Wednesday, February 20, 2019

The 2019 Oscars May Resemble the 2019 Super Bowl (And this is not a complimentary comparison)


A few weeks ago, I sat out the Super Bowl because I found the game to be tainted. One team got into the big game because of a blown call. The other contestant made it because they won a coin flip, their opponents never got the ball, and they always find a way to get in anyway. The result was a boring and unsatisfying game.

Similarly, as I face Academy Awards ceremony this Sunday to honor the films of 2018, I am tempted for the first time in my life to ignore that, too.  This is a weak year with mediocre nominees. Many films have flawed screenplays that don’t contain an evident storyline. One script is parading as a “based-on-a-true-story” piece of fiction.  Where are the Big Ideas and innovative cinematic techniques from previous years, such as Birdman, Whiplash, Inception or Get Out?

Well, in this year’s blog, I will play the hand we movie fans have been dealt. As in years past, I rank the nominated films in ascending order. This is not my prediction of who will win, but how I rank the films against each other according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality.   

8.                   Green Book — The high-octane opening with its energy and crosscutting grabbed me: A faux Bobby Rydell in 1962 rocks in a New York night club while Tony “The Lip” Vallelonga exacts a violent revenge in the background. ). We soon meet Dr. Don Shirley, an African American musician (Mahershala Ali), who hires Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian American from the Bronx, to chauffeur him during a tour through the American Midwest and the Deep South. Tony could also provide protective muscle should danger arise. Despite this ostensibly heart-warming tale, Green Book devolves into predictable ethnic clichés and, worse, many factual errors and distortions (detailed inthis recent blog). The movie is not without its charms, the chemistry between the wonderful lead actors chief among them.  However, I find the misrepresentation of Shirley unforgivable, and that drops Green Book to the bottom of this year’s lists.

7.                   Vice — I was a fan of Adam McKay’s cheeky approach to filmmaking in The Big Short, which was about the real estate collapse of 2008. This time, he tackles the career of  former Vice President Dick Cheney, and  employs many of the same techniques (e.g., cutting to instructional segments, having characters break the fourth wall to address the audience, inserting a snarky roll of the credits before the film has ended, satirizing the source of Cheney’s heart transplant). But this time around the techniques feel ham-handed and even unfair. (You have to trust that I am no fan of Cheney, so that doesn’t color my disappointment with Vice.) A friend called it “look at me” filmmaking that draws attention to itself, and I must agree this time.  By the way, despite all this, Christian Bale’s transformation into Cheney is utterly brilliant, one of the two best impersonations on film this year.

6.                   A Star is Born — Bradley Cooper should be proud of his freshman directing effort. He is nominated for actor and adapted screenplay, he guided two other performers to nominations, and the whole shebang is up for best picture. An optimistic start for this side of the camera to be sure. Still the reality is that this is the fourth version of an 82-year-old story, and it has been a pretty creaky vehicle for a few decades now. While A Star is Born is undeniably entertaining, it hardly advances the art of cinema. I look forward to seeing what Cooper does next. In the meantime, it stands out in an otherwise tepid year.
5.                   The Favourite — In this costumed comedy of manners with a feminist twist, a sick and mad Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) rules England in 18th century England. Her friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), assists her and becomes the power behind the throne. A power play begins with the arrival of a new servant girl, Abigail (Emma Stone). Yorgos Lanthimos is a far-from-conventional director (re: The Lobster, which is either the most inventive or the most bizarre film you have ever seen). For my money, The Favourite has a few clever ideas sandwiched between longer stretches of somnambulant cinema, along with the most random uses of a fisheye lens I have ever seen.  The abrupt ending is also unsatisfying. Still, you can savor the performances of Colman (a revelation to me), Weisz (pitch perfect as she disappears into her role) and Stone (who acquits herself very well in a role that goes beyond her usual contours).

4.                   Roma — Okay, let me throw this out there: I do not understand the fuss over Roma. First, I’m a huge fan of director Alfonso Cuarón, with work as varied as Gravity, his space adventure, to his dystopian masterpiece, Children of Men. I also admire Roma’s gorgeous black-and-white cinematography. But given that Roma is based on Cuarón’s childhood, I was notably unaffected and uninvolved with it, especially when compared to other memoirs, such as Boyhood, Lady Bird, or The Last Picture Show. I contend that Roma has several fatal flaws. First, the film is shot so wide that we never get too close to its subjects. Yes, there is a revolution in the streets outside the shop while Cleo is looking for a baby crib. But the wide panning shot, like the many others that dot Roma, eliminates the intimacy required to make one feel involved. Also many scenes go on much too long, as though Cuarón doesn’t trust us to get their points. Yes, we see that that the patrons’ marriage is falling apart, as symbolized by the father’s distraction over his auto is too big for the carport. But did we need such a long, laborious sequence to understand that? In the end, it is only a park job.

Finally, the biggest blemish is the depiction of Roma’s central character the family’s maid, Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, and despite her glowing reviews, I think it is quite obvious from her poker-faced performance that she never acted before).  Again, the camera literally and figuratively never gets close enough to provide insight into her character. Other than her unplanned pregnancy, what do we know about her? Where is she from? What are her motivations in life? Why does she meander from one quotidian episode to another in her life? (This article from the NewYorker expresses my concern quite well.)

And then Roma abruptly ends, not because it has reached the end of a story arc, but because it has run out of anything to say. These are not what I consider to be elements of a “Best Film.” I have no doubt that Roma will clean up this Sunday at the Oscars. I also predict we will look back on it in a few years and wonder what the big deal was.

3.                   Bohemian Rhapsody — Oh, damn, this film was just too much fun to be ignored. It is the story of Queen (no, it’s NOT the story of Freddy Mercury alone) and their rise to the upper levels of the pop/rock world with their hummable, feel-good records and anthems. Yes, there are the usual perfunctory tropes, as the band members meet and congeal as a unit, the record executive who didn’t believe in them (a snarling, clichéd and amusing Mike Myers), and their burgeoning success as told through posters and stage shots. But the artistic creation of their biggest hits make for interesting and entertaining segments, and the band’s triumphant final performance at Live Aid in Wembley Stadium is a sight to behold. I expect Rami Malek to sneak past Christian Bale to win Best Actor for his re-creation of Mercury.

2.                   Black Panther — I have been a fan of Ryan Coogler in successive stages. He first won me over when he directed the moving Fruitvale Station, the story behind Oscar Grant’s senseless killing on a San Francisco transit platform. Coogler got me again when he reinvented the moribund Rocky franchise by creating Creed. But those smaller-scale works never prepared me for his awesome control over the many technical challenges of Black Panther. It is the most “epic” film of the year, with its wide array of special effects, the ambitious production design, and its big stable of highly talented actors (who were honored as the best ensemble by the Screen Actors Guild). I hope Coogler gets other opportunities to direct similar high-end, high-budget projects. I would have this film at the top of my list if it weren’t for the screenplay, which I found to be an unwieldy and confusing mess. Still, like Bradley Cooper, Coogler has nowhere to go but up.

