Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Worst Year in Oscar History

I am barely interested in the Oscars anymore.  I am just curious enough to find out who was nominated for the major awards, but I don't care who wins and I will not bother to watch the tedious three-hour awards show.

Hollywood has made it painfully obvious in recent years that it no longer has the ability to turn out a quality film.  Not one of the films that the Oscars had in its Best Picture category this year deserved to be there.  Not one.  This stands as the worst Best Picture lineup in Oscar history.
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Hollywood doesn't know how to make films about normal people anymore.  The major American studios only know how to make films about impossibly powerful crusaders, mentally unbalanced weirdos and disturbingly immoral creeps.  We are in the Superheroes and Superfreaks Era.

At one time, the Academy of Arts and Sciences was committed to acknowledging and rewarding the high artistic achievement of popular entertainment.  The films honored by the Academy were grand in scope and ideas.  The films stood out for their universality and grandeur. 

Hollywood has become an island unto itself and its residents look upon anyone who doesn't live on its island with wariness and disdain.  It has become a weird, dark place where weird, dark people live.  The people who control film production find it difficult if not impossible to understand normal people.  This is clearly reflected in the ugly and petty films that they produce.

Hollywood films turn people away from the joy and beauty of the world with their dark stories.  They turn the public to ugliness and tell them they must submit to it.  The Hollywood filmmaker hypnotizes their prey like an old cobra, luring them to their own spiritual doom.  What's left is chaos.  What's left is angry, confused, frightened people.  What's left is a howling, empty mob.  This week, the mob moved to push The Simpsons and The Breakfast Club into the dustbin.  They accused The Simpsons of racism and The Breakfast Club of sexism.  We now have masterpieces of art being subject to condemnation and censorship while works of degeneracy and vulgarity are celebrated. 

Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club (1985)
It is not to say that every Best Picture nominee this year was entirely devoid of merit.  But my general sense of the situation is not favorable. 

Let's look at the films that the Academy of Arts and Sciences recently nominated for the Best Picture Oscar.

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, a historical war film, had a trailer with the conventional images of battleships, dogfights, a plane dropping a bomb on soldiers amassed on a beach.  A key moment of the trailer featured a shot of a steely British commander played by movie star Kenneth Branagh.  But the film was far from conventional and its unusual storytelling techniques made it difficult to connect to the film.

I appreciate Nolan's objective of making the film authentic.  The film was to be the antithesis of the memorably and nauseatingly corny Pearl Harbor (2001).  Nolan refused to take the focus away from the real-life story to show a pretty leading man and pretty leading lady embroiled in a torrid romance.  Not one bodice was ripped in the making of this film.  Do you remember the bad reviews that Pearl Harbor got?  Joe Morgenstern of Wall Street Journal wrote, "Pearl Harbor is a blockheaded, hollow-hearted industrial enterprise."  Leah Rozen of People Magazine wrote, "Bloated and boring, Pearl Harbor is a collection of war-movie clichés."  David Germain of Associated Press wrote, "[T]he movie offers almost no sense of authentic humanity.  The faces the filmmakers plaster on their characters are as flat and stereotyped as those on war-recruitment posters."  Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times said it best when he wrote, "Pearl Harbor is. . . about how, on Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese staged a surprise attack on an American love triangle.  Its centerpiece is 40 minutes of redundant special effects, surrounded by a love story of stunning banality." 

Dunkirk has little dialogue, doesn't bother with backstory, and avoids big moments.  Nolan said, "I wanted to tell story in as objective way as possible and trust that the facts of it would inspire an emotional response.  We tried not to be overtly emotionally manipulative."  Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Phantom Thread, told Variety, "[The film is] stripped down to bare essentials."  This approach was successful to the many fans of the film.  Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter praised the film as "an impressionist masterpiece" that was "deeply moving" without "manufactured sentimentality or false heroics."  Brent Lang of Variety wrote, "The focus throughout is on the tactile experience of war, which Nolan achieves by concentrating on banal details." 

Of course, the critics were not unanimous in their praise.  Kevin Maher of The Times wrote, "[Dunkirk] is 106 clamorous minutes of big-screen bombast that's so concerned with its own spectacle and scale that it neglects to deliver the most crucial element — drama."  He indicated that the film has as much drama as a "Call of Duty" video game.

Nolan could have made a film authentic, respectful, unique and profound without stripping it of every dramatic device known to man.  Someday, I may revisit the film and think more of it than I do now.  But I doubt that I will ever see it as a Best Picture contender.

Call Me by Your Name, which was widely criticized for promoting pedophilia, is not a mainstream film.  Jeffrey Bloomer of Slate discussed at length "the understandable squeamishness that surrounds the film."  He wrote:
Call Me by Your Name is, for all its subtlety and specificity, fundamentally about an erotic relationship between a 17-year-old teenager and a 24-year-old man.  It will also be released in a moment of heightened scrutiny around sexual abuse in Hollywood, including the revelations about Kevin Spacey, which, thanks in part to his joint apology/coming-out statement, seemed to renew old and damaging associations of gayness with molestation.  It isn't hard to find more tweets accusing the movie and even [leading man Armie] Hammer himself of promoting pedophilia, and as more people see the film, these accusations will undoubtedly intensify.

For fans of the book and the film, it may feel self-evident that Call Me by Your Name is not a story of predation: It's a story of first love and lust told from the perspective of a particularly mature teenager on the cusp of adulthood; the relationship is consensual; even [the teenagers'] parents seem to approve; and, in any case, this is a fictional depiction, not an ethical endorsement.  But the age gap will give pause to more people than right-wing trolls — it did to my progressive companion at an early screening — and it does the film no favors to pretend it’s not a question worth exploring.
Bloomer found that the film erred in emphasizing the teenager's fragility and youth.  This came across in the teenager's sensitive emotional reactions and slight physical appearance.  The critic wrote, "There is also the simple fact that Hammer, at 31, looks much older than 24, and Chalamet, at 21, barely looks 17.  In the book, one has the sense that while Oliver carries a sort of broad-shouldered 'American' manliness compared with Elio, the two are not in such wildly different zip codes physically.  The film exaggerates that difference."

