film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Tokyo Olympiad (1965)

The 1001 Movies list only includes two sports documentaries – and one of them was Leni Riefenstahl’s chronicle of the 1936 Olympics, so that’s a pretty high bar. Happily, Kon Ichikawa’s chronicle of the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo does a decent job measuring up.

Ichikawa was actually the second director for the project. The Japanese Olympic Committee was really counting on the 1964 Olympics to be a sort of re-introduction of Japan to the world, showing how well they’d bounced back after the Second World War. So initially they tapped the most famous Japanese director for the project – Akira Kurosawa. However, their contract negotiations got bogged down by some of Kurosawa’s creative demands – for instance, he insisted on directing the opening and closing ceremonies as well. The Japanese Olympic Committee finally threw up their hands and fired Kurosawa, turning instead to Ichikawa, who at that time had a small reputation for successfully taking over other projects abandoned by other directors. Ichikawa was similarly well-respected outside Japan (we’ve seen his work before with The Burmese Harp and An Actor’s Revenge).

Ironically, the Japanese Olympic Committee wasn’t thrilled about Ichikawa’s final product either; but they disliked the very things most people did like about it. The Committee had been hoping for a straightforward, no-frills depiction of the Olympic events; but what fascinated Ichikawa was the emotional life of each of the athletes themselves, and the spectators in some cases. There’s still plenty of “sports” action – several of the swimming events, a handful of weightlifting and track events, and the final marathon, along with brief clips of less-flashy events like target shooting and sailing – but Ichikawa also shows us glimpses of life inside the Olympic Village and some of the other mundane realities behind the Olympic competition. One sequence covers the offerings in the Olympic Village cafeteria, showing all the myriad food options catering to athletes with a staggering variety of tastes and culinary backgrounds; he focuses on one lone athlete from (I think) Columbia, meekly making his food choice and then settling down alone at a table in the corner, too shy to mix with any other team. When showing us a bit of the rifling competition, he explains the rules a bit (the competitors are kept in a booth at one end of the range, and they have a set number of hours in which to fire a set number of bullets at their target), but then also mentions that because of this, the competitors have to bring a packed lunch into the booth with them. We see shots of one rifleman in his booth carefully loading and firing, and then pausing for a break and starting to unpack his bento.

There are also glimpses of some of the other structural “stuff” going on behind the scenes – contractors building the stadium, referees stepping in when a scuffle breaks out during a cricket match, teams changing the shot-up targets at the rifle range, police blocking traffic during the torch relay, officials setting up water stations for the marathon runners, paramedics rescuing injured athletes and loading them onto ambulances. There are also plenty of shots of the public around the many events – a bunch of kids front and center at one event excitedly waving Japanese flags, a group of fascinated older women on a country street pausing to watch the bicycle racers whiz past them. One of my favorite shots was of a small child on the front porch of their house who’d been playing with some toy, and had stopped, fascinated, watching a parade of racers whip past their house.

Ichikawa also manages to capture a unique aspect of the Tokyo Olympiad. The Decolonization of Africa was in full swing during the 1960s, and Ichikawa paid special attention to athletes from African countries during the opening ceremony’s Parade of Nations, celebrating these athletes able to represent their own countries for the first time. By a staggering coincidence, one such nation declared its independence on the very day of the closing ceremony – so Ichikawa made sure to capture the athlete carrying a sign with the new name of Zambia, the only country carrying a sign during the closing ceremonies. (This might not be a clip from the film, fair warning.)

This kind of “giving glimpses of backstory” approach has sometimes been brought in to more recent Olympic broadcasting; unfortunately, the thinking is that “this will appeal to women more”, so they focus more on drawing out sentiment with pre-recorded soft-focus “profiles” about the athletes as opposed to showing us the little human moments. But Ichikawa understands that it’s the candid, on-the-fly stuff that is much more interesting – the intimidated Columbian athlete in the cafeteria, the kids with flags flipping out, the awestruck athletes entering the stadium for the first time, the exhausted Irish marathoner who sits down for a break halfway through the race but still shakes hands with a well-wisher reaching over the barrier. Those are absolutely the kind of moments I watch for whenever I watch Olympics coverage – I don’t remember a whole hell of a lot about the various events or the backstories of any athlete, but I remember moments like a Spanish athlete at the London Olympics Closing Ceremony grooving to “We Will Rock You”, snowboarder Shaun White watching in jaw-dropped fascination as a Ferrari races around the stadium at the Opening Ceremony for Turin, or Gabriela Andersen-Schiess coming in 37th Place in the first-ever women’s marathon, staggering and severely dehydrated but waving off the medical team, insisting on completing the race.

As corny as it sounds, it emphasizes that “athletes are people just like us”, and I get a kick out of that; I can identify with the athletes that way as well, to the point that I actually said “oh no” out loud when Ichikawa showed the last-place marathoner from Nepal having to drop out midway and get whisked off in an ambulance. The part I liked about Leni Riefenstahl’s focus was on the beauty of movement and the friendly spirit of competition amongst the athletes, and for this, what I appreciated are the unexpected and candid moments that come about when you have a host of athletes from around the world all converging on one city for fifteen days.

