Greetings! Have you ever wondered if a movie's worth blowing the money on to see at the theater or what to add next to your NetFlix queue? Then you've come to the right place! Enjoy!

"Mean Girls" (2024) Review

Because entertainment is a flat circle and creativity is too risky for Hollyweird, 2004's Mean Girls which became a 2018 Broadway musical is now back as a film of the musicial based on the film, also named Mean Girls. Confused? Good. Updated by original screenwriter Tina Fey to reflect cultural changes - Tik Tok videos and a whole lot less white people - it's the same old story, but now with singing! (Though you wouldn't know it from its trailer which has about two seconds of footage from musical numbers, so if you hate musicals you're in for a bad time.)

Angourie Rice (she played Betty Brandt in the MCU Spider-Man trilogy) stars as Cady Heron (originally played by Lindsay Lohan), a home-schooled girl raised by her anthropologist mother (Jenna Fischer, originally Ana Gasteyer) in Africa minus any mentioned father. Missing out on social contact, her mother takes a job back in America and Cady enrolls in North Shore High and gets a crash course in cliques. 

She's initially befriended by race-swapped Janis (Auli'i Cravalho, originally Lizzy Caplan) and "too gay to function" Damian (Jaquel Spivey, orig. Daniel Franzese), snarky outcasts, but the focus changes when Janis encourages Cady to infiltrate the notorious "Plastics", the apex predators headed by Regina George (Reneé Rapp, orig. Rachel McAdams) with her sidekicks Gretchen (Bebe Wood, orig. Lacey Chabert) and airhead Karen (Avantica, orig. Amanda Seyfried). Regina takes Cady under her wing and elevates her style and status unaware of how Cady & Co. are conspiring against her. Of course, Cady loses the plot and loses her moral compass, same as last time.

Mean Girls (2024) lives in a weird limbo as a hybrid of a musical and a rehashing of a movie that's never really left the collective cultural memory - there was a Mean Girls-themed Walmart Black Friday 2023 commercial campaign reuniting Lohan, Chabert, Seyfried and others - to the point where any new take couldn't help but be constantly held against the original. As a result, most of the time you're waiting to see how closely the new movie tracks with songs tossed in of varying effectiveness. While the songs are new, the closeness with which the plot beats are the same.

This familiarity is confounded by the new cast being led by Rice whose voice is thin and passable, but she lacks the charisma and charm of Lohan. (Sidebar: It's hard to remember now, but in 2004 Lindsay Lohan was hot stuff coming off the tag team of the Freaky Friday remake and Mean Girls. She was poised for an interesting career, but went down in tabloid flames and the fact she's still alive at 37, recently married with a child in Dubai, and making rom-coms for Netflix a minor miracle.) Rice's Cady is a passive pawn of Janis and Regina's games to the point she's barely the protagonist. According to Wikipedia, 14 songs were cut from the show for the movie and a comparison of the track listings between Broadway cast and movie soundtracks show half of Cady's songs were cut. (Due to Rice's weak voice?)

That makes the stars of this show Rapp and Cravalho. Rapp is a bold brassy bodacious blonde who played Regina on Broadway and also contributed to co-writing new songs for the movie. (She also looks a lot like Busy Phillips so when Philips shows up as her mother, originally played by Amy Poehler, it wins the Most Obvious Casting Duh award.) Unlike McAdams, her presence is more dominating and menacing then hectoring.

Cravalho, who made her acting debut voicing Moana, is the real breakout star here with an effortless nuanced charm embracing her outsiderness and fronting the showstopper number "I'd Rather Be Me" which is shot in a single unbroken take as the camera (operated by Ari Robbins, listed as "Trinity Ninja" in the credits; Trinity being a brand of advanced camera stabilizing kit which is a Steadicam on steroids) races with her through the school in its own complex dance. However, when she suddenly shows up at the finale dance with a girl whom we've never seen before, it's another odd editorial moment.

Rookie directors Arturo Perez Jr. and Samantha Jayne do a fine job staging the modern musical numbers, but they're hamstrung by the choices in the script adaptation by Fey, who returns as Ms. Norbury along with Tim Meadows' Principal Duvall. While the cast as been diversified, it's not woke racism as the underlying characters are the same (e.g. Indian Avantica manages to make Karen both have bigger boobs and be dumber than Seyfried).

