A new movie worth seeing

January 10, 2023 • 11:00 am

UPDATE from GCM (12.i.2023): Last night, the film won the Golden Globe award for best “comedy or musical” and Colin Farrell won for best “comedy” actor. Do not be misled: it is not a comedy, despite some touches of humor. As Jerry wrote below, it is not a happy film. I don’t know what the award category nominators were thinking. To cement the insanity of the Globes’ categories, Austin Butler won for best dramatic actor for singing the role of Elvis Presley in the musical biopic, Elvis! If both Farrell and Butler deserved awards, the categories should have been reversed. (On the quality of Banshees, I concur with Jerry: Farrell was great, and the film is a “See it!”)


I found this film because it was highly rated on all the “Best Movies of 2022” list, and then saw that it received a 97% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes (though only a 76% audience rating). And so I watched it, and am very glad I did. Here’s the promotional poster:

. . and the trailer:

I’m not going to give away any spoilers except to say that you need to see this movie.  The veneer itself is appealing, for it takes you back to the year 1923, during the Irish Civil War, and to a tiny and fictional island Inisherin lying close to the mainland. Life on the island is hard, and since people are social animals they form a network of mutual support, as well as antagonism.  The search for connection—similar to the theme of The Last Picture Show, my favorite American movie, which takes place in an isolated Texas town—is to me the movie’s theme. And, ironically, it’s the rupture of that network, in the form of a broken friendship between the two protagonists (Colin Farrell as Pádraic Súilleabháin and Brendan Gleeson as Colm Doherty) that propels the movie.

The acting is terrific, and I have to add here the performance of Kerry Condon, who plays Pádraic’s sister Siobhán. I suspect the movie will produce several Oscar nominations, as it’s already been nominated for more Golden Globe awards than any other movie this year—eight of them.

This is neither a happy movie nor an action film, but if you like movies about human relationships and their fragility, go see “The Banshees of Inisherin”. There’s also an adorable miniature donkey, which you can see in the trailer above, but I’ll say no more.

A short book review and two short movie reviews

January 1, 2023 • 1:00 pm

Since I wasn’t able to be in Poland over the holidays, I read books and watched movies. One book I recommend highly is Beartown, loaned to me by a friend (image below links to Amazon site). It’s the first book of a trilogy by Swedish writer Fredrick Backman, and this one’s about the way high-school hockey takes over a small Swedish town and then tears it apart. The language is spare but lovely, especially when the author becomes more philosophical near the end. It starts off with a simple narrative about the local hockey team, but then becomes very dark very fast. I won’t give away the pivotal event of the story.

It’s engrossing, was a best-seller in Sweden and then in the U.S. The theme is about community and loyalty, and I’m considering continuing on to the last two novels of the trilogy. I’d recommend this one highly. It’s not a world classic or a masterpiece, but it’s an absorbing and disturbing read. (Disturbing books are the best books.)

I didn’t go to the movies much last year because of the pandemic, and the University movie series, Doc Films, had a pared-down schedule. I’m catching up online now, and here are two that I watched and liked. I found them because they both appeared on at least two “best films of 2022” lists.

I watched “The Worst Person in the World” because, though I hadn’t heard of it, it was named as the best movie of the year on Esquire’s tally of the 35 best. Here’s what the authors have to say:

Granted, it was only February when I saw this, but director Joaquim Trier’s wonderfully humane Norwegian import and nominee for last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar is still, hands-down, the best film of 2022. I’ve blown hot and cold on some of Trier’s earlier films, but this one is an instant classic in large part due to Renate Reinsve’s luminous performance as Julie—an aimless Oslo woman on the cusp of 30 who’s trying to figure herself out in ways that are so funny, sad, and realistically messy that it feels like we’re spying on someone we’ve known for years. The title might give you the impression that Julie is trouble, leaving chaos and broken hearts in her wake. But the title actually isn’t about her. Plus, she’s far more complex than that implies anyway. Told in 12 chapters plus a prologue and an epilogue, The Worst Person in the World is anything but neat and orderly. Like life, it’s complicated, unpredictable, bittersweet and indecisive. It’s also brimming with so much empathy for Trier’s female lead that you can’t help but fall in love with her even when you know she’s making mistakes. After all, who are we to judge? Trier tracks Julie’s relationships with men, but it’s far more interested in getting inside of her head and figuring out what makes her tick, which is a rarity in Hollywood films. We’ll see if anything in the coming months can match Trier and Reinsve’s masterpiece, but they’ve set an incredibly high bar.

