Administratia, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

2022 Oscars: Postscript

So. Hmm.

The online world is blowing up talking about one Incident in particular from last night’s ceremony (you know the one I mean). Everyone seems to be taking sides one way or the other and debating it; however, I think everyone involved did poorly, and more regret how all of the other moments from last night’s Oscars are getting overshadowed – and some of those moments are wonderful.

So instead of getting caught up in gossip, here are three other Oscar moments that make for much better conversation instead.

Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli teamed up to present the award for Best Picture – and honestly, something about that pairing just works. Especially since Minelli seemed to have a little trouble reading her lines off the teleprompter at one point – and Lady Gaga graciously and gently stepped in to help. “I got you,” she said quietly to Minelli. “I know!” Minelli gushed. It was a lovely class act – one queen adjusting another’s crown.

Men are starting to branch out away from the plain tux! We saw plenty of classic black tuxedoes – but we also saw Daniel Kaluuya in a green tux, Kodi Smit-McPhee in powder blue, Simi Liu in bright red, Sebastian Yatra in pink – and Timothée  Chalamet in a bare chest and women’s wear. (No, seriously – the jacket and pants are from Louis Vuitton’s women’s line.) I usually think talk about fashion on the red carpets is inane as all hell – but this feels like more of a sign that men are starting to loosen up and play a bit.

Best of all: an interaction in which everyone involved did things right.

When Youn Yuh-Jung won for Best Supporting Actress last year, she stole the show with a witty acceptance speech. One of her jokes was about how so many people in Hollywood kept mispronouncing her name. So last night, when she came out to present Best Supporting Actor, she began with a joke about how now the shoe was on the other foot – since now she was going to run the risk of mispronouncing the actors’ names.

But it was clearly a front. Because when she opened the envelope, she paused before reading the name – and instead, signed it. For the winner was Troy Kotsur, who won for his role in Coda. So instead of mispronouncing his name – Youn had taken the time to learn how to pronounce it in his own language, as well as in English. She also learned how to sign “Congratulations” to him when he approached the podium, and had the presence of mind to offer to hold his statue for him as he delivered his speech – since he speaks ASL and would therefore need his hands free. And instead of stepping back and away from him, she stayed close by, so Kotsur’s statue would stay in his peripheral vision.

And Kotsur’s speech was wonderful in and of itself as well. He started with a few jokes, mainly one about how he’d been tempted to teach President Biden some ASL curse words while the Coda cast was touring the white house (however, he joked, Marlee Matlin wouldn’t let him). Then he turned more serious – thanking the host of Deaf Theaters in the US for helping him work on his craft, thanking Marlee Matlin for advocating other deaf actors be cast in Coda, thanking director and screenwriter Sian Heder for flawlessly bridging the gap between the ASL and the spoken-word worlds, and finally thanking his family – including his father, who was “the best signer in my family” until he was paralyzed in a car accident. It was a wonderful speech, and you can hear his interpreter choking up about midway through. And – before his speech, and after, you can see everyone else in the audience was applauding Kotsur in ASL – hands up and waving.

….Let’s all talk about any of those things instead.

Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

2022 Oscar Liveblog

It is very much early – I am at a local bar st their Oscar party, attempting to type this on an app on my phone. I didn’t want to risk not being able to get a seat at a table – and it looks like that was wise.

We are now watching the inane pre-show commentary here, which I wish would have been canceled in lieu of the awards the Academy is giving out before the live broadcast. Boo.

There IS a photo booth with a “red carpet”, and I Googled how to say “Old Navy” in French for if anyone asks what I’m wearing.

6:47 p.m. – the crowd here is interesting. We’re still in the actors-on-red-carpet shebang, and when Zendaya and Timothee Chalamet each appeared there was a huge cheer. I think we have a bit of a Dune fangroup here.

7:40 pm: so the hosts for the night had their own Red Carpet interviews a moment ago, dragging people out of the crowd to ask the inane “who are you wearing” question. My favorite thus far is a young guy who said “the shirt is one of my Dad’s…”

8:00 pm. – yeah, kicking things off with Beyonce is probably the way to go.

8:09 pm – I quite like the hosts…

8:17 pm – okay, upon listening to Amy Schumer Maaaaaaaybe not….

8:22 pm – yay Ariana DeBose best Supporting Actress!

8:34 pm – first non-live award – Dune for sound. And they handled it okay, I guess….

8:47 pm – no surprise Dune got Best Visual Effects. Check out the video I link to in my review. (And love that bit of shade Rachel Zeigler threw for not originally being invited.)

8:50 pm – just for the record – we could probably have given out a couple more live awards in the time we are spending on this bloody James Bond montage…..

9:00 pm – DOS ORUGUITAS!!!! There were a couple of totally unnecessary dancers but I don’t care….

