LESSON #1: THE LIMITS OF REPRESENTATION— Loyal readers of this column, know I’m all for greater and more direct representation when it comes to performers. Those efforts have been long overdue and still have room for improvement. That said, where lies the creative limit. This week, Kristen Stewart, an openly bisexual performer, presented a very nuanced opinion in an recent Variety interview making the rounds for Happiest Season. She expounded, “I would never want to tell a story that really should be told by somebody who’s lived that experience. Having said that, it’s a slippery slope conversation because that means I could never play another straight character if I’m going to hold everyone to the letter of this particular law. I think it’s such a gray area.” I think she’s dead right about the confusing middle. While living the experience of a certain character can be a huge connection to a more genuine performance, I think good actors can emulate that with the talent of their profession. Some actors do a marvelous job at becoming characters while others can’t get close. How do you feel on this topic?
LESSON #2: ASTERISKS MAKE MORE ASTERISKS— Boy, in a pandemic year that has crippled the release volume of major studios, does Netflix know they are the strongest frontrunner of frontrunners. Without the need for brick-and-mortar, they have had zero interruption in their release calendar. If anything, they’ve even gained a few acquisitions. But, 2020 is looking like an asterisk of a year when it comes to film awards. Don’t get me wrong, there are enough worthy 2020 films and performances deserving of prizes, but the field is dramatically thinner. Netflix knows that and can flex its muscle to make clickbait claims like a recent Variety prognostication piece that brags the streaming giant can break an 85-year-old Oscar record in 2021. If five of their films get nominated for the Academy Award of Best Picture, which isn’t that difficult of a stretch, it will be the first time since 1937 that a single studio has earned that many Best Picture nominees in one year. Before you raise your eyebrows with a wow, you have to realize a big asterisk. For 65 of the 92 years of Oscars (from 1944 to 2009), the Best Picture nominees were limited to five total. I don’t care how strong a studio’s year was. A full-five sweep was never going to happen. It’s only since they widened the field, just as it was before 1944, that anything like this cute “record” was possible. While Netflix can walk around like the biggest rooster in the hen house, don’t drink all that manufactured hype. Look what all that hype did for The Irishman last year. Watch some Little Engine That Could movie from a little shingle (like Parasite from NEON last year or maybe Nomadland this year), beat the top cock again.
LESSON #3: TO CHARGE OR NOT TO CHARGE— Speaking of streaming, Disney feels like it’s running hot-and-cold with what to do with its major feature-length films. Do they put an extra price tag on it to make a little dough or do they include it with the Disney+ subscription? Hindsight 20/20, they would have absolutely raked charging any dollar amount they wanted lower than a Broadway ticket for Hamilton in July, but they didn’t. They come back in the fall with the delayed Mulan and slap the $30 PVOD tag on it to supposedly solid returns. Now, here they come with Pixar’s big hitter Soul going straight to Disney+ availability. For the future, word is they are now deciding what to do with Cruella starring Emma Stone, Pinocchio with Tom Hanks, and David Lowery’s Peter Pan and Wendy. Where’s the thought process and where’s the consistency or decision-making coming from?
LESSON #4: WAIT TO JUDGE THE FINAL PRODUCT— The very short first teaser trailer was released this week for a live-action Clifford The Red Dog movie from Paramount Pictures. It didn’t take long for people to lose their minds in a similar way they did a year ago for Sonic the Hedgehog. Leave it to Film Twitter to trash stuff sight unseen again. I ask the easiest question in the whole wide world: What did you honestly expect? Do you forget the cute books we all read as a kid? He’s a dog. He’s big. He’s red. That’s it. When you put that into a live-action setting, it’s going to look exactly like what you have in the teaser. Anything less would be more cartoonishly out of place than the premise already is. I think he looks fine. I get the side-eye given to Sonic the Hedgehog because that’s a walking and talking anthropomorphic character of extremely unique style that you need to be cartoonish to believe the so-called physics of. That’s not Clifford. All you need is a big red dog. Nothing fancy. Leave the movie alone until you see it work with its settings and other performers.
LESSON #5: READ THE BEST FILM CRITICS TO BETTER UNDERSTAND THEIR ROLE— In the recommendation slot this week, books can be just as easy of a holiday gift idea as a good disc of physical media. If you are as fascinated with the film criticism you see flaunted by the likes of me, Feelin’ Film, or the other press-credentialed people connect to this social circle, dive into a good read from the historial titans of the journalism form. Don’t just go straight to Roger Ebert. You could learn a great deal from the likes of Pauline Kael, Leonard Maltin, A.O. Scott, and others. Indiewire posted a very good list of recommendations this past summer that would be excellent places to start with that Kindle or library card you work with.
DON SHANAHAN is a Chicago-based and Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic writing on his website Every Movie Has a Lesson. His movie review work is also published on 25YL (25 Years Later), Horror Obsessive, and also on Medium.com for the MovieTime Guru publication. As an educator by day, Don writes his movie reviews with life lessons in mind, from the serious to the farcical. He is a proud director and one of the founders of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and a member of the nationally-recognized Online Film Critics Society. As a contributor here on Feelin’ Film now for over two years, he’s going to expand those lessons to current movie news and trends while chipping in with guest spots and co-hosting duties, including the previous “Connecting with Classics” podcasts. Find “Every Movie Has a Lesson” on Facebook, Twitter, and Medium to follow his work. (#147)