That pretty much says it all, but I wouldn’t rate this as the best even among the few movies I’ve seen this year (that would be “Tár”). The main character ,Julie (played by Renate Reinsve), turns in a creditable performance, but I don’t understand all the critics’ hulabaloo. (It was rated 96 by the critics and 86 by the audience on Rotten Tomatoes.) Julie is aimless, flaky, and lovable, and makes a mess of her life, especially when dealing with men, but that aimlessness itself, and the attendant sadness and tragedy, don’t carry the picture.  To my mind, Julie wasn’t sufficiently developed to be absorbing, and the reviewers seemed to conflate flakiness and confusion with complexity and depth. I would rate this as a good+ movie, but the best? No way. But watch it for yourself. Here’s a trailer:

Kimi“, directed by Steven Soderbergh, was better, and though also not a classic is clever, absorbing, and a crime thriller to boot. Kimi is an AI device like Alexa, made by a company that employs the protagonist Angela, played very well by Zoë Kravitz. Angela is an extremely introverted and agoraphobic women who almost never leaves her flat, but her job can be done from home: she listens in on requests to Kimi to figure out how to improve the AI device. By accident she hears a crime being committed, and it’s her attempts to report the crime, and the opposition she faces from a criminal conspiracy, that make for an edge-of-your-seat experience.  I’m surprised I liked this better than the one above, as I usually like long, slow, movies with character development and not that much action.  This movie gets a “very good” from me and I recommend that you see it if you get the chance.

I also watched a movie that was on many lists as a “best of 2022”: “Everything Everywhere All At Once“, starring Michelle Yeoh, but I found it tricked out and tedious, and stopped watching 45 minutes in. (It’s about the multiverse.) Many of my friends liked it, so I’ll just say, “Go see it and report in”, or report below if you’ve already seen it.

Now it’s your turn: which movies did you like best that were made last year?

The greatest films of all time: a critics’ poll and a filmmakers’ poll

December 2, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I was pleased to get two lists of great movies (I’m a sucker for lists of great art) from Justin Remes, associate professor of film studies at Iowa State University (he also wrote Absence in Cinema: The Art of Showing Nothing). I’ll quote his email with permission:

I know you occasionally post about cinema, so I thought you might be interested to know that the highly respected Sight and Sound poll of The Greatest Films of All Time (which is only published every ten years) was just released today. You can find the critics’ poll here and the filmmakers’ poll here. For what it’s worth, my personal pick for the greatest film of all time is 2001: A Space Odyssey, so I was happy to see that at the top of the directors’ poll. As for Jeanne Dielman, which is at the top of the critics’ poll, I think it’s a great film, although it wouldn’t make my own personal top 10. It was a shock to see it there, however–I really don’t think anyone could have predicted it would come in at number 1. (In the last Sight and Sound poll, it was 36!)

I’ll give the top ten in each of the two polls. First, the top ten in the CRITICS’ POLL, with the best put first (remember, there are 100 movies in each poll). Click on each screenshot to go to the site describing the movie. At the bottom I’ve put a link to my own list of best films, posted here twelve years ago.

I haven’t even heard of this Best Film!

I’ve seen this one and it’s very good, but not #2:

A great film, better than “Vertigo”:

This and Kurusawa’s “Ikiru” are my favorite foreign films. And Ikiru isn’t even on the list!  See both of them!

Just okay, but that’s it:

I am ashamed to admit that I’ve never seen this film—Justin’s favorite:

Haven’t seen this one, but I should:

Nope. Gripping, but not worthy of #8, much less #80:

Haven’t seen this one (I’m getting ashamed):

A very good musical—one of the best of the genre—but not one of the best films:

“The Godfather” is #12, and Ozu’s “Late Spring” comes in at #21 (all the films in Ozu’s “season cycle” are excellent).

Second, the top ten in the DIRECTORS’  (FILMMAKERS) POLL, with the best put first. There’s a fair amount of overlap with the previous list.

Maybe I should see this film!

“Citizen Kane” is at the top of every “greatest movies” list, as it should be.

This is a very great film. Aren’t we lucky to have seen it as a first run (well, those of us who are older)?

A reminder to see this movie. If you are the action-movie type, you may not like it: it’s a family drama and slow paced. I love it very much.

Okay, now I gotta see this film!

These next two are tied, and I wouldn’t put them in my top ten.

There is no #7 because of the ties. I haven’t seen this one:

These next three are tied for the #9 slot. None of them would be on my list, and I’m not a Bergman fan at all:

Gotta see this one, too, as I haven’t:

At least “Ikiru” makes it on this list, though only at #72: tied with “Chinatown” (a superb film) and “The Seventh Seal”, another Bergman film.

