Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Broadcast News (1987)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

We're headed back to 1987 for a look at James L. Brooks' third film, Broadcast News, starring Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks, about a trio of characters who work in the, well, broadcast news business but get snared in both a love triangle and a professional one.  

Holly Hunter is Jane Craig, a star producer so in-demand she has no time for a social life, who sees the TV news industry on the verge of crisis as it becomes more about fluff and sensationalism.  Albert Brooks is her best friend and colleague Aaron Altman, an extremely talented journalist who lacks social skills and isn't particularly photogenic, and thus isn't seen as anchor material.  William Hurt is Tom Grunick, a former sportscaster given an anchor position despite not being particularly qualified, mostly on the basis of the camera loving him and his innate ability to "sell" a story.  Tom is hired by the Washington DC news affiliate where Jane and Aaron work - Jane is initially repelled by him because of his (admitted) lack of qualifications but also strangely attracted to him for his looks and willingness to learn, while Aaron resents him immediately as he himself becomes persona non grata, both at the station and as a romantic suitor for Jane.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Nightmare Alley (2021)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Time for another of this year's Best Picture nominees, the atmospheric, dread-laced film noir by acclaimed director Guillermo del Toro, Nightmare Alley!  Starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Toni Collette and Willem Dafoe, Nightmare Alley is the second film adaptation based on the 1946 novel about a down-on-his-luck carny, on the lam for murdering his father, who joins up with a traveling carnival and gradually carves out a lucrative grift for himself as a mentalist.  

Cooper's character Stan takes carnival grunt work at first but befriends a married couple who teach him the ins and outs of the carnival's psychic act Madame Zeena (Toni Collette), warning him however that learning too much about this particular con, especially when it involves "contacting the dead," will only end badly for him.  Meanwhile the carnival owner Clem (Dafoe) explains how he gets drunk vagrants to agree to join the "Man or Beast" geek show, by getting them hooked on opium and threatening to fire them if they don't go all-in to sell the act.  Stan convinces Molly, one of the other performers who does an electrocution act, to leave with him and put together their own psychic show, using the system of verbal cues Zeena and her husband Pete taught him, and they become a success in Buffalo, NY, performing for wealthy spectators.  The aforementioned warnings of course go unheeded and things take a turn when Stan is recruited for private consultations regarding deceased loved ones, for which he enlists the help of a noted psychologist (a steamy femme fatale performance by Blanchett) who knows much about Stan's new clientele.  I won't divulge anything further, but if you know the genre or the fatalistic nature of Greek tragedy, you can imagine where this is going...  

Top Ten Things: Well-Deserved Oscars

Welcome to another Oscar-related edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

You might say I've got Oscars on the brain, because today's edition is comprised of occasions when the Academy absolutely got it right, in terms of awarding acting performances.  I've talked before about times Oscar has snubbed a great performance, and about shocking upsets, but there have certainly been times the right person won for the right role.  In fact there have been years when I've decided, "Regardless what wins Best Picture and all the others, as long as this person wins this award I'll be happy."  Below are fifteen such examples, in chronological order.

1. Rita Moreno (West Side Story)

Steven Spielberg's West Side Story may have defied expectations for a remake of a beloved classic, but said beloved classic still holds up all these years later, and one of the main reasons is because of the supporting turn by Rita Moreno as the strong-willed, sassy firecracker Anita.  Torn between her independent streak and her loyalty to boyfriend Bernardo and his gang, Anita reluctantly supports her best friend Maria's romantic pursuit of sworn enemy Tony, while at the same time trying to instill upon Maria how futile such a relationship really is.  Moreno lights up the screen every time she appears, bursting with effortless charisma and drawing all eyes to her.  When I discovered this film at age 13, it was Anita, and not Maria, whom I had a crush on.

Key Scene: I've never been a huge musicals guy, but for some inexplicable reason the "America" musical number brings a tear to my eye whenever I watch it.  This scene is just so spectacularly executed, plus the song itself so organically expresses the conflicting viewpoints of the American immigrant experience.  Bernardo and his friends long for Puerto Rico, a place where they aren't treated as second-class citizens because of their ethnicity, while Anita and the girls love the opportunities America affords them.  Such a neat little microcosm of this country's advantages and drawbacks.

