Quest for the Best (Picture), Once Again

Has it really been seven years since we decided to try to catch the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards show?  Indeed it has. Truth be told, this has been an up-and-down process.  There are years when I’ll see 7 of the 8 or 9 films nominated.  Then, there are times such as last year when we took in four on one weekend…and that was it.

This year was really different, in that I’ve seen all 8 of the films nominated, plus a few more that could have been in the running. 100 percent!  That’s a first.

Film Reel

As in years past, I’ll provide the caveat that I’m no movie critic, so these are totally personal views without any understanding of the nuances of filmmaking. I’ll also list these in the order I ranked them, which is where I get the most comments.

So, my best picture award would go to If Beale Street Could TalkWait, you say, it wasn’t nominated!  Well, that’s not my fault; it should have been.  This was a beautiful and powerful movie, with incredible cinematography.  It is based on a strong story by one of America’s great writers, James Baldwin. Barry Jenkins won the Best Picture Oscar two years ago for Moonlight—another powerful film—and this one is just as good in my estimation. The theme—loving while black—is incredibly relevant today.  If you haven’t seen this movie, go.

Now, for the films that actually were nominated, my top choice is Roma. Set in Mexico and focusing on one family and a young indigenous woman who works for them, this movie has a majestic scale while featuring an intimacy that captures the viewer’s attention from the beginning and never lets go.  I found the pace worked well, and the story had depth and meaning.  I don’t care if the Academy is mad that Netflix plays with their business model . . . I don’t know enough about that to have a meaningful opinion, so I’ll just stick to the film.  I’d watch this one again.

BlacKkKlansman surprised me.  The premise—a black undercover cop infiltrating the Ku Klux Klan—seemed so outrageous that even though it was true, it couldn’t be serious.  However Spike Lee’s movie, from my point of view, was terrific.  Very original, with a great deal of heft to make the viewer think.  And goodness, the ties to life today are too close for comfort (and Lee makes them clear at movie’s end).  This is another one on the list I’d go see again.

Black Panther was the last one of the eight I saw, and frankly I didn’t know what to expect.  I’m not a fan of superhero or sci-fi movies, but I knew this film was somehow more than that.  In the end, I loved it. The characters are strong and the production values are amazing.  I came away understanding more of why this movie is a defining moment for black Americans.  Leonard Pitts, Jr. was singing the praises of Black Panther at his book talk at Politics & Prose last week, and his point of view is one I admire.  Again, I’m not sure I can see a superhero movie as Best Picture, but this was darn close.

Fourth on my list is The Favourite, a dark comedy set in the court of Queen Anne (circa 1710). I very much enjoyed this movie, and as everyone says the acting, costumes, and script are all wonderful.  Emma Stone, Olivia Colman, and Rachel Weisz are terrific in their roles…which, unfortunately come off as an 18th century version of Mean Girls.  Best picture?  It doesn’t quite get there for me.  Would I see it again?  Definitely.

I fully expected to rank A Star is Born before Bohemian Rhapsody, but when I saw the Queen biopic earlier this weekend, I had such a good time that I couldn’t push it further down the list.  Rami Malek, as the dynamic lead singer Freddie Mercury, was incredible, and is very deserving on a Best Actor award. The movie’s pace and energy held up throughout the full show, ending—as most everyone knows—with the band’s breathtaking Live Aid performance.  There are quibbles (such as the fact that Mercury’s AIDS diagnosis is moved to a more dramatic point in the story from real life), but hey, if you get your history from movies you get what you deserve!  Others have complained about the director’s personal life (a real issue) and the soft-peddling of the gay story line (some people will complain about anything.)  I’d definitely go see this one again…and that’s saying something from a person who gave up listening to rock and pop in the early 1970s.

So I’ll put A Star is Born next.  I loved Lady Gaga in this picture. Bradley Cooper was good as her musical and love partner.  Shallow is a terrific song that I hope wins Best Song this year.  But the movie drags in the middle, and you almost lose interest until it picks up again near the end. I enjoyed it, but not sure I’d go see it again.