9:02 pm – and surprising no one, Encanto just took Best Animated Film.

9:17 pm – I love Yuh-Jung Youn. That is all.

9:23 pm – the sight of everyone in the audience ASL applauding for Troy Katsur’s Best Supporting Actor win nearly made me cry.

9:34 pm – so since Drive My Car has Best International Film, I am taking that as the consolation prize and it is out of the running for Best Picture.

9:37 pm – the speed at which this full bar of Brooklynites went totally silent when the Academy held a moment of silence for Ukraine was impressive.

9:49 pm – followed by the speed at which EVERY SINGLE PERSON in this bar started singing along with “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”.

9:59 pm – I pretty much had no opinion on Best Original Screenplay this year. But it sounds like the bar definitely wanted it to be The Worst Person In The World.

10:27 pm – something really weird happened to the live feed during that Chris Rock/Will Smith schtick…but Yay for Summer Of Soul Best Documentary!

10:43 pm- the music they have for the In Memoriam sequence is downright bizarre.

10:51pm – so maybe that Will Smith and Chris Rock shtick….wasn’t shtick?

10:54 pm – what. WHAT. Dos Oruguitas didn’t win Best Song. …I am VERY UPSET.

10:59 pm – so someone in the crowd here hollered “Go Steven!” for Steven Spielberg for directing when they read the nominees. I tempted fate with a holler “Go Jane” for Jane Campion. And…she won. I will take credit.

11:08 pm – the crew from Pulp Fiction seem to have had the most fun with their presenting gig. And the crowd is VERY excited Will Smith took the statuette.

11:13 pm – Will Smith’s speech is taking a very, very interesting turn. I guess that moment with Chris Rock was NOT scripted. DANG.

11:21 pm – Amy Schumer: “So I was getting changed, did I miss anything?” I think we needed that.

11:29 pm – A win for Jessica Chastain Best Actress. It sounds like she is also kinda nodding at Will’s thing.

11:31 pm – somehow Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli is a pairing that makes perfect sense.

11:33 pm – Coda takes Best Picture! Everyone is ASL applauding again – I am sincerely surprised.

12:10 am – Just wanted to add this postscript, a comment from Roommate Russ after I got home: “Boy, the one year I decide to skip watching The Oscars….”

…And that’s that! If you have been reading this far thank you!

Best Pictures of 2022, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 5

In case you were wondering: yes, there is a reason why these last two films are last. These are the films that I was least interested in seeing – and when it comes to King Richard, I’m not even interested enough to try to see it before the Oscars tonight.

I’m sure it’s a fine film, and the life of Serena and Venus Williams and their father is no doubt impressive, but everything about this just screamed “Oskar Flatpack Movie” and I just couldn’t do it. I have listened to Beyonce’s song for the film – another nominee for Best Original Song – but even there, it still sounded like a Boilerplate Beyonce Inspirational Tune. If Will Smith wins for Best Actor I’ll watch it then, but otherwise….eh.

Don’t Look Up

….Not that I was any more impressed by the film I did see. Again – these aren’t bad, just….really, really predictable and boilerplate. In this ultra-black comedy, Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio play a pair of astronomers who discover a mammoth asteroid headed on a dead-on collision course with earth, and calculate that the resulting impact will cause global devastation. They immediately alert the head of the Planet Protection Office at NASA (Rob Morgan), who recognizes the danger and brings them to see the president (Meryl Streep); NASA has a plan in place for coping with such events, and they just need the president to authorize everything. But the president is more concerned about a social media scandal and wants to wait until that blows over.

Lawrence and DiCaprio both go to greater and greater lengths to call everyone’s attention to the problem, but are stymied at every turn. Their gig on a fluffy morning news show turns disastrous when Lawrence scolds the hosts for downplaying their news. The president finally agrees to act, but only to restore her image – and is then talked out of it by a tech company magnate (Mark Rylance) who wants to salvage the comet for its rare metals. DiCaprio gets so caught up in his sudden fame that he becomes a mouthpiece for the tech company, while Lawrence starts slumming with a group of nihilist skateboard punks. Even when the asteroid is visible in the night sky, the nation divides itself into two rival camps – those who support the president’s plan to harvest the asteroid and those who want it blown up – who each spend the night before the asteroid is due to hit having their own rallies.

In other words…it’s a metaphor for how completely the planet is botching the climate crisis, placing the blame squarely on capitalism, ignorance and human folly.

The film has gotten a lot of mixed reviews for being heavy-handed with its message, and I can absolutely agree. This is preaching to the converted and still goes over the top; Meryl Streep’s president and her chief of staff son (Jonah Hill) aren’t so much characters as they are caricatures. Mark Rylance’s tech magnate is even more of a caricature, almost to the point of being a straw man – every fifth thing he says is some kind of Silicon Valley buzzword. Ariana Grande has a cameo as a vapid pop star who goes on to write a torch song for the effort to protect earth.