2. Robert DeNiro (Raging Bull)

The Academy may have dropped the ball in many other categories from 1980 (Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor), but one award that absolutely went to the right guy was the Best Actor statuette.  Robert DeNiro's tormented, violent turn as middleweight boxer Jake LaMotta remains his most noteworthy performance, and it's also the most famous example of an actor altering his body shape for a film (DeNiro gained about sixty pounds for the later scenes in which LaMotta lets himself go and becomes a seedy nightclub owner).  Had anyone else walked away with this award it would've been a crime.

Key Scene: Probably the most purely visceral scene is the one in which LaMotta goes to prison and throws a self-loathing-induced fit, pounding the crap out of the cement wall and wailing like a madman.  I can't imagine an actor having to endure more than a single take of this scene.

3. Kevin Kline (A Fish Called Wanda)

A rare case of a comedic performance outshining the competition, Kevin Kline's brilliantly hilarious turn as Otto provided dozens of quotable lines and managed to steal the show from comedy legends John Cleese and Michael Palin.  Kline brought to life a dimwitted character in the smartest way possible, with an amazingly nuanced, uproarious delivery.

Key Scene: Probably my favorite moment (and my favorite to quote) is the profanity-laced chain of insults Otto hurls at Archie (Cleese) after catching Archie with Wanda.  Such a magnificent tirade.

4. Kathy Bates (Misery)

Stephen King's thriller about a crazed fan taking her favorite author hostage was skillfully adapted by Rob Reiner in 1990, and the main reason the movie version worked so well was the performance of Kathy Bates.  A relative unknown at the time of her casting, Bates adeptly alternates between matronly warmth and terrifying emotional instability.  She is totally effective as this obsessed manic-depressive, but in a very realistic way, making the whole ordeal that much more harrowing.

Key Scene: Upon learning her guest Paul Sheldon has been out of his room, she ties Paul up and drugs him, and explains both her discovery, and his punishment.  The calmness she conveys as she prepares to hobble him is truly chilling.

Friday, February 18, 2022

Top Ten Things: Oscar Upsets

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!  It's a list of ten things that stand aTOP all other things.  See?

Well we are in the midst of movie awards season, which for me means a mad dash to catch up on all the Oscar bait I haven't seen yet.  Thus when the Golden Globes and Oscars roll around I'll be much more educated and opinionated about the winners and losers.  Over the years we've seen some pretty shocking winners; some pleasant surprises, some bile-churning outrages.  Very often it seems Mr. Oscar suffers from acute myopia, as literally dozens of Best Picture winners fail to make much of a lasting impression on the American lexicon, while many of the losers are universally lauded as masterworks for decades to come.  The same can be said of individual performances and the actors attached to them.  Sometimes an actor or actress can win the gold statue and go on to do literally nothing of note, while perpetually snubbed thespians continue to impress critically and commercially despite the lack of Academy love.

So let's take a look at the eleven most noteworthy upsets in Oscar history.  This list includes nominees for Best Picture, Director, and acting awards.

11. Crash over Brokeback Mountain

One of the most infamous recent shockers took place in 2006, as Paul Haggis's ensemble piece about racial tensions in America took home the gold despite the outpouring of support for Ang Lee's touching cowboy love story.  Almost immediately Crash suffered something of a backlash, and few people today recall it as an all-time classic, while Brokeback Mountain helped launch the serious acting careers of Jake Gyllenhaal, Anne Hathaway, and of course the late Heath Ledger.  For the record I enjoyed both films but I didn't consider Crash a multiple-time watch.

10. Gene Hackman (Unforgiven) over Jack Nicholson (A Few Good Men)

The 1993 ceremony saw a battle of heavyweights in the Best Supporting Actor category, as the respective villains of Clint Eastwood's understated Western and Rob Reiner's courtroom drama went head-to-head.  Hackman took the award but it's Nicholson's performance that is much more remembered (and quoted) 20-plus years later, as the iconic Col. Nathan Jessup.  Lines like "You can't handle the truth!" and "Are we clear??" "Crystal." are part of our vernacular, while Hackman's turn as Little Bill Daggett, though certainly quite skillful, was far less memorable.

9. Bob Fosse (Cabaret) over Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather)

Speaking of memorable vs. not-so-much, in 1973 choreographer/musical theater director Bob Fosse won the Best Director award for Cabaret, despite Francis Ford Coppola seeming a shoe-in for his masterful work on The Godfather.  The epic mafia drama has since become an essential part of any cinephile's collection, while Cabaret is.....well, not so much.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Stagecoach (1939)

Welcome to the Oscar Film Journal here at, where I examine a Best Picture-nominated film, either from this year or yesteryear.

