writers and writing


Oscar Quest 2019–Down to the Wire

I’ll bet you thought I forgot.

While you’ve been worrying about whether or not the Oscars were going to go on without me this year, I have been quietly but steadily going to the movies. I may not have had the inclination to post a zillion individual reviews like I did last year when I was younger and sharper, but I have been working hard to cram in all the major nominees before the big night. I’m not quite there. But thanks to senior pricing, video streaming and free afternoons, I’m close enough.

And so it’s time to officially announce my Oscar choices for 2019. But even here there is a twist. Instead of predicting what Oscar will choose, wild, arbitrary scamp that he is, I have decided to reveal MY choices. If I were the Oscar Queen, and only one film in each category must be chosen for a seat in my cinematic court, which ones would I choose? Disregarding all the preliminary indicators like the Golden Globes, the SAGs and BAFTRA, I have based my choices on the films and performances that I liked the best. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. I’m not competing with Oscar this year.

He’s crazy.

Not that it’s easy. Sometimes I like two or even three equally as much. It’s really hard to pick just one. Then it becomes an eeny-meeny-miney-moe, a close-your-eyes-and-point, a coin toss. In Queenly fashion I will stick by my choice, but it is not without remorse that I leave other, equally worthy enterprises behind. That’s just the way the celluloid crumbles.

The thing is, when it comes down to the wire and all the Oscar nominees are dropped into chute, movie viewers know one thing for sure. None of them suck. The Academy has done the sorting and though they may not always get it right and good films can (and do) get left out, the bad ones, the awful ones, the ones you can’t believe you paid for—those films are so far out of the running that you can walk backwards and still not have to worry about tripping over them. This makes movie-going at Oscar time a joyous thing. All good movies, well made, well-acted, well-written, well-scored, costumed, built, designed, made up and dressed. Not a clunker in the bunch. They may not all be your cup of tea, but they are all good films—the kind you don’t regret putting your money on the counter for.

And that makes it hard to choose. Picking one implies that the others are bad. Not the case. Not the case at all.

Get yourself a ballot on line.  To insure yourself an afternoon (evening, weekend, month?) of quality viewing, watch any of the nominees on the list. You will learn something about acting, about filmmaking and the about current state of American culture. I know it sounds like a cliché, but as far as I’m concerned, it really is an honor to be nominated. And it’s a roadmap for some pretty fabulous movie-going.

That said, here are my Oscar favorites for 2019.

Actor in a Leading Role—Willem Dafoe in At Eternity’s Gate. His performance as Vincent Van Gogh was controlled, nuanced and fabulous. The film itself tries too hard to be “cinematic” and I found some of the music and camera work to be intrusive, but Dafoe’s performance transcends all of that to reveal the essence of the artist and give us some insight about how the world both feeds and destroys him.

I think Rami Malek will win, but Dafoe’s performance was the best for me.

Actor in a Supporting Role—Mahershala Ali in Green Book.  (Is there a category for Best Smile?) I was unsure at first how I felt about the Ali’s character, but it wasn’t long before he sold me on it. The film is flawed (like any film, I guess), but Ali’s performance in this film is indelible. It was the only one of this category of nominees that stayed with me. His only real competition in the category for me is Sam Rockwell’s turn as George W. Bush in Vice. But my vote goes to Mahershala.

Actress in a Leading Role—Glenn Close in The Wife. My feminist leanings aside, Close owns this category.  Unsentimental, precise and totally engaging, Close portrays a character reaching the climax of an intolerable life, the sort of life that one accepts as “the way things are”—until they can’t be anymore. And she nails it. While the other actresses in this category all put in performances worthy of their nominations, none of them reaches the height of skill and perfection that Close portrays here. All of her professional experience has led her to this role. She has no real competition for Oscar. She will win. Or someone will have to answer to me.

Actress in a Supporting Role—Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk. The warmth and unconditional love of a mother. The grit and strength of a black woman in a racist world. The heart and commitment of a woman standing as a role model for those around her. King handles it all in this too-small role with finesse and authenticity. She doesn’t get a lot of screen time to get all of this across, but get it across she does with great skill. I only wish we could see more of it. I think Oscar will agree.

Cinematography—Cold War. I loved looking at this film. I wish that I understood Polish (and Italian and French), so that I could have spent more time searching the frame and less time reading subtitles. Black and white, beautifully shot, reminiscent of early films—I just really loved the look of it all. Cold War is a love story in a world that doesn’t respect love stories—Eastern Europe in the 1950s and 60s. The cinematography aptly underscores, reinforces and helps to tell the story that unfolds on the screen. It is as it should be. I think its major competitor in this category is Roma. The Favourite really wants this one, but I found this film to be just crazy over-the-top with odd camera work and intrusive cinematic everything. If I want everything and the kitchen sink, I’ll go to Home Depot, not the movies. I will see Cold War again, just to bask in the look of it.

