Showing posts sorted by date for query oscar. Sort by relevance Show all posts
Showing posts sorted by date for query oscar. Sort by relevance Show all posts

Sunday, February 09, 2020


Feel the excitement -- Oscar night! As you may know, I'm in the habit of seeing as many Best Picture contenders each year as I can. Yesterday I finished the cycle with Ford v Ferrari. And what a dumb pleasure it was! Two racing pros, the plain-spoken and practical Texan Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and the explosive, eccentric visionary Brit Ken Miles (Christian Bale), are at loose ends in 1963 when fate hands them a dream project: Make Ford Motor Company a world-class winning race car. Part of the drama is our boys versus the "suits" at FoMoCo who insist on gumming up their bold work with corporate bullshit. This to some extent also pits our boys against one another, as Shelby is more inclined to work with the suits and Miles to blow them off. Ironically, I felt the heavy hand of Movieland suits on Ford v Ferrari itself --  you can almost call out points where someone must have said, for example, "test scores say we really need Shelby to get hot with the Ford asshole around 1:35." But I gotta admit that, aside for a sniffly coda underlining the heroes' man-love, as Hollywood product goes the thing's very well built. I worried how things will go, felt good when they went well, and the racing stuff made a car-crazy little kid out of me and I don't even drive. I could have stood Shelby and Miles to be more, like, characters, but given the context I'm content with Damon and Bale coasting on their considerable base skills and charisma. If you want real acting there's plenty in the supporting cast, including Tracy Letts as pig-eyed honcho Henry Ford II (a world away from his Lady Bird and Little Women characters; his reactions to a report of Enzo Ferrari's insults is a little master class) and Ray McKinnon as a great car engineer who seems to know a little something about how people work, too. (Yeah, that's a cliche, but with a movie like this cliches aren't so bad.)

OK, you've seen my other reviews (links here). Now to my famous predictions! I'm seldom more that 65% right and often do much worse, but I did call Green Book last year.

× Best Picture: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood

My big sucker bet right up top! Here's my reasoning: Everyone's saying 1917. It's so well-done, they say, a tour de force, it's a lock. But no one loves 1917. Once its brutal effect passes, it mainly remains in the mind as a series of unpleasant set pieces. You'll notice no major critics' awards named it Best Picture.

Parasite leads the critics' awards, and oddsmakers put it as #2 to 1917. But would Hollywood go so far as to give its crown jewel to a Korean movie so obviously about class warfare -- and with such a downbeat ending? No, they're more likely to pick a movie that flatters themselves -- indeed, flatters a Hollywood era in which many of them came up. And it's fun!

× Best Director: Sam Mendes, 1917

 Best Original Screenplay: Bong Joon Ho and Han Jin Won, Parasite

And that's where they'll split the difference.

 Best Adapted Screenplay: Taika Waititi, Jojo Rabbit 

Had Waititi been nominated for Best Director, too, I'd be liking this movie for Best Picture. I found it not only involving but inspiring -- just the sort of thing Oscar goes for. It's a sign of our times that a movie about the fall of the Third Reich is the sunniest film of the bunch.

 Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
 Best Actress: Renée Zellweger, Judy
 Best Supporting Actor: Brad Pitt, Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
 Best Supporting Actress: Laura Dern, Marriage Story

I'm not a total idiot.

 Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, 1917
× Best Production Design: Dennis Gassner and Lee Sandales, 1917
 Best Sound Mixing: Mark Taylor and Stuart Wilson, 1917
× Best Sound Editing: Oliver Tarney and Rachael Tate, 1917

Tough categories, but 1917 really is too good to refuse in the technical areas.

× Best Score: Alexandre Desplat, Little Women

There's a lot of hype for Hildur Guðnadóttir, understandably. Her Joker score is very good at ratcheting the tension of a film that requires constantly ratcheted tension. (Thomas Newman's 1917 score is similarly effective, but with more musical flourishes.) Randy Newman's Marriage Story score is pretty lush, but at odds with the mumblecore look of the film. Desplat's score is as always very musical and I can even remember snatches of tune from it, plus it brings back pleasurable memories of a film that some people think the Academy undervalued.

 Best Costume Design: Jacqueline Durran, Little Women

'Cuz it's a costume drama, duh. (If they're ambitious maybe they'll recognize the clever, cartoonish exaggerations of the Nazi uniforms in Jojo Rabbit, not to mention Scarlett Johansson's hat.)

 Best Film Editing: Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland, Ford v Ferrari

I have understood since Bullitt that they like to give this award to movies with cars going fast.

 Best Song: “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again," Elton John and Bernie Taupin, Rocketman
 Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Kazu Hiro, Anne Morgan and Vivian Baker, Bombshell
 Best International Feature Film: Parasite
× Best Animated Feature: Klaus
× Best Short Film (Animated): Kitbull
 Best Short Film (Live): The Neighbors' Window
 Best Short Film (Documentary): Learning to Skateboard in a War Zone (If You're a Girl)
× Best Documentary Feature: Honeyland
× Best Visual Effects: Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Elliot Newman, The Lion King

I don't know. What do I know? Kitbull gave me sniffles. Isn't The Lion King one long special effect?

And there we have it!

UPDATE. I'm a winner!
UPDATE 2: I'm a loser!
UPDATE 3: I can't be sore about Parasite -- it's brilliant. Props to the Academy for having the guts.

Monday, January 13, 2020


I see a lot of people complaining in near-apocalyptic terms this morning that their Oscar faves didn't get nominated -- or, in the ridiculous popular term (considering this is a ballot result), were "snubbed" -- and maybe I'm insensitive but really: this is a silly social event where movie people give each other prizes, why you stressin'? The New York Film Critics Circle Award is much more meaningful honor, and Lupita Nyong'o won that; and she shares the distinction of winning a NYFCCA acting award without a concomitant Oscar nomination with Steve Martin, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and a lot of other geniuses.

If there's anyone who should feel cheated it's Kevin Garnett.

I've just started my way through the big award-season movies, and have written at length about Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood, Marriage Story, and The Irishman. I'll get to the rest in time. Right now I'll just say I'm surprised that Taika Waititi wasn't nominated for best director, because I thought and still kind of think JoJo Rabbit would be a good Best Picture choice -- weird enough to hit the artiste-voters where they live, and also extremely well-done and even inspirational. It could still win but it'll be more of a stretch.

As it stands, I will say yay Parasite.

Wednesday, May 01, 2019


It's from National Review's David FrenchNR's house testosterone junkie whose prose always purples up when he's talkin' man-talk. The title of his latest emission is pretty good -- "Understanding the Inescapable Reality of Masculinity" -- though the story is the same as usual: A man, Oscar Stewart, did something mainly (chased the latest synagogue shooter! Didn't catch him, but M for Maneffort!), which is offered as evidence that boys are "more aggressive than girls, and more violent than girls, and they take greater risks than girls," and that's good because we need boys to do that because girls, well you know, sugar and spice.

(French actually mentions that at the synagogue "a courageous woman named Lori Kaye lost her life shielding the rabbi from the incoming bullets" and never for a second acknowledges that this fact blows his whole stupid thesis.)

But the nut graf, and it is nuts, is thing of beauty. It comes after French is forced to admit that most men aren't cowpunchers and roadhouse bouncers and opportunities to butch up don't come easy in today's modern, sissy world. Attend:
But what used to happen more naturally must now happen more intentionally. Men need to cultivate physical strength even if physical strength isn’t necessary to their daily lives. They should identify as protectors even when immediate threats aren’t evident. Did Oscar Stewart believe he was in immediate danger when he went to his synagogue last Friday? And our culture and our people need to stop mocking and belittling men when they pursue stereotypically “manly” hobbies and activities. Male friendships are vital, and male friendships flow organically from male pursuits.
"Cultivate physical strength" -- you mean like Jack LaLanne? I hate to tell French but there's this thing called health clubs and it's sweeping the country. Maybe he thinks men should do less cardio and more weight training? [Checks cover of magazine -- this is supposed to be about conservatism, right?]

"Stop mocking and belittling men when they pursue stereotypically 'manly' hobbies and activities" is good too, though I wonder what activities he's talking about -- drum circles? Model airplane building? Jack-off clubs? Well, that would explain "flow organically from male pursuits."

UPDATE. Commenter Andrew Johnston makes a great point: "If all of this is 'natural' to men, then why do you need to teach it?" Maybe someday we'll get a David French book explaining how liberals made all the boys girly and conservatives are trying to bring 'em back to butchitude with crossfit, cigars, and Fetal Pain bills.

Sunday, February 24, 2019


Okay, it's minutes away -- too late to affect the betting line, but just in time to embarrass me! You've seen my Best Picture nominee reviews. And now the proto-envelopes, please:

Best Picture: Green Book. My big sucker bet! I know everyone says Roma, and I loved it, but like I said, it looks and moves too much like a museum installation -- Green Book is old Hollywood stuff and pEoPlE LiKeD iT. (Also: Driving Miss Daisy didn't get a Best Director nomination that year, either.)

