One Small Thing: The Blog

Oscar Quest: The Morning After

Well, you win some and you lose some. My 2018 Oscar Quest ballot is a mix of both. Of the twenty-four categories awarded last night, I predicted seventeen. Out of that seventeen, I got ten right and seven wrong.

Not my best showing.

But it was a good year just the same. Every year of movies is a good year if you think about it—if you learn how to learn from them. Here are some ways to build your skills.

First, you need to learn how to play this game.  There are two facets of Oscar Quest to consider when predicting winners—what you like and what the Academy will like. This means that there are two threads of research that have to happen. One, you must see the films and evaluate them for yourself. This is fun, but it requires you to view critically, to compare and to consider technical aspects of filmmaking, not just plot and character. Two, you must figure out which way the wind is blowing among actual voters—the members of the Academy. What you like may have no bearing whatsoever on what people working in the industry will like. Box office numbers are not a good indicator of prize winners because the voters usually don’t care about that. So you need to see who has raked in previous awards, like a SAG or a Golden Globe or a BAFTRA or a host of other, smaller ones—all of which are awarded before the Oscars. Magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Vanity Fair are full of useful articles for the Oscar Quester as well. All of this comes into play, but, as you can see by my results this year, none of it is foolproof.

Second, even if you do all of this and come up short, your efforts have not been in vain. Movies are an art form and the more you see of them the better you get at separating the good from the bad. When you make yourself a more critical viewer, the very act of watching a film becomes a learning experience. You begin to wonder how the action on the screen got there and why this film had such an effect on you when another similar film did not. You begin to see that while script and performance are crucial, there are also light and sound and camera angle and camera distance and camera movement and how the shots are ordered and joined and what kinds of transitions are made between them. There are a million ways any ten seconds of film could have been made. What one way got used here and why? There are so many things to consider in the making of a film, it’s a miracle that any of them get made at all. But they do. And when we can see the inner workings of them—at least a little—then we have opened up for ourselves a whole new layer of understanding and enjoyment.

Third, movies chronicle culture. If you take a decade-by-decade stroll through the hundred and some-odd years of movie making, you will see on screen, perhaps, an idealized version of what life may have been like during a particular era. More likely, though, if you read between the lines and look carefully at how people are portrayed, who got starring roles and who didn’t, what audiences would accept and what they wouldn’t, what was considered glamorous and what was plain, which audiences were targeted and which ones were overlooked, which movies won awards and which ones were passed over, what technology was employed and what was as yet unavailable (or unaffordable)—then you will see a snapshot of an era in time in a new way. You don’t have to be very old to do this. Go back ten years. The dominant films even in that brief period of time will have things to say to you—cultural, political, historical. If a culture could keep a diary, this would be one way to do it. It’s our job to learn how to read it.

I have always loved movies, but I do let my movie-going slide—sometimes for years at a time. This year’s Oscar Quest was a way for me to get back into the game. I discovered that my recently renovated local theater has reclining seats (no way!) and tons of space between rows so that people who stand up and walk out during the closing credits no longer get in my way as I power through to the very end—even if they stand up right in front of me and dawdle as they put on their coats. I found several theaters’ cheap days, one of which sweetens the pot with free coffee, tea or cocoa for those of a certain age. I realized that there was no reason, aside from my own laziness, not to get out to the movies as often as I want. It’s cheap enough, comfortable enough, enjoyable enough and culturally important enough to make it happen.

And the experience of seeing a film on the big screen versus on TV? Well that is the topic of another essay. Stay tuned.

Oscar Quest 2018 is now one for the books. But OQ19 will be here before we know it, so it’s time now to keep those movie muscles toned and ready.

I’ve learned my lesson.  What’s playing?





Oscar Quest Grand Finale: The Prediction Essay

At long last, Oscar Day has arrived. I have been watching films both in theaters and on television streaming services for weeks. It doesn’t help our cause that so many films that had finished their theater runs before the nominations came out didn’t hit the streamers until the last few days. Yesterday, for example, I watched four and a half movies on TV—well into the wee hours. I confess that I have still not seen all of the contenders, but I think I have seen and read enough to make educated predictions in most of the major categories. And so, exhilarated and exhausted, I offer you—My Predictions.

Actor in a Leading Role: My favorite in this category is Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread. But the Oscar breeze is blowing toward Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour whose channeling of Winston Churchill is mesmerizing. Denzel is terrific in Roman J. Israel, Esq. and Timothée Chalamet has a fine career ahead of him if he would just get rid of that pretentious little accent in his first name. I did not see Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out because horror films tend to resurface in the middle of my nights. I know my limits. But I know he must have been fabulous because of the company he keeps in this category. WHO SHOULD WIN? Daniel Day-Lewis. WHO WILL WIN? Gary Oldman.