Fan art further emphasized the age difference.

He noted that he viewed the film as "an urgent and beautiful story of discovery."  He wrote, "He’s an older teenager messily discovering his sexuality.  It’s misguided to deny that such a basically human process should be represented in a work of art, even if the outcomes of that process make us uncomfortable."  But he accepted that his view of the film might not be true for others.  "That's fine," he wrote.  "Even if the relationship is legal or consensual or meets any other criteria, some viewers will find it inappropriate or worse, and that’s a subjective reality that the movie's fans — and Hammer and the filmmakers — have to accept."  He concluded, "In my view, it’s reasonable to be disturbed by the unconventional relationship in Call Me by Your Name, but it’s not reasonable to say the movie endorses pedophilia, or really any kind of power-based abuse, just because it depicts that relationship.  If we go down that censorious and unnuanced path with our art, very little will survive the trip."

The director, Luca Guadagnino, described Call Me by Your Name as a "film for families."  He said, "I like to think it’s a film for the transmission of knowledge and hope that people of different generations come to see the film together."  The film includes a scene in which the teen masturbates into a peach and the man eats it.  This is not a film for families.

It was obvious in the early images released for Call Me by Your Name that the filmmakers were more interested in being sensational and controversial than telling a coming-of-age story that was subtle and nuanced.  The images were bound to dissuade a mainstream audience from seeing the film.

And what can I say about The Shape of Water that I haven't said before?  Anne Cohen of Refinery29 wrote, "[Shape of Water] has fish sex and Russian spies. (And did I say fish sex?  Because seriously, this woman fucks a fish!  And it's romantic!)."  Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire called the film "Grinding Nemo."  But Cohen advised viewers to "delve a little deeper" to root out "themes of otherness, sexism, and race."  She wrote, "We, like Elisa, can do better.  Why settle for bad men when we can have fish sex?"  Yes, why fuck one of those evil things we call a man when you can fuck an animal?  The Shape of Water unashamedly promotes bestiality.  Kate Knibbs of The Ringer wrote:
I realize that this is a film, not reality. . . And I realize that this is an allegory about two outsiders finding comfort and kinship in one another’s arms, and that it’s magical realism, and that Guillermo del Toro loves his monsters, and that maybe I should lighten up.  But it’s still a monumentally gross allegory — one which involves a human woman allowing a creature with a scaly, slimy body; sharp claws; and a bizarre collapsible penis to enter her — and that deep, abiding ickiness must too be examined.
The director, Guillermo del Toro, hasn't even bothered to call the film's creature "a fish man."  He has in his many interviews referred to the creature simply as "a fish."  I must admire him for being plain about his message.  But I must, in the end, reject del Toro's message that perverse (fish/woman) sex is better than normal (man/woman) sex. 

Paul Bois of The Daily Wire found The Shape of Water to be "emotionally false, manipulative, hackneyed, and worse, Machiavellian."  He wrote:
The values governing The Shape of Water are best summed up as follows: have sex with anything you want, even if that "thing" is not of your species, and kill innocent people to do it . . . Fin!  That the film presents this in the guise of a tale about how love conquers all in the face of white male patriarchal oppression makes it all the more insidious.
White male patriarchal oppression is represented by a hateful American colonel, Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who uses Bible quotes to justify his anti-social behavior.  Of course, the film wants us to believe that Christians are evil.  In the end, the creature slits open Shannon's throat because evil Christians must die.  Also, an innocent security guard is killed during the creature's escape from a government research facility.  Bois wrote:
The innocent guard remains nameless, as Del Toro expects us to accept his murder for the sake of saving an anthropomorphized beast as necessary justice.  For this is not a world of unconditional love that imposes itself through grace and mercy, but rather the Alinskyite kind of love that divides people by violence and cruelty and then has the nerve to boast of unity.
. . .

Make no mistake: Elisa crosses a line that warrants examination and insight.  It asks no questions.  Can someone really have an interspecies sexual relationship without sacrificing their own humanity?  Can those bonds truly be everlasting?  Is there no danger in crossing such a line?  No tragedy?  No pathos?  Nothing?
The creature proves to have godlike powers, including the miraculous ability to heal his dying lover.  Bois wrote:
And what does this godlike creature with invincible powers do?  Does he transform Strickland's hateful heart by showing grace?  Does he heal Strickland of his wounds?  Does he use his power to bring the man into redemption?  No, he slits Strickland's throat.
. . . 
Take another heroic figure who faced a similar situation: Jesus Christ.  Facing certain death and capture in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ tells St. Peter to lay down his sword when he slices a soldier's ear off.  Choosing mercy over vengeance, Christ then uses His power to heal the soldier's wound – for no man should have to die when triumph will prevail no matter what.  In Del Toro's worldview, Christ should have used his powers to kill everyone who betrayed him.
The one film that I managed to watch from beginning to end was Lady Bird.  This would have never happened if I hadn't found something worthwhile about the film.  But just because the film held my interest doesn't make the film worthy of a Best Picture nomination.

What exactly is the film about?  NPR reported, "The movie centers on a complex mother-daughter relationship, a relationship that becomes particularly fraught when the teenage daughter is trying to assert her identity as a soon-to-be adult.  This will be recognizable territory for a lot of mothers and daughters."  Gerwig said, "Well, I feel that it's such a rich relationship.  It has a tremendous amount of love and a tremendous amount of angst.  And I don't know any woman who has a simple relationship with their mother or with their daughter. . . I had a hunch that the mother-daughter dynamic was something that would be infinitely interesting. . ."  This is recognizable territory for sure.  What could get weird about this story?