Best Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Best Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Best Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Best Supporting Actress: Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

I'm sticking with conventional wisdom all the way, except for Weisz, whom I think will lap the field out of sheer magnificence.

Best Director: Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Best Original Screenplay: Green Book
Best Adapted Screenplay: A Star is Born

My other sucker bet! I think a split ticket on Best Picture and Screenplay is the sort of comity gesture Academy members might like.

Best Original Score: Terence Blanchard, BlacKkKlansman
Best Cinematography: Alfonso Cuaron, Roma
Best Production Design: Black Panther
Best Costume Design: The Favorite
Best Film Editing: Vice
Best Song: "Shallow," A Star Is Born
Best Make-Up and Hairstyling: Vice
Best Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Best Sound Editing: A Quiet Place
Best Foreign Language Film: Roma

Blanchard is always great and his style and Lee's dovetailed so well here it's giving me a serious hunch. Roma was too good for Cuarón not to win a craft award. The other craft award predix are based on previously observed Oscar wealth-sharing.

Best Animated Feature: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Best Documentary Feature: Hale County This Morning, This Evening 
Best Special Effects: First Man
Best Animated Short: Bar
Best Life Action Short: Skin
Best Documentary Short: A Night at the Garden

I am totally guessing. I'm guessing on all of these, really -- who knows the heart of the Academy voter anymore? But this is part of the fun for me, and maybe you. Now, on to the Pantages!

(Oh, I'll try to be responsive in comments should you be so inclined.)

UPDATE. Well, I'm losing already.

UPDATE 2. Okay, got the make-up thing, I'm a star, yay.

UPDATE 3.  Why did I bother.

UPDATE 4. I won at something! I feel good now!


UPDATE 6. LOL all the woke people are mad about Green Book. Guys, this is Hollywood. What did you expect? It’s like being pissed they didn’t nominate The Love Witch. Anyway, I shoulda put money on it!


(Other Best Picture Nominees considered so far: Black Panther, A Star is Born, Roma, BlackKkKlansmanThe FavouriteBohemian Rhapsody, and Green Book.)

Vice. Lively, politically astute, but a bit of a mess. In The Big Short, reformed funny-movie maker Adam McKay dramatized the fucking-over of the American economy, and amplified it with explanatory montages. Vice, about the fucking-over of America, is similar but with even more weight on the montages -- in fact, most of the historical characters are introduced mainly as pieces of the Brechtian educational filmstrip; for example, Frank Luntz has lines but no character; his main usefulness is as a living demonstration of how Republican propagandists used focus groups to not just sell policies but also poison the public discourse. Long passages are just tableaux or archival footage, cutting political events with clips of The Rifleman, Survivor, and Jane Fonda's Workout, seasoning history with zeitgeist.

You can see why Cheney looked like a great focal point for the story: He not only has a fat hand in every Republican outrage from Nixon through W, he also exemplifies the Republican success story: Be a total fuckup, get religion either figuratively or literally, latch onto some scumbags who respect your scumbaggery and scam your way to the top. The film suggests a similarity between the trajectories of youthful drunkards Cheney and George W., but also acknowledges the big difference: Unlike Bush Cheney is not even passably good with voters; he only shines among his fellow power jocks; as one of the film's many joke sequences underlines, his gift is to look serious and knowledgeable even when pitching total nonsense. In other words, he can bullshit the bullshitters, and he's not above hauling in an expert or two -- trained legal analysts, for example, with no excess of scruples -- to back his bullshit up.

The main problem with this approach is, Dick Cheney is not a tragic or a comic or even an anti-heroic figure -- he's just a piece of shit. Christian Bale dives to the center of the character and comes up with a believably not-too-bright guy who loves his family and finds a way to raise their standard of living by joining Today's GOP. This is a sensible explanation of the real Cheney's career, and Bale does it well -- but it has very little to do with the political lesson McKay's giving, other than to unnecessarily explain that amoral men make amoral movements. What would it mean if Cheney were a different person? What's the functional difference between Cheney and, say, fellow country-wrecker Donald Trump? After a while the Dick Cheney story diverges from the political story and, despite a half-hearted attempt to link some family drama to Republican hypocrisy (which could be yet another movie!), loses focus.

As Lynn Cheney, Amy Adams manages to spell out the personal frustrations that she displaces by feeding Dick's ambition without turning into a Lady Macbeth bitch-caricature (with a script that does her no favors), and Sam Rockwell does a good job of catching both W's weakness and charm. And I enjoyed all the cameos and special guest appearances, including Madea as Colin Powell. But the real doubles act, to me, is Bale's Cheney and Steven Carell's Donald Rumsfeld. There's a lot of student-exceeds-the-master in the relationship, and while Carell never makes the old bastard genuinely likable, there's some poignance in his profession of admiration from an abandoned office to the old friend who's just cut his throat. If we could strip away the superfluities, that's the part I'd keep.

That's it! In an hour or two, my predictions; then, showtime!


(Other Best Picture Nominees considered so far: Black Panther, A Star is Born, Roma, BlackKkKlansmanThe Favourite, and Bohemian Rhapsody.)

Green Book. I don't get the alleged problem with this movie. I don't see it as "The White Savior" -- I see it as The Odd Couple.

Dr. Don Shirley is black, brittle, and insistent on his rights -- for which who could blame him, as he's an educated, talented classical musician forced to play pop to get over, and it's 1962. He can't take comfort in his blackness, either; backstory and behavior suggest his education and ascent from poverty has left him cut off from his roots. (He professes not to know who Aretha Franklin is, surrounds himself with African artifacts, and never talks to his family.) Despite his bitter experience of the world, he's surprisingly unworldly -- putting himself in obvious mortal peril throughout his tour of the Deep South -- and you get the impression he hangs onto that unworldliness, as he hangs onto his nightly bottle of Cutty Sark, because if he were constantly seeping in the undiluted ugliness of the world it would kill him.

For his Southern tour Shirley enlists as a driver/guardian Tony Lip (so-called, he says proudly, because he's "a bullshit artist... I'm good at talking people into doing things they don't wanna do"), a streetwise, unbright Bronx goomba with an extremely que-sera-sera attitude -- which isn't easy to maintain, as he's uneducated and marginally employed with a family to feed. When the Copa, where he works as a bouncer, shuts down for a few months, he's mainly qualified to win short money on hot-dog eating contests and he won't work for the Mob, so when someone gets him the Shirley gig he takes it, even though -- we have clumsily telegraphed to us early on -- he's prejudiced against black people.

Can two diverse men share a Cadillac Seville without driving each other crazy? [Cue theme music]

Yes, Green Book has the kind of Lessons-In-Life-and-Love howlers you would expect. The weirdest is when Tony gets the fastidious Shirley to play some R&B at a local black juke joint. (Shirley delicately removes a glass of whiskey from the upright first.) And Lord help us, those clips on TV aren't a joke, Shirley does help Tony write love letters. To his wife!

But the movie has a trick up its sleeve, and the trick is dramaturgy. Because of the way the characters are built, not only are those scenes less obnoxious than they could have been, the whole Driving Dr. Shirley thing works pretty well, too. First, when Tony really does play White Savior (and, blessedly, we get the first instance of this out of the way early), Shirley is ungrateful and mainly outraged at the unfairness of a system that makes it necessary that he be saved. So it's not really the whitesaving that turns the relationship around. But Tony's enough of a go-along type -- and, let's face it, used to servile gigs -- that he doesn't get too indignant about that. That gives him room to pay attention. And he's also, as a bullshit artist, a good enough student of human nature to actually pick up on what's eating Shirley, and a good enough human being to care. (Key line: "I been working nightclubs in New York City my whole life. I know it's a complicated world.") Shirley may be alienated, but not so alienated he can't pick up that Tony is actually listening, and in response he begins to unburden himself more to him -- even when it's in anger. Time then does its work.

So what if it's corny? I think I would have preferred it if [spoiler!] on Christmas Eve Shirley just stayed home and called his estranged brother instead of going all the way from West 57th Street to the freaking Bronx IN A SNOWSTORM to hang out with the Italians who, a minute ago, were calling black people eggplants. It ain't Frantz Fanon, it's a Hollywood movie. I was held.