Actor in a Supporting Role:  Sadly, I did not see Christopher Plummer in the role he was literally pasted into at the last minute in All the Money in the World (replacing the disgraced Kevin Spacey). I will when it finally streams. But the competition here is so fierce that he would have to spontaneously combust to beat Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri. Woody Harrelson, while he deserves his nomination, does not play as controversial a character as his co-star and he will not win, even though his Chief Willoughby is something of a departure from type for him. I love Richard Jenkins in everything he does, but his turn in The Shape of Water, an overrated film, while lovely, isn’t really a contender here. Willem DaFoe, the beleaguered motel manager in The Florida Project who keeps his head when all around him are losing theirs might have had a chance in another year. His cool performance in a crazy world was that good. WHO SHOULD WIN? Sam Rockwell. WHO WILL WIN? Sam Rockwell.

Actress in a Leading Role: This category is all about Frances. She is the badass to beat all badasses and she will not be denied her Oscar. Even Meryl will need to concede this one without a fight. There’s just no contest. WHO SHOULD WIN? Frances McDormand. WHO WILL WIN? FRANCES McDORMAND!!!!

Actress in a Supporting Role: This is a category of fabulous performances. Mary J. Blige is loving strength personified in Mudbound as the wife and mother of a sharecropping family facing rampant and systemic racism in Post WWII Mississippi. Lesley Manville as the controlling business partner and sister of Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread rules all with an iron fist and rocks those extreme (and a little bit creepy) close ups. Octavia Spencer elevates every role she takes, but the script of The Shape of Water doesn’t give her character very much to work with. Even Octavia’s superior acting chops can’t make this Zelda an award winner. But the real competition here is between Allison Janney as Tonya Harding’s monster mom in I,Tonya and Laurie Metcalf as the this-hurts-me-more-than-it-hurts-you mom in Lady Bird. Both deserve it. Janney will win. WHO SHOULD WIN? Allison Janney. WHO WILL WIN? Allison Janney.

Animated Feature Film:  If you haven’t see Loving Vincent, stop what you are doing, find it streaming somewhere, sit down and don’t budge until it is over. It is like nothing else I’ve ever seen, completely hand painted over live-action—like walking into a Van Gogh painting and walking around in it. When I saw it, I couldn’t believe that this film wasn’t being touted from the rooftops. I had heard nothing about it. Well, now you’re hearing it from me. See it. It should win. But it won’t. The other animated features have a lot of merit, too, and deserve their nominations, even the silly Boss Baby which was cleverer than I would have thought. I did not see Ferdinand, but my daughter did and helped me to rank it. The Breadwinner is an important film about an Afghan girl who, after her father is arrested, masquerades as a boy in order to help to support her family in the cruel, male-dominated world of the Taliban. And Coco? Coco is a beautiful film about family and music and custom and trust. It is this years’ Pixar film, filled with all the company has learned about animation since its inception. It is also a crowd-pleaser in a way much broader than any of the other nominees. I think it will be the runaway favorite. WHAT SHOULD WIN? Loving Vincent. WHAT WILL WIN? Coco (and I’m OK with that).

Cinematography: WHAT SHOULD WIN? Dunkirk. WHAT WILL WIN? Dunkirk. This film is all about its look. If we care anything about what cinematic visuals can do, we will give Dunkirk both the cinematography and the editing award.

Costume Design: WHAT SHOULD WIN? Phantom Thread. The film is about costume design, for Pete’s sake. WHAT WILL WIN? Tough one. I’m afraid it will be The Shape of Water but I hope it will be Victoria and Abdul.

Directing: Give it to Nolan, already!

Film Editing:  WHAT SHOULD WIN? Dunkirk—although Baby Driver has some pretty cool visuals and the skating scenes in I, Tonya are technical marvels. I must admit that I got so wrapped up in the other aspects of Three Billboards, that I don’t remember the editing. WHAT WILL WIN? I hope not The Shape of Water.

Makeup and Hairstyle: I didn’t see Wonder and that is my problem. I can’t go anywhere else but Darkest Hour. The transformation of Gary Oldman into Winston Churchill has to be award-winning.  WHAT SHOULD WIN? Darkest Hour. WHAT WILL WIN? Darkest Hour.

Original Score: How often are you completely unaware of the music in a film and how it is affecting you? Me, almost always—accept for the music of Phantom Thread. I’m throwing all I’ve got into this one. WHAT SHOULD WIN? Phantom Thread. WHAT WILL WIN? I cannot consider an alternative.