1.                   BlacKkKlansman — You have to hand it to Spike Lee; he wants his films to be about something. Whether it is a documentary about African American children killed in a church bombing (4 Little Girls), the decline of a musical artist (Mo Better Blues) or the biography of a misunderstood civil rights leader (Malcolm X), he is not killing time tossing off rom-coms or other cinematic fast food. He wants to produce work of substance.

That is why BlacKkKlansman is such a revelatory film. Lee takes a true but absurd premise — an African American policeman actually became a member of the Ku Klux Klan? — and produces a film that is both funny and thought-provoking on the issue of race relations in our country today. That is why I chose it as the best of this year’s Oscar-nominated films.

BlacKkKlansman opens with Ron Stallworth, an African American police officer from Colorado Springs, trying to find a meaningful assignment within the department. Over time, he manages to infiltrate the local Ku Klux Klan branch, and get a membership card. Due to complications caused by a crucial mistake by Stallworth, he must employ the help of a Jewish back-up (ably played by Adam Driver) to play him in person.

The conceit that works most effectively is how the film’s style models the TV crime shows of the 1970s, which is when the film takes place. Everything from the production design, the costuming, even the score by Terence Blanchard, evoke that era. Deeper still is the portrayal of the burgeoning civil rights turmoil of that time in all its underlying rage. Stallworth (played serviceably by Jon David Washington) finds his own identity in the course of the film.

Lee’s work at the helm is exceptional here, and I think it’s his best film since Do the Right Thing. The screenplay (for which Lee is one of four contributors) moves briskly through a tangled set of events, keeping the various loose ends in play, but never becoming confusing. As a director, he gets uniformly good performances from his players, a difficult task with a cast as large as this. One standout is Topher Grace, who is unexpectedly effective in the role of David Duke. Most significant is Lee’s sense of pacing. There is a complication with mistaken identity that sets in motion a threat to the safety of several major characters. Without giving it away, I was on the edge of my seat wondering how it would turn out. (Kudos to editor Barry Alexander Brown for his Oscar-nominated contribution to the taut and suspenseful rhythms of BlacKkKlansman.)

For the ability to take a long-ago incident and turn it into a film that is entertaining while remaining relevant to today’s zeitgeist, I pick BlacKkKlansman as the best of the nominated films of 2018.


Okay, I’m all talk. I will clear a space in my living room for this personal tradition. Even as I am likely to be chagrined to see Roma take everything in sight, I also hope to see justice prevail for Glenn Close. I hope she finds that the seventh time is a charm and she wins a well-deserved Oscar for The Wife. And Queen will be part of the ceremony, too. (The Academy ain’t saying what their role will be, but wouldn’t it be great to have them open the show?) Finally, let’s see how well the show goes without a host. I hope they BEG Kevin Hart to host next year. (I’m still rooting for Tiffany Haddish to host. I think she'd be great.)

As I said once before, the Oscar broadcast is kind of like sex: even when it’s mediocre, it’s still pretty good. Enjoy the show on Sunday. Maybe we’ll talk Monday morning.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Green Book and Ham

 Race Relations Made Easy and False

NOTE: This dissection of the film Green Book refers to a few plot points. If you have not seen the film, you may want to hold off on reading this until later.

There was a bet between publisher Bennett Cerf and writer Dr. Seuss (neé Theodore Geisel) in 1960. Cerf, the founder of Random House, bet Seuss that he could not write a decent children’s book with a limited vocabulary that comprised only 50 words in total. Dr. Seuss took the bet, and he won it by creating the children's classic, Green Eggs and Ham

That book turned out to be the most popular of Seuss’s works, selling a couple hundred million copies. It also provides an important lesson: You can make a point more easily and memorably if you limit your vocabulary. Apparently, the makers of the Oscar-nominated Green Book took this principle to heart.

Set in 1962, Green Book tells a tale of racial understanding between Dr. Don Shirley, an African American musician played by Mahershala Ali, and Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian American from the Bronx. As Don embarks on a performance tour through the American Midwest and the Deep South, he hires Tony to be his chauffeur.  The titular “green book” was a series of publications African Americans used in that period to find restaurants and lodging that were safe and accommodating.  So Tony is required not only to transport Don from point A to point B safely, but he would also provide protective muscle should any danger arise.

Their first meeting during a job interview is inauspicious. Don (holder of a doctorate in several disciplines) lives in an artists’ colony of sorts above Carnegie Hall. He enters the scene like a spirit, dressed in a gauzelike fabric and practically floating. We learn immediately through their conversation that he is much more refined than Tony. Even after Tony gets the job, there is distrust between them. For example, when Tony gets out of the car at the start of the trip to take a leak in the woods, he comes back to grab his wallet from the dashboard. Just to be sure; after all, a guy can’t be too careful, even with an employer who has way more money.

As the movie progresses, we find that they can both be quite insufferable. Don is often imperious; Tony is quick-tempered and impulsive. But true to form in such bromides, the two bond and teach each other “important lessons.”  For example, Don edits Tony’s letters to his wife back in the Bronx to make them more eloquent (and, of course, he does it condescendingly). Tony teaches Don how to be more black because the good doctor is clearly out of touch with his “own people” (Tony’s term). We learn this when Don steps out of his car on a back road. A group of sharecroppers stare at this well-dressed man as though he has arrived from another planet. (This interminable sequence is just one example of Green Book’s lack of subtlety.) Tony teaches Don about his own culture by introducing him to Little Richard, Chubby Checker, and Aretha Franklin (the last a remarkable feat in itself, as Tony is playing Respect on the radio five years before the record was even released). Don reveals that he is estranged from his brother, and Tony, being Italian, gets to school him on "the importance of family." Finally, in what the filmmakers seem to consider an intercultural triumph, Tony introduces Don to fried chicken and helps the good doctor overcome his disdain for its greasiness.
  
There is no denying the chemistry between Ali and Mortensen. The two leads work hard to bring more substance to their portrayals than the script deserves.  Ali conveys a genuine dignity in his reading of Don Shirley. With little more than a narrowing of Ali's eyes, one can feel the weight of the ignominies Don must endure in spite of his education and talent. One incident in a Deep South police station illustrates sharply how he copes with his rank in 1960s America. Don gets along by going along, often choking back his anger, swallowing his pride. And then again, sometimes he does not, which causes a different set of problems. 

What is worst about Green Book is its “white savior” trope  — the idea that black characters need to be rescued by white people. 

Similarly, the remarkable Mortensen once again expands his resume with his depiction of an Italian American. His blond, Nordic hair is darkened, and his normally trim and saturnine build is overweight, bulging and menacing in a way we have not seen from him before. His spoken Italian is very good. This is especially evident when he shares the screen with other actors; his pronunciation is so much better.  Yet I still found the stereotype insulting. Mortensen apparently went to the Sylvester Stallone School of Acting to learn how to play an Italian American, inarticulately mumbling his way through words. Tony can’t even spell. When he drafts a letter to his steadfast wife back home, his salutation is spelled d-e-e-r, not d-e-a-r. 

