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.

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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.

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Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 4

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

Coda

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?”

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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?”

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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.

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

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit – Part 1

Happily, I’ve already seen a couple of the Best Picture nominees; before I dive into the rest, let’s get those hot takes out of the way.

Belfast

He may speak in all his interviews with a somewhat plummy English accent, but director Kenneth Branagh is actually from Belfast, and as a child saw the beginning of The Troubles that roiled that part of the world for decades. His father was already a freelance construction worker in England and brought the rest of the family to join him there. No doubt he’s watched the subsequent films about “Northern Ireland” that have come out over the years, ones that emphasize the violence and chaos – and it’d be understandable that he’d want to present a film showing his own memories, to prove that it wasn’t all like that.

And….well, he does succeed in proving that it wasn’t a warzone 24/7. However, I am afraid I didn’t get all that much of a sense of what it was like. To be fair, we’re looking at things from a child’s perspective, with young Jude Hill playing the 9-year-old Branagh stand-in (here named “Buddy”); he may occasionally notice moments of tension amongst his parents or grandparents, and there’s a weird barrier at the end of the street that’s been up since the day when this scary riot thing happened, but he’s still able to play basketball and he still gets to hang out with his cousins and he still has a crush on the pretty girl in his history class and he still loves when granny takes him to movies and…this is the stuff of the film, but it’s stuff that could have happened anywhere, so when Buddy and his family finally move to England at the film’s end, I’d almost forgotten why they moved until Branagh added a small title dedicating the film to “those who left, those who stayed, and those who were lost.”

This isn’t to say this was a bad film, though; the cast is all excellent, and it’s a damn crime that Catriona Balfe wasn’t nominated for her role as Buddy’s Ma. There’s also a chillingly effective moment from one of the few instances when The Troubles bleed in – earlier in the film, Buddy watches High Noon on television, so during a scene when Jamie Dornan as Buddy’s Pa has to stand off against a more militant neighbor, Branagh scores the scene with that film’s plaintive theme. Nevertheless, the bits of this film that lingered with me longest was its use of classic Van Morrison songs more so than the story itself.

Dune (2021) - IMDb

Dune

Well….it’s way better than David Lynch’s adaptation from 1984, for starters. Lynch tried to fit Frank Herbert’s entire sprawling epic into a single film, and he was also working in the early 1980s when computers weren’t used for visual effects production – so all the special effects were either models or practical sets or animation, and things took an impossibly long time. So Lynch ended up with a super-confusing mess, where the only thing most people remember is a shot of a bare-chested Sting wearing a bikini with tailfins. (At least….that was the biggest takeaway I had when I saw it at age 13.)

Although, speaking of the visual effects – considering the times, Lynch didn’t do all that bad. I’ve recently discovered a series of Youtube videos in which visual effects artists react to and deconstruct various special effects scenes from films, discussing how they were made, discussing how they may have been done better or – more frequently – how the technology which could have made them better wasn’t around yet. Their video about Denis Villeneuve’s Dune compares each scene to the corresponding scene in Lynch’s Dune, and actually does much to redeem that film’s visual effects as being “as good as they could have done back then.”

However, it wasn’t just the visual effects that saved things here. Villeneuve and his fellow screenwriters John Spaints and Eric Roth had a much more judicious hand with the scissors, cutting out and simplifying the more baroque parts of Herbert’s book. They also took a huge gamble and focused only on the first half of the book, trusting that there would be enough demand for a sequel that they could deal with the second half then.

So this is a much more straightforward space opera, with Timothée Chalamet in the lead as “Paul Atredies”, the only son in a royal family. Paul’s mother (Rebecca Ferguson) is a priestess in a quasi-psychic mind-control religion who’s been training Paul in its secrets (even though she shouldn’t be), and his father (Oscar Isaac) is assigned to govern over a desert planet named Arrakis – the only source of a valuable resource called “Spice”, which is worm guano that has psychotropic qualities. But the previous family in charge attacks to take back control, and Paul is forced to escape to the desert and hide amongst the nomadic Fremen, the planet’s indigenous people.

….That is an extremely broad summary, and is only the first half of the book. There are entire major characters I’ve not yet mentioned – like “Duncan Idaho” (Jason Momoa) and “Gurney Halleck” (Josh Brolin), two members of the Atredies court, and “Chani” (Zendaya), a Fremen woman whom Paul eventually falls in love with. All three characters fare a lot better in this adaptation – as does everyone, honestly. Character’s motives are clearer, relationships are more solid – and the simplified script also means the actors have much more room to breathe, and aren’t saddled down by having to spout off complicated gobbledygook by way of exposition. The characters even get to have in-jokes in this adaptation.

Whether this is a Best Picture film, though, I’m not sure. Everyone does great with it – but it’s still kind of a space opera, and things are a bit unfinished. Paul in particular feels unfinished – but that’s because he is at this point. Villeneuve tries to hint at the heavier stuff in the second half by giving Paul a series of “visions”, but that’s not quite the same as Paul actually experiencing them. It will be very interesting to see what Chalamet does with Paul in the second part. But this first part – while fine, and definitely an improvement on the 1984 film – is not something I expect to take a statuette.

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

Best Picture 2022 Extra Credit: Syllabus

Oscars 2022 Nominations Have Been Announced!

