09 February 2020

First Impressions: CATS

This is a first for Norwegian Morning Wood - I am actually live-blogging the Oscars right now while simultaneously writing this post about CATS (2019), which feels all kinds of fitting. We'll see which one I can finish first! For some reason Hollywood has forgotten CATS on its most magical night, so it's time we acknowledge it.

CATS was the second of three films I saw in theaters over Christmas. The first being Uncut Gems (2019), which was equally snubbed - you may read my impressions here. As I mentioned in that review, I am reviewing these films in chronological order, which is also the order that I liked them. Yes, I liked the last film less than CATS. Much less. We'll get there.

Kitty titties ties AVABAR (2009) for
horniest CGI effort of the decade.

But there are many, many films I enjoyed less than CATS. CATS was amazing. It's a different kind of amazing, though. First off, this is definitely not a good movie. There is no part of this that's good. It's not quite in that "so bad it's good" zone, either. It's objectively a movie that fails at just about everything it tries to do. Normally that's our greatest criteria for judging a film. We may judge an adult character drama by very different standards than a summer tentpole. Now, I argue that a summer blockbuster still needs grounded characters and a coherent plot to go along with the roller coaster spectacle, but there's certainly a lot more leeway and forgiveness if the latter is done well while the former suffers. A comedy film may have a cookie-cutter plot but can be successful if it's actors are charismatic and the jokes land. Those films are successes, regardless if they don't adhere to strict standards of what the visual medium otherwise calls for. SPOILERS here, but who cares, this film is better if you know what you're getting into...

Nothing works in CATS. Absolutely nothing. The plot is nonexistant. The visual effects are terrible. The cast is mostly a series of stunts that don't work. It's not a character study. As a musical it has catchy songs but they don't advance the plot or convey inner feelings or monologues. It even fails at presenting itself as a fun diversion that you can turn your brain off and enjoy for two hours. So, why did I love this so much?

I was horrified at the first trailer. It just hit me like something very deeply disturbing and misguided. Obviously it was a great mine shaft full of joke gold. That's probably what first attracted me to the worst film of 2019. How can you let a movie like this pass you by? The film is so obviously a bad idea on every level. How was this ever made?

Hollywood is a bizarre institution. Supposedly risk-adverse and run only by committee these days, occasionally there's a film that slips through the cracks. It's impossible that this made it past test screenings unscathed. Someone pushed this through. Someone was trying to be an innovator and a maverick and wanted this on screen. I would love to watch a film in twenty years made about the making of CATS. It must read like Ed Wood (1994). "Sir, are you sure about this?" "Yeah, no one will notice!"

This is what makes it so compelling. Every second - literally every second this movie is playing in front of you is completely and utterly baffling. How did any of these decisions pass by an army of producers and test audiences? It may be the most misguided movie ever made. The core conceit, the actual concept driving the movie is so completely flawed. Maybe we should back up.

CATS of course is based on Andrew Lloyd Webber's inexplicably long-running musical of the same name, which is in turn based on T.S. Eliot's book of collected cat stories called "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." This is where dreams come from, people. Film Crit Hulk has much more background than I could possibly provide, because I'll admit that my entire basis for understanding CATS is mostly from Unbreakable Kimmie Schmidt. As far as I know, it's just a parade of homeless people and out of work actors adding themselves to the cast and no one ever really notices.

I definitely didn't realize that was actually the LITERAL plot of CATS. To catch you up to speed if you haven't seen this, because of course you actually haven't, this play and subsequent movie are just about a series of alley cats with weird names singing a song to introduce themselves so that one of them can die. That just seems insane, right? The movie lays that out very specifically. It's not an inference. These Jellicle Cats, which should never be questioned, all take turns singing their introduction songs until Judi Dench chooses them to ascend to heaven and die. Maybe it's a nine lives thing, I don't know.

That's literally the movie. I knew going in not to expect any more and neither should you. It's just a parade of wacky characters and then it just sort of ends. This is a nice excuse to have a ton of cameos and big actors / musicians like Jason Derulo and Taylor Swift to pop in, sing their song and pop out. They don't even need to be in costume, just mo-cap suits. It's a nice way to get a lot of big names attached to this terrible movie.