Also it's Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen, so if nothing else you can soak in their craft. Ali's Shirley is a real old-fashioned fusspot -- you can imagine Shirley learning and adopting a Clifton Webb facade, and shifting to the shit-eating smile when there are white folks to be pleased -- but even from the beginning you can perceive the years of hurt behind it, and when it's exacerbated -- as when a couple of black horseshoe players at a motel call him "fancy pants" -- you can feel the wounds reopen. And his pride is real and he can't be moved off it. (And he's funny! He really nails "I knew you had a gun.") Mortensen's technically ridiculous -- I mean, 'ey, gabagool, 'ats-a some accent, chief. But he's believably a creature of instinct who has operated so effectively on it, and has had so little need (or maybe capacity) for higher orders of thought that you can believe he'd unthinkingly accept Arthur Avenue bigotries, and unthinkingly say the ridiculous shit he says to Shirley (including that Shirley isn't as black as he is!) but, when his instinct tells him he had it all wrong, he would heed that, too. These guys have some great scenes together -- the one in the rain after they get sprung from jail, ending Ali climbing the ladder on "so if I'm not black enough, and if I'm not white enough, and if I'm not man enough, then tell me, Tony, what am I?" (Imagine being given that line on a piece of paper and getting what Ali gets out of it!); but I almost prefer watching them do the dumb scenes like the love letter ones, because as much as my eyes roll to describe it, they don't roll when I watch it.

Friday, February 22, 2019


(Other Best Picture Nominees considered so far: Black Panther, A Star is Born, Roma, BlackKkKlansman, and The Favourite.)

Bohemian Rhapsody. I've often said that the biopic is an intrinsically minor artform, and that only extremely rare exceptions bend the curve. Bohemian Rhapsody looks good and moves with some of the strut and glide of Queen's music, but it has all the traditional biopic problems -- for example, outside the star, there are no real characters. Credit Tom Hollander for sneaking a hint of dry humor into his lawyer/manager Jim "Miami" Beach (and Mike Myers -- had me fooled!), but everyone else is a cipher. Maybe it's because they're all still alive and could make trouble but the movie bandmates don't give us anything besides the most pro-forma behind-the-music moments: The lightbulb that's-a-great-riff! moments, the Freddie-you've-gone-too-far moments, etc. Even Mercury's female "love of my life" Mary never shows any feelings but Freddy-related feelings, and out of a regrettable soap opera at that. What if they'd been a little playful about it? When Freddie says "I think I'm bisexual" and Mary says, "you're gay," didn't anyone on the set realize how funny that is? I was laughing, anyway.

In fact all the stuff about Freddie's sexuality is weirdly fraught -- I haven't seen a leather scene like that since Cruising. (Wait'll they make the Rob Halford biopic!) Well, the closet can do strange things to a man and, given his background, Mercury was particularly [cue the music!] under pressure from both directions -- pushed not to go too far for obvious social reasons, but compelled to reveal what was going on inside himself for artistic reasons. That's a lot to take on and I can hardly blame Bryan Singer,  the superhero-movie director of a big-budget can't-miss biopic (who has some issues himself), for deciding that the answer is the true love of a decent bloke you can bring home to your stereotypically uptight immigrant dad. But sweet as that is, judging by his music I bet that wasn't all Freddie Mercury was going for.

But if the script doesn't show us, at least Rami Malek's performance is able to suggest it. There have been a lot of jokes about Rami Malek's dental prosthesis doing the acting for him, but like any good actor Malek makes the thing work for the character -- sometimes the teeth are a totems of his fears and sorrows, something to hide and brood over, and sometimes they're the prow of a proud ego-ship steaming late into rehearsal. And despite being 90% of the movie, Malek's Freddie is still able to remain a little mysterious -- even in the cliche good-love and bad-love scenes, you can feel that he's protecting something inside himself -- his heart, maybe, or his ego, or his talent; something, in any case, that can't stand too much handling. Whether at the top of his game or the height of his madness, that makes Mercury vulnerable and lovable and fascinating, and not just someone we're staring at because he's famous. For a biopic that's an achievement.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019


(Other Best Picture Nominees considered so far: Black Panther, A Star is Born, Roma, BlackKkKlansman.)

The Favourite. [Mild spoilers.] This struck me at first as an exceedingly cold-blooded comedy of manners, like a Joe Orton adaptation of Wycherley -- or a Peter Greenaway movie with much better dialogue (Servant, whose room is invaded by a courtier: "Have you come to seduce me or to rape me?" Courtier: "I am a gentleman." Servant: "So, rape then.") The photography, which while gorgeous leans at lot on the fish-eye, also seemed designed to distance us, literally and figuratively, from the characters. But flashy as it is, the film reveals a very poignant strain.

The early-18th-Century rivalry between Churchill forebear Sarah Duchess of Marlborough and her reduced distant relation Abigail Hill for the affections of Britain's Queen Anne is such a sure-fire subject I was surprised not to have seen it done before -- though apparently it has been, including in a 2014 Helen Edmundson play. As the principals are introduced, we are brought quickly up to speed on Sarah's sway over the addled and capricious queen and on impoverished Abigail's desire to rise; the conflict seems inevitable and the ensuing machinations, beautifully written, give the traditional thrill of seeing a couple of live ones go at it. (As their shooting-range repartee reveals, Sarah has age and guile but Abby has youth and quickness.)

But while Abigail's drive to get up the ladder occasions astonished laughter, we also get some very cold glimpses of what she has had to pull herself up out of ("when I end up on the street selling my asshole to syphilitic soldiers, steadfast morality will be a fucking nonsense that will mock me daily"). By the time she offers a truce to Sarah after having nearly killed her, even as the audacity of it amuses we realize she's serious; she's inviting Sarah to sympathize sufficiently with her situation to forgive and, though we obviously can't expect her to accept, we may also feel that Sarah, having been protected by her class all her life, is being a bit ingracious in responding with blows ("Obviously, you still have some anger to expiate").

But Sarah has her own vulnerability as an (it has to be said) aging lover whose good sense sets her above the herd but also apart from sympathy; when she discovers Abigail in Anne's bed, her heartsickness could not be more genuine. As for the Queen, her capriciousness and cruelty are funny and sometimes shocking, but over time we come to understand it's based on severe emotional distress, caused by an understandable lack of trust in nearly everyone (and a feverish over-valuation of the few she does trust), and exacerbated by her royal isolation. I was especially struck by her bright, almost demented happiness at the wedding she hastily arranges for Abby and the poor dope Masham -- maybe because it's a rare occasion for her power to create joy.

The acting couldn't be better. Even at Abigail's shittiest, Emma Stone's face can show an almost childlike openness (I don't recall noticing how big and blue her eyes were before); Rachel Weisz employs the full force of her natural magnificence to o'erween without losing our rooting interest. Olivia Colman does that too, but in the manner of a baffled, spoiled child who can find no comfort and yet must still do her sums and read her speeches.

Monday, February 18, 2019


BlacKkKlansman. From the title to coda, this is just way too much -- which is what Spike Lee does and it's alright with me. There are times when his Sesame-Street schematic style just made me laugh out loud; like when he was setting up the black-cop-plus-white-cop-make-one-klansman plot, I thought, come on -- this is even a true story and I don't quite believe it. (The chief might buy the idea from black rookie cop Ron Stallworth if it were allowed to grow on him -- but a snap decision on a sit-down and "with the right white man we can do anything"?)

I got over it, though. I'm a sucker for this stuff. To me Lee and Oliver Stone are the heirs to Sam Fuller -- vulgarians who muscle and hustle you along. And though the KKKreeps in the movie are cartoons, how far from cartoon characters can the actual fuckers be, with their racist monomania and basement-den boys' Valhalla? But though they're cartoon characters, they're still characters, and Lee gives them enough operating room so you can see how they might be a real danger, especially under the guidance of "national director" David Duke -- whom Topher Grace plays sort of like Eric from That 70's Show grown up racist, which makes him more horrifying than any po-faced Evil Dwells Among Us portrait. (I think Grace's comic understatement has a lot in common with my favorite Marlon Brando performance: George Lincoln Rockwell in Roots II.) And if the white cops in the station are just variations on Officer Hoppy from Sanford and Son, at least they learn to roll with Ron's jam and get a kinder laugh in the end.

But the good-n-evil games are the least of it -- though Lee builds numerous tense scenes with an expertise that comes with constant work (TV shows, documentaries, movies -- he doesn't just hustle audiences). It's Ron's identity crisis that's the most interesting feature. He's mysterious coming in, dressed and coiffed out of an Afro-American fashion catalogue but seeming to play the line-walking good father's son -- which we take for a dodge until we realize it's only partly a dodge, he is that good son taught from birth to walk the line, and his "that's heavy" and "my sister" at the Kwame Ture event seem stiff because he's stiff. (Much is made at the station of his alternating "straight" and "jive" manners, but there's really not much functional difference.) Ture's long speech is there not only to give Lee a chance to raise our consciousness, but to raise Ron's.

As Ron's running his undercover act with the Klan, he's also running one on his Black Power girlfriend -- and in both cases he can't keep the double game up forever. (John David Washington is excellent at walking that line.) It's a dramatically pleasing solution that Ron sorts out his identity crisis by partnering on the Klan scam with the white Jewish cop Flip (a moody Adam Driver). It's weird to consider that for all Lee's alleged radicalism, and for his and the black characters' contempt for white savior shtick, this plot device isn't too far from 60s Sidney Poitier territory; the two men keep needling and proving themselves to each other, and when Flip acknowledges that, by putting the white face on Ron's fake Klansman, as a Jew he's "passing" too, the comraderie finally seems to break the lifelong tension that's made it hard for Ron to relax into himself -- and also seems to help solve (spoiler here, folks) the conflict with his girlfriend. Though she can't accept a brother working from the inside, she comes to accept Ron, and I think it's because he's come to accept himself.