Today I'm heading way back to 1939 again, to review one of the most influential of all Westerns, John Ford's early opus Stagecoach, featuring an ensemble cast that included John Wayne in his breakout performance, but also Thomas Mitchell (whom you might recognize as Uncle Billy from It's a Wonderful Life), and Andy Devine (whose voice you might recognize as Friar Tuck in Disney's animated Robin Hood), as well as John Carradine, Claire Trevor, and Louise Platt.  The film's premise is fairly simple - put a host of characters of divergent backgrounds and moral inclinations together in a confined space, and see how they all interact with each other.  It's a very familiar concept seen as recently as Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight, just to name an example.  In Stagecoach you have the lawman, the driver, the prostitute with a heart of gold, the doctor (drunk for most of the film except when he has to sober up to deliver a baby), the corrupt banker (who pontificates early in the film about the virtues of deregulation as he's engaged in major embezzlement), the gambler, the soldier's pregnant wife, and the outlaw, all traveling from Arizona to New Mexico for various reasons, with the very real danger of an Apache attack looming over the entire trip.  

As expected the prostitute is ostracized early on, and only the outlaw treats her like a human being, while the dashing gambler makes it his personal mission to look after the soldier's wife, having served under her father in the Confederacy.  The lawman intends to turn the outlaw in to the authorities upon their arrival, while the outlaw toys with the idea of escaping so he can exact revenge on another outlaw for the murder of his father and brother.  We're introduced to the ensemble in quick succession, but the film breathes enough to let us form opinions of all the characters and draw our own allegiances.  Thus when the various threads play out and the inevitable Apache attack comes, we care enough about the characters to be invested.

Top Ten Things: Oscar Snubs, Best Picture Edition

Welcome to another Oscar-themed edition of Top Ten Things, here at!  The big Academy shindig is just days away, so why not take this opportunity to do more complaining about stuff they ignored over the years?

You may have seen my previous Oscar Snubs list, which centered on individual performances Oscar failed to recognize, but this time I'm talking about entire films that flew under the radar in the all-important Best Picture category.  So many great films both mainstream and otherwise have come and gone with little or no attention paid by the Academy, and some of them seemed tailor-made to garner award nominations.  But for whatever reason (in some cases political) they garnered large quantities of the shaft instead.  Here are eleven such examples, in chronological order...

1. City Lights (1931)

Only one of Charlie Chaplin's classic films, The Great Dictator, was ever nominated for Best Picture (partly because much of his work predated the Oscars), but here's a second film that should've been included.  City Lights is the delightfully touching story of Chaplin's Little Tramp, who falls in love with a blind flower girl, happens upon some money, and gives it all to her so she can get her eyes fixed.  Such a simple plot, but executed in the signature Chaplin style that earns both laughs and tears throughout.  The Academy was still finding its legs in 1931 (the release window was split over calendar years at this point), but surely there must've been a slot for what is widely considered one of Chaplin's greatest films.

Key Scene: The finale in which the now-seeing flower girl hands the Tramp a flower, touches his hands, and realizes he's the one who helped her see, remains one of the most genuinely touching in cinema history.  If this doesn't choke you up, you're a monster.

2. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Walt Disney's first full-length animated film broke box office records and blew everyone's mind-holes upon its release.  Disney had gambled basically his entire career and studio on this ambitious, expensive project, hoping to revolutionize animation, and it paid off in truckloads of cash and a cartoon feature dynasty.  An art form that had previously been aimed at entertaining children for 5-10 minutes in front of "real" movies was now looked upon as a true artistic achievement, and just about every animated feature since owes something to the success of Disney's first homerun.  But the Academy more or less viewed the animated film as something of a cheat, not to be judged alongside live-action movies.  Thus when it came time for awards season Walt Disney was given a somewhat begrudging Honorary Oscar instead of a bona fide Best Picture nod.  It wasn't until 1991 that an animated feature was given the big nomination (Beauty and the Beast), and not until 2001 did the Academy create a separate category for animated features.

Key Scene: Hard to pick just one, but I always loved the Queen's transformation into the old hag, reminiscent of Jekyll & Hyde.  Kids back then must've freaked the fuck out.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Top Ten Things: Oscar Snubs, Acting Edition

Hello and welcome to a special Academy Awards edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

Today I'll be talking about some of the great acting award snubs in Oscar's long and glorious history.  Every year it seems there are at least one or two major films or performances that either go ignored by the Academy or lose to inferior competition.  I can think of several films now heralded as all-time classics that were shown little Oscar love back in the day - Citizen Kane, It's a Wonderful Life, and the original Star Wars for example. 