How did this play become so popular? I don't know. Groupthink? For whatever reason, CATS the play became THE Broadway Play to see in New York. It was a big tourist thing. It was weird and different and "Memories" is pretty good. The production and costuming was garish and distracting from how weird the actual plot is. It's just a series of fun songs, most of which work, if not a little blatantly Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish. Big, bold, grand - hitting emotional beats but in such a calculated way that it reads as false. It works to put butts in seats.

Why can't one of the biggest theatrical productions of all time become one of the biggest films? Well, this ought to be a great example of why and how media are different. CATS may have been fine if they had chosen the costume route - or at least mostly costumes with minor digital tweaks to smooth out fur transitions. Instead, the biggest barrier to enjoying this film is the uncanniness of the people-felines that the film fills itself with.

Apparently they did in fact use motion capture, but you could have convinced me otherwise. There are literally moments where characters' eyes are floating in their faces, unable to stand still. We were lucky enough to watch the original theatrical version, which you can tell by keeping a look out for Judi Dench's big wedding ring on a very human hand. We thought we'd have to be eagle-eyed viewers to see the one scene where this happens. No, it's evident in every single scene she appears in. And before here all the cats have human hands. Every single one. We just seem to exist on a line here, and maybe that is the Hollywood meddling - afraid of commitment one way or the other. Are they humans? Are they cats? We can't make a decision. Instead they are cat-sized human-cat people that are endlessly freaky.

The baffling choices don't end there. There are also mice-people and cockroach-people. The mice-people are played by children, which has all kinds of disturbing implications, and Rebel Wilson-cat feels very comfortable eating cockroach-people. Why wasn't this changed? Giant monsters can eat people. People can eat nameless, faceless things. Smiling people, who are have names, faces, personalities, and charisma eating equally smiling cockroach people is fantastically disturbing. It borders on sociopathy. It's entirely devoid of what the general populace of human society believes to be normative behavior.

In addition to hands and faces there are many more tragic visual effects choices. Most cats are colored like cats, so even though they're definitely all naked, they just seem like cats. Idris Elba, however, even though he's largely depicted in a big coat as magic evil cat Macavity, inexplicably takes his coat off near the end of the film and just seems really weirdly naked. I think it's because the brown fur matches his natural skin color, so instead of looking purple or gray, it's just a buff gyrating naked man. His CGI really needed to match hair, not skin, which gets into all sorts of problematic elements.

Problematic. That's a fun word for this movie. I don't think Jason Derulo's bulge removal is a huge deal, but James Corden's Bustopher Jones exists solely as a fat joke. Rebel Wilson strips her fur to reveal a costume over her other fur. Judi Dench's end monologue is longer than Return of the King (2003). Maybe we're getting into nitpicking individual scenes, but every time you think this movie can't get more ridiculous something else happens. Literally right up until the end when Judi Dench just won't stop talking, all the while while every other cast member keeps the same awed expression on their face.

Speaking of things that go on forever, we need to talk about Magical Mr. Mistoffelees, which first of all, should be an indicator that he's secretly an evil cat - does Andrew Lloyd Webber know who Mephistopheles is? Or did he just think it was a cool name? This should be foreshadowing - okay, we're getting off track. He tries to use magic to bring back Judi Dench from the hands of Macavity (who stole all the other cats so that he could be the Jellicle Cat and finally die [except no, he didn't even do that, Jason Derulo was still available. Nevermind.]), and everyone is like, well, Mr. Mistoffelees can just magic her back. He obviously can't. So they just sing encouragement to him again. He fails. They sing it again. He fails. They try one more time - maybe it'll work this time for some reason! Each time is such a let down! He does it. Great. I see your wedding ring, Judi.

At some point it's like they are all vying to by the chosen one to die just to get out of this movie.

Beyond the people cats, the rest of the effects are truly terrible. I was most put off by the compositing, which looked straight out of the 90s. Characters fluttered across their obviously green screened backgrounds, lighting and shadows didn't even attempt to match. The whole affair was maddeningly weightless, every leap, every pounce felt like nothing. In the same year where Marvel was constructing sets so good out of CGI you never even questioned that they weren't real this is less and less acceptable in a major studio release. Hell, this wouldn't really be acceptable in 2002.

Is the terrible CGI in service of the plot? As in, does nonsensical production design match a nonsensical plot? Maybe. I am pondering this movie a lot, because I enjoyed it. But it's not like I enjoy watching really bad movies like I'm Tom Servo. I do think that everything comes together here. If the effects were amazing it just wouldn't be the whole experience. It creates a more coherent narrative that this was the least thought out, most rushed, poorly judged, misguided modern blockbuster in recent memory.