Best Pictures of 2023, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Oscar Extra Credit – 2023 Oscar Recap

I was out late watching last night’s ceremony at a Brooklyn theater; so I am very tired, but very, very happy. (Since I’m tired – lemme warn you, this post is going to be video-heavy.)

…I surprisingly didn’t do too bad with my predictions. Some of the ones I missed were because I was too chicken to commit to anything – I wimped out on Makeup and Sound – and for others I missed because I was playing it kind of safe; I genuinely thought that Best Editing would go to something more “predictable” like Top Gun or Elvis and that John Williams would win through the force of sentiment. Speaking of which – Best Score is the only award I disagree with, because hearing that deep bass motif from All Quiet on the Western Front play a few times as it picked up its own awards made me realize how repetitive it was.

But the top awards I completely agree with. Ke Huy Quan won for Best Supporting Actor – which was the least surprising moment of the night – but Ariana Debose still burst into tears simply seeing his name inside the envelope before announcing his win. I was pleasantly surprised with Jamie Lee Curtis getting Best Supporting Actress, and delighted to see Brendan Fraser and Michelle Yeoh take the top acting awards.

And oh good Lord their speeches…everyone in the room was crying by the end of Ke Huy Quan’s speech, both in the Dolby Theater and in the theater where I was.

And Jamie Lee Curtis called attention to the fact that movies are a collaborative art form, even the genre films she’d been better known for up to that point.

Brendan Fraser has one heck of a speechwriter on his team – his speeches all this season have always been pretty eloquent. Although this one did lean into the nautical metaphors rather a lot…

I was wondering how the Academy was going to handle the presenters this year, since traditionally last year’s Best Actor presents this year’s Best Actress award – but last year’s Best Actor is barred from attending the Oscars for the next ten years for…reasons. I’m not sure why, but they tapped Halle Berry to fill in for him. But it turned out to be a poetic choice – because that meant that the first-ever actress of color to win this category got to hand the award to Michelle Yeoh, the second-ever.

Curtis, Quan, and Yeoh may have been eloquent and serious with their speeches – but other winners from the Everything Everywhere team were a bit less so. Thanks to Daniel Scheinert, the word “butthead” has been used in an Oscar speech.

That was their acceptance for Best Original Screenplay; they were a bit more serious when they got back up again when they won for Best Direction.

The Everything Everywhere team has all leaned into their offbeat nature. Editor Paul Rogers opened his remarks by saying “this is only my second film, this is so weird….”

Producer Jonathan Wong also referred to their studio A24 “supporting our weirdness” when accepting Best Picture.

And while I’m already familiar with singer David Byrne getting a bit quirky, I have to wonder what the crowd in the Dolby Theater was thinking when he and Stephanie Hsu were performing his nomination for Best Song and revealed, in the middle of the song, that he was wearing hot dog finger gloves.

But as many predicted, “Naatu Naatu” won the Best Song. And I had to chuckle during Bollywood star Deepika Padukone’s introduction to the performance when she spoke about the song’s impact and popularity on social media and was setting up its context during the film; she pointed out the fact that it was sung in the Indian language Telugu, and not English like most other Oscar songs, and then added, “it’s also a total banger.” And….well, yeah.

I also cracked up when composer M. M. Keeravaani opened his speech by mentioning he listened to The Carpenters a lot as a kid – and then proceeded to sing the rest of his speech, in the form of rewritten lyrics to their song “Top Of The World”.

There were a lot of smaller funny and feel-good moments as well – like when the cast and crew of the Live-Action Short-film winner, An Irish Goodbye, used half their allotted time to sing “Happy Birthday” to one of the cast members whose birthday it happened to be that day.

Or when Harrison Ford presented the award for Best Picture – which meant that he and Ke Huy Quan got to reunite onstage and celebrate a bit.

During his opening monologue, Jimmy Kimmel called attention to the fact that Brendan Fraser and Ke Huy Quan also worked together about 31 years ago – “that’s right, two actors from Encino Man were nominated for Oscars.” They brought that up again themselves when the team from Good Morning America were interviewing Brendan Fraser after his win – and Ke Huy Quan crashed the interview.

Costumer Ruth Carter made history as the first woman of color to win two Oscars, for her work on Wakanda Forever – and mentioned that her own mother had recently passed, dedicating the award to her and asking Chadwick Boseman to take care of her.

Navalny took Best Documentary – and during the speech, Alexey Navalny’s wife Yulia had the final word, sending a heartfelt message to her husband who was still in solitary confinement in Russia.

And at the other end of the serious-to-silly spectrum – Hugh Grant and Andie McDowell teamed up to present for Production Design. Before they read the nominees, though Grant quipped that they were there to do something else as well – “first, we’re here to illustrate the importance of a good moisturizer”, joking that McDowell had uses one faithfully and he hadn’t; so she still looked stunning, while he looked “basically [like] a scrotum.”

…I only got five hours of sleep last night, so I’m going to rest up for a day before getting back into the regular flow of reviews.