In the end, one may say “so what?” to these shortcomings. After all, the movie is “nice.” The two principals come to care for each other, there is peace in the valley by the end, and they respond affirmatively to the question, “Can’t we all just get along?” 

There are two problems with this conclusion. One is that the underlying story is just not true, going well beyond the slack that we assign to that nebulous concept, “artistic license.” Dr. Don Shirley’s remaining family has made quite clear that they were never consulted for the film, so the perspective is strictly from the Vallelongas’ side. For one thing, the Shirleys have stated that Tony was nothing more or less than an employee. And apparently, he was an annoying one. He would not wear his chauffeur’s uniform nor did he want to lift Don’s bags. The two men  also did not remain friends after this adventure was over as the film states, according the Shirley family.

Shirley’s 2013 obituary in The New York Times never mentions Vallelonga or the tour through the Deep South. The implication that Don Shirley was not involved with the African American community or his own family is also not true. He attended many of the civil rights events of the era, and he was friends with many black artists, notably Duke Ellington. Shirley’s surviving brother, Maurice, said he and his other brothers were never estranged from Don. (It is reported that Ali contacted the Shirley family to apologize for misrepresenting Don.)

What is worst about Green Book is its continuation of the “white savior” trope in American film — the idea that black characters need to be rescued from their plights by a white man (or a white girl, as seen in The Help). As you review Shirley’s obituary, he was poised to make a mark on his own terms. He was a musical prodigy who, by necessity, created a singular style that crossed genres. He composed orchestral works that were admired by Igor Stravinsky. He played at La Scala in Milan, Carnegie Hall, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Despite these accomplishments, he would not be addressed as “doctor,” and he could not pursue the career he truly wanted because the world was “not ready” for someone like him — a black classical artist.

If you are ready to take a serious look at the racial divisions in our society, don’t turn to Green Book. Even with the film’s virtues, such as the two sturdy lead performances, handsome cinematography, and graceful editing, its content is more representative of the attitudes of the Kennedy era in which it is set than those of today. It is also hampered by the limited lexicon of a white onlooker who was a bystander in the civil rights era. In the end, Green Book is not even a meal on a par with Green Eggs and Ham. It is pabulum. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Waiting for Sweetpea -- An Embryo by Any Other Name

What do you call a baby that hasn't arrived yet, and hasn't reached full capacity? 

This was my dilemma when our daughter Julia announced that she was expecting our first grandchild. I first figured that I would call it he or she. But when I asked her and husband Matt if they knew the gender, she said, "Oh, we're not finding out. There are so few surprises in this world that we'd like to have this one."

All right then. How selfish of them. Didn't they know I needed a moniker to pin on this kid?
I thought back to when she first told Marie and me that she was expecting and said the baby was the size of a lentil. Yuk! What a stupid nickname for a baby. Lentil. Sounds like a Barbra Streisand musical movie. "Grandpa, can you hear me?"

But I remembered that we live in the Digital Age, so I asked Google, "What fruits and vegetables are the size of a lentil?" There was a long litany of lentil-like names, all unappealing, one popped up that seemed just right.


Sweetpea. Yes, a veggie the size of a lentil, but more euphoric.

What a great name! It's sweet! It's diminutive! It's non-gender-specific! I announced that this would be the name for this child in waiting. a way to personify this burgeoning life, and it took hold. 

Jim and Peggy embraced it, as did our son, Francis, and his wife, Angela. Soon everyone was calling the baby-to-be this name.

"How is Sweetpea doing?," we'd ask Julia ("Doing the calypso right now, I think," as she winced in pain.)

Julia used the name all the time. "I was in a business meeting, and Sweetpea got bored and started kicking my bladder. I think Sweetpea wants out!"

Julia kept up with her improvisational comedy throughout her whole pregnancy, and she could tell that the baby was getting off on her performing. "I swear, I think my adrenaline went right to Sweetpea, who thought HE was on stage. I'm sure she was saying to the audience, "Thank you everyone. I especially want to thank my mother who made all this possible." 

But now that we are near the end of this long strange trip, we four grandparents want to stop using Sweetpea and give it a real name. Problem is, not only do we not know the gender of the baby, we also don't know the names that Matt and Julia are considering. That is worrisome. It could be some really stupid or outdated names like Bertha for a girl and Elmer for a boy. Or worse, Bertha for a boy. (I apologize to any Bertha and Elmers who are reading this, but hey, face it, your names belong in the 19th century.)

So now we wait. What will the real name be? More important, what will this new person really be? Sweetpea carries the genetic fingerprints of parents, grandparents, millennia of traits going back generations. Will Sweetpea be a birder like Daddy and Grandma Peg? Will s/he get the facility with words that Mommy, Uncle Francis and Grandpop Pasquale have? Organization skills like Mommy and Grandmom Marie? Considered introspection of Grandpa Jim? The possibilities are broad.

What we really know is this. We are waiting for you, Sweetpea. We are looking to see the color of your eyes, the tint of your hair (if you are born with any), and whether or not you have a cleft in your chin. (The last trait comes from me. Hey, I want to have some positive biological imprint on this kid, certainly not my clumsiness with tools or my complete lack of physical coordination.) 

But regardless of any of this, you will be loved and warmly welcomed into this world. Just hurry the hell up, Sweetpea. It's been a long 40 weeks.

Monday, October 29, 2018

Waiting for Sweetpea

Part 1 -- Annunciation

In spring 2018, our daughter, Julia, and Matt, her husband of 18 months, conducted an ambush on my wife and me.

Julia and Matt drove up from Arlington, Virginia, to help Marie and me declutter our suburban home. We had sold the house a month before to fulfill a longtime dream of moving into the big city of Philadelphia. We were empty-nesters, having married off our two kids in a 10-week sweep in 2016. Now we were selling off or donating loads of goods, as we were bound not to have enough room in our (not-yet-found) new home to accommodate it. Marie had already retired, and I was hatching a plot to escape my employment in mid-June. What was the point of retirement if we were bound by the same old possessions?

So Julia and Matt rented a truck to pick up our castoff furniture, garden tools and other goods for their home in Virginia. It was a busy day. Matt did a lot of heavy lifting. Julia rummaged through the memories that Marie had dutifully saved for her throughout her life. they included cards that accompanied baby gifts when she arrived in the world. Papers from her elementary and middle school days that foreshadow her career as a writer. Books, lots of them, more than I could imagine reading in a lifetime, but Julia made short work of them. Again, that foreshadowing thing.

Reading the cards and other congratulatory notes from her many years of youthful accomplished, Julia observed that she received a lot of love over the years. Indeed she 
had. Even as a little girl, Julia was loved for her loving nature and admired for her intellect and drive.

