Best Pictures of 2023, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture Oscar Extra Credit – Part 3

Once again it looks like the pairs of films I review in each of these Oscar posts have some kind of theme; for this one, it looks like gender politics carries the day.


Lydia Tár, when we meet her, is at the top of her game – she’s a pre-eminent composer and conductor, first female director of the Berlin Philharmonic, and founder of a scholarship meant to support other women entering her field. She discusses all of this in the first scene, a lengthy interview with the editor of The New Yorker; she also plugs her upcoming book, and her impending recording of what will likely be her masterpiece – conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony. She’s erudite, assertive, and confident. However, over the course of the film we start to see the warts behind that carefully-constructed image – and watch as they lead to a considerable downfall.

A couple of Tár’s mis-steps concern her relationships with two of her assistants – both other women, and one of which, it is implied, is romantically obsessed with Tár. At least that’s what the rumors are, although the romantic angle is more subtextual – most of the assistant Krista’s communications with her are begging for a position as a junior conductor. But Tár has refused, instructing her current assistant Francesca to delete and ignore all contact from Krista. Francesca is also refused a similar position despite exemplary service as Tár’s assistant, and starts to question Tár’s judgement herself – especially when a new cellist in the Berlin Philharmonic catches Tár’s eye and is awarded the honor of performing a cello solo during the upcoming concert. Tár’s wife Sharon, a violinist with the Philharmonic, notices as well, leading to conflict at home, just as the rumors about Tár’s conduct really start to swirl.

Many reviews categorize this as a condemnation of “cancel culture”, and how Tár is unfairly treated for her actions; others see this as a cautionary sort of “Me Too” tale. I’m not sure I agree with either perspective – for me, it was more a case of Tár’s ego and hubris finally tripping her up. Her whole persona is very tightly controlled and carefully constructed, to the point that the slightest mis-step brings the whole thing down. She’s simply too over-confident in her own perspective and doesn’t have the slightest idea how she may be coming across to others. Early on, there is a terrifically uncomfortable scene where she’s giving a Master Class at Julliard and one of the students dismisses Bach has “just another white male cisgender composer” and states that he prefers to work with other composers. Tár’s takedown of this perspective – and of the student – is so pointed and specific, targeting some of the student’s obvious insecurities in addition to his opinion, that he storms out of the class. It’s obvious that Tár thinks she’s simply championing the idea that one should focus on the art and not the artist – and she’s not wrong about that – but she is completely unaware of the vitriol in her tone, and how the power of her position gives her words extra weight. She’s focused so much on keeping her own house of cards up that she can’t see what she’s doing to others around her.

And that’s why I think I ultimately was lukewarm on this. Tár is in every single scene in this film, and Cate Blanchett embodies so well that I actively disliked her at many points.

Women Talking

In contrast to the tale of a solitary unlikeable woman who isolates herself, we have the story of a group of women who come together and – just by talking – support each other as they try to make a gruelingly difficult decision.

Sarah Polley both directed and adapted this film from an existing book – and it is a masterwork in adaptation. The book itself (by Miriam Toews) was inspired by a true and terrible story – a series of rapes which took place at an isolated Mennonite colony in Bolivia. A group of men in the colony were drugging women (and girls) in their sleep and raping them; they would wake with bruises and blood on their thighs, but their complaints were dismissed for years until one of the men was finally caught in the act. The colony elders knew they were out of their depth and turned to the local authorities to handle the situation. In the book – and the film – the rapists were arrested, and the rest of the men travelled en masse to the jail – a two-days’ journey – to post their bail. As they left, they warned the women that they expected them to forgive the men when they returned. But – they were still leaving the women and children alone for two days, giving the women a chance to discuss whether they really would forgive the men, or whether they would do something else – and if so, what.

The victims’ discussion is the bulk of the movie. And – it is damn hard to write a screenplay in which nothing happens but “a bunch of people talking” without your work either being boring or polemic. (I speak from experience, and have the VHS of the anti-nuke movie a friend and I made in high school to prove it.) But Polley’s script is a masterwork in using the dialogue to introduce you to the characters’ various perspectives, pains, traumas, fears, hopes, conflicts, and strengths. We do see glimpses of the aftermath of different characters’ attacks – but only in flashes, and sometimes so subtly that we don’t realize what we saw until a couple minutes later, when they are saying something.

And each woman is given the space to have her own response and handle her trauma in her own way; one woman bitterly wants everyone to downplay the incidents, another suffers panic attacks. Still another is more fearful for her child than herself. Another woman is now pregnant. Another woman has chosen to live as a man instead. There’s one woman who’s downplaying her own attack so much that I didn’t even know she’d been attacked for half the movie; she’s an older woman who occasionally wrestles with uncomfortable dentures, and midway through the film there’s a moment which hints at a shocking reason why she has them in the first place. I haven’t read the original book, so I don’t know how faithful an adaptation it is – so I’m not sure whom to applaud for a story that allowed each of the characters their own space and experience, and depicted how group talk can lead to healing. I was especially impressed by how the story also addressed how the men were victims of a sort as well – trapped in a mindset that lead them to commit such acts in the first place. Not that they shouldn’t be accountable, the women hasten to add – but maybe they deserved pity instead of anger. ….And maybe from a distance.