Best Pictures of 2023, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture Oscar 2023 Extra Credit – Part 5

As ever, I’ve left the films I was least interested in for last.

Top Gun: Maverick

I never saw the original Top Gun. It was promoted to me at length back when it was still in theaters, predominantly through the music videos for its two big hit soundtrack songs – Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone and Berlin’s Take My Breath Away. And the clips used in there were enough to convince me I wouldn’t like the film – that this would be a testosterone-soaked tale of a cocky-yet-talented rebellious chap learning humility, the values of teamwork, and how to respect women, and yet still committing a risky act of derring-do that would win him respect at the end of the day. …I was even more of a pinko-leaning hippie at sixteen than I am today and this was very much not to my taste.

I hadn’t been planning on seeing this sequel otherwise, since I got the impression it would be more of the same. I did have a bit of hope, though, after a conversation with some movie-buff neighbors who saw it on its release and said that there was a subplot in which Tom Cruise’s “Pete ‘Maverick’ Mitchell” has to wrestle with his own aging; that sounded like it would be an interesting wrinkle, seeing this man realize that having The Need For Speed wasn’t going to solve his problems any more.

But what I got ended up looking very much like the film I thought I was going to see with the original – Maverick getting in trouble for a test flight he wasn’t supposed to make, Maverick locking horns with his new superior officer (John Hamm), Maverick struggling to be the team leader that whips a new team into shape, Maverick bumbling through the rekindling of a relationship with an old flame (Jennifer Connelly), Maverick saving someone during a dangerous mission and then getting saved himself. Et cetera, et cetera.

At least it’s technically skilled. And even though I dislike most of his movies, it’s hard not to be at least halfway charmed by Tom Cruise himself. Some years back he was a guest on Chris Hardwick’s podcast, and I was struck by just how fascinated he is by everything about filmmaking – the entire process, from scene study to acting to stuntwork to filming to editing, is something he could happily talk about and do for hours. That enthusiasm comes through in whatever he does; and so while I’m not always into the films he makes with that process, I do think you can see his enthusiasm, and that in itself is endearing.

Not enough to earn him an Oscar, though. Maybe next time.


This was another film I had preconceptions about – at least, about the subject. I was never into Elvis Presley; I was only seven when he died, and so the Elvis in my head is the Vegas Elvis, a past-his-prime tacky guy who had settled into half-heartedly groaning his way through old hits for similarly-old audiences of people trying to recapture a bit of their youth. My father was more interested in the blues and R&B artists who’d originally done the songs Elvis made famous – so I was more into Big Mama Thornton’s version of “Hound Dog” or Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” first. I also haven’t had the best luck with Baz Luhrmann; his baroque style applied to things like Moulin Rouge or The Great Gatsby or Romeo and Juliet just seemed way too distracting.

But, if you think about it….Baz Luhrmann and Elvis kind of makes sense, doesn’t it? The flash, the sizzle, the spectacle? And so, this…kind of works.

The film is actually structured as an apologetic from Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis’ old manager (or Svengali) towards the end of his life. Parker discusses how he discovered the young Elvis (Austin Butler) while managing small-scale carnivals in the South, and using some highly-developed conman strategies, molded the music-loving young outsider into a superstar. Whenever his pet got out of line, however, Parker would pull increasingly larger strings to yank Elvis back to heel – ultimately using a series of drugs to keep him compliant. It’s a story I’d heard before – but this film made me feel for the first time just how unfair to Elvis that was.

During this runup to the Oscars, I’ve been hearing the Best Actor statuette is a toss-up between Butler’s Elvis and Brendan Fraser for The Whale. I’ve been hoping for Fraser (his own comeback story with The Whale is about as touching as Ke Huy Quan’s), and hoping that Butler’s performance was just a flash in the pan….but I’m a bit worried for Brendan now. Butler gives a performance that isn’t just an “Elvis impersonation”, thankfully; it’s a little patchy, but it’s written that way, told through the filter of Tom Parker’s memory. But what Butler does with those patches is impressive. One scene in particular stood out for me – a scene shortly after Elvis’ beloved mother has died, and he’s holed up in his mother’s closet weeping bitterly while the press is huddled outside wanting to interview him. Parker knows that it would look good if Elvis made some kind of statement, and goes to calm him down. And for much of that scene, Butler’s Elvis somehow looks like the hurt little boy he feels himself to be. It’s not a makeup thing, it’s not a specific way he is holding his face or whatever – he somehow simply looks like he’s an eight year old who wants his mommy, and it’s heartbreaking.

Best Pictures of 2023, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Oscar Credit – Supplemental

I have two more films to see from the Best Picture list, but I’m taking a break for a second – because I’m cheating a bit.

As I griped (at length) when the Oscar nominees were announced – I didn’t like Avatar at all.  I also didn’t like that it took the place of other films.  So I’m intentionally skipping Way of Water this year, and am instead reviewing another film as a protest.  …It wasn’t nominated for Best Picture, but it was nominated for something, at least – Best Original Song.  Roommate Russ felt that it should have been nominated for more; and at one point told me that “Everything Everywhere All At Once was my favorite film of 2022, until I saw this thing.”