That's heavy, my brother! Lee also gives us a lot of cinema sweets and sours -- Ron standing face to face with the human target that is, basically, him; the cross-cutting from Harry Belafonte in the student union to the Klan meeting; Ivan the drunken Klansman just making that weird sound of incomprehension into the camera. And I've been singing "It's Too Late To Turn Back Now," not just because the song is irresistible but also because Lee's delirious black love & soul dance scene is too.

As for that coda: I disapprove on Farberesque principle with this sort of gimp-string manipulation. I didn't like it, for example, when Gus Van Sant did it at the top of Milk to make a veil of sorrow that the film hadn't earned.  I did think , though, it was fair play for Lee to use Rodney King at the beginning of Malcolm X to rack-focus us between the past and the present. And as for the flash-forward to Charlottesville and the tiki-torch boys at the end of this Klan story, what I have to say is this: fuck the Klan, fuck David Duke, and fuck Donald Trump.

Thursday, February 14, 2019


Roma. [Mild spoilers.] When I was a young man I went with this girlfriend to visit her parents in Miami. As she, like most of my girlfriends, came from considerably more money than I did, the parents had a swell place, and a maid greeted the girlfriend at the door -- very effusively and even emotionally, I thought, considering she was after all a maid, though also with some reserve (like the hugs, though there were a lot of them and they were obviously heartfelt, never lasted very long) that made it seem even weirder. After the woman went back to her work, the girlfriend said, "That's [name of maid] -- she sort of raised me."

That played on my mind when I saw Roma, which as you may know is about a live-in servant to a middle-class family in the eponymous district in Mexico City in the early 70s. The servant, Cleo, young and modest and indígena, seems to be more or less the housekeeper; there's another girl who seems to be the cook, but they help each other in their jobs. In addition to housework, Cleo spends a lot of time with the children, one of whom, fair-haired and sensitive and given to tales of his past lives, I at first took to be her son, she seemed to understand him and love him so well, though she seemed too young to have had him. When I realized he was instead one of the family, and that he was probably the avatar of the filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón,  I cried, and not for the last time. In fact I haven't cried for a movie as much since Moonlight, so there's a lachrymal vote in the Oscar sweepstakes.

Even before I made that connection, I could see it was a memory movie even if I hadn't heard in advance that it was -- so often details are jacked up in the way a child would perceive and then remember them in adulthood: The overdriven sound of 60s cars, the multilayered din of city streets, the chaos and clatter of hawkers flashing and bouncing their wares outside the movie palace, the paneling and fluorescent lights of the mueblería. Even in scenes the child Cuarón could not have witnessed, the look and feel asserts itself, as if to insist on its importance, even over the story -- which I confess sometimes made me impatient, because it reminded me more of the sort of film installations one sees in museums than a movie.

But things do happen. Cleo takes up with Fermin, a friend of a cousin who turns out to be no good, a hitter in the Los Halcones paramilitary, who gets her pregnant and abandons her. (His abandonment and later renunciation of her are among the more protracted scenes, and thinking about it now I guess maybe I felt impatient with them because they're so painful.) The family meanwhile is disrupted; the father fucks off with a mistress, and his wife and her mother can at first think of nothing better than to deceive the kids and pretend he's just away on business. The twin sorrows of Cleo and her employer run on tracks that are sometimes parallel and even come very close, but there's always, as there was with my girlfriend's parents' maid, a line that no one is going to cross. But the maid and the family get through -- one would say together, but not quite, except in the blessed memory of a boy who grew up to make a movie where she was, at last, the center of attention, and at the close ascends into the endless memory of art.

There is so much that's virtuosic in this movie, and it's mostly Cuarón, who directed, wrote, shot and edited it (and I bet he had a lot to say about the sets); I especially love the long dolly shots, from the servants' giddy race down a Mexico City street to the genuinely how-the-hell amazing ocean rescue, but every scene is a jewel of rhythm, blocking, and dramatic emphasis, including the revelation scene at the seaside restaurant where the mother is the focus but there's a little boy who can't stop crying. All the acting is choice but Yalitza Aparicio's Cleo is the sort of thing that might have made Bresson think, maybe it's okay if the actors try a little. Her performance is more perfectly on the cusp of acting and not-acting than any other I've seen, and I've seen Joseph Chaikin. If you don't like the movie, you'll at least like a lot of the things that you see and hear in it.

(Kind of hate to disturb the reverie, but if you want to know everything that's wrong with "conservative" "arts criticism," you might check out Ross Douthat's studiously inept review of the film. The crux of it is, liberals r hypocrites because they like a movie where the maid is exploited, what if it was Berkeley huh libs. And wait till you hear his more specific criticisms; get this -- "The choice to film in black and white feels a wee bit pretentious, depriving the viewer of the rich colors that many of the street scenes imply" -- similarly, why were In Cold Blood, Psycho, and Dr. Strangelove in black and white, they had color then, I don't get it -- aaaargh fuck this guy; how perfect that this alleged follower of Christ should be such a perfect philistine.)

Sunday, February 10, 2019


[As I do from year to year, I'm going to try and get down as many Oscar-nominated films as I can before the big show on March 4.]

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. [Up for best adapted screenplay, 2 others] [Mild spoilers that get hotter as we go.] I have frequently said the Coens must be stoners, and I mean that neither as a dis nor as a backhand compliment so much as a description of what their work suggests. They have the stoner's voluptuary taste and feeling of randomness -- they seem to keenly feel things and notice details other people wouldn't. Sometimes this gives them a fresh, unexpected perspective that lights up a scene -- as we all saw recently when a lot of people were playing the Danny Boy clip from Miller's Crossing in honor of Albert Finney. (And of course it's apparent in all of The Big Lebowski, the first of their films that I really got.) But they also let their enthusiasms lead them down side roads and alleys and sometimes far, far from the point.

For 18 minutes their omnibus film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is brilliantly on point. The old-time kid's western storybook framing device launches, and we get the gunslinging balladeer himself hilariously tall-taling and Mike Finking his way through some spectacular showdowns -- brilliantly funny and violent -- without mussing a hair or missing a beat; even when his number finally comes up, his eloquence does not fail, but rather ascends (along with Buster himself) in song.  It's as if the Coens had taken the childish notion of The Old West -- the kind kids of the storybook era knew, with bloodless gun-battles and happy-ending cliffhangers -- and run it through 50 years of New Westerns, leaving the old storybook innocence spattered with Peckinpah blood, wised-up and absurd, but still mythic.

That's the high point, though. Not that the other stories aren't good, they're just not as inspired, and exhibit a mean streak that saps the pleasure from even the Coens' abundant inventiveness. The story of the bank robber who escapes justice only to be captured by fate is clever  -- but it's also right out of O. Henry and Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. The celebrated "Meal Ticket" episode is a dark and compelling conceit, but finally just depressing. "The Gal Who Got Rattled" cooks up a wonderful Oregon Trail sorta-romance between a marooned Midwestern maiden and a comically noble cowboy -- only to cut it brutally short because, well, I guess because that's life, pardner. "The All-Gold Valley" ends more happily but no more cheerfully. By the time we get to the big, dumb death-metaphor of "The Mortal Remains," I felt like this is what O Brother Where Art Thou would be like if they hadn't known enough to let go of Homer.

It all looks great -- Bruno Delbonnel, who did the Simon & Garfunkel cover look for Inside Llewyn Davis, makes a series of gorgeous, living tipped-in four-color plates here, and Carter Burwell's majestic music would make Jerome Moross proud or maybe jealous. All the actors are wonderful, but I give the palm to Tom Waits as the greatest successor to Gabby Hayes, Tyne Daly who knows how a lady should be treated, and Bill Heck and Zoe Kazan for the sweetness they bring to the hard trail.

A Star is Born. This old war horse always pleases me one way or another -- whether with old-Hollywood glammah or with the outrageous 70s excess of Barbra and Kris. I was surprised how straightforward and muted this Bradley Cooper version is -- it really looks like an actor made it, with the scenes played for maximum honesty and the dialogue super-naturalistic to the point of being frequently hard to make out (which makes sense as Jackson Maine, the latest incarnation of the drunken, doomed star, is losing his hearing). I was going to say that he even cut the big confrontations and set pieces from the earlier versions but looking back I see they're all still in there -- they just evolve so naturally, without announcing themselves (like Ally's manager telling Maine what's what), that you don't feel the build-up. It's almost John Cassavettes' A Star is Born. Cooper's insight seems to be that the story's so strong you don't have to force it. And he's right.

