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Best Picture Movie Marathon, Part 59

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

Part 59: 2023


MOVIES:

  • All Quiet on the Western Front

  • Everything Everywhere all at Once (winner)

  • Top Gun: Maverick

  • Elvis

  • The Banshees of Inishierin

  • Triangle of Sadness (hidden gem)

  • Women Talking

  • The Fabelmans

  • Tar

  • Avatar: The Way of Water

All Quiet on the Western Front

Director: Edward Berger

Starring: Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuh, Aaron Hilmer, Moritz Klaus, Adrian Grunewald, Edin Hasanovic, Daniel Brühl, Thibault de Montalembert, David Striesow, Andreas Dohler, Sebastian Hulk

Oscar Wins: Best Cinematography, Best International Feature Film, Best Original Music, Best Production Design

Other Nominations: Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound, Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


The first scenes of All Quiet on the Western Front are, well, quiet. The sun rises over a field, a fox feeds her kits in their burrow. The forest above slowly wakes, and a gentle rumble signals a coming storm…


Only, it’s not thunder and lightning this storm brings, but death and destruction. Based on Erich Maria Remarque’s World War I novel, this German film is unsparing in its portrayal of the horrors of battle. It’s sensory overload, a movie that you experience rather than just watch. By the end, one lesson remains abundantly clear: war is hell.

Paul Baumer (Felix Kammerer) is one of thousands of boys, standing in nothing but their undies, waiting in line for their Army uniform. He and his friends have been invigorated with patriotic spirit, ready to go to war with the glee of children boarding a bus for a field trip. They sing a song about love and wine, hyped up on war propaganda and thoughts of bedding French women…but their futures have been decided for them.


Unbeknownst to him, Paul wears the uniform of a man already killed in battle. Heinrich (Jakob Schmidt) is dead before we even get to know him. His uniform is stripped from his body, cleansed, stitched up and shipped to Northern Germany where it’s handed over, pressed and cleaned, to Paul. Before leaving, Paul notices Heinrich’s name still on the jacket. When he mentions it to the commanding officer, Heinrich’s name tag is carelessly pulled off before the jacket is handed back to Paul. It’s a point that clearly illustrates the endless cycle of death during World War I.

Paul and his friends are then shipped off to the Western Front, where all is decidedly not quiet…or comfortable. Wading through the muddy trenches in the pouring rain, Paul waits for the moment when he will inevitably be sent to run into the face of gunfire. It doesn’t take long for reality to sink in. This isn’t what any of these young soldiers expected.


The faces of these young boys are scary portraits in blood and mud, with cheeks so pink that they seem to be targets. Constantly mowed down by French soldiers with machine guns, tanks, bombs and flame-throwers, the German Army is grossly unprepared for the constant terror coming at them 24/7. All Quiet on the Western Front makes the point, just as 1917 did a few years ago, that the Great War was fought by kids with their whole lives in front of them…kids who still called out for their moms when the bombs got too close…who were so excited to hold a gun, but couldn’t handle seeing a man – even from the opposite side – struggle to breathe as death slowly came on.

In an era when every war movie tries to outdo the last one, it’s no surprise that All Quiet on the Western Front takes pleasure in shoving our face into the realistic carnage of war. By the end, my ears were ringing from the constant fire-fight. And there is gore a-plenty here…but nothing that doesn’t seem realistic. Bodies explode and vaporize, limbs are blown off, characters we come to love don’t make it very long. With every reprieve, another attack looms. As the body count rapidly escalates, you can’t help but question what all these young men are really fighting, and dying, for.


Unlike most American-made war movies, there are no heroes here. The movie focuses mainly on the utter devastation of war, and the unnecessary lives lost because of it. It’s a delicate balance between both the grotesque and sympathetic nature of humanity and a solemn testimony to the millions who lost their lives in one of the cruelest, most brutal wars to have ever been fought.

 

Everything Everywhere all at Once

Director: Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert

Starring: Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, James Hong, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jenny Slate, Harry Shum Jr., Tallie Medel, Biff Wiff, Sunita Mani, Aaron Lazar, Audrey Wasilewski, Peter Banifaz, Andy Le, Brian Le, Michiko Nishiwaki, Randy Newman

Oscar Wins: Best Supporting Actor (Ke Huy Quan), Best Actress (Michelle Yeoh), Best Supporting Actress (Jamie Lee Curtis), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actress (Stephanie Hsu), Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Original Music, Best Original Song ("This is a Life")


In Swiss Army Man, the debut film from Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, Hank (Paul Dano) and his corpse-friend Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) shoot out of a river propelled on the power of Manny’s farts. As they fly through the air, they sing a song that goes: “You just have to remember that we’re all here for a purpose, and the Universe picks its time. Everything, everywhere matters to everything.”