What's important is that last word - memory. I remember many scenes from this film. I remember more than I do from Bumblebee (2018) or The MEG (2018). I couldn't tell you a thing that happened in those and I watched both a mere seven months before CATS. It's distinctive, there is a clear vision here. It's just that that vision is absolutely insane and off the mark of good receptive taste.

In terms of worst movies ever, CATS is unique. It's not trying to be a really self-serious film that falls on its face like Gigli (2003). It's also not quite trying to be a goofy comedy whose jokes don't land like Movie 43 (2013). It's not terrible because of its low budget or bad acting like The Room (2003). It's something else, and in that mystery is what makes it so intriguing. It's as if while making all these obvious production choices they could have gone with something else and just refused every single time. Maybe that carefree attitude is liberating.

I also have a theory that this and more movies will start existing just for the memes. Memes are bigger than any movie or TV show. I have the same suspicion about Sonic the Hedgehog (2020), but they seem to have unfortunately course corrected that one. It's a shame. These films are produced to be bad and ridiculous on purpose to then let the population (or industry plants) re-purpose their ridiculousness as "making fun of the serious film", but that was the original intention in the first place. This is how marketing in the 21st Century now works, people. It's a fine line to walk. The original media needs to exist unironically for users to then apply their own smug irony and cynicism. Or to actually glorify with new sincerity. Millennial tastes escape me a bit. But I still buy into the conspiracy that this film was nuts on purpose - if played straight it would have just been another Bumblebee. Forgotten, lost, an adaptation that no one cared about.

But does it fail? I had fun watching this and laughing all along. Not quite along with the film, certainly at it, but fun is fun, right? It's an age old "so bad it's good" debate. What does going to the movies mean, really? I liked it a whole lot more than the next movie I saw. That counts for something, right?

I have a lot more thoughts about this. I need to dissect more why I didn't hate this objectively awful movie but generally liked it - somewhat unironically. Like, I liked it for the mess it is, not in spite of, but not in a hateful way. Maybe I'm overthinking it. But you should definitely go watch it.

What do you think of CATS? Do you prefer dogs? Hamsters? Leave a comment or just go on about your life.

They Say Hindsight is OSCAR 2020 LIVE blog!

Okay people - I do not own a television so basing this off Twitter. This should work out fine. I always have terrible predictions so I went really off the rocker with a few of these categories this year. That should work out, right?! I think JoJo Rabbit (2019) is winning screenplay instead of The Irishman. Official predictions remain solid, but I think that will happen now and I wanted to say it. I will definitely get all of the shorts categories right, though.

Stay tuned for updates all night and we'll see how I do!

Supporting Actor:

Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
Al Pacino, The Irishman
Joe Pesci, The Irishman
Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Official Prediction: Brad Pitt
Offical Winner: BRAD PITT!

Okay, this was an admittedly easy one to start off with, but it's still exciting. Yeah, yeah, Pitt has an Oscar for producing 12 Years a Slave (2013) and all that, but this definitely feels like a good capper for him. It's exciting. He's had a fantastic career and continually commits to smaller, independent films and roles while being in a position where he could have been Tom Cruise and made six Fight Club (1999) sequels if he wanted to. The only comic book movie he's appeared in is Vanisher in Deadpool 2 (2018). This is a good award.

Score: 1/1

Animated Feature:

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Dean DeBlois
I Lost My Body, Jeremy Clapin
Klaus, Sergio Pablos
Missing Link, Chris Butler
Toy Story 4,  Josh Cooley

Official Prediction: Missing Link
Official Winner: Toy Story 4

I hate to say that I'm so done with Pixar. The magic at this point is long gone and I'm over it. I maybe could have predicted this but thought I saw some cracks with Toy Story 4 not really dominating precursors, but it's by far the most recognizable nominee here, and a lot of times that's all it takes. Can't wait for Toy Story 5 to win in six years.

Score: 1/2

Animated Short:

“Dcera”, Daria Kashcheeva
“Hair Love”, Matthew A. Cherry
“Kitbull”, Rosana Sullivan
“Memorable”, Bruno Collet
“Sister”, Siqi Song

Official Prediction: "Hair Love"
Official Winner: "Hair Love"

Haha, I miss Animated Feature but got Animated Short. Damn straight. This was definitely the cutest nominee and I'm glad that was enough. This is huge for my predictions. Too bad Sisqo didn't win.

