Mia Sherry: Going into February and the host of films that we have coming out, one that has really caught my eye, and internet conversation, is Sam Levinson‘s Malcolm & Marie. Even before reviews started rolling out, the film seemed to be a recipe for debate (from the age gap to the Marriage Story parallels)- I feel like it was never going to come or go quietly. What’s interesting is the broader conversation happening with reviews now being released, and the commentary on the critic’s role in the arts. One scene that really seems to have captured the film community’s mind is one in which Malcolm (John David Washington), a filmmaker, lambasts film critics who have negatively responded to his film. There are a lot more anecdotes surrounding the film, but that’s one that’s stood out to me, and if nothing else I feel that it’s some interesting food for thought, especially being a critic myself. On the other hand, this is one of the first of a slew of ‘quarantine’ films we’re going to be seeing now made during (and partially inspired by) the COVID-19 lockdowns. So there’s a lot in Levinson’s new film that warrants anticipating, not least for the powerhouse talents of both Zendaya and John David Washington. Will, have you seen any of this criticism and is it something you’ve taken to thinking about, especially considering the many films we have slated for this month that might become awards contenders?
Will Bjarnar: Malcolm & Marie started its life cycle on Film Twitter as the relationship movie made in lockdown amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. To your point, Mia, it has taken on a life anew. Forget the quarantine quirk, say the critics: now, it’s a film that (to some) undercuts the profession and the merits of those who criticize art for a living. It has incited discourse, therefore it’s impossible to ignore. Type “discourse” into Twitter’s search bar and I promise you’ll find a number of subtweets that might as well be flashbangs hurtling toward the film’s writer-director, Sam Levinson, wherever he may be. Some folks aren’t fans of a talky Netflix drama that apparently tracks a volatile relationship spiraling through an emotional reckoning (in other news: it appears no one saw Marriage Story). I’ve seen Levinson’s film be called exasperating, petty, even “insufferable” (though to be fair, The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw did link that criticism to an “at its worst” qualifier). Then again, I’ve also seen Malcolm & Marie called astounding, dynamic, and juicy. Consider this critic sold, no matter what my response ends up looking like.
In terms of awards, from my vantage point, consideration for major ceremonies seems to rely less and less on critical perception and more on, to be frank, attention. So, as it pertains to Malcolm & Marie — better yet, to Zendaya and JDW — the attention their performances have received in large part due to this online discourse could very well be to their benefit. Academy members might see active conversation about the tandem, and therefore prioritize their screener copy of the film over, say, I’m No Longer Here. Then again, that may happen regardless due to the fact that this extended eligibility window seems to have rendered films from early 2020 all-but irrelevant. The new flavor might not be as strong as First Cow or Never Rarely Sometimes Always, but it’s hotter. What say you? Am I being too cynical? Wading too far into the fray?
Mia: As an interesting dichotomy to Malcolm & Marie though, is Shaka King‘s Judas and the Black Messiah, which has been met (so far) with near glowing reviews before its Sundance premiere. It’s great that you bring up specifically Film Twitter, because I feel like it’s become such a hub for cinephiles that it’s nearly impossible to detach a film from the discourse that arises within that incredibly niche circle- it has kind of become a deciding factor in the life cycle of a film in the public zeitgeist. I feel like where Malcolm & Marie kind of popped up in the midst of quarantine and lockdowns and important conversations about the role of the critic in the 21st century (ahem, Wonder Woman 1984), people have been waiting for Judas and the Black Messiah for months- I can actually remember the day the news of Kaluuya‘s casting broke because it was all over my Twitter feed. Judas and the Black Messiah has been in production since 2019, it’s been quite highly publicised, it’s more prominent than ever with the recent and continuing increasing in Black Lives Matter, and it has a stellar cast. I also feel like it truly marks the emergence of Daniel Kaluuya as a leading man and Film Twitter darling, and a figure who I’m sure is going to be a staple on our screens for years to come. It is fascinating but I think these elements, small as they may seem, can make or break a film’s life cycle on the social media market, and I’ll be watching closely as time goes on to see how those conversations and perceptions shift coming up to awards season- especially, as you say, due to the newfound irrelevancy of earlier films; which I have to say I think is a real shame! But hey, maybe that might see the likes of Malcolm & Marie or Judas and the Black Messiah pick up a few nominations, which could make this awards season one of the most diverse yet. What do you think? Am I over-estimating Twitter’s publicity power for films?