She winnowed those items by about 80 percent.

We finally sat down to eat, all four of us tuckered out from the day’s work. Marie prepared a favorite Italian American meal of pasta, meatballs and sausage, and a green salad. I presume there was wine.

Julia decided to take advantage of the fact that we were together to make an announcement. While she had us together, she wanted to tell us her plans for my wife’s annual Christmas Eve feast of seven fishes (also known by its Italian nomenclature, “La Vigilia”). The event is well attended and much anticipated. A seat at the table is a hot item, so Julia surprised us with this request.

“I want to bring a guest to La Vigilia this year,” she announced.

I was surprised, even somewhat annoyed, and protective of Marie, since the seating around the table is tight. I was a bit miffed that she would impose on her mother that way, even months in advance.

“Who is it,” I asked. “Somebody we know?”

“Well, you don’t know the person yet, but I can guarantee you it will be small and not eat very much fish.”

I got it right away. I jumped up, put one hand out to Matt who was close to me, and I put my arm around him. “Congratulations, Matt, I said. In a burst of male empathy, I added, “Good job.”

It took a few moments longer for Marie to grasp that Julia was announcing her pregnancy. (It’s not usually like that. I’m traditionally the denser of the two of us.) Still, she stood up and asked plaintively “Are you telling me what I think you are?” 

Their eyes welled up (business as usual for these two). They hugged. This announcement was a moment that we were not entirely sure would come, especially this soon into Matt and Julia’s marriage. Julia did not know just how easily she would get pregnant in her mid-30s. Not that she had any reason to worry, but she was also not taking it for granted. That was why she decided to tell us so early, just four weeks into the 40 necessary to bring this child to full viability. 

“I wanted you to know now,” she said, “because I didn’t want the first news from me to be that I had a miscarriage.”

I asked one of the essential questions. "How big is the baby so far?"

Julia laughed. “It’s only about the size of a lentil.”

She was right. The baby had a long way to go before being able to eat fish on Christmas Eve.

We laughed our way through the remainder of dinner. Uncertainty be damned; this was a happy occasion, goddammit. Wine flowed for Matt, Marie and me, though not for the mother-to-be. Beside laughing, there wasn’t much else to say. This was a baby in theory only. There was a long stretch of road ahead.

Marie and I walked Julia and Matt to the door, hugged them over and over again and told them how happy we were. We watched them get into the car, and then we waved as they pulled away to return home.

When they were out of sight, I closed the door and set the latch. I turned and looked at Marie. Then I jumped up and down and stomped my feet on the foyer floor, pumped my hands in a celebratory motion.

“Yea!” That’s all I needed to say to Marie.

Sold our house after a week on the market. Retirement for Marie. A planned retirement for me. A new home at some point. Now to be first-time grandparents.

Yes, 2018 was going to be a big year.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Baby Boomers -- Fools for the City


How do you like the new view that my wife, Marie, and I have? Or our new neighbor, Billy Penn, who looms over our new home in Philadelphia?

Yep, we have finally made the move that we talked about (or bored our friends with) for the last 20 years. We ditched our home in the northwest suburbs and have relocated to Bella Vista, if not the heart of the city, at least one its main arteries.

It turns out we’re part of a trend, not that we have ever been particularly trendy. Consider this stat: Between 2009 and 2015, the number of renters in Philadelphia aged 55 and older jumped 22 percent (compared to an eight percent jump among millennials). As you poll or otherwise probe our generational peers who made this move, we find that our own reasons and drivers were similar. We downsized from our modest, though still oversized, 4BR suburban home, which had at least two more bedrooms than we needed. We don’t have kids at home anymore, having successfully educated them, kept them out of jail, and made them into model, tax-paying Americans. Thus, schools aren't an issue for us anymore. (If they were, Philly would be a bad bet).

Much to Do and View
Additionally, Marie and I are culture vultures, and the city is awash with museums, theater, exhibits, lectures and the like. On the greener side of things, recent Philly administrations invested in parks and other open space, as well as parking.

Excellent restaurants have long been a given in Philadelphia. And as a follow up to them, there are many hospitals and other healthcare facilities to tend to my clogging arteries and soaring glucose levels. Believe me, I’ll be looking for a new endocrinologist there.
There is also lifestyle. The area we moved from was a lovely place to raise our two kids, but once we stepped outside our traditional Colonial for a walk, there was little to do or even see. Heck, there were hardly any sidewalks, fercrissake. But yesterday, I walked to the local hardware store in my new neighborhood, and I saw more in that five-block walk than I did in the last two decades in my burbs. Plus the walk itself was good for my aging constitution.

Despite what may be counterintuitive to city haters, Philadelphia is affordable for us. Even on a fixed income, our years of equity building and selling my soul just to have a couple of pensions have given us more money for housing than most of the poor millennials who are loaded with college debt. (Note: Data from TenantCloud, a property management software service, show that nearly one-third of all urban applications are for renters over age 60. Another sign of the influx of boomers.)

Planning is Essential
Making this move was not a piece of cake. Decluttering nearly four decades of marriage and packing up an old life to make way for a new one in smaller quarters was not easy. But we were systematic about it. We kept a large poster board in our kitchen, and we covered it with Post-its to mark the things we had to do to make this move happen. That included primarily of deciding where we wanted to go, then getting our own home ready to sell.

The second part was harder and took more time to do. It took us about 18 months to empty the four-bedroom house we owned for nearly three decades (to the day, coincidentally; we turned it over to the new owners on the day after our 26th anniversary of purchasing it). It’s amazing what things we call “shit” you can accumulate in that time. Extra CDs and DVDs went to the local library, until they cried “Uncle!” Unwanted or ignored miscellanea, such as books, artwork and the like went to Goodwill and other organizations. We hired junkers like JDog Junk Removal & Hauling to haul stuff away either for charitable donation or just to trash. Our contribution to the growing landfill problem in the USA.

Then we had to get our home ready, and there was much to do. It’s amazing how easily you can overlook certain things in your home when you are dealing with more mundane issues, oh, say like raising a couple of kids, figuring out how to contribute to their college education and their weddings, and replacing your job during the Great Recession. So in a relatively short time, we replaced the windows, replaced the roof, spruced up the bathrooms, and repainted and recarpeted the house.

These things work great in a sellers’ market. We put up our “for sale” sign on a Tuesday, and by the following Wednesday, we had two agreements of sale at our asking price. (We chose the one that had no contingencies.)

Living for the City
Next came the critical task of planning our new location. Did you see the reference above to a “sellers’ market?” That tiny detail made our search more challenging, and it took several months. (I suggest that you pick a reliable realtor, which seems obvious but is easy to overlook or flub. In our case, we were served by Ryan Kanofsky. He came to us when he followed up an online inquiry that Marie made. He e-mailed her, asking if she was looking; she said not yet. Ryan checked in with her patiently for five years. He was our guy, always turning over stones, making himself available on weekends, and advising us when he thought we were too enamored of a particular property. In the end, he, with help from his associate Caitlin Beck, came through for us.)