Then there are the baffling upsets like Shakespeare in Love beating out Saving Private Ryan, Ordinary People being chosen over Raging Bull, Kramer vs. Kramer over Apocalypse Now, and of course Forrest Gump trouncing both Pulp Fiction and The Shawshank Redemption.

Additionally certain universally-acclaimed films over the years have simply been shut out of the proceedings.  Hoop Dreams for Best Documentary in 1994, The Lego Movie for Best Animated Feature in 2015, and for me, Boogie Nights for Best Picture in 1997.

But maybe the most common examples of the Academy failing to recognize deserving achievements fall into the acting categories.  So many great performances have gone unnoticed by the myopic Oscar over the decades.  I can name many more than ten, but this being a Top Ten Things column I've narrowed it down to what I feel are the ten most egregious snubs in Oscar history.

***Note*** Given how difficult it is to rank acting performances I'll be presenting these in chronological order.

1. Miriam Hopkins - Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

As fiery dance hall girl Ivy Pearson, Hopkins delivered a performance on par with her Oscar-winning co-star Frederic March.  Their onscreen chemistry was phenomenal and helped elevate this version of Stevenson's classic novella into much more than a typical 1930s monster movie.  Throughout the film Hopkins' character is horribly victimized by the sadistic, abusive Hyde, and she amazingly conveys Ivy's desperation and hopelessness. 

Key Scene: Ivy visits Dr. Jekyll for help, unaware that he and Hyde are one and the same.  As she implores Jekyll to save her she erupts into tears while he looks on, overwhelmed by guilt at being the cause of her torment.  This is a heartbreaking scene.

2. Jeff Goldblum - The Fly (1986)

Another horror film that didn't require an Oscar-worthy performance per se, David Cronenberg's remake of The Fly is largely remembered for its gross-out makeup effects, as its protagonist Seth Brundle gradually deteriorates into a repulsive larva-man.  But underneath all that disgusting makeup is Jeff Goldblum, who went above and beyond to make Brundle into a three-dimensional character we simultaneously fear and pity.  The film is essentially an AIDS parable; Brundle's condition is presented as a cellular disease that both breaks down his body and strips him of his humanity.

Key Scene: Late in the film Brundle's ex-girlfriend Veronica (Geena Davis) visits his apartment one final time.  By this point Brundle has become a lumpy brown mass with insect mannerisms whose human side has almost totally receded.  He warns her to stay away, delivering a tragic monologue about the brutality of the insect brain.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: The Power of the Dog (2021)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  The 94th Awards are only six weeks away and I have some major catching up to do - to that end, let's look at another one of this year's nominees!

The frontrunner this year is Jane Campion's psychological drama/western The Power of the Dog, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  The film is set on a 1920s Montana cattle ranch, owned by Phil and George Burbank (Cumberbatch and Plemons).  The unkempt, dour Phil does most of the ranching work, along with a team of hired hands, while polite, good-natured George handles the business end of things.  While on a cattle drive the brothers stop over at an inn owned by Rose (Dunst), for whom George immediately develops romantic feelings, consoling her after Phil cruelly mocks her awkward, effeminate son Peter (Smit-McPhee).  When George and Rose marry and she moves to the Burbank ranch, it sets off a contentious battle of wills between Phil and his new in-laws.  

And that's about all I'll say regarding the plot; The Power of the Dog is one of those films where you don't fully know what you're seeing until it's all over and you've had time to piece it together.  Campion's writing and direction are so subtle in fact, it's almost a little frustrating trying to figure out what's happening between the characters and why.  And yet, once you've completed the film and reflected a bit, you begin to marvel at what she's done and how skillfully she's toyed with your expectations.  One's sympathies shift from character to character throughout the story, no small feat considering what a loathsome cur Phil seems at the outset.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Gone With the Wind (1939)

Welcome to a rather unusual entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

I say unusual because today's subject is a film about which I had very strong mixed feelings, in a way I'm not sure I've experienced watching a classic movie.  Gone With the Wind is of course considered one of the all-time great epic films; adjusted for inflation it's still, over eighty years later, the highest grossing film ever made.  Seriously, based on 2020 ticket prices this movie made just shy of $1.9 billion DOMESTICALLY, almost $900 million more than current domestic box office champion Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  So suffice it to say this record is not likely to ever be broken.  Like, ever.  Pretty staggering considering its 220-minute running time.  