RRR is an Indian film, a Telugu-language epic that went over like gangbusters here in the west, largely thanks to TikTok celebrating the nominated song “Naatu Naatu”.  It’s very, very loosely based on two Indian revolutionaries from the 1920s – Alluri Sitarama Raju, a community organizer and activist from Madras, and Komaram Bheem, an activist from the Gond people near Hyderabad.  Raju and Bheem never met in reality – but filmmaker S.S. Rajamouli speculated “wouldn’t it have been cool if they did, and became friends?”  

So the script is a sort of historical fanfiction story – with all of the melodrama that kind of writing entails.  Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.) has come to Delhi to rescue a young girl from his tribe who’s been kidnapped by the cartoonishly evil British Raj administrator Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his wife Catherine (Alison Doody). Buxton hears rumors of the attempted rescue, and puts one of his top men from the Indian Imperial Police on the job to find him – Raju (Ram Charan).  Both arrive in Delhi at the same time, but their separate investigations take some time – enough time for the pair to meet and innocently befriend each other, complete with Raju playing wingman for Bheem when Bheem develops a crush on Scott’s niece Jenny (Olivia Morris).  But the night that Bheem and his team makes their move to rescue the girl, Raju has been charged with guarding Scott’s residence, and the two discover the truth about each other.  Alas, can their friendship be saved?….

Now, I’m not usually into that kind of melodrama.  But this is absolutely not something you would see for historical accuracy or a nuanced script.  This is an action film.  But not just an action film – it’s also a musical.  And a comedy.  And an epic. And…actually, it’s completely in keeping with other films from the Telugu-language film system.  I’ve heard people refer to this as a “Bollywood” film – but “Bollywood” refers to Hindi films made by studios in Mumbai.  And that’s one of several studio systems in India – the Telugu-language “Tollywood” system is another one.   And Tollywood films are king in India – they tend to have more dramatic action, livelier music sequences, splashier and much more intricate visual effects.  Film Youtuber Patrick Willems recently summed up a description of Tollywood by saying that “it’s like Bollywood….but more.

And that is what has been winning Western audiences over.  There are animal escape scenes, fight scenes, prison rescues, dance sequences, things even go rom-com for about 20 minutes in the middle. I was discussing RRR with a work colleague, and when I said “there’s a group fight scene where a bunch of wild animals are running around, and one guy grabs a live jaguar running past him and throws it at another guy”, he immediately pulled out his cell phone and started dialing, saying “that’s it, I’m telling my girlfriend we need to see this tonight.”  I saw it in a crowded theater, and the last time I heard an audience react that much to a film it was at least 20 years ago, with one of the Lord Of the Rings films.  There were gasps of shock and laughter and delight at just how gloriously over-the top excessive everything went.

Even from me – and even though I’d already heard of some of the criticism of the story itself.  There are some visual references that go flying straight over non-Indian heads, but in India, they’re raising eyebrows.  In one scene, Raju is wounded in a battle and Bheem tends to him inside a small shrine – then re-arms him with a bow and arrows from the statue in its center, and dresses him in a sort of loincloth fashioned from the orange flags fluttering outside.  This looks like a clever improvisation to outsiders – but it also coincidentally makes Raju look a lot like the Hindu god Rama.  And in an even bigger “coincidence”, Raju’s fiancée (Alia Bhatt) is named “Sita”, just like Rama’s wife.   Several minutes after this scene, just before the film’s end, Bheem all but grovels at Raju’s feet asking if he and his people can be taught how to read.  There’s a big cast-wide song-and-dance number during the closing credits, with director Rajamouli joining in – where the cast is singing about celebrating freedom before pictures of various Indian freedom fighters – however, a picture of Mahatma Gandhi is absent.

For several people, those details are coming across like sympathetic dog whistles to a right-wing Hindu nationalist movement in India, with a side of reinforcing the caste system.  Particularly disturbing is the film’s frequent and exclusive use of a specific flag from India’s early history –  the Vande Mataram, designed by a Hindu nationalist and anti-Muslim.  The Vande Mataram plays a pivotal role in Raju and Bheem’s early meeting, when they team up to rescue a young boy in danger, and it’s all over the place in that credits sequence.  ….If you remember the jolt I got seeing Buster Keaton waving the Stars and Bars in The General, this is somewhat equivalent.

Still, this could be a godsend when it comes to audiences outside India.  Your average American isn’t only ignorant of Indian history and politics – they’re also ignorant of Indian cinema altogether, as well as any other non-English film.  We are notoriously reluctant to see anything that requires us to read subtitles, and so there are entire film genres which completely pass us by; a year ago, if you mentioned “Indian cinema”, people might point to either a few memes, or talk about the credits sequence from Slumdog Millionaire (which was a British film anyway).  But every so often there’s a crack in our weird blind spot, and something makes so much of a splash in the USA that we flock to it, excitedly demanding more.  It happened with Hong Kong films in the 1970s, it happened with Japanese anime in the 1980s; it’s happened now and then with French and Italian films, it started happening with Korean films a few years back when Bong Joon Ho’s work started getting better known.  And RRR may be our gateway film for Indian cinema.