The Daniels’ second film, Everything Everywhere All At Once, almost makes this verse its mantra. Cascading through a cavalcade of insane multiverses and endless creativity, the Daniels have given us a completely chaotic experience that’s nothing short of everything everywhere all at one time.


Few things in life are certain besides death, taxes and laundry. For Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), these certainties are front and center. Not only is she caring for her aging father, she’s also the manager of her family’s laundromat business that’s currently being audited by the IRS.

While she won’t come out and admit it, Evelyn has some struggles accepting the fact that her daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is gay. She assumes this won’t go over well with her traditional father (James Hong), but it’s actually Evelyn who is having a far harder time with it. She must also deal with her impossibly cherry husband, Waymond (Ke Huy Quan), whose consistent happiness only works to irritate her.


There’s also the matter of the laundromat being audited by their prickly case worker, Dierdre (Jamie Lee Curtis), who has just about run out of patience with Evelyn’s excuses. Little does Evelyn know, though, that none of this matters as much as the fact that she might hold the key to beating a cruel entity that’s destroying other universes. Soon, Evelyn is thrust into a universe-hopping adventure that has her questioning everything she thought she knew about her life, her failures, and her love for her family.

And just like that, Everything Everywhere All At Once turns into a frantic barrage of probabilities and multiverses. Born from the choices both made and not made, each universe has a distinct look and feel, with references being made to The Matrix, 2001: A Space Odyssey, even Ratatouille. Hot dog fingers, googly eyes, kung-fu homages, killer fanny packs, impossibly strong pinky fingers, talking rocks, awards shaped like butt plugs, and cooking racoons turns this film into (somewhat) organized chaos. And, like Swiss Army Man says, everything everywhere matters to everything.

Buuuut, not everything works – at least not for me. In this totally weird acid trip of a movie, some of these bizarre situations seem to be added just for the sake of being weird (I don’t think I’ll ever get the hot dog finger universe out of my head). However crazy you’re thinking a story can get, Everything goes three steps beyond that. And though it’s all part of a bigger plan – an everything bagel of probabilities, if you will – it feels so overwhelming at times that I just had to tune it out in order to refocus my brain.


Everything Everywhere All At Once leads this year’s Oscar contenders with 11 Academy Award nominations. It’s certainly a contender for winning Best Picture, even if it drags in some places and spins frantically out of control in others. No movie with this kind of premise, or title, can really be perfect. But what Everything teaches us is that, even if chaos reigns and life may only ever make sense in fleeting moments, it’s those moments we should cherish. For some of us, they happen over time…but for others, they happen all at once.

 

Top Gun: Maverick

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Starring: Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Miles Teller, Jennifer Connelly, Jon Hamm, Glen Powell, Lewis Pullman, Ed Harris, Monica Barbaro, Charles Parnell, Jay Ellis, Danny Ramirez, Greg Tarzan Davis, Bashir Salahuddin, Manny Jacinto, Raymond Lee, Jake Picking, Jack Schumacher, Kara Wang, Lyliana Wray, Jean Louisa Kelly, James Handy, Chido Nwokocha, Chelsea Harris

Oscar Wins: Best Sound

Other Nominations: Best Film Editing, Best Original Song ("Hold My Hand"), Best Visual Effects, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Picture


Welcome (back) to the danger zone!


Did Top Gun, the most ‘80’s movie ever to exist, really need a sequel? No. But Top Gun: Maverick is way more entertaining than it has any right to be. Filled with heart-pounding aerial stunts, snappy one-liners, shirtless beach scenes, an endless supply of Ray-Bans, and don’t-think-about-it-too-hard military fetishism, Top Gun: Maverick not only drips in nostalgia, it hoses fans down with it.


More than 35 years after he first took to the skies, Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise) still feels the need for speed. Now a Navy test pilot in his late 50s, Maverick still knows how to piss off his superiors. In an exciting opening sequence, he pushes a new plane beyond its limits. His, well, maverick behavior and little joy ride earn him a demotion, no longer test-flying aircrafts but teaching new recruits at “Top Gun” to take on Mission: Impossible, if you will.