There is one lone man in with the women – the colony’s schoolteacher, who’s been appointed to take minutes for the women (all of whom are illiterate). He tries to stay out of the discussion, but a time or two is asked his opinion. He’s also fond of one of the women, a childhood friend now pregnant from her rape. Much of the film seems to set him up as the “lone kind man” in the colony – but I couldn’t help thinking we were supposed to think he’d also had some sexual trauma in his own childhood. He has a brief monologue about the character of boys in their early teens, during which he argues they have an energy and vivacity and curiosity about life and sexuality that sometimes outstrips their compassion and thinking, but they can be taught more proper behavior. It’s very possible I’m reading something into this, but I got the sense that this character had been assaulted by a schoolmate as a child as well.

I also appreciated how religion itself wasn’t depicted as the Root Of Evil in the story. The women differentiate between God and their Faith, and the laws that flawed people made in God’s name. The flawed people were the problem, not God; and repeatedly, the women turn to their faith to console each other, singing hymns to help each other through a panic attack or using a parable to illustrate a point. Religion can be a very powerful and personal thing, and even though it may be foreign to us, it makes absolute sense that these women who have been kept isolated and illiterate by their religion would nevertheless turn to their religion for consolation and guidance.

This is honestly the first of this year’s films I’ve seen that comes close to dethroning Everything Everywhere All At Once in my head; however, I think it’s more deserving of a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.

film, Movie Crash Course Review, movies

Juliet Of The Spirits (1965)

I learned the term Felliniesque before I ever saw a Fellini film. That tripped me up a bit – because the term is based on Fellini’s later work, all magic-realist tableaux and surrealist symbolism, clowns and parades and people speaking in non sequiturs. So his earlier films, like La Strada and Nights of Cabiria, were somewhat unexpected; they’re the films that put Fellini on the map. This film feels more like the Fellini I was expecting.

I was equally surprised to find that…despite the wackadoo imagery, I kind of got it. Giulietta (Giulietta Masina) is a middle-aged housewife, frequently left alone by her husband Giorgio (Mario Pisu). Occasionally she babysits her twin nieces, or visits her much more exuberant mother or sister, or entertains friends; but most often, it’s just her and the maids at home, tending to the house and the garden. Then the vivacious Suzy (Sandro Milo) moves in next door, giving Giulietta tantalizing glimpses of what looks like an elaborately decadent lifestyle. Giulietta is intrigued, but shy – but as her fascination with Suzy grows, so does the realization that her husband is having an affair. So maybe Suzy is someone she should get to know – she may be a good influence.

It’s a bare-bones plot, because here, it’s the imagery and fantasy sequences that are carrying the day. Giulietta dreams about her grandfather – who ran off with a dancer when she was a child – imagining him hijacking a stunt plane at a circus, as dream/child Giulietta watches the dancers and acrobats. She has visions of the nuns from her school, flashing back to when she was cast as the lead in a pageant play about a virgin martyr. Her hippie-esque neighbor drags her to see a spiritual guru, who advises Giulietta to learn how to be more decadent as Giulietta imagines the various tantric statues surrounding his seat all coming to life.

Those sequences are more definitively “visions” for Giulietta, but even “reality” can get a bit eye-popping – particularly when Giulietta meets Suzy, who always seems dressed in diaphanous dresses with short hems and billowing scarves. Suzy’s cat strays into Giulietta’s yard one day, and when she goes to return the stray, a grateful Suzy invites her in for a tour – showing her around a lavishly decorated mansion, introducing her to the friends lolling about (“we’re playing bordello,” Suzy says in passing) and showing her how the master bedroom has a slide leading down to an in-ground pool so she can go for a swim immediately after having sex. And just outside is a treehouse, equally as lavishly fit out and complete with a basket on a motorized pulley so she can bring her paramours up for a romp.

Suzy’s house is so gloriously over-the-top it came across as fantastical even though it was “real”. And in fact, that’s what finally made me realize that as wackadoo as Fellini was, it all had a point – we were looking at Suzy’s house through Giulietta’s eyes, after all, and maybe what we were seeing wasn’t clinically accurate, but rather we were seeing it through her own emotional filter. Suzy’s guests are all half-naked and constantly leering at her, Giulietta’s friends are all vapid and ridiculous; the visions of the nuns keep coming back to scare Giulietta into staying in her place. What we’re seeing here is Giulietta’s inner life, not just “wacky stuff”. And when I realized that, the somewhat sparse final scene – with Giulietta simply taking a walk in the woods – suddenly felt much more poignant.

It’s almost like Fellini knew what he was doing, eh?

Best Pictures of 2023, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture Oscar Extra Credit – Part 2

Right! Time for a bit of a palate cleanser after the last film.

The Banshees of Inisherin

If you’ve seen any of Martin McDonagh’s theater work, some parts of this will ring very familiar; it may even be a rewrite of one of his Aran Islands plays that he changed his mind about producing. It’s definitely got the same rural-Ireland focus, the same darkly comic perspective, and the same over-the-top levels of violence. (I once saw a production of McDonagh’s work The Lieutenant of Inishmore, where the ending sees the stage strewn with broken furniture, spilled milk, gallons of stage blood, black shoe polish, and two or three boxes’ worth of breakfast cereal and cat kibble. After the show as the audience was filing out, I walked to the lip of the stage where the stage manager was overseeing a huge cleanup crew and insisted on shaking his hand.)

So I wasn’t surprised by the tone of McDonagh’s voice…but I was a little surprised by what he was saying with it. The bookish musician Colm (Brendan Gleeson) and dairy farmer Pádraic (Colin Farrell) live on a fictional island off Ireland’s coast during the tail end of the Irish Civil War, and have been mates for years – until suddenly, and without warning, Colm tells Pádraic that he doesn’t want to be friends any more. This of course leaves Pádraic baffled, and hurt – and he starts a campaign to either win Colm back over, or at least find out what the hell he did to drive him away. But as Pádraic goes to more and more extreme lengths to get through to Colm, Colm also goes to equally extreme lengths to convince Pádraic to leave him alone.