Hooray it’s Oscar season!

As with years past, I will be occasionally posting shorter reviews and reactions to the Best Picture Nominees for this years’ Academy Awards. And this year, that list is:

  • Belfast
  • Coda
  • Don’t Look Up
  • Drive My Car
  • Dune
  • King Richard
  • Licorice Pizza
  • Nightmare Alley
  • The Power Of The Dog
  • West Side Story

Conveniently, I will be watching the 1961 film adaptation of West Side Story very soon, so that could make for an interesting double-feature.

Roommate Russ and I discussed this list, and…honestly, we’re both a bit disappointed. We each had a favorite film we were hoping would get nods in at least a couple categories; Roommate Russ was particularly taken with Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch, while I wanted to see The Green Knight get acknowledged for something. But both were well and truly snubbed. And, honestly, there are a couple films on this list that I wouldn’t have been seeing otherwise.

Fortunately, there are also a couple I was already planning on seeing – and a couple I’ve even already seen. I was also planning on streaming The Power Of The Dog for convenience’s sake, but Roommate Russ talked me out of that, pointing out that the setting would really show up well on the big screen. His only concern was that as of yesterday, there was only one theater screening it, and it was slated to leave on Thursday evening. I told him that the Oscar nomination would likely change that – and sure enough, by day’s end yesterday they had added 14 more screenings to their calendar; I’m reserving my ticket as we speak.

Extra Credit, Oscar Extra Credit

2021 Oscars – LiveBlog

Hello folks! I’ve tried liveblogging Oscar ceremonies in the past with limited success – I’ve had batteries die and an entire entry just erase itself spontaneously. But this year I’m at home on a much more reliable computer, and I am PLUGGED IN, so let’s see how this goes.

I’ll start with one nod to the red carpet – it is now 7:48 pm, Eastern time, and right now one of the biggest stories about Red Carpet Looks is Colman Domingo – who was in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and is someone I worked with once upon a time – rolling up in a neon-hot-pink Versace suit. Colman is a delightful person and he is basically living his best life.

Colman Domingo in Atelier Versace | 2021 Oscars – The Fashion Court

Right – time to wait for the show proper.

8 pm

And we’re off – in a train station. But Questlove is doing the music for this! Interesting.

8:05 pm

Aw, I love this little “meet the nominees” thing they are doing with the screenplay nominees.

8:07 pm

And the Best Original Screenplay – Emerald Fennell for Promising Young Woman! ….Okay, I’ll take it.

8:11 pm

Best Adapted Screenplay – The Father! Yeah, I’ll take that too – it was a unique approach.

8:22 pm

Me to Roommate Russ: “Do we think that Another Round is the one that won Best International Feature because people know who Mads Mikkelson is?”

Roommate Russ: “Yeah, probably.”

8:27 pm

For the record: both LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya should have been Best Actor nominees, not Best Supporting Actor, in my opinion.

8:30 pm

Daniel Kaluuya, damn straight. But this was a tight one.

8:33 pm

There should be way more applause at Daniel Kaluuya’s speech….

8:41 pm

Boy, Viola Davis was really excited about the Makeup team from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom winning their Oscar.

8:56 pm

Oh, I am so glad that Bong Joon Ho is appearing with his by-now-ubiquitous translator Sharon Choi for his appearance instead of just having him subtitled.

9:08 pm

So yeah, Sound of Metal winning for the Sound Design makes absolute sense.

9:26 pm

I have to admit it does not surprise me at all that Soul won for best Animated Feature – it was the Disney film, after all.

9:50 pm

That personal recollection from Steven Yeun watching Terminator 2 was kind of adorable.

9:54 pm

Yuh-Jung Youn for Best Supporting Actress – and she is JUST as fun as I hoped she would be.

10:05 pm

Okay, I can accept Mank for art design. But that music choice Questlove had for when they were taking the stage was….odd.

10:16 pm

Harrison Ford kicked off the intro to Best Film Editing by reading some editing notes made for Blade Runner; he is such a delightful snarker that now I want to see him do a buddy comedy with Yuh-Jung Youn.

10:33 pm

So I was in my 20s when Nine Inch Nails was big, and seeing Trent Reznor winning for the Best Score for a Disney film is surreal.

10:44 pm

I really really want to know what Andrea Day said that got blocked out for that game Questlove was playing. Or Glenn Close.

10:46 pm

Me: “So…I want to make sure I really did just see Glenn Close doing Da Butt at the Oscars. Did you see that too?”

Roommate Russ: “I mean….I did put a lot of gin in this drink, but I’m pretty sure I saw that too.”

11:00 pm

….Why is Rita Moreno covering the Best Picture before we’ve given out the acting nominations?

11:06 pm

I’m not mad at Nomadland winning for Best Picture. But – I would very much like to know why the Acting awards aren’t given out yet?

11:11 pm

Yeah, this shakeup of the traditional order is almost an unofficial confirmation that Chadwick Boseman will take it for Best Actor.

…And let’s see what Frances McDormand does for her speech this year.

11:14 pm

Best Actor goes to – whaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaat.

Okay, we have switched off the Oscars here, and that ending honestly felt super-weird – Anthony Hopkins winning but not being there to make a speech, and so the ceremony felt super-rushed at the end there.