There are some fun bits, and some sincerely poignant moments. Timothée Chalamet turns up as Yule, one of the skater punks, who becomes Jennifer Lawrence’s sort-of-apocalypse-boyfriend; his character is given similarly short shrift, but he’s still sincere and likeable. Rob Morgan brings some much-needed seriousness to his role. And the film does address how much corporate influence is at play in matters of global and environmental significance. And at the end of the film, while everyone else is finally realizing the danger they’re in and panicking, those scenes of panic are interspersed with shots of the main cast gathered at DiCaprio’s family’s house, where they are all calmly and stoically having one last meal in fellowship, complete with Yule leading them all in a heartfelt prayer.

This is the third film I’ve seen from director Adam McKay; he uses the same off-kilter funhouse lens he used in The Big Short and Vice. But here it somehow doesn’t quite work as well.

…And that’s that. Check back later today to see if I can pull off a liveblog of the Oscar ceremony THIS year….

Administratia, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Oscar Extra Credit – The Oscar Night Liveblog

Just a heads-up!

I have not always had the BEST luck liveblogging the Oscars in years past. Either the ceremony was no great shakes, or the computer I was on was managing to erase each of my entries as I added them. I was even trying to liveblog on the night of the famous Moonlight/Lala Land mixup, but my laptop battery ran out ten minutes before that happened and I missed it all.

But I’m foolhardy enough to try again. I am going to a livescreening at a Brooklyn bar, and this time I will charge up the laptop fully (and bring a spare extension cord just in case). So we will see.

Honestly, this year I’m only really invested in one category – one of the nominees for Best Original Song is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s lovely song “Dos Oruguitas” from the film Encanto. It’s used as a bit of a musical metaphor in the film, providing the score for a heartbreaking scene in which the matriarch of a Columbian family tells her granddaughter how she lost her husband in a war. “Dos Oruguitas” literally translates to “Two Little Caterpillars”, and the lyrics are about a pair of caterpillars so in love that they don’t want to let each other go – but they need to let each other go to go on and become butterflies.

I’ve been listening to this many times over the past couple weeks and I love it; the other songs it’s up against are some kind of run-of-the-mill also-rans, in my opinion, so things look good. This would also give Lin-Manuel Miranda “EGOT” status – EGOT being the name for those who’ve managed to win all four major US entertainment awards (Emmy for television, Grammy for music/recording, Oscar for film and Tony for theater). Even better, he’s also won a Pulitzer, an “Annie” award for Animated films, and a MacArthur Genius fellowship; giving him a much more rarified “MacPEGOAT” status.

If he does not win on Sunday, I shall kick things.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Lolita (1962)

At the time of its release, a lot of the advertising for this film played up the titillation by asking a question: “How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?” As many viewers through they years have found out: they did it by editing out a loooooooooooooooooot of oogy parts.

To recap quick: the original novel Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov is presented as a confessional tale, written by a professor, “Humbert Humbert”, who is in prison for murder. But his was a crime of passion – passion for a twelve-year-old girl, Lolita. Humbert was secretly a pedophile and Lolita had been the daughter of a landlady; Humbert married her to stay close to Lolita, but his wife found out the truth one day and killed herself – prompting Humbert to sweep Lolita up on a whirlwind cross-country tour for a year or so, moving from place to place and skipping town just before anyone figured out that Humbert and Lolita were maybe a little too intimate to be father and daughter. Then one evening Lolita disappears, leaving Humbert heartbroken for three years – until she writes out of the blue, saying that she’s now married and pregnant (and about 16) and she and her husband need money. Humbert rushes to see her and learn the truth of how she disappeared, and her confession is what drives him to kill.

The film follows the basic plot, but makes some fairly important tweaks to make things more palatable. The biggest change is in Lolita’s age – here, she is fourteen instead of twelve, and played with some knowing sass by newcomer Sue Lyon. She’s still immature, but still not quite as immature; she’s the one who seems to instigate things with Humbert (James Mason), suggesting to him with a sly smirk that maybe the two of them could play a “game” she’d learned from a boy at her summer camp. Blessedly, another change is that we don’t see any sexual scenes between Humbert and Lolita – director Stanley Kubrik lets the audience’s imaginations and familiarity with the book carry the day, leaving the film to show nothing more than some slightly-too-fervent kisses or cuddles, with the camera cutting away when there’s a chance things could go further. The most intimate thing we see Humbert do to Lolita is paint her toenails.

Kubrik also seems to have made up for the lack of sex by adding in comedy. Shelley Winters is in the largely thankless role of Lolita’s mother Charlotte; she’s supposed to be bawdy and abrasive, the kind of overly-sexualized adult that Humbert usually shuns, but Winters manages to make her come across as funny instead of just crude as she puts poor Humbert through some painfully awkward seductions. Paradoxically this also makes Charlotte more sympathetic in the scene where she finds out what Humbert really feels about her.