Directing—Cold War. Roma is the favorite and will probably win. But a film like Cold War needs a skillful director at the helm or it has the potential to implode. Vice and BlacKkKlansman are really good films. I liked them both and learned from them both, but they are stories that are not as needy as Cold War. This is a case, I think, of directorial choices making or breaking a film. Of course, I have no way of actually knowing this. It’s just a feeling. But I’m sticking with it.

Film Editing—I have no idea. Quite honestly, I only saw each film once and, if it’s done well and in service to the story, editing shouldn’t hit you in the face the first time through. That said, I hope The Favourite doesn’t get it. Its cinematic concerns are too heavy-handed and get in the way at every turn.  The Favourite was not my favorite. Just sayin’.

Original Song—“All the Stars” from Black Panther. It’s by far the most interesting and most engaging of the nominated songs and that’s why it’s my favorite. Shallow might beat it.

Production Design—Black Panther. Each of these films creates a world that is new to many of us. I did not see Mary Poppins Returns so I cannot count it in my mix, but the most elaborate world here is Black Panther. Because it is completely imaginary, I think that it is the most award-worthy. Something from nothing and all that.

Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects—First Man. This was a wonderful and incredibly underrated film. (Ryan Gosling and Claire Foy as Neil and Jan Armstrong are surprisingly good.) These awards will definitely go elsewhere, but this film deserves the recognition. So, I’m recognizing it.

Adapted ScreenplayThe Ballad of Buster Scruggs. This is a series of six short stories about the old West, Coen Brothers style. Sometimes lighthearted, sometimes macabre, sometimes macabrely lighthearted and sometimes lightheartedly macabre, this film is different from any other film on the list—or any list for that matter. This screenplay is gold. As a writer, I bow to the master. It is currently on Netflix. If I were you, I drop everything and sit down and watch it right now. It is definitely not mainstream enough to win. Maybe that’s why I like it so much.

Original Screenplay—Vice. I went to this film reluctantly. A movie about Dick Cheney? Really?  I came out amazed at how much fun it was. It deserves my vote just for proving me wrong. Green Book’s script, so much potential, so well shot and acted, kind of fell apart in the second half for me. I didn’t see First Reformed. And you know how I feel about The Favourite. But, when all is said and done, Roma will win. And that’s OK.

Best Picture—Yes, I made you wait until the end for this one. I was hoping that by the time I had a chance to consider all of these films in their respective categories, I would have made my choice. Well, haven’t. But I’m working on it.

These are all films worth seeing (although one of them is just not my favorite.) So I don’t elevate any of them to disparage the others. That said, I do have an A list and a B list.

The B-listers are well-made, well-acted and well-directed. The A-listers are, too. The B-listers are memorable, engaging and entertaining. Ditto for the A-listers. So what’s the difference? It’s a je ne sais quoi. It’s a thing that’s different for me than for you. It could even be different for me today than me yesterday. It’s arbitrary and, at this level of film making, irrelevant. And who the hell am to say, anyway?

But I will.

My B-List and Why They’re Not on My A-List:

Black Panther because I’ve never been a fan of superheroes and fantasy worlds.  The Favourite because it’s not mine. Too loud, too much weird (and painful) music, too much camera work I had to look away from, too much vomit. The Green Book because Mahershala can’t do it all by himself. He needs a script that doesn’t take shortcuts. A Star is Born because it didn’t make me cry. And I specifically stuffed my bag with tissue. This is my biggest Oscar disappointment.

My A-List and Why They’re Not on My B-List.

BlacKkKlansmen because it is all about the story. Everything in the film serves the narrative, everything is necessary and everything fits. It catches you early and holds on. Bohemian Rhapsody because Rami Malek resurrects Freddy Mercury. I’ve actually been waiting for it for a long time. Oh, that music! Roma because it opens up a world of real people that we may otherwise have never known. And it is beautifully shot. Vice because it was hysterical. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s not a lot of comedy on this list.

Best Picture? Nah. Not going there. It’s a crapshoot anyway.

I respect the artistry of all of these films (even the one I don’t particularly like).  After all even B-Listers are not like, well, W-Listers, right? I’ve seen a W-Lister or two in my time and they make B-Listers look like sheer, unadulterated brilliance.

Everything is relative.

The eight movies on the list are worth seeing and that is not true of any random eight movies you might throw together. These movies were NOMINATED, for Pete’s sake. For better or worse, that is an honor.

I do think one of my A-Listers will win, because Oscar is Oscar and, as he has no choice but to whittle it down to one, it may as well be one of those. Which one will it be?

We’ll find out together, won’t we?

 

 

 

 

 


Anthony Bourdain–Parental Encouragement Advised 1

No one told me about Anthony Bourdain—who he was or what he did. I discovered him all on my own and quite by accident. One Monday evening, while making lunches, flipping stations on the little kitchen-counter TV and swishing away the tail of the cat perched on top, I landed on this screen:

“The following program contains content that may be inappropriate for some viewers. Parental discretion is advised.”

Wait. What? What network was this? The Travel Channel?  And what time is it? 8? Still early—family hour. And isn’t this, like—a food show? What the hell? Where am I?

There I stood, peanut-butter in hand, frozen by a disclaimer.

