Thursday, February 29, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Poor Things

      

Chris's review: What do I say about Poor Things? It's like Sid and Marty Krofft got together with David Lynch and Larry Flynt to film a fairy tale. The result is a bizarre, amoral, phantasmagoric reworking of Big. The acting and visuals were just superb. I find myself especially impressed by Mark Ruffalo's theatricality. I imagine people are going to hate or love this movie. 

As an aside, a lot of uptight viewers, I think, are going to cite the frank sexuality as a reason kids shouldn't see the film. I don't think that, but I'd be uncomfortable trying to explain the abusive power dynamics on display to at least some kids, even if the portrayal is entirely reasonable. And I'd be even more uncomfortable NOT having a discussion and just letting them take it in uncritically.

Cathy's Review: Poor Things is a deeply, deeply weird movie, and it gives David Lynch some serious competition for the title of Weirdest Movie I've Ever Seen. It may even be weirder than Sorry to Bother You about the equisapiens (after we finished that one, my daughter stomped around the house for a good 15 minutes exclaiming, "What the f--------ck?!?")

It's hard to know what to say about it.  It's a retelling of Frankenstein, but without the constant handwringing of the creator, who in this case is ironically named Godwin but often referred to as God), who is loving and matter-of-fact toward his adopted daughter.  It's also a gorgeous surrealist steampunk Wizard-of-Ozzy sort of film with more nudity and sex than I've ever seen in a movie without an X rating.  One reviewer (who loved it) wrote, "Absolutely batshit, utterly filthy and a true original."  Another reviewer quoted that same line but hated the movie, adding, "See it and hate yourself in the morning."  While the movie made me uncomfortable at times, I'm on the side of the first reviewer and loved it. I am a little uncomfortable using "filthy," to describe sexual themes, but it does seem to fit here (more on that later). 

The acting is fantastic, the cinematography is beautiful and fantastical, and the costumes are excellent.  Like several other movies this year, Poor Things plays with black and white as a storytelling technique. In this case, it mirrors the character's development, starting out in black-and-white (to reflect an infant's vision) and then turning to color as she matures.

The movie is set in a fantasy Victorian time, but only sort of. No one cares about Bella's weird dancing, nor even seems to notice her constantly bare legs (it's common for her to be dressed in Victorian fashions from the waist up, but with shorts on her lower half or see-through outfits that allow you to see her limbs through the cloth.  It also uses modern swear words with surprising frequency (a comedy of manners this is not).  Yet when Bella sets out on a sexual quest in a brothel, her lover calls her a whore (as does the maid back in London).  

The movie was also often funny but with incredibly dark themes.   For one thing, Bella is a toddler in an adult body, so she has no boundaries; she says and does whatever pops into her mind in a wonderfully matter-of-fact, though very socially unacceptable, way.  

Her childishness also makes the sex scenes feel a little rape-adjacent, yet she's undeniably an enthusiastic and willing participant. Later, she is willing but less enthusiastic when she discovers that some men don't care about the woman's pleasure.  And, of course, there's sex work (always a light-hearted topic), though Bella handles it with a curious and businesslike (ahem) approach.

Another dark theme is unethical and even abusive medical experimentation. Bella's creation is certainly problematic, but at least she is treated in a loving (if not always kind) manner by her adoptive father.  Godwin's father, however, was the real monster, and it's particularly bittersweet when Godwin sees the good that came from his father's abuses.  The movie depicts these issues in a slightly funny, poignant manner. I found myself chuckling at first, then saying, "....ooooh," as the implications hit me. 

Ultimately, the movie allows Bella to discover herself, her agency, and her freedom, and in showing us her journey toward independence, she reveals (almost too many of) the problems within our modern society.  This is why I don't like using the word "filthy" to refer to the sex in this movie; we should be abandoning our prudish Victorian attitudes towards something normal, fun, and not inherently immoral.




(Pithy Reviews; and Ranking of 10 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris: 4)
  • Past Lives (Excellent exploration of love and human connections; Cathy 2, Chris: 3)
  • The Zone of Interest (Masterpiece of monstrous implications; Cathy: 3, Chris: 2)
  • Poor Things (Fantastic, filthy, feminist, Frankensteinian fairytale; Cathy: 6, Chris: 1)
  • Barbie (Spectacular and sly doll's-eye-view of womanhood; Cathy: 4, Chris: 6)
  • Oppenheimer (Long, important, and explosive; Cathy: 5, Chris: 5)
  • The Holdovers (Very good teacher/student relationship story; Cathy 7, Chris 7)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 8, Chris: 9)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon (Important, badly-told story; Cathy: 9, Chris: 8)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted, boring slog; Cathy: 10, Chris: 10)


Monday, February 26, 2024

2024 Academy Award Best Picture Nominee - The Zone of Interest

       

Cathy's Review:  The Zone of Interest isn't a typical Holocaust movie. It doesn't show even a single explicit horror.  There are no mass graves, no scenes of people being herded into the gas chambers, no beatings, no rapes, no horrific human experiments, no walking skeletons with rotting teeth. In fact, it doesn't depict a single death.  It's a slow-burning movie that builds and builds, and because of that lack of overt horror, I didn't raise emotional barriers to it, and it got under my skin in a way that something obviously horrifying couldn't.

It reminds me a little of Ring Lardner's classic unreliable narrator story Haircut. What the town barber tells his new customer, and what he actually reveals are two very different things.  This movie isn't at all unreliable, however, when it portrays the commandant of Auschwitz, Rudolf Höss, and his wife Hedwig, as people who just want what everyone wants: a happy marriage, a nice home, and a good place to raise their children. Höss is a family man, who lovingly carries his sleeping daughters up to bed and reads them fairy tales such as Hansel and Gretel (notably the scene where Gretel pushes the witch into the oven). 