But back to mixed feelings.  Gone With the Wind is, from a cinematic standpoint, a stunning achievement in filmmaking; massive in scope, visually breathtaking, pro-feminist in a roundabout way, well ahead of its time in dealing frankly with issues the Hays Code tended to stifle, and boasting numerous great melodramatic performances.  This is epic 1930s filmmaking at its finest (minus the score, which is so ever-present in every scene it fails in its primary task of heightening the drama).

As political commentary goes though, this film is pretty wretched.  Based on Margaret Mitchell's best-selling novel, GWTW is told from the point of view of Scarlett O'Hara, a wealthy southern debutante-turned-businesswoman trying to maneuver her way through Civil War/Reconstruction Era society.  But thanks to Mitchell's Jim Crow south upbringing and the impression left on her by films like Birth of a Nation, the novel and its movie adaptation are steeped in revisionist Lost Cause myth, rather shamelessly whitewashing the horrors of slavery and presenting the African-American characters as crudely drawn stereotypes - well-treated house servants without a need for independence.  The Yankees are presented (mostly offscreen) as ruthless conquerors who burned the beautiful Old South to the ground, the carpetbaggers as opportunistic parasites exploiting the decimated post-war economy.  The whitewashing goes so far there's actually a scene where Ashley Wilkes chides Scarlett for employing white ex-cons at low wages, saying something to the effect of "I can't support building a business on other people's misery."  STUNNING lack of self-awareness there, Ash.  To her credit, Scarlett calls him out with "You didn't seem to mind using slaves," and he replies "We didn't treat them poorly."  Holy shit dude.  Even for the late 1930s this blatant disregard for the ugly truths about slavery seems shocking to me.  And yes, I know segregation was alive and well, Jim Crow was still fully in effect, and apparently the agrarian elegance of the Old South was still being romanticized.  Still given the borderline insidiousness of this misrepresentation, it's pretty shocking this film was so universally well-received 75 years after the end of the Civil War.

Oscar Film Journal: Licorice Pizza (2021)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal here at!  Hey look, it's a 2021 Best Picture nominee!

Yes, now that it's officially joined the ranks of the Academy's illustrious Best Picture candidates, I can write in this "journal" about Paul Thomas Anderson's latest opus, Licorice Pizza!  Based loosely on the adolescent misadventures of his friend Gary Goetzman (noted Hollywood producer and former child actor), Licorice Pizza is set in 1973 and mostly centers around a budding romantic relationship between 15-year-old child actor Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman in an auspicious debut that does his father Philip Seymour proud) and 25-year-old photographer's assistant Alana Kane (folk-rock musician Alana Haim, also making her motion picture debut with a bang).  The pair have an odd sort of anti-meet-cute, during which Alana makes it clear she has no interest whatsoever in the precocious, cocksure Gary.  But when he asks her to meet him that evening for dinner, she does so anyway.  From there they become almost inseparable, Gary clearly harboring real romantic feelings toward Alana, while Alana isn't really sure how she feels about him.  They become business associates when Gary starts up a waterbed store, but during the gas crisis of '73 it becomes untenable due to supply chain issues.  Alana then decides to break into acting and later local politics, while Gary goes into the pinball machine business.  

But all of these plot points are more or less incidental.  Just as PTA's 1997 masterpiece Boogie Nights wasn't so much about the adult film industry as it was about a gang of misfits looking for love and happiness, Licorice Pizza is less about Nixon-era LA and more about two oddball young people trying to find their respective places in the world while consistently and inexplicably gravitating toward each other.  It's almost a bell-bottom-clad When Harry Met Sally, but with a far more bizarre supporting cast.  

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  This year's Academy Award nominations are imminent, so it's time to start bingeing Best Picture nominees once again.

Today I'm traveling back to 1933 England for a satire of sorts, The Private Life of Henry VIII, starring Charles Laughton in the role that put him on the map, along with his wife Elsa Lanchester, one year before her star-making performance as The Bride of FrankensteinTPLOH8 (as I'll be calling it to save time) is a rather comedic look at the infamous 16th century monarch and his string of marital failures, depicted in tongue-in-cheek fashion, with Laughton playing the decadent, gluttonous king as a short-tempered buffoon without a grown-up attention span.