Now I posted my own list of “Best Movies” back in 2010, and it hasn’t changed, though perhaps I’d add 2019’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” to it. (I left “Citizen Kane” off my list because it’s everybody’s choice.)  The one movie missing from both of the lists above is my favorite American movie, “The Last Picture Show” (1971).  The omission is shameful!

Now it’s your turn, as always. Post the list of your “best movies”, preferably the top five. After all, it’s a great way for all of us to find new things to watch.

Kerfuffles on social media

September 28, 2022 • 11:00 am

I’m still exhausted after just three hours of sleep last night, so here’s a short followup on two social-media fights related to things I’ve posted about.

On September 19 I posted about a pretty dire article in The Atlantic by Maggie Mertens called “Separating sports by sex doesn’t make sense.” (Her topic was “youth” sports up to and through high schools.) In my view, it was a shoddy article loaded with misguided claims (e.g., men don’t have average biological advantages over women in athletic performance), confusion (Mertens conflates “sex and gender”), and a conclusion—create mixed-sex teams composed of players having equal ability—that seems unworkable.

The Atlantic article was criticized by people other than I: below by Jesse Singal and tennis great Martina Navratilova. Navatilova is a lesbian, but has been critical of trans women competing in women’s sports. (At the same time, she favors some way to accommodate trans athletes into elite sports.) For this she has, of course, been called a transphobe.

After reading The Atlantic piece by Mertens, Navratilova was critical, expressing her view on Twitter in a comment after Jesse Singal’s own critique:

And another:

Navratilova has also been critical of the ACLU’s policy, promoted by trans advocate Chase Strangio, of allowing anybody who identifies as a women, with or without surgery or hormone treatment, to compete in women’s sports.  Particularly for trans women who are biological men who have had no treatment but simply identify as women, I find the ACLU’s view insupportable. But it is their policy, and seems to be that of the Biden Administration as well.  After Navratilova was blocked on Twitter by an ACLU “communications strategist,” she struck out at the ACLU policy of allowing biological men with “no mitigation” (hormone treatment or surgery) to compete in women’s sports:

One could think of Navratilova, with her fame, as the athletic equivalent of J. K. Rowling, except that Navratilova is both gay and world famous for her achievements in tennis. It is odd to smear someone like that with the label “transphobe”, especially when they are in favor of accommodating trans athletes in sports, though Navratilova hasn’t, to my knowledge, come up with concrete proposals. But of course that is a difficult balancing act.

********************************

I haven’t seen the controversial movie “The UnRedacted” yet (I don’t know how to find it), but Jesse Singal has. I called attention to how  NYT article describing the “cancellation” of director Meg Smaker on the grounds that her Sundance-shown documentary was both Islamophobic and the product of “white saviorism”.  According to the NYT piece, of the 230 filmmakers who wrote a letter denouncing “The UnRedacted,” most hadn’t seen the movie.

In a series of nine tweets—and I hope he expands this into a full Substack post—Singal is outraged at what he calls “straight-up lying” by journalists critical of Smaker and her film. Click on the first tweet below to see Singal taking apart the criticism of the movie:

. . . he finishes like this:

Well, I hope I wasn’t at “peak outrage” in my post, but I was outraged at the treatment of the filmmaker, not at the film.  At any rate, I don’t think I lied or distorted what was in the NYT article about the movie. When I actually see the movie, I’ll have a better take.

Sundance and others cancel a talented filmmaker for “Islamophobia” and “white saviorism”

September 25, 2022 • 1:20 pm

This story is extremely disturbing as an exemplar of cancel culture. It’s the story about how a woman made a documentary about Muslims who, having been accused of terrorism, were sent from Guantanamo to a “terrorism rehab facility” in Saudi Arabia. The director of the film, originally called “Jihad Rehab” (now named “The UnRedacted”), found four of the “rehabilitated” willing to tell their stories on film, and, according to nearly all accounts, the film is good (it has a 75% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes). It was so well done that it was invited to the 2022 Sundance Festival. That was a great honor for the young director, Meg Smaker.

But then the problems surfaced, promoted by Muslims and the Woke on social media. There were two issues:

1.) Smaker is a white woman. Being white, argued the critics, how could she possibly have the understanding needed to make a film about Muslim men? (It took her 16 months of filming.) She was accused of being a “white savior”.