And they create an idyllic oasis together in the countryside of Poland.  It's a beautiful area, with rivers to swim and boat in and open fields to ride horses, and they live in a villa with a wonderful walled yard with extensive gardens, massive greenhouses, and a pool for the children to play in. They even have servants with whom Hedwig generously shares some superfluous silk undergarments. 

The movie reveals so much more, through implication and oblique references. The viewer slowly realizes the servants receiving Hedwig's largesse aren't servants but slaves taken from the camp right next door.  And those superfluous luxury items? They were stolen from other victims.

The movie focuses on this idyllic life and only shows the horror indirectly - displaying the red glow of the ovens at night, the smoke pouring from the smokestacks, which can always be seen over the garden walls and through the windows, and the constant sounds of horror. Screams, gunshots, and sobbing. During the worst of it, a motorcycle revs its engines -- evidently, the commandant had a soldier ride his motorcycle up and down the road to drown out the worst of the sounds.

The business of the camp is handled matter-of-factly, with inventors showing Höss the plans for a ring crematorium that allows for the efficient cyclical load-heat-cool-unload process that will allow it to operate 24 hours per day, and the movie leaves the audience to realize the implications.  And this was just a regular day for a man just doing his job.

The look and feel of the movie was quite weird. It was all filmed with hidden fixed cameras (the actors didn't even know where they were), so there are no closeups, no zooms, and no panoramic vistas.  The voice track was deemphasized and quiet, allowing the sounds of the camp to have greater prominence, and those two things together made the viewer feel like a spy peeping at them from a distance, almost as if you are in the camp itself, watching the family live this idyllic life.  The movie kept me feeling weird and off-kilter because these were just regular people, and it's horrifying that it's possible to identify with them.  The phrase "the banality of evil" gets tossed around in articles about the movie, and, well ... yeah.  

The movie also depicted the erosion of the Höss children's souls at very young ages. One of the most horrifying scenes in the movie shows one of the younger sons playing with his toy soldiers, and in the background, you can hear his own father ordering the executions of some problematic prisoners. The boy, who looked to be about five years old, just plays on with learned willful ignorance.

The movie also gradually reveals just what monsters Rudolph and Hedwig were, until at the end you hate them, but also know that each of us has the potential to behave similarly.

There is only one genuinely good character in the movie, a young Polish girl who hides food for the prisoners in the dead of night. Interestingly, her scenes are filmed with a thermal camera, so she literally glows with warmth, giving her the look of an angel in the darkness. It is a stark contrast to the coldness of the Höss family.

I only have three criticisms.  First, the subtitles were problematic -- they were too low on the screen, so I constantly had to look down and then back up to see the whole picture, and they also should have used a color that showed up against the background better.  

The second, (and this isn't exactly a criticism) is that the audience must have at least a little understanding of what happened at Auschwitz to fully understand the implications.  For example, at the beginning of the film, Hedwig receives a valuable fur coat and carefully examines the lining, and someone who doesn't know about the Holocaust might not realize the coat is property stolen from a murder victim.  In the next scene she hands the coat to one of her slaves and asks that it be cleaned and the lining be repaired.  Does the viewer know that it was common for Jewish women trying to escape the Nazis, to hide jewelry and money in the linings or hems of their clothing? If you don't know that, you wouldn't see the implication - that she was coolly hunting for valuables, and she herself probably slit the lining to retrieve a desperate woman's treasure.

And third, the movie never explains the title. The assumption is that we see what we want to see and ignore the rest, which is certainly an important theme in the movie.  But the term actually refers to the area surrounding the camp - the Nazis removed all the locals in a large ring around the camps, to create a buffer zone to hide their activities. But that zone also provided empty space for the Höss family to create their happy little oasis within sight and hearing of what was arguably the worst instance of human atrocity of all time.

Chris's review: I go back and forth trying to decide if it was a horror or a drama. The Zone of Interest was a dramatic handling of a horrific subject. The central brilliant feature is that the focus of the film remains 'just around the corner' from the Holocaust by concentrating on the mundane life of the commandant of Auschwitz and his family while vigorously including horrors in every shot -- the women casually joking about spoils of the victims next door, (not very) distant gunshots are constant in the neighborhood of the camp, and of course plumes of smoke and human remains appear routinely. The audio was amazing and very supportive of the movie -- distinct, stylistic, evocative, unsettling, simultaneously subtle and obvious. And the more I think on it, the more the display of frank callousness on the part of the participants both impresses and sickens me.

There is an inclusion in the story of a local Polish girl leaving fruit for the inmates. It stands out and is jarring and weird. It's also a ray of loveliness in a pretty bleak narrative. I think it didn't make the movie stronger and was a darling that the director couldn't bring himself to kill.

I'm a pretty emotional viewer. I empathize strongly with people and am affected strongly by narrative depictions. It's fairly common for me to cry a little in sadness or joy during powerful moments. It was weird and interesting to have a Holocaust movie that was creepy and atmospheric but mostly didn't doink with my emotions. It slid a creeping horror into my brain instead of getting me to grieve over specific people and tragedies. There was really only one powerful gut-punch, quite late in the movie. That slowly escalating discomfort spiked suddenly with a particular display of the magnitude and...industrialization of the German enterprise.


In case you want to read more about the real people in the movie, here's a pretty good article about them: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-real-history-behind-the-zone-of-interest-and-rudolf-hoss-180983531/




(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 9 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris 1)
  • Barbie (Spectacular and sly doll's-eye-view of womanhood; Cathy 2, Chris 4)
  • The Zone of Interest (Masterpiece of monstrous implications; Cathy: 3, Chris 3)
  • Past Lives (Excellent exploration of love and human connections; Cathy 4, Chris 2)
  • Oppenheimer (Long, important, and explosive; Cathy: 5, Chris: 5)
  • The Holdovers (Very good teacher/student relationship story; Cathy 6, Chris 6)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 7, Chris: 8)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon (Important, badly-told story; Cathy: 8, Chris: 7)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted boring slog; Cathy: 9, Chris: 9)
Currently unranked:
  • Poor Things (Next up. Not available for streaming until Feb 27th)


Saturday, February 24, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Oppenheimer


    

Chris's review: Whether due to forward-marching age or an ever more stimulating environment, my attention span is suffering and Oppenheimer is three hours long. It drags in a few spots that might have been filed down more, but mostly it's worth it -- even having watched it twice in just three months. It's an obviously interesting and consequential piece of history, but the film's artistry is what really got me. I don't think I'm a very sophisticated or perceptive viewer, but the successful use of repeated motif and audio techniques stand out starkly from the average movie and even among the best picture nominations. The acting is great and desaturating the image when telling Strauss' story is neat technique.

