Honest Oscar Voter: Honestly, the Movies This Year Are Mediocre

Plus: 'Mortal Kombat' reviewed, and 'Crisis' assigned

Oscar season brings a lot of different traditions, some old (smear campaigns!), some new (virtual roundtables optimized for the pandemic era!). But one of my favorites is Scott Feinberg’s “Brutally Honest Oscar Ballot” series. 

I talked about this series a bit last month with Scott on The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood (listen here), but the conceit is pretty simple: Given anonymity in order to grant protection from the evils of Hollywood politics, people will say what they really think about the Oscar-nominated movies. And what they really think of the movies nominated will grant us insight into the voting process that will demystify the whole thing a bit, as well as puncture some of the silly seriousness with which many of us watch the process.

This year is no different, and one voter in particular has nailed the problem with this crop of nominees: They’re all so . . . mediocre.

“This Oscars deserves an asterisk—because of the nature of the past year, with many movies moving off of their dates, it feels like a competition of the best Sundance movies,” this brutally honest Oscar voter said. “The fact that The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a chance of winning, given how mediocre and ‘television’ it is, is all the evidence you need for this, and that's why I'm putting it in my last-place slot.”

This is so in line with my thinking that it’s almost scary; as I told Sarah Longwell and Tim Miller on The Next Level this week, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is the sort of movie that would’ve played on HBO 10 years ago, won a couple of Emmys, and everyone would’ve forgotten about it six months later. But in the year of the pandemic, the star-studded cast and award-winning pedigree of its writer/director, Aaron Sorkin, have helped it rack up five noms, including best picture. 

Now, granted: mediocre pictures with middling box office racking up wins has been the rule, rather than the exception in recent years: The Shape of WaterThe ArtistSpotlight … oh for the days of Silence of the LambsAmadeusUnforgiven. It’s no wonder fewer and fewer people are watching the Oscars: fewer and fewer people are seeing the movies that win the awards. One survey suggested that only 11 percent of those polled had seen the most-watched movie this year, a disaster for a show and an industry trying to maintain relevance in a world of increasing entertainment options. 

“Good box office doesn’t mean a movie is good!” I can practically hear you screaming. Sure, fine, granted. But! It’s weird how the Oscars used to manage that balance between critical and commercial success without wallowing in wankery.

All of which is to say that, yes, the crop of nominated movies this year is deeply mediocre. But although the pandemic exacerbated the problem, it’s not, strictly speaking, a COVID-based problem. It’s a problem the Oscars have been grappling with for more than a decade now. And it’s a problem that’s not going away any time soon.

If you want to listen to Sarah and Tim yell at me on The Next Level, linked to above, you’ll have to sign up for Bulwark+! It’s worth it for the last segment on that show alone, believe me. Plus, you’ll unlock the bonus episodes of Across the Movie Aisle; this week we engaged in a bit of nostalgia, talking about our favorite best picture nominees from the last decade. Become a member today!

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Review: Mortal Kombat (theaters and HBO Max)

There is a persistent notion that you cannot make a great video game movie, that adapting a property from one controlled by a player to one passively absorbed by a viewer cannot be done.

This is very wrong.

To see how wrong it is, one need only look at Edge of Tomorrow, aka Live. Die. Repeat. Tom Cruise’s sci-fi actioner, directed by Doug Liman with a script punched up by Christopher McQuarrie, is absolutely a video game movie even if it is not, technically, based on a video game. It has all the hallmarks of gaming (repetition, pattern-learning, stealth missions, etc.) and many of the aesthetic tics of gaming (mecha gear, absurdly oversized melee weapons, etc.) while managing to tell an exciting story. Boss Level does something similar, though it’s even more obviously indebted to games and gaming.

The key, I think, is understanding the source’s strengths, rolling with them, and leaning into them rather than fighting against them. This is why there have been seven or so Resident Evil movies of varying quality: It’s just an action-horror zombie survival game, and there’s no reason that idea (i.e., shooting zombies with guns of varying sizes in the midst of an increasingly apocalyptic backdrop) can’t translate to the big screen. I still think Silent Hill is the best video game movie ever made, and that’s because director Christophe Gans understood that the game’s biggest strengths were creepy atmosphere and horrifying character design.