2.) The film is about Muslim terrorists. Muslims and especially many “progressives” on the Left shy away from that aspect of Islamism. Palestinian terrorism, for example, is nearly always minimized by MSM on the Left.

The result, documented in this longish New York Times piece (click on screenshot below) was that Smaker was canceled in a very real sense—deprived of her livelihood. Although Sundance did show her film, the backlash soon came from social media. The film’s executive director, who had initially called the film “freaking brilliant”, apologized in the most groveling and pathetic letter you can imagine. The letter of apology was written by Abigail Disney, a grandniece of Walt Disney, and you can read it here. It is pathetic, cringe-making, reprehensible, and disgusting.  Smaker can’t get her film publicized or shown, and, after being demonized and called an “Islamophobe”, she’s nearly broke.

I recommend reading this article to understand how Progressive Authoritarianism is ruining our culture:

Indented text is from the NYT article.

Smaker’s background:

Ms. Smaker was a 21-year-old firefighter in California when airplanes struck the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. She heard firefighters cry for vengeance and wondered: How did this happen?

Looking for answers, she hitchhiked through Afghanistan and settled in the ancient city of Sana, Yemen, for half a decade, where she learned Arabic and taught firefighting. Then she obtained a master’s from Stanford University in filmmaking and turned to a place Yemeni friends had spoken of: the Mohammed bin Nayef Counseling and Care Center in Riyadh.

The Saudi monarchy brooks little dissent. This center tries to rehabilitate accused terrorists and spans an unlikely distance between prison and boutique hotel. It has a gym and pool and teachers who offer art therapy and lectures on Islam, Freud and the true meanings of “jihad,” which include personal struggle.

Hence the documentary’s original title, “Jihad Rehab,” which engendered much criticism, even from supporters, who saw it as too facile. “The film is very complex and the title is not,” said Ms. Ali, the Los Angeles Times critic.

To address such concerns, the director recently renamed the film “The UnRedacted.”

The United States sent 137 detainees from Guantánamo Bay to this center, which human rights groups cannot visit.

But reporters with The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and others have interviewed prisoners. Most stayed a few days.

Ms. Smaker would remain more than a year exploring what leads men to embrace groups such as Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Saudi officials let her speak to 150 detainees, most of whom waved her off. She found four men who would talk.

The film’s content:  It’s mostly interviews, I hear, with no politicizing or twisting of the narrative. The article will tell you more about it, as will the critics’ reviews (link in next line).

Some reviews:  (Read other critics’ reviews at Rotten Tomatoes.)

Film critics warned that conservatives might bridle at these human portraits, but reviews after the festival’s screening were strong.

“The absence of absolutes is what’s most enriching,” The Guardian stated, adding, “This is a movie for intelligent people looking to have their preconceived notions challenged.” Variety wrote: The film “feels like a miracle and an interrogative act of defiance.”

. . .Lawrence Wright wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11” and spent much time in Saudi Arabia. He saw the documentary.

“As a reporter, you acknowledge the constraints on prisoners, and Smaker could have acknowledged it with more emphasis,” he said. “But she was exploring a great mystery — understanding those who may have done something appalling — and this does not discredit that effort.”

To gain intimate access, he added, was a coup.

I loved Wright’s book, and I wonder why he wasn’t criticized about writing the history of the background to Al-Quaeda, beginning with the foundation of the Muslim Brotherhood. Shouldn’t Wright be criticized for portraying some Muslims as terrorists? How can a white man even tackle this subject? I needn’t respond: the answer lies in the nature of art itself.

One more, which you should consider when reading the critics below:

“What I admired about ‘Jihad Rehab’ is that it allowed a viewer to make their own decisions,” said Chris Metzler, who helps select films for San Francisco Documentary Festival. “I was not watching a piece of propaganda.”

. . . Lorraine Ali, a television critic for The Los Angeles Times who is Muslim, wrote that the film was “a humanizing journey through a complex emotional process of self-reckoning and accountability, and a look at the devastating fallout of flawed U.S. and Saudi policy.”

She is dismayed with Sundance.

There are a few negative reviews too, which you can see on the Rotten Tomatoes site, but the public criticism came largely from people who hadn’t even seen the movie. It was performative outrage:

The backlash:

But attacks would come from the left, not the right. Arab and Muslim filmmakers and their white supporters accused Ms. Smaker of Islamophobia and American propaganda. Some suggested her race was disqualifying, a white woman who presumed to tell the story of Arab men.

Sundance leaders reversed themselves and apologized.