While slightly fresh, Mean Girls (which needs ": The Musical" appended) is a mostly redundant and superfluous revising of a teen movie classic. If you like musicals or wished the original wasn't so full of people of pallor, or just want to change up your revisiting North Shore High, this will suffice.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It will be coming soon to Paramount+)

"The Zone of Interest" Review

As we near the end of this year's Oscars Death March along with Past Lives, the other film nominated for Best Picture this year I had no freaking idea about was The Zone of Interest, which Google told me it was about the family of the Nazi commandant of Auschwitz living an idyllic life literally on the other side of the wall from the camp. Holocaust movies used to be a staple of Oscar, but they've fallen from favor post-Schindler's List as they've chosen to focus on more sexy topics like racism and LGBTQ+LMNOPWTFBBQ subjects. It's nominated for Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Sound, and International Picture (representing Great Britain, though it's in German meaning subtitles).

And that sentence describing the plot pretty much describes the entirety of the plot, such as it is, of the movie. Adapted from the Martin Amis novel, The Zone of Interest is about Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel) and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, also nominated for Best Actress in Anatomy of a Fall) and their five children (let's call them Greta, Helga, Groucho, Harpo, and Baby Jake) as they live a posh life in a nice house with gardens and a small pool and greenhouse. Hedwig models a nice fur coat courtesy of the Jewish woman who won't be needing it anymore. A worker in striped pajamas is glimpsed tending Rudolph's horse.

Sure, there are the sounds of genocide wafting in - gunshots, screams, cries, dogs barking, the paranoia-inducing rumble of the machinery of death - and it's inconvenient when the winds shift and blow the odor and ashes of the exterminated onto the laundry on the lines or when a human jaw bumps into you while your fishing requiring yanking the children from the river and scrubbing them in the bath, but the bosses are impressed with Rudolph's efficiency and there's talk of promotion. Life is good.

If this sounds glib and dismissive of the horrors of the Holocaust, it's intentional because writer-director Jonathan Glazer (whose 2004 film Birth, about Nicole Kidman believing a 10-year-old boy is her reincarnated dead husband, was just awful) has taken the concept of the banality of evil and stretched it out over 105 airless minutes where it begins to take on the aura of an Andy Kaufman bit where the utter lack of humor is what makes it funny.

From the four-minute "overture" which sounds like someone fell asleep on a keyboard triggering an ambient techno patch over a black screen to extended shots of the pale Aryan family enjoying a trip to the river then driving home for a loooong time then lots of watching the help hang the laundry, Glazer relies on locked down camera angles (he wired the house with a bunch of fixed digital cameras recording constantly so the actors didn't have crew disturbing them in what Glazer called, "Big Brother [the TV show] with Nazis") or very rigid tracking shots a la Stanley Kubrick which I suppose is meant to give the viewer a voyeuristic perspective, but it's comes off as self-consciously pretentious. This doesn't even include the bizarre interludes filmed with an infrared camera of a girl hiding fruits where prisoners would be laboring which look like black and white film negative. ( I had to look up a synopsis to find out who the girl was.)

 The way people blasely discuss things like when Hedwig's visiting mother muses whether the Jewish woman she worked for was over the wall in the camp getting what Jews had coming before grousing how she got outbid on some curtains of hers or the designers of a more efficient crematory design which will allow for maximum throughput of people needing incinerating, the Holocaust is portrayed as being thought of as dispassionately as a logistics puzzle or how much ash should be spread in the garden to nourish the crops with the ash coming from one the million-plus people next door.

The film ends with a bizarre flash-forward of workers dusting and sweeping Auschwitz as it is today, a tourist destination with exhibits of the piles of luggage and shoes arriving guests had confiscated as a reminder of one of humanity's darkest chapters.

But does anyone really need to be told that the Holocaust was bad, mmmkay? Any irony that such monstrous deeds were perpetrated by people NOT acting like Hitler, barking in angry German as shown on newsreels, is ironically tempered now by the flood wealthy celebrities demanding that Israel, the Jewish state established in the wake of the Holocaust, stop protecting itself after the 10/7 Hamas attacks which killed over 1200 people solely for being Jewish in the worst day of mass murder since the Holocaust.

Are celebrities and the Academy aware of the disconnect between honoring this movie with awards while the members such as Best Supporting Actress nominee America Ferrera and two-time Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett demanding a ceasefire to save the attackers and preserve their ability to continue raining rockets down on civilian areas of Israel? Is the ruthless murder of Jews bad or not, Hollyweird?