We shopped several downtown Philly locations, including Fairmount, Brewerytown, Queen Village, Center City and the Graduate Hospital area. All terrific, all worthy of consideration. But we landed in Bella Vista, the section considered the original Italian-American section of the city (even though early citizens also included Irish immigrants and African Americans who were former slaves).

Bella Vista is Italian for “beautiful view,” but it’s not the original name for the area. That name was part of a rebranding campaign in the early 1970s. Though Italian Americans still make up a large percentage of the population today, Bella Vista can still boast a good deal of the cultural diversity that we couldn’t get in the suburbs, including neighbors who are African American, Vietnamese and Mexican. We are so looking forward to this aspect of our new climes.

Our new home was voted “best neighborhood to live in Philadelphia” by Niche.com in 2016. There are plenty of parks and other green space, which are supported through a multitude of volunteers. The volunteer groups also produce public events in the parks such as summer concert series, yoga, and outdoor movies. There is a permanent community garden at 10th and Kimball, and the local athletic scene includes the sport that’s just right for an aging Italian American like me -- bocce. 

So excuse me, I have to drop this blog to run to John’s Water Ice up the street for a traditional lemon ice and a soft pretzel. The prices are good, and the commute there is minimal. Just don’t tell my endocrinologist.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Among Oscar’s Slimmer Pickings, (Just) a Couple Stand Out This Year

I’m getting worried. This is the second year in a row that I am unenthused about the Oscar nominees. I am starting to believe that it’s the continuation of a trend, an inexorable decline in the film industry. Last year, I believed that all the nominated films were good, though none of them great. This year, I think my top two picks among the nominees are classics, but there are others that may not have been nominated in a better year. Some are out-and-out bad!

We may be witnessing a sea change where the best works are not being produced by traditional movie studios, but by upstarts like Amazon, Hulu and Netflix. Are less worthy projects and talents getting greenlighted today in Hollywood? I suspect that is the case.
For those of you who know my annual blog, you also know the drill: These are not my choices of the best films of 2017, nor are my predictions of who will win. This is how I rank this year’s Academy nominees, from worst to best, according to their innovation and uniquely cinematic quality. I often quote Roger Ebert’s single criterion: Which movie made me feel differently about film this year? That’s what I am looking at, and for the most part, I am underwhelmed.

FIRST, THE OVERLOOKED
It’s criminal that Taylor Sheridan’s Wind River received no recognition this year. Attribute that to the producer, that major persona non grata, Harvey Weinstein. Anything connected to him is cursed in Hollywood this year, maybe forever.

As director and screenwriter Sheridan showed in Hell or High Water, he is a master at many elements of cinematic storytelling. Here, a master tracker with the Fish and Wildlife Service (played with cool efficiency by Jeremy Renner) helps to investigate the murder of a young Native American woman in Alaska. As the story unravels, so does a tale of isolation, male dominance, cultural segregation, and, ultimately and hopefully, redemption. Well-acted throughout, a special shout out goes to Elizabeth Olsen, who gives a fine supporting performance as a law enforcement officer assigned to the case. (NOTE FOR LATER:  I felt much more connected to this theme of heartache over a young woman’s murder than I did months later with an ostensibly similar film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri.)

THE UNDESERVING
9. The Phantom Thread — Mark Twain quipped that a classic book is “something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.” Same with some “prestige” films like The Phantom Thread — people feel they should see them, but most can’t sit through them. Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Phantom Thread starts well enough as a handsomely detailed character study of 1950s London fashion designer, Reynolds Woodcock (stunningly played by Daniel Day-Lewis). The film shows Woodcock’s devotion to his craft, but with little room for anything or anyone else. Then enters Alma (Vicky Krieps), who eerily and without explanation becomes Galatea to Woodcock’s Pygmalion.  As we sit through Woodcock’s cakewalks, his personal quirks, and a murder plot that seems to come from another movie, the film eventually goes nowhere. The last cryptic shot of the film embodies the feelings of the audience with whom I shared this film: What was that about?

8. The Post —Director Steven Spielberg tells the story of how The Washington Post struggled to publish the Pentagon Papers, a classified document whose release helped end the Vietnam War. Meryl Streep gives a perfectly fine and nuanced performance as publisher Katherine Graham, though I never for a moment bought Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee. As a film about journalism, we get some cinematic flourishes, like close-ups of flashing phone buttons and trucking shots through a newsroom, spicing up an otherwise static story (this is Spielberg, after all). But I feel as though I saw this movie 40 years ago when All the President’s Men was released (which received a respectful nod in The Post’s final shot). Ultimately, The Post is much like eating your broccoli. Yes, it’s good for you and much more nutritious than other sugary fare. But it’s also not particularly interesting or very much fun.

7. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri — If I could give an award for “most overrated film of the year,” this would win hands down. I admit that I liked Frances McDormand in a focused, flinty performance. Another underappreciated favorite of mine, Sam Rockwell, injects some semblance of subtlety into a role that is grossly overwritten (emphasis on gross, in view of the gratuitous homophobic violence he commits). Both performers deserved more than this hot mess of a script — a grab bag of melodramatic, cheap theatrics with no narrative cohesion. Also, I felt no connection with any of the film’s characters, which is inexcusable in a film about an unsolved rape & murder. It all leads to an opaque and equivocal ending that is less thought-provoking than it is a device for ending the film because the screenwriter had nothing left to say.  This may well win Best Picture, but I didn’t like it one bit.

FLAWED COMPETITORS
6.  Darkest Hour — This could have turned out to be just one more account of how Winston Churchill singlehandedly dragged the U.K. by its collective lapels into World War II. But it turns out to be more. Directed crisply by Joe Wright (a tidy 89 minutes!), we first see Churchill’s late-life rise to power as Europe begins falling to Hitler’s lust for domination. Churchill stands alone as the leader who recognizes der Fuhrer’s threat, and we see how the Prime Minister rises, falls, and ultimately triumphs in guiding Britain to leadership. The film is ultimately driven by Gary Oldman’s bravura lead performance. (Please, let’s just hand this most respected actor the Oscar he has been denied so long.) The Book of Proverbs says that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Darkest Hour reminds us to thank our stars that Churchill arrived in time to promote a singular vision of a free world.

5. Call Me by Your Name — In its Italian pastoral setting, Luca Guadagnino’s film strikes a somnambulant tone that is sometimes too much (too little?) to bear. But look more closely to uncover its universal theme of longing and burgeoning adulthood in this story about Elio, a seventeen-year-old boy, and Oliver, a charismatic older man. In one of the most moving performances of the year, Timothée Chalamet conveys attraction, metamorphosed into love, only to lose that fleeting happiness to the realities of the world. Though the film is too languid for my tastes, there is no mistaking its tenderness, captured perfectly in the heartbreakingly long final shot. Special note: Watch actor Michael Stuhlberg performance in a poignant penultimate scene as Elio’s father. This fine actor is unrecognizable in The Post, The Shape of Water, even as Edward G. Robinson in Trumbo. Look for him in other films, if you can find him.