We jump into the story during his second marriage, as his first to Catherine of Aragon "contained no particular interest" and ended in uneventful divorce.  At the film's start Henry is married to Anne Boleyn, whom he's ordered executed for infidelity - by all accounts she was falsely accused and the charges were a pretense to free Henry up to marry Jane Seymour, portrayed in the film as a youthful, simple woman who wasn't going to cause him any trouble.  Seymour of course died in childbirth and the country later clamored for Henry to remarry; we get multiple scenes of the king's servants and cooks gossiping about his love life and Henry himself hemming and hawing about what he should do next.  For political reasons he courts German princess Anne of Cleves (Lanchester in a very funny performance), who has no interest in Henry and makes herself as unappealing to him as possible, using their brief marriage to achieve her own political ends.  Finally after the dissolution of his fourth marriage, Henry settles on Katherine Howard, a woman from his court, whom he'd had designs on for years.  Katherine values advancement above all else and their marriage seems a convenient arrangement for both partners, but gradually she learns that a loveless marriage is also a joyless one, and falls in love with Thomas Culpepper.  Henry executes both of them and ends up marrying a domineering shrew, Catherine Parr, with whom he remained until his death.

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: L.A. Confidential (1997)

And we're back with another entry in the Oscar Film Journal!

This one's a little different for me, as I'd actually seen today's subject in the theaters when it came out.  But viewing L.A. Confidential as a rather naive 22-year-old, I must confess most of the film went way over my head.  The labrynthine plot, with its varied, seemingly unrelated threads and pretzel twists left me confused and disengaged by the end.  I dismissed the film as overrated and dull, and somehow erased 95% of it from my memory.  Indeed, I was surprised to discover on this second viewing that Danny Devito and James Cromwell were in it; that's how little I remembered.

So suffice it to say, this viewing of Curtis Hanson's acclaimed neo-noir was essentially a fresh look for me, and what a difference a quarter-century makes.  Where in 1997 I was largely unfamiliar with the film noir genre, 1950s culture, the appalling notion of corrupt police departments and their code of silence, etc., watching this film through my early-middle-aged 2022 lens, I was fascinated.  

For those unfamiliar, L.A. Confidential concerns three principle LAPD officers and a mass murder that may or may not have involved numerous cops, a stash of heroin, and a prostitution ring.  The three main characters are all seemingly on different sides of the straight-and-narrow.  Edmond Exley (Guy Pearce) is a young, clean-cut optimist who plays things by the book while taking advantage of every legitimate opportunity for career advancement.  His father was a police detective killed in the line of duty, the assailant never caught.  Bud White (Russell Crowe) is a tough-as-nails cop with a mission to punish abusive men (with good reason, as a 12-year-old he was forced to watch his father bludgeon his mother to death) and a penchant for beating a confession out of perps.  Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is a star detective who consults on a hit TV show and also has a side hustle with a tabloid reporter, setting up high-profile celebrity arrests.  All three get wrapped up in the mass killing case, as their police captain (an icy James Cromwell) increasingly reveals that he may not be what he seems.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Fences (2016)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  For those joining us in progress, it's awards season so I'm catching up on as many past Best Picture nominees as I can before this year's Oscars.  

The latest nominee to which I circled back is the 2016 drama Fences, starring and directed by Denzel Washington, with Viola Davis, and based on the Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson (who also adapted it for the screen).  Fences is a simple narrative about a working-class African-American family in 1950s Pittsburgh.  The patriarch Troy works as a garbage collector, and the film begins as he and his best friend/coworker Jim head home for their weekend ritual of sharing a bottle of gin and engaging in spirited debate about work, baseball, Troy's past, his kids, etc.  Troy has two sons from different mothers, the elder is Lyons, a 34-year-old musician who often drops by to borrow money, and the younger is Cory, 17, who lives with Troy and his wife Rose.  Cory is a promising high school student who's being courted for a football scholarship, but Troy, having hit a glass ceiling as a pro baseball player (Major League Baseball wasn't yet integrated during his career in the Negro Leagues), is disillusioned with pro sports and doesn't want his son suffering the same fate.  Rose quietly puts up with Troy's bombastic posturing but calls him out when he takes it too far, like when he claims to have actually won a wrestling match with death.  Troy's mentally impaired brother Gabe lives nearby and often visits; Gabe earned $3000 in disability compensation after sustaining a head injury during World War II, and Troy used the money to buy the house he and Rose live in, while Gabe has since moved out.  