It was cool seeing all of these super-famous scientists actually doing stuff rather than merely looking down at us from their pantheon. I bet knowing more about them as individuals would reveal a lot of fun easter-eggs. (Feynman playing bongos mostly off-screen is one I recognized, but I'm guessing there's a lot more to get from it.)

It is also interesting for me to consider how the movie demonstrates the shift in zeitgeist over time. I'm not any kind of pacifist and I don't necessarily think that dropping the bomb on Japan was morally bankrupt, but I am part of modern society and we have a certain shared reticence toward nuclear weapons. The movie deals with some of the scientists burdened with doubt, but there's this scene when Truman announces the nuking of Hiroshima where crowds of radio-listeners erupt in cheers. The illustration is stark -- of the attitude difference between a nation engaged in a just and pressing war and one dealing with some guilt almost eighty years later.

Cathy's Review: It's difficult to write about Oppenheimer.  It's a very good movie, and important.  It's also a very long movie (but it is mostly mesmerizing).  It's not a simple story; the topic is much too complex for simple or straightforward storytelling to do it justice, and the complicated interwoven structure reflects that. It is very well-acted (Robert Downey Jr. particularly impressed me with a restrained performance that both hid yet revealed his character's seething anger), and the cinematography and sound are nothing short of spectacular.

I firmly believe that a book or movie should be as long as it needs to be to tell the story and both films and books have been getting shorter in the last 15 years, and I'm glad this movie is bucking that trend. It took its time and told a big story, covering 30 years of a man's life and encompassing themes such as: what it is to be an American, McCarthyism, atomic bombs, politics, and morality. It also interweaves the careers of Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss on the Atomic Energy Commission.  The length ended up being OK, and the pacing was also pretty good, though not perfect, and my mind rarely wandered. It's an intense three hours, though, and both times I watched the movie, I did so over three nights - the intensity gets to me after a while, and there is no comic relief to break it up.

Perhaps the most challenging thing to describe is the structure of the movie. I prefer simple, straightforward storytelling, and this movie is definitely not that.  There are (I think?) three primary timelines; the first covers Oppie's student days in the 1920s through his time on the Manhattan Project and ending in 1947, the second covers the hearings in 1954 where they are considering revoking his security clearance. The final timeline takes place in 1959 during the senate hearings to confirm Eisenhower's appointment of Strauss to commerce secretary.   I believe that the main story is the second timeline - the security clearance hearings. The earlier timeline is told in frequent flashbacks, leading us to understand how the investigation came about, and the final timeline is depicted as flash-forwards, showing the fall-out (pun intended) of those investigations.  The three timelines were skillfully woven together, and I never would have believed such a structure could be successful, yet Christopher Nolan pulled it off.  

Along with Killers of the Flower Moon, and Maestro, Oppenheimer mixes black and white and color as a storytelling technique, and I think it does so the most skillfully.  It also turns the "color in the present/B&W to show the past" on its head, using the B&W to depict the latest of the three timelines. However, that is a coincidence - black and white was used when Lewis Strauss was the scene's main character, and color when the action centered on Oppenheimer.  The meaning is clear - Oppenheimer's worldview is complex and broader, and Strauss's is narrower and less flexible.  That was perhaps unfair - Strauss is portrayed as the villain, and I believe he was in this instance. However, the real Strauss did a lot of good in his life.

One criticism I've read was that the movie failed to depict the efforts of foreign governments and scientists to help move the Manhattan Project forward, and I disagree - foreign involvement was suggested very well, given the many foreign accents in the movie. These people were clearly not all Americans (at least, not initially).  Another was that it failed to depict the impact the Manhattan Project had on the local Native American populations in New Mexico, and this one I agree with. (They didn't bother to warn the locals to not drink the poisoned rainwater for a few days following the Trinity explosion).  That shouldn't have been ignored.  





(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 8 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris 2)
  • Past Lives (Excellent exploration of love and human connections; Cathy 3, Chris 1)
  • Barbie (Spectacular and sly doll's-eye-view of womanhood; Cathy 2, Chris 3)
  • Oppenheimer (Long, important, and explosive; Cathy: 4, Chris: 4)
  • The Holdovers (Very good teacher/student relationship story; Cathy 5, Chris 5)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 6, Chris: 7)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon (Important, badly-told story; Cathy: 7, Chris: 6)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted boring slog; Cathy: 8, Chris: 8)

Currently unranked:
  • Poor Things (Not yet seen. Not available for streaming until Feb 27th)

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Barbie


   

Cathy's Review:  When a movie is about a toy, has a ridiculous plot starting with a parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey, includes madcap adventures to heal rips in the space/time continuum and ends with someone who is actually excited to visit the gynecologist, it's probably a fluff piece, right?

Wrong.

Barbie is a slightly-sharp-edged satire, slyly mocking the patriarchy (the "Mattel" board was depicted as all-male as a stand-in for companies in general, though the real Mattel is much more gender-balanced), mocking itself (it doesn't shy away from pointing out Barbie's role in promoting unhealthy beauty standards), mocking many modern ideas ("I worked hard, so I deserve it [Nobel Prize]"), and just about everything else. 