The original Mortal Kombat movie from 1995 works, on some limited level and despite having the production values and acting talent of a basic-cable TV show, because director Paul W.S. Anderson understood that he was, more or less, making a Bruce Lee-style martial-arts tournament movie. You gather fighters in a location, you have the fighters fight to the death, and you crown a champion. Compare that to Street Fighter, which came out around the same time and had a much higher level of talent (RIP Raul Julia), yet failed on its own terms because it wanted to tell a story for some reason.

Which brings me to the new Mortal Kombat, dropping on HBO Max and in theaters simultaneously today. The problem with the new Mortal Kombat is that it is an adaptation of a video game about a fighting tournament that will determine the fate of humanity for all time—yet it never, technically speaking, gets to the titular fighting tournament.

This isn’t to say that the movie doesn’t have bright spots. The fights are kinda fun, though by no means revelatory, and this is a hard-R adaptation of material that needs a hard-R rating to really land. Hiroyuki Sanada is the brightest spot of them all; he plays a seventeenth-century ninja in a yellow-striped outfit whose family is murdered by a killer able to wield ice as a weapon, and if you can’t see in these opening moments where, exactly, this conflict is headed and who, exactly, these two men are destined to become, well, why are you watching a Mortal Kombat adaptation anyway?

Sub-Zero and Scorpion’s centuries long blood feud is, perhaps, an interesting story. And trying to tell it within the context of Mortal Kombat—the once-in-a-generation fighting tournament that brings together Earth’s greatest champions in an effort to stop Shang Tsung (Chin Han) from opening portals that will allow an attack on Earth from “Outworld” to commence—might make sense. If we ever got to Mortal Kombat.

Now. I don’t mean to nitpick the movie about martial artists with superpowers like the ability to throw flame from their hands fighting each other. But since the tournament in question never actually happens, the champions of Earth never actually lose said tournament, and yet Shang Tsung spends most of the time invading Earth and trying to kill its champions anyway. 

Cole Young (Lewis Tan), Jax (Mehcad Brooks), Sonya Blade (Jessica McNamee), Kano (Josh Lawson), Liu Kang (Ludi Lin), and Kung Lao (Max Huang) are constantly being attacked by invaders from Outworld, no matter how frequently Lord Raiden (Tadanobu Asano) voices his displeasure on this point. Eventually, they end up doing battle with a bunch of people whose names don’t really matter, all of which is just a way to get us to the final fight between Scorpion and Sub-Zero, the most-beloved characters in the series. 

And this is why Mortal Kombat fails, in the end. The filmmakers seem almost embarrassed for the movie to be about a martial-arts tournament, choosing instead to provide the same action (people punching and kicking and throwing razor-sharp hats at one another) without the completely logical and sensible underpinning of Earth’s fate hanging in the balance on said punching and kicking. 

Trying to talk a friend into (or out of!) seeing Mortal Kombat? Got a buddy who swears video game movies can’t be any good? Share my review with them! I’ll convince them to come around to your POV.


Assigned Viewing: Crisis (VOD)

This week on The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, I talked to writer/director Nicholas Jarecki about his film Crisis, and I really hope you check it out. It has a stacked cast (Gary Oldman, Evangeline Lilly, Armie Hammer, Michelle Rodriguez, and Luke Evans star) and a timely concept (think Traffic, but for the opioid epidemic). But the movie’s been lost in the shuffle a bit, between COVID shunting movies off to VOD and Hammer’s recent scandals

Jarecki previously directed Arbitrage, a movie set in the wreckage of the financial crisis detailing how billionaires get away with their bullshit, and pulled off an interesting trick: He got us to root for an objectively terrible human being to get away with manslaughter. Crisis is a bit more straightforward with its heroes and villains (we’re never really cheering for Big Pharma to get away with poisoning a generation of painkiller addicts), but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining or timely. Check it out if you decide to give Mortal Kombat a pass this weekend.