Maybe they let Cooper make this movie in such a minor key because Lady Gaga as Ally supplies more than enough major-chord glammah to pull the crowds with her big splashy song numbers; they're not my thing, but they by God convince you she's the star you're watching get born. The best thing I can say about her acting is that she doesn't get blown out of the water by the big boys she's running with here. Sam Elliott, in particular, is not only great in the customary Sam Elliot way of just being Sam Elliot, but his scenes of brotherly blood and iron with Cooper are tough and true. And Cooper, who was amazing in American Sniper, is amazing here playing a different kind of damaged case. The one drawback in his performance is mainly a wound to the film: his Maine is so buried in his pain -- squint-faced, greasy-haired and grin-armored; you can smell the booze on him -- that you wonder what Ally sees in him -- she acts the enabler with him at first, sure, but her behavior with her dad (Andrew Dice Clay! Who's very good!) shows that she's not a sucker. But I bought that he was able to get this far and not much farther without cracking, and that finding Ally was like getting a glimpse of his own soul after it being long away, and it helped him go a few more miles than he might have. I wouldn't give up Lowell Sherman and Constance Bennett for this, but it's a worthy entrant.

Friday, January 25, 2019


Some other good versions out there,
But you can't go wrong with Muddy.

•  What with all the panic on the right that the liberals are going to burn down the churches, I figured I'd open up this recent Roy Edroso newsletter issue (Subscribe! Cheap!) featuring Dod Rheher exposing the latest trans-liberal-commie assault on His Values. Enjoy! 

•  Speaking of nuts, at National Review Kevin D. Williamson portrays the Democratic economic message thus:
The Kulaks Must Be Liquidated as a Class
That'll reinvigorate conservatism, alright right alright! Or at least keep the donors happy. Williamson tells us how all the tyrannies of the past few centuries are attributable to Marxists (though he skips, among other tyrants, the Nazis, since associating them with Marxists and thus with liberals is Legacy Pledge Jonah's side of the street). Then in a shock cut worthy of "the foundation of the city of... Imperial Rome" (though in fairness Buñuel was a surrealist, not a psychopath) Williamson speeds to his primary target:
Elizabeth Warren is going to look terrific in those mirrored aviator sunglasses and peaked captain’s hat. She’s spent half her life playing dress-up, morally — pretending to be an Indian — so she may as well dress the part of her aspirations. “Who are you wearing to the state dinner? Oscar de la Renta? Prada? Pinochet?”
Oh, yeah, Williamson skipped Pinochet, too, until it was time to compare the senior senator for Massachusetts to a fancy dictator he hadn't used yet. Williamson says Warren is in a panic because "her entire party lurches in a chávista direction" -- presumably meaning some members of it want to return the top marginal tax rate to where it was under the notorious Bolshevik John F. Kennedy (who was a reformer among his kind, however, as he reduced it from the 90-plus it was in the heyday of America's Stalin, Dwight Eisenhower).

Since Warren is a female as well as a liberal, Williamson has to drag her a while ("Senator Warren has pretended to be a lot of things. A Cherokee, for one" -- Fox and Friends, make room for one more!) before he gets to her alleged "asset-forfeiture scheme," a 2% wealth tax. You may see some purpose in such a tax in an era of rampaging inequality, flat wages, and nominally middle class families living in terror of sudden impoverishment, but Williamson thinks it exists because Democommies find it "simply morally obligatory to hurt wealthy people."

After more ravings in this line, Williamson gets to his wow finish:
You may not feel like a kulak. You may take comfort in hearing that only the “tippy-top” wealthiest people are to be expropriated in the name of social justice. Those children at Covington Catholic probably didn’t think they were Nazis a week ago, either. 
History is short, if you look at it with the right kind of eyes. Some of you might want to consider looking from Zurich or Singapore.
Ah, so Williamson is thinking of absconding with his thousands and fucking off to some faraway economic safe zone? The Ocasio-Cortez and Warren plans sound better every day!

Sunday, March 04, 2018


I saw Phantom Thread and The Shape of Water — couldn’t get to Call Me By Your Name before the Big Show, but I’ll take a stab at the Oscar thing anyway.

(As to those last two movies: I’ve been trying to figure out whether the last part of Phantom Thread is meant to be taken literally, which inevitably gets me to wondering whether the first part was meant to be taken literally. The odd meet-acute in the Blackpool tearoom, in retrospect, looks like someone, or two, acting out their first meeting, either as a sentimental gesture or for therapeutic purposes; and the integration of Alma into the House of Reynolds, from his sister sniffing her over to her near-erasure among the other white-coated votaries, seems like a highly distilled version of experience, at least. I started out, perhaps influenced by the writing about it, thinking Phantom Thread was about gender roles, but I’m willing to consider that it’s about the weird power of love itself. Definitely the most rumination-worthy of the bunch.)

(Oh, and as to The Shape of Water: This is the Pan’s Labyrinth guy, alright, and another fable, but without the hard fatalism of the Spanish Civil War one, because we’re in America and Americans aren’t fatalists — though if you like you can think of the ending as non-literal, but if you do what’s that make the rest of the movie? [Publicity for the 1978 Superman said, “You’ll believe a man can fly”; The Shape of Water can boast, “You’ll believe a fish can fuck!”] It was thrilling to see the magic realism blend so seamlessly with the caper-suspense elements, and also to see the good guys and bad guys — though, as fable demands, clearly assigned and starkly painted — all get their little bit of humanity; even the Michael Shannonical scumbag moved me when he asked his general for permission to be just decent. [The general, however, can go fuck himself. I hate that guy.] I can see now why kulturkampfer Kyle Smith hated it so much — the black and the gay and the sex vs. The Man! — and, well, that’s just the icing on the fishcake.)

OK, let’s have a crack at these nominees:

Best Picture: The Shape of Water. Sure it’s odd — but it feels like what we used to call a movie-movie. I think Three Billboards has a chance, but Moonlight’s victory last year probably has voters thinking that would be just too much Quiet Brilliance in an industry mostly devoted to producing special effects extravaganzas.

Best Actor: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour. You get old and play a British Prime Minister in heavy makeup, they have to give it to you.

Best Actress: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I was thinking Johnny Belinda II but great as Sally Hawkins is, voters may be wondering why Hillary Swank has two Oscars and McDormand only has one.

Best Supporting Actor: Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water. This is my sucker bet, some everyone expects either big prize-taker Willem Dafoe or Billboards’ Sam Rockwell to win, but my instinct, such as it is, is that the collision of the two favorites (and Woody Harrelson, who they’d love to give an Academy Award to sometime) will make an opening for a dark horse. Plus Jenkins’ arc is deeply moving.

Best Supporting Actress: Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird. I haven’t seen Allison Janney, but Lady Bird needs an award.

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water. I thought they were going to give Christopher Nolan this but

Best Original Screenplay: Get Out.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Call Me By Your Name.

Best Cinematography: Dunkirk.

Best Production Design: The Shape of Water.

Best Film Editing: Baby Driver.

Best Foreign Language Film: The Square.

Best Costume Design: Darkest Hour.

Best Original Score: Phantom Thread.

Best Original Song: “Mighty River,” Mudbourne.

Best Makeup: Darkest Hour.

Best Sound Editing: Dunkirk.

Best Sound Mixing: The Shape of Water.

Best Visual Effects: Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

And in the Who The Fuck Knows categories:

Best Documentary Feature: Last Men in Aleppo.

Best Documentary Short: Traffic Stop.

Best Animated Short: Garden Party.

Best Live Short: Watu Wote/All of Us.

And now -- magic time!

UPDATE, 8:18: I'm already losing!

UPDATE, 8:32: 1 for 3. There goes the rent money.

UPDATE, 9:30: [tears up his tickets and walks away slowly, in the rain]

UPDATE, 11:50: Well, I got the Big Five right, but otherwise wiped out -- 11 of our 23. I'd like to blame the Academy -- huh, Best Costume Design for a movie about fashion! So predictable! -- but really my mistake was paying attention; I always do better when I've seen like three movies all year. 