Instead of leaping for the remote to protect the delicate psyches of my children in the next room, I was really curious to see what came next. The disclaimer had done its job. So I turned the volume down some, leaned in and listened to that first voiceover—smooth, deep, confident, cheeky. And then the words themselves—smart, carefully chosen, descriptive, designed to connect. So appealing to the English teacher in me.  Even so, they were words deliberately imbued with a kind of casual irreverence that caught me off guard. What have we here? Oooh, a bad boy. So attractive to the school girl in me.

I turned up volume and never looked back.

From that moment on, The Travel Channel was my place to be on Monday nights at eight o’clock. Exercising my right to parental discretion, I invited my kids to join me. No Reservations was my new favorite show. And Anthony Bourdain was my latest and, as it turns out, most enduring, celebrity crush.

It was the writing that caught me and held on through the many years that have passed since then, from No Reservations to The Layover to Parts Unknown which was, until today, in production for CNN. Bourdain could have brought me on a literary tour of soup kitchens and I would have dutifully tagged along. Instead, he ushered me all over the world to the most exotic and beautiful and off-beat and sometimes dangerous places on the planet. He found stories that were waiting for the right person to come along to tell them—a person who could jump into the fray and then find the words that would make us all a part of it. He fed me haute cuisine and street food, introduced me to world-class chefs and cart vendors and brought me to places where my own two feet will never stand, but now I can say that I have been there just the same.

Food was the ticket for admission to a Bourdain expedition. But once we got to wherever we were going, so many other important things happened. The world opened up. People who seemed so different on the surface really, we discovered, looked and acted a lot like us. Their kitchen tables and the families around them seemed familiar even though they were half a world away. Exotic traditions and cultures seemed more beautiful and less intimidating because there was Tony, in the middle of it all, proving that people all want and need the same things. After all, everybody eats. It was Bourdain’s way in—and, by extension, ours.  Maybe Bourdain was a chef—at first. But he proved himself at last to be an astute observer, a schmoozer, an adventurer, an everyman, an entertainer and, most importantly, a writer.

I imagine that a lot will be written about Anthony Bourdain in the next few days. His show will enjoy a spike in ratings and there will be new demand for his books. I hope so. He was a gifted writer with an inherent sense of audience. He knew how to make good TV, funny, edifying and honest. He knew how to appeal to viewers without insulting their intelligence—more often, in fact, enhancing it. He was entertaining. He was smart. And, we know now, he was troubled.

What will come out about Bourdain now? What will we learn about his demons that he hasn’t already revealed? About his behind-the-camera behavior? I don’t know. Obviously, his “this is me, screw you if you don’t like it” on-camera persona is only part of his story. But right now, this is the only Tony Bourdain that I know. It is the part that I first discovered on that Monday night many years ago, the part that has, in its own lanky, unassuming way, done so much to make the our planet a smaller, more habitable place. I am sad that there is so much of the world that we will never see through Tony’s eyes, especially now, when we need his outlook the most. But I will celebrate the world that he has already revealed to us. It’s a gift.

In memory of Tony, I have suspended my current reading and have dug out my ragged copies of Kitchen Confidential and Medium Raw. I also have a DVD boxed set of No Reservations, complete with its irresistible disclaimer, all of which I will work through once again. I will savor the writing and the storytelling as I revisit the parts of the world that Anthony Bourdain has carved out and served to me in his inimitable way. And I will ache in the knowledge that the Bourdain canon—perceptive, sarcastic, edgy, funny, smart, vulnerable, enlightening, humane—is now complete. Sadly, there is no disclaimer for that.

Anthony Bourdain, 1956-2018

 


Oscar Quest Movie Review: I, Tonya

Nominated for Three Oscars including Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Film Editing

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Though the details have blurred since “the incident,” those of us who were alive in 1994 will never forget the day that Nancy Kerrigan, US Figure Skating Champion, got her knee whacked by an emissary of her arch rival, Tonya Harding. Even after having seen I, Tonya, I can’t remember who won what or beat who when, nor do I particularly care. But the story of the whacking has become a part of American sports lore and most of us can recall some version of it.  At least we can say, “Tonya Harding? Oh yeah. I remember that chick. Wonder what happened to her.”

Well, wonder no more. This film reveals everything you ever wanted to know about Tonya Harding and a few things you’d probably like to forget. And, once again, you can tell by the nomination categories where the strengths of this film lie.

I, Tonya is structured around present day interviews with the key players—Tonya (Margot Robbie), her crazy-assed mother LaVona (Allison Janney), her crazy-assed ex-husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan) and Jeff’s certifiably crazy-assed best friend, turned bodyguard, turned criminal master(minor)mind Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser). These interviews conflict with one another and themselves and send us back in time so that we can see the events unfold for ourselves. Interestingly, they even seep through the action itself as characters regularly break the fourth wall and speak directly into the camera, Ferris Bueller-style, to comment on underlying truths—as they see them, anyway. It lends a lighthearted and even laugh-out-loud air to the proceedings, except when we see Tonya being beaten by Jeff and emotionally abused by LaVona, continually and brutally. Her life is a mess, but she is a fighter and so she pops right back into the fray like Wile E. Coyote, no matter how many anvils land on her head. We have to sort out our own emotions as Tonya keeps putting herself back in abusive situations, refuses to conform to the rules of the society she is trying to break into, never accepts blame for the situations she finds herself in, trusts all the wrong people and has absolutely no one to help her when things get worse than awful—not even her own mother. So many conflicting emotions—for her and us.