I’ve had a couple of friendships end on me equally as unexpectedly (although, I handled it way better than Pádraic does), so I went into this thinking I would take his side. But when Colm finally gives Pádraic a bit of an explanation – a sort of life-overhaul and a rethinking of his priorities – I understood his side as well. He didn’t handle things all that well either, mind you – both men let their falling-out get much, much too carried away. But by the end Pádraic seems to finally accept the situation, turning down a suggestion that he and Colm could be friends again with the observation that “Some things there’s no moving on from, and I think that’s a good thing.”

It was a fine film, but somehow didn’t feel like a Best Picture film, if that makes sense. Do see it on the big screen if you can – as Roommate Russ observed, “it’s shot like an ad for Irish tourism.”

Triangle Of Sadness

Another black comedy….although for me, while this had scores of darkly ridiculous moments, it never really gelled into a complete story.

We start off meeting Carl (Harris Dickinson), a modestly successful male model in a lackluster relationship with “influencer” Yaya (Charlbi Dean). The pair frequently bicker about money and gender roles, but Carl is more turned off by Yaya’s superficiality – even though that’s what drives her career, such as it is. Still, it gets them tickets to a cruise on a luxury yacht, where they meet an oddball group of other passengers – a sweet English couple grown rich of arms dealing, a boorish Russian oligarch named Dimitry (Zlatko Burić) traveling with both his wife and his mistress, and Therese, a middle-aged stroke victim (Iris Berben) confined to a wheelchair and incapable of saying anything except the German phrase “in den Wolken”. We also meet some of the crew – the harried chief of staff Paula (Vicki Berlin), and the reluctant captain Thomas Smith (Woody Harrelson), a socialist who’s sold out and spends the majority of the voyage blind drunk in his cabin. After a thoroughly disastrous dinner – featuring both dodgy food and the outbreak of a heavy storm – most of the cast spends the night copiously vomiting in their cabins (fair warning) while Smith and Dimitry lock themselves in Smith’s cabin with an obscene amount of Scotch and debate economic theory over the loudspeakers.

And to add insult to injury, the ship sinks the following morning. Carl and Yaya both make it to a nearby island, as do Paula, Therese, Dimitry, a tech millionaire named Jarmo (Henrik Dorsin), an engineer (Jean-Christophe Folly) whom Dimitry is convinced sabotaged the ship, and Abigail (Dolly de Leon), a member of the cleaning staff who hitches a ride on a very well-stocked lifeboat. The savvy Abigail quickly realizes that she’s the only one who knows how to fish, start a fire, or build a shelter – and turns the tables on the wealthy folk who’d been bossing her around up to this point.

…Abigail was actually a good example of one of my complaints about this film. I appreciated how she was able to show up the others while on the island, but if there were a scene of someone on board the ship dressing her down for some ridiculous slight, I’d have appreciated that more. (There’s even a perfect candidate – an elderly woman who is somehow convinced that the motorized yacht they’re on has “sails” that “need washing”.) We spend an entire act of the film meeting a whole host of characters at great length, most of whom vanish from the film completely in the third act. Our “introduction” to Yaya is so desultory that I honestly thought she was a model herself until midfilm when Carl tells Paula that she’s an influencer. Granted, all of the characters have such finely-drawn quirks that I could still follow what was going on, and some of the satire is deliciously sharp; but I still feel screenwriter Ruben Östlund could have spent a bit more time introducing characters better and tying things together into a more cohesive and consistent plot.

Still, this did let me give one of the more unique sum-ups about a film I’ve ever said: I told Roommate Russ that “it was like a cross between Parasite and Gilligan’s Island”.

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The War Game (1965)

When I reviewed Dr. Strangelove, I mentioned that I’d been traumatized as a child by some TV docudramas that depicted “what a nuclear war would actually be like”. The best-known among them is probably The Day After, an American film; but that film pulled its punches a bit to placate some nervous network executives, and a prim title card at the end of the film stated that the actual outcome of a nuclear war would be much, much worse. The two British films I saw had no such self-censor – When The Wind Blows and Threads, both of which are the absolute bleakest films I have ever seen in my life and I am overwhelmingly grateful to the Little Baby Jesus and all of God’s Angels that neither film is included in this list. Especially Threads – while I absolutely think everyone alive today should see it, I also absolutely refuse to watch it again myself. Once was enough.

So I was surprised – and a bit uneasy – to learn that there was a proto-Threads that made it on the list. The War Game was also intended as a telefilm; an hour-long docudrama taking the form of a news magazine show, complete with on-the-street interviews and talking-heads in studios. Only the topic addressed by this magazine was the impact and aftermath of a limited nuclear strike on the United Kingdom, particularly in Cantebury and Sussex.

And….well. You’ve seen the footage, you’ve heard the reports of the impact of a nuclear strike. Or at least you should have. How the flash of the initial blast can blind you. How the heat from the blast can cause instant third-degree burns and cause furniture to spontaneously combust. How the shock wave can level structures. How the firestorm from the blast sucks up all the oxygen, so even if you’re able to escape burning to death, you still will probably suffocate. How the radiation lingers for weeks afterward. How the casualties are so great that any kind of civil service or social program – first aid, shelter, law and order, food relief – is woefully unprepared, under resourced, under-staffed, and overwhelmed. How the people who do manage to survive the blast and the radiation would probably starve. How even the people who don’t starve have absolutely crippling PTSD. How law and order ultimately breaks down altogether amongst the scant few people left.