Micah Mertes of the Omaha World-Herald wrote:
[Gerwig] has made a perfect film about a deeply, hilariously, movingly imperfect young woman.  That young woman is Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), a pink-haired misfit finishing up her 2002-'03 senior year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California.
. . .

Like many young people (or just people in general), Lady Bird is a bundle of contradictions: She’s an underachieving student who dreams of prestigious universities and a successful career.  She’s an iconoclast who wants to fit in with her popular classmates.  She has a loving knowledge of her hometown but can’t wait to escape it.

Lady Bird is partly defined by her bruisingly contentious relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).  Their dynamic is so heated that in the film’s opening scene, Lady Bird jumps out of a moving vehicle just so she doesn’t have to keep talking to her mother.
Wait, hold on, the pink-haired misfit jumps out of a moving vehicle?  That's right, Lady Bird gets upset and leaps out of a car speeding down the road.  A contentious relationship between a parent and child is universal, but a child jumping out of a moving car to avoid talking to her mother is weird.  In real life, the girl would likely have been killed.  But Lady Bird comes out of the incident with a broken arm. . . or, um, broken wing.  Lady Bird is not Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles

Terry Gross of NPR talked about the car scene with the woman who wrote and directed the film, Greta Gerwig.
GROSS: So this is the daughter - the daughter's just, like - she's so angry with her mother, she just jumps out of the car.

GERWIG: That's right.

GROSS: And it's the only, like, totally crazy, unhinged thing that she does during the movie.  Why did you want her character to start by doing something so extreme?

GERWIG: Well, I think everybody knows what it feels like to be in a car, particularly with your mother and - or with your daughter, and either you want to shove them out of the car or you want to jump out of the car.  There's a quality to fighting in cars where you're trapped.  And it felt like it kind of gave the right tone for the movie, and it's going for something that's emotionally real.  And then the entire scene to me - it starts off with them listening to John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" on Books on Tape that they checked out from the public library.  And they're having this moment where they're both crying at the end of the book, and they're really connecting.  And then within two minutes, it's completely off the rails.
Jazz Tangcay of Awards Daily wrote:
For anyone who’s been in a car arguing with a parent, there’s a feeling of being trapped and you may want to throw yourself out of the car and that's exactly what Lady Bird does.  Gerwig explains she looked at two films that influenced the way she shot the scene.  "There's a particular fight in Paper Moon, it's extraordinary and it’s one shot, Tatum O'Neil and Ryan O'Neil fighting and it's this astonishing shot.  We looked at that and there’s a lot of driving in Cléo From Five To Seven, but something we realized about both of those films, both of those cars don't have tops."
Here is the Paper Moon scene.

There are multiple car scenes in Cléo From 5 to 7 (1962).  The title character, pop singer Cléo Victoire (Corinne Marchand), is as selfish and temperamental as Lady Bird.  Cléo gets antsy in a closed car and becomes more relaxed later in an open car.


A woman on Facebook said that, in her view, the opening scene of Lady Bird was the best scene of the year.  I imagine this woman has been in a similar situation and wanted to jump out of the car.  Some people like it when a film depicts their worst fantasies.  It's like imagining punching out your boss and then you see a person punch out their boss in a film.  It's a relief to know that others have had the same bad thoughts that you have had.  But this sort of extreme behavior in everyday relationships with bosses or parents is never useful in our real life or a fictional narrative. 

Gerwig was concerned that her leading lady, Saoirse Ronan, wasn't injured filming the scene.  She understood how dangerous it was to throw yourself out of a car even if Lady Bird didn't.  Gerwig said, "Technically, figuring out how we were going to get Saoirse falling out of that car was a bit of a beast. . .  [W]e looked at different ways of doing that.  [Saoirse] was in a harness and she worked with a stunt coordinator who helped her figure out how to do it safely and it really came together."

Of course, the fact that the teen girl whose legal birth name is Christine insists on being called "Lady Bird" is pretty weird.  Richard Brody of the New Yorker wrote:
Lady Bird explains [about the name], "It was given by myself to myself."  Her fierce struggle to be called by this name is the struggle over what she got from, or is given by, her parents.
Gross talked about this with Gerwig.
GROSS: She wants her school to call her Lady Bird.  She wants her mother to call her Lady Bird.  And it seems like there's something so passive-aggressive of insisting that your mother, who named you Christine, should now have to call you by a totally different name, Lady Bird (laughter).

GERWIG: Yeah, it's a rejection of everything her mother gave her, including her hair color.  It was just totally, like, I'm not yours.
The arrogant Lady Bird has great ambitions.  She sees herself as an extraordinary person and she will not be satisfied unless she has an extraordinary life.  Tim Lewis of the Guardian wrote:
In Lady Bird and before, Gerwig is drawn to dreamers: young women who believe they are destined for greatness, even when the audience finds plenty of cause to doubt that.
Gerwig said that, in writing the script, she was influenced by Saint Ignatius, who founded the Jesuits.  She said:
[He] was a soldier.  And he wanted to be a great soldier and a hero.  And he was very ambitious. . . [B]ut he hurt his leg.  And while he was recuperating, he was reading the lives of the saints.  And he had this kind of teenage ambition moment of - he basically looked at it and said, I could do that.  I can do that better than those saints.  I could be the best saint there ever was.

And he set out, in almost this childish way, to do it. . .  [T]he moral of it, in a way, is that God can use whatever you have, even if it looks unpromising.  Even if you're just kind of an arrogant teenager, that can be something that's transformed into something holy.
The film ends with Lady Bird going off to college in New York.  Anne Cohen of Refinery29 summed up the final incident of the film as follows: "[A] night of freshman drinking lands [Lady Bird] in the hospital. . ."  Lady Bird is standing outside a church as she calls her mother.  Her mother doesn't answer, so she leaves a message.  Here is the message:
Hi Mom and Dad, it's me, Christine.  It's the name you gave me.  It's a good one. Dad, this is more for Mom.  Hey, Mom, did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?  I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren't really talking when it happened.  All those bends I've known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing.  But I wanted to tell you I love you.  Thank you, I'm. . . thank you.
The character spends the whole film acting irrational, making impulsive decisions that cause problems for herself and others.  Suddenly, she is mature and wise and sees the errors of her ways.  This transformation is too abrupt to be believed.