Best Picture: By all accounts, the real competition here is between The Shape of Water and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Minnesota. Water has the most nominations with 13 and is deserving of some of them, but it is the most overrated Oscar-level film of the season. It’s good, but it is not the best—not by a long shot. I never even squeezed out a tear! What kind of love story is that? (For the record, I wept at the end of Coco.) Billboards has met with its own backlash, so it will be hard to know which way the Academy will go. Water is by far the safer choice. I’d like to think that the Academy is braver than that. WHAT SHOULD WIN? My favorite is (any guesses?) Phantom Thread. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Dunkirk or Darkest Hour scoop it up either. WHAT WILL WIN? Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (and that would be fine).

Production Design: Darkest Hour

Sound Editing: Dunkirk

Sound Mixing: Baby Driver

Adapted Screenplay: Call Me By Your Name

Original Screenplay: Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri.

That’s it. Sorry for the skeleton crew at the end here, but it is almost 6pm and I still need to edit and proof so that I can post this in time for you to read it! Please note the seven categories that I have omitted—documentary feature, documentary short subject, foreign language film, original song, animated short film, live action short film and visual effects. Sadly, I did not see enough (or any) of these films to make an informed decision. Time is a stern master and I definitely came up short.

Oscar Quest is a marathon indeed. The best thing about it is this—none of these movies suck. You know when you start out that you are about to see the best movies of the year and, whether or not you like one or another of them, you know that each has merit making it worthy of your time and effort. Each one will have something of value to offer you, something artistic or historic or cultural or technical or emotional or beautiful or fun. And no matter which ones actually go home with a statue, you know that every one that you saw affected you in some small way, changed you a little, taught you something or made you look at life in a new way. The cream of the crop. The best of the best.

Who will win?  Well, we just treated ourselves to two months of some fabulous film going. So I think we have met the winner and it is us.

And we proved that it really is an honor just to be nominated.

Oscar Quest Movie Review: Call Me By Your Name 2

Nominated for four Oscars including Best Actor, Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay

Directed by Luca Guadagnino

Call Me By Your Name is a very European film. Set in northern Italy, it is a multicultural, multilingual film. The characters regularly switch from English to Italian to French without a blink. They even throw in a little bit a German for good measure. For us monolingual Americans, subtitles keep us in the loop. As I watched this movie, I was embarrassed for myself and for all of us who consider ourselves educated and yet are only conversant in our own native language. I made a mental note to dig out my Rosetta Stone program to brush up on my pitiful Italian.

It is also a summer film. Summers in Italy are hot—even in the north—and people dress accordingly. The heat in this film is palpable, even in February when I saw it. Lush greenery, both cultivated and wild, giant villa windows opened wide with slatted blinds to mitigate the sun’s searing  rays, insects buzzing in the background, occasionally lighting on shoulders, stark contrasts between light and shade, warm evenings when outdoor activities require no more clothing than daytime ones. Bare feet, bare shoulders, bare knees and welcome breezes from the movement of bicycles. Pools, rivers, boats, lakes, fountains, trees heavy with peaches and apricots. Cerulean skies. Life outdoors. Sun-drenched. Lovely.

And most importantly, it is a romance. Elio (Timothée Chalamet), the son of intellectual parents who take in a graduate student each summer to study and help with research, is 17. When Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives as this summer’s intern, feelings are awakened that Elio can’t deny. When it becomes clear that Oliver feels it too, a relationship develops that is both emotional and physical and, for Elio, life-altering.

The film activates the senses with piano music that is fitting and fabulous as it underscores the beauty of the villa, the village and the Italian countryside. Other pieces, meant I’m sure to accentuate the youthfulness that is at the center of this story, were jarring to me, removing me from the world being created on screen rather than luring me further into it. Probably just showing my age here.

Timothée Chalamet is actually 21, but he doesn’t look a day over 17. The camera loves him. His Elio is a reticent, talented young man, one who spends long afternoons reading books and transcribing music, so there are extended periods of screen time where Elio is alone, thinking, exploring, wondering—with the camera in close-up waiting to pick up any subtlety of expression. Chalamet doesn’t disappoint and creates a character whose adolescent angst comes through not in his words, but in his face, in the angle of his head, in the slouch in his shoulders. His words work, instead, to cover up what he is feeling, but we know what’s there because we have seen it in his eyes, in his demeanor, in his gait. Chalamet is deserving of his nomination. But I’m not sure if he is a really good actor or if he is still just an uninhibited theater kid, so I don’t think he’s worthy of the award itself—not yet. If he’s the real deal, his turn will come.

There is so much about this film that is beautiful and sensory and true. But there is a deal-breaker for me.

Armie Hammer.