Still – and fortunately – it wasn’t as graphic and bleak as Threads, and the “news magazine” format of this film was a very welcome buffer. I also appreciated how the filmmakers seemed to point to how ill-prepared and ill-informed both the regular public and the country’s leaders seemed to be; in one scene, our “roving-reporter” films a man going door to door in a Cantebury street delivering copies of a Civil Defense pamphlet, urging everyone to read it immediately and follow its instructions for building a shelter. The recipients are shocked and alarmed – there’s too much to do, and nowhere near enough time to do it. The “reporter” also speaks with a shopkeeper who sells the various tools needed to construct such a shelter – burlap sacks and sand to make sandbags for shoring up windows, boards and metal sheeting to shore up walls – and asks him the various costs of each item. Then the “reporter” next speaks with a worried-looking woman, asking her how much she has to spend on the shelter. For the amount she has, the reporter says in a voiceover, she can buy about eight burlap sacks and two 3×4’s.

There are no mushroom clouds in this film; no extreme gore. They focus on the smaller details; the reporter gets denied access to a building, and a passing soldier waves him over and confides that the army is burning the corpses inside, as there are too many to bury. A man surveys a list of residents’ names, comparing them to the inscriptions inside a bucket full of wedding rings; it’s a desperate attempt to identify the many, many deceased. Early on, a woman listens as the civil defense tests its air-raid siren, and turns to give the reporter a terrified stare. Towards the end, the reporter speaks to a cluster of sad-looking orphans at a refugee center, asking them what they want to be when they grow up; they all say that they “don’t wanna be nothing”. An exhausted nurse tries to tell the story of a little boy with severe burns she tried to save, but is too haunted by what she’s seen to even finish.

Periodically the “reporter” will cut in to discuss some of what we’re seeing; how Dresden suffered a firestorm very similar to the one we see in the film, and how the Los Alamos team had given them the details about radiation poisoning. The use of rings to identify the dead was something that happened in Dresden as well. And the PTSD and nihilism was something they’d seen in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And – how some of the Pollyanna pro-nuke statements made by talking heads towards the beginning of the film were also based on actual statements made by British civil servants, scientists, and priests. “I believe that we live in a system of necessary law and order,” one man says, “and I still believe in the war of the just.”

I had to resist the impulse to punch my screen at that.

When BBC producer Peter Watkins showed his finished work to his superiors, they got cold feet and cancelled its broadcast, stating that “the effect of the film has been judged by the BBC to be too horrifying for the medium of broadcasting.” Instead, they moved it to a movie theater, screening it for three weeks before sending it on to various international film festivals. It went on to win the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 1966. It wasn’t until 1985 that it finally appeared on TV – as part of a double-feature with Threads to commemorate the 40th Anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

When he originally reviewed The War Game in the 60s, Roger Ebert suggested that we “should string up bedsheets between the trees and show [it] in every public park.” I agree – I think everyone should see this film, as well as its more graphic descendants like Threads. Especially now that the end of the Cold War is a distant memory and Putin and Kim Jung Il have started rattling those sabers again; looking at these sabers and knowing what they could do to us is the best hope for us all.

Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Oscar Extra Credit: On Snubs

Back in 2020, the night before the Oscar ceremony, Roommate Russ and I watched the Best Picture Nominee Ford Vs. Ferrari together. It was still early when it finished, and we were underwhelmed; so Roommate Russ then suggested we watch The Lighthouse, which had only been nominated for Cinematography. I’d seen it before, but loved it; so watch we did; with me occasionally glancing over at him to see his reaction, smiling to find him watching with rapt attention. We got so engrossed that we forgot to turn on lights as night fell. When the film finally ended, Roommate Russ was silent for several seconds, and then all but shouted: “Ford Vs. Ferrari got nominated for Best Picture but that didn’t?”

This year, he – like many others – issued similar cris-du-couer over the Korean film Decision to Leave getting completely shut out, and over the Indian blockbuster RRR only receiving a nod for Best Original Song. But I’m a bit more cynical; I’ve long since accepted that the Academy’s priorities are different from mine, and this extends to matters of taste; I pay more attention to who wins Best Screenplay, since that’s much more likely to match what I consider the Best Film.

Also, sometimes time reveals the real winners. Steven Spielberg may have been personally inspired by seeing the film The Greatest Show on Earth as a boy, but it often tops “Worst ‘Best Picture’ Winners” critics’ lists, and odds are that most people today wouldn’t have even heard of it if The Fablemans hadn’t given it a mention. On the other hand, one of the films it beat – High Noon – is far, far better known. And that’s a case in which both films were nominated. When it comes to films, directors, and actors who were left out of the running, that can be an even more surprising list:

