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Movie Crash Course 2019 Oscar Extra Credit – PostScript

….I was so quick to check the list of Best Picture nominees for this year, that I missed that there was a very large and glaring omission in the Best Documentary category.  The Fred Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor was not nominated for a dang thing.

That feels wrong on a cosmic level.  But instead of taking to Twitter or anything I’m going to just Be More Like Fred….

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Movie Crash Course – 2019 Oscar Extra Credit

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So!  Way before the Crash Course, I made a promise to myself that I would try to see all of the Best Picture Oscar nominees by the time the awards are announced.  That’s gotten tricky in recent years, after they changed the rules to allow for more than five nominees, but it’s still lead me to see some fantastic contemporary films that I may not have seen otherwise (y’all, I’ve already started writing my Crash Course review for Call Me By Your Name even though I won’t need to post it for about five years or so because that’s how much I love it, and I’m not sure I’d have seen it if it wasn’t nominated and oh god how worse off I would be).

So this morning, almost as soon as I was able, I checked the list of nominees for this year to get my marching orders.  And the nominees are:

  • Black Panther
  • BlacKkKlansman
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • The Favourite
  • Green Book
  • Roma
  • A Star Is Born
  • Vice

…There are a couple of surprises here.  I thought First Man would have been kind of a shoe-in, and I’m a bit disappointed that If Beale Street Could Talk didn’t get any Best Picture love.  But most surprising of all is that Black Panther got nominated.  Alex and I discussed this a few days ago; I thought it was getting an unusually high amount of buzz, but Alex was doubtful.  “It was good, but it was a superhero movie,” he sighed.  “It’s not gonna get nominated.”   (I confess that one of my first acts upon reading the list was to text him at work with the news; he’s just as pleasantly surprised as I am.)

I’ve also managed to have seen more of the nominees this year than I usually have at this stage.  I hadn’t seen Black Panther in theaters, but had an inkling Oscar would be kind, and watched it at home recently.  Others have raved about how it depicts women and people of color, and I absolutely agree; I was also surprised to find myself pondering what the film seemed to be saying about the responsibility placed upon you when you find yourself blessed with privilege and power.  If you have the means to help benefit others, doesn’t it behoove you to do so?  Or do you have a greater responsibility to protect yourself and those in your circle?

These were deep thoughts from a Marvel comics movie.

I’ve discussed my response to BlacKkKlansman before.  The third film I’ve already seen is Vice, which I saw with my parents on Boxing Day this year.  Mom and Dad fortunately share a lot of my political beliefs; when we do differ, it’s more of a Nancy-Pelosi-vs.-Alexandria-Ocasio-Cortez thing, where we have the same ideals but differ only in how aggressively we should pursue them.  So watching Vice was an interesting exercise in conversion for me (“Oh, man, I knew he was bad but I didn’t know he was that bad!”  “….guys, this is stuff I was trying to tell y’all in 2003.”).  Vice was created by the same team that did The Big Short, and that same kind of dark-humor fourth-wall-punching approach brought some much-needed levity to the story; if it was nothing but a whole listing of Dick Cheney’s misdeeds, the film would have been impossibly dour.  But as it was, I heard as much laughter in the crowd around me as I was hearing gasps of shock; and I admit, I was cheered to hear as many of those gasps as I did.  (Again: I’m one of those people who’s known about the ills of the Bush/Cheney administration since 2003.)

So this leaves me with a marching list of five films:

  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • The Favourite
  • Green Book
  • Roma
  • A Star Is Born

I think that there are a couple of those that I would only be able to see on Netflix at this stage as it is.  Which is fine for someone of temporarily-slender means.  But – as I was saying, there are some films each year that I probably would only have seen because of their nomination, and for some of those films I already know that it’s not really gonna be my bag.  In recent years I’ve just been skipping those films altogether; I didn’t see La La Land, I also didn’t see Lady Bird.  And as much as I respect Bradley Cooper, I’m getting a similar vibe off A Star Is Born this year.

But we’ll see.  I have a month and will have a good deal more free time; let’s see what I can do.  I might be pleasantly surprised.

Movie Crash Course: The Story Of The Last Chrysanthemums

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The slow, meandering pace of this film almost put me off at first; most of the scenes are slow, the takes are long, conversations are long and winding, things felt like they were just taking a darn long time to get going.  But that slow pace ended up sucking me into an affecting story despite myself.