Green Book was a disappointment to me.  I went in expecting to see a film with some serious civil rights and social justice commentary, and instead got a buddy road trip between two guys without a touch of nuance (to quote one reviewer).  If I want buddy road trips, I’ll go watch Thelma and Louise. And seriously, the fried chicken-eating scene was one step too far.  I know it ended on a happy note and everyone melts with all the feel good stuff at the end (beginning with the cop pulling them over in the snow), but it didn’t make up for this movie’s sins for me.

Finally, my vote for least appealing Best Picture nominee goes to ViceYes, Christian Bale in the title role and Amy Adams (I love her) as Lynne Cheney are terrific.  But who the hell wants to see a dark comedy about one of the worst Vice Presidents in history who helped lead us to our current political polarization?  Not me.  The filmmaker has all sorts of gimmicks and techniques that he clearly thinks are very clever.  They aren’t, and they don’t help in making the (obvious) point that Dick Cheney is a heartless individual who has spent his entire life trying to amass power and take it away from anyone who doesn’t agree with him.  Let’s don’t celebrate that with comedy (even dark comedy).  Let’s take it for the tragedy we are living in here in 2019.

And that’s all folks.  Jump in with your favorites, argue with mine, and let’s enjoy the Oscars next Sunday evening.

More to come…


We Believe You

Lady Gaga at the Oscars

Andrew with Lady Gaga and other survivors of sexual assault on the stage of the Oscars (photo credit: Patrick T. Fallon for The New York Times)

These past two weeks have been emotional ones for our family.

It began when Andrew called us while on his way home from a singing gig about 10 days ago.  He had been asked to be on stage at the Academy Awards in Los Angeles with Lady Gaga as she sang her Oscar-nominated song “‘Till It Happens to You” from the film The Hunting Ground

A survivor of a sexual assault while a freshman in college, Andrew’s story was included in the film and in media such as the Huffington Post. Andrew has bravely stepped forward over the past few years to talk about his experience and to help others with similar experiences.  And now, he had a chance to stand with other survivors on the national stage. 

Fast forward to late last week.  Andrew had flown to LA and spent the first night with a family friend before connecting with his sister Claire (who was back in her apartment after a multi-day retreat).  We spoke with him on Friday evening and could tell by the tone of his voice that he and the other participants were part of an incredibly important healing experience. Andrew indicated that social media posts about the upcoming performance were forbidden by the producers, so when we mentioned Andrew’s journey discretely to a few friends, we always added the caveat that they couldn’t tell anyone until after Sunday evening.  We heard from him again on Saturday, after the dress rehearsal.  Our anticipation grew. And then Sunday evening we turned on the Oscars to wait for the performance.

As she entered on the red carpet, Lady Gaga mentioned that 1 in 5 young women would be sexually assaulted by the time they graduated from college.  For young men, the number is 1 in 16.  Those odds took our breath away.  However, it turns out that when we’ve talked to friends and colleagues, the percentage that have been sexually assaulted or have a family member who has been assaulted is frighteningly high. It breaks your heart.

Shortly after 11 p.m. on the east coast, Vice President Joe Biden came onstage at the Dolby Theater. We had not heard that the VP was introducing Lady Gaga’s performance, but found out later that he was the author of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, with a long history of advocacy on issues of sexual assault.  He urged the audience to join in a crusade against sexual assault by joining the “It’s On Us” campaign.

Andrew with the VP

Andrew with Vice President Joe Biden following the Oscars

Then Lady Gaga began “‘Til It Happens to You,” pouring her pain as a survivor into the emotional performance.  Halfway through the song, Andrew and 50 other survivors emerged from the background and came to surround Gaga’s piano – each supporting the other.  The survivors had phrases written on their arms – Andrew’s was the title of this post:  “We Believe You.”