Friday, March 02, 2018


(I only have three more movies to see for my Oscar push since I saw these two and, my friends, I am going for the cycle!)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This may be the modern version of old-fashioned character-driven Nice Movies like Driving Miss Daisy; small-bore, humane, poignant -- only with more swears and a lot more violence. Though its wide dark streak will turn a lot of people off, Billboards still reflects, in its funhouse-mirror way, the values of the Nice Movie: the main characters progress toward understanding, notwithstanding that the Missourians' understanding is incomplete, and based more on existential despair than Christianity. Mildred Hayes, seeking vengeance for a daughter who met a particularly grisly fate, is the hardest of hard cases — calling her a bereaved mother and a domestic abuse survivor would be accurate but absurdly inadequate; she is nearly fearless and not only capable of violence but as comfortable with it as a carpenter is with a hammer. She’s also brilliant — her snappy comebacks are downright aphoristic and, as her nemesis Chief Willoughby of the local PD notes, the billboards she puts up constitute a “chess move” to get action on her daughter’s case. But though intelligent and directed, she is also unmoored — by grief or, we get the impression from many clues, life itself. She’s smart enough to know that, but damaged enough to go on anyway, and her comic-tragic implacability sets off a series of funny-horrible incidents — the greatest example being a man absorbing the message that love may be the answer while a molotov-cocktail fire rages behind him. (Billboards’ other great coup de cinema is a reflex that innocently coats Mildred’s face with blood, which should be a hint as to the movie’s tone.) In the end, we get the best we can hope for: for the madness to wear itself down if not out, and the makings of one hell of a buddy-comedy sequel. As Mildred, Frances McDormand is shrine-worthy; when, struggling with her son for a fire extinguisher, she screams his name, it's like Mildred's whole biography has flashed like lightning across the screen. Woody Harrelson’s Willoughby is now in my Top Ten Good Guys With a Badge. Big ups also to Peter Dinklage as the rare spurned swain whose angry comeback actually has a point, and especially Sam Rockwell as a white trash dumbass in whose foggy mind may be sown a seed of grace.

Darkest Hour. I guess everyone watches this for Oldman’s Churchill, since the movie treats a turning point in World War II as the PM’s personal trial at least as much as Britain’s. Oldman is very good; his great insight is to play Churchill as a brilliant but undisciplined diva; childish, messy (did Churchill really eat like that in front of his King?), so devoted to his genius that any contradiction of it feels to him like betrayal -- and when he's forced to hear what the philistines call reason, he goes practically catatonic; Blimey, 'e's lost 'is mojo!  Lest we feel that civilization was only saved by Winnie’s pique, he is given a shy and doting secretary (Lily James, who is obviously great at dialects) who appears to inspire him, and a bull session with The British People in the Tube that bucks him up for the Never Surrender speech and turns the tide. Even this absurdity Oldham carries off by his devotion to the character, which banishes at least some of our reasonable doubts. The film looks great, indeed has an impressive unified design, from the giant newsreel-font credits to the now-moody, now-brutal photography to the slightly florid clothes and etching-specific sets; only now and again does it seem to be a bit pushy, as if Joe Wright thought we could only be made to buy the In Which We Serve uplift with music video tricks. (I wonder if the near-extinction of World War II vets from movie audiences might have something to do with these liberties.) But, look, I liked The King’s Speech and it was no less pushy; sometimes it's just nice to see the good guys win.

(Previously covered here: Get Out, Dunkirk, Lady Bird, and The Post.)

Sunday, February 18, 2018


• The Village Voice column is delayed by the holiday til Tuesday. As part of my research I went to see Black Panther. I've told you good people before -- for example, back in 2009 when people were talking about The Dark Knight as a serious movie -- that I don't relate to the comic-book flicks that even some of my most intelligent friends enjoy. In fact, I find them idiotic. There may be a Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies, but as far as I'm concerned comic-book movies don't even have a Dances with Wolves. (Exceptions, or rather excuses: Ghost World, which I revere, is [clears throat] based on a graphic novel -- I know, that's like Lisa Loopner calling The Way We Were "a film not a movie" -- and Tim Burton's brutal Batman Returns is a Batman movie like Godard's Weekend is a road picture.) I can't even relate to those Lord of the Rings pictures. Magic kingdoms don't send me. My nerdness does not that way tend.

Black Panther is no exception. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it; in fact once I got used to the unfamiliar sensation of having my eyes and ears pummeled while prone in a multiplex barcalounger,  it was a treat. The Afrocentric threads and sets are supercool, I am definitely down with the Praetorian Guard of tough bald chicks (the baddest-assed of whom is a general), and I'm happy for anyone who gets an ethnocentric or any other kind of thrill from it.

But I couldn't take it any more more seriously than I did Kokumo and Pazuzu in Exorcist II: The Heretic. I've never seen a made-up ancient tradition that wasn't at least slightly ridiculous (including the "real" ones we all grew up with). When the Wakandans were shown cheering T'Challa at his coronation in mountain niches going up hundreds of feet, all I could think of were Hummel figurines in a specialty display, or It's a Small World at Disneyland.

Also, I have to say that while I see why T'Challa had to defeat Killmonger, the latter had a good enough argument; why shouldn't Wakanda help liberate black folk around the world? History certainly supports W'Kabi's prediction that, once Whiteyworld got a whiff of their secret Vibranium stash, they'd do as they have always done with Africans. The Wakandan isolationist ethos is about protecting Wakandans; I see nothing in it about the brotherhood of man. It's nice T'Challa and Shuri are sufficiently guilt-tripped by it all to go to Oakland and start starship midnight basketball, but if they'd decided to go the Black Planet route instead I think it would have been more interesting.

But like I said, it's a comic book movie, and it was enough that it moved and looked good. And if I'm sympathetic toward Killmonger it may be in part because Michael B. Jordan, in a cast full of winners, steals the plum. Admittedly he has the advantage of being able to speak modern argot in a movie full of pseudo-Royal-African, and everyone else's jokes are corny enough that lines like "'Hey, Auntie" bring the house down. But modern, too, is the monster of reaction to injustice that Jordan makes of Killmonger, and though his viciousness made me want him defeated, as it was meant to, when he said at the point of dying that he wished to be buried in the ocean like his ancestors who "knew death was better than bondage," I wept. That, I took seriously.

• Also, returning to the Oscar derby I started with The Post, Get Out, and Dunkirk, I saw Lady Bird. Story: Christine, who prefers to be called by the fanciful eponym because I guess it will make a good title someday, is a driven though perhaps not exceptionally bright girl attending a Catholic school her parents can barely afford who wants to get out of her third-tier city (the same one auteur Greta Gerwig grew up in, what a coincidence) and make it big in New York — come back, reader! I swear it’s not bad! Along the way she does a lot of growing up — Reader? Hello?

Ha okay, leave if you want, but first let me tell you why it’s worth a look: Lady Bird and the other characters reveal themselves quickly (wanting-more daughter, angry-loving mother, becalmed-depressed dad, et alia) and, I'm forced to say, none of them shows much in the way of hidden depths. Nor are they full of surprises  -- in fact the characters usually do things you should have seen coming a mile away. But I stayed interested and rooted for them throughout. I think that's because Gerwig and her actors understood that, first, when characters are closely observed, the audience will notice that, and think them worth watching. (Gerwig even has one of Lady Bird's teachers mention the similarity between love and attention. If that doesn't do it for you, the really-real performances of Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, and Tracy Letts should.) Also, they knew that the characters don't have to surprise us to be worthy of our attention;  they just have to really try to be — what’s that phrase Mom uses? — the best version of themselves they can be. Sometimes just that struggle alone is worth watching.

I especially felt it in every scene involving Lady Bird and her best friend (Beanie Feldstein -- remember the name), a more obviously talented but also more ungainly girl whom she betrays, in a slightly ridiculous high-school way, before deciding to ditch her new cool friends and take her to the prom with her. I know, ick, after-school special, right? But when they went from crying in each other's arms to laughing with their mouths full of cheese and crackers because they couldn't believe they finished it all, I loved them. Later on, when they were mooning over what they would be doing next summer, they bored me. But I'll remember the cheese and crackers for a long time.

Friday, February 02, 2018


I made a mistake when  I looked over my shoulder/
Cromwell was right behind me, in the driving rain...

•  Well, I’m going for the Oscar gusto again this year. I've already discussed The Post, and will now treat Dunkirk, which I just saw. I said back in 2009, when Christopher Nolan made The Dark Knight, that unlike many other A-list Hollywood moviemakers Nolan could at least shoot an action sequence so I could tell what the hell was going on. He's gotten even better since then, and Dunkirk is a great opportunity for him to show off. From the Brueghelian bombardment of big ships crowded with drowning, burning, and leaping soldiers, to the strafing of a small boat full of shushed, terrified child-soldiers, to balletic dogfights, Nolan can orchestrate mass movement and violence like nobody’s business. And he is beautifully abetted in all the craft details, especially Hoyte van Hoytema’s photography, which combines high contrast with judicious color saturation to give things a edge alternately dreamlike and nightmarish, and Hans Zimmer’s score, which underpins good old-fashioned orchestral pumping with machine sounds and postmodern shrieks to juice the tension. Though the technique is modern and even modernist, the intent is antique-heroic — most clearly seen in the rah-rah over the Little England flotilla and the stiff-upper-lipped British officer class, each beautifully represented, no coincidence, by British national treasures Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh. That’s well-earned in both history and the movie, but as an American I found it odd that there was absolutely no humor — even Noel Coward’s In Which We Serve had jokes. Still, if the unrelenting seriousness makes it hard to take Dunkirk to heart, it does increase the effect of the ending, in which filthy, bedraggled survivors awaken on the train home to windows suddenly filled with hay-brightened English sunlight. And though I do look forward to Gary Oldham’s Churchill, I can’t imagine I will be as moved by his rendition of the “Never Surrender” speech as I was by Fionn Whitehead reading it haltingly out of a newspaper on his way back home from hell.