Set in the theater world of Japan in the 1880s, it’s the story of Kiku (Shotaro Hanayagi), the adopted son of a renowned Kabuki actor. Kiku is being groomed to follow in the family business, and he is everywhere celebrated as the successor to his father’s theatrical dynasty – at least when he’s in the room.  When he leaves, however, everyone gossips about how bad he is, largely because he’s spending his nights partying with the geishas instead of perfecting his craft. Kiku starts to question everyone’s praise, however, taking aside a couple trusted friends to get an honest opinion; but they too tell him no, everything’s fine.  The first person to ever speak frankly with him about his talent is Otoku (Kakuko Mori), a servant girl in his family’s house; she’s the wet nurse for Kiku’s baby brother, but snuck out one night to watch him perform.  And….she didn’t dig it.  But – she eagerly tells Kiku – she believes he could be good if he started to really practice at it.

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Otoku’s sincerity and faith touch Kiku deeply, and he falls for her hard, swearing off the partying and staying home to study his art.  But of course, since Otoku is also there, Kiku’s family gets the wrong idea about why he’s home all the time now, and fires Otoku. An indignant Kiku announces he’s leaving as well; if he’s going to become an actor, he wants to succeed on his own merits instead of riding his father’s coattails, so he’s going to go off and pay his dues.  And he’ll have Otoku with him when he does, so there.

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The next several years are grueling for the couple, as Kiku struggles for gigs – regional theater here, cheap touring companies there – with Otoku struggling to hang on and support him, selling her few belongings and doing odd-job sewing to make ends meet.  They go through poverty, sickness, and disillusionment, Otoku trying harder and harder to encourage Kiku to keep going.  In desperation one day, when she sees that Kiku’s uncle is producing a show in the small town where they’re staying, she sneaks to him and begs him to cast Kiku in something, swearing that Kiku’s struggles have lead him to hone his craft.  Kiku’s uncle makes her a deal: he’ll cast Kiku in his latest show and see how he’s doing. If Kiku’s really a better actor, they’ll bring Kiku back home to Tokyo – but without Otoku, since Kiku’s father never approved of their union.  Do they have a deal?

It’s a pretty soapy melodramatic plot.  But the slow pace ended up working its patient magic with me, and I ended up sucked into the story; grieving with the couple when they were stuck in doing cheap show tours, rejoicing with Otoku when Kiku tracked her down after her dismissal.  The calibre of Kakuko’s performance drew me in as well; there’s a moment when Kiku is giving that pivotal performance with his uncle’s company, with scores of different people watching eagerly from the wings, Otoku among them, to see what will happen.  But Otoku can’t watch after a while, and flees to a space under the stage; but then she lingers, listening to his show, torn between hope for his success and pain for what his success would mean to her.  She says nothing – only listens, aching.

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The film also resonates with an old theater person like me; even though the performers are doing kabuki instead of something more familiar to Western eyes, there are some lengthy clips of Kiku’s performances that allow you to track his progress.  There’s even an unintentionally funny bit where the road show Kiku’s in gets its contract cancelled early because the theater manager wants to bring in a female sumo act; and he’s brought the lady wrestlers in as muscle to evict the actors.

But it’s mostly a tragic tale, quietly affecting in its sincerity;  much like the quiet Otoku.

Bit Of A Bobble

So things got an eensy bit quiet in here for a couple days and I should probably explain why.

A few days ago, I learned that the company I work for is closing its office in New York City.  There is no option for me to do my job remotely.

So….yeah.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) this is not a wholly new situation for me.  The bulk of my employment history was during the ten years following the financial collapse, and for a few years temporary work was all there was to be had.  So I’ve thrown myself full-tilt into a job search, and am pretty confident this will just be a few months’ bobble, and I’ll console myself by humming “Another Suitcase In Another Hall” now and then.

In the meantime – I’m keeping up with the Movie Crash Course, of course, and am going to definitely keep up with some of my other resolutions, especially the five-photos-a-week and the new-neighborhood-a-month.  A lot of the things I was planning on doing will require nothing more than time to accomplish anyway – and time is something I’ll have a little more of than planned for a few weeks.

Right.  Onward.

Movie Crash Course: Babes In Arms

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I was initially amused to see that Busby Berkley directed this film, an early Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland vehicle.  But the more I think about it, the more it makes total sense.

You probably guessed when I mentioned the two stars; but confirming that yes, this is an early film from the genre “Hey, let’s put on a show in the barn and save the orphanage!”  You know what I mean – small community facing financial hardship, plucky teens have the idea to put on some kind of show as a fundraiser, rehearsals are a mess but it all comes together and the day is saved.  Often with a side order of “producer boy enlists local hottie as the lead, but realizes the girl next door is actually better and recasts at the last minute”, frequently with a garnish of “and they fall in love too”.  It’s become a very familiar trope, getting used in everything from The Blues Brothers to The Full Monty to TV’s Scrubs and The Brady Bunch and a number of others.  It’s even inspired real-life attempts (in 2009, I helped stage manage such a show to raise funds for my high school’s music program).