4. Lady Bird — More than another coming of age film, Lady Bird is a sweet memoir that felt as fresh to me as its title character, played by the wondrous Saoirse Rowan.  (How does this young Irish woman play American so well?) Rowan is supported ably by the rest of the cast, particularly Laurie Metcalf as her all-too-human mother, Tracy Letts as the supportive and understanding father, and Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, the Catholic school principal.  (The good sister has one of the most poignant lines when she compliments Lady Bird on the fullness of her writing. The girl says, “I guess I pay attention.” Sister Sarah Joan responds, “Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”)  Likewise, Lady Bird flourishes under the attention of director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig, who shows us just how challenging it is to grow into adulthood. A familiar story told touchingly by the ascendant Gerwig.

3. The Shape of Water — Much to love in this magical movie about a mysterious, saturnine amphibious creature that is captured in a Cold War-era lab and subjected to a cruel study. The flawless design evokes both the time and the Silver Age of DC comics, which were awash in sci-fi settings. Sally Hawkins is luminous as Elisa Esposito, the mute cleaning woman who begins communicating with her fellow misfit. Though Director Guillermo del Toro weaves these elements into a unique vision, he goes astray in several ways: A fantasy dance sequence seems lifted from The Artist. A room flooded for a romantic encounter strains credulity, even for a fantasy. Add interspecies coitus, and this overly long (by at least 20 minutes) concoction turns…silly; no other word for it. Del Toro will likely win Best Director, and I agree he shows a gift for using film to create an otherworldly world. This movie would be at the top of my list if he had also shown some restraint.

BEST OF CLASS OF 2017
2. Dunkirk — With 2007’s Atonement and this year’s Darkest Hour (both directed by Joe Wright, coincidentally), plus this epic by Christopher Nolan,  it appears the “miracle of Dunkirk” is getting new attention — a miracle because in May 1940, nearly 340,000 Allied forces were rescued from the French seaport of Dunkirk, mostly by civilian boats. (Had those troops perished, it is likely that the Nazis would have prevailed in World War II.) Dunkirk eschews the templates of previous war movies; rather than telling the story through characters, this movie places us directly in the bedlam of war, alternating between land, sea and air. Driven by highly credible re-creations of battle and anchored by powerful and compact performances, Dunkirk’s ultimate moral is how individuals can combine their forces to make a huge difference. Nolan makes large scale, larger-than-life filmmaking fashionable again.

1. Get Out — I have long admired comedian Jordan Peele’s witty takes and commentaries on race, violence, the National Football League, and other pertinent social issues as half of the Key and Peele TV show. But that insightful work didn’t prepare me for his jaw-dropping debut as a screenwriter and director in Get Out. With this film, he reinvents the horror genre in a way I would never imagine, injecting a social theme (specifically, race relations) into it, and it is not merely a perfunctory exercise. It is trenchant and powerful.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris Washington, an African American student and photographer, who is preparing to visit the home of his white girlfriend, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams of Girls, in an underrated performance). He asks if her parents know he is black; after all, he knows all too well the danger (or at least the discomfort) that lurks in such a situation. She assures him that all is okay. Instead, when Rose’s parents meet Chris, they are actually very accommodating, even a bit nervous. Overbearing, in fact. There are some patronizing comments from the dad, Dean Armitage (deliciously played by Bradley Whitfield). Example: “I would have voted for Obama a third time if I could have.” Mother Missy (an eerie Catherine Keener) stays more in the background, making her formidable presence known later.

Eventually, we learn that Dean, Missy and all their friends have a keen interest in black people, but for a horrifying reason. Chris’s uncovering of that secret forms the ensuing plot of this clever and fast-moving film. But don’t be misled by the chase scenes and comic relief (the latter supplied mostly by comedian LilRel Howery in a hilarious turn as Chris’s friend, Rod, proud of his stature as a TSA agent). Peele makes pointed statements about how we as American people cannot talk to each other, and also how racism causes many people to devalue others. As an auteur, he is smart, insightful and resourceful. Most important to his filmmaking aspirations, Peele is also efficient and polished: Get Out is well paced, clocking in at just an hour and 44 minutes, certainly not bloated as many first films can be. And it is economical. The film was made for just $5 million, and having grossed more than $30 million, it is profitable several times over. That alone should boost Peele’s stock in Hollywood. I can’t wait to see what new projects will come his way as a result of this success. Same for Daniel Kaluuya; he is a revelation in his role as Chris, and he was deservedly nominated for an Academy Award for his nuanced performance.

For its witty and perceptive screenplay, the integration of special effects, a uniformly high caliber of performances, and above all, its consistent vision of its theme, I see Get Out as the best film among the Oscar nominees this year.

On March 4, Oscar turns 90, and it is satisfying to see so much diversity behind the camera in many craft categories being honored this year. They are all well-deserved, adding a special touch to this year’s ceremony. I will be looking forward, past this year’s ceremony, toward the 2018 crop of films, hoping that they can raise the ante a little bit for next year’s ceremony.


Friday, February 24, 2017

Oscars 2017 — Pat’s Picks, Predictions and Potential Threats to Your Pool

Going to an Oscar party this Sunday night? If so, here is help for your Oscar pool —my fearless predictions for who will win, who should win, and the nominees who might upset the Academy’s applecart in the top six categories: picture, director and the four acting categories.  (For those of you who doubt my credentials, I have a success rate above 90 percent, and even when I am not correct, I am always certain.)


Truthfully, this year’s prognostication is a bit easier because of the momentum of La La Land, the frontrunner with 14 nominations. While a backlash against the film is possible, I doubt it. The film is appealing, accessible, and it is about Hollywood’s favorite subject: Itself. So it should dominate the awards, even against more deserving competition. Here is how I see the race shaping up:

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

  • MAHERSHALA ALI — Moonlight
  • JEFF BRIDGES — Hell or High Water
  • LUCAS HEDGES — Manchester by the Sea
  • DEV PATEL — Lion
  • MICHAEL SHANNON — Nocturnal Animals

PREFERENCEMahershala Ali. I never saw Ali’s work before, but he captivated my attention in this film and also with a gentle yet commanding turn in Hidden Figures. I am a fan of his going forward, and I’m cheering for him here.
PREDICTION Mahershala Ali. Ali won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award, and the actors comprise the largest block in the Academy membership. Also, his lovely supporting performance in Hidden Figures allows the Academy to honor his body of work for the year.
POOL DISRUPTOR?Dev Patel. Patel has been a reliable actor since he was in a previous best picture, Slumdog Millionaire. He also won the UK’s BAFTA award, so he could steal this. However, it’s more likely that the nomination itself is his recognition.