Brody wrote:
Lady Bird takes its protagonist through adolescent solipsism to recognition and gratitude, through the hazards of friendship complicated by matters of self-image and self-imagination, through openhearted but uncertain fumblings of romance, through the unresolved and ever-mounting tensions of family life and the acknowledgment of its hard material practicalities, to a radiant reconciliation with her family, her home town, and herself.
Lady Bird, as Brody describes it, is a great film, but that is not the film that made it to the screen.  Lady Bird fails reach the lofty heights to which Gerwig so admirably aspired.  It can be a messy business when a person makes the crucial transition from child to adult.  The person must assert their independence, which requires them to redefine the most important and long-lasting relationships of their lives.  But Lady Bird provides much of the mess without providing any of the business.

Certainly, the ending is not radiant.  Lady Bird is not a holy figure standing outside the church.  She might still have specks of vomit on her shirt from the drunken spree she had only hours earlier.  The film begins with Lady Bird nearly killing herself and ends with her nearly killing herself.  A self-destructive heroine is not charming, not admirable, and not poignant.  As hard as I try, I cannot find anything that I can learn from this person.  Saint Ignatius acted for the greater glory of God by creating schools, colleges, and seminaries.  Lady Bird finally sees the stupidity of the name that she created for herself and realizes that she should be grateful to her mother for everything the woman did for her.  Most children accept their given name and feel gratitude to a loving mother.  This is basic human decency stuff.

Ronan was miscast in the role of Lady Bird.  The actress, who was 22 or 23 when the film was made, looks too old to be in high school.  Then we have her deadpan acting style.  Brody wrote, "The character of Lady Bird is impulsive, ardent, spontaneous."  But how well does Ronan adapt her usual style to this sort of character?  Not very well.  Brody noted, "Lady Bird's volatile temperament comes through more in the writing and the drama than in the performance; Ronan doesn’t quite display the text's sudden and mercurial energy."  The best that Ronan can muster is a seething defiance.

Lady Bird's mother Marion, played wonderfully by Metcalf, is a sympathetic character who did hold my interest throughout the film.  Let me unhesitantly express my gratitude to Marion and all the neglected parents of the world.

Winston Churchill accomplished a great deal in his life, but Hollywood has now reduced this great historical figure to someone as childish and emotionally disordered as Lady Bird.  The writers of Darkest Hour put forth a distorted version of Churchill, emphasizing to gross exaggeration the man's most notorious flaws and peculiarities.  The scene in which Churchill is introduced makes the British leader look like an unhinged lunatic. 

The scriptwriter invented the following line for Churchill: "My emotions are unbridled.  A wildness.  In the blood.  I share with my father.  And my mother also.  We lack the gift of temperance."

Elizabeth Layton, Churchill's longtime secretary, suggested in her memoir that the man was mercurial and sometimes mean.  Here is an excerpt from her memoir, "Mr. Churchill's Secretary":
[T]hat great man – who could at any time be impatient, kind, irritable, crushing, generous, inspiring, difficult, alarming, amusing, unpredictable, considerate, seemingly impossible to please, charming, demanding, inconsiderate, quick to anger and quick to forgive – was unforgettable.  One loved him with a deep devotion.  Difficult to work for – yes, mostly; loveable – always; amusing – without fail.
Did God use whatever Churchill had in his messy character and make him something holy?

Layton's memoir was clearly the inspiration for the dictation scene.  His hostile reaction to meeting a new typist is justified by the following remark:
Mr. Churchill greatly disliked any change of staff.  Specifically he disliked the new typist – or shorthand-writer, which was the official term – in fact, at times it would put him off his work to see a strange face opposite him.
The rest of the scene is supported by the following excerpt:
But, they told me, it's not easy to hear what he says.  He has a very slight impediment in his speech connected with the letter S, and that, combined with the clicking of the typewriter, makes for difficulty.  Until you get used to his voice it's almost impossible to catch everything.  There's always that cigar, and usually he paces up and down the room as he dictates, so that sometimes he's behind your chair and sometimes far across the room.  You must be prepared to go fast in short bursts, to finish one sentence before he starts another – and for Heaven's sake don't make any typing errors.  When you don't hear you may ask him what he said, if you're brave and prepared for a squash; or you may put what you thought he said, if you don't mind having your head snapped off; or you may leave a space in the hope that from the sense you'll later realize what it was you missed, in which case you can creep back quietly on the typewriter and put it in – and hope he doesn't roar at you for fidgeting.
The typist confusing the word "ripe" for "right" comes directly out of the book:
Sometimes that cigar would seem to get in the way of some of the words: one might perhaps feel what one handed over was correct, but back it would come with the information, impatiently given, that the time was "ripe" rather than "right," or that he dictated "fretful" and why did they put "dreadful"?
An exhausting six weeks went past before the Prime Minister and the typist settled into a comfortable relationship.

So, we had a secretary who said that Churchill was quick to anger and might snap off a secretary's head for a dictation error.  Does that mean he would rip a page out of the typewriter, imitate the typist's nervous stutter in a cruel way, scream angrily at the top of his lungs, and chase the young woman out of the room?  And, keep in mind, this occurs only seconds after he first meets the woman.  This introductory scene was overdone to make Churchill look wildly neurotic and strange as opposed to making him look like the extraordinary leader whose great discipline, vision and courage contributed significantly to the defeat of Hitler.  The filmmakers preferred to treat Churchill as if he was a tantrum-prone teen.  The reverence for our leaders is a thing of the past.  At one point in the film, Churchill takes a ride in an underground carriage.  I was waiting for the wild man to throw open the doors and hurl himself onto the tracks.