  • The songs from the musical Singin’ In The Rain may have been ineligible for “Best Song” according to Academy rules (most of them were standards from the 1920s), but the film itself was eligible. It didn’t get nominated.
  • Gene Kelly didn’t get nominated for Best Actor in that film either.
  • Vertigo didn’t get nominated for Best Picture, Jimmy Stewart didn’t get nominated for Best Actor, and Alfred Hitchcock didn’t get nominated for Best Director.
  • The Searchers didn’t get nominated for anything.
  • Neither did Groundhog Day.
  • Or King Kong, not even for Visual Effects.
  • Or The Shining. Jack Nicholson also didn’t get a Best Actor nomination.
  • Chaplin’s Modern Times also was overlooked.
  • Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing only got a Best Screenplay nomination – not Best Picture.
  • 2001: A Space Odyssey also was shut out of a Best Picture nomination.
  • The documentary Hoop Dreams didn’t receive a nomination (although, the public outcry over its snub was so great that it lead to an overhaul of the Best Documentary nomination process).
  • Barbara Streisand’s nomination snub for directing The Prince Of Tides also caused consternation, prompting Oscar ceremony host Billy Crystal to reference it in his musical montage (“Seven nominations on the shelf/Did this film direct itself?”)
  • Steven Spielberg was not nominated for directing Jaws.
  • Kathleen Turner’s performance in Body Heat was overlooked.
  • So was Anthony Perkins in Psycho.
  • And Ray Liotta in Goodfellas.
  • And Sidney Poitier for In The Heat Of The Night.
  • And Denzel Washington’s performance in Philadelphia.
  • And Robert Shaw’s performance in Jaws.
  • Ingrid Bergman was not nominated for Casablanca.
  • Humphrey Bogart was not nominated for The Maltese Falcon.
  • Cary Grant was not nominated for his performances in North By Northwest, The Philadelphia Story, and for most of his other roles, actually.
  • Robert Mitchum was not nominated for The Night Of The Hunter.
  • Diane Keaton did not get nominated for The Godfather, either Part 1 or Part 2.
  • Adam Sandler did not get nominated for Punch Drunk Love.
  • Jim Carrey did not get nominated for either The Truman Show or Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind.
  • Judy Garland was not nominated for The Wizard Of Oz.
  • Mia Farrow has not been nominated for any acting Oscars at all.

There are scores of songs which have also been shut out of nominations, but that’s a bit of a complicated situation: a given song has to have been written specifically for a given film. That rule very nearly disqualified the song “Falling Slowly”, because Glenn Hansard and Marketa Irglova included it on an album that they made while its film Once was still in post-production (the Academy ruled that since it had originally been written for the film, it was still eligible). Also, in the case of movie musicals, producers can only submit three of the movie’s songs for consideration (this explains why Lin-Manuel Miranda was nominated for “Dos Orugitas” last year instead of “We Don’t Talk About Bruno”; producers didn’t think “Bruno” was a contender). But even taking those rules into consideration, some Best Song snubs are especially puzzling, like:

Again, though, it was ever thus. History will most likely issue the real rewards that the Academy fails to do.

I’ll leave you with a moment I remembered from the 1979 Oscar Awards Ceremony – Steve Lawrence and Sammy Davis Jr. singing a medley of “songs that weren’t even nominated”.

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The Shop On Main Street (1965)

This film ended up somewhere very, very different from where I thought it was going to go, and left me a little punch-drunk.

Set in 1942, this is a story about the impact of the Third Reich’s “Aryanization” program on occupied Slovakia. Henpecked “Tóno” Brtko (Jozef Kroner) is a carpenter, but is no fan of the local fascist government and has had some unemployment issues. His wife Evelina (Hana Slivková) keeps nagging him to get a job on the crew building a fancy monument downtown, but that would force him to work for his brother in law Markuš (František Zvarík), who’s an officer for the government on top of being a generally smarmy jerk. But Evelina convinces her sister, Markuš’ wife, to pull some strings – and Markuš awards Tóno a job as the manager of the local sewing supply store. The current owner is a Jew, Markuš tells Tóno, and the Aryanization program has been confiscating all Jewish-owned businesses and transferring them to Slovaks.

But when Tóno heads to the shop to take over, he has a little trouble with the current owner – an elderly widow, Rozália Lautmannová (Ida Kamińska). Mrs. Lautmannová is very hard-of-hearing, and also a little fuzzy on reality – she knows nothing of the Aryanization programs, hasn’t heard a thing about the Third Reich, and keeps thinking that Tóno is a customer. Fortunately Imrich, a friend of Tóno’s, comes by while he is trying to explain things to Mrs. Lautmannová and steps in to help. Imrich Kuchár (Martin Hollý Sr.) quietly clues Tóno in that the shop is actually more a fantasy; the whole thing is being secretly funded by donations from the Jewish community to keep Mrs. Lautmannová comfortable in her old age. They stock it with just enough to serve the community’s needs and give her a modest pension, but the business isn’t profitable in the slightest. However, the town’s Jewish leaders have noticed Tóno might be sympathetic to their plight, and are offering to quietly pay him a weekly “salary” as well if he helps them keep up appearances. It seems like the best possible option, so Tóno agrees.

Most of the film deals with this arrangement, and the growing friendship between Tóno and Mrs. Lautmannová. She still doesn’t quite get what he’s doing there; she thinks he’s come to be her assistant, but he’s so inept that she demotes him to “repairman,” asking him to occasionally fix squeaky doors or errant shelves. Tóno also starts repairing all her own furniture as well, and in gratitude she gives him one of her deceased husband’s suits. They gossip over customers; they talk about the neighbor kids. She feeds him lunch every day. Evelina keeps nagging him to “find out where Mrs. Lautmannová is hiding her gold, because she’s a Jew and must have some”, so he quickly learns to hide the truth from her, spending more time just hanging out with Mrs. Lautmannová instead. But all the while, the noose is slowly tightening around the town’s Jews – until the day Tóno goes to collect his secret weekly salary and is told that the authorities are preparing to gather up all the Jews in town on the following morning and “send them off somewhere in boxcars”. Even worse – Imrich is arrested for being a Jewish sympathizer, with Markuš making a public show of him and warning that any other such sympathizers will meet a dire fate. Tóno rushes back to the store to warn Mrs. Lautmannová and urge her to escape or hide or something – but an uncomprehending Mrs. Lautmannová thinks he’s having a fight with his wife and makes up the guest bedroom for him. Tóno reluctantly agrees – the roundup will be taking place in the town square, just across the street from her shop, and he figures he can keep an eye on her that way and figure out what to do when the time comes.