Score: 2/3

Original Screenplay:

Knives Out, Rian Johnson
Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach
1917, Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho, Jin Won Han

Official Prediction: OUATIH
Offical Winner: Parasite

This is...an interesting development. Parasite was favored to win a few categories but this was not one of them. This doesn't bode that well for Tarantino, unless it's a consolation prize and it can surge somewhere else. Might this be a big night for Bong Joon-ho? Three writing awards for Q is probably a little much.

Score: 2/4

Adapted Screenplay:

The Irishman, Steven Zaillian
Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi
Joker, Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
Little Women, Greta Gerwig
The Two Popes, Anthony McCarten

Official Prediction: The Irishman
Official Winner: Jojo Rabbit

See above. Screw my life. Great win, this makes me feel a lot more happy than my prediction. I still count this against me. The Irishman will likely officially win nothing and I might say this will be it for Jojo Rabbit, but we could see - it seems to be surging lately. My score is terrible.

Score: 2/5

Best Live Action Short Film:

“Brotherhood,” Meryam Joobeur
“Nefta Football Club,” Yves Piat
“The Neighbors’ Window,” Marshall Curry
“Saria,” Bryan Buckley
“A Sister,” Delphine Girard

Official Prediction: "Nefta Football Club"
Official Winner: “The Neighbors’ Window”

I actually watched both of these, "Neighbors' Window" was lame as hell. Whatever. These are typically a crapshoot. Good to get my boffs out early. Maybe. I am way down, folks. Please no upsets. This is terrible.

Score: 2/6

Costume Design:

The Irishman, Sandy Powell, Christopher Peterson
Jojo Rabbit, Mayes C. Rubeo
Joker, Mark Bridges
Little Women, Jacqueline Durran
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Arianne Phillips

Official Prediction: OUATIH
Official Winner: Little Women

Are you telling me that the kind of movie that always wins this category actually won this category!? And that I should have predicted one of the easiest categories of the night?! Oh, whatever. This is already turning into an awful night for me. Well deserved, though. We knew this would happen. I am mathematically eliminated from tying my best prediction night, so...good.

Score: 2/7

Best Documentary Feature:

American Factory, Julia Rieichert, Steven Bognar
The Cave, Feras Fayyad
The Edge of Democracy, Petra Costa
For Sama, Waad Al-Kateab, Edward Watts
Honeyland, Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov

Official Prediction: American Factory
Official Winner: American Factory

I just watched this! Good win, this was a really interesting doc and most importantly, is the first step towards saving my night. In hindsight this had a lot of backing behind it - I did NOT realize the Obamas had a hand in this until this morning. See, my prediction is even better. I never get anything wrong.

Score: 3/8

Best Documentary Short Subject:

“In the Absence,” Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam
“Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone,” Carol Dysinger
“Life Overtakes Me,” Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas
“St. Louis Superman,” Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan
“Walk Run Cha-Cha,” Laura Nix

Official Prediction: “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone"
Official Winner: “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone"

Yay! This was a great documentary, fantastic job fighting off "Walk Run Cha-Cha"! Yes, I got into that rivalry. I am doing a great job of nailing some difficult categories and blowing the easy ones. Let's keep this streak alive.

Score: 4/9

Supporting Actress:

Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

Official Prediction: Laura Dern
Official Winner: Laura Dern

Thank goodness for these non-existent races this year. Laura Dern is the kind of actress that you think about and think, "She has an Oscar, right?" NOW SHE DOES! She was also 26 years old in Jurassic Park (1993). This is a great win for an actress who seems like she's only built a career in Indie films but has also been in some of the biggest movies of all time and just always puts in consistent work. She's also in a ton of movies lately. This is another great win.

Score: 5/10

Sound Editing:

Ford v Ferrari, Don Sylvester
Joker, Alan Robert Murray
1917, Oliver Tarney, Rachel Tate
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Wylie Stateman
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Matthew Wood, David Acord

Official Prediction1917
Official Winner: Ford v Ferrari

This is a significant dent in 1917's Best Picture campaign, but not a death knell. Ford v Ferrari seemed underrated going into this night as a movie that did reasonably well, had reasonably good critical reception, and a general public liking. It didn't set anything on fire, but DID have race cars. Good for sound I guess. This category really loves war pictures, this win will make future predictions such a pain in the ass.

