Best Pictures of 2023, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 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. It’s thoroughly ridiculous, and 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: some guys 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 one for sci-fi, martial arts, or super-complex narratives; I hedged my bets by giving her a very brief explanation of modal realism as well. I was expecting to watch this with my parents while visiting over Thanksgiving – so I could pause to explain things when necessary – only to find that my explanation had fascinated Mom so much that she gave it a go, 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. 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.

Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

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.

Administratia, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

2022 Oscars: Postscript

So. Hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

2022 Oscar Liveblog

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

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

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

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

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

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

8:09 pm – I quite like the hosts…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Pictures of 2022, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 5

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

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

Don’t Look Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Administratia, Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

Oscar Extra Credit – The Oscar Night Liveblog

Just a heads-up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 4

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


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

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

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

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

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

Licorice Pizza

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

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

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

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

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

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 3

Drive My Car

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

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

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

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

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

West Side Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

Administratia, Extra Credit, film

Digression: On Avant-Garde Film

We’ve covered one or two earlier experimental and avant-garde films before this, but we’re about to get into a whole lot more. I haven’t always had the best luck with prior surrealist films – and it got me thinking about surrealist, avant-garde and experimental films as a whole – because there are some I actually kind of enjoyed.

Before the list, most of the time I encountered experimental films was in an actual art museum, which emphasized the “art” side of the equation for me. They were things freed from the usually bare-bones conventions you’d expect from film – some kind of consistent characters and some kind of consistent plot. They weren’t “movies”, they were “art pieces”, usually either Statements the artist was making or just neat things they figured out how to do with film or a camera. I’ve visited museums in New York and in other major cities, and I always poke my head into a screening room if they have one set up – however, all too often I find myself turning around and heading out again.

But sometimes I linger to watch. And it’s not always the films with a plot that catch my attention – sometimes an artist has just caught something that strikes my fancy. Once in the Whitney Museum, I saw a film that was a parody of big-budget movie trailers, one which speculated what the trailer for a 2000’s remake of Caligula might look like. It was a spot-on parody – they’d even gotten Don LaFontaine to do the narration – and boasted an impressive list of A-list actors, like Helen Mirren, Benicio Del Toro, Gerard Butler, and Milla Jovovich, with Courtney Love turning up to play Caligula at the very end. I kept ducking back to watch that again and again, picking up new details each time. (Fair warning that it is also very, very sexually graphic in places, so be careful with this link.)

With another film it was the music that caught my attention – the film was nothing more than a garage band in an airline hangar doing a cover of Bob Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues in four different music styles while a whole gaggle of ten-year-olds stood around them and jumped rope. I don’t know what statement, if any, that was meant to make, but I lingered there to watch, singing along under my breath (“Johnny’s in the basement, mixin’ up the medicine…..”). Still another film was a deep dive into a pop-culture meme – that moment from the Star Trek: Wrath of Khan film where Kirk bellows “KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!” The artist took that one five-second clip and just started playing – freezing on some frames, rewinding the same half-second and replaying it a few times over in a loop, reversing the film in places, and ultimately stretching that five seconds into a three-minute sequence where we watched every one of Shatner’s lip curls and eyebrow twitches over and over and drew out the suspense before the final line. With still another film, the filmmaker filmed a pacing black panther in a dimly-lit room, then turned down the light levels in the editing even further so you could just barely see anything. It was an eerie effect – you could hear the panther pacing and breathing, and every so often a soft growl, but all you could see was a vast field of black, with maybe a hint of movement here or what might be a reflection in an eye there.

I think I do well with experimental films like that, where there is either some kind of gimmick or sense of humor about the whole thing, so I can appreciate it on those angles without having to understand any kind of deeper symbolism. But if there isn’t…..well. There’s one series of films that has particularly baffled me over the years – Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle, which is a five-film epic artistic statement purportedly about the “pure potentiality” of the embryonic development of the male cremaster muscle but also delves into the interconnectedness of (checks Wikipedia page) Greek mythology, Gary Gilmore, Johnny Cash, Celtic myth, Harry Houdini, the Freemasons, Goodyear blimps, and Norman Mailer. The trouble is that you’re not told that when you rock up to the video screen – you’re just somehow supposed to glean that from watching airline stewardesses huddle around tables covered in grapes and Vaseline, or a goat-human hybrid climbing up from an underground cavern to find themselves in the Chrysler building, or a dude with cloth stuffed in his mouth troweling cement over the gas caps on some old Chryslers. (Note: I have not made that up, all of those images apparently actually appear in various Cremaster Cycle films.)

Ultimately, I feel that any piece of film is supposed to communicate something to an audience. Sometimes that thing being communicated is straightforward – like “here’s a story about a little girl who gets swept up in a tornado and may or may not have been brought to a magical country called ‘Oz’.” Sometimes it’s a little opaque – “here’s a story about two lovers from different street gangs in New York City, but really it’s a remake of Romeo and Juliet.” Or, maybe that thing being communicated is “hey, trailers today all kinda look the same, don’t they?” Or maybe it’s just “hey, have you ever really looked at all the weird details in that ‘Khan’ scene?” Of course, sometimes an audience member may miss the thing they’re supposed to get from a piece of film, but may get some other message out of it, like “dang, Subterranean Homesick Blues actually works as a Bossa Nova piece.” But if your work is so opaque that the only way the audience can get any kind of message is by having a written interpretation on hand mean to explain everything, I question whether it’s the film that’s actually communicating anything in the first place.