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With Babes in Arms, however, there was another nuance that I only caught in retrospect.  In this film, the kids are all show-biz kids, the sons and daughters of old vaudevillians now struggling to book shows  in the movie era.  Many of the kids – especially Mickey Moran (Rooney) were part of the family act and are on the cusp of embarking on solo careers; Moran is trying to break into songwriting, encouraged by his girl Patsy Barton (Garland), herself a fine singer.  But when the parents all team up to collectively launch a greatest-hits revival tour, in a desperate bid for money, they insist the kids sit this one out.  Some even suggest to their kids that they could consider other careers.

But these are theater kids.  And speaking as a former theater kid – telling us to give theater up does not work.  It just makes us twice as determined that we will put on a boffo show and show you we can do it, so there.

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It’s a fantastically predictable plot; the kids struggle to put on the show, Moran and Barton have a lovers’ tiff after he casts the silly Rosalie “Baby” Essex as the lead (she’s a former child star with gobs of money, but Barton gets jealous), there are initial disasters, but everything works out in the end – this time, with a Busby-Berkley-choreographed production number.  But Berkley’s involvement added a particular bit of subtext; maybe it was unintentional, but this felt like a bit of a torch-passing, with the cast from earlier musical movies giving ground to a team of younger and fresher-faced performers.  One of Berkley’s regular go-to character actors, Guy Kibbee, even has a role as a sympathetic judge who buys up a whole block of seats for the kids’ show as a gesture of support.  And in a poignant note towards the end, Moran and his father have had a severe falling-out about the younger Moran’s show business career – largely sparked by the father’s career collapsing right when his son’s career is dawning.  But Moran fils finds a way to extend an olive branch by giving his father a job on the show and making him feel valued by show biz again, even in his dotage.

Even Berkley’s final number is different, doing away with most of the pyrotechnics and showcasing his young leads.  It’s still gloriously excessive – a whole team of dancers filling the aisles and stage of a theater, dancing and singing about the simple pleasures of the U.S. of A. – but instead of a tightly choreographed team of nameless smiling dancers in a swimming pool, the centerpiece of the number is Rooney and Garland trying to do impressions of FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt delivering their weekly radio addresses before leading a group of folk-costumed folks from other lands in a tap dance. It’s no longer 1932; the times are different, the priorities are different, and there are younger, newer stars – grateful for those who paved their way, but eager to set out on their own in a land that’s now theirs for the shaping.  It was a surprisingly poignant note to end on.

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….I have one confession by way of epilogue.  There was one scene that I simply could not watch all the way through, and I mention it only as a warning. The scene depicting the kids’ initial performance of their review is a salute to minstrel shows, which ultimately sees the whole cast in blackface singing a medley of minstrel songs – save for one lone young man, dressed all in white and sitting in a grand chair on the stage, and looking for all the world like a plantation owner surveying his “staff” as they entertained him.  Now, I know that this was a scene very much of its time and that I am a person very much of my own time, but I’ve seen quite enough of that. I fast-forwarded it all until the end, where – possibly karmically – a rainstorm interrupts the kids’ open-air performance, leaving Mickey Rooney pleading with the audience to stay as the rain washes off his blackface.

…Good for the rain.

Movie Crash Course: The Rules Of The Game

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Like Ninotchka, Jean Renoir’s The Rules Of The Game is also set in and around Paris in the short months leading up to the Second World War.  ….And….that’s about the only thing they have in common, ultimately.

Ninotchka takes a lighthearted, sentimental view of the kind of gaiety and pitching woo they claim is indicative of late 1930s French society.  Renoir is a bit more critical, however; his characters are all a cosmopolitan and worldly, and most are also really jaded; and some are also completely nuts.  Most of the action takes place at a house party thrown by the Chesnayes, Robert and Christine, at their estate in the country.  Christine (Nora Gregor) has a fervent admirer in Andre (Roland Toutain), a stunt aviator who’s just made a successful trans-Atlantic crossing to impress Christine; while Robert has been trying to end his affair with Genevieve (Mila Parely), another single socialite.  Their old friend Octave (Jean Renoir himself) is serving as agony aunt for all of them, all the while secretly harboring his own crush on Christine, whom he’s known since childhood.  Octave appeases his crush by dallying with Christine’s maid Lisette (Paulette Dubost), who’s married to Schumacher, the gamekeeper at the country estate; but when Robert spontaneously gives local poacher Marceau a job, Lisette soon starts checking him out too.  That entire entangled web of people decamps to the Chesnaye’s estate for a week to celebrate Andre’s successful flight – and over the course of that week, mayhem ensues.