The biggest surprise for me in the film, and also one of the biggest changes, concerned the role of the character Clare Quilty. In the novel, Quilty only turns up at the end – he’s the man Humbert kills – but Kubrik promotes him to a main supporting role, played by Peter Sellers. Kubrik also starts the movie with Quilty’s murder, and only then skips back in time to show Humbert and Lolita’s story. But Quilty is there too, as a smarmy playwright whom Charlotte has also (unsuccessfully) tried to seduce. He keeps turning up throughout Humbert and Lolita’s travels – puzzlingly disguising himself as everything from a police detective to a school psychologist to a poll taker – and knowing his ultimate fate, I kept trying to figure out how Quilty fit into the overall story. This also distracted me, fortunately (or maybe unfortunately), from Humbert’s obsession with Lolita, as well as giving Peter Sellers a chance to shine quite brightly.

Still, at the end of the day – this is a story about a middle-aged man who is sexually obsessed with an underage girl, and letting Peter Sellers flex in the service of that tale is pretty much akin to lipstick on a pig. Fortunately our society has made some big changes since the days this film was made – I should note that when you do a search for Lolita in Google right now, the very first thing you see is a toll-free number for an organization working to combat sexual abuse of minors.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Dog Star Man (1962)

So. Um.

So when I wrote my digression on experimental film, this was one of the reasons why. I’d actually tried to watch a bit of it prior, on an evening after work, but the imagery and technique was so opaque that I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it and tried again later. It’s not something you can give a casual glance at all.

I could tell that I was supposed to be getting some kind of plot or message from this film. The whole thing is completely silent, and consists of a chaotic jumble of frequently-recurring shots – a man and a dog climbing a mountain in the snow, the moon over a woody landscape, lights from cars on a city street at night, astronomical footage of solar flares. Every so often we see a nude woman’s torso or a baby. Towards the end the man reaches a tree and gets to work chopping it down.

The problem is that filmmaker Stan Brakhage intentionally altered the physical film with scratches or holes, superimposes one image on another, or uses color washes or slow motion or weird super-high-focus closeups – so most of the time I could have spent puzzling a story out of the images I saw was spent squinting at the screen trying to see what the images even were. Was it dog’s fur I was looking at, or the man’s beard? Or the woman’s vulva? Or moss? Or just scratches in the film again, or – wait, now we’ve shifted to the city street, is this – and it’s gone, and we’re looking at the baby again. Or – are we? Is that a baby or the moon?

I wanted to understand this film. I really did. I saw enough of it to get tantalized with the idea that it might be a poetic metaphor of sorts – that maybe the man was struggling up the mountain in search of firewood, and the repeated shots of the woman and baby were his thoughts about his family and the repeated city streets were maybe a life of comfort he’d abandoned for this starker one. Or maybe this was a post-apocalyptic tale. The problem was that I felt I was missing parts of the story, simply because I couldn’t see them – and I was left frustrated and confused.

This apparently was Brakhage’s style, though. Or at least it became his style. I did something a bit unusual and looked up an earlier film of his, one not on the list – Window Water Baby Moving, a short experimental film about the home birth of his daughter Myrrena. That film is short, and has similarly disjointed images – but those images are on the whole much clearer: his wife Jane’s pregnant belly in the birthing pool, her face as she cries out in pain, his hands entwined comfortingly in hers, Myrrena’s head crowning. And poignantly, at the end, there are several shots of Brakhage laughing into the camera, dazed and wonderstruck. There’s a bit of scratching on the film in some places, but you can still see what the hell it is you’re looking at.

By contrast – sometime after that film, and after Dog Star Man, Brakhage made another film, Thigh Line Lyre Triangular, about the birth of his third child. He felt that Window Water Baby Moving somehow didn’t capture his emotional response accurately enough, and considered Thigh Line Lyre Triangular to be closer to the mark. But from the reviews I’ve read, Brakhage piles on even more of the kind of scratching and film altering that caused me so much frustration with Dog Star Man – to the point that you can’t see anything at all except for abstract patterns.

Somehow it feels like Brakhage wanted to have things both ways – that he didn’t want me to see the very thing he was showing me. Ultimately I was left frustrated and dissatisfied, and wondering why he’d bothered.

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Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 4

It seems I like to keep things thematic – these two films both ended up being Coming Of Age pictures.