Score: 5/11

Sound Mixing:

Ad Astra
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Official Prediction1917
Official Winner1917

Well, look at that. This category split, and we got it. I wonder when these categories will merge, even though they're totally different skills. Best Sound has a good ring to it, though, don't it? At this rate I'm on pace to shoot right down the middle and tie my all-time worst. Magical night.

Score: 6/12

Film Editing:

Ford v. Ferrari, Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland
The Irishman, Thelma Schoonmaker
Jojo Rabbit, Tom Eagles
Joker, Jeff Groth
Parasite, Jinmo Yang

Official PredictionParasite
Official Winner: Ford v. Ferrari

WHAT IS HAPPENING? Screw everybody. I don't know what this means for Parasite. Where is Ford v. Ferrari coming from to ruin everybody's party? Maybe this doesn't mean a whole lot, it's just splitting a lot of categories the big pictures were supposed to sweep. And my predictions are so terrible.

Score: 6/13

Visual Effects:

Avengers Endgame
The Irishman
The Lion King
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Official Prediction: Endgame
Official Winner: 1917

Unreal. I might have picked this as the least likely to win this category. The Academy seems really adverse to big blockbusters in this category for some reason. For a while this was at least the consolation category. How does Endgame not win this? That was a legitimate landmark movie for its effect work. Maybe folks don't want to admit that's the future of filmmaking. Does this push 1917 in better position for Best Picture? Or is it just the only film in this category folks would vote for?

Score: 6/14

Makeup and Hair:

Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Official Prediction: Bombshell
Official Winner: Bombshell

Good win, following all protocol and precedent. I remember this happening every year. I always get so desperate to get back on track. I think I'm on lock for at least four more. I've never gotten less than 50% but it's possible this year. Yay.

Score: 7/15

Best International Feature Film:

Corpus Christi, Jan Komasa
Honeyland, Tamara Kotevska, Ljubo Stefanov
Les Miserables, Ladj Ly
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodovar
Parasite, Bong Joon Ho

Official Prediction: Parasite
Official Winner: Parasite

Perhaps the biggest lock category in modern times. This helps. We knew this would happen - the question is, can Parasite keep winning categories typically foreign to foreign films?

Score: 8/16


The Irishman, Rodrigo Prieto
Joker, Lawrence Sher
The Lighthouse, Jarin Blaschke
1917, Roger Deakins
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Robert Richardson

Official Prediction: 1917
Official Winner: 1917

Deserved because the Academy loves Oners even though this totally should have been The Lighthouse. In fact the Film Independent Spirit Awards should just be the Oscars. Anyway, Deakins is deserved here, and even though his Blade Runner 2049 (2017) made up a little for decades of snubs, he could just win every cinematography award from here until he dies and it wouldn't be enough.

Score: 9/17

Original Score:

Joker, Hildur Guðnadóttir
Little Women, Alexandre Desplat
Marriage Story, Randy Newman
1917, Thomas Newman
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, John Williams

Official Prediction: 1917
Official Winner: Joker

Yeah, yeah, I know. Everyone else and their mother predicted Joker for this. I didn't. I was wrong. Dud. I should have more wins than I currently do. Solid gold predictions have been wrong before! 1917 isn't quite clicking, but I probably shouldn't have counted Joker out from anything. Yeah, I did, fuck Joker.

Score: 9/18

Original Song:

“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” Toy Story 4
“I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” Rocketman
“I’m Standing With You,” Breakthrough
“Into the Unknown,” Frozen 2
“Stand Up,” Harriet

Official PredictionRocketman
Official Winner: Rocketman

This seemed like a shoe-in and so I actually predicted it. Look at me! Was Rocketman actually good? I should get at least two more categories right and at least tie my worst ever effort at this.

Score: 10/19


Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Todd Phillips, Joker
Sam Mendes, 1917
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite

Official Prediction: Tarantino
Official Winner: Bong

I can't believe that Tarantino leaves empty handed. What does he gotta do to get his hands on this statue? Don't get me wrong, this win is huge and well-deserved. While this seemed for a long time like it would mean Parasite is in charge of Best Picture, it's more common to now proclaim a split. Does 1917 have a chance?! Or will the Academy honor Tarantino after all and award BP to OUATIH? Ugh this ceremony.