Will: I think Twitter is a pretty omnipresent part of publicity nowadays. While I don’t think the number of retweets the latest trailer for Judas and the Black Messiah tallies will aid nor deter Daniel Kaluuya’s Oscar chances, I do think that the film benefits from any sort of talk that is happening outside of Academy member’s inboxes. You’ll see that a lot of talk, whether it be related to basketball, COVID-19 vaccinations, or (unfortunately) voter fraud, happens online! So, to answer your question, I don’t think you’re overstating the internet’s power, nor are we overstating the power of conversation of any kind. And since awards shows – in a normal year – ramp up and take place at the end of the calendar year, so too will the conversation about awards shows. It just so happens that the chatter ends up being dominated by films with later releases, which is both inevitable and strategic, at least on the studio’s part. Statistically, a film is more likely to be nominated for Best Picture if it’s released later in the year/eligibility window (Oscar season, if you will). If you look at last year’s nominees, all but one were released after October 4 (the outlier was Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). If you zoom out a bit further and look at the Best Picture winners since 2000, a total of four were released prior to October (17 were released between October and December).
Now, I will offer the caveat that some films are often billed early on as “Oscar bait” or “Oscar favorites”, based strictly on their premise and those attached to star or direct, and Judas and the Black Messiah fits perfectly under the latter umbrella. It looks to be a star-powered historical drama-thriller – with a killer trailer to boot – that stars movie stars and speaks to the times. It centers on William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), who is offered a plea deal by the FBI, one where he’s required to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party to gather intelligence on Chairman Fred Hampton (Kaluuya). Both Stanfield and, primarily, Kaluuya are already receiving Oscar buzz, and if I were a gambling man, I’d bet it’s worth it. I’ll be seeing this at Sundance in a matter of days, and I’m already anticipating an eager rewatch beside my sleepy father when it hits HBO Max on Feb. 12. I don’t know about you, Mia, but this had me at hello.
Shifting tones a bit while staying in the HBO Max camp, Studio Ghibli has a new film, Earwig and the Witch, dropping right at the top of the month (in cinemas on Feb. 3, then HBO Max on Feb. 5), and I simply don’t understand how we’re not talking about this more. I already don’t love that the iconic studio is straying away from its typical animation style to foray into the world of CG animation, but I’m also not one to complain about a new offering from one of my favorite studios, and certainly not one that I can watch right away. I beg you to please sound off on Earwig and the Witch, which I cannot believe is a real name for a real film.
Mia: Oh Lord, where can I even begin? I mean firstly I’ll preface this by saying that like yourself, I’m a huge fan of Studio Ghibli, but trying to find something even remotely Ghibli-esque in Earwig‘s trailer is… trying, to say the least. The most frustrating thing is that on paper Earwig should work really well. You have a story by Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote the beloved Howl’s Moving Castle and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, and it sees Gorō Miyazaki (son of founder Hayao) fully take the helm as director. It’s practically a recipe for a solid film and a way to introduce a new creative life into Studio Ghibli – so I don’t think anyone could have predicted how radically Gorō would shift from the classic Studio Ghibli formula. On one hand I recognise the importance of experimenting with new mediums: I think we only need to look at the resounding success of Spider-Verse to appreciate that CGI films definitely have a standing as a valued artistic medium. But truthfully? Earwig doesn’t even look the good from a CGI standpoint. Honestly, it mostly just reminded me of the more recent Harvest Moon games- I kept expecting a cow to pop out at any moment. Also, not to toot my cultural horn, but if we consider the continued success Irish animation is having with the likes of Cartoon Saloon (Song of the Sea, Wolfwalkers) you’ll see that 2D animation still has a huge audience, so I don’t really buy the argument posited by some that it was a necessary artistic move to keep up with the market. I think the best we can hope for from Earwig is that history will be kind to it, and it will be forgiven as an unfortunate manifestation of Ghibli’s growing pains as it adjusts to a new creative director.
Will: I love Disney, and I’ll give credit where credit is due: one after another, each Pixar film looks more advanced on the animated front than the last. But I’d be kidding myself if I didn’t admit that it is a little dispiriting how animation has become synonymous with Pixar, at least when it comes to mainstream attention. And I do fear that the general ‘look’ of Earwig and the Witch – which does indeed appear to be as far from the Ghibli norm as Quentin Tarantino is from Richard Curtis – will cause folks to turn their heads and wonder, “wait, there’s a new Pixar movie?” simply due to its departure from the superior 2D tradition. I do agree, though, that Earwig‘s best-case scenario is that viewers realize that they can’t all be home runs (or, maybe it will scare Hayao into coming out of retirement for good… wishful thinking?).