The group of young flyers is slightly more diverse than the sausage-fest that was the class of 1986, but they share that group’s love of one-upmanship, team bonding, and cool-ass nick names. Phoenix (Monica Barbaro) is the only female member of the team. Hangman (Glen Powell) is an alpha-male Maverick wannabe. But the most hot-headed member of the class is Rooster (Miles Teller), whose perfect mustache and aviator shades immediately clue us into his true identity: the son of Maverick’s late and loyal wingman, Goose (Anthony Edwards). Maverick’s lingering guilt over Goose’s death, as well as Rooster’s grudge against his dad’s best friend, cause tension between the two – but their eventual bromance isn’t hard to see coming.

And if Rooster’s distaste of Maverick wasn’t enough, there are skeptics aplenty. Admiral Cyclone (Jon Hamm), for example, can’t understand why Maverick’s frenemy, Iceman (Val Kilmer in a heartbreaking part) insists on him as the teacher of the mission. Rear Admiral Cain (Ed Harris) shares Cyclone’s views, claiming Maverick’s kind is headed for extinction. “Maybe so,” Mav retorts, “but not yet.”


Mission aside, what this movie really takes most seriously are the concepts of friendship, loyalty, and, of course, bromance. Everything else, including any patriotic undertones, feels like embellishments on this classic, old-school action movie. The enemy under attack isn’t even mentioned. Though it’s a military film, it’s barely a “war movie”. It’s simply boys with toys.

And speaking of toys, the action sequences in this movie are insane. You often feel like you’re really in the cockpit with these pilots, and that’s because you are. These actors underwent intense flight training and flew actual planes during shooting, making Top Gun: Maverick feel like a throwback to a lost era of practical filmmaking, before CGI took over Hollywood. In a sense it becomes clear why Cruise, the creative force behind the movie, was so driven to make it. It’s a story where older and younger pilots butt heads and state-of-the-art F-18s duke it out with ancient F-14s. There’s room in the skies (and in the movies) for both young and old to coexist. This is as much Maverick’s story as it is Cruise’s.


For a film that didn’t necessarily need a sequel, Top Gun: Maverick proves itself worthy in every way. It feels like a natural evolution to the story that made its way into the hearts of audiences all those years ago. It’s everything a sequel should be, familiar but new...nostalgic but current. It easily soars to new heights while remaining faithful to its roots. It’s enough to take your breath away, dammit.

 

Elvis

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Starring: Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge, Helen Thomson, Richard Roxburgh, Kelvin Harrison Jr., David Wenham, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Luke Bracey, Dacre Montgomery, Leon Ford, Gary Clark Jr., Yola, Natasha Bassett, Xavier Samuel, Natalie Bassingthwaighte, Adam Dunn, Alton Mason, Shonka Dukureh, Sharon Brooks, Princess Mariama Andrews, Nicholas Bell, Liz Blackett, Chaydon Jay, Josh McConville, Kate Mulvany, Cle Morgan

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Austin Butler), Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Picture


Like the King himself, Elvis is a dazzling, glitzy, over-the-top slice of rock’n’roll history. What it lacks in depth it makes up for in style, with vibrant production design and colorful costumes. However, like Elvis, it’s also grossly mismanaged and stuffed with more fat than a peanut butter and banana sandwich.


Maximalist filmmaker Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge!, Romeo + Juliet) should have been the perfect director for a movie about a man so opulent that he literally sparkled every time he walked on stage…but the pairing doesn’t quite work. Told from the perspective of Elvis’ (Austin Butler) longtime manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks), Elvis is a surface-level biopic that’s heavy on the showmanship, but light on the man behind the persona.

The first half of Elvis is a bit of a fever dream, barreling through the 1950s as Parker convinces Elvis to take him on as his manager. As an up-and-coming sensation, Elvis is excited about the prospect of making money, be it through music or merchandise. Parker, who is about as corrupt as they come, literally rubs his hands together with glee as he signs away Elvis’s future with the production of board games, buttons, and tee shirts all bearing his face.


It's also during this time where Elvis discovers the power of his pelvis. Butler’s crotch, which really should have gotten a Best Supporting Actor nomination, is thrust into the camera over and over again as we get a front-row seat to those moments that helped turn Elvis into a boner-a-fide sex symbol.

There are also moments of flashbacks, where we see how Elvis was influenced by Black musicians in his youth. Little Richard (Alton Mason) and B.B. King (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) make appearances, though Luhrmann doesn’t give a single Black character a voice, hopefully an unintended irony.