And….that’s when the film turns. I won’t say that much about it; but the half hour “roundup sequence”, in which Tóno panics over “what to do about Mrs. Lautmannová”, was a complete sea change from how the rest of the film was going, and was in turns heartbreaking, harrowing, shocking, and frustrating. I was anticipating some kind of “escape plan” getting cooked up at the last minute – something hare-brained and loopy involving a makeshift costume, or something heroic and adventurous; but you do not get that at all. Instead you get something far more chaotic as Tóno changes his mind – and, sadly, his loyalty – back and forth again and again, for a harrowing half hour.

It’s easy for people today to speculate about “what I would have done to fight Nazis” – usually claiming that why, of course they would have hidden people in their closet or helped them flee town or suchlike. So all those people who just turned away and let it happen – they must have been Bad People! …But until such a thing is literally happening outside your window, you can’t know what you’d really do – and what you’d really do, or at least consider doing, might be morally questionable. This film ultimately felt like a reminder that this ambiguity is very human – and tragic.

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Best Picture Oscar 2023 Extra Credit – Part 1

I was going to wait until I had seen a second film so I could do two films in one post, but you know what, I can’t wait. Because I love every last thing about this film.

I love the film itself – the completely bonkers imagery, the off-the-wall humor, the completely original ideas – and how the zaniness then gives way to a serious, poignant, and profound message about human connection. I love how the cast and crew all seem to have taken the film’s message of kindness and community to heart. I especially love how it’s given nearly everyone involved a shot at critical recognition – in some cases, recognition that has long been overdue.

Trying to explain this film makes you sound slightly insane, or at least highly caffeinated. Michelle Yeoh plays Evelyn Wang, a bored and frustrated Chinese woman running a laundromat in the US with her husband Waymond (Ke Huy Quan) and daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu). Things aren’t going well – her disapproving father (James Hong) is visiting, Joy recently came out as a lesbian and Evelyn’s still not used to that, and they’re being audited by the IRS. But then, while the IRS agent is in the middle of grilling them over their expenses (Jamie Lee Curtis plays the agent, who has the delightful name “Deirdre Beaubeirdre”), Waymond suddenly pulls her into a closet (or seems to) and gives her some shocking news – he’s actually a version of Waymond from a parallel universe temporarily taking this Waymond over to ask her help. There are a number of such parallel universes, he says, and in one of them, an alternate version of Joy has created a sort of black hole that threatens to destroy the entire multiverse. And he has determined that this universe’s version of Evelyn is best qualified to stop her, by tapping into the skills and abilities of each of the other Evelyns scattered throughout the myriad parallel universes – even the ones where she’s a rock.

That’s all just in the first ten minutes. And the two hours following are completely bonkers – Waymond fights off a team of security guards using a fanny pack as a lariat, Evelyn learns that the “black hole” the alternate Joy made started out as a literal “everything bagel”, there’s a martial-arts fight involving butt plugs, Randy Newman has a cameo as a talking raccoon, there’s a universe where humans developed to have hot dogs for fingers. Directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert expertly walk the tricky tightrope between explaining things just enough for you to follow along, but not too much that you get bogged down in detail; the details they throw into each scene are exactly spot-on. (There is a very brief flashback sequence showing how the “hot dog finger” universe developed; I already loved the fact that it was a clear 2001 Space Odyssey homage, but what really won me over was the music: a group of people playing “Thus Sprach Zarathrusta” on kazoos.)

And then The Daniels (as they call themselves) go on to add something even more to the film – an enormous, warm heart. Alternate-universe Joy reveals she’s just about as unhappy as her own Joy, and her “everything bagel” may be rooted in a self-hating nihilism. If everything is possible in every universe, then nothing matters, right? But then alternate-universe Waymond offers a counter-argument – even if it were true that nothing matters on a grand scale, finding joy and spreading kindness would still work on a smaller scale. So why not be kind? It was that message that prompted me to recommend this to my mother, who usually isn’t a fan of sci-fi, martial arts, or super-complex narratives; I gave her a very brief explanation of modal realism as well when explaining it. I was expecting to watch with my parents while visiting over Thanksgiving – so we could pause so I could explain things when necessary – only to find that my explanation had fascinated Mom so much that she had already watched and loved it just as much, and for all the same reasons.

One of the biggest reasons this works – and one of the best choices The Daniels made – was in the casting, especially for Waymond. Prior to this, Ke Huy Quan was best known as a child actor in the 1980s, playing “Short Round” in the Temple Of Doom Indiana Jones film and “Data” in The Goonies. But he aged out of being a child actor at a time when roles for Asian actors were very thin on the ground, and ultimately he got sick of the lack of options and quit acting for nearly 30 years. In 2018, the success of Crazy Rich Asians gave him hope that Hollywood had changed a bit, and decided to give his childhood dream another go – and only two weeks after he got an agent, The Daniels invited him to audition for Waymond. Dan Kwan later said that he was the first and only person they read for the part – realizing instantly that “he is Waymond. He’s a sweetheart who is just full of joy, who just wants to play, who just wants to welcome you into that energy.” Some of the sweetest viral videos you can find these days are clips of Quan gushing over his change of fortune – in interviews on the late-night talk show circuit, in “roundtable chats” with other notable actors, and most recently, in the flood of acceptance speeches he’s been making as his performance wins award after award. And while he has occasionally been candid about how he was disappointed at having to put things on pause, he has been far and away more grateful that he is finally being acknowledged again, and celebrating former colleagues as well (this photo of his reunion with Harrison Ford at a fan convention is one of the sweetest things you will ever see).