•   On the Oscar theme, I should also mention Get Out: You've probably either seen it or heard enough about how great it is, so I don't have to go into how much I loved it. But I will say that one of the things I love about it is, though it's clearly about race, the central conceit is so powerful and expansive that, were it possible to show the film to people who had no experience or understanding of racism, they would still understand the terror, because it represents a fundamental anxiety: that of anyone entering a world that for whatever reason -- money, background, culture --  is so different from their own that they suspect and are quietly terrified by the prospect of psychic kidnapping and enslavement. Of course, even the slightest awareness of racism and its role in our national history inflames that anxiety considerably -- because it actually happened. This is not, as some morons have suggested, a politically evanescent phenomenon, but a real work of art based on the insanity of American life. 

•   OMG, here's another alleged "reader email" that God-botherer Rod Dreher is just passing along:
I’m a longtime (and recently wavering) atheist, but I have had a very devout evangelical friend of many decades. 
Suuuure you are/have.
He lives in Oregon. He couldn’t afford to send his daughter out of state for college. But he wanted her to go to college and experience the income and class benefits that had eluded him (as a GED holder) throughout his life. 
All this devout evangelical wanted was for his daughter to have the advantages he never had! But alas, to do so he had to send her to godless College, and though it was "the most milquetoast of the bunch from the political activism perspective," she had within a few months been brainwashed by Lesbo Hippies to "disavow her female gender." Perplexed pop's friend reports:
The pressure, he said, was too much, and from all angles—peers, instructors, campus organizations and media, etc. “Non-binary” was a taken-for-granted ontological reality, and to question it was bigotry. To fail to realize your own “non-binary-ness” was self-hatred rooted in bigotry.
Sure enough, by her junior year, she was a “non-identifying queer,” neither male nor female, and an activist. Their relationship is now essentially nonexistent, as she sees him to be a “Nazi"...
It's such a sad tale that I half expected it to end, "Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle. She died gender-fluid."

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


The Oscar nominations are out, and if I get some time I hope to watch more of the nominated films and luxuriate in stupid prognostication like I used to do back when I was single and had nothing to do but attend the ci-ne-ma. Speaking of nerds, I see the wingnuts are having their usual allergic reactions. Kyle Smith, who went from pretending to be a film critic at the New York Post (and sometimes a theatre critic -- see his review of Will Ferrell's one-man George W. Bush show, "Is it too much to ask for Hollywood's leading comic actor not to use the deaths of our troops in combat for a giggle?" Never forget!) to full-blown kulturkampfer at National Review, tells his readers what they want to hear, i.e. that the nominations prove "#OscarsSoWoke" and are all about appeasing the dark gods of liberalism: in this "highly politicized year... Academy voters are going to be very eager to send a duly left-wing cultural message" and so, Smith predicts, moviecommies will vote for The Shape of Water which he says is leftwing -- because of the human/nonhuman miscegnation, I guess. Then he says,
As for Get Out, I think this is a very fine movie that is being hugely overrated because it’s about racism and I can’t imagine Oscar voters, who are mostly senior citizens, will be as impressed with it as critics have been.
So Academy voters are too "senior citizen" to vote for Get Out, but "woke" enough to vote for some other woke movie? Maybe there's something in there about Hollywood liberals being The Real Racists™ -- I'm stunned Smith didn't tease that out!

In another post called "The Anti-Trump Oscars" (these guys are nothing if not subtle) Smith explains why The Post can't win even though, if we follow his Zhdanovite logic, its journalistic-heroes-beat-Nixon story would seem to be the obvious choice: "Perhaps the Academy found the film just a bit too by-the-numbers... or voters thought the film was a bit too blatantly intended to capitalize on the anti-Trump mood. The Oscars are a fan dance..." It's all so complicated! Or maybe it's actually simple: the whole idea of everything that happens in movieland being a proxy battle between Republicans and Democrats is a bunch of bullshit. C'mon, Agent Smith, think outside the box!

Also, while I think people who mope about "snubs" because their personal love-objects didn't get Academy recognition are silly, at least they're just harmlessly indulging fan-crushes; Zachary Leeman's "Conservative Movies Snubbed by the Academy" at LifeZette, on the other hand, is like a cross between 1984 and Tiger Beat. For example, Leeman tells us Wind River is conservative because it's "about the mental and physical stability and fortitude still needed to survive in some parts of the country." You know, like Cimarron or Walkabout! Thus it "deserved recognition for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay," and because it didn't get it Leeman has thrown himself on his bed sobbing and kicked off all the frilly pillows. (The other snubbed movies were ignored, Leeman says, because they have uniformed personnel in them, and Oscar never honors servicemembers except for The Hurt Locker and Platoon and Saving Private Ryan and Platoon and Patton etc. etc. [voice trails off])

Speaking of snubs, if you thought Wonder Woman didn't get any nominations because, news flash, not every big-budget comic-book movie gets the prestige awards that lonely dorks holed up with their "light saber" and a box of Kleenex believe it should, Brandon Morse of RedState is here to tell you it's really because "Hollywood, being the left wing haven that it is, couldn’t stomach a few of Wonder Woman’s glaring politically incorrect flaws." That seems weird, as I remember when the movie came out conservatives were mainly tumescent with rage at all-female showings of the film. But no, Morse tells us,
For one, feminists didn’t seem to think Wonder Woman was suitable as a rep for their narrative. She was too sexy and too beautiful.
And when he unsheathed his light-saber, an usher threw him out of the theater.

Others among the brethren run their own little fantasy factories -- like Victory Girls' Kendall Sanchez saying Get Out is about "how progressives attempt to understand the cultural experience of African Americans." I know, that's what we all took away from it. Also, while Kyle Smith thinks Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is "about a vengeful feminist looking for answers after her daughter’s murder and also has a racist character" and therefore is "just as woke as The Shape of Water" -- a damning assessment, indeed! -- Kendall thinks "it’s a great movie about a desperate mother urging police to find her daughter’s murderer. I went into the movie thinking it would be a giant slam against police" -- and therefore bad! -- "but it turned out to be a humble and empathetic story that emphasized all humans are 1) intention-driven and 2) both good and bad." Ebbing, Missouri is a land of contrasts!

Maybe Smith and Kendall can do a podcast where they argue over whether a movie is conservative-therefore-good or liberal-therefore-bad. That'll really show the libs and send the walls of Hollyweird tumbling down, and our children's children's children will have nothing to watch on the telescreen but Veggie Tales, God's Not Dead 1-3,927, and the Two Minutes Hate, as God intended.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: For conservatives, culture war is not a war for culture but a war on culture.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016


There were highs (Joe Crowley stripping the hide off Donald Trump for "cashing in" on 9/11 while Hillary was helping survivors and first responders) and lows (Lena Dunham and America Ferrera making Oscar-telecast-dumb jokes), but I'm a Democrat so it's always fun to watch Bill Clinton work. Headlines suggest it was about selling himself as the First Whatever, but the speech was both more generous and more targeted than that. Bill breezed past his own accomplishments, including the Presidency, to talk about hers; much of it was like some kind of Charlie Kaufman experiment where the President of the United States is a minor figure telling in awestruck tones the life story of some minor politician. It was strange and charming to hear how the future leader of the free world was "dragged around" on an unelected official's quest to get more kids in pre-school. Of course the romantic stuff helps; everyone likes courtship and sending-the-kid-to-college stories. But they were there mainly so the usual assholes couldn't notice their absence and go into their sham-marriage shtick. And even the cute stories were turned toward heroic biography -- it's not just that she was a good mom, but that she was a good mom while doing all these other things. I would add that it was a measure of Clinton's cunning professionalism that he left the implied rebukes to the Trump campaign -- which we all know he is both motivated and equiped to deliver at operatic length and scale -- to a few minutes at the end, as if, compared to the woman he'd just described, the shitheel on the other ticket wasn't worth the sweat off his balls. A+.

Speaking of shitheels, Jonah Goldberg managed to embarrass himself before and after the speech. In the prelude Goldberg does his usual inept search for poetry in slander -- get a load:
The notion that Bill Clinton, of all prominent Americans not convicted of a violent crime, might be officially named “First Gentleman” is a crime against all logic, fact, and decency.
"Ecrasez l'Infame" it ain't, but if you're a wingnut legacy pledge who thinks fist-shakings over Clintons are your sluice to the Pantheon, you're not likely to do better. Eventually Goldberg stumbles into the realm of Clinton fanfic:
I think he could help himself enormously by offering some glimmer, hint or suggestion of remorse or apology for what a spectacularly horrible husband he has been. Everyone in the audience — well, at least the TV audience — knows he’s been a cad. It makes his potential status as the “First Gentleman” endless fodder for late night comedians — and Donald Trump. It might happen, but I doubt it. Bill is a gaslighter...
A few hours later, as the Wells Fargo Center rings with cheers and Clinton is adulated for yet another brilliant speech, Goldberg shakes his head at the gaslit masses and attacks Clinton for not telling them what a shitty family man Goldberg thinks he is:
The simple fact is that everyone expects husbands to speak well of their wives — even Bill Clinton. That was a box he could have checked in 10 minutes of his speech. Instead, he took the 9,072 minutes of his speech (by my rough estimate) reading Hillary Clinton’s C.V. The biggest problem is that the more he talked the weirder it was that he didn’t address the elephant(s) in the room. This is not a great marriage by any normal person’s definition, unless you measure them almost solely on the metric of political success.