The title of this film is a bit of a pun – “Coda” is not only a musical term, befitting our lead’s musical aspirations, it’s also an acronym for Child Of Deaf Adults, befitting our lead’s family life. Ruby (Emilia Jones) is the only hearing member of her fishing family, and throughout her whole life has served as the interpreter for parents Frank and Jackie (Troy Kotsur and Marlee Matlin) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant). She also loves singing, however; mostly to entertain herself on the boat, belting out Motown classics as she hauls in nets with Frank and Leo. But years of bullying have left her too shy to sing in front of anyone else – that is, until the day when her crush Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) joins the school choir. Ruby joins mainly to be near him, even though singing in front of hearing people scares her silly – what if she’s been a terrible singer all this time?….But her choir teacher Mr. Villalobos (Eugenio Derbez) assures her it’s quite the opposite – she’s good. Really good. So good that he encourages her to apply for a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music, like Miles is doing. Ruby is very tempted – but what will her family do without her there to help?

Strictly speaking, this is kind of a formulaic plot; you can probably predict exactly what’s going to happen at every turn. What saved this from feeling formulaic for me is the characters themselves – I may have been able to predict what would happen, but getting to know and like the characters made me care about it. Ruby and her family are a noisy, complicated, irreverent, outspoken and tight-knit mob – the kind who squabble amongst themselves one minute but have each other’s backs the next.

And they are funny. There’s one scene between Ruby and Jackie which starts off sentimental and poignant, as Ruby asks Jackie if she was ever disappointed Ruby wasn’t deaf like the rest of the family. Jackie surprisingly confesses she was at first; she’d been worried she and Ruby wouldn’t be able to get to know each other, and that Jackie wouldn’t be a good enough mother for her. Marlee Matlin’s monologue about her fears is moving enough – but then when Jackie ends by saying she hoped this didn’t make her a bad mom, Ruby jokes, “Nah – you’re a bad mom for different reasons.” It’s obviously a joke – but it’s the kind of joke you can only find in a family that knows everyone loves each other.

But Jackie isn’t the only one with a poignant child/parent moment. The family goes to Ruby’s choir concert as a visible show of support, even though they can’t hear a thing; during Ruby’s big solo, which we’ve been hearing her rehearse throughout the movie, the sound cuts out entirely as we watch Jackie, Frank, and Leo furtively glance at everyone else, reading their faces and reactions as it’s the only way they can tell how she’s doing. Frank takes Ruby aside when they get home to ask her to sing for him again. It’s a remarkably intimate scene; as she sings, Frank watches her intently and gently touches her throat and face, feeling her vocal cords and the vibrations of the music coming from her. The obvious joy on her face and the strength of her sound lead Frank to give serious thought to where Ruby ultimately belongs.

While there have been one or two nit-pickers who’ve said that some of the times Ruby “interprets” weren’t realistic (she’s dragged into one of Frank’s doctor visits, even though most doctors would have an ASL interpreter on staff), most members of the hearing-impaired community applauded the film – largely for depicting deaf characters as having way more agency than usual. They also appreciated Jackie and Frank having a very healthy sex life (much to Ruby’s chagrin once or twice). But most importantly – all of the deaf characters in the film were cast with hearing-impaired actors, largely at the insistence of Marlee Matlin. Troy Kotsur is up for a Best Supporting Actor statuette himself.

Licorice Pizza

This is also a bildungsroman like Coda – but it was a bit more opaque for me. My quip to Roommate Russ after I watched it was “it’s almost like if Paul Thomas Anderson had directed Rushmore instead.” It even has a similar retro feel as Rushmore – the whole film is set in the San Fernando Valley in 1973, and draws heavily on some 70s tropes, like waterbeds, pinball arcades, and the gas crisis.

Our lead is 15-year-old Gary (Cooper Hoffman), a former child actor aging out of his career. Acting gigs are few and far between now, and he’s back at regular public school – where he meets Alana (Alana Haim) on school picture day, as she toils as the photographer’s assistant. Gary hits on her, using his show-biz connections as clout – but Alana is ten years his senior and initially very unimpressed.

But Gary is so persistent she finally agrees to meet him for dinner. Alana is the youngest of three daughters in a somewhat strict Jewish family and has been struggling to “find herself” a bit – if nothing else, becoming friends with Gary will keep her from being bored, and following along with Gary’s harebrained get-rich-quick schemes will let her tell her father that she’s trying to find serious work. And maybe Gary’s connections will let her launch the acting career she’s thought of trying. But Gary’s obvious feelings for her are a constant source of tension – as are her own shifting feelings towards him.

Licorice Pizza is rather less straightforward than Coda was – and I’m afraid that I had a hard time following along in places. There are a few places where it feels like entire scenes were cut out of the film that would explain things like “why is Gary suddenly trying to sell waterbeds” or “what happened to the film Alana maybe was getting cast in”. Anderson has included some inspired cameos – Bradley Cooper is especially hilarious as a funhouse mirror version of Hollywood producer Jon Peters, one of Gary’s waterbed customers, while Sean Penn and Tom Waits have a kookoopants scene as (respectively) a washed-up actor trying to seduce Alana and the equally washed-up director trying to get him to restage a motorcycle stunt he’d done in an earlier film. But I would happily have traded any cameos for even just a couple extra scenes for Gary or Alana. Haim and Cooper do fine, the script just plain seems to have left some chunks of information out, and it feels more like a bunch of random vignettes instead of a story. Roommate Russ had his own joke when I asked him if he had trouble following the plot – “What plot?”