Andrew and Lady Gaga

Andrew with Lady Gaga at the Oscars

Andrew and Candice’s Facebook pages quickly filled with comments.  Almost 700 friends liked his photos and posts about the evening. To take it from here, I’m turning to Andrew’s own words.  First, from Facebook:

Yesterday was the most important moment of my healing since September 5, 2011. I’m so humbled by the openness, resilience, and radical love we have shared over three days. Thank you to Lady Gaga for her beautiful soul and breathtaking performance (she gifted the song, as did Diane Warren!). An incredible thanks to Vice President Biden and all of the passionate, deeply empathetic work he has done through the decades on empowering survivors, most notably as the original author of the Violence Against Women Act. And thank you to our fifty-one survivors, my great friends in heart and soul. I could never have had the strength without all of you. We are love, we believe you, and you are not alone.

When he returned home, a classmate from St. Albans School arranged for Andrew to speak to AOL about his experience. He described how Lady Gaga gathered the survivors together for a heartfelt prayer before heading on stage, as recounted by the AOL reporter:

“She just sort of said: ‘To the creator — whoever whatever created the universe — thank you for bringing us here, for giving us this story to tell and this message to give.’ And then after the prayer she said, ‘Gonna go out there and sing the shit out of it!’ ” Andrew Brown, a survivor featured in the performance and in “The Hunting Ground,” told AOL.

But his perspective on the weekend has remained the same as when he was included in The Hunting Ground or featured in national media such as The Huffington Post:

A weekend with Lady Gaga. Hugs from Brie Larson and Kate Winslet. Handshake from Jason Segel. Conversation with Joe Biden. Well wishes from Jared Leto, Leo DiCaprio, Alicia Vikander, Whoopi Goldberg, and Chris Rock. Truly a blessing.

But I would still give it all back. That’s always been true.

Candice and I would give anything to have kept Andrew from having to go through all the hell that he has experienced as a result of the assault. But we don’t have that option. So we love him unconditionally (as we always have). We support him the best we know how. We are proud of how he has taken an awful experience and turned it to good for others. And we marvel at his personal love and resilience.

“We Believe You” means so much more to us than just we think your story is true.  In every way possible, it means we love and support Andrew – and his wonderful sister who carried this news with Andrew well before his mother and I learned of the trauma.

Thank you, Andrew.  Thank you, Lady Gaga.  Thank you, Joe Biden. Thank you to the 50 other survivors on the stage.  We need you more than ever.

More to come…


Observations From the Road (The “On the Edge” Edition)

Claire with a California RedwoodAt times, Wednesday’s ride seemed as long as a California redwood is tall.

Claire and I were on Day 13 of the Not All Who Wander Are Lost tour (a.k.a., the “length of the country” portion), and perhaps it had to do with it being the 13th day, but there were some weird things happening along the way.  We left Portland, Oregon at 8:30 a.m. and didn’t arrive in Eureka, California until around 6:30 p.m. for what was supposed to be a 7 hour trip.  (Darn those Google maps algorithms.)  The portions on the “straight and narrow” path of I-5 could give a guy and his daughter the blues.  Rest areas that we really needed were closing up due to “bear activity.” Ah, but those crooked roads through the mountains, the redwoods, and along the beautiful California coast…now that’s when we felt we were alive and on the edge of the world.

We had to take I-5 down to Grants Pass.  The Oregon landscape is changing and beautiful through this part of the country,  but the drive on the interstate is still somewhat mind numbing. However, at Grants Pass, one gets on Highway 199 for a harrowing and curvy drive through the mountains that makes the Going to the Sun road in Glacier seem tame in comparison.  Then we switched over to Highway 101 to go through the redwood forests and along the northern California coast.

That was magical.

So after an evening dinner of scallops  (Claire) and grilled halibut (me) at the Cafe Waterfront, I sat down in our room in the historic Eureka Inn to begin to pull together thoughts from the day…only to fall asleep about 30 minutes later. So this is a Thursday morning post of a new group of Observations From the Road – this time the “On the Edge” edition.