Unfortunately, the second half of the movie can’t quite live up to the first. As we enter the 1960s and Elvis begins his foray into Hollywood (a time of Elvis’s life that’s grossly overlooked here), Luhrmann slams on the breaks and the movie slows way down. Elvis becomes a resident performer in Vegas, where he tumbles down one bad path after another. His relationship with Priscilla (Olivia DeJonge) is also so surface level that you may even miss her if you’re not paying attention.

Even so, that’s not to say this part of Elvis isn’t without its pleasures. The performance of “Trouble”, where Elvis defies the Southern racists who fear his Black-infused music, is basically perfection. The performance of Elvis’ comeback special, particularly his rendition of “If I Can Dream”, is also incredibly heartwarming. Not to mention the hair gets bigger, the costumes get flashier, and the cars get pinker.


What Elvis misses, though, are those moments that defined Elvis as a person. His years as an actor, his relationships with other country artists (like Johnny Cash!), his battles with depression, even his years of obesity are missing from this film. Hell, even Graceland doesn’t get much screentime! While Elvis is certainly entertaining, it’s less concerned with dissecting the King and more interested on his impact on the world and music.

As Elvis, Austin Butler is easily the best part of this film. He perfectly captures the spirit and energy of Elvis, presenting the showman without straying into caricature. It’s quite the feat to disappear into a man so well known that everyone and his brother does a bad impression of him. More importantly, he also gives us the sense that Elvis was a real person, even if Luhrmann doesn’t care to explore it.


While Elvis certainly works as a jukebox, it never ventures too close to the man. In true Luhrmann fashion, it’s overstuffed and filled with a million jump-cuts, but it’s also a visual treat for the eyes (and the ears). While those looking to learn more about the man behind the jumpsuit might be disappointed, Elvis does succeed at capturing the revolutionary spirit of one of the biggest American icons.

 

The Banshees of Inisherin

Director: Martin McDonagh

Starring: Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon, Barry Keoghan, Gary Lydon, Pat Shortt, Sheila Flitton, Brid Ni Neachtain, Jon Kenny, Aaron Monaghan, David Pearse, Lasairfhiona Ni Chonaola, Jon Carty

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actor (Colin Farrell), Best Supporting Actor (Brendan Gleeson), Best Supporting Actor (Barry Keoghan), Best Supporting Actress (Kerry Condon), Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Music, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


Most people can relate to the emotional turmoil of a romantic interest ghosting them out of nowhere…but there’s nothing worse than the thought of your best friend wanting to cut off all contact with you for seemingly no reason.


In one of the darkest “Laurel and Hardy” type stories I’ve ever seen, happy-go-lucky Padraic (Colin Farrell) goes about his day like any other on the fictional isle of Inisherin. He banters with his sister, Siobhan (Kerry Condon), cares for his miniature donkey, Jenny, and stops over at the home of his best friend, Colm (Brenden Gleeson), before heading over to the pub for a pint.

Colm, however, doesn’t answer the door. He simply sits in his living room, ignoring Padraic’s knocks. When Padraic finds Colm at the pub a while later, he goes to sit with him, but Colm tells him to sit somewhere else. Padraic asks what the beef is about and Colm replies, “I just don’t like you anymore.”


Colm goes on to explain that he no longer has time for Padraic’s “aimless chatting” and just wants to be left alone to play his fiddle in peace and quiet. But Padraic doesn’t understand Colm’s sudden shift. Neither does Dominic (Barry Keoghan), Padraic’s little buddy and the locale’s voice of reason. Padraic keeps bugging Colm to find out what he can do to fix things, which ends up bothering Colm even more. It gets so bad that Colm threatens to cut off his fingers if Padraic won’t leave him alone.

And the Irish are nothing if not nosy. Everyone is all up in each other’s business, so everyone has a stake in Padraic and Colm’s civil war. Everyone from Dominic’s abusive father (Gary Lydon) to the witchy elderly woman (Sheila Flitton) – who may or may not be a banshee herself – have an opinion on the island’s latest feud.

Set in 1923, The Banshees of Inisherin takes place during Ireland’s Civil War, which works nicely as a metaphor for the deconstruction of Padraic and Colm’s relationship. And, while everyone in the movie tends to take a side in this fight, the film doesn’t. We feel for both these guys and understand both points of view. Is Colm rude for severing a friendship that doesn’t do anything for him anymore…maybe. But why can’t Padraic just let the guy be? And, to be honest, he really is kind of boring.


Filmed on an island off the coast of Ireland, Banshees has a mythical, fairy tale feel to it. It’s not fully a comedy nor a drama, but rather a tapestry of tones, feelings, and conversations. It perfectly captures something we don’t often see in film, when old, platonic pals stop being nice and start getting real.