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Now, you’d think that a lot of the mayhem would take the form of people sneaking in and out of bedrooms and merrily humping on balconies and such.  But the physical affection here is surprisingly chaste; the most we see are some lingering kisses and fully-clothed embraces.  But they’re enough to spark jealousy, as Christine spies on Robert and Genevieve in an embrace (not knowing that it’s intended as a farewell), and as Schumacher catches Marceau trying to canoodle with Lisette in the servants’ kitchen.

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And both jealousies come to a head late in the film, during a masquerade ball thrown by the Chesnayes; the whole ball is a completely bonkers sequence with Christine trying to make both Robert and Andre jealous by flirting with another random guest as Schumacher chases Marceau through the packed party with a gun, the rest of the house staff in hot pursuit.  Robert and Andre also finally have it out, Genevieve challenges Robert to finally choose between her and Christine, and all the while – and I’m not kidding about this – Octave is inexplicably blundering around in a bear costume begging people to help him unzip it.  It’s a whole bunch of simmering stuff finally brought to a head, almost like if someone tried to wrap up all the plot threads in an entire season of Downton Abbey in only five minutes.

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While the ball scene is funny, there’s a tragic “things are only funny until someone gets hurt” ending to the film I won’t divulge here; playing up that the ridiculous hijinks that the upper classes were indulging in were ultimately foolish and pointless, and a dangerous distraction in the runup to war.  Renoir included an even more critical sequence earlier in the film, with a lengthy and unnervingly-detailed hunting sequence. The house guests are all dispatched to their various blinds and issued their guns; but instead of shooting at clay targets, they’re shooting at actual animals, with a team of servants dispatched to flush out rabbits and pheasants from the surrounding woods and relentlessly driving them into the line of fire.  Just to hammer the point home, Renoir includes several shots of some of the animals being shot down, including one disturbing shot of a rabbit twitching in its death throes after being hit.

Not all the shots are this grim, fortunately.  There is some striking camera work throughout; Renoir invested in some cameras with super-deep fields of focus, to let him capture as much detail in the long corridors and huge rooms at the chateau where he was filming.  Fortunately, this also let him set up some shots during the ball scene with one set of characters in the foreground while another set got up to other hijinks in the background, to emphasize how all these stories were unfolding at the same time and generally add to the chaos.  There’s also a short and affecting shot towards the end, where Octave is out in the gardens with Christine and is recalling a moment when he saw her father, a famous conductor, approach the podium at an orchestra; as Octave, Renoir approaches the head of a set of stairs, turning to the gardens just like his long-lost hero turned to his musicians.

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We can laugh at these people, Renoir seems to be saying – in fact, we should laugh at them.  But we should also be angry at their callousness and their folly, for losing sight of the good they could have done, and for where the world went when they weren’t looking.  Renoir was certain that the simmering global tensions that were underway while he was filming would at some point spill over into war, and placed the responsibility for that war squarely on the carelessness of the upper classes.  Gaiety and pitching woo is all very nice, but if it distracts you from taking care of the people around you and leads you into hurting others, or if it comes at anothers’ expense, that fun and frolic can suddenly turn tragic.

Non-Movie Checking In

Right! So let’s see how I’m doing when I’m not doing movies.

  • I have been spending the past couple days trying to set up the new home for the Movie Crash Course so that it does not look like a smacked ass.  Once I do that, then comes the fun of copying the past 136-and-counting reviews over to that site, and then I go live.  (I’ll post reviews both here AND there until the end of January, I think, before turning the movies off here; I will post copious links to the new site so people can switch over, fret not.)
  • I made it out to the Brooklyn Museum for their first First Saturday.  As is my wont, I steered clear of all the special programs and just confined myself to wandering the galleries proper, visiting a couple of my favorite works.
  • I think I’m getting the hang of my camera.  It was cold as balls when I went to take a photo this weekend, though.
  • After signing up for the Penguin UK challenge, I heard….nothing.  So I’m going to do something a little different – I also have a copy of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die book, and heck, the movie list is doing well by me; so I’m going to try reading 12 books out of that list I haven’t read yet.  I’ve somehow acquired a copy of something by Maritn Amis and am already diving in.
  • And finally, I’ve stumbled upon a dippy list of “French-inspired resolutions for the year,” and think I’ll adopt a couple; a monthly visit to a cafe and a monthly movie in a movie theater sound like fine ideas.