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"Poor Things" 4K Review

The final film of this year's Oscars Death March (and the first time I've managed to see ALL the Best Picture nominees) is Yorgos Lanthimos's bonkers science fictiony fantasyish dark social comedy Poor Things which is the most original and outlandish movie of the year and makes Barbie look like a documentary about poverty and slums. It's nominated for 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Director, Actress, Supporting Actor, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Production and Costume Design and it'd better win several of them.

Emma Stone stars as Bella Baxter, a young woman in Victorian London who seems to have the mentality of a toddler probably due to her "father", Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe), whom she calls "God" for short, finding her freshly-dead body in the Thames after she committed suicide and removing her still-alive near-term baby and then transplanting the baby's brain into its mother's skull thus allowing him to observe the development of a new mind in a mature body. You could say he's a bit of a mad scientist.

He hires a student, Max (Ramy Youssef), from his medical school to be Bella's observer, documenting her development and when he detects affection between him and Bella, he suggests they marry to which Max agrees, basically selling his life into indentured servitude. The lawyer hired to draft the contract, Duncan (Mark Ruffalo), wonders who is the woman that a man would want to sign his life away for and prowls the house looking for her and once he finds her, decides he wants her for himself, luring her away. While Max is horrified that his fiancee is being let go, Godwin decides it will help her development.

So Bella and Duncan set off for Lisbon then a cruise ship to Greece with plenty of "furious jumping", Bella's term for sex as she had discovered her happy spot and wants it stimulated. A lot. A task Duncan is happy to oblige. But less suitable to him is her intellectual evolution as she encounters new ideas and begins reading philosophy. But because she still is still literally an infant in some ways, she makes poor decisions leading to destitution for the pair and after he abandons her, she ends up working in a Parisian brothel for a looooong time with plenty of scenes of her at work with her clients. 

While the underlying premise and commentary on how women weren't exactly allowed the most agency back in the bad old days is pretty standard stuff (oh no, the PATRIARCHY, Barbie Bella!), what makes that tangential is the world Lanthimos and company have constructed to tell the tale.

Clearly artificial and surreal, it feels like a cross between a Terry Gilliam and Luc Besson movie (The Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of 1000 Planets movies from the latter) with a dash of Wes Anderson and David Lynch on the side with fantastical cityscapes and impossible creatures like a dog with a goose's neck and head or a chicken body with a pig head. Filmed at times with extreme wide-angle and fisheye lenses, it looks out of this reality but without the digital fakeness many movies have despite using similar technology.

But the style wouldn't matter without rooting the bizarre proceedings in across the board excellent performances beginning with Emma Stone's completely committed and unabashed performance. From the way Bella's walk develops from a wobbling toddler's to a confident woman's without falling into pratfall and the way her mental and personality development arcs, it's a triumph of a performance and the only thing that will prevent her willing her 2nd Oscar is if the Academy decides to make an affirmative action choice for Lily Gladstone. And the way she puts her body forth, well then. Let's say that this isn't your typical "stripper who doesn't get naked" deal. Nope. (If you wanted more than the one nipple she exposed in The Favourite, you get it in all the suits of the deck here.)

At first I didn't dig Ruffalo's performance as the caddish Duncan, but as time went on and his bragadocious front was stripped away (no thanks to Bella's actions), he becomes a pitiable figure. If I was handing out the nominations, I would've given his to Dafoe's Godwin. Buried under a four-hours-in-the-makeup-chair mask of scars and latex, it would've been easy to play it as an amoral mad scientist. But as details of his horrifying upbringing as his father's experimental test bed are revealed, the pathos of a man bent to a path which leads to questionable wonders comes through.

While Poor Things could've benefited from being 20 minutes shorter and trimmed back some of the brothel stuff, it still excels at doing what few movies these days seem to have had much interest in delivering, taking the viewer to see people and places they've never seen before and that makes it one of the best films of the year and my second place vote for Best Picture.

Exit Note: While discussing the film with the missus, she said that there was no way the Oscars would go for such a bizarre and sexual freak show of a movie. Then I reminded her, "They gave Best Picture to a movie about a woman who f*cks the Creature from the Black Lagoon, so..." (That's The Shape of Water - aka Grinding Nemo - in case you don't get the reference.)

Score: 8.5/10. Catch it on cable. (It comes to Hulu on March 7)


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