The acting is amazing - Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling pull off something miraculous, and they allowed me to suspend my disbelief and believe for a couple of hours that dolls came to life, experiencing the real world in a manner that was reminiscent of Rip Van Winkle, or maybe Frankenstein's monster (but funny), viewing the world with rose-colored-glasses (see what I did there?) until they couldn't anymore. Even the less important doll characters were portrayed well, with more knowledge and personality than the blow-up doll in Serenity, but less maybe than famous fictional androids like C3PO, Roy Batty, Data or Bishop.

Barbie is visually spectacular. There are hints of Wizard of Oz, showing Barbieland in brilliant saturated colors (lots of pink!) while the real world appears almost desaturated by comparison.  It's still in color, of course, but the symbolism is clear - the real world can never be as pretty nor as idealized as the world of imagination. It will always have problems to solve.

The movie isn't perfect - there are occasional pacing issues, and it frenetically packs too much into too short of time. It's hard to focus on any one thing when EVERYTHING is impactful, and it rushes, no sprints through the plot, overwhelming the viewer at times. It's like watching a movie on fast-forward and slowing down for the occasional important part. 

As a feminist movie, Barbie doesn't really present anything new or earth-shaking. There's really no new paradigm here.  Instead, it collects every single feminist idea and nearly every common event women experience and puts them on display.  It's a museum of women's experiences under the patriarchy, tied up in a pretty pink bow.  

There has been some controversy over the Academy Award nominations: While Barbie was one of the top 10 movies nominated, Greta Gerwig was passed over for Best Director and Margot Robbie for Best Actress, and the irony does indeed burn, particularly since Ryan Gosling was nominated for Best Actor.  People have (rightly) pointed out that it's hard to narrow it down - for someone to be included in the top 5, someone else has to be passed over.  For Best Director, I have seen (or will see) all 5 movies, and I can confidently say that Martin Scorsese who directed the deeply flawed Killers of the Flower Moon, should have been passed over, and Gerwig should have been nominated instead. Best Actress is a little harder; Lily Gladstone deserves her nomination for Killers, and I won't see Annette Benning's performance in Nyad anytime soon and I haven't yet seen Emma Stone's performance in Poor Things.  But I think I'd put Margot Robbie on the list ahead of either Sandra Hüller (Anatomy of a Fall) or Carey Mulligan (Maestro).  Both women did excellent work, but neither of them believably portrayed a living doll which seems a much more difficult accomplishment.

Chris's review: I was kind of disappointed by my first viewing of Barbie and I'm really glad we just rewatched it. There had been so much hoopla about the feminist message* that I expected there to be something to really glory over. Instead, it turned out to be just a very well-done, pretty clever movie with a mild feminist message and over-the-top visuals. The lead Barbie and Ken are very well acted, and supported by a host of other characters (many of whom are also Barbies and Kens). The visuals are stunning and the soundtrack is supportive of the story. There are many cute elements about the nature of being a plastic toy while also being sort of a person. There was a lot of attention to detail -- hundreds of little embellishments, none of which are individually worth mention but all together really flesh out the movie's interface.

*Because of the above-mentioned hoopla, it's worth talking a little bit about that phenomenon. I didn't follow it closely, but I got the distinct sense from some quarters that there was a powerful feminist message and from others that it was an attack on manhood or 'murica or...y'know...something. Neither of these really feel true to me. I didn't feel attacked, as a man, even slightly. There's plenty of discussion of patriarchy but it's largely tongue-in-cheek. And honestly, most of the grit of the feminist message seemed to be discussing how hard women make it to be a woman.





(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 7 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris 2)
  • Past Lives (Excellent exploration of love and human connections; Cathy 3, Chris 1)
  • Barbie (Spectacular and sly doll's-eye-view of womanhood; Cathy 2, Chris 3)
  • The Holdovers (Very good teacher/student relationship story; Cathy 4, Chris 4)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 5, Chris: 6)
  • Killers of the Flower Moon (Important, badly-told story; Cathy: 6, Chris: 5)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted boring slog; Cathy: 7, Chris: 7)

Currently unranked:

Monday, February 19, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Past Lives

       

Chris's review: Past Lives blew me away. It is a beautiful exploration of love, age, culture, and the human condition. It touched me deeply. It's a strong movie with basically nothing that leaps out as a flaw worth talking about. Interestingly, I expected to dislike it from the trailer but the emphasis of the film is very different than what the previews suggest. More than half the dialog is Korean, so you should expect to read while watching, which does take away one's ability to attend to the visual artistry. But I can't really call that a flaw because playing with language is part of what the movie intends.

Cathy's review: This movie has the absolute cutest pick-up line and first kiss scene of all time, one that captures all the uncertainty and joy of falling in love, and it sparked some spirited conversations between Chris and myself about how it feels to fall in love and, interestingly, Chris and I remember it differently. For Chris, it's exciting and joyful, and for me, it's a painful, vulnerable obsession.  It's not that I found no joy in it (I absolutely did!) nor was it always comfortable for Chris.

The title of the movie comes from this quote: "There is a word in Korean. In-Yun. It means "providence" or "fate". But it's specifically about relationships between people. I think it comes from Buddhism and reincarnation. It's an In-Yun if two strangers even walk by each other in the street and their clothes accidentally brush. Because it means there must have been something between them in their past lives." In-Yun is a thematic element carried through the entire story, and it was beautifully done.  

The movie is about love and human connections, and tells a very simple story: childhood sweethearts reconnect, but life gets in the way.  It's a lovely movie, showing wonderful vistas of New York City, Montauk (on Long Island), Seoul, and Shanghai, but also the grittiness of the cities, and it also does a good job showing the immigrant experience. It was a great choice to make Nora's husband a minority, too, and he forms a symbolic bridge between the now-mostly Americanized Nora and the wider American culture.  It also does a wonderful job showing the spark between people (mostly through the use of eye contact and glances). It grabbed my attention, and kept it despite having to read subtitles for more than half the movie.