The camera work is frenetic and was too much for me in spots—dizzying sometimes. The camera moves a lot, Scorsese-style, in and out of scenes. The skating segments, though, are a testament to the FX team as you can see in this video. Check it out.

http://ew.com/movies/2018/02/01/i-tonya-vfx-video-margot-robbie-tonya-harding/

But the performances themselves are the real attention-getters here. Margo Robbie got a Best Actress nomination for her portrayal of Tonya Harding and she worked for it. This is a very physical role and even though she didn’t do the lion’s share of the skating, she did train for some it and so was able to pull off a rendition of Tonya Harding that carries weight. Robbie’s Tonya is tenacious and trash-mouthed and tough. She is also abused and unloved and broken. Every time we may want to say that Harding got what she deserved, this performance makes us look back and say, “Yes, but…”

And Janney? Fearless. She is at once comical and monstrous, with her fur coat and her parakeet pecking at the side of her head as if she has bird seed in her ear. LaVona is motherhood gone awry, a victim of abuse herself who believes that she is giving her daughter a gift by making her tough. Janney’s steely, chain-smoking LaVona shoves her way through the world, kicking her daughter in the ass in front of her as she goes. It’s a hell of a way to live. It’s hard to go through a whole movie and not feel some sympathy for a character, but if you think you might find a way to develop a touch of fondness for LaVona, Janney will squish it like a bug. She’s fabulous.

I’m not surprised that I, Tonya did not get a best picture nod, for many of the same reasons that Harding herself couldn’t break through to the level she sought. This film is never on its best behavior. It seems to be making fun of itself, sometimes treating its characters more like caricatures than real people, so it’s tough to know how to feel. If these people were just movie characters, if it were a piece of fiction, it would be easier to laugh off the bumbling and the idiocy and the blaming and the pain. But we know that, while filmmakers take liberties with the truth, this is, at its heart, the story of real people who were living real lives of disappointment, desperation, discrimination, uncontrolled anger, abandonment and abuse. It’s hard to take those things lightly.

Oh, and the knee whacking? This movie’s not really about that at all.

 

 


Oscar Quest Movie Review: Lady Bird 4

Five Nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress,

Best Suppporting Actress and Best Director

Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Ah, mothers and daughters. This is something I know a little bit about. And high school classes, teachers and kids? Yup. A bit of experience there, too. So when I saw Lady Bird, a cinematic bildungsroman that incorporates all of these elements, I felt right at home. This is because, at one time or another in my life, I have played most of these parts—young, old, mother, daughter, teacher, student—even drama coach.

I have never been a nun, though—or a rich person. Full disclosure.

This is a girls’ movie. The women here are all people we know and the boys are mostly stereotypical jerks. Lady Bird’s dad is OK, but even he plays the formulaic pushover dad living in the middle of constant mother-daughter turmoil. He can defy his wife, but not his headstrong daughter. That makes him a good guy in the eyes of daughters everywhere. Moms, not so much.

At the center of it all is Christine who has rechristened herself Lady Bird for reasons only clear to her. She hates her hometown and she wants to have sex. She pranks her teachers and cheats in math. She is the working class kid in a private Catholic school full of rich kids. She tries on an assortment of personae, loves/hates her mom and betrays her best friend. As she slogs through her senior year and applies to colleges, all she wants is to go to school in New York—a feat for which she lacks the money, the grades and the support from anyone in her sphere except, of course, her dad.

All of this sounds pretty typical. So why does Lady Bird stand out? Performance, performance, performance. Gerwig’s script has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay, it’s true. And it does work to hoist the senior-year-teenage-angst story up from its seat at the back of the cafeteria, but it’s the performances, mostly that of Laurie Metcalf, that make this film Oscar-worthy. Who knew that Roseanne’s sister and Sheldon’s mom would break out is such a big way? As the long-suffering, overworked mom who’s trying to give her daughter a solid footing in reality, Metcalf’s Marion shines. Marion makes mistakes in her dealings with Lady Bird, for sure, but she is true to her ideals and strong in her stance, even when she is the one most hurt by it. Her love for her daughter is unmistakable and deep. We can see it even though her daughter doesn’t.  Mothers will agree. Daughters—well, they’ll get there.

And herein lies the beauty of the film. It gets you where you live. I can sympathize with mom because, even though she is always critical and sometimes hurtful, I get her. I am her sometimes. Young women who love/hate their moms (or should I just say “young women” and assume that the rest is understood) can sympathize with Lady Bird as she fields the maternal barbs and tries to do things her own way. I was her once, too, only worse, so now I nod knowingly and wonder when logic and understanding will overtake her rebellious, hormone-addled self. Soon, I hope.

