yes, There’s a Commercial During the “Amazing Spider-Man 2” End Credits

Pow! Zap! CG Spider-Man vs. CG Electro!

The avatars of Andrew Garfield and Jamie Foxx duel for CG supremacy in this cutscene from the new Amazing Spider-Man 2 video game. Wait, no, my fault, this is from the movie.

At long last, the sequel to the reboot of the film series based on the comics is here! In the jam-packed Amazing Spider-Man 2 director Marc Webb’s trilogy continues with more villains, more angst, more money for special effects, more merchandising tie-ins, more credited screenwriters, less closure, and much lower expectations because of all of the above elements that have made many a super-hero sequel unwatchable.

This way for frenetic web-swinging action!

“Amazing Spider-Man” Reboot Likely Superior to What “Spider-Man 4” Might Have Been

Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 remains one of my favorite super-hero films, but Marc Webb’s Amazing Spider-Man approaches the same old origin from such a unique perspective of its own, I’ve decided I don’t mind their mutual existence. If I can handle the separate-but-equal Marvel-616 Spidey and Ultimate Spidey holding their own concurrent series, I suppose it’s not too far a leap to afford the movies similar tolerance, regardless of the debates about “How soon is too soon?”

Honestly, after the corporate-mandated mishmash that was Spider-Man 3, I’m relieved that Sony had the gall to buck popular opinion and return to square one. If the downward spiral had been allowed to continue, Spider-Man 4 would have been the franchise’s answer to Batman and Robin (some would argue SM3 was just that — witness Peter crossing over to the Dark Side, where there’s soulless dancing and self-inflicted haircuts), and Spider-Man 5 would have been a two-hour QVC Spidey Merchandise Marathon with no actual story, just five villains as hosts and a 1-800 number flashing onscreen all through the movie, with the house lights still turned on so viewers could use their cell phones to order while they watch. In much the same way that Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins eliminated the stigma from the Dark Knight Detective’s own series, Amazing Spidey restores honor to his own series by returning to the classic super-hero movie formula, by which I mean it only has one villain and fewer opportunities to push new action figures on us.

The web-swinging technology has improved to the point where I can no longer tell which Spideys were live stuntmen versus which were pure CG renderings (as opposed to the first film, which often switched to an animated Spidey only slightly more convincing than Kirk Alyn’s Superman cartoon-takeoffs). The speed-ramping effects to achieve super-cool slo-mo poster shots was annoying at first, until I realized that, for once, Spidey actually did look cool in action. Admittedly, some cityscape sequences felt more like cut-scenes from the Spider-Man: Shattered Dimensions PS3 game, but that may simply be because video game art has been catching up to movie effects in recent years. I opted for the 2-D version, but even without a set of Upcharge-o-Vision glasses, the visuals were dynamic and occasionally wondrous without being a complete blur.

As our new Peter Parker, Andrew Garfield brings a winsome vulnerability and a more impish demeanor to the role, while at the same time seeming fiercer when pushed to his limits during the mandatory scenes where he’s unmasked for the sake of Acting. While Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris nailed the original Stan Lee/Steve Ditko versions of Uncle Ben and Aunt May, I found the younger versions reinterpreted by Martin Sheen and Sally Field to be a worthy, loving old couple whom you could believe spent thirty-seven years together as a finely tuned family unit. As for Emma Stone’s version of Gwen Stacy — who’s far from helpless, yet just sensible enough to know when she needs to vacate the premises instead of playing victim-to-be — I’d be very content if this series allowed Gwen never to be murdered or usurped by Mary Jane as the original comic-book Gwen was.

I wasn’t exactly giddy at the choice of the Lizard as a villain, but his presence works in the context of the rewritten origin, which takes a cue from the Ultimate Spider-Man comics and gives Peter’s deceased parents a scientific backstory set at the blatantly nefarious OsCorp. Whereas the comics used this setup as an excuse to reinvent Venom, the movie offers a logical series of mad-science events that result in sufficient excuse for two animal-based characters to be spawned at once. Rhys Ifans does what he can with his few all-human scenes, but I wish that Dr. Curt Connors had been allowed to retain his wife and son from the comics. Poor li’l Billy Connors’ shocked reactions to the dad he loved unconditionally used to deepen the tragedy of Connors’ circumstances even more. Even so, at least the Lizard’s makeup and visual effects are well above Black Lagoon quality, though his stiff plastic-surgery grins reminded me of Jack Nicholson’s unsightly Joker makeup. Despite that, as the Lizard tore through the streets of Manhattan (and sometimes through its citizens), I couldn’t help wondering how much better the TV series V would’ve been if the Visitors had been this formidable.

I liked the modernized look chosen for this film, rather than Sam Raimi’s timeless, occasionally old-fashioned design, which was a great recapture of Lee and Ditko’s world, but not necessarily one that needs to be enforced in perpetuity. I’m glad J. Jonah Jameson was nowhere in sight, because replacing J. K. Simmons would be a fool’s game. Filling the gadfly role with Denis Leary as Gwen’s dad (constantly irritated, but a hard-working hero when needed) was a smart move to sidestep that issue. Flash Thompson was what he needed to be, albeit capped with a final scene that was a great nod to the comics, though I have to wonder how in the world an aggro basketball jock could gain admission to the renamed “Midtown Science High School” that Peter and Gwen attend in this version for some reason. Would a typical New York high school have been an inadequate setting here? Or was this a subtle plug for magnet schools?

In one or two places, I was irked. In some places, I was blown away. In general, I was content. Whether it counts as a reboot, remake, relaunch, reimagining, recycling, or whatever, I’m not much concerned at this point. After Spider-Man 3 I’m just happy to be able to call Amazing Spider-Man a comeback.

(For those who are wondering: there’s a bonus scene not too far into the end credits, none at the end of the credits. It’s the exact same kind of end-scene we had in the Avengers series — ominous foreshadowing of evil scheming by a shadowy man. His identity is ridiculously easy to guess unless this movie is your very first experience with a Spider-Man product. If you paid attention to the trailers or even read this entry closely enough, you can guess who he is without even seeing the movie.)

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