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

An Autumn Afternoon (1962)

Well, this is a new first – this is the first time a film has left me feeling personally insulted.

I can explain.

Chishū Ryū stars as “Shūhei Hirayama”, a widower in early 1960s Japan. He’s a war vet working a middle-management office job in Tokyo. He has three kids; eldest son Kōichi (Kenji Sada) is married and lives nearby, while the baby of the family – another son, Kazuo (Shin’ichirō Mikami) – just got out of college. Daughter Michiko (Shima Iwashita) handles the cooking and housekeeping for himself and Kazuo. He regularly meets up with a cluster of high school buddies to drink and shoot the breeze. It’s a quiet, simple life.

Then one evening Hirayama and his buddies invite one of their old teachers, Mr. Sakuma, out to join them (Eijirō Tōno). Mr. Sakuma has a bit too much to drink and Hirayama helps him get home – and finds that Mr. Sakuma, also a widower, now runs a cheap ramen shop, and also lives alone with an unmarried daughter to look after him. Hirayama visits the shop once during the day to help Mr. Sakuma out a little, and notices Mr. Sakuma’s daughter is perpetually grumpy.

Mr. Sakuma says that it’s likely because he kept his daughter around to take care of him when she was younger, and now she’s too old to find a husband of her own and has been bitter about that. Hirayama starts to fear he’s doing the same thing to Michiko; he asks her about it later that night, but she insists no, she’s fine, and besides what would he and Kazuo do without her? But Hirayama isn’t so sure. Neither is Kōichi, who says that he thinks Michiko has a crush on a friend of his. Hirayama sends Kōichi to check things out there, and looks into another prospect on his own – or at least means to, because Michiko’s right, what would he do without her?….

…So, we have a lot of guys fretting about Michiko’s unmarried status, and taking it into their hands to find her a husband. We have many scenes about how Hirayama would handle living without her. We even get some feedback from Kōichi’s wife about things, and from Hirayama’s buddies.

But – do we ever hear from Michiko herself about the situation?

No. Incredibly, no, we do not.

The whole engine of the plot is “Michiko is single and Something Must Be Done”, and her wedding is the goal everyone is working towards – but Michiko is a minor character in this story. She gets that one mild protestation when her father asks if she wants to get married, and she gets a very brief moment where she wipes away a tear at some bad news, and – that’s it. Towards the end we se her in a wedding dress heading out to go get married, but we don’t even see the wedding or even learn the name of the guy she’s marrying. That reduces her to a mere plot device – and speaking as another unmarried daughter of a father, that is leaving out one hell of a perspective in this story. I mean – who is she marrying, first of all? Her crush? The guy her father picked? Some other guy? Does she even want to marry? Is she a lesbian, maybe? Who knows? And – the film implies – who cares?

And it’s not even like there wasn’t time for it. There’s a whole drawn-out subplot about Kōichi and his wife having a spat about money management, and there’s a whole weird scene with Hirayama getting dragged to a bar by someone who remembers him from the War and meeting a barmaid who looks like his late wife, and then bringing Kōichi to see her and they get into a debate about that. I mean, those scenes are cute and subtle and add color – but they add color to Kōichi and Hirayama, and meanwhile poor Michiko is given short shrift. But hey, she gets married at the end so it’s okay!….Doesn’t matter who she marries, she’s married and that’s all that matters, right?….And what a sacrifice Hirayama made letting her go, alas…

Come on. Now you get what I mean about feeling insulted by this film. And even taking into account that this was likely a very different time and a different culture and Japan was at a point where it was modernizing more – at least we can present Michiko’s opinion on the matter for just five minutes, instead of dwelling yet again on “how lonely Hirayama’s gonna be”.


film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Like Vivre Sa Vie, this is another French New Wave film that plays with time a bit – only going the other direction. Instead of dispassionate series of spaced-apart vignettes, we follow Cléo (Corinne Marchand) during a very specific window of time, almost in real time. But this is no random slice-of-life – this specific “5 to 7” window is time Cléo is anxiously wanting to pass before she calls the hospital to learn the results of a medical test for possible cancer.

And Cléo is not really the sort to do something productive to keep her mind off things. She visits a psychic hoping for a sneak peek at her future; she goes hat shopping with her maid Angèle (Dominique Davray); she has a desultory meeting with her sort-of-boyfriend José (José Luis de Villalonga) and then her accompanist for her night club act (Michel Legrand, who also composed the film’s music). She wants to be with friends, she wants to be alone. She wants to stay home, she wants to go out. She’s antsy because she wants to do something, but there is literally nothing to do but wait for time to elapse.