The movie takes place over three time periods. It starts out in Seoul when the two main characters are 12 years old. They are friends and it's clear there is a spark between them, even as young as they are.  Then Nora and her family immigrate to Canada, and she and Hae Sung lose touch. Then it jumps forward twelve years and Nora is now living in New York City, and Hae Sung looks her up, and they start a series of video calls, and it's clear the spark is still there.  Then the movie jumps forward another twelve years (I can't help but wonder if 12 is significant somehow?) to 2023 and Hae Sung flies to New York to see her ... and meet her husband, a Jewish-American man named Arthur.  Yes, there's some tension in the situation.

Given that about two-thirds of Past Lives is not in my native language, I expected to rate it low, which I know is really quite unfair, but I strongly prefer the ease of watching movies in English. But this movie was so good that it overcame my language bias and shot almost to the top of this year's list of best-picture nominees.  It also only subtitled the Korean scenes, which I appreciated.




(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 6 out of 10 nominees):

Currently unranked:


Saturday, February 17, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Killers of the Flower Moon

   


Chris's review: Killers of the Flower Moon tells an important story, poorly. I spent the first half of this three-and-a-half-hour-long film confused about what was going on, who was who, who knew what, and where exactly the main point of view was in the timeline. That was a long time to wait before I could start building the scaffolding of plot-interpretation in earnest. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it as a piece of storytelling, and I think it's likely that it will require watching again before I really succeed. There is a whirlwind of disconnected vignettes in my brain when I think back on it. I'm inclined to think of it as so deeply flawed that I can write it off as a failure, but on the other hand, I'm thinking seriously about watching it again, so there's some level of success.

Entirely ignorant of the historical events the movie is based on, the story feels to me like a late frontier-western, and it sort of horrifies me that it was as recent as it was -- 1920s instead of 1880s or something. It definitely feeds my already quite thorough misanthropy. If you have that same tendency and are affected powerfully by stories, you might want to give this one a pass -- especially with all of its many flaws.

Cathy's review:  I really loved this quote from Killers of the Flower Moon: "There might be a public outcry for a while. But then you know what happens? People forget. They don't remember. They don't care. They just don't care. It's just gonna be another everyday, common tragedy." 

You would think that with so much meaning and relevance packed into that one line, I would like the story, and I feel like I should like it. The movie was extremely well-acted, with a standout performance by Lily Gladstone and excellent performances by Leonardo DiCaprio and Robert De Niro. The cinematography was beautiful, and the subject matter is important because if people don't understand our genocidal past, we cannot possibly prevent tragedies like this from happening again.

But I didn't especially like the movie.  For all its strengths, the story was poorly told. For me to like a movie, it must mesmerize me, make me forget who I am, and let me be a fly-on-the-wall in the world of the film.  I also have to be interested in the subject matter, and I was very interested in this one. I have been thinking about racism and genocide for most of my life (no surprise since I'm the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors) and have casually studied it throughout my adulthood. I also grew up in an area of Missouri that was historically Osage, and I now live adjacent to an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota where the people have also faced (and face) racism and persecution.  So the fact that Scorsese's movie failed to mesmerize me is a little surprising.

A big part of the problem is that the movie doesn't know what it is. Is it a historical epic? A mystery? An art-house film? Western? Crime Drama? Yes. All of the above. It suffers from the "jack-of-trades/master-of-none" issue. A movie can absolutely cross genres and succeed, but this one doesn't.

Killers also utilizes an old-timey epistolary format a little bit, occasionally inserting faux old-timey movie clips, a couple of newspaper articles, and occasional artsy scenes of native culture that are (apparently) disconnected from the story, and the epilogue is filmed as if were a 1920s radio drama, complete with sound effects. However, I can't decide if the technique was under-utilized and should have been taken further, or if it should have been cut as a distraction.  The movie was more than 3 hours long, so ... probably cut.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that the movie is bloated. It shows us several oil drilling scenes with workers dripping black goo, but only one of those scenes drives the plot forward.   It also mentions the Tulsa Race Massacre several times, and it was an important contemporary event in Oklahoma, and I think the idea was to create a parallel theme, to show the troubled context of the time and place. But the main story does that very well all by itself; it WAS the fledgling FBI's very first case.  I mean, does a movie about Jeffrey Dahmer need to include a discussion of the Green River Killer to understand the serial killer scene of the 1980s?  

Another darling he didn't kill - flashing the folksy newspaper clippings on screen from "Fox News" announcing the Tulsa Race Massacre. It felt like someone thought they were inserting a clever easter egg, but the obvious anachronism yanked me out of the world of the movie, and I found myself wondering why they didn't just name the Tulsa Tribune, which published the editorial that set off the massacre in the first place. I'm really no fan of Fox but using the movie to take a shot at them (if that's what the movie was even doing -- I'm really not sure) for something that happened 70+ years before Fox was founded seems both cheap and inaccurate, and worse, it allows the real-life bad journalism off the hook for its role in the tragedy.

I also found myself frequently confused about what was going on.  Part of that was structural - the movie tried to gradually reveal who the villains were, to let the audience figure it out along with the Osage experiencing the tragedies firsthand. This creates a sort of bizarre split-personality with conflicting motives in one of the characters.  It also serves to bloat the movie further - one scene is shown TWICE, the first instance keeping the identity of a perpetrator secret, the second revealing it. Mysteries do this sort of thing all the time, but it wasn't well done here.  There were also a number of unexplained red herrings - like what was up with declaring the Osage incompetent and preventing them from accessing their own money? The other had to do with Mollie's insulin, but I won't go into detail on that one to avoid revealing spoilers.