I’ll continue to duck into those booths in museums, of course – and urge you to do the same – and I’ll also be steeling myself for the avant-garde stuff on the horizon, hoping for Khan and dreading Cremaster.

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

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 2

Is “historical drama about men with hubris” a genre? That seems to be the theme with these next two.

The Power Of The Dog

I usually don’t get into Direction here – I don’t understand the role well enough to always notice their impact as such. So it’s telling that my gut reaction right now is that Jane Campion needs to win for Best Direction for this tale. And not just because she made me like a Western – but because every performance is so subtle.

This isn’t so much a “Western” as it is a psychological drama. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons are rancher brothers in 1920’s Montana, with the older brutish Phil (Cumberbatch) opting for the rougher work and the meek George (Plemons) as the paper-pusher and the pleasant public face. During a cattle drive they stay at an inn run by widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Phil locks onto the bookish Peter, teasing him for being a “sissy”, but George is taken by Rose, starting a whirlwind courtship which ends with George marrying Rose and bringing her back to the ranch. Phil resents the change in routine and starts tormenting Rose – but Peter isn’t quite the wimp Phil thinks he is.

I really, really like it when films don’t telegraph everything about a character – I like to discover things on the way, with little hints dropped here and there. It’s really hard to pull off – if you make a hint too subtle people will miss it (the “Ending of [movie] Explained” craze on Youtube speaks to how many films get things wrong here), but if you make a hint too big people will feel pandered to. Campion gets the balance exactly right here. We learn a good deal about Phil during a long wordless scene where all he does is take a long and lingering bath in a stream. That scene is also subtly erotic as well (eros is another tricky thing to be subtle about).

Everyone talks about Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance – for good reason – but Kodi Smit-McPhee is who caught my eye. Phil dismisses Peter as effeminate, and it’d be easy for him to play Peter that way – but Peter is only effeminate by Phil’s yardstick, and Smit-McPhee gives him a more honest bookishness. Even more intriguing – at some point Peter finds a way to fight back against Phil, and only after the film did I start realizing ways Peter had been quietly playing a long game, subtly manipulating things so that Phil was set up for a fall. I asked Roommate Russ about when he’d figured out what Peter had been doing – we each figured things out at a different time, and even now I’m remembering earlier moments in the film that also suggested Peter knew what he was doing well before I did.

The Power Of The Dog is winning many critics’ “Oscar Predictions” forecasts, and I totally buy that.

Nightmare Alley

Well, subtle this isn’t. But subtlety in a film noir that starts off amongst carnival carnies would be all wrong anyway.

Bradley Cooper is “Stan Carlisle”, a man we meet at the moment he has literally run off to join the circus – taking a job as a carnie with a small side show in 1939. He falls in with “Madame Zeena” (Toni Collette) and her husband Pete (David Strathairn) who have a clairvoyant act. Pete teaches Stan the tricks of their trade (very detailed observation of the audience combined with a little bit of coded patter), and soon Stan is heading off to bigger and better things, bringing his sweetheart Molly (Rooney Mara) along. Within two years they have a successful psychic/clairvoyant night club act in Buffalo. Then one night, a woman in the audience interrupts them – Dr. Lillith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a psychologist and skeptic. Stan manages to dodge her challenges on the fly and save the act, but is intrigued enough by Dr. Ritter to stop by her office the next day and come clean.

Ritter is also intrigued, and makes a proposition; she’s in the habit of recording all of her analysis sessions with the wealthy folk of Buffalo, the very same people taking in Stan’s act. He could start offering much more lucrative private “seances” for her clients, armed with the private detail she’s gathered during her sessions. Because this is a film noir, of course, there are double-crossings, things go wrong, and people meet their downfalls in particularly dark and dramatic ways.

I started by saying this film wasn’t subtle – but it actually is subtle for its director. Guilliermo del Toro has toned down the weird-and-fantastical angle he used in The Shape of Water or Pan’s Labyrinth, but only a bit – the side show is weird enough, and he lets that carry the weird, delving into the seedy underworld of strong men and little people and acrobats and bearded ladies all living out of tents and caravans, and reveals the horrific truth behind the spectacle. “Madame Zeena” isn’t actually clairvoyant, she’s just a long-suffering wife to a former magician now incapacitated by alcoholism. “Fee Fee the Bird Girl” isn’t a half-bird hybrid, she’s a woman with a disfigurement who couldn’t get any other work. The geek isn’t a feral missing link – he’s a drug addict who is rewarded each night with opiates if he “puts on a good show” and bites the heads off chickens.

Bradley Cooper’s performance ultimately caught my attention – but it took a little time to win me over. He doesn’t speak for a good ten minutes, and this bothered me somehow but I couldn’t tell you why. Things pick up the first time he steps in to help out Zeena and Pete, however. And at the end, when Stan is in a desperate spot and accepts a job, Cooper’s reaction to the offer is a moment that’s going to haunt me for a good while. Sadly I can’t say any more than that without spoiling things.