That’s a weird mindset, and one I know well. When I did theater, there was always a 15 or 20 minute interval before each show started, between the moment when we opened the doors to the audience and the moment we began the show; and it always drove me slowly bats because there was a whole host of things to be done, but only once the show started; and before that appointed time there was nothing I could do but wait for time to pass. I usually paced a lot, making repeated strolls across the stage to “check it was set properly” or jaunts down to the box office to “check if anyone was running late”, but really I was trying to burn off nervous energy (and quickly learned to tell the poor volunteers in our box office as such). You have a whole plan in place ready to launch, and you know it’s going to be a beast of a thing so you want to just get going already – but you can’t, you need to wait for the appointed hour. And it’s too much of a beast to let you fully distract yourself while you wait, so you end up pacing and antsy and following any whim you get for lack of not knowing what else to do with yourself.

As it turns out, you probably can learn a lot about a person from seeing what whims they tend to get in that state, so director Agnes Varda’s choice to give us these two hours from Cléo’s life still gives us a window into her character. She’s superstitious; she and her maid have a lot of shared beliefs in things like tarot and lucky numbers (they pass up a taxi at one point because it’s number 13), they are afraid of breaking mirrors, they don’t believe in carrying or wearing new clothes on a Tuesday. She’s a little vain; Cléo keeps checking herself out in mirrors throughout the day, and at one point tells herself that “as long as I’m beautiful I’m still alive” and while shopping she muses that “everything in here looks good on me”. She loves attention; José’s visit is ill-timed and perfunctory, but she still seems miffed that he’s leaving after only a few minutes. She plays up her “illness” to her accompanist so he fusses over her. While visiting a cafe, she studies the jukebox and selects one of her own records, subtly checking out the crowd when it starts playing – and is disappointed no one notices.

She’s a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, basically, but every so often she remembers what she’s waiting for and her mood darkens. She tries rehearsing a plaintive ballad with her accompanist, but the lyrics are unusually dour and it just reminds her of her mortality and she stops. She tries to distract herself with a walk and runs into what looks like a funeral procession.

Only towards the end, when she runs into a soldier on leave from the Algerian War (Antoine Bourseillier), does she seem to find some peace. The soldier is at similarly loose ends, trying to kill time before he has to catch his train back to his base; he starts flirting with Cléo, but gradually realizes she’s Going Through Some Stuff and extends more of a sympathetic ear. He even offers to accompany her to the hospital if she’ll in turn see him off at the station. It’s enough to start snapping Cléo out of her self-obsession, and just before the final scene she even suggests they blow off the hospital and get coffee. “I’ll just call the doctor tomorrow, it’s fine,” she assures him. We still do get a resolution for Cléo before the end anyway – but we also get to see her find some peace for that restlessness, and I’m not sure which is the better outcome.

Best Pictures of 2022, Extra Credit, film, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 3

Drive My Car

I think this is another case of “it’s good, but not Best-Picture Good”.

There’s a bit of an unusual technique here – the credits don’t start rolling until about a half hour in, turning everything before the credits into a sort of prologue, And it fits – that’s where we see the backstory for our main character, a Japanese actor and director named Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima). His wife Oto (Reika Kirishima) is a screenwriter who uses an unusual storywriting technique – her work is based on the stories she makes up and tells him after they have sex. But hey, it works – they’re both successful and well-respected in their fields. The only problems they have are the death of their four-year-old daughter several years prior….and Oto’s infidelity, which Kafuku has been dealing with by willfully ignoring it. But then one day, just before Kafuku leaves on an errand, Oto asks him if they can “talk” when he gets home, and he agrees, but uneasily postpones his return….and then when he does return, he finds Oto collapsed on the floor, killed by a sudden brain hemorrhage.

Then the credits roll and the main story kicks off. It’s two years later, and Kafuku is beginning a resident artist program at a theater in Hiroshima, where he will direct a production of Uncle Vanya. Kafuku has played the lead in Vanya in the past, so things should go smoothly. However, a couple of early problems crop up – firstly, one of the actors in the cast, Kōji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada), happens to have been Oto’s most recent lover at the time she died (and Kafuku knows because he walked in on them once, but they were in flagrante and hadn’t seen him). And secondly – due to some vague insurance issue, Kafuku is not allowed to drive himself to and from the rehearsals. Usually the theater would enlist a full-on chauffeur, but since Kafuku brought his own car, the theater has hired a driver for that car instead – a sullen young woman, Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura).