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE


  • VIOLA DAVIS — Fences
  • NAOMIE HARRIS — Moonlight
  • NICOLE KIDMAN — Lion
  • OCTAVIA SPENCER — Hidden Figures
  • MICHELLE WILLIAMS — Manchester by the Sea


PREFERENCE — Viola Davis. Davis conveys a wide variety of emotions throughout this film, ranging from joy, to disappointment, to sorrow, to anger, and finally to acceptance. No actress supported a film as magnificently as she did.
PREDICTION — Viola Davis. Davis could have been submitted for lead actress but traded down to ensure a win. One of Hollywood’s most respected players, she has won everything else in this award season, and she is due.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Sorry, but no one will upset Ms. Davis. I have as much of a chances of nabbing this award as the other four nominees do. This is as close to a lock as you will ever see in an Oscar race.

ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

  • CASEY AFFLECK — Manchester by the Sea
  • ANDREW GARFIELD — Hacksaw Ridge
  • RYAN GOSLING — La La Land
  • VIGGO MORTENSEN — Captain Fantastic
  • DENZEL WASHINGTON — Fences


PREFERENCE — Viggo Mortensen. As the iconoclast raising his kids off the grid, forced to face the real world (literally and figuratively) during a tragedy, Mortenson gives a believable and original performance. But he is a Hollywood outsider, so unlikely to win here. 
PREDICTION — Denzel Washington. Affleck had been the front-runner (which I don’t get, given his monotonous, zombie-like performance). But his recent bad behavior has reportedly turned off voters. Between that and his SAG win, the iconic Washington is poised for his third Oscar. 
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Ryan Gosling. He reached outside his range by singing and dancing in La La Land. Given that the film is this year’s darling, he could possible ride its coattails to his first Oscar in an upset.

ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE


  • ISABELLE HUPPERT — Elle
  • RUTH NEGGA — Loving
  • NATALIE PORTMAN — Jackie
  • EMMA STONE — La La Land
  • MERYL STREEP — Florence Foster Jenkins


PREFERENCE — Emma Stone. Okay, her singing and dancing were passable. But when Stone emoted in this role, she showed a range most performers don’t have. She’s this year’s Jennifer Lawrence; she is already due for an Oscar even at her young age.
PREDICTION — Emma Stone. Since her breakout in Easy A, Stone has worked steadily and reliably, amassing an impressive portfolio. Given her SAG victory over much of this same field, and the way Oscar likes pretty young woman, the odds favor her. 
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Isabelle Huppert. A respected and much-honored European actress, voters may feel her time has come (surprisingly, her first Oscar nod),  and that younger actresses like Stone and Negga still have time, while Portman and Streep already have their Oscars.

BEST DIRECTOR

  • LA LA LAND —  Damien Chazelle
  • MOONLIGHT —  Barry Jenkins
  • HACKSAW RIDGE —  Mel Gibson
  • MANCHESTER BY THE SEA —  Kenneth Lonergan
  • ARRIVAL —  Denis Villeneuve

PREFERENCE — Denis Villeneuve. Villeneuve fashioned an otherworldly world, portraying extraterrestrials uniquely, creating a new language, and manipulating the time/space continuum. Considering that La La Land’s Chazelle openly cribbed from a variety of past musicals, Villeneuve’s work was startlingly original by comparison. 
PREDICTION — Damien Chazelle. When Chazelle made Whiplash some years back, I called him an emergent and visionary artist. Now he’s made the feel-good movie in a year when we really needed something to feel good about, and he’ll be rewarded for that.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Barry Jenkins. Jenkins is the flavor of the month, making his first feature on a shoestring, turning a profit with it, and shining a light on a neglected segment of society. He could be a surprise winner here.

BEST PICTURE

  • ARRIVAL
  • FENCES
  • HACKSAW RIDGE
  • HELL OR HIGH WATER
  • HIDDEN FIGURES
  • LA LA LAND
  • LION
  • MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
  • MOONLIGHT 

PREFERENCE — Arrival. Perplexing and challenging, Arrival’s cinematic qualities are unique. It moves us not only around our world and beyond, but to the interiors of its characters, exploring how we may choose to love, even in the face of preordained tragedy. 
PREDICTION — La La Land. Singing and dancing, starring two young and charming performers. What’s not to love about this confection? People complain that “They just don’t make movies like that anymore!” Damian Chazelle did, establishing his future in Hollywood by mining its past.
POOL DISRUPTOR? — Hidden Figures. This won the SAG‘s “best ensemble” prize — essentially that group’s best picture award. Could there be an undercurrent of Oscar voters dying to honor this sweet movie? If any film is poised to upset LLL, this could be it.

Feel free to toast me when you astound your friends and family with your uncanny predictions. And if it turns out that I’ve misled you, just load up on the guacamole dip and enjoy the rest of the party. After all, it’s only the Oscars.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Oscars 2017 -- Slim Pickings in a So-so Year

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has suggested which movies of 2016 are the best. The result for me is that I am less interested in this Oscar cast that I have been since Driving Miss Daisy nabbed the top prize in a snoozer of a ceremony.
This is a down year for me. There are many good films here, but none that I would term great. I doubt that there are any classics here, and I also don’t think that the Academy overlooked any hidden or underappreciated gems. Simply put, I think there were slim pickings in 2016.
Still, this is a task I take on, so here is how I rank the nine nominated films, in descending order. These are not my predictions, but my estimation of their innovation, uniquely cinematic quality, and overall excellence. I have often stated that I follow the Roger Ebert rule. I think the best film of a given year should make me look at cinema differently. Only one film did that for me in 2016.
By the way, there is one common positive element among all the nominated films this year: The acting is really good, not just among the Oscar nominees, but throughout all the casts. It used to be said that film is a director’s medium while the stage belongs to actors. But this year’s crop of performances must have been hard to pare down. Bravo to all.

So here goes.

How Did That One Get In?

9. Lion — This movie has all the earmarks of Oscar bait: A pathetic child. Let’s elaborate on that: Make that “a pathetic child who is separated from parents.” Heart-rending absences.  Climax of an inevitable and predictable closing. (I won’t detail the closing because I don’t want you to say I spoiled it for you. But if you operate on a mental level above Forrest Gump’s, you’ll see it coming a mile away.)  The plot of this two-hour film could have been told in about 40 minutes. Instead, it is padded with B reel of train rides, Google Earth looking down on terrains, and faces filled with longing. While I am happy to see Dev Patel get an overdue acting nomination, Lion is the Filomena of 2017, a cloying film that breaks no cinematic or scriptwriting ground, but instead relies on sentimental clichés.