For one thing, he is too old. At 31 he can’t pull off 24. This is not a film about a predator or a pedophile or a dirty old man. This is a love story—that much is very clear. But it was hard for me to accept that Hammer’s Oliver didn’t have ulterior motives. More importantly, I was always aware that Hammer was acting on that screen. Lines he delivered would ring false to me, like when you ask kids in class to read “with expression.”  Even with everything about this film that works, this casting mistake, for me, makes a Best Picture Oscar impossible.


One last thing. Michael Stuhlbarg. (Elio’s father.) My friend Pete pointed out to me that he is in three, THREE movies nominated for Best Picture this year—this one, The Post and The Shape of Water. Movie people bestowed upon Stuhlbarg the  2018 John C. Reilly Award named after the supporting actor who appeared in Chicago, The Hours and The Gangs of New York, all nominated for Best Picture in 2003. (Chicago won.) As a classic film buff, I’d prefer to call it the Thomas Mitchell Award after the supporting actor who appeared in Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Stagecoach, all nominated for Best Picture in 1940. (GWTW won. Mitchell himself won the Best Supporting Actor for his role as Doc Boone in Stagecoach. ) Only thirteen actors in the history of film have qualified for this unofficial honor. Just an FYI. Amaze your friends.

And one more last thing. Though there are nine Best Picture nominations, I have only reviewed eight of them. The last one, Get Out, is supposed to be really scary and so I’m going to skip it. I prefer a good night’s sleep, thank you very much.

But I’m still watching nominated films and will be until the big night. Look for one more multi-film wrap-up review and then the BIG PREDICTION POST sometime before the awards show begins on Sunday night.





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.

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 Movie Review: Phantom Thread

Six nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

     This movie is exquisite. The acting, the script, the set design, the costuming, the music—transcendent. I could babble superlatives all day long about Phantom Thread. I’ll try to be more specific.

First, I was swept away by the music. This is not the first thing I usually notice about a movie. (So many times I have watched the final music credits roll by and wondered how I missed so much of it .) But the piano piece that opens and closes this film is the most beautiful movie music I have ever heard. Unforgettable. It ushers us in and out of the film on a cloud, its ethereal nature bookending this story of elegance and the creative soul. In most movies, you’re not really supposed to notice the non-diegetic music. It’s just there for mood. But here it is as important as the characters themselves as it weaves itself like smoke in and out of the action. I would love to experience this film with my eyes closed one time just to savor the soundtrack.

The camera is a busy entity as well with close-ups the norm. We get in so tight to faces that we feel as if we can touch them ourselves. It’s like a Hitchcock camera sometimes with many masterful moments—some that made me uncomfortable when characters, particularly Lesley Manville as sister Cyril, seemed to invade my personal space right where I sat. The camera keeps us close to the action always, as if we are in the work room, at the breakfast table, tiptoeing around the fabulous handmade wedding dress for her royal highness, figuring out how to get the man’s attention, wondering how to butter our toast without scraping the knife against the bread.

All of this, along with the period set design and the costuming, lay the groundwork for a story whose main focus is the development of character. This is what matters most to Phantom Thread. And who better to star in a film of character than Daniel Day-Lewis? No one.

Everything centers, it seems, on the character of Reynolds Woodcock, the designer, owner and creative force behind the fashion house that bears his name. His customers are the wealthy, the royal, the well-connected. His work is not work to him. It is life. He is working always, just as he breathes. He even lives in the house where the work is done and his employees enter his home every day to make his creations come to life. His customers come here to do business and to marvel at the finished products and the man who makes them. It is a world within a world.

If you are close to Reynolds Woodcock, you may find that it is difficult to hold his attention. Such is the nature of the creative spirit. It is at its happiest when it is productive. And it is at its most productive when it can escape all distraction. Difficult to do when there are other people in the world.

Enter Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, who strives to make a life for herself in Reynolds Woodcock’s self-involved world. This is Alma’s story. She is our entry, our focus and our eyes and ears. It is her quiet steadfastness, her unwavering determination to claim and hold her place in this world that makes this story possible.

Phantom Thread is a film that I would like to see again. There is so much to experience here—the fabrics, the faces, the sounds, the choreography of elements in the frame. Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is so nuanced, so beautiful, that his every movement bears watching. He says that this will be his last film. Too bad for us if that’s true.

Phantom Thread is a film about how to live and how to love. It’s about finding ways to make alterations–to make things fit. It’s about discovering what works.

Sometimes, to do it right, you just have to figure out how to get someone’s attention.

This movie has mine.

P.S.  Frasier fans—look for Harriet Sansom Harris, better known (to me, anyway) as Bebe Glazer, Frasier’s vulture of an agent, in a small role as Barbara Rose, an unconventional customer of the House of Woodcock. She rocks 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.