Especially since it’s almost guaranteed to win for Best Original Song.  “Naatu Naatu” is insanely catchy, and accompanies an exuberant dance number from the film;  Raju and Bheem are Jenny’s guests at a garden party, and another guest mocks them for not knowing any Western dances like the waltz or the flamenco.  Raju admits that he’s right, they don’t – “….but do you know ‘Naatu’?”  And thus begins one hell of a danceoff.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

The Sound Of Music (1965)

So, I’m not going to have very much to say about this one, I’m afraid. Not because it’s poor quality, or because I actively disliked it. Rather – I’m so familiar with it that I literally had no reaction to seeing it again this time. It got broadcast on television a lot when I was younger – once a year throughout the 1980s and 1990s – and more recently we’ve seen movie theaters screen it in a “sing-along” version. I was even in a production when I was eleven years old. (I think that’s my head dead-center in this picture, hovering in the back of this crowd of “nuns” on the stage in our school library.)

Actually, it was about the time I was in this production that I first started noticing the biggest nits I’m picking with this film. None of them are solely the film’s fault – in fact, the film is a bit of an improvement, cutting three of the songs I liked least from the original stage show and adding a couple extra bits in. The whole thing, however, is an over-romanticized take on the life of the actual Von Trapp family; a singing family who emigrated from Austria just before the Second World War and made a name for themselves in the US.

A quick word about the actual Von Trapps – Maria did intend to be a nun, and did get sent as a governess to the house of Georg Von Trapp, an Austrian widower with seven children. The family also did flee Austria just before World War II. However – Maria and Georg married more out of convenience, with Maria regretting giving up the church for a while afterward. And when the Nazis took over Austria, the Von Trapps took advantage of Georg’s dual citizenship in Italy and took a train to Rome.

However – the famous stage duo Rogers & Hammerstein were not inspired by Maria Von Trapp’s memoir. Rather, they were inspired by a 1956 West German film which had itself been rather freely and romantically adapted from it – making Georg a cold disciplinarian saved by Maria’s joie de vivre, dialing up the kids’ cuteness, introducing a star-crossed-lovers subplot between the eldest Von Trapp daughter and a budding Nazi Youth member, and setting up a daring escape, sneaking out of their debut concert at a folk music festival and hiking over the Alps.

Rogers & Hammerstein wrote the musical for stage star Mary Martin – but Julie Andrews won the role for the film, based on her work in Mary Poppins (reportedly, director Robert Wise visited the Disney studios to watch a rough cut of Mary Poppins before it had even been released, and within five minutes was telling screenwriter Ernest Lehman “let’s go sign this girl right now before someone else sees this and grabs her”). Andrews very nearly turned the role down, feeling the story was a bit sentimental – but Wise convinced her by sharing some changes he was planning to make to the musical, and to Maria’s character. Christopher Plummer also had a hand in fleshing out Georg von Trapp’s character a bit (although he still was no fan of the film, calling it “The Sound of Mucus” when he was amongst friends).

Still, the film is a lot like the musical. The basic plot is all there, as are many of the “cute” things the kids say are the same (like how the youngest girl, Gretl, refers to the Nazi flag as “that flag with the big black spider on it”). And most of the songs are still there. …And it’s the songs that are the high point here – because let’s face it, they’re excellent, especially when it’s Julie Andrews singing them. And the film’s staging is an improvement on the musical’s – opening up the “Do-Re-Mi” number by sending the Von Trapps cavorting throughout the streets of Salzburg, giving Julie Andrews a vast mountaintop as her stage for “The Sound of Music”, and giving “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” a sweeping orchestral backup.

Literally the only mis-step I saw was the bizarre use of “How Do You Solve A Problem Like Maria?” as the processional march during Maria’s wedding to Georg – think about it, how is that a song a bride would want to hear as she marches down an aisle? But just before that is one of my favorite moments from the film – just after Maria has been dressed and prepped by her former convent sisters, they shepherd her through the convent gate and then close the door behind her, staying inside the convent themselves. And before Maria starts down the aisle, she pauses to look back, giving her old way of life one last look; but all of the nuns are there smiling at her through the gate encouragingly, so she turns away to move on into her new life. Even when I was a kid I found that moving.

One last bit of trivia to end on – in 2015, the Academy Awards had a special salute to this film, which was then celebrating a 50th Anniversary. Julie Andrews was sadly not able to sing herself – a botched operation on her vocal cords in 1997 permanently damaged her singing voice. So the Academy went with a new talent – inviting Lady Gaga to sing for the tribute. At the time, Gaga was known primarily for avant-garde stunts like wearing dresses made of meat, so there were several eyebrows raised when she was introduced – but she pulled it off.

Best Pictures of 2023, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture Oscar Extra Credit – Part 4

I don’t know if I have a theme with this pair this time. Fair enough.