Everyone in the film world seems to be rallying behind Quan; but even better is, that’s not the only case of the Everything Everywhere cast celebrating one of its own. Several people have shared this photo of Jamie Lee Curtis whooping in delight when Michelle Yeoh won a Golden Globe for Best Actress. And reportedly, the cast and crew all got on a group video chat to watch yesterday’s Oscar nominations; Quan later said that each time someone in their squad was nominated, everyone jumped and cheered. Which must have been a lot of cheering, since this film leads the pack with eleven nominations. Every main actor received a nomination, and for every actor, it is a career-first nomination. It’s also up for best picture, best director, costume design, editing, original song, original score and original screenplay. And honestly, I hope I’m living in the universe where they sweep everything.

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Best Picture 2023 Extra Credit: Syllabus

And it is Oscar Season. And – that means it’s time for my Extra-Credit viewing of the Best Picture Nominees.

I am slightly less enthusiastic about it this year, since there are two films on this list which I was not even remotely interested in seeing otherwise; and one of them I may actively hate (it’s a sequel, I hated the original).

So those films are:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front  
  • Avatar: The Way of Water
  • The Banshees of Inisherin
  • Elvis
  • Everything Everywhere All at Once 
  • The Fabelmans 
  • Tár
  • Top Gun: Maverick 
  • Triangle of Sadness
  • Women Talking

One of these I’ve already seen and I love. A handful of the others I’ve been planning to see anyway.

But Avatar….


Y’all, I hated Avatar when I saw it. HATED IT. Yeah sure okay the visuals were fantastic, but it was the stupidest damn story and that made me want to spit tacks. And several of the reviews for Way of Water I’ve seen….say that it’s basically the same damn story.

I may skip it on general principle.

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Doctor Zhivago (1965)

David Lean once again excells with his cinematography and music choices for this adaptation of Boris Pasternak’s novel; and once again, I’m a bit lukewarm about the story itself.

The “Doctor Zhivago” of the title is Yuri Zhivago (Omar Sharif), born in the Ural Mountains but orphaned as a child and taken in by a Moscow family. He grows up to be a doctor, writing poetry in his spare time, and marries his adoptive sister Tonya (Geraldine Chaplin). Elsewhere in Moscow, a young woman named Lara (Julie Christie) catches the eye of her mother’s lover, Victor Komarosky (Rod Steiger), who date-rapes her one night after a ball. Her mother attempts suicide when she finds out, and Komarosky calls on his own doctor to discreetly handle the situation. Coincidentally, Zhivago is his assistant, and Lara catches his eye there as well. But Lara really catches his attention when she later turns up at a Christmas party and shoots Komarosky. Komarosky refuses to press charges, Zhivago patches him up, and someone finds Lara’s boyfriend Pasha (Tom Courtenay) and urges him to marry Lara and get her out of town.

But this isn’t just a soap-y plot – this is all happening just before the First World War, at a time when Bolshevik sentiment is also causing trouble within Russia itself. And soon both the War and the Bolshevik Revolution throw even bigger wrenches into our characters’ lives. Pasha enlists and goes missing in action; Zhivago is drafted into service as a field doctor. Lara volunteers as a nurse to try to find Pasha, and is assigned to work with Zhivago; and while sparks fly for them then, they behave themselves, each returning to their separate homes after the war. Only Zhivago’s palatial home has been taken over by the Soviet government and turned into a block of apartments, and the Soviets have been throwing shade at Zhivago’s poems. He soon sneaks out with his family to his father-in-law’s country home in the Urals – just outside the town where Lara coincidentally now lives. This time the pair finally become lovers – except just when Zhivago realizes he needs to decide between Tonya and Lara, he’s kidnapped by a band of Communist soldiers and press-ganged into their ranks for another two years. When he finally escapes and starts heading home, he has an interesting choice – which “home”? Tonya, or Lara?

When the film came out, several critics grumbled that the film markedly diminished the importance of the Russian Revolution and the resulting political fallout. I’m inclined to agree – Zhivago seems to be able to escape Moscow awfully easily, and we get little to no clarification of who the two warring parties are in the Bolshevik Revolution; we just know that there’s the “Red Soviets” and the “White Russians”, but other than that all we know is that they’re making Zhivago sad and complicating things with him and Lara. I was also frustrated by a character played by Alec Guinness; he claims in the film that he is Zhivago’s half-brother Yevgraf, and helps get them out of Moscow at one point, but…mostly he seems to be a convenient plot device and that’s it. I learned nothing about how he was Zhivago’s half-brother, which bothered me greatly for some reason. Pasternak’s book includes more of Zhivago’s thinking about the political foment, but the overwhelming focus of the film is on the Tragic Doomed Romance between Zhivago and Lara, and giving everything else short shrift got me lost a few times.