. . . Many Arab and Muslim filmmakers — who like others in the industry struggle for money and recognition — denounced “Jihad Rehab” as offering an all too familiar take. They say Ms. Smaker is the latest white documentarian to tell the story of Muslims through a lens of the war on terror. These documentary makers, they say, take their white, Western gaze and claim to film victims with empathy.

Assia Boundaoui, a filmmaker, critiqued it for Documentary magazine.

“To see my language and the homelands of folks in my community used as backdrops for white savior tendencies is nauseating,” she wrote. “The talk is all empathy, but the energy is Indiana Jones.”

She called on festivals to allow Muslims to create “films that concern themselves not with war, but with life.”

Do you really care what color is Ms. Smaker’s epidermis given that the film portrays the four subjects talking and answering questions?  And seriously, “white savior tendencies”? In what sense is Smaker a “savior”? (Some say that interviewing anybody in a prison invalidates the film.) The response is in the piece:

“An entirely white team behind a film about Yemeni and South Arabian men,” the filmmaker Violeta Ayala wrote in a tweet.

Ms. Smaker’s film had a Yemeni-American executive producer and a Saudi co-producer.

There’s more, but this will suffice (my emphasis)

More than 230 filmmakers signed a letter denouncing the documentary. A majority had not seen it. The letter noted that over 20 years, Sundance had programmed 76 films about Muslims and the Middle East, but only 35 percent of them had been directed by Muslim or Arab filmmakers.

A parallel: most of those who rioted when Salman Rusdie published The Satanic Verses hadn’t read the book, either. You don’t go rioting, cancelling, or killing over a book or movie or film that you haven’t read or seen. When people do so, it’s clear that the offense is performative. Just read the letter from Abigail Disney!

Smaker’s cancellation: 

First, from Sundance:

Sundance officials backtracked. Tabitha Jackson, then the director of the festival, demanded to see consent forms from the detainees and Ms. Smaker’s plan to protect them once the film debuted, according to an email shown to The Times. Ms. Jackson also required an ethics review of the plans and gave Ms. Smaker four days to comply. Efforts to reach Ms. Jackson were unsuccessful.

The review concluded Ms. Smaker more than met standards of safety.

Ms. Smaker said a public relations firm recommended that she apologize. “What was I apologizing for?” she said. “For trusting my audience to make up their own mind?”

And then the inevitable:

Ms. Smaker’s film has become near untouchable, unable to reach audiences. Prominent festivals rescinded invitations, and critics in the documentary world took to social media and pressured investors, advisers and even her friends to withdraw names from the credits. She is close to broke.

“In my naïveté, I kept thinking people would get the anger out of their system and realize this film was not what they said,” Ms. Smaker said. “I’m trying to tell an authentic story that a lot of Americans might not have heard.”

. . .Ms. Disney, the former champion, wrote, “I failed, failed and absolutely failed to understand just how exhausted by and disgusted with the perpetual representation of Muslim men and women as terrorists or former terrorists or potential terrorists the Muslim people are.”

Her apology and that of Sundance shook the industry. The South by Southwest and San Francisco festivals rescinded invitations.

Jihad Turk, former imam of Los Angeles’s largest mosque, was baffled. In December, his friend Tim Disney — brother of Abigail — invited him to a screening.

“My first instinct,” he said, “was ‘Oh, not another film on jihad and Islam.’ Then I watched and it was introspective and intelligent. My hope is that there is a courageous outlet that is not intimidated by activists and their too narrow views.”
Jihad Turk (what a name!) is a brave man!

Finally,

Ms. Smaker has maxed out credit cards and, at age 42, borrowed money from her parents. This is not the Sundance debut of her dreams. “I don’t have the money or influence to fight this out,” she said, running hands back through her hair. “I’m not sure I see a way out.”

The Upshot

Yes, she was canceled to the point where, despite her clear abilities and talents, she can’t find work. Canceled by people who hadn’t seen her film. Canceled by a public who, in their zeal to appear ideologically correct, hurled accusations of “Islamophobia” and “white saviorism” without good reasons. Canceled by a gutless Abigail Disney, whose letter I can’t even bear to quote.You must read it, however: it sounds like one of those signs that the Ideologically Impure had to wear around their necks during China’s Cultural Revolution while wearing paper dunce hats. I don’t know how to help Ms. Smaker, but I suppose I should start by seeing the movie. One could write to Sundance, but that would probably be useless.

Stuff like this pours into my email inbox every day—so much of it that I can write about only a small fraction of what people tell me. And much of the stuff involves the kind of performative activism evinced by Sundance and the critics of Ms. Smaker.