The Fabelmans

The main character’s name may be “Fabelman”, but this is pretty much Steven Spielberg’s origin story. Which makes me feel like that much more of a heel when I admit that I was…a little underwhelmed. Not by the quality, mind you; it’s perfectly fine, with Gabriel LaBelle doing a perfectly fine job as the Spielberg stand-in “Sammy Fabelman” and Paul Dano and Michelle Williams doing perfectly fine as Sammy’s parents. Seth Rogen also does great work as the ultimately challenging “Uncle Benny”, a family friend, and I can also see why Judd Hirsch got a Best-Supporting-Actor nomination for a cameo as Sammy’s great-uncle Boris. And the script is fine – swinging nimbly from laughs to sorrow as the Fabelmans’ luck changes and as Sammy’s parents tussle over Sammy’s “hobby”, one of the many things putting a strain on their marriage.

My biggest issue, though is…why are we hearing this story? I mean, I understand that Spielberg has always wanted to tell an autobiographical story – he’s been sitting on this story for about 20 years, since his sister Anne wrote the screenplay and they agreed to wait until both their parents had passed away. But a lot of the thing we hear in this story are things we’ve already heard in interviews – that Spielberg got into film as a kid when he saw The Greatest Show On Earth, that he would make little movies with friends as a kid, that his father was an engineer and moved the family around a lot, that his parents ultimately divorced. It all left me with a sense that the film was all stuff I knew already, and that’s why I left wondering “why this story, why now”.

I still feel like a heel admitting that, but there it is.

Although, speaking of things I’ve seen before….

All Quiet On The Western Front

Interestingly enough, I’d expected to have to stream this Netflix-distributed film at home; but I was very surprised to see it was screening at a local theater. Netflix is likely making a big push to capitalize on the Academy nod, because there was a free promotional booklet about the film waiting at everyone’s seats, full of lots of stills from the film captioned with quotes from the filmmakers or lines from Erich Maria Remarque’s original text.

Speaking of which – this adaptation differs from the book and thus also from the 1930 adaptation, and that’s a story in itself. I note in my original review that the 1930 is “a pretty faithful adaptation” – and I’ve since learned that Remarque made that a condition when he sold the film rights. The book effectively vanished from Germany in the 1930s and 40s – thanks to the particular powers in charge at that time – but has become available in Germany again; Malte Grunert, this film’s producer, mentions he has read it several times, as have much of the creative team. And even though it’s been nearly a century since Remarque wrote it, it seems that the creative team got his message loud and clear: director and screenwriter Edward Berger said that it’s a story about how “a group of young people are manipulated by populist hate speech, convincing them that an aggressive war is perfectly legitimate…this relentless machinery of war, crushing everything that stands in its way, is the essence of the book.”

Berger has indeed preserved the essence, while making some changes from the original to make it more suitable for audiences today. My biggest complaint about the original was its habit of taking entire passages from the book, things the main character Paul simply thought to himself, and made him speak them aloud. It felt terribly clunky and forced. Berger has left a lot of those Lengthy Monologues out, trusting that his actors can….well, act. In the scene where Paul is trapped in a foxhole alongside a French soldier he’s just stabbed, instead of a lengthy speech where he pleads with the wheezing soldier to be quiet and then muses about how they’d probably be friends if they met during peacetime and then apologizes to him for killing him and yadda yadda yadda, this Paul simply shouts “shut up” at him a couple times, then looks terrified and remorseful in turns, then crawls over and tries to bandage his wounds and make him more comfortable as he dies – and then closes his eyes, finds a photo of the man’s wife and child, and whispers a promise to the corpse in halting French that he’ll make sure they get his things.

The biggest changes are additions – instead of starting with Paul’s schoolteacher giving his students a call to arms, we start watching another group of soldiers race into battle, and then watch how the war machine deals with the aftermath; soldiers strip the corpses of uniforms before burying them, the uniforms are sent back to a laundry at the home front where the blood and mud is cleaned, then a warehouse full of seamstresses mend the various rips and bullet holes before sending all the uniforms to the recruitment centers, where an excited Paul receives one as he enlists. We also see more of the upper-level forces at play – scenes where a German politician named Matthias Erzberger negotiates peace terms with the French, and where a German general idly enjoys lavish meals as he sends Paul and his fellow soldiers out on various missions. Erzberger and the general also foreshadow the impact the peace treaty had on Germany – Erzberger warns the French about the sore state of the German economy and how that could lead to some…internal strife, and the general rails against the peace treaty, vowing that he’s going to send his men out to keep fighting up until the very last second. Those are both changes that Remarque couldn’t have seen coming in 1930, but have resonated very clearly in hindsight. I did miss the scene – a bit – where Paul goes home on leave for a couple weeks, and realizes his family has absolutely no idea what he’s going through and are all still seduced by the Glories Of War stories they’ve been hearing about the battles. But the general’s utter callousness makes up for that.

There’s also a chilling sequence I also thought did some future forecasting; there’s a couple sequences where Paul and his fellow soldier Kat sneak out of their base camp to raid a nearby French farmer, stealing one of his geese or chickens for food. Both times they are nearly caught with the farmer and his young son chasing them off and then firing after them with a rifle as they run. On their last raid, the camera gives us a lingering close-up of the son angrily watching Paul and Kat run off – and I realized that you know, that kid’s only about eight or nine…young enough that he could be first to enlist in the 1930s when France needed people along the Maginot Line.