I’m not saying there weren’t effective bits. But my God that speech was boring unless you’re already fascinated by Hillary Clinton.
Yeah, because why would people watching a national political convention want to hear about the candidate? It's a good thing Goldberg's writing never had to sell anything except the perpetual renewal of his wingnut welfare.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016


I don't have a lot of spare time and hadn't planned on reading Jane Mayer's Dark Money, which apparently treats the Koch Brothers, but as is often the case one review can make a difference:
Those who hate too much become like the people they hate, and so it is with Jane Mayer, whose Dark Money, a 450-page screed of unrelenting venom, portrays a vast right-wing conspiracy controlled by a small number of libertarian donors. Like the John Birch Society of days gone by, Mayer sees a cabal of dark forces that secretly dominates American politics. And like Joe McCarthy, people two or three degrees of separation from her villains are tarred with their brush. Fifty years ago Richard Hofstadter said that the Birchers and McCarthyites exemplified the “paranoid style” of American politics, but now it’s the Mayers who have debased American politics.
There's an inside joke embedded in this skein of spit: the Kochs' old man was actually a Bircher himself. Other than that, it's all rant. The reviewer, George Mason professor F.H. Buckley, tells us that Mayer's book "is politics at the level of Keith Olbermann, a long, unremitting, hate-filled sneer," and Mayer "is evidently a person whose mind has never risen above the arrogance and hatred peddled on the thoroughfares," a "monomaniacal bore," etc. The closest he comes to telling us how she might be wrong, though, is this:
Mayer’s world is one of dark forces and private venality, but what she doesn’t get is just how one seeks donor support. No one ever received a dime by saying they’d do the donor’s bidding. Instead, one tells the donors what one wants to do, and either gets or doesn’t get supported.
I wonder if Buckley's ever heard the one about the blind horse, the nod, and the wink. The best part, though, is this:
In reading her diatribe, I was amused to realize that I would have been dead-center in her sights, had I been important enough to be noticed.
Better luck next time, F. A few days ago the New York Times reported on some risibly faked plagiarism charges against Mayer. It looks as if Buckley's not the only one who doesn't want people to read her work, which suggests that it's very much worth reading.

I wonder if these guys know how obvious they are? Or are they just convinced that there's no point even trying to make it look legit?

UPDATE. In comments, mds: "I mean, sweet, tender Baby Jeebus on toast, they couldn't get some crank at Harvard or Chicago? They actually went with a guy at a university the Kochs have given tens of millions of dollars to?... We're talking Oscar the Grouch being outraged at accusations that the hand up his ass belongs to Caroll Spinney."

Sunday, February 22, 2015


I should add a review of The Imitation Game to my other on to Oscar posts, but it's almost magic time, dammit, so, quickly: We have a cryptographer-hero who's so ahead of his time he may as well be bringing penicillin to neanderthals, and who's also a gay martyr forced into chemical castration and suicide, plus he's possibly on the autistic spectrum, plus he sticks up for women's rights (well, one woman's) -- all this, as they say, and World War II! A Beautiful Mind meets Casablanca! It’s such perfect Oscar bait that I had to admire it, despite hearing each gear-tooth in the machine clicking — click, the platonic love of the smartgirl makes him try to be sociable and he’s humorously inept, click, but they’re going for it, and they stand up to The Man, click, etc.  Keira Knightley as always seems like a little girl playing at grown-ups and once again Charles Dance is made to be the Wicked Witch of the West. But Cumberbund or whatever his name is -- I thought he was supposed to be a pretty-boy and a joke, but in this he's not only believable and affecting in his swallowed anguish, he's absolutely magnetic, a real screen-filling star. Maybe the kids know something after all.

OK, on to this annual death march. I've been good and I've been awful, so make sure you can spare the money:

× Best Picture: The Imitation Game. People are talking Boyhood and talking Birdman. But those movies are probably too weird to win -- look at the past winners -- and will I believe knock each other off. As I just said, The Imitation Game is big-time Oscar bait, and has all the right nominations including Actor, Director, Screenplay, even Editing. (I half-expect -- maybe one-quarter-expect -- a late miracle surge for The Grand Budapest Hotel, so remember that if chaos ensues.)

× Best Actor: Michael Keaton, Birdman. I really was thinking Eddie Redmayne, but Glenn Kenny got me thinking about it -- Redmayne's performance has some nice shadings but nothing like the wells of anger and sorrow that, say, Daniel Day-Lewis gave Christy Brown in My Left Foot. And despite the gags about going full retard, disability is good for getting Oscar nominations, but not so much for winning the prize. In Birdman Keaton was acting his ass off, in both the good and bad ways, and the Academy gives points for effort (if you are or ever have been a star).

× Best Actress: Reese Witherspoon, Wild. I didn't see any of these movies except The Theory of Everything, so here's my half-assed but not necessarily wrong reasoning: The surge of enthusiasm for Julianne Moore in Still Alice reminds me of the alleged sure thing that was Julie Christie in her Alzheimer's drama Away From Her. Also, I hear great things about Witherspoon's performance, and people love her.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash. The odds are too steep for anyone else, plus I'm making too many wild picks and must cut my losses somehow.

Best Supporting Actress: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood. Ditto.

Best Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood. If it's not the picture of the year, it's the stunt of the year (or past 13 years) anyway. This is exactly the kind of thing that wins directors Oscars in year when their films don't win.

× Best Original Screenplay: Wes Anderson and Hugo Guinness, The Grand Budapest Hotel. I think the Academy likes Wes Anderson but has been waiting for him to dispel their suspicion that all his movies were written to be performed by children, and that Anderson was having a laugh by using big Hollywood stars instead.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Graham Moore, The Imitation Game. Now, one or two craft awards and we've got a believable Best Picture card.

Best Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, Birdman.

Best Production Design: Adam Stockhausen, Anna Pinnock, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Best Costume Design: Milena Canonero, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: Frances Hannon and Mark Coulie, The Grand Budapest Hotel.

I think Birdman's camera trick carries so much of the movie's feeling that the voters will go for it. Also, now that Budapest has caught their attention, they can lavish rewards on his stunning visuals. (I am violating my own rule on costumes this year -- that the earliest period gets the award, particularly if there are ruffs and crinoline -- so Mr. Turner may make a fool of me. But I am prepared.)

Best Film Editing: Tom Cross, Whiplash, because it's got drumming, and I bet there's a lot of rhythmic stuff going on (almost as good as a car chase!).

× Best Score: Alexandre Desplat, The Imitation Game. And there's your Best Picture winner craft award! I still like Jóhann Jóhannsson's The Theory of Everything music very much, but Desplat has been a bridesmaid too often.

Sound Mixing: Whiplash. Drums!
Sound Editing: American Sniper. Guns!

Visual Effects: Interstellar. Ugh, what do I know. Speaking of which, I didn't have time to meditate and my Ouija board is broken,  so I'll refrain from predicting the other awards, though I will say I wouldn't be surprised if they didn't throw one to Glen Campbell just to fuck with us.

UPDATE. I cleaned up on the minor awards and wiped out on the major ones. Until they got to Best Score I was flawless, baby, solid gold, and even there I got the right composer. (Not predicting shorts, docs, and cartoons really helped my percentage, though, I had no idea what the fuck was going on there.)

But Desplat getting it for GBH rather than The Imitation Game was a tipoff that my big bet wouldn't clear. Guess the WWII-winning loner who's also gay, autistic, and bullied was a bit too on the nose; maybe it would have won if they'd just extended their rewrites of history and  given Turing the happy ending he deserved, perhaps ascending into heaven with Christopher like at the end of Gladiator. (And why not? I'm with Graham Moore, fact-checking the water lilies is stupid.)

I have to admit, if you'd tipped me that The Imitation Game wouldn't win and that Keaton wouldn't win, I still would not have guessed Birdman would win. It may be the most avant-garde (in relative terms) winner since All Quiet on the Western Front. Even other arty winners like American Beauty and No Country for Old Men give viewers some old-fashioned hey-that-star-is-a-guy-like-me thrills, or at least entertaining chase scenes, before it all goes existential; Birdman is the kind of headscratcher people used to associate with Europe and make fun of. Well, forty years of future studio execs going to film school have paid off. 

My Birdman review here.