Layton wrote:
[W]e were utterly devoted to him, not because he was Prime Minister but because he was himself.  Mr. Churchill – as I shall now continue to call him, for so it was that I knew him – was a hero to his staff, and particularly to his female staff.  He was a person it was safe to hero-worship, for if one had that done so one could hardly have born the effort involved in giving him satisfactory service.  Certainly to me he shone with a very, very bright light.  Perhaps, after all, it was the unheroic in him that endeared him to us – his twinkling of an eye and occasional jest at the expense of ourselves or the Private Secretaries, his own self-consciousness, his extravagant love for the cat, for instance – the emotion he would feel on hearing of the exploits of Royal Navy ships, his beaming smile of thanks when he was aware that one had stayed up all night fair-copying a speech.

Churchill was a vigorous 65-year-old man at the time of the events depicted in the film.  Oldman, at 59 years of age, was not much younger than Churchill was at the time.  So, the wrinkles and sagging jowls of old age makeup shouldn't have been necessary.  Of course, Oldman did have to carry pounds of prosthetics to achieve Churchill's roundish physique.  The makeup artist, Kazuhiro Tsuji, said, "I knew the limitations of this makeup.  No matter what I did, it wouldn’t create an exact likeness of Churchill on Gary because their proportions are so different."  Yet he tried.  He said, "We had probably over 60 sets of facial appliances to apply on Gary."  Oldman had to be fitted with an elaborate makeup piece designed to simulate Churchill's heavy jowls.


Unfortunately, Oldman's makeup was laid on too thickly.  In most scenes, a soft white light pours into windows, bleaching out the features of the actors and diluting the colors and textures of their environment.  The bright light brings out the flaws of the makeup and, at times, makes Oldman's face look waxen.  At times, he looks as realistic as Fat Bastard in the Austin Powers comedy Goldmember (2002).  Worst of all, Darkest Hour's Churchill looks much older than he is supposed to be.  He comes across, with Oldman's various affectations and Tsuji's various prosthetics, as a doddering 85-year-old man.

Many great actors portrayed Churchill.  I am reminded of Albert Finney in The Gathering Storm (2002). . .

. . . and Brendon Gleason in Into the Storm (2009). . .

. . . and Brian Cox in Churchill (2017)?

Does Oldman's performance really stand out from any of those prosthetics-free performances?

No film had less universality than Phantom Thread, which lost a significant amount of money at the box office.  To my knowledge, the only Best Picture nominee to lose more money was Munich (2005).

Cole Smithey describes Reynolds Woodcock, the central character of Phantom Thread, as "a mercurial fashion designer who runs his own dressmaking shop."  David Ehrenstein wrote in Gay City News:
[The director, Paul Thomas Anderson,] asserted his film's anti-hero Reynolds Woodcock was drawn from the lives of Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hardy Amies, Norman Hartnell, Michael Sherard, Digby Morton, Edward Molyneux, Victor Stiebel, and John Cavanagh.  The things is each and every one of these designers was gay.  Reynolds Woodcock, while acting like a younger and ever-so-slightly less imperious version of Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura (one of the greatest "coded gay" characters of the pre-Stonewall era), is seen (in long shot) taking the hand of the film’s heroine Alma (Vicky Krieps), a café waitress Woodcock makes his model and muse, and pulling her into his bedroom.  What goes on inside that bedroom Anderson doesn't show.  And that’s because he has no idea what gay men think of straight women or how we interact with those whose beauty inspires us despite a complete lack of sexual desire.
A film about a gay artist with a woman as his muse may have been a more interesting film than the one that Anderson made.

Smithey wrote:
Reynolds holds so many fussy affectations that he could easily pass as gay if not altogether asexual.  However, Reynolds reveals himself to be that special queer bird who exploits women for their seamstress skills and for the precise measurements of their bodies.

Reynolds makes a dire mistake when he courts Alma (Vicky Krieps), a dining room waitress of Central European descent.  What appears to be a charming meet-cute devolves into a seething hatred fueled by Alma’s incessant neediness and Reynolds’s prickly nature that he uses to protect his demanding working methods.  Alma wants to be Reynolds' center of attention, he wants to work.
Owen Gleiberman of Variety saw Woodcock as an "elegant tyrant" at odds with his new wife.  He wrote:
The movie is constructed as a kind of suspenseful showdown: Will Reynolds. . . break her down?  Or will she turn the tables?
Aleksandar Hemon of The New Yorker wrote:
Reynolds Woodcock, the controlling dressmaker played by Daniel Day-Lewis, governs a domain peopled exclusively by obedient and loyal women.  Among them, Alma distinguishes herself by refusing to be used and discarded by the couturier.   But, for all her relative agency, she exists only within the world of Woodcock.  We have no idea who she was before entering it, where she might have come from, or what she might have wanted from her life.  Soon after she meets Woodcock, he measures her for a dress.  When, in a fit of internalized misogyny, she apologizes for having small breasts, he says, "Oh, no, you’re perfect.  It’s my job to give you some — if I choose to."
. . .