I’m fairly sure that this will get the Best International Feature award as a sort of “consolation prize” so the Academy can award Best Picture to something else. But at least it earned that nomination.

Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Oscar Extra Credit 2023: Early Predictions

I’ve had an unusual relationship with the Academy over the years. I grew up during the years when the ceremonies used older actors and somewhat corny jokes, with plenty of singing-and-dancing production numbers. That’s largely what television was when I was a kid – lots of variety-show song-and-dance stuff, so I shrugged and accepted much of it. I got more cynical about the stagey-ness as I got older; one of the more hilarious Oscar viewing nights I can remember was in college when I watched with three other acting majors and two film majors (the sheer quantity of snark flung that night permanently re-set my threshhold).

I also started to pay more critical attention to the films and performances that were being acknowledged by the Academy. All too often, the films or the performers I was most impressed by got snubbed or overlooked; Brokeback Mountain losing out to Crash for Best Picture in 2003 is one of the better examples, or Chariots of Fire beating Reds in 1981. Or Driving Miss Daisy beating Dead Poets Society in 1990, while Do The Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. I started noticing just how many other journalists who predicted Oscar awards would differentiate between “who’s going to win” and “who deserves to win”, and by the time Green Book won over BlacKkKlansman in 2018 I’d given up nearly all hope that my own favorites would ever win with the Academy. Maybe my personal favorites would win Best Screenplay (Get Out, Lost In Translation, Gods And Monsters and Call Me By Your Name all enjoy that honor) but that’s as close as things would get.

Then in 2020 there was a little film called Parasite that completely beat all the odds. Roommate Russ and I were part of a crowd watching at a local theater; we both hoped, but thought it was a long shot and were very pleasantly surprised. “I’ve never been happier to lose an Oscar pool,” I later joked on Facebook. The next couple years were a bit of a wash from Covid throwing a wrench in the works, but…this year, I’ve actually started caring about what happens on Oscar night, and rooting for people who may actually have a chance at winning.

And thus I’m actually going to throw my hat in the ring for the first time and make some predictions about the awards this year. I reserve the rights to update my predictions within the next few days – I still have a few of the Best Picture movies to see – but I’ve also been watching the results come in from some of the other awards, like the SAGS or the Golden Globes, and things actually look very promising for a few of my favorites. There’s still one or two places in which I’m going to make what I heard one critic call a “pray-diction”, where I nod towards both the person who could win something and the person who I want to win deep down.

Right: starting with some of the technical awards.

Best Visual EffectsAvatar, Way Of Water

So I hate the Avatar films, for the record. Hated the original, and from what I’ve heard I’d hate the sequel. (I’m actually not going to watch it for this year’s Best Picture roundup.) But – the thing I hate is the script itself, and how trite and uninspired it is. That said, I absolutely respect the caliber of work both films’ Visual Effects artists have achieved, particularly since they’re working with water. A very long time ago I worked as a production assistant on a fishing show, and got into a lengthy conversation with one of the post-production staff who told me just how difficult it is to film water; the Avatar team isn’t just filming water, they’re trying to simulate filmed water, which seems exponentially tougher. So I’m giving this to Avatar – under duress.

Best Film Editing – Top Gun: Maverick

Honestly I flipped a coin for this one, between this and Elvis. I’m also rooting for Everything Everywhere All At Once, but that’s mostly for completist’s reasons, and it’s more likely it’ll be one of these others.

Best Costume Design – Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Another case where I’m rooting for EEAAO, but Ruth Carter already won once for the original Black Panther and the cognoscenti are predicting she’ll win again. I’ve also seen some people make a good argument for Catherine Martin’s work for Elvis, but not good enough to unseat Carter to my mind.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling –

….Honestly, this is a toss-up for me. The team from The Batman has been gaining notice….but so has the team from Elvis. And the team behind Brendan Fraser’s prosthetics in The Whale did such a good job that a work colleague of mine was convinced Fraser actually was morbidly obese now. (I had to pull up a video of Fraser at the SAG awards yesterday to show him that no, he wasn’t.) I’m going to leave this one a wild card.

Best Cinematography – Elvis, Mandy Walker

Another coin-flip for me, and I may change my mind after seeing All Quiet On The Western Front tonight. And I also think that overlooking Nope was a criminal snub.

Best Production Design – Babylon

This film itself was a bit of a miss with audiences; personally I enjoyed it, but I’ve been immersing myself in the whole weird world of classic film for about four years now and I may have been more primed to appreciate it than the average filmgoer. But even the people who didn’t appreciate the film have agreed that the weird world depicted in it looks fantastic.

Best Sound –

Oh, God….I don’t know, can I say all of the above?

Best Original Score – John Williams, The Fabelmans

They’re going to give it to John Williams because they always do and because he says he’s going to retire soon. They should give it to anyone else.