 

Triangle of Sadness

Director: Ruben Ostlund

Starring: Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Dolly de Leon, Zlatko Buric, Iris Berben, Vicki Berlin, Henrik Dorsin, Amanda Walker, Oliver Ford Davies, Sunnyi Melles, Woody Harrelson

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


Money talks, but beauty walks. During the prologue of Triangle of Sadness, a group of male models is being teased by an instructor who tells them how to pose: it’s smiles for H&M, because everyone is happy that the clothes are inexpensive…but it’s scowls for Balenciaga, because no one can afford it.


Despite these male models making a fraction of what their female counterparts make, they’re all still passionate about modeling. Like Carl (Harris Dickinson), the main model in the group, they all sport hairless, defined chests and 100-wat smiles. They may not be rolling in the dough, but they’re overflowing with stuff: free cologne, free meals, free yacht trips…all because they’re just pretty to look at.

From here, our story is divided into three distinct chapters. The first act establishes Carl and Yaya (Charlbi Dean), his supermodel girlfriend, as they suffer through the anxieties of the fashion world. A bit of a short film all on its own, we come upon Carl and Yaya as they finish a fancy dinner. The bill has been placed on their table and sits there long enough for Carl to realize that Yaya has no intention of paying, even though she promised to the night before. The two argue about gender-based assumptions for the remainder of the night, starting at the restaurant and continuing in the cab and when they arrive back to their hotel. This first segment works to set up the rest of the film as a commentary on traditional gender roles, which flows through the remaining two chapters.


The second act finds us on a yacht. Yaya has been gifted the trip for free, thanks to her work as an influencer. As they lounge on the deck in their skimpy swimsuits, Yaya and Carl are indeed part of the upper echelon. Of course, not everyone on board looks as beautiful as they do.

There’s the flat and greedy Russian billionaire, Dimitry (Zlatko Buric), who made his fortune selling fertilizer; the elderly British couple, Clementine and Winston (Amanda Walker and Oliver Ford Davis), who built their family fortune on making landmines and hand grenades; and a wealthy socialite named Therese (Iris Berben), who has been disabled by a stroke and can only repeat the words, “In Den Wolken”, which means “in the clouds.” Clearly where most of these people live, far from a grounded reality.


Manning the yacht is Captain Thomas (Woody Harrelson), an American socialist whose inebriation only adds to the manic atmosphere.


But even the most beautiful, the most wealthy, and the most powerful can’t control everything. When the skies turn stormy, the seven-course captain’s dinner becomes a scene of, well, you’re just gonna have to see it for yourself. Word to the wise, have some Dramamine on hand…or at least a bucket.

The final act focuses on a subset of the passengers and crew who wash up on an island after the yacht succumbs to a violent attack. Suddenly, beauty and money don’t mean so much anymore. But power? Those reins seem to be up for grabs…Now everyone, passengers and crew alike…are, shall we say, on the same boat (or lack thereof). Now the status quo of power, class, and currency is recalibrated. It’s Lord of the Flies as this group of riches-to-rags survivors must use whatever skills they have to ensure their own survival.


Many will see Triangle of Sadness as a kind of Parasite-takes-a-cruise-type situation. But if you look beyond the surface, you’ll see a film that actually speaks to the nature of mankind itself.


No matter our wealth, no matter what we look like, we’re all a broken bunch who will always fall short of expectations, the film says. Many of us are willing to do whatever it takes to secure our place in the pack, whether that means exploiting ourselves or others. We can use wealth and beauty to our advantage for so long, but what happens when the money runs out, when beauty fades, when circumstances force us to harken back to those animalistic skills of basic survivability? Those are the moments that test our true humanity.

 

Women Talking

Director: Sarah Polley

Starring: Rooney Mara, Claire Foy, Jessie Buckley, Judith Ivey, Ben Whishaw, Frances McDormand, Sheila McCarthy, Michelle McLeod, Kate Hallett, Liv McNeil, Emily Mitchell, Kira Guloien, Shayla Brown, August Winter

Oscar Wins: Best Adapted Screenplay

Other Nominations: Best Picture


Between 2005 and 2009, 150 women and young girls were drugged and raped by the men of their secluded Mennonite community in Bolivia. Girls ranging in age from 5 to 65 would wake up having no idea what happened, but seeing blood on their sheets and legs, or noticing their underwear was missing. It wasn’t until one of these rapists was caught in the act that their actions were finally reported to the Bolivian authorities. After the trial, which was a media sensation, eight men were sentenced to 25 years in prison.