I very much admire Robert De Niro's and Leonardo DiCaprio's talent, and they did wonderful work here.  But I think Scorsese should have moved away from his favorite tried-and-true actors, and gone with other men. De Niro's casting as William King Hale wasn't so bad, I guess ... Hale was in his 40s at the time in real life, not his 80s, but that age difference doesn't really matter to the plot/story-telling though it unintentionally misleads the viewer about how long he lived after the events in question.  On the other hand, casting DiCaprio (who is in his late 40s and 12 years older than costar Lily Gladstone) to play Ernest Burkhart was a serious misstep, both because it calls attention to Leo's creepy tendency to prefer younger women, and because it's inaccurate and unrealistic given the plot of the movie. The real Ernest was in his early 20s, and his wife Mollie was 10 years older than he was.  Ernest's behavior fits with that of an ignorant and inexperienced kid, and the power dynamics between Ernest and Mollie (who is played as worldly and more experienced than her husband) don't quite work given the real ages of the actors.  

I did like the ending - it was satisfying if not happy, and I rather liked the radio-show depiction of the epilogue, but as with Maestro, I resent this movie for its wasted potential. It could have been a great movie about an overlooked part of our history, but it wasn't.




(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 5 out of 10 nominees):

Currently unranked:



Tuesday, February 13, 2024

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - The Holdovers

  

Chris's review: The Holdovers was good but not great. It was easy to empathize with all three of the main characters. It's neat seeing the '70s portrayed as a historical era. Paul Giamatti, especially, was excellent. And I'm glad to have watched it. But it leaves me feeling a little hollow. I'm not dying to see it again.

Cathy's Review:
 This movie had shades of Dead Poets Society, but without the charisma (but that's not a bad thing), and set in a very hairy time: 1971.  I would have been a toddler that year, but I remember enough of the middle 70s to recognize the cars, hairstyles, decor, and tech, and it nudges (but doesn't grab) a nostalgic spot deep inside. 

Unlike Dead Poets, it lacks the inspiring teacher and the likable students. Instead, it focuses on one bitter, hardass teacher, a bitter kid with a smart mouth and a surprisingly good heart, and the school's bitter cook who is mourning the loss of her son in Vietnam. The main character even says, "I find the world a bitter and complicated place, and it seems to feel the same way about me. I think you and I have this in common."

There were of course, the douchy parents, the decent parents, the asshat headmaster, the school jerk, and the nice and horrible townies. Lots of common tropes.  But the movie managed to surprise me many times, when people believably acted well when you didn't expect them to, or you expected poor behavior, but it turned out to be someone other than the expected person who did the "wrong" thing (though it was arguably not wrong).

I think most people would call this a comedy, but it's really not. It's a drama with a fair amount of comic relief.  Is it good?  Yeah, it is. Very good, even, but not excellent. The writing and acting were good, and I loved the real sets (no sound stages were used), but it had some pacing issues (that mostly disappeared by the second half of the movie). While I liked this movie more than Anatomy of a Fall, I thought AoaF was the slightly better film. Chris thought Holdovers was enough better than AoaF, that when it all shakes out, this movie is (currently) ranked slightly above AoaF.



(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 4 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris 1)
  • The Holdovers (Very good teacher/student relationship story; Cathy 3, Chris 2)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 2, Chris: 3)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted boring slog; Cathy: 4, Chris: 4)
Currently unranked:

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - American Fiction

 


Cathy's Review:
 Years ago, I admired a lovely piece of pottery with vivid blue glaze, and my (then) boyfriend (who was a ceramic art student, among other things) looked at it and scoffed, "whore glaze." 

"What's whore glaze?"

"It's what Bede Clarke calls the glaze potters use when they only care about selling pottery ... and not making art," Chris answered.

It seems that all art forms fall prey to some form of whore glaze, and American Fiction is all about creating the literary version of it - in this case it's a black author who writes a novel that caters to the white liberal establishment, and then he's horrified by its success while his better works go ignored.

Jeffrey Wright's acting was nothing short of masterful, playing both the humorless damaged author, and also the stereotypical version of himself when he pretends to be his own pseudonym. He manages to be just convincing enough while letting the movie audience see his discomfort.  

I particularly loved the scene that showed him writing the book - his characters came to life and acted out the scene in front of him, even interacting with him in a very live-theater-sort-of-way.

It was also beautifully filmed, mesmerizing, and never boring.  Best yet, it's funny as hell, while delivering a message with a bite.

The movie - even its title - is packed with meaning and layers of irony, which the filmmakers use like a scalpel to comment on race relations, stereotypes, and artistic pandering for monetary gain. 

Here's another bit of irony - this probably-more-fragile-than-I-ought-to-be white woman loved it.  Was it a work of black literature that pandered to me, and did I fall for its pandering?

But it almost felt like it was made for me on a very personal level.  It was about a novelist, which I myself very much want to be, compromising his craft (even as a joke), and it delves into the meaning of art, a discussion I'm always up for. It's also about someone who is tired of being defined by what society says he is, something I've been thinking about for years, as I research the antisemitism of WW2.  My grandfather resented being considered Jewish first and a man second, so Wright's character really resonated with me.

Chris's review: American Fiction was a ray of sunshine on a gray day. As a white liberal, I'm both the intended audience and the butt of the joke, and being targeted that way was delightful. The surface story was relatable and easy to like. There were also maybe dozens of little jokes layered onto it, some of them pretty 'meta' that I think viewers run the risk of missing, but each one you perceive and understand adds a juicy frisson of pleasure to the experience as an 'insider who got the joke'. I barked out an uncontainable laugh three or four times at those and now wonder how many I missed! I'm still mulling the ending over, trying to decide where I stand on its quality. I will absolutely watch this again.



(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 3 out of 10 nominees):

  • American Fiction (Brilliantly ironic smart comedy; Cathy: 1, Chris 1)
  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy: 2, Chris: 2)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted boring slog; Cathy: 3, Chris: 3)
Currently unranked:

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Maestro

 


Chris's review: Maestro was a miserable slog. The characters and situations were frequently pregnant with possibility but then not developed enough to make me really care. On the occasion that I did find myself starting to care, the movie would invariably jump five years forward and abandon my engagement. For more than half the movie I found myself wishing he'd just get on with it and die of lung cancer. I don't normally think that I know enough about filmmaking to credit the director vs. other elements of the film, but in this case, it felt like the acting was all marvelous, and the direction, or maybe the writing, let the actors down.