Saoirse Ronan is delightfully and maddeningly adolescent. Tracey Letts as her dad is a comfort in the madness. Laurie Metcalfe brings to life a woman who never stops trying to make the truth as she sees it clear to her daughter, regardless of the havoc this wreaks on the family. In one way or another, it’s every family who ever lived.

See Lady Bird. You will find your past, present or future self hiding somewhere in this film. Maybe all three. It’s worth the look.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Oscar Quest Movie Review: Dunkirk 1

Nominated for eight Oscars including Best Picture and Best Director

Directed by Christopher Nolan

Here is the list of Academy Awards for which Dunkirk has been nominated. Read it carefully. Be prepared to answer a few questions when you’re done.

Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Picture, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing

Now here’s your quiz:

  • What do these categories have in common?
  • What categories are most obviously missing?
  • What do you make of this?

Here’s the answer key. (You may grade your own paper.)

  • These nominations all draw attention to the sensory aspects of the film—how it is that we see and hear what we see and hear. Cinematography is the key to what we see, what the camera is doing, where the lens goes and how it focuses our attention. Nothing on any screen is accidental. A good cinematographer/director team has a plan and successfully executes that plan in every, single frame. Film Editing is how the shots are attached to one another—the sequence, the pace, the transitions, the continuity. It puts the finishing touches on what we see and how we perceive the story. Rumor has it that the best films are born not on the set but in the editing room. The Production Designer is in charge of the elements within the frame—props, set pieces, backgrounds, historical accuracy, etc. This, combined with the cinematic elements, is how a film gets its “look.” A good Score manipulates our emotions in ways we are probably not even aware of. Sound Mixing gets the tones just right and Sound Editing puts them all together—again: sequence, pace, transitions, continuity. Audio elements underscore and reinforce the feel of a film. Sometimes they are wholly responsible for it.
  • Dunkirk received no nominations for its actors or its scriptwriters.
  • What do I make of this?

I’m glad you asked.

While plot and character are obviously present, while we get attached to characters, root for them and want them to win, Dunkirk is not dependent on them in the way films usually are. Instead, this film uses its sensory elements in a very literary way.

It reminds me of the old adage that we hear on the first day of every creative writing class we’ve ever taken (or taught)—show, don’t tell. Don’t tell me that John is an idiot. Instead let John reveal his idiocy by saying and doing idiotic things. That way, readers can see and hear it for themselves—they can be a part of it. They don’t have to take your word for it.

Dunkirk is like that. Its narrative approach tries to let us in on the event as it unfolds on several fronts without telling us much of anything. Instead we see it and hear it. Then we can decide for ourselves what it might have felt like to be a part of it all. Nolan shows us Dunkirk—he doesn’t tell us about it.

It’s a story built in images and sounds—like a poem. It’s a risky way to make a movie. Risky like the image-building in Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 silent classic The Battleship Potemkin. Risky like the sound design (and everything else) in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey. Risky because these films all require some effort on the part of the viewer to put the pieces together—sort of like real life. Or poetry.

If you want the details about what happened at Dunkirk with maps and strategies and arguments and generals and political criticism, see Darkest Hour. If you want to experience what it might have been like to be at Dunkirk, to be one of the soldiers, one of the civilian boat captains, one of the officers, one of the unsung heroes—then see Dunkirk.

Better yet, see them both.

(Psst! Hey! Whadja get on the quiz?)

 

 

 

 

 


Oscar Quest Movie Review: Darkest Hour

Six Nominations including Best Actor and Best Picture. Directed by Joe Wright.

Darkest Hour reveals an episode in the life of Winston Churchill as he is called upon to lead his nation in the fight against the imminent attack of an unstoppable Nazi force. The period covers several days in May, 1940, when Churchill replaces Neville Chamberlain as Prime Minister of England. His party is against him, King George is afraid of him and the British forces face complete annihilation on the French beaches of Calais and Dunkirk.  He is confronted with the choice of negotiating peace with Hitler or fighting to the death. As is the case in most historical films, we already know what choice he made and the consequences of that choice. But, as I’ve said in other such reviews, it’s not the ending that makes a film like this film so compelling—it’s the getting there.

One thing that I really enjoy about films featuring historical figures is the revelation of the differences between the public persona and the private one. Of course, I realize that filmmakers do take liberties with the truth in this regard (as evidenced by the disclaimers as the end), but we should be able to accept the overall portrayal as accurate. In this case, Churchill (Gary Oldman), while he cleans up nicely in public, is something of a lout in private, spending much of his time in his bathrobe, often working from bed, barking orders, scaring people and drinking—always drinking. His edges are softened by his wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) who lets us know that there must be something about him that is lovable. She sees it even if we can’t.

Wisely, director Joe Wright didn’t feel that it was necessary to tell Churchill’s entire life story. So much can be revealed about a person when you see him react to a single crisis—short story writers have known this forever. By concentrating our attention on one brief, tension-ridden period of time we can see many facets of the man and the world he helped to shape. We, as viewers, have a lot to do as watch this film. We must unravel the political and personal alliances, appreciate the production design, get swept away by the performances, let ourselves be emotionally manipulated by the editing and camera work and revel in the victories of this film on so many levels. Just enough for a satisfying two hours.