While smartly crafted and deliberately told, The Zone of Interest never really engages the viewer because nothing ever changes. No characters change; the way they are in the beginning is the way they are in the end. It's 1-3/4 hours of not much happening, though plus points for doing little in half the time Killers of the Flower Moon wasted. It's purely cerebral about something usual meant to be felt viscerally. Frankly, you'll learn more about Höss in this Smithsonian magazine feature released in conjunction with interest in the film.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

"Lover, Stalker, Killer" Review

 If there's one thing Netflix seems able to consistently churn out it's entertaining true crime documentaries. Slickly produced and well told, they're usually short - running 90-120 minutes either as features or mini-series - for quick consumption. Recent winners have been Bitconned and the infuriating American Nightmare which exposed the police AND FBI has judgemental incompetents who seemed to base their "investigation" on watching Lifetime movies. New to Netflix is Lover, Stalker, Killer, another wildly bonkers true crime tale which still manages to surprise even when I was able to predict the twist really early on.

 It's the story of Dave Kroupa, a mechanic who relocated to Omaha, Nebraska to be close to his children after his marriage ended and his ex moved back home in 2012. Looking for love (or at least Miss Right Now), he signed up on a dating site and was matched with a woman named Liz Golyar, a divorcee with a couple of kids. Dave made it clear he was just looking for something casual and she was down for that and they had a great time together.

One day a woman named Cari Farver brought her car to his garage and he checked it out, but also took a liking to her and asked her out. A single mother, she also agreed to his no strings attached/friends with benefits arrangement and dated for a couple of weeks.

One night, while Cari was at Dave's place, Lisa showed up, ostensibly to retrieve something she'd left there. As Cari left, she and Lisa made eye contact for a few seconds, but nothing seemed amiss. But a couple of days later Cari texted Dave suggesting they'd move in together. Dave replied that he'd made clear that he wasn't looking for anything serious and it was way too soon to be playing house and she replied like a mature adult woman would: By swearing to destroy his life in every way possible.

Which she does with a constant barrage of texts and emails which then advance to vandalism against Lisa - keying her car, breaking into his apartment and slashing Lisa's clothes, eventually escalating to setting Lisa's house on fire, killing her pets, which prompted her to break off her relationship with Dave. When the threats extended to his ex-wife and children, they all had to move and change jobs to try and escape Cari's menace.

If you're wondering why the cops didn't step in to deal with Cari, it's because she had disappeared at the same time she began waging jihad against Dave, Lisa and their families. Cari's mother was looking after her young teenage son and her only contact with her daughter were cryptic text messages that she had moved to Kansas to sort things out in her life. Cari was bipolar and a search of her home found she hadn't taken her medicines with her, but also that she didn't appear to have taken anything with her as all her clothes and effects were still there.

 You can probably guess what was going on - I did - but the looooooong twisting road to get to the end is still fascinating stuff, especially the surprise connections between some parties are exposed or the lengths Cari goes to keep inflicting distress on Dave.

 If you like Netflix true crime docs, you'll like this, too.

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Netflix.

"Oppenheimer" Review

 Well, this was unexpected. Somehow after 13 years and four increasingly appallingly bad movies which had me repeatedly calling for the revocation of his filmmaking privileges, Christopher Nolan has finally made a movie that isn't absolute garbage.

His six films from 2000-2010 starting with Memento and ending with Inception were all very good to excellent (scores: 7-10), but starting with 2012's The Dark Knight Reloaded (as I will never stop calling it) thru 2020's Tenet (which got to hide its failure behind the Hot Fad Plague) have been one misbegotten self-absorbed steaming piles of manure after another (score: 2-4). He believed his hype from legions of fawning fans who have placed him in the same area as Martin Scorsese where they believe that because he made great movies in the past, that means everything he makes now is also great.

So it was with zero enthusiasm where I sat down for three hours of Nolan called Oppenheimer. I had skipped the whole "Barbenheimer" silliness last year and couldn't believe a long biopic about the Father of the Atomic Bomb would gross nearly one billion dollars with the general public who probably would've skipped it if not for the magic Nolan name. (But people think Train rocks, so...)

But at the conclusion I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't want to beat anyone up for liking this, but quickly realized that what Nolan had done was somehow fill three hours with almost no content, obscuring it with flashy filmmaking and a manic score by Ludwig Göransson which keeps the viewer hyped and awake and feeling they're watching something meaningful. So, yay?

