Thursday, February 29, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Poor Things


Chris's review: What do I say about Poor Things? It's like Sid and Marty Krofft got together with David Lynch and Larry Flynt to film a fairy tale. The result is a bizarre, amoral, phantasmagoric reworking of Big. The acting and visuals were just superb. I find myself especially impressed by Mark Ruffalo's theatricality. I imagine people are going to hate or love this movie. 

As an aside, a lot of uptight viewers, I think, are going to cite the frank sexuality as a reason kids shouldn't see the film. I don't think that, but I'd be uncomfortable trying to explain the abusive power dynamics on display to at least some kids, even if the portrayal is entirely reasonable. And I'd be even more uncomfortable NOT having a discussion and just letting them take it in uncritically.

Cathy's Review: Poor Things is a deeply, deeply weird movie, and it gives David Lynch some serious competition for the title of Weirdest Movie I've Ever Seen. It may even be weirder than Sorry to Bother You about the equisapiens (after we finished that one, my daughter stomped around the house for a good 15 minutes exclaiming, "What the f--------ck?!?")

It's hard to know what to say about it.  It's a retelling of Frankenstein, but without the constant handwringing of the creator, who in this case is ironically named Godwin but often referred to as God), who is loving and matter-of-fact toward his adopted daughter.  It's also a gorgeous surrealist steampunk Wizard-of-Ozzy sort of film with more nudity and sex than I've ever seen in a movie without an X rating.  One reviewer (who loved it) wrote, "Absolutely batshit, utterly filthy and a true original."  Another reviewer quoted that same line but hated the movie, adding, "See it and hate yourself in the morning."  While the movie made me uncomfortable at times, I'm on the side of the first reviewer and loved it. I am a little uncomfortable using "filthy," to describe sexual themes, but it does seem to fit here (more on that later). 

The acting is fantastic, the cinematography is beautiful and fantastical, and the costumes are excellent.  Like several other movies this year, Poor Things plays with black and white as a storytelling technique. In this case, it mirrors the character's development, starting out in black-and-white (to reflect an infant's vision) and then turning to color as she matures.

The movie is set in a fantasy Victorian time, but only sort of. No one cares about Bella's weird dancing, nor even seems to notice her constantly bare legs (it's common for her to be dressed in Victorian fashions from the waist up, but with shorts on her lower half or see-through outfits that allow you to see her limbs through the cloth.  It also uses modern swear words with surprising frequency (a comedy of manners this is not).  Yet when Bella sets out on a sexual quest in a brothel, her lover calls her a whore (as does the maid back in London).  

The movie was also often funny but with incredibly dark themes.   For one thing, Bella is a toddler in an adult body, so she has no boundaries; she says and does whatever pops into her mind in a wonderfully matter-of-fact, though very socially unacceptable, way.  

Her childishness also makes the sex scenes feel a little rape-adjacent, yet she's undeniably an enthusiastic and willing participant. Later, she is willing but less enthusiastic when she discovers that some men don't care about the woman's pleasure.  And, of course, there's sex work (always a light-hearted topic), though Bella handles it with a curious and businesslike (ahem) approach.

Another dark theme is unethical and even abusive medical experimentation. Bella's creation is certainly problematic, but at least she is treated in a loving (if not always kind) manner by her adoptive father.  Godwin's father, however, was the real monster, and it's particularly bittersweet when Godwin sees the good that came from his father's abuses.  The movie depicts these issues in a slightly funny, poignant manner. I found myself chuckling at first, then saying, "....ooooh," as the implications hit me. 

Ultimately, the movie allows Bella to discover herself, her agency, and her freedom, and in showing us her journey toward independence, she reveals (almost too many of) the problems within our modern society.  This is why I don't like using the word "filthy" to refer to the sex in this movie; we should be abandoning our prudish Victorian attitudes towards something normal, fun, and not inherently immoral.

(Pithy Reviews; and Ranking of 10 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris: 4)
  • Past Lives (Excellent exploration of love and human connections; Cathy 2, Chris: 3)
  • The Zone of Interest (Masterpiece of monstrous implications; Cathy: 3, Chris: 2)
  • Poor Things (Fantastic, filthy, feminist, Frankensteinian fairytale; Cathy: 6, Chris: 1)
  • Barbie (Spectacular and sly doll's-eye-view of womanhood; Cathy: 4, Chris: 6)
  • Oppenheimer (Long, important, and explosive; Cathy: 5, Chris: 5)
  • The Holdovers (Very good teacher/student relationship story; Cathy 7, Chris 7)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 8, Chris: 9)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon (Important, badly-told story; Cathy: 9, Chris: 8)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted, boring slog; Cathy: 10, Chris: 10)

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