And Gary Oldman—who knew? I never paid much attention to him before. My mistake. He is a man transformed in this film. Taking on the roles of well-known people requires so much more than just good acting. It requires an almost supernatural channeling of souls. Think Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln or Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Philip Seymour Hoffman as Truman Capote or Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking—all Oscar-winning roles. I think that Oldman could very well take his place among them. We’ll see.

Darkest Hour is a film that depends on so many things to work. It needs a script that creates tension by choosing and balancing just the right details from the million possibilities. It needs make-up and costuming, important in any film, but absolutely crucial here. To play Churchill, one must look like Churchill, not a parody of him—no easy feat. It requires a faithfulness to history and an understanding of its necessity in our lives today. It requires quality on all levels. All of these things are present here. Darkest Hour is a quality film. Whether or not it wins the Oscar, it is a film that is well worth your time. Go see it.

 

 

 

 

 

 


Oscar Quest: The Post

Two Nominations including Best Picture and Best Actress

Directed by Steven Spielberg

The Post is one of those historical movies whose ending you know before it begins. But it’s not the end that attracts us to a film like this. It’s all about the getting there.

If you’re watching for plot and character, there’s plenty of that. Tom Hanks is awesome always. He’s the guy we trust, even when his character questions himself. His Ben Bradlee, executive editor of The Washington Post, may not be the focal point of the film, but he is definitely the anchor. He’s a bit rough around the edges, but his intelligence and ethics and skill, in Hanks’ able hands, are unquestionable at all times. Hanks is the perfect foil for Meryl Streep’s Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, as she fights through the testosterone in the room and finds the courage to take a great risk—which turned out to be a defining moment for all of us. The plot is timely and timeless in that the film not only preserves the themes and concerns of the film’s main event and its era, but also places them squarely in our own time. We cannot escape the lesson that The Post teaches us about the fragility of the First Amendment, about whom the press works for and about who is responsible for keeping it (and us) free. It is a lesson we, in our time, can’t afford to ignore.

That’s the what. Spielberg is also a master of the how. I’ll bet I missed 60% of the technical cool stuff of this film in my single viewing of it. I only caught what I did because I was working at it. Spielberg has always been a purveyor of the invisible style even as his camera is doing laps around the room. I’ll bet that most viewers watch this film, respond to it emotionally and really believe that it’s all because of a solid script and great acting. But the most emotional scenes in the film are created not only in the dialog, but in the camera work—the cuts and slow zooms on characters as they argue and push their points, the shifts in depth of field that bring key elements dramatically to light, the flying handheld camera and quick edits as tension builds. There’s nothing ground-breaking here—these are techniques that have been in use since film was born—but to my mind Spielberg uses them better than anyone else. And he uses them always to advance and support a good story, not to make up for the lack of one as is so often the case in film today. Form and function. Spielberg is a master of this traditional style. Oscar worthy? Maybe, maybe not. But it works for me.


Oscar Quest Movie Review: Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri

Seven Nominations including Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay. Directed by Martin McDonagh.

In the beginning of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, Red Welby, the guy in charge of the billboard company, is reading “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor. We get two chances to catch this and any English major worth the degree must agree that we have to take this as a clue to the meaning of the events that follow.

O’Connor’s characters (referred to by analysts as “grotesques”), often smug, racist and self-righteous, believe themselves to be worthy of redemption because they are Christian, white and not dirt poor. They are capable of treating others horribly, but justify this because they believe that their moral code makes them superior. It also keeps them separate and alone. They sometimes experience moments of clarity that shake their worlds, moments of grace that come in times of crisis. They realize in these moments that their world view is artificial and stupid and they must learn (though often temporarily) to open their hearts and to accept the worthiness of others—and the imperfections in themselves. This can change them for the better, or it can just make their lives unlivable.

In Three Billboards outside of Ebbing, Missouri, there is enough guilt and grief and regret and vindictiveness and grotesque behavior for a whole volume of O’Connor stories. These people do horrible, unthinkable things to themselves and each other. But, in their angry, hopeless search for justice and redemption, there are moments of clarity—O’Connor would call it grace—that prove that life has value and that living is worth all that we have to go through to keep on doing it.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred Hayes is a force of nature in this film, seeking justice for the unsolved murder of her daughter. Powerless to change anything, she has to do something, so she buys billboards and puts up signs that blame the local police chief for her unbearable lack of closure. This sets off a chain of events that reveals many characters’ capability for vindictiveness and violence. But it also reveals their humanity and capacity for forgiveness. As in O’Connor stories, moments of crisis often bring moments of clarity and it is in those moments when characters can find a way to go on even in the face of the unthinkable. And that is what happens here.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is a study in character. We become immersed in this world and feel sympathy for people who are not, on the surface, particularly sympathetic. But we may find them to be more like us than we’d like to think and that is why, in our own moments of clarity, we understand them and forgive them.