[Alma] remains desperate to remain in the House of Woodcock, where she can be the well-dressed mannequin muse, replenishing with her emptiness the great man’s inner life and creativity.
Smithey wrote:
Paul Thomas Anderson’s prestige period piece is a toxic vision of a dysfunctional marriage.  It is a film that self-destructs.  What starts out as a ‘50s era English love story gradually tears into a tattered tale of two incompatible people whose only connection lies in the alternating currents of sadism and masochism the two can withstand.  For so much ornate beauty, Phantom Thread is a truly ugly movie that reneges on its promise of romantic sincerity.  There is nothing heartfelt here for any audience member to sew a button on. . . Considering that Paul Thomas Anderson wrote and directed this overwrought feel-bad-for-no-good-reason filmic atrocity, there is no one else to blame.
Reviewers have speculated that Woodcock suffers from Asperger's Syndrome.  A contributor on the website TV Tropes noted:
He is obsessively committed to his work and relies on a carefully constructed routine to get through each day, becoming irritated whenever it is interrupted.  He has No Social Skills and is averse to being in large crowds.  He is also hypersensitive to sound and small details. . . Some have also speculated Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), as he exhibits an anxiety caused by his routine needs not being met. . .
It might have been an interesting film if it was a film about a man struggling with a mental disorder, but a weird twist turns the film into a Gothic horror story.

A film about a dysfunctional marriage might show the husband and wife examining themselves and examining their relationship and finding a way to make their marriage work.  Or, the couple might find a way to end the relationship and move to a new place in their lives where they can be happy and prosperous.  But Phantom Thread is a film about a marriage that is dysfunctional at the start and far more dysfunctional at the end.  It is, for sure, a dark and ugly film.

I recognize Woodcock for what he is.  I had a family member like the madly controlling fashion designer.  No one, in my eyes, was more fixated and fussy than my granddad.  I believe that he had an intense form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.  He was fixated on three areas of life - food, finances and fucking.  Nothing else drew the slightest interest from him.  Not art.  Not sports.  Not politics.  He pursued his limited interests with neurotic excess.  He had to always be in control to satisfy his compulsions.  He was a wretched miser, an insatiable sex addict, and a ruthlessly demanding food connoisseur. 

He had a particular obsession about electricity costs, going on regular tours of his house to see what lights were on.  I sometimes stayed with my grandparents during the summer and I became well accustomed to this quirk.  One afternoon, I was reading a book in my room and he instructed me to close my lamp and move near the window for light.  Even worse, he didn’t understand the reason I needed to have a light on while I watched television and always made me watch television in the dark.  It was like living in a cave.  The old man nearly had a heart attack the one time I forgot to close the light in the bathroom.  I may, on some unconscious level, have done this just to see how he would react.  Understand, this was not an issue of money.  My grandfather had the money to pay his light bill at the end of the month.  It was, undoubtedly, an irrational compulsion.

The only thing that made my grandfather more neurotic than electricity was food.  My grandfather was extremely careful about the food he put into his body.  This was a man who never ate a bite of junk food.  He strictly consumed meat, vegetables and fruit.  He spent time inspecting the vein pattern in his meat, the texture of his vegetables, and the color and consistency of his fruit.  He raised fruit and vegetables on his family farm as a child and he owned a fruit and vegetable business as an adult.   He was a difficult buyer at the farmers' market.  He would refuse to buy produce unless it met his high standards.  He knew a good plum from a bad plum and he refused to ever accept a bad plum. 

My grandfather had a problem in that he also refused to foist a bad plum on a customer, which had a severe effect on his bottom line.  My grandparents each operated a produce stand.  My grandfather, who was quick to mark down prices to move out aging inventory, did not earn nearly as much money as my grandmother did.  It unsettled the man to be surrounded by ticking time bombs of apples, peaches and plums.  Harvested produce - uprooted, de-vined and crated - was inevitably racing to a sickeningly black and squishy state.  Oranges, which had a thick skin, were more durable than most fruit.  But others, such as strawberries and raspberries, were never to be trusted.  A fuzzy gray mold could spread over berries in no time.  

My grandmother had to prepare my grandfather's meals in the exact way he demanded or else he would fly into a rage.  She held her breath whenever he took the first bite of one of her meals.  He usually approved.  But not always.  One time, he became so angry with something my grandmother had cooked that he slammed my grandmother in the head with a frying pan.  My grandmother was knocked unconscious by the blow and she awoke not remembering who she was.  My mother remembers it taking a week for my grandmother to regain her memory.  Years later, my grandmother suffered a sudden and severe decline in cognitive abilities.  My grandmother, a dear and sweet woman, became catatonic in a matter of weeks.  She was diagnosed as having Alzheimer's disease, which I believe was a result of her earlier head injury. 

All my grandfather’s children, including my mother, turned out to be obsessive-compulsive.  I don’t know if the man passed on irrepressibly dominant genes or he set such a powerful example that his children could not resist following it.  My mother had the same problem with electricity.  She would never leave appliances plugged in for fear that the plugs would still draw electricity even though the appliances were turned off.  The fact that the microwave’s LCD lights were aglow was proof to her that the microwave remained active and was ruthlessly sucking power.  It was highly inconvenient to have to squeeze behind a counter to plug in her microwave every time I had to use it. 

Hollywood has turned OCD into light comedy fare.  Take a look at Monk or As Good as It Gets.  But there is a very dark side to this disorder.  Phantom Thread could have shed a light on the tragic intricacies of the disorder.  It didn't.

Gleiberman wrote:
Phantom Thread is seductive and absorbing, but it’s also emotionally remote.  The film is framed as a love story, but it never swoons, and it’s enough to make you wonder: Why does Anderson, whose work back in the late ’90s (the transcendent Boogie Nights, the enraptured Magnolia) pulsated with off-kilter humanity, now make dramas that are essentially didactic studies of fantastically cold brutes?  He remains a filmmaking wizard, and Phantom Thread sweeps you up and carries you along, much more, to my mind, than The Master did.  Yet it’s a thesis movie: the story of a bullying narcissist who lacks the ability to have a relationship, and the outrageous way he’s schooled into becoming a human being.  It’s the story of a control freak made by a control freak.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has an unusual plot.  A woman, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), is furious with the police for failing to solve her daughter's murder and apprehend the perpetrator.  She rents three billboards and posts the following messages: "Raped While Dying," "Still No Arrests?" and "How Come, Chief Willoughby?"