Friday, February 4, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: Minari (2020)

Welcome to another entry in the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Well I've completed my viewing of every 2020 Best Picture nominee, and rounding out the list is Lee Isaac Chung's semi-autobiographical drama Minari, about a family of Korean immigrants who move to rural Arkansas in the early 80s.  The father Jacob plans to start a Korean vegetable farm serving the growing number of countrymen and women immigrating to the region, supplementing his funding by taking a chicken-sexing job (that's separating baby chicks by gender to weed out the males who aren't useful for either meat or egg production).  Jacob's wife Monica, having grown up in the city, isn't excited about leaving their former life in California to move to the country, and would've been content to remain in the chicken sexing business if it meant being able to provide for their two children.  But Jacob wants something more than a menial 9-to-5 job, and their conflict about what's best for the family plays out throughout the film.  To make life more palatable for Monica, Jacob arranges for her mother Soon-ja to relocate from Korea and provide childcare, and her relationship with their son David (a rather disagreeable six-year-old with a heart condition) takes center stage during the film's second act.

Minari is a quiet, contemplative film with very relatable themes - chasing one's dreams as opposed to just being a worker bee, wanting to do so without needing to rely on other people, making choices between one's family and the self (when of course those two things often aren't mutually exclusive), and of course failure.  Countless films have been made about pursuing the American Dream since the advent of cinema, and Minari puts a personal and unusual twist on this classic format, with a film steeped in old-school American "values" for lack of a better word, but from the point of view of an immigrant family who speak their native language most of the time (The Hollywood Foreign Press Association drew deserved criticism for nominating Minari as a Foreign Language film instead of as a Best Picture candidate, on the grounds that over 50% of its dialogue was in a non-English language - an absurdly arbitrary metric).  

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: The Hours (2002)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Today I'll be talking about the 2002 drama The Hours, directed by Stephen Daldry, starring Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, and in a turn that won her an Oscar, Nicole Kidman.  Based on Michael Cunningham's 1999 novel, the film is a triptych, three separate stories that play out simultaneously before our eyes, connected thematically.  The first takes place in 1923 and concerns English writer Virginia Woolf (Kidman) and her most famous work Mrs. Dalloway, a day-in-the-life story dealing with themes of mental illness, existentialism, and sexual orientation.  Woolf drew from her own experiences and injected much of herself into the titular Dalloway, who questions her life choices throughout.  The second part of the film's story is set in 1951 and centers around Laura Brown (Julianne Moore), an unhappy, pregnant housewife who spends her days caring for her first child without any sort of fulfillment.  Like Mrs. Dalloway (and Woolf herself), Laura is finding herself attracted to women, while also struggling with suicidal thoughts.  The third segment is set in the present day (2001 in this case), and stars Streep as a New York publishing editor possessing many of the same character traits as Mrs. Dalloway, her day mostly spent prepping a literary award party for her friend and former lover Richard (Ed Harris), who is slowly dying of AIDS.  

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: The Father (2020)

Welcome to another Oscar Film Journal entry, here at!

Catching up with last year's nominees, I finally sat down and watched The Father, directed by playwright-turned-filmmaker Florian Zeller, based on his own acclaimed play Le Pere, about an elderly man suffering from dementia and his daughter's ongoing struggle to provide him the care he needs.  

We're introduced to Anthony (a sublime Anthony Hopkins in a late-career highlight), who seems to live alone in a London flat, visited by his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman, subtly fantastic as always) after he's chased away a hired caregiver.  They discuss her frustration at his unwillingness to accept help, her impending move to Paris, his rather explosive resentment at being abandoned, and his chronically missing wrist watch.  From the opening scene we assume this will be your usual well-acted but narratively ordinary family drama, but things quickly take a shocking turn when in the next scene a man we've never seen shows up at the apartment, saying he's Anne's husband and that this is actually his place.  Anthony is as confused as we are, and things go further south when Anne herself comes home, now played by Olivia Williams.  This jarring transition sets the tone for the rest of the film, which actually puts us inside Anthony's increasingly decaying state of cognizance.  Bits of dialogue, indeed whole conversations are repeated, familiar characters appear as unfamiliar faces, the apartment's decor changes slightly throughout the film, and like Anthony we are at a loss trying to discern what is true and what is the dementia.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Top Ten Things: Tom Brady Super Bowls, Ranked

Welcome to a special Top Ten Things, here at, where I rank ten something-or-others and you all read it and dispute my ranking....

UPDATE: Tom Brady officially announced his retirement today, ending the greatest professional football career of all time.  Thank you Mr. Brady for two decades of excellence.  We New Englanders are now a spoiled fanbase because you made it look so damn easy.  There will never be another like you.