Best Original Song – “Naatu Naatu”, from RRR

So, this could be an interesting race. Four times now an insanely ear-wormy song like “Naatu Naatu” has been nominated (Pharrell’s “Happy” from Despicable Me, “Everything Is Awesome” from the Lego Movie, “Blame Canada” from the South Park Movie, and Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling” from the Trolls movie), but has lost to something a little more “traditional” (“Happy” lost to Frozen’s “Let It Go”, “Everything Is Awesome” lost to Selma’s “Glory”, “Blame Canada” lost to “You’ll Be In My Heart” from Tarzan, and “Can’t Stop The Feeling” lost to “City Of Stars”). And Rhianna got some late buzz from her Super Bowl Halftime show, which some predict could make it a contender for this slot. But the buzz around RRR is immense – Roommate Russ has been on a near-evangelical campaign to get me to see it, and to do so in a theater. Fans have been livid that it was only nominated in this one category, and that may be enough of a push to get it the Oscar. ….If nothing else, it’s going to be tremendously fun to see how many of the stars in the Dolby Theater get up and dance in the aisles during the song’s Oscar Night performance.

Best Short Films –

Putting these all in one paragraph: I’m going with The Boy, The Mole, The Fox, and the Horse for animated short, Le Pupille for Best Live Action, and The Elephant Whisperers for documentary.

Best Documentary Feature – Navalny

I’m surprising myself with this one, since here in New York it’s All The Beauty And The Bloodshed that’s been getting the most buzz. But Nan Goldin, the artist featured in the film, is a fixture in the New York art world and that may be some hometown buzz. On the other hand, Navalny is a film about a Russian opposition leader that came out about a year into Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and that may win a sympathy vote.

Best International Feature Film – All Quiet On The Western Front

I am reasonably certain that All Quiet is going to get this as a consolation prize for losing Best Picture. Which is a shame, because another nominee, The Quiet Girl, is one of the first films in the Irish language to get nominated in this category.

Best Animated Feature Film – Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio 

The usual Pixar/Disney entries this year were a bit lackluster, and so this is a chance for a worthy contender to step up.

Best Adapted Screenplay – Sarah Polley, Women Talking

I raved about Polley’s work when I saw the film. I stand by that.

Best Original Screenplay – Martin McDonagh, The Banshees of Inisherin

I’m voting this way with the footnote that I want it to be The Daniels for Everything Everywhere All At Once.

….speaking of which, now we get into the real horse-races….

Best Supporting Actress –

This is a tough one. Angela Basset has been nominated for Wakanda Forever, and has won the Golden Globe for this role; there’s also an element of “she lost for something even better so let’s give it to her for this” going on. But – Jamie Lee Curtis won this role in the SAG Awards, and also hasn’t won before either. Most other critics are calling this one neck-and-neck between the two. I know that Jamie Lee Curtis is my pray-diction.

Best Supporting Actor – Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All At Once

Quan’s story could be a movie all on its own. I can only think of one instance this season where Quan was nominated for this and didn’t win (Barry Keoghan beat him in the BAFTAs), and he has been generating so much accumulated good will that if he doesn’t win there might possibly be a riot. And, happily, he has 100% earned the accolades and the good will.

Best Actress –

My pray-diction is Michelle Yeoh. The only person who could really give her a run for her money is Cate Blanchett – Michelle Williams was fine in The Fabelmans, but it was a smallish role, and Ana de Armas was apparently the only bright spot in a mediocre film. I think the controversy around Andrea Riseborough’s nomination may ward people off. Which leaves Blanchett – who’s won the Critics’ Choice and has also won an Oscar before, versus Yeoh, who’s won the Golden Globes and the SAG this year but hasn’t ever been an Oscar contender before. The “little film that could” buzz around Everything Everywhere could tip her over, but that may be wishful thinking on my part.

Best Actor – Brendan Fraser, The Whale

This is more of an educated pray-diction. On the one hand, Fraser’s performance was a bright spot in an otherwise “meh” film, and a lot of people may still be thinking of him as “that beefcake dude who was in the George of the Jungle movie” and may opt for Austin Butler in Elvis. But on the other hand, Fraser’s been having a comeback story that’s equally as powerful as Ke Huy Quan’s, and he’s been winning a few more of the pre-Oscar awards – and has been as grateful and gracious as Quan has. And there are those of us who shunned the George Of The Jungle films in his oeuvre but remember him from weightier fare like Gods and Monsters, School Ties or The Quiet American. There’s also a lot of sympathy for him stemming from a 2018 “where is he these days” article in which he revealed he’d been wrestling with some weighty personal matters. His more serious work is really underrated, he’s due for a revalidation and he’s earned this, dammit.

Best Director – Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All At Once

I am 100% basing that on wishful thinking, I admit – but honestly, I’ve seen all five of the films by all five nominated directors, and EEAAO was the only film I even thought was Oscar-caliber. The other four films were just fine, but felt more like also-rans.

Which leads us to:

Best Picture – Everything Everywhere All At Once

I have seen six of the ten nominated films thus far, and while all of them were perfectly fine, most of them didn’t even feel like they were Oscar-caliber. Of the two or three films I thought worth the accolade, this not only has the most accumulated good will behind it, it’s my favorite. If it loses it will be an enormous upset that will brand the winner as one of “The Worst Best Picture Picks” for years to come.