Cathy's review: I think a conductor is an artist who paints music with the brush of his baton, using other musicians as the paint and canvas. Bradley Cooper played both a great conductor and he directed and wrote the movie. He succeeded at the former but failed to utilize his filmmakers to tell a good story. There is a reason "birth of a superhero" is a (sub)genre of its own, but "superhero gets even better" isn't ... because the latter is BORING. This slice-of-life movie STARTED with his big break and went from there, but left all kinds of big weird gaps in it, and there were serious pacing issues.  

The Good: The movie was beautiful to watch, and lovely to listen to. The acting was great, and I found myself completely unbothered by the prosthetic nose, though the main character was a little more nasally than the real person (Cooper otherwise captured the cadences of Bernstein's voice pretty well). Like Oppenheimer, the movie uses color and black-and-white to indicate different time periods, and it does that very well.

The Bad (and it's a doozy):  There was no STORY. It strings together one conflict in his life after another but denies us the resolutions, shying away from important stuff - the very things that make his life interesting, the problems to be solved, the things that make scenes come together as a story. Like how did Bernstein come to terms with his bisexuality in an era when it wasn't accepted?  How did Bernstein's unhappy wife reconcile herself to her husband's infidelity? (In one scene, she is desperately unhappy with him, then in the next, she is content ... and it never shows her acceptance or their reconciliation. She forbids him from telling their daughter about his affairs with other men, and he lies to his daughter's face about it, but later, the daughter somehow knows, without showing us how she found out, though it does hint at her feelings of betrayal.  Then his wife gets sick and it skips over the immediate aftermath of her death.

Interestingly, I also hated last year's Tár, another best picture nominee about a conductor. And I loathed that main character so much, I couldn't even finish the movie.  I was able to finish Maestro (if nothing else, Bernstein was a likable man and I grew up listening to his Peter and the Wolf) but I was glad when it was done.  In the end, I hated how Maestro wasted itself. So much potential to be a GREAT movie, and I resent it more than I probably should for having failed.




(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 2 out of 10 nominees):

  • Anatomy of a Fall (Beautiful courtroom drama; Cathy:1. Chris: 1)
  • Maestro (Gorgeous, well-acted boring slog; Cathy: 2, Chris: 2)
Currently unranked:

2024 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Anatomy of a Fall

 



Chris's review: Anatomy of a Fall was really captivating, and I think it's probably a better film than my attention span will give it credit for -- not speaking French, I had to watch with subtitles, and that's a lot more work than just letting the experience wash over me. I think I liked it better than Cathy did.

The characters were all believable and interesting. I was frustrated that the trial central to the story took place with nothing but circumstantial evidence. I think that were I the prosecutor, I wouldn't have brought it to trial.

Cathy's review: I have mixed feelings about this one: On one hand, it's a BEAUTIFULLY-made courtroom drama. On the other hand, it's a lot of work to watch because only half of it is in my native language, and the other half is in French which I don't really speak.  Because of that, we had the subtitles turned on, and of course, it subtitled BOTH the English and French sections, and I found myself reading all of it, even the English sections. Ideally, only the French would have been subtitled, but oh well.

However, the very thing that made it a lot of work, was also a strength. It played with language in a way that I really value - because I did something similar in my book - people speak different languages at different times for different reasons. The premise behind the language play here is that a German woman is married to a Frenchman, and they speak English together because that's the language they share.  So sometimes they speak English and sometimes French (though surprisingly, never German).  

The movie was beautifully filmed (holy shit - the mountains near Grenoble, France are BREATHTAKING - no wonder my grandfather loved the mountains so much) and beautifully acted, and the story was very well told. I also enjoyed seeing the inside of a French courtroom and seeing how they do things differently (there are more fluid interactions between the witnesses, defendant, lawyers, and the judge) than here.  I also saw a little bit of those differences in the TV show Un village français. Kind of neat - the actor Samuel Theis plays a minor though important supporting character in that TV show, and he also plays the husband in this movie.  

The ending also managed to surprise me - in that it didn't go the way I expected (don't want to give too much away!).  So, highly recommended.  




(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 1 out of 10 nominees):

Currently unranked:

Monday, February 12, 2024

Ice Cream Recipe Review #3: Bi-Rite Creamery's Vanilla Ice Cream

“Vanilla Ice Cream” on page 35 of Sweet Cream and Sugar Cones by Kris Hoogerhyde, Anne Walker and Dabney Gough. 

  • The online recipe can be found here
  • My other vanilla ice cream reviews can be found here.

This is the first ice cream recipe I've made in many years that has neither a sweet syrup (which helps keep the ice cream a little softer when fully frozen), nor a texture agent such as corn starch (which grabs free water molecules and helps prevents the ice cream from getting icy).  But ice cream never used to include those things, so I suspect it will be fine. I might have to let it sit longer at room temp before serving, and it may have a slightly shorter shelf-life in the freezer.  

It also has more vanilla than most - it calls for both a vanilla bean and 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract.  I suspect that I will like the more intense flavor.  I used a Madagascar Vanilla bean (my last one from Vanilla Bean Kings which are by far my favorites. I'll order more from VBK when I use up some other beans I have on hand). Because my own homemade vanilla extracts are months away from being ready, I researched vanilla extracts, and splurged on two fancy ones reviewed by SaveurOrganic Pure Vanilla Bean Extract “Crush” by Sonoma Syrup Company (which I used in this recipe) and a Mexican vanilla bean extract Pure Vanilla Extract Elixir by Villa Vainilla, that I purchased for a ice cream recipe that calls for extract made with Mexican vanilla. 