Canadian author Miriam Toews, who also grew up in a small Mennonite community in Manitoba, had a strong empathetic response to this story. She wrote a book in 2018 called Women Talking, an imaginative retelling of the Bolivian story. Four years later, director Sarah Polley, along with producer Frances McDormand, would bring it to the silver screen.

Waking up in a painful daze, Ona (Rooney Mara) calls out to her mother. There is blood on her sheets and bruises on her legs. A voiceover says something about how women in this colony often wake up like this, somehow still feeling the predatory hands on their bodies that were once there but are now gone.


The pieces quickly fall into place. No woman, no matter her age, is safe here. Whether she be four or sixty-five, chances are she will be drugged and raped by the men in the community, often in incest. To complain would be attention-seeking, which goes against their strict religious upbringing. The men gaslight the women into thinking it’s their crazy imaginations or that they’ve been raped by ghosts or demons. Most women know the truth, but they’re powerless to change it.

That is until two of the colony’s children witness a rapist fleeing the scene. Temporary arrests are made and the men all leave the colony to post bail. They grant the women 24 hours alone to decide how to move forward. They can forgive their attackers (and thus safeguard their place in heaven); fight back (granting them divisive and unable to get into heaven); or pack up and leave.


A group of 8 women of all ages are chosen to make the decision for the group. They debate the subject for a day and a half. They ask the only man left, a soft-spoken teacher named August (Ben Whishaw), to “take the minutes” of their meeting, as none of the women can read or write.


As they discuss their options, they realize the pros and cons to each side. The only pathway to heaven is to stay and comply; does leaving mean they can no longer get into heaven? If they stay, could they actually forgive their husbands and brothers who did this to them? Furthermore, if they decide to leave, where do they go? Can their sons come with? At what age do boys become men and at what point can you say it’s too late for a boy to unlearn his conditioning?

Smartly, Women Talking never shows us the acts of violence committed on these women – perhaps because there’s already too much of it out there. We only see the scars left in its wake. The film takes place almost entirely in one location – the loft where these women discuss their futures. It’s a story that puts everything on its cast, and there’s a good one here. Mariche (Jessie Buckley) is the sarcastic one who suffers horrific abuse at the hands of her husband. Salome (Claire Foy) is so infuriated by what has happened that she attacks one of the men with a pitchfork. Agata and Greta (Judith Ivey and Sheila McCarthy) are the two elders, bringing wisdom and authority to the table. Each one brings something different and important to the conversation.


Like dragonflies that migrate across such epic lengths that only their grandchildren survive to get where they’re going, Women Talking is the birth of a new nation. It longs for a better tomorrow, one more dependent on compassion than unilateral power. And even if they don’t have a map…even if they have to make their own map…these women know it’s out there somewhere.

 

The Fabelmans

Director: Steven Spielberg

Starring: Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, Gabriel LaBelle, Julia Butters, Judd Hirsch, Jeannie Berlin, Robin Bartlett, Keeley Karsten, Alina Brace, Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord, Birdie Borria, Sophia Kopera, Sam Rechner, Oakes Fegley, Chloe East, Isabelle Kusman, Chandler Lovelle, Gustavo Escobar, Nicolas Cantu, Cooper Dodson, Gabriel Bateman, Stephen Smith, Lane Factor, James Urbaniak, Conner Trinneer, David Lynch, Greg Grunberg, Jan Hoag

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Supporting Actor (Judd Hirsch), Best Actress (Michelle Williams), Best Director, Best Original Music, Best Production Design, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


Where do our passions come from? Sometimes it’s in our genes, our psyche, our conditioning, or even the trauma of our childhoods. They sneak up on us, like a stealthy shark, a mysterious UFO, a hungry dinosaur, then, if we’re lucky, they take the best part of us.


But no person, no matter how talented, can have it all. Those who know their skill must commit to it, come hell or high water (or parents, or kids, or family of any kind). We must follow our hearts and do what we love, because we don’t owe our lives to anyone.

At least, that’s the message at the heart of Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobiographical film, The Fabelmans. This “wonder of me” movie shows Spielberg’s development as a young filmmaker, from his first movie theater experience to his first big-boy job. It’s clearly a personal project, one that – in the great scheme of things – didn’t need to be made, but one that shows us that sometimes, just sometimes, life really is like the movies. Sometimes, when we follow our hearts, things can work out in the most magical way.