In the wake of Tom Brady's historic seventh Super Bowl win, I thought I'd take a look at his equally historic ten Super Bowl appearances.  But before we get to that, let's take a moment to appreciate just how superhuman this quarterback really is.  There have been 55 Super Bowls.  Tom Brady has played in 18% of them.  Brady debuted in the 2000 season as a fourth-string quarterback.  He became a starter in the 2001 season.  That means that there have been twenty Super Bowls since Brady became a starter.  He's played in half of them.  Not only that, he's played in five of the last seven Super Bowls.  The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hadn't won a division title since the 2007 season, and since then had failed to crack .500 in all but three seasons.  Tom Brady took them to the Super Bowl and beat the 2019 Champions.  Not only has he played in and won more Super Bowls than anyone else, he's played in several of the best and most exciting Super Bowls of all time.  The man is not of this earth.  He is a once-in-a-lifetime athlete, and it's very unlikely that anyone currently living on this planet will ever see another like him.   

But enough praise, let's take a look at his ten Super Bowl games and find out which were the best (I've tried to balance Brady's performance and the quality of the game itself)....

10. Super Bowl XLII vs. New York Giants - 2.3.08

Of Brady's ten Super Bowl appearances, his upset loss to Eli Manning's NY Giants has to be considered the most disappointing.  The Patriots went undefeated in the regular season that year, a feat not achieved since the 1972 Miami Dolphins.  By comparison the Giants boasted an underwhelming 10-6 record, a recurring theme in this mismatched rivalry.  The usually dominant Pats were confounded at nearly every turn by a strong Giants defense, going scoreless in the first and third quarters.  Meanwhile the Giants managed a come-from-behind win in the final moments of the game with a stunning 83-yard drive (that included David Tyree's famous "helmet catch"), capping the score at 17-14.  Pats fans everywhere were left scratching their heads at such an uncharacteristically ineffectual performance, but sadly it wouldn't be the last time Brady was unseated by Manning.

9. Super Bowl XLVI vs. New York Giants - 2.5.12

Of all the championship-caliber quarterbacks Tom Brady has faced, it's baffling to think the one guy who truly had his number was Eli Manning.  The Patriots came into this Super Bowl 13-3 on the season, while the Giants set a new record for the worst win-loss ratio by a conference championship team, a scant 9-7.  This game on paper should've been a cakewalk for Brady et al, but once again the Giants' defense kept the Patriots off-balance and scoreless for two of the four quarters.  As with Super Bowl 42 the Pats led going into the 4th quarter but the Giants scored a go-ahead touchdown (uncontested, mind you, a strategic move designed to give New England more time to catch up), bringing the score to 21-17.  The Patriots had just under a minute to move the ball back down the field and win the game, but came up short after a messy drive and a batted Hail Mary pass.  For the second time in four years, the seemingly underqualified New York Giants had brought down the mighty New England Patriots for the championship.

Oscar Film Journal: Mississippi Burning (1988)

It's been a while but I'm back to reopen the Oscar Film Journal!

Today's subject is the 1988 historical crime thriller Mississippi Burning, directed by Alan Parker and starring Gene Hackman and Willem Dafoe as a pair of FBI agents sent to the deep south to investigate the disappearance of three civil rights workers in 1964.  Met by the racist local law enforcement with scorn and a stubborn refusal to cooperate, the two agents find different ways to navigate this hostile, ignorant environment.  Dafoe's character is a youthful star agent who sticks strictly to the book, appalled by this toxic, violent culture but concerned above all with seeing justice done according to the letter of the law, while Hackman's former sheriff is more pragmatic and experienced, using a finessed approach to deal with the friendly locals and intimidation for the obvious suspects and their enablers.

Based loosely on a real 1964 murder case, the film takes some dramatic liberties, and despite numerous award nominations (including a Best Picture Oscar nod), was criticized for reducing the black characters to background and focusing only on the white characters.  While this is a valid critique - one could make a compelling argument that this is yet another "white savior" movie - Mississippi Burning succeeds prodigiously as a crime thriller that pulls no punches in showing us the reprehensible, racist underbelly that existed in the 1960s south.  This is a brutally honest look at a society so beaten down by failure and ignorance its authority figures exploited the widespread self-loathing of poor whites to further their own bigoted agenda.  From the town's Mayor (played by R. Lee Ermy with a false brashness betraying deep feelings of guilt) to the loathsome Sheriff Ray Stuckey and his insecure deputy Clinton Pell (Brad Dourif), to Stephen Tobolowsky as a local businessman turned would-be demagogue/Klan leader, each of these disgusting characters and their abuses of power still ring disturbingly true in 2022.  Whatever the film's shortcomings in terms of representation, I've no doubt its heart was in the right place.