Score: 10/20

Production Design:

The Irishman, Bob Shaw and Regina Graves
Jojo Rabbit, Ra Vincent and Nora Sopkova
1917, Dennis Gassner and Lee Sandales
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh
Parasite, Lee Ha-Jun and Cho Won Woo, Han Ga Ram, and Cho Hee

Official Prediction: OUATIH
Official Winner: OUATIH

Okay, I admit, I feel asleep on this one and totally missed the Twitter notification. I was kind of wondering why they were taking so long with Production Design. Like, saving it until after Best Director? Anyway, well deserved here, and boosts my tally. Cheers all around.

Score: 11/21

Lead Actor:

Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

Official Prediction: Joaquin Phoenix
Official Winner: Joaquin Phoenix

Listen, I love Joaquin, he's one of my favorite all time actors. I love how much he doesn't give a crap about being famous, how insanely he throws himself into roles and how much he eschews his own regard for his reputation. But Joker wasn't great, and he's not great in it. I said it. It's great that he has a second Oscar, he joins rarefied but deserved company. This is the second Oscar someone's gotten for playing the Joker, which is really bizarre and a little unsettling. Still, obvious pick and I've tied my all-time low, guaranteeing I don't do worse. Yay.

Score: 12/22

Lead Actress:

Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renee Zellweger, Judy

Official Prediction: Renee Zellweger
Official Winner: Renee Zellweger

It occurs to me that the CATS (2019) post I also wrote tonight simultaneously while writing this post was technically published afterwards, all these are just edits, so it will be pinned to the top. All things as they should be. I don't think anyone cared about Judy and her momentum was always kind of weird, and she already has an Oscar, and hasn't been relevant for a while, so this is fine. Predictable, fine, I get a point.

Score: 13/23

Best Picture:

Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

Official Prediction: 1917
Official Winner: Parasite

So, the streak continues! I haven't correctly picked a Best Picture winner since 2013. Why are any of you still checking in on this blog? I've hit 13 correct predictions four times in the past six years, three times in the past four years, and twice in the past two years! This is pretty bad! I think I cold have easily squeezed out three, probably four more correct picks from Jojo, Little Women, Toy Story 4, and Joker's score. I should have known better. I feel like when I think I know better I fall on my face anyway. The face of depression. But a lot of this Ford v. Ferrari crap no one saw coming. Oh well. That's a wrap on 2020 Oscar season.

Past years:

2010: 12/24

2011: 14/24
2012: 16/24
2013: 14/24
2014: 20/24
2015: 13/24
2016: 14/24
2017: 13/24
2018: 16/24
2019: 13/24
2020: 13/24

02 February 2020

First Impressions: Uncut Gems

I watched three films over Christmas and we'll talk about them over the next few days in order of what I thought was best to worst. A film that was incredibly buzzy but ended up with scant Oscar nominations, let's start with Uncut Gems (2019).

Let's start with some background. The Safdie Brothers are an excellent pair of directors perhaps most known for Good Time (2017), which may be why not many people have heard of them. They are far from mainstream and offer an unparalleled intensity while remaining engaging without being overwhelming or agonizing. Good Time was one of my favorite movies of 2017 and I was very excited to hear they were teaming up with Adam Sandler for their next joint.

This would not have worked with Rajon Rondo.
Sandler has a bizarre career. He's both vilified and extremely successful. He has some great moments of anti-cinema as well as some truly terrible moments for cinema. There are definitely a few shades to the kinds of roles he'll choose - either a total goof with his friends where he lazily plays himself, or an attempt at something more. It's frustrating because he seems self-aware. He's capable of Punch-Drunk Love (2003) or Funny People (2009) that can respectively direct his persona in an thoughtful way or comment on his own career. That he immediately followed up Funny People with the kinds of movies Funny People made fun of is still a huge step backwards.

That's just it - though. He's frustrating because he seems to not really care about public perception. He's rich, has great friends, and despite his childish immature persona, by all accounts is actually a great dad and family man. Why does he have to make challenging movies? It's not like he got into this business to be a serious artist. He's just a doof. Still, when we see glimpses of what he could be, it's aggravating to watch The Ridiculous 6 (2015). Murder Mystery (2019) was solid, though.

Adam Sandler is a bizarre pic for any Oscar-worthy independent film, but his manic aggressive energy seemed to match up well with the Safdie Bros' manic intensity. Uncut Gems is a fantastic film and one of the best of the year. People seem to generally agree but it feels as if it has had trouble breaking out into the mainstream, even though it is A24's second highest grossing film of all time, and will likely surpass Lady Bird (2017) for the number one spot by the end of its run. Success is relative. Good for A24 is not good for Sandler.