Substitutions and Techniques:

  • Turbinado sugar instead of white sugar (always) as I prefer the flavor.
  • I brought the dairy/sugar/vanilla bean combination to boil, then turned off the heat, and immediately tempered the eggs.  Once I added the egg mixture and it thickened, I let it steep for 30 minutes before transferring the custard to my mini milk can for chilling prior to churning. In retrospect, I probably should have done it the way the recipe called for because I suspect the hot dairy is a more effective solvent for the bean than the thickened custard is. 
  • The recipe doesn't say when to remove the vanilla bean. I fished it out just before churning.
  • I used my tedious egg-tempering method (which is basically like theirs but in smaller amounts, and pouring from high up)
  • I didn't churn right away - I chilled the custard in my mini milk can in a sink of cold water, then transferred the can to the fridge to chill all day. I churned in the evening.
  • I layered in some caramel sauce (see uses section below) when I was packing the ice cream away, to make a ripple.


Results:

  • Same day: I made a rookie mistake - I stopped the churn in the middle of churning, and then the paddle froze to the sides, and I could NOT get it going again. I am annoyed with myself- I KNEW this would happen (because it's happened before). So I hand mixed the harder sheets of ice cream frozen onto the sides of the bowl into the softer custard as well as I could but I fear the texture won't be representative of the recipe. The soft-serve stage seems OK, but it's hard to say what the end result will be once fully frozen.
  • Next day: The flavor is good, but the texture is definitely lacking, and that is probably my fault. I think I'm going to have to make this one again to give it a fair churn.  
  • One week later: I tried again, and that's when I discovered that I'd actually broken the hub assembly on my ice cream maker (a part that is well-known for breaking, though mine lasted for 7 years). I ordered an after-market replacement. In the meantime I froze the unchurned custard. 
  • 10 days later: When the part arrived, I thawed the custard, and finally churned it. It seems fine, but I don't think it's a fair representation of the recipe, so I will try one more time.
  • The recipe is small - it barely makes a quart.  

Uses:

  • I made a new caramel sauce from the Salt and Straw ice cream book though I substituted glucose for the light corn syrup. I failed (again!) to get it dark enough during the cooking, so it's not as richly flavored as it should be, but it was much better than last time. I amended it with a little bourbon, a little black strap rum (very dark) and some orange extract, and it's quite good. And it stayed much softer when frozen, so it made a much better ripple to fold into the ice cream after churning. My last batch was hard like stiff taffy when frozen.



Saturday, February 10, 2024

2023 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Triangle of Sadness




This piece of garbage has been nominated for best picture?!?

Triangle of Sadness is boring, weird, and gross. And it’s mostly about a bunch of particularly gross rich people not one of whom I liked, nor could identify with.

Added in 2024: I quit watching about halfway through, and couldn't bring myself to finish it. Chris thought it was worth finishing (and did), but he still rated it last among that year's nominees.

Seriously though - the freeze frame the trailer uses is of a woman vomiting (see below).  






(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 4 out of 10 nominees):

Unranked:
    - Originally written January 25, 2023

2023 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - Tár


Cathy's Comments: Boring. Quit at the 1:40 mark. 🙁 

Added in 2024: This movie is about an absolutely loathsome individual. Interesting subject matter (I love discussions about the nature of art) but it's just so boring.

Chris's Comments: I wish we could be watching this with my mom for extra analysis.

Then: Halfway through, still waiting for something to happen!

Then: We made it 101.6 minutes into the movie before quitting. I guess it’s better than Triangle of Sadness.



(Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 4 out of 10 nominees):

Unranked:
    - Originally written February 4, 2023

2023 Academy Awards Best Picture Nominee - All Quiet on the Western Front


This one doesn't rate highly on the list of best picture nominees, for either Chris or myself.  In fact, Chris's comment was, "This movie was much more terrible than I expected. I connected most strongly with the goose."

To my happy surprise, the movie was dubbed in English, and I didn’t have to deal with subtitles. One nice thing is that with English being a Germanic language, the dubbing works extraordinarily well. As I've aged, I've grown to prefer dubbing over subtitles (I used to strongly prefer subtitles, wishing to hear the actor's original voices), but subtitles make the movie a lot more work for me.

Both of us hated the score. It was like a typical score most of the time, interspersed with a jarring discordant synthesizer - clearly intended to tell the viewer, “This is a dramatic, horrifying moment.”

It was beautifully filmed - the cinematography was simply outstanding, but it focused too much on the horror of war (which it captured well) and too little about the characters (though the actors did an excellent job with what little they had to work with). The story, which is already a little weak in the novel, was barely present in this movie.

I went into this new movie kind of excited about it. I taught the novel during one of my brief stints as an English teacher, and while it's not my favorite novel of all time, I like it OK, well enough in fact that after we completed that unit at school, I read it to Chris, who remembers it being slow, but not the worst book he's ever read (high praise!).  We've both seen the 1979 version with Richard Thomas and Ernest Borgnine (and we agree that it was OK but a little boring). That version had one thing going for it that this movie didn't - it focused on the characters of Paul and Kat enough that you cared more about them and connected with them. 

With this version, we didn't really care about the characters, because it took a step back and felt like an art-house film whose sole purpose was to show the horrors of war (and it did that very very effectively - there were many horrifying, powerful scenes, but they were separated by many boring ones), and because it stepped away from Paul and Kat, neither Chris nor I connected with them at all.  The only human character Chris felt strongly about he wanted dead (the German commander who sent the soldiers on a suicide mission at the end so they wouldn't be dishonored, a senseless attack that resulted in many dead soldiers for no gain whatsoever).  Chris's main comment (and it will only make sense if you watch the movie) was, "The goose was the protagonist." 

I cared slightly more for Paul Baumer than Chris did, but I, too, felt a lack of connection.  So, it was a beautiful movie that showed the ugliness of WW1, but in the end was an epic failure because nobody cared about the people living (or dying) because of that ugliness.



    (Pithy Reviews; and Rankings of 9 out of 10 nominees):
    Unranked:
    - Originally written March 1, 2023