The quality of this film rests in the hands of its script and its actors. Its three actor nominations, best picture nod and original screenplay nomination show where the strengths of Three Billboards lie. It’s those things about movies that I find the most valuable—the words that make a solid, compelling story and the people who say them. These are the hardest things about a movie, I think, to get right. It so seldom happens that when it does, like now, we need to notice.

Oh, and keep an eye on Red Welby.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Gearing Up for Oscar 2

The 2018 Oscar nominations are out!

When I was teaching, this was the time of year in my film class when we kicked into high gear, taped ballots to the wall, kept track of our viewing in real time and applied all the things we had been learning in class to real-life, for-better-or-worse, up-to-the-minute, history-making movies. We considered plot and character, of course, but those discussions were often eclipsed by our attention to camera placement, editing techniques, production design, directorial idiosyncrasies and the effectiveness of the soundtrack. My students often complained that they couldn’t just “sit down and watch a movie” anymore and that their friends were getting sick of their constant commentary on a director’s use of tight close-ups or Dutch angles or parallel editing. I couldn’t have been more pleased.

It was all very energizing, this ushering high school kids through Oscar season. There was an urgency to it—new day, new lesson plan—and I was all in. I would see as many of the nominated films as I could so that I would be able to make educated comparisons and connections and predictions and fill in the gaps for the kids whose lives couldn’t accommodate going to the movies four times in one weekend. Not that mine could, either, but I saw it as my calling.

I took Oscar season very, very seriously.

When I retired from teaching, my enthusiasm for Oscar Quest waned. Getting to the theater became less of a priority. Too cold. Too late. Too expensive. Too crowded. Too much crinkling. So dark. Must feed the cats, read those emails, finish crocheting that doily. I’ll wait for nominees to show up on On Demand. Or Netflix. Or STARZ.

Or not.

It’s so easy to let yourself go.

So, this year, I’m going to do my best to make amends. Viewing, reviewing and predicting has begun in earnest. Doilies be damned.

I’m off to a late start. I should have been paying attention to the Oscar Buzz and chosen likely films to see in November and December. Many of them were out there. Waiting for the nominee list to come out feels a little like cheating. It means a lot of the chaff has already  been stripped away with no help from me. But it also means that I can focus my time and ticket money on the wheat and what fun that will be! Imagine being given the opportunity to see only good films. That’s what we’ve got here. It’s like movie Christmas—and it only comes once a year.

You can do it, too. Go to www.oscar.go.com. Click on NOMINEES. When you get to that page, click on PRINTABLE LIST to get your own ballot—a beacon to guide you through the season. Then see as many films as you can to be ready for Awards Night on March 4.

There are at least twenty films that I should see between now and March 4. As of today, I have seen two. Wish me luck.

As I see films, I’ll post a brief review here on my blog. I’ll make a concerted effort to avoid spoilers, so don’t be afraid to read them. Here, for example, is my review of The Shape of Water that appeared on my author Facebook page (D. Margaret Hoffman) yesterday:

Oscar Quest–The Shape of Water: 13 nominations including Best Picture.
This is a beautiful film. The performances are flawless and the look of it evokes the late 50s, early 60s world that shaped so many of us. The sights and sounds and sensory-ness of the film carry the day. The story, sadly, is one we’ve seen so many times that it’s hard to escape the cliché of it all. The misunderstood creature, mistreated by the government and coveted as a subject of study by scientists becomes the love interest of the lonely misfit who must then risk everything to save its life. ET. King Kong. Avatar. Fill in your favorite here. Don’t get me wrong. I really enjoyed the performances, the music and the visuals–many of which are Oscar-worthy. But the plot ultimately let me down. Tears formed but never fell.

And that’s it. Short, sweet, to the point and from the gut.

Sometime before 8pm on March 4, I’ll post my choices for as many categories as I feel qualified to predict. We’ll see how I do. Those who have watched me do this before know that, if I’m on my game, I can be a contender.

I’m a little rusty, but here goes.

Welcome to Oscar Quest, 2018.

 

 

 

 


Happy New Year! 1

Sometimes, in order to go forward, we need to look back.  Even though a few years have passed since I sat down and wrote “Getting My Groove Back,” an essay about getting back to normal after the holiday craziness, I find that it is as true today as it was the day I wrote it. It appears in Saving Our Lives: Volume One–Essays to Inspire the Writer in You and still sums up my feelings on the subject. So, to ring in the new year, here it is again.  Happy 2018, Everyone! Onward!

Getting My Groove Back

Christmas changes everything.

If you are a religious person, you are nodding and thinking of the promise of the Christ child.

If you are me, you are shaking your head and thinking, “Damn, I did it again.”

It is January. I am not the same person I was in November. I am heavier, poorer, slower. I haven’t written, exercised or kept regular hours in a month. I have ingested sugar in a frightening assortment of processed forms and carbs in abundance. I have spent much more money than I intended and dread the arrival of the first MasterCard bill of the new year. I enjoyed the holiday season very much. But somewhere in the middle of it I lost my mind.