A few things are clear. This film is not typical Sandler fair. Nor is it typical arthouse fair. Most independent moviegoers may not know who Kevin Garnet is. This ends up being in a weird middle zone that was made pretty much exactly for me, who likes all of this nonsense. SPOILERS forever, let's get into the actual film:

Sandler plays a jeweler and degenerate gambler who lives life in a constant hustle. The movie is incredibly stress-inducing. There is constant movement towards the next impossible scenario and Sandler twists and squirms into bigger and bigger risks. Nothing goes his way. This is a really bad trait to have as an insane gambler. You want to cheer for him because despite being a total slimeball, Sandler is still incredibly charismatic. You can identify with disastrous assistants, customers, and bad strokes of luck that eradicate the best laid plans.

From the start he is making bad deals. The twists and turns are endless. The film interestingly takes place in 2012 and actually feels just slightly removed from the current day. Sandler gets in a fight with up and coming pop musician The Weeknd. And of course, Kevin Garnett and the 2012 NBA Playoffs feature more significantly that I ever thought possible in a movie. His up an down performance is finally explained by his obsession with an African rock gem that gives him mystical basketball powers. It all finally makes sense.

Sandler does an incredible job here, but the most surprising actor may be Kevin Garnett. He sells every scene, the desperation, the danger, the thrill and obsession of his gem pursuit. It's far better than Michael Jordan acted in Space Jam (1996). Might this be the start of a promising acting career for Kevin Garnett? I never thought I would write that sentence, but that's what kind of film this is.

Obviously, Sandler was snubbed for the Oscar, not even receiving a nomination. Looking back, of course the man who made Jack & Jill (2011) was never going to get the attention of the Academy. Despite his financial contribution to cinema, his career isn't deserving of a long-due award like an Al Pacino or Christopher Plummer was. That's okay. We all know it was the best of the year. He's brutal, angry, conniving, at the end of his rope, sweet, and excited from moment to moment. Through all this even though he completely disappears, he also remains undeniably Sandler. It's both a transformation and a role that no one else could ever do. Sure, it's Sandler, but the first step in getting over that is to actually like That's My Boy (2012), which I say unironically is one of the greatest films of our generation.

The rest of the cast does their job well, even if everyone is a little random. Idina Menzel shows up and doesn't sing. Judd Hirsch pops in and is old. LaKeith Stanfield is the right mix of lethargic and caustic as he continues to grow as one of our great young actors. This is also Julia Fox's first acting role and she's excellent as a naive but ultimately reliable girlfriend who definitely ends up a millionaire by the film's end. Even Eric Bogosian as the villain (kind of) with a good personal but tense professional relationship with Sandler expresses a great conflict of emotion up until the final scene.

While the film does tend to be plot heavy - it is really a collection of schemes, parlays, fast-talking, and double-crosses, it is also incredibly based on character. Sandler drives the plot like few other protagonists and it's a thrill to watch. We're witnessing self-destruction and even though middle aged white male self-destruction is insanely old hat by now, Uncut Gems feels fresh, and that has all to do with the Safdie Bros' uncompromising direction and the shock of seeing Sandler in this new role.

This is a film that only works as the film it is. Every scripting, casting, and directing choice would only work with the people involved being involved. It is truly a GEM in a sea of stones. We ought to talk about that ending though. The film keeps running forward and forward, with the noose tightening and tightening around Sandler's neck. He's out of ideas and basically improvising as he places one more insane bet, but with full confidence of Kevin Garnett and his magic Africa gem.

Against all odds he wins! He's a millionaire. All his problems are solved. Finally the tension is released and he's going to have a happy ending. But the Russian mobsters he's pissed off cannot abide his previous insults. BIG SPOILER so skip here - he's shot in the head hella dead. I was actually really upset about this. It was such a rip-off. We finally see him hit what he's been working on this whole movie and it's taken away from him!

But it would never end. He hasn't learned. He would blow this money, place another bet. He doesn't elevate himself from the cycle, in fact he's validated. He can't weasel out of this one, can't escape his sins. It's incredibly tragic, but the real tragedy is his failure to grow and escape his own hubris and compulsive behavior. With regret, he had to die. It sucks, but it's powerful.

So, this was great. You should see it and pretend Sandler gets the Oscar instead of Joaquin next week. What did you think?
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