I’ll ease us into our next film to discuss, Willy’s Wonderland, by offering its totally sane, not-at-all deranged plot details: when his car breaks down, a quiet loner (played by Nicolas Cage) agrees to clean an abandoned family fun center in exchange for repairs. He soon finds himself waging war against possessed animatronic mascots while trapped inside Willy’s Wonderland.
Right, well… it’s entirely possible that I’ve never been as intrigued by a film as I am by Willy’s Wonderland. I can’t believe this exists. I’ve heard of two people in the cast – Cage and Beth Grant – and I am both uninterested and unfamiliar with director Kevin Lewis‘ previous six films. But on February 12th, I will be happily forking over whatever sum of money required to watch Nic Cage bludgeon “possessed animatronic mascots” in sequences of desperate, poorly-edited survivalist warfare. You know what, I’ll say it: I’m more excited for this than I am for Spielberg‘s West Side Story.
Mia: Willy’s Wonderland is sure to be one of those films that has to be seen to be believed; even reading the plot summary felt like a trip. I will say that I’m not the biggest Nic Cage fan – for no reason, I just haven’t seen most of his filmography bar National Treasure – but I have to say, I find the cinematic niche he carved out for himself very cool! Considering his more recent endeavours like Mandy or Colour Out of Space, both of which received positive reviews, I have to say I’m pretty optimistic about Willy’s Wonderland, weird as it may be. Though granted, I do wonder about whether the film might lose some of its appeal without being seen on the big screen.
While we’re on the subject of less big-budget studio films, I have to bring up Anna Kerrigan‘s Cowboys, which follows Steve Zahn as a divorced father who runs off into the wild with his transgender son. It’s debuted with stellar first reviews and this has to be one of my most anticipated 2021 releases. I was lucky enough to see Kerrigan’s short ‘Hot Seat’, which I was really impressed by. I think she has an emotional deftness to tell a story like Cowboys without wading into the melodramatic or the gauche. Will, had you heard anything about this film or its director?
Will: To briefly circle back to Willy’s Wonderland before moving on, I think it’s destined to live out a filmic life that is bolstered by those that champion for garbage crime cinema (that is, movies that are almost certainly bad, but harness a legacy of the cult variety because just enough people caught it on VOD and had the time of their lives). I can’t guarantee that I’ll be one of said champions, but at the very least, I will be watching.
As for Cowboys, while I wasn’t familiar with Kerrigan nor the film itself prior to its trailer’s release earlier this month, I did get the chance to see it earlier this week and I can most certainly confirm that she does, in fact, have the emotional deftness to tell a tale like this. Cowboys absolutely floored me, and though some of the story’s elements do feel a bit contrived, there is so much to feel. It’s tender, it’s knowing, it’s lived in, and, in interspersed doses, unbelievably warm. Not to mention, I’ve never seen Steve Zahn like this, and I’ve never seen him better, nor more poised, than he is here. I wish he was given more opportunities like this where he can be a mighty yet gentle vehicle, as opposed to projects as wretched as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid adaptations. Unfortunately, it already feels to me like a movie that will be forgotten by June, that is if it gets seen at all. But I urge people to seek it out. It’s genuinely one of the most altruistic, forgiving indies I’ve seen in quite a while.
I’m so intrigued to hear more about your anticipation for this, particularly how you heard about it and what you’re most looking forward to.
Mia: So glad you enjoyed it, Will! Maybe this is just me and my own bias bubble, but I think we have kind of entered into a cowboy-renaissance right now: from Concrete Cowboys to The Rider, to First Cow or even Red Dead Redemption 2, there’s been (to my eye) a sharp increase in Western, Frontier-esque narratives cropping up recently. A friend recommended I look out for Cowboys after watching Nomadland, which deals with a myriad of things but to me, at its core, really captured our intrinsic capacity for wanderlust. And what figure better captures that than the cinematic cowboy? He’s become a kind of 20th-century ‘Robin Hood’ who rejects modernity yet still has a moral code. It’s fascinating because to my mind where recent horror films capitalise on modern anxieties and fears, these contemporary Westerns kind of exorcise that fear and resolve it. So I’m interested in Cowboys for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is its contribution to this wider micro-genre that’s cropping up. I’m especially happy to hear about Zahn’s performance, though, it was actually one of the things that drew me in considering I also had not really had the chance to see him take on a meatier, more dramatic role as this – but when he’s good, he’s good.
In the past year when so much about film distribution has been called into question, it’s great to see that we still have so much to look forward to! And hey, what with Reddit potentially saving AMC from bankruptcy, hopefully one day we’ll get to enjoy these films on the big screen too.