Yes, the termites have dined well—so well that they’ve undermined the foundations of art, of literature, and of scholarship itself. In the end, we’ll be done in by tribalism and cowardice—exactly what happened in Nineteen Eighty-Four. Like China, and with many parallels, we’re having our own Cultural Revolution.

This year’s Golden Steve nominees for motion picture achievement

April 1, 2022 • 9:00 am

My nephew Steven’s website now has only about one post per year: his list of the “Golden Steve Awards”—both nominees and winners for Steven’s best movies of the year. In the post below (click on screenshot), you can see his nominees from this year, but in the post below I list only the Big Six categories plus “Best Foreign Film” (the latter for the reason given below).

The winners from each of the categories below will be announced on April 10.

My nephew cannot be described as modest, but he knows his onions, so I’d pay attention to his choices and view them if you can.

I quote Steven’s introduction to the nominations

Far and away the most coveted of motion picture accolades, Golden Steves are frequently described as the Oscars without the politics. Impervious to bribery, immune to ballyhoo, unswayed by sentiment, and riddled with integrity, this committee of one might be termed in all accuracy “fair-mindedness incarnate.” Over 165 of the year’s most acclaimed features were screened prior to the compilation of this ballot. First, some caveats:

1) Owing to a lifelong suspicion of prime numbers, each category comprises six nominees, not five.

2) A film can be nominated in only one of the following categories: Best Animated Feature, Best Non-Fiction Film, Best Foreign Language Film. Placement is determined by the Board of Governors. Said film remains eligible in all other fields.

3) This list is in no way connected with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—a fact that should be apparent from its acumen. Please look elsewhere for Oscar analysis.

Best Picture

Drive My Car
The Lost Daughter
Pig
The Power of the Dog
Red Rocket
The Worst Person in the World

Best Director

Sean Baker, Red Rocket
Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
Michael Sarnoski, Pig
Joachim Trier, The Worst Person in the World

Best Actor

Nicolas Cage, Pig
Clifton Collins Jr., Jockey
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
Winston Duke, Nine Days
Hidetoshi Nishijima, Drive My Car
Simon Rex, Red Rocket

Best Actress

Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
Penelope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
Isabelle Fuhrman, The Novice
Alana Haim, Licorice Pizza
Brittany S. Hall, Test Pattern
Renate Reinsve, The Worst Person in the World

Best Supporting Actor

Richard Ayoade, The Souvenir Part II
Anders Danielsen Lie, The Worst Person in the World
Mike Faist, West Side Story
Vincent Lindon, Titane
Will Patton, Sweet Thing
Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Best Supporting Actress

Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
Ann Dowd, Mass
Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
Toko Miura, Drive My Car
Ruth Negga, Passing
Suzanna Son, Red Rocket

And I’ll add this category, since Steven mentions if below.

Best Foreign Language Film

Drive My Car (Ryusuke Hamaguchi)
A Hero (Asghar Farhadi)
Memoria (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)
Parallel Mothers (Pedro Almodovar)
Petite Maman (Celine Sciamma)
The Worst Person in the World (Joachim Trier)

When I asked Steven what he thought of the “offcial” Oscar awards, he said this:

I don’t agree with any of the main winners, and would nominate only Campion. CODA is predictable, feel-good pabulum. Its win derives from a ranked balloting system in place since 2009, in which voters order their choices from 1-10 instead of checking the box of their favorite film. As such, it’s better to be everyone’s second or third choice than divisive (and possible to win without a single #1 vote). But of course nearly all great films are divisive, and middle-of-the-road picks like The King’s Speech, Argo, Green Book, and now CODA are black marks on the Academy’s record.

A rare bright spot was the victory of the truly exceptional Drive My Car. It’s the first Japanese film ever nominated for Best Picture, and a most deserving choice for Best International Film.

And here are the Rotten Tomatoes ratings (click on latter to read critics’ reviews):

Siskel and Ebert on movie reviewing and “political correctness”

February 21, 2022 • 2:00 pm

When I first came to Chicago, I used to watch the Siskel and Evert movie reviews. As I recall, they did three movies per half-hour segment, with each guy giving their assessment and then, often, arguing about the movies. I’m not sure that they really liked each other, but they surely respected each other, and both had a terrific knowledge of and acumen about movies. (The show ran from 1975-1999.)

I haven’t seen any better critics on television, and, sadly, they’re gone. Siskel died in 1999 of brain cancer at only 53, and Ebert (the one with glasses below, died at 70 of salivary gland cancer in 2013.