Fortunately there’s pretty stuff to look at – the grey of a mine shaft punctuated by a Soviet Red Star, Zhivago’s in-law’s abandoned mansion frozen over into a fairytale ice palace, a rare happy moment where Zhivago contentedly looks out at the country field surrounding the house where he and Tonya live to see it covered in newly-blooming daffodills. There’s also the occasional moment of unexpected comedy – early in the film, Yevgraf is talking to a young woman he suspects may be Yuri Zhivago’s daughter with Lara, who went missing as a child. But when he asks her what her mother’s name was, she says “Mummy”, and when he asks what she looked like, she says only, “She….was big?”

I think it really depends what you’re looking for when you go into this. If you’re looking for a complex analysis of a character struggling to find a place for himself and his family between a pair of warring political ideologies, you may not find that here; but if you’re looking for a swoony romantic epic, you’ve definitely got that.

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A Hard Day’s Night (1964)

Okay, it’s The Beatles. Playing themselves. What’s not to love?

Made at the height of “Beatlemania”, this comedy is a fictional take on “what being a Beatle is like”, following John/Paul/George/Ringo as they dodge screaming fans and then rehearse for and perform on a British TV program before being whisked away to their next performance. Norman Rossington plays “Norm”, standing in for Brian Epstein as the Beatles’ manager, and John Junkin is “Shake”, their hapless road manager. Rounding out the main cast is comedian Wilfrid Brambell as “John McCartney”, Paul’s cantankerous (and fictional) grandfather.

The film tries to get some ongoing plot threads up and running. Grandpa McCartney is a bit of a troublemaker, and Paul is insistent that everyone take a turn “minding” him – but he’s always able to make his escape. The Beatles’ anarchic sensibility and haphazard sense of timing causes the TV show’s director (Vincent Spinetti) frequent headaches. And every so often Norm tries lecturing John about keeping the rest of the band under control; something that baffled me, since everyone in the band seemed to be acting up and it felt like a weirdly forced note. But otherwise the film is just an excuse to let The Beatles jump between singing some of their biggest hits and indulging in surrealist or satiric comedy sketches – Paul flirting with girls on a train, John enacting naval battles in a bathtub, George getting cornered by an ad executive, Ringo sneaking out to play hooky and bonding with some schoolkids on a similar adventure.

And fortunately, the creative team behind the film realized this was likely the best approach. Director Richard Lester was hand-picked by the band themselves; John in particular was a huge fan of Lester’s film Running Jumping Standing Still, a surrealist short he’d made with Peter Sellers. They similarly were fans of screenwriter Alun Owen – Owen’s 1959 play No Trains To Lime Street was set in Liverpool, and they felt he captured their hometown right. But Owen won them over even more by spending a few days just hanging around with them and shooting the breeze; some of the things they told him during their talks actually made it into the script, like when Grandpa McCartney complains that his trip with grandson Paul thus far has just been “a train and a room and a car and a room and a room and a room” – something Paul said the band’s typical tours felt like. Owen also used quips and jokes from actual Beatles press conferences for a similar scene in the film.

The admiration became mutual. Owen was a little more sympathetic, writing something that depicted the band as near prisoners to the machine of fame they’d been thrust into, while Lester came to appreciate their confidence and irreverence; they were unafraid of toppling some of Britain’s older institutions. “[Everything was] still based on privilege,” he recalled later; “privilege by schooling, privilege by birth, privilege by accent, privilege by speech. The Beatles were the first people to attack this… they said if you want something, do it. […] Forget all this talk about talent or ability or money or speech. Just do it.” Lester was also quick to come to the Beatles’ defense when a United Artists executive asked that The Beatles’ dialogue be dubbed in more “proper” English accents before the film was released stateside, sharing McCartney’s angry retort with them – “if we can understand a fucking cowboy talking Texan, they can understand us talking Liverpool!”

So basically this felt like a mind-meld of Monty Python with a Beatles concert. And that’s a poignant note for this Beatles fan…For yes, I am one. Like many in my generation, I first learned of them as a child, starting with their later works; my father owned most of their albums, and for reasons I’m unable to ascertain, he always selected Abbey Road as the dinner music when we enjoyed special family meals. (I’m probably the only person alive to associate the song Come Together with steak and potatoes.) One of the few albums he didn’t have was Let It Be, but that was okay – our neighbors across the street had it, and they had a better stereo anyway. The Yellow Submarine movie turned up as a TV movie when I was about eleven and caused a mild craze for me and my friends.

But I also shared a birthday with George Harrison, and so throughout my childhood my birthdays often began with hearing the local radio station play Here Comes the Sun in his honor. My church also used his song My Sweet Lord as a hymn once or twice (albeit with some lyrical editing). I followed his solo career as well, and read up more on George the man as I got older, learning more about his friendship and rivalry with the others. When I learned about his fondness for Monty Python, I started to see him as a kindred spirit.

Then I read a bit about why he was a Monty Python fan. Sometime during the band’s tense final days, George went home one night brooding about how it looked like The Beatles were soon going to dissolve. He turned on some television to distract himself…and found himself watching the very first episode of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He later said it felt like The Beatles’ old spirit of fun and silliness and irreverence had somehow been transferred to the Pythons, and he was tremendously comforted; that spirit was still in the world somewhere. George watched Monty Python constantly, later saying that it “kept him sane” during the Beatles’ breakup, and later befriended many of the Python members. Since the Python members had themselves been inspired by Lester’s work, this isn’t too surprising; but George took so much comfort from that, he felt compelled to return the favor. (But that’s a story best left for when we get to the Python’s own films.)

But this film is a glimpse at that spirit of fun back when it was living with The Beatles. And again – what’s not to love?