The most formative experience for little Sammy Fabelman (Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord, then later by Gabriel LaBelle) was when his parents took him to see his first movie: The Greatest Show on Earth, by Cecil B. DeMille. Sammy watches in jaw-dropping amazement as a circus train crash lights up the screen. Later, stuck somewhere between trauma and wonder, Sammy tries to reenact the scene with his own toys.


This infuriates Sammy’s father, Burt (Paul Dano) who criticizes Sammy for not appreciating nice things. However, Sammy’s mother, Mitzi (Michelle Williams) knows that Sammy is just trying to process what he saw. Secretly using Burt’s camera, Mitzi helps Sammy film the toy train crash one more time…that way he can watch it over and over without breaking his toys. And, just like that, a filmmaker is born.

The camera becomes Sammy’s third arm (or third eye?), and he puts in the hours wherever he can, from making small films with his sisters and boy scout friends to filming family camping trips and senior ditch day. However, when editing a reel of a family vacation, Sammy notices something in the corner of the frame. Burt’s best friend, Benny (Seth Rogen), who is so engrained in the family that the kids affectionally call him “Uncle Benny”, has his arm around Mitzi. In another frame, he finds them flirting, holding hands, being affectionate.


He removes these incriminating scenes from his film, showing the family only the picture-perfect version of their camping trip. But after a heated argument, Sammy shows the cut footage to his mother, who has an emotional breakdown. It’s a brilliant metaphor for Spielberg’s own cinematic vision, his need to “reject reality”, as Dawson Leery says. In filmmaking, editing is the creative heart: what to leave in, what to cut out, and how to represent the truth.

The Fabelmans ends before it can get to the heart of what we know Spielberg for, but it’s still filled with the moments that shaped the director we all know and love…including his brief meeting with the legendary John Ford (surprise casting here!), which gave this movie the most delightful ending.


When all’s said and done, the takeaway here is simple: do what you love. Find something that makes you want to come back the next day and start all over again. Find something that scares you, challenges you, helps you grow. And when you find that thing, don’t let go for anything. It’s a quintessential Spielberg message that will surely reawaken or reinvigorate the fire you have inside you to create…all you have to do is open your heart to it.

 

Tar

Director: Todd Field

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noemie Merlant, Sophie Kauer, Julian Glover, Allan Corduner, Mark Strong, Sylvia Flote, Adam Gopnik, Mila Bogojevic, Zethphan Smith-Gneist, Lee Sellars, Sydney Lemmon

Oscar Wins: No wins.

Other Nominations: Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Cinematography, Best Director, Best Film Editing, Best Original Screenplay, Best Picture


Lydia Tar (Cate Blanchett) is a person of exceptional hearing and possibly perfect pitch. She’s a gifted conductor and has encyclopedic knowledge of classical music. Yet she’s almost always distracted by extraneous noise…a doorbell, an alarm from a neighboring apartment, a scream in the woods.


On the surface, this isn’t surprising. She resides in Berlin, a city almost always bustling with activity. She is also the resident conductor for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, a job that essentially involves turning noise into music. She never seems to reside in quiet. She’s always talking, talking, talking. At night, she hears things move in the dark. She’s haunted by sound.

As one of a few women in a male-dominated industry, Tar is a wonder to those who know and respect her. She’s a virtuoso pianist, she was BFFs with Leonard Bernstein, and she’s a member of the EGOT club. When we first meet her, she’s at the beginning of what’s to become a near 20-minute interview with Adam Gopnik of the New Yorker. She stuffs her answers with big 10-letter words, calm, cool, and collected. It’s clear Tar is at the top of her game…and has nowhere to go but down.


Tar is a movie that thinks a lot of itself. Like its main character, it’s pretentious, big-headed, and packed to the brim with knowledge. It knows more than you and isn’t ashamed to shove it in your face. And, for 2.5 hours, that’s about all it does.


The first time we really get to witness Tar in her element is when she’s teaching a Julliard master class in conducting. One of her students, Max (Zethphan Smith-Gneist), confesses that he distains Bach because he was a racist. Tar obliterates Max in front of the whole class for rating the artist over the art. After all, she says, Jerry Goldsmith ripped off a known antisemite for his Planet of the Apes score. She accuses Max of being a robot. “The architect of your soul appears to be social media,” she says.

Uneasiness lingers in the air. Things get worse when a former protégé (and possibly lover) commits suicide after Lydia calls her “mentally unstable”. Fearing retribution, Lydia deletes any emails relating to the deceased student and asks her assistant, Francesca (Noemie Merlant) to do the same. But Francesca is skeptical. A new cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer) has caught Lydia’s eye, and Lydia’s actions are nothing if not typical.