Three Billboards is pointless and sensationalistic.  I watched the first fifteen minutes, during which time I watched Mildred jam a drill into her dentist's hand because the dentist offered her advice she didn't want to hear.  That was not something I cared to see. I skipped ahead and watched another ten minutes.  Nothing that I saw at this point of the story caught my interest.  Then, I skipped ahead and watched an overwrought scene in which the unhinged protagonist sets a police station on fire.  Alison Willmore of BuzzFeed described Mildred "kick[ing] sniggering high schoolers in the crotch."  I missed that scene.  How is this serving the woman's objectives?  How is a drilling a hole into a dentist's hand, blowing up a police station or kicking high schoolers in the (collective?) crotch resolving her grief or solving her daughter's murder?  It is gratuitous violence that exists for no reason other than to shock an audience.  Don't look for a meaningful statement to come out of rage and violence.  Don't look for a meaningful statement to come out of shock entertainment. 

Willmore wrote:
There are better movies in 2017 than Martin McDonagh's dark comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, but no performance this year has felt more rawly resonant than Frances McDormand's turn as its caustic heroine, Mildred Hayes.
. . .

Mildred, whom McDormand plays with a resplendent wrath and heartsick grief, is perfectly positioned to be the fictional patron saint of our current cultural moment.  She is a woman who refuses to let the act of brutal sexual violence that tore her family apart be forgotten, to let it slide into the realm of regrettable but normalized tragedy. . . Her singularly feminine rage glows so brightly that you could hold your hands up to the screen and warm yourself by its furious glow.  Anger is destroying her life, but it's also liberated her in a way that. . . is incredibly cathartic.

McDonagh. . . has stumbled into something that reverberates deeply with 2017’s discourse about sexism — a tale of a small-town crime and cops that gets at what happens when a society runs out of patience for female pain.  But while Three Billboards gets at something bitterly real in showing the turn that takes place when a woman's outrage becomes genuinely inconvenient for the powers that be, there's a less laudable way in which it also feels timely.
What can we say about Mildred?  She's a small-town terrorist comparable to The Andy Griffith Show's Ernest T. Bass, who ran around Mayberry breaking windows with rocks.  The following dialogue about Bass can be applied to Mildred:
Sheriff Andy Taylor: "If you ask me, this Ernest T. Bass is a strange and weird character."

Briscoe Darling: "Just plain ornery's what he is."

Deputy Barney Fife: "I think he's a nut."
Wrath is resplendent?  Wrath is liberating?  I don't think so.  A school shooter finds wrath liberating.  He finds killing classmates to be a spectacular and splendid experience.  He is no patron saint.  He's a nut.

What is "singularly feminine" about rage or grief?  When a young woman is murdered, it is not only the mother who is consumed with emotion.  Grief is felt by many men in the woman's life.  Her father cries, her brother cries, her grandfather cries, her uncle cries.

We need only look at the way that Mildred dresses to know she is not normal.  Aaron Haughton of Viddy Well wrote:
Early in preparation for the production, McDormand hit on an idea that soon became a part of her performance: to have Mildred wear a singular outfit all through the film — a kind of unadorned, blue-collar regalia she dutifully puts on each day. "Frances came up with Mildred wearing the same jumpsuit every day as a kind of 'war uniform,' and I thought it was a great cinematic idea," recalls McDonagh. "I liked the idea that Mildred doesn't have time to think about what she's wearing; she's at war."

Costume Designer Melissa Toth added: "Mildred is such a radical character the way Frances plays her and to her it was important to show that Mildred is on a daily quest that drives here from the moment she gets dressed in the morning. Sometimes she's wearing a bandana, sometimes not, and at one point, she even wears a gift shop smock over the jumpsuit — but the jumpsuit really was the part of the performance for Frances."
McDormand wanted the jumpsuit uniform to make her character into Superman.  But she was more like Freddy Krueger, the vengeance-crazed maniac in a red-and-green striped sweater and brown fedora.


Mildred is weird beyond reality.  Other mothers have lost daughters to murderers.  How many run around in a jumpsuit tossing Molotov cocktails at the local police station?  Forget about reality, she is even weird in comparison to fantasy characters.  We have seen many action film vigilantes.  These men direct their activities at uncovering and destroying criminals. 

The only person responsible for a murder is the murderer.  Taking out your anger on everyone else around you is unreasonable, mean and hurtful.  Yet, Mildred's rage glows brightly throughout the film.  Willmore wrote, "You could put Mildred on a T-shirt, layering her scowling face over selected quotes from the ever-growing mountain of inadequate apologies from disgraced men." 

Plainly, Three Billboards is anti-religion, anti-police, anti-white men.  A person on YouTube said that McDormand deserved an Oscar for just the following scene:

False equivalence alert!  

Does this mean that McDormand is complicit in Hollywood's growing list of pedophilia scandals?

Mildred never reaches out to another human being to share her grief.  She briefly expresses her grief to a deer.  

The scene is a copy of a scene from The Queen (2006). 

Still, I couldn't trust Mildred as she spoke to the deer.  I thought that, as she smiled slyly, she was about to extend her jaw and pop out fangs so that she could devour the sweet creature.

If Guillermo del Toro had directed the film, she would have let the deer fuck her.  But, understand, this is not a film about a person who expresses heartsick grief.  The script called for McDormand to mostly scowl.  Scowling gets you an Oscar these days.

A friend explained to me that the film is a "black comedy."  I did not, at any point, get the sense that the film was trying to make me laugh.  This is the director, Martin McDonagh.

I cannot imagine McDonagh being a fun guy to have at a party. 

I have also heard the film called a "black satire."  It is fair question to ask what an alleged satire is satirizing.  Is it satirizing grief?  Rape?  Murder?