Grants Pass to Eureka

The straight and narrow can give you the blues – I don’t know if it was the interstate, the rain that stayed with us much of the morning, or events outside the car, but Claire and I were both pretty quiet on the drive to Grants Pass.  I happened to notice that a number of tunes came up on our various playlists that had to do with the theme of leaving or having the blues, including The Band Perry’s hit Chainsaw (another of those country songs dealing with tattoo-like hearts), Dolly Parton’s I’m Gone (a silly tune that just makes me laugh), some Ray Charles and Eric Clapton, and even David Bromberg’s crazy I’ll Take You Back (“when rattlesnakes have knees, and money grows on trees…”). Now there’s an eclectic collection of tunes for you!  We did talk about depression in connection with Robin Williams’ death, and Claire helped me understand more about this illness. But I was glad to get to Grants Pass and get off the interstate.

It's the Climate Sign in Grants Pass

Sidewalk Sign in Grants Pass

Grants Pass has a way with signs – As we pulled into the historic Main Street of Grants Pass, Oregon, we were greeted with the “It’s the Climate” sign across the road. This is a throwback to signs that used to be located across the street back in the day.  There were also a number of creative store signs (see above for a local wine bar), and there is a great one I didn’t catch as you leave town to head into the National Redwood Forest. The signs in Grants Pass helped lift our spirits (and no, we didn’t even have a beer at lunch today).

To paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of the demise of the rectangular hay bale have been greatly exaggerated – I wrote in the Jeez, Montana is a Big State edition of Observations From the Road that the round hay bales had won the hay bale war.  Well, I just hadn’t been to Oregon yet, where there were miles and miles of road with farms that still use the good, old-fashioned rectangular hay bales. I did notice that many were being stored in barns (and most barns are still rectangular or square, not round).  And I also noticed that Oregon is one of only two states (New Jersey is the other) that still provides full service at the gas pump. Now, I’m not suggesting they are holding on to the past or anything…just saying…

California Elk

When they say “Watch out for elk crossing the road” they mean it – Several times along the road yesterday, we saw “Elk crossing” signs.  Yeah, right.  Well, at one point we drove by a whole field of elk, and I slammed on the brakes so Claire could jump out and try and get a picture.  It was tough, though, because the trees along the road were pretty full. She was unable capture a good picture of the ones with the big antlers (although she did report back on the smell…enough said).  However, while I was pulled over on the side of the road and she was 50-75 steps behind me taking pictures, what walks out of the woods on the other side of the road but a single elk.  Now, we had seen signs in the park saying “Stay away from the elk” so I yell to Claire, who doesn’t hear me, of course.  Luckily, this lonely elk, separated from the rest, was just taking an easy stroll.  Claire finally returns to the car…and then she wants to go around and get in for a closer shot!  Jeez…does she want to give her father a heart attack! Nonetheless, we got our elk shot and Claire managed to get back to the car safely.

California Coast

The reports of the beauty of the California coastline along the coastal highway are not exaggerated – Even with fog rolling in at inopportune moments, the coastline in this part of the country is pretty stunning.  Claire was able to capture this picture, but there were many places where we could see but the cloud cover made it difficult to get a decent shot.  You’ll just have to believe us!

So, on our 13th day of travel we felt we were “on the edge” in several ways. Our morning was spent a bit on the edge emotionally. Then we felt we were on the edge of the road, ready to tumble down at any moment, along Highway 199. Finally, the California coastline can give you the “edge of the world” sense. So when Lady Gaga’s On the Edge of Glory popped up on Claire’s playlist, I said to myself, “That’s today’s tune!” (And yes, I may be trying to reach a younger demographic than my normal readers with the Lady Gaga reference…this is especially for Andrew and Jason). Claire’s version was the full-band extravaganza, but I found two beautiful piano-only versions on video which take the song down to its essence (and also show what a wonderful singer Gaga is). She says that she wrote this with her grandfather in mind and talks about how we need to live our lives on the edge.  That seemed to be a perfect fit for yesterday’s ride.  Enjoy.

More to come…