Over time, Lydia’s corrupt actions come to light and her fall from grace begins. The social media storm against Lydia seems to take her by surprise, but Lydia is a selfish, power-hungry socialite. Nothing can touch her…right?

Watching Lydia thrash her arms around as she conducts is like watching someone being consumed by her art. There are echoes of Bernstein’s flamboyant directing style, which is certainly no accident. Lydia despises people for thinking like robots, but she’s really no different. She knows everything about Mahler and Beethoven, she can sightread and dissect a piece to death…but when it comes to creating her own music, she can’t do it. Perhaps she lacks inspiration…but I think the real problem is she fears being seen in the way she sees other composers.


Like a great magnum opus, there are a lot of layers to Tar…There are soft, airy movements that float along like a flute; bold, brassy scenes that jar us awake; and haunting melodies that give us the creeps; I just wish they did a better job arranging them.

 

Avatar 2: The Way of Water

Director: James Cameron

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Kate Winslet, Cliff Curtis, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Edie Felco, Brendan Cowell, Jermaine Clement, Britain Dalton, Chloe Coleman, Trinity Jo-Li Bliss, Jack Champion, Bailey Bass, Filip Geljo, Duane Evans, Giovanni Ribisi, Dileep Rao, Matt Gerald

Oscar Wins: Best Visual Effects

Other Nominations: Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Picture


In case humankind didn’t learn their lesson from Fern Gully, Pocahontas, Wall-E, The Terminator, or our first jaunt into Pandora more than 13 years ago, ol’ JC is back to show us how destructive and abusive we are to our planet, as well as the planets surrounding ours.


When we last left Pandora back in the first Avatar installment, humanity was not a welcome visitor. Many people there died, others were expelled, and a few remained (as long as they promised to be nice). Some even moved their freaking souls from their human body into a 10-foot-tall Na’vi body, complete with killer dreadlocks and those tingly tail thingies.


But humans are nothing if not stubborn. If they can’t have what they want, they’ll just burn it down. And that’s where we land at the start of Avatar: The Way of Water.

If you thought the forests of Pandora were impressive, just wait until you journey underwater, where the fish are funkier, the creatures are bigger, and the anatomies are NOTHING like Mr. Ray taught us about in Finding Nemo. But, The Way of Water is a bit of a slippery slope at first. The beginning clunks along as Cameron reminds us of what’s been going on in this world since we left. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a human who is now a full-time Na’vi, is married to Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). They have four children: sons Neteyam (Jamie Flatters) and Lo’ak (Britain Dalton); and daughters Tuk (Trinity Jo-Li Bliss) and Kiri (Sigourney Weaver) (who they have adopted).


What is at once a blissful existence is fractured when the Sky People return to Pandora, this time as fully formed Na’vi soldiers, including an avatar version of one Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Their mission: eliminate a big blue thorn by the name of Jake Sully.


This leaves Jake with a very Sarah Connor-esque problem: fight or flight for family? Ultimately, he makes the decision to pack up his family and trade their life in the trees for a life at sea. They travel to another part of Pandora, where Tonowari (Cliff Curtis) rules with his wife, Metkayina (Kate Winslet). Overtime, the Sully’s learn “the way of water”, including spiritual pilgrimages to underwater trees and psychic bonding with sea whales called tulkun.

These moments when the Sully children become engrossed in the biodiversity of Pandora marine life are gorgeous and imaginative. These scenes, which are not necessary to the plot but are just visual porn for viewers, easily contribute to the 3-hour runtime…but I’d argue it’s well worth it.


By the final act, Quaritch and company have tracked Jake down and an epic battle ensues. With a series of action set pieces set aboard a sinking ship, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that James Cameron might have some unresolved trauma regarding water…I see you, James Cameron.


I have several friends that like to say this about Taylor Swift: “Say what you will about her, she can write a catchy tune.” I feel like the same can be said for James Cameron. Whatever you think of him, let’s at least acknowledge that the guy can pump out a blockbuster. His strength lies in worldbuilding, taking us out of the hum-drum of our own reality and plopping us into an exotic realm that feels just beyond our touch. And when we leave, waddling to the bathrooms after sitting in a theater for 3 hours watching a movie about water, we can’t help but think, “Man, I wish I lived in a place like that.” But the thing of it is, we do…and we destroyed it. That’s the humbling, heartbreaking, lesson. Hopefully it won’t be too late before we all learn it.

 


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