Mildred is not a believable character.  A character that is believable is a character that can convince you they could exist and function in the real world.  An audience must be persuaded that the character is acting in a way a real person might react if he found himself in the same or similar situation.  I didn't accept Mildred's motives or actions.  The best protagonists are people we are or people we want to be.  I am not Mildred and I do not want to be Mildred.

How much different is a man from a baby?  He is not at all that different emotionally.  A man cries and laughs no differently than a baby.  He can be reassured by a soft hand.  He can be hurt by a slap.  Look at this baby react to the beauty of a song and the playful silliness of a Muppet.

How would he react to seeing Mildred attack her dentist?  How much differently would he react twenty years from now?  The baby has a soul and he will still have that same soul twenty years from now.  Why let any gratuitous foulness into our hearts and minds to needlessly darken our soul?

Let's look at another of McDormand's small town characters, Fargo's Marge Gunderson.  The 1996 film Fargo is filled with insane, selfish, homicidal, dysfunctional characters who create chaos, misery and death.  Gunderson, a pregnant Minnesota police chief, brings a reasonableness, morality, and quiet closure to the story.  The film wouldn't work without Gunderson as the film's moral center.  Marge Gunderson is a character that has stayed with us for the last twenty-two years.  Think about her and chances are you will smile.  Mildred Hayes will burn to grim ashes in our memories faster than the police station burned up in the film.

It is interesting that film critics have referred to Lady Bird as mercurial, Churchill as mercurial, and Woodcock as mercurial.  The scowling Mildred, who steadily retains the same angry mood throughout her story, is not mercurial, but she is still just as wild, angry, anti-social and weird as those other characters.  I miss the days of the calm, steady and noble hero. 

The satirical thriller Get Out is certainly a clever and entertaining film, but it far less meaningful than its advocates claim it is.  Seeing the film get a Best Picture nomination was a big surprise.  Times have certainly changed.  It would have been like The Stepford Wives getting a Best Picture nomination in 1975 alongside One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Nashville.  People would have been flabbergasted. 

The Post is a film that I find so uninteresting that I can barely write an entire sentence about it. 

The one film of 2017 that has believable and sympathetic characters is The Florida Project.  The people in The Florida Project are a lot like people I have known.  But the film, though highly acclaimed, got shut out of the Oscars.  Strangely, some critics have more sympathy for a homicidal fish man or a crotch-kicking lunatic than poor people.  The director of The Florida Project, Sean Baker, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the film's negative reviews.  He said:
Watching audiences respond to Halley becomes a sociological experiment, to tell you the truth. You see people's sensitivity levels. You read the negative reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, you see there's no empathy at all. "Why are we watching this white trash girl who obviously doesn't know how to raise a kid?" "Take that kid away from her right now!" "Why do I need to watch a movie about this?" It's actually pretty offensive in many ways.
I have my own questions about the films that were nominated.  Why am I watching a woman fuck a fish?  Why am I watching a teen boy jerk off into a peach?  Why am I watching a film about billboards?

Additional notes

Ron Howard and Natalie Portman had a dumb exchange while presenting the Oscar for Best Director.
Howard: "We are honored. . . to be here to present the award for best director."

Portman: "And here are the all-male nominees."
Portman saw herself as being brave to point out the lack of female directors among the nominees.  But what does she really think about the competency of women as directors?  Portman's production company, Handsomecharlie Films, has produced seven feature films since 2009.  Portman directed one of the films, A Tale of Love and Darkness (2015).  The remaining six films were directed by an all-male lineup.      
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits (2009) director: Don Roos 
Hesher (2010) director: Spencer Susser 
No Strings Attached (2011) director: Ivan Reitman 
Jane Got a Gun (2015) director: Gavin O'Connor 
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (2016) director: Burr Steers
Eating Animals (2017) director: Christopher Dillon Quinn
This sort of shameless stupidity and hypocrisy keeps me away from the Oscars.   Look at the way that Three Billboards' politically correct director reacts to Portland's remark.

He doesn't look happy to be a victim of feminine rage and have a woman throw a Molotov cocktail into the middle of his big party.

Reference sources

Markus Appel and Tobias Richter, "Persuasive Effects of Fictional Narratives Increase Over Time," Media Psychology, 10:113–134, 2007.

Jeffrey Bloomer, "What Should We Make of Call Me by Your Name's Age-Gap Relationship?," Slate, November 8, 2017.

Paul Bois, "The Shape Of Water Review: An Adult Disney Movie With A Wickedly Perverse Heart," The Daily Wire, January 19, 2018.

Richard Brody, "Greta Gerwig's Exquisite, Flawed Lady Bird," The New Yorker, November 2, 2017.

Anne Cohen "Sex With A Fish Man Is More Woke Than Any Amount Of Billboards," Refinery29, January 23, 2018.

David Ehrenstein, "Heterosexuality’s Phantom Stalking," Gay City News, December 21, 2018.

Owen Gleiberman, "Film Review: Phantom Thread," Variety, December 7, 2017.

Aaron Haughton, "5 Fun Facts: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," Viddy Well, November 10, 2017.

Aleksandar Hemon, "Why Phantom Thread Is Propaganda for Toxic Masculinity," The New Yorker, April 8, 2018.

Kate Knibbs, "We Need to Talk About the Award-Winning Fish Sex," The Ringer, January 11, 2018.

Brent Lang, "Christopher Nolan Gets Candid on the State of Movies, Rise of TV and Spielberg’s Influence," Variety, November 7, 2017.

Tim Lewis "Greta Gerwig: 'I'm at peak shock and happiness'" The Guardian, February 4, 2018.

Micah Mertes "Coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird is a perfect film about an imperfect heroine," World-Herald, November 17, 2017.

Cole Smithey, "Phantom Thread," Cole Smithey, January 16, 2018.

Jazz Tangcay, "The Art of the Scene: Greta Gerwig Discusses The Opening of Lady Bird," Awards Daily, January 6, 2018.

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