Worthy Competitors

8. Fences —Denzel Washington’s challenge in directing Fences was to free it from its stage origins. While the film is still more talky and “stagey” than you want a film to be, Washington triumphs in the raw emotion he conveys, thanks to the wonderful performances he elicits from his skilled cast. Yes, let’s just hand Viola Davis her Oscar now. What you’ve heard is correct; she IS that great as long-suffering Rose, wife of protagonist Troy Maxson. Washington himself is terrific in the lead, and given his recent Screen Actors Guild award, I predict he will win Best Actor. They are both ably supported by a fine cast, including Stephen McKinley Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby and Mykelti Williamson. August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize –winning play (which he adapted for this movie) has created a new Death of a Salesman, replete with anguish, disillusionment and betrayal. Washington has honored Mr. Wilson’s work with this adaptation.

7. Moonlight — I admire much about this freshman effort from director Barry Jenkins. The autobiographical story of its main character, Chiron, is moving as the young man gropes for his place in the world. Moonlight is also filled with terrific performances, particularly Naomie Harris as Chiron’s crack-addicted mother and Mahershala Ali as the neighborhood drug dealer who mentors the boy. That Jenkins could shoot his film so quickly and so quickly and have it turn a profit is remarkable. However, I found that its torpid third act, which goes nowhere for the longest time, killed the momentum built to that point. I expect a well-deserved Oscar for Ali, who is charismatically electrifying in every frame he fills. I also foresee an undeserved adapted screenplay award to Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney. I predict that in a few years we will wonder what the hubbub of this film was about.

6. Hacksaw Ridge — This film tells the dramatic story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector during The Good War who ends up winning the Congressional Medal of Honor, not by killing a single enemy soldier but by saving 75 fellow soldiers.  I found Hacksaw Ridge to be the most technically accomplished film of all nine nominees. Its cinematography, production design, editing and special effects are superb. Though the film is a little long, director Mel Gibson still manages to navigate the narrative skillfully. Along the way he gets fine performances from his actors, your typical Hollywood cast of ethnic and temperamental misfits who come together (predictably) on the battlefield. Andrew Garfield does a fine job of bringing Doss’s unlikely story to life. It is a story well worth telling, and Doss is a man who deserves to be remembered. I am grateful for Hacksaw Ridge.

5. Hidden FiguresHidden Figures tells the story of three African-American women who worked for NASA during the nascent years of the U.S. space program. Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the impossibly brilliant mathematician at the center of the film. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) takes it upon herself to guide the space agency into the computer age, wresting control of the behemoth IBM machine that lands there. Finally, Janelle Monáe is Mary Jackson, fighting in court to attend a segregated classroom to become an engineer. The trifurcated story moves gracefully under the skillful direction of Theodore Melfi. There are cliché moments to be sure (The boss crowbars the sign to a segregated ladies’ room! The snooty white male mathematician gets his comeuppance!). Still, even though Hidden Figures does not always amount to high drama, it typifies Hollywood when its heart is in the right place.

4. Hell or High Water — Such a pleasure to see this polished gem get the recognition of Oscar love! Hell or High Water is a fitting morality tale for this era of resentment against the haves of this country by their victims. Two brothers rob banks so they can get back the ranch that was once theirs — hitting the very banks that bilked their family!  Solid performances abound. Chris Pine and Ben Foster as the brothers play two men searching for justice rather than revenge, with Pine measured and controlled and  Foster like a pop bottle ready to explode in the hot Texas sun. Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham anchor the film with supporting performances as the sheriff and deputy hunting the criminals. David Mackenzie shows a real feel for the land and character portrayed in the movie, directing this film with an economy and focus that wastes not a frame.  

3. La La LandLa La Land begins on a Los Angeles off-ramp filled with stalled cars. Suddenly the drivers dance in one of the most vibrant movie openings ever filmed. We also meet Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone), who are searching for love and stardom, he as a jazzman, she as an actress. What an opening!
Apparently this film is everyone’s darling, but after this auspicious opening, it moves unevenly, charming at times, but also settling to a snail’s pace. I liked La La Land, but not as much as everyone else seems to, and not even as much as I wanted to.  How groundbreaking is a musical that admittedly borrows liberally from past works? Also, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone kind of sing and dance, but not well enough to anchor a movie like this. I appreciate the chutzpah of making a musical in these grouchy times, but it didn’t make my number 1.
(As a bonus to my readers, here is a link to a Saturday Night Live sketch that I loved. It features a suspect being grilled by the police for having the impudence NOT TO LOVE LA LA LAND! It also helps explain why it didn't make the top of my list.)

2. Manchester by the Sea —Lee Chandler is a struggling laborer, suffering silently through an untold tragedy (voiced later in a heartbreaking piece of acting by Michelle Williams).  Then Lee is unexpectedly tasked with caring for his late brother’s son, a role he neither wants nor seems suited to.  As we slowly uncover Lee’s character in Kenneth Lonergan’s moving screenplay, there are no grand heroics. We witness the quotidian triumphs we achieve in our everyday responsibilities. Some films eschew cheap sentiment, loud music, and other tricks to move us. Better films earn our engagement by appealing to our common humanity. Manchester by the Sea is a fine example of the latter, a movie that seems populated by real people like you and me. (By the way, one negative point here: I do not get the acclaim for Affleck in the lead. I don’t believe that moping around with your mouth open constitutes great acting.)

1. Arrival — Roger Ebert once stated that film directors are “set free from the rules of the physical universe and the limitations of human actors, and can tell any story his mind can conceive.” This principle puts Arrival at the top of my list of the Oscar-nominated films of 2016. I found it to be the entry that most tested our notions of how to use film not only to tell a story but to challenge our imaginations.
Arrival is what’s known as “a thinking person’s science fiction movie.” Sometimes that phrase refers to a movie that is absent special effects and, worse, dull. But Arrival is perplexing and complicated, and it is also surprisingly moving. The story begins when spaceships from an unknown, unnamed planet land at seemingly random spots around the world. A group of linguists, including Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is gathered to determine how to communicate with these aliens. What is their mission? Are they on earth in peace or to conquer us?
To complicate matters for us, the viewer, director Denis Villeneuve has the film jump back and forth in time and place, showing Louise with a small child and then a young adult woman. Is this one and the same person? What is the story here?
I can’t say too much more so as not to give away the plot. But I will say that I have viewed great films over the years that use editing to alter our sense of time and place and also to advance several stories at one time. Examples include the great silent film, Intolerance, as well as Citizen Kane, Nashville, Crash and Inception. Villeneuve took a seemingly unfilmable short story and brought it to life on the big screen, testing our very notion of this temporal world (a key plot point) as only cinema can.
NOTE: Villeneuve is in the post-production of Blade Runner 20149, the sequel set 30 years after the original. I can’t wait to see what he does with that material.


So once again, I will take a look at next Sunday’s broadcast, curious to see who wins but not in very much suspense. I will probably not even be overly engaged. I expect La La Land to take the lion’s share of the prizes (e.g., best picture, director, actress, probably score and one of the songs, maybe even best original screenplay). But I am already holding out to see what is released in the remainder of 2017, hoping for some films that are a little bit better that this year’s crop.