It was a don’t miss show if you loved movies; Gene Siskel was the head film critic for the Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert for the Chicago Sun-Times. So here we had the two biggest film titans in town battling it out about whether a movie got two thumbs up, two thumbs down, or one thumb up and one thumb down.  As I said, these shows got heated, and the passion of both men for films was overwhelming. (You can still read Ebert’s reviews online.)

Reader Rich sent me this short clip showing Siskel and Ebert giving advice to young critics about how to review movies. And this time they agree: give your own reactions, not what you think people want to hear, get deeply personal in relating your reaction, and, above all, avoid “political correctness”: take risks and don’t truckle to public opinion in the hope that readers will like you because they share your politics or ideology. This bit is particularly appropriate now, though few modern critics take their advice.

And what goes for movie criticism here goes for writing in general.

This 8.5-minute video clip should not be missed, and gives you an idea of what it was like to see the two discuss movies. I give it two thumbs up.

Helen Mirren attacked for portraying Golda Meir because Mirren’s not Jewish

January 7, 2022 • 11:15 am

OY VEY!  DOUBLE OY VEY! Helen Mirren has been cast as Golda Meir in an upcoming film on the late Israeli Prime Minister, and people are beefing about it. About ten years ago this wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow, but now the Pecksniffs are tut-tutting about the choice because Mirren isn’t Jewish. I vehemently disagree.

Now sometimes there is a need for authenticity—and authenticity without insult. While Mirren required extensive makeup to look like Golda, I would not sanction a white man playing, for example, Martin Luther King, Jr. The history of blackface is too pernicious and racist to allow that.

But can a black woman play Golda Meir? I don’t think so, for it would affect the “suspension of disbelief” essential in watching any such movie. There has to be a degree of versimilitude to make the reader immerse himself in the movie’s reality. Could the Robert Redford of old play Truman Capote in the movie “Capote”? I don’t think so, for we know what Capote looked and acted like. Those images are burned too deeply into our neurons to make a Redford performance credible. Could a black man play Richard III? I’m not opposed to that simply because, although we know the King wasn’t black, we wouldn’t be preoccupied with the trope of “blacface” during the movie.

Can Helen Mirren play Golda Meir, even if she’s not Jewish? OF COURSE! So long as she looks sort of like Meir, and tries to adopt a sort-of Israeli accent, why should we beef? She is, after all, a wonderful actress.  Does knowing that Helen Mirren isn’t Jewish (she may be an atheist, for all I know) really detract from the movie? Only to the Pecksniffs. Yet they are here infesting the Guardian: click the screenshot to read:

Here they go:

Maureen Lipman has criticised the casting of Helen Mirren as Golda Meir in a forthcoming film about the former Israeli prime minister, saying that the character’s Jewishness is “integral”.

In comments reported by the Jewish Chronicle, Lipman said she “disagreed” with Mirren’s casting. She added: “I’m sure [Mirren] will be marvellous, but it would never be allowed for Ben Kingsley to play Nelson Mandela. You just couldn’t even go there.”

But there are good reasons not to go there, and it involves external appearance, not internal religious beliefs. Richard Burton, after all, played Thomas Becket in the eponymous 1964 movie, and Burton wasn’t a Catholic or an Anglican, but an atheist. So what? It was a good movie.

Here’s why the Pecksniffs object, but with the inervention of sanity:

The Jewish Chronicle’s piece cited a number of controversial instances of “Jewface”, including Tamsin Greig’s recent suggestion that she ‘probably’ should not have been cast in the sitcom Friday Night Dinner and the row over a stage production of the musical Falsettos in 2019, which contained no Jewish cast or crew members. It also quoted actor and comic Sarah Silverman’s comments on the mooted casting of Kathryn Hahn as Joan Rivers in a TV series: “Right now, representation fucking matters. It has to also finally matter for Jews as well. Especially Jewish women.”

In contrast, the playwright and director Patrick Marber was quoted in the Jewish Chronicle article as objecting to the primacy of “lived experienced” in casting decisions, saying: “I fucking hate that expression. Because ‘lived experience’ is sort of a denial of what creativity is and denies the actor the fundamental challenge and right to become someone else to impersonate another human being from another time, from another culture from another religion and another sexuality and other gender.”

Marber added: “I think a Gentile can play a Jew and a Jew can play a Gentile. I don’t like it when someone plays a Jew and gets it wrong. [But] I don’t like quotas.”

How can you “get it wrong” when you play a Jew? There are so many Jews on the world, many of them atheists, that I don’t see how someone can “get it wrong.” But kudos for Marber. His statement about “lived experience” is precisely right.