For me, it seems, The Christmas Season brings with it the slow, imperceptible erosion of good habits, good judgment and common sense. I start out well enough. Adult. Responsible. Health conscious. Fiscally aware. But somewhere in the process, probably about the time I start to enjoy the 475 department store versions of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” I begin to lose my grip. It’s ironic, really. “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” is a seduction song in the guise of a charming holiday tune. It is the story of one man’s shameless efforts to feign concern for the welfare of an innocent young woman, ply her with drink, break down her resolve to go home to her parents where she belongs and convince her, instead, to stay with him where it’s—nudge, nudge—warm. When the girl in the song concedes to another drink, we know she’s fallen. And when I start to enjoy this and the countless other corporate seductions thrown in my path, we know that I, too, have succumbed to a siren song, this one sung by the Ghost of Christmas the Way American Media Tells Us It Should Be.  Snowy. Bountiful. Bejeweled.  Sugary.  Carb-loaded. Gift-laden. Calorically dense. Alcoholically lenient. Impeccably decorated. Expensively dressed. Beautifully wrapped. Cost is no object! More! More! More! Yes! Yes! YES!!

They got me. Pulled me right in there. Got under my skin and into my wallet. Inhibitions fall away, the shopping begins in earnest and I officially lose control.

Why do I let this happen?

Well, for one thing, I like it.

I don’t like being manipulated by the media and the corporate America that it represents, but I do like the Currier and Ives, traditional, bountiful family Christmas that it portrays.

I like parties and presents and decorations and fancy food. I like lights and shopping and snow. I like having the family all together. I like having friends, acknowledging them and having them acknowledge me.  I like happy people. I like making happy people. I like ooohs and ahhhhs and kids with cookies. I like full plates and clinking glasses and sparkles on trees and on sweaters and in people’s eyes.

I like it when everyone forgets for a little while that there are so many things in this world that suck.

I like life coming pretty damned close to perfect once a year. I will do whatever I can to make this happen for people in my life even if it means taking temporary leave of my senses.

Who knows when or if the chance will come again?

This kind of Christmas doesn’t happen by itself. I have recently taken charge of the extended family Christmas celebrations, so I know how much work and planning goes into it. It’s a big responsibility. I take it seriously, and as much as I want to save time and pinch pennies, every year I reach that moment when I say, “What the hell! It’s Christmas!” And I mean it. But it’s like having that first glass of wine too early in the evening.  Once I quaff the Christmas Kool-Aid there’s no turning back. I shift into preparation overdrive and I inevitably overdo, as evidenced by the mountains of leftovers, the gifts that looked great under the tree but are not very useful later and the growing number of Rubbermaid tubs that it takes to store the decorations. This is my problem—enjoying the cruise without tumbling overboard. I’m working on it.

December, I’ve realized, is an anomaly. We have a sanctioned opportunity in December to find a crazy place that is just not available to us at any other time. That means loosening the restraints of the rest of the year, at least a little. It shouldn’t mean gaining twenty pounds, pickling our livers or going into hock, but it should allow everyone to experience the love and respite of at least one good party, whatever that means to us. Even if we give it to ourselves.

But getting there sure does throw off a groove.

And that is what January is for. It is the morning after. It is when we realize that it’s great to break the routine and have a wonderful time, but those songs that wish for Christmas all year ’round don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s beautiful to put up decorations and to enjoy them with people we love, but it is also a huge relief to take them down and vacuum the cookie crumbs out of the carpet. It feels good to eat salads again, to walk around the neighborhood instead of the mall and to give my charge card a chance to cool down. The tree was lovely this year, but it is nice now to have the window unobstructed to let in that precious, fleeting January daylight.

Seeking perfection and happiness is hard work and living up to such stratospheric expectations is only possible for short periods of time. January reminds us that cookies make us fat, that dried up pine needles hurt when we step on them, that staying up late makes us unproductive, that parties and presents come at a price, that maybe we did let corporate America get the better of us and that there really are many, many things in this world that suck. That’s the way things are. But having had a break from them in the noble pursuit of comfort and joy makes it all a little easier to live with.

December, then, is a vast departure from real life, like a much-needed family excursion to Disney World. This is good. January brings reality back. This is good, too.

But now we are encouraged to improve, to embrace the New Year, to renew ourselves with obligatory resolutions. I am not looking for a New Me. I caught a glimpse of that chick in December. And while she was cool, she is not at all sustainable. Maybe next December she’ll be back, armed with responsible intentions that will once again come unglued two weeks after Thanksgiving.  But she is not who I want to be now. So instead of resolutions, I am using January to make restorations, replacing the sprees of December with the sanity and steady habits of November from which I took an unsolicited yet predictable vacation. I was pretty happy with how things were going then and I’d like to now move forward by taking a step back. This means settling back into my groove by writing every day, walking every day, keeping the bird feeder full, maintaining a clean, low-glycemic diet (you hear that, chocolate?), getting out to the cineplex every once in a while, staying out of the mall except around birthdays, keeping in touch with friends and loving my family. No need to set the world on fire.

At least not until next December.