On paper the rest of the plot seems kind of predictable; Kafuku and Takatsuki gradually open up about their respective relationships to Oto, and Takatsuki and Watari gradually warm to each other as well. But happily the plot didn’t feel predictable as I was watching. Mostly this is because Nishijima and Miura give especially good performances; Nishijima plays Kafuku with a wonderful subtlety, giving him just enough gruffness so you know that he’s still a little wounded by his past but has just gotten good at hiding it. The script also isn’t afraid to have Kafuku be a bit of a jerk in rehearsals. And Miura plays Watari as a weirdo introvert, but in a way that gradually becomes endearing – and yet it never verges into the Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory. There’s a fantastic scene where the theater’s company manager and his wife invite Kafuku over for dinner, and since Watari is there they also invite her in – and for the bulk of the scene the manager and Kafuku are caught up in a discussion about theater and the current production, and only after several minutes does everyone – even the audience – seem to remember that Watari has been awkwardly and silently sitting at the end of the table as well, picking at her food and occasionally patting the manager’s dog.

So it’s good. But…ultimately, kind of forgettable. I saw it a week ago, and when I sat down to write this…I actually had to think a couple minutes trying to remember anything about it. I’d even forgotten the film’s name. And I’m not sure this bodes well for its Oscar night success.

West Side Story

As things began, I thought this was going to be unusually faithful to the 1961 film – the opening also begins with the sound of the Jets whistling to each other, set over shots of New York streets, and then things move into the Jets gradually gathering for a prowl through their streets, one character or another sometimes busting out a dance move. But then the characters finally start speaking….and I realized that “oh, they’ve added some things.”

Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner dive into the racial tensions fueling the Sharks and the Jets, in ways which the 1961 film only hinted at. During the gangs’ first run-in with Officer Krupke, after he orders the Sharks to leave the scene, Bernardo stares him down a minute – then starts defiantly singing “La Borinqueña”, the Puerto Rican national anthem, with the rest of the Sharks (and a few onlookers) joining in as they turn to go, turning their dismissal into a rallying cry. The whole setting is also moved to the former San Juan Hill neighborhood of New York, right at the time when the city is tearing everything down as a “slum clearance” move so they can build the current Lincoln Center cultural complex.

The Puerto Rican characters also get some development. Maria (Rachel Zegler) is a bit feistier and we see more of the family dynamic between her and brother Bernardo (David Alvarez). Bernardo is also given a career here – he’s not just the leader of the Sharks, he is also an aspiring boxer. And Anita (Ariana DeBose) isn’t just a seamstress, she is saving up to start her own business; and, she’s also Bernardo’s live-in girlfriend. And Chino (Josh Andrés Rivera) isn’t a member of the Sharks – he is a college student.

An even bigger change is that a good deal of the scenes between Maria and Anita and Bernardo and any of the Spanish-speaking characters are all in Spanish – without subtitles. Spielberg has said he did so as a way to sort of de-emphasize the Anglo perspective – and I get it, but as a viewer it was occasionally frustrating. Most of the time I got the general gist of what characters were saying, but once or twice I could tell I was missing some nuances and really wished I weren’t.

Tony’s also been given a little more of a backstory – and that helps, because Ansel Elgort’s Tony otherwise felt a little…bland. He has a sort of reserved and overly-chill manner that works when he’s telling Maria about the year he spent upstate in prison….but doesn’t work when he’s singing “Maria”, and really doesn’t work during the balcony scene. His singing is technically good – and there are some really pretty shots and lighting effects there – but technically good is all it is. I didn’t sense any feeling in it – and for a song that Tony’s supposed be singing because he is head over heels in love, “technically good but no feeling” is just plain wrong. Fortunately his performance picks up a little towards the end when things are all dramatic and tragic, but this initial blandness bugged me.

There were some bits where it worked, though – and that was in his scenes with Rita Moreno. For Spielberg brought Moreno back, casting her as a new character, “Valentina”. In the original show and film, one of the Jets’ hangouts is a malt shop run by a longtime local named “Doc” – but here, the shop is run by Valentina, who is introduced to us as Doc’s widow who’s taken things over. The role is largely the same – the local shopkeeper who deep down believes that these gang members are just kids who are suffering from some hard knocks and deserve understanding, who urges them to straighten up, mourns when they turn bad and celebrates if they turn good. Turning things over to Valentina adds some extra nuance – Valentina alludes to the struggles she and Doc had themselves, and she’s able to warn Tony about that. She also mentions in one scene that the Jets seem to think of her as “a gringa”, but it’s only because of who she married – if she hadn’t married Doc they’d have seen her very differently. There’s even a moment of comedy – Tony has cornered Valentina and is asking her how to say various romantic declarations in Spanish, things like “I love you” and “you are beautiful” and “I want to stay with you forever”. Halfway through the lesson, Valentina quips, “have you thought of starting with something like ‘Do you want to go out for coffee’ instead?”