And Sarah Silverman objects! Seriously? It’s not as if Jews have been underrepresented in the movie industry! And remember, Dame Sarah, both Paul Newman and Sal Mineo, neither of them Jews, both played Jews in the 1960 movie Exodus I remember this scene well:

 

I’m a secular Jew, and I don’t think that “lived experience” is necessarily for great actors like Mirren. All that’s important is that they convince us they were the character. Here’s Mirren made up as Meir, unrecognizable as the actress.

Recommended film: “My Octopus Teacher”

July 25, 2021 • 1:30 pm

When I was getting my teeth cleaned the other day, my hygienist Maria and I were talking about travel and biology, both of which she likes, and she recommended a movie I hadn’t heard of: “My Octopus Teacher“. She couldn’t say enough good things about the movie, so I investigated it. I found out that it was a Netflix film made in 2020, won the Oscar that year for the Best Documentary Feature, and had a high critics’ rating of 95% on Rotten Tomatoes (91% critics rating).  And it was about a man forging a relationship with an octopus. How could I not watch it?

I did, and I was entranced. It is a fantastic film, and you really must watch it.

The story is simple: South African filmmaker Craig Foster, burned out from work, unable to relate to his family, seeks peace in getting away from everyone, snorkeling in the local kelp forest. There he finds a female common octopus (Octopus vulgaris), and, after days and weeks of effort, befriends her. Not interfering in her life, he simply visits her every day for over 300 days, marveling at her intelligence and adaptations, living through her travails. The experience is bittersweet because he knows that her lifespan is about a year, and he’s with her to the end.

What did the octopus teach him? I’ll leave you to watch the film to see the marvelous ending that sums up what he learned. I have to say, though, that I’ve formed a similar bond with my ducks, seeing them several times a day from when the day they hatch until they leave the pond in the fall. When you spend hours and days with an animal, you learn a lot about them, and it does change you.

Here’s the trailer. SEE THE MOVIE!

“Moonstruck”: a contrarian review

June 15, 2021 • 12:45 pm

I hadn’t realized that you can see some full movies for free on YouTube, though the selection is limited. But there are a few highly rated films among them, one being the 1987 film Moonstruck, starring Olympia Dukakis, Cher, and Nicholas Cage. The first two people won Oscars for their performance as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively, and the movie also got the Oscar for Best Screenplay.

Here’s the movie if you want to watch it for free, and it’s legal to do so.

As I said, the movie was highly regarded, though, according to the Rotten Tomatoes summary below (click to read), better regarded by critics than by viewers—though the latter still liked it a lot.

Since I was able to watch this movie for free, and remember liking it when it first came out, I decided to watch it again. But this time I wasn’t so keen on it.

I won’t go into detail with a full review, and the plot is simple.  Italian widow Cher is engaged to be married, but falls in love with her fiancée’s wild younger brother (Nicholas Cage), who happens to have both a wooden hand (his brother is said to be responsible for the hand loss in a bakery accident) and a great love of opera. Cher gets smitten by Cage and even by opera, though her traditional family is appalled by her choosing the younger brother over her stolid and boring fiancée. In the end, everything’s hashed out over breakfast, and the fiancée doesn’t want to marry Cher after all because he harbors a superstition that marrying her will kill his ailing mother. Cher and Cage pledge their troths, and everything ends happily.

Why don’t I like the movie so much? Well, the highly touted acting isn’t as good as I remembered it, and the plot is pretty predictable once it gets going. Further, the attraction between Cher and Cage simply isn’t credible to me. They fall into bed immediately, suggesting it’s largely physical chemistry, but it’s clearly more than that. Yet we never understand what’s motivating them to contemplate marriage or what’s driving the relationship beyond sex. Cage seems to be a loose cannon, and Cher plays a woman with a good head on her shoulders. Their conjunction is hard to swallow.

In other words, this is a romantic comedy that I see as fluff. The screenplay is good, the acting credible, but I’m still baffled about why the film got nominated for those Oscars. Were the standards different 35 years ago? I don’t think so, for when I ponder When Harry Met Sally, one of my favorite “rom coms”, it was made only two years later. Yet it seems so much better, as if it were about real people rather than pawns manipulated to fulfill a predestined conclusion.

Well, that’s my say, and I expect many will disagree. Do you remember Moonstruck? If you do, or manage to watch it above, weigh in.

The title, by the way, comes from the superstition that when there’s a big full moon, people start acting crazy. I suppose that’s one explanation for the relationship between Cher and Cage.