 Cillian Murphy stars as J. Robert Oppenheimer and in a return to Nolan's self-indulgent gimmick from Dunkirk the story is told via two interlaced timelines: one in color titled Fission, covering Oppie's life beginning as a graduate student at the University of Cambridge through the development of the A-bomb at Los Alamos in the context of a star chamber proceeding considering whether he should retain his security clearance in 1954; the other in black & white titled Fusion, which covers the Senate confirmation hearing of Lewis Strauss (Robert Downey, Jr.) in 1959 and how he waged a vendetta against Oppenheimer over slights, petty and imagined. (Of course the later chronological scenes are in B&W because Nolan.)

 Along the way we're treated to a whirlwind of familiar names (if you're a nuclear science nerd like I was as a yoot) and faces as a legion of famous actors flow by so swiftly you don't really catch names, just roles. There's Florence Pugh as Jean, a Communist mistress of Oppie's (and features in the first sex scenes of Nolan's entire career) who he still sees after marrying Emily Blunt's Kitty and starting a family. Matt Damon as the general in charge of Manhattan Project; Josh Hartnett as Op's best friend who invented the cyclotron; Rami Malek, Benny Safdie, Kenneth Branagh, David Krumholtz as scientists; Tom Conto as Albert Einstein. Casey Affleck, Dane DeHaan are military men; Jason Clarke, Tony Goldwyn, Matthew Modine, David Dastmalchian, Alden Ehrenreich and more are lawyers and politicos. Hey, it's Gary Oldman under a ton of makeup playing Harry S. Truman! A cast of many!

With so many people and places and events all jumbled together, the viewer is always scrambling to keep things straight and figure out what the connections are. While not utilizing the stock linear biopic template may've been an attempt to freshen the formula, the way Nolan jumps back and forth in order to hide the thin excuse motivating what Oppenheimer is subjected to until deep into its third hour results in an immediate feeling that you've witnessed something sprawling and epic, but the next day realizing nothing stuck with you because there was little substance there.

Here's what I recall about Oppenheimer: Hat, haunted stare, ummm, smart...that's about it. We don't get any feeling for his relationship with Kitty (a nominated Blunt, mostly for a couple of simmering scenes, but not much else) and why Janet was so important. We get a better sense of the rivalries and disputes between the founders of the Atomic Age and some of the moral qualms about the practical applications of their theoretical research. While there may be an intellectual kick to developing a bomb that could set off a chain reaction that would set the Earth's atmosphere on fire, killing everything on the planet, there is that whole ENDING THE WORLD side effect if someone used this invention.

Because quantum theory is so complicated to understand for non-Big Brain folks, Nolan attempts to present an impressionistic picture of the unimaginable (like the ridiculous 4D Magic Bookcase inside the black hole at the end of Interstellar), so he throws random whirring glowing things and macro photography left over from a Pink Floyd planetarium show and shots of Op tossing glasses into the corner of the room watching them shatter as if divining the Secrets of the Universe in the shards. I hated A Beautiful Mind and sold the DVD immediately after watching it (which is the ultimate rejection considering how much bad stuff I keep), but the way Ron Howard visualized game theory and how John Nash viewed the world explained the arcane concept where Nolan doesn't even try, preferring to flash some lights and crank the score volume.

And speaking of flashing lights, much was made of Nolan's proclamation that he wouldn't use any CGI VFX to recreate the Trinity bomb test. The obvious joke was that he was going to set off an actual atomic bomb, but the absolutely underwhelming depiction of this explosion makes one wish he had done so as this explosion which they weren't 100% certain wouldn't set the atmosphere on fire is nothing more than a big gasoline explosion which looks nothing like an atomic bomb mushroom cloud. THE moment of the whole story is a damp squib.

But that test occurs about 2/3rds of the way through the three hour runtime leaving a whole hour of vamping to babystep to the only real conflict of the film, that the reason for the 1954 inquisition stemmed from Stauss' butthurt over being mocked at a hearing by Oppenheimer after the war and his imagining to be the subject of disrespect by him and Einstein when they meet in 1947 when Strauss was trying to get O.P.P. to set up at Princeton. When we finally realize why Opie was subjected to such suspicion it elicits the first real emotional reaction to the story, but it's too little, too late.

With such a stacked cast, there are no real weak performances, just performances set adrift by the sparsity of Nolan's everything everywhere all for three hours screenplay. Pugh gets naked and kills herself, but so what? Blunt is the stoic partner to a man whose attention was always elsewhere, but who cares? Damon is good, everyone's good, but they mostly come and go without a lasting impression. The big surprise was Hartnett, who looks different enough and his acting through his eyebrows for once.

Cillian Murphy is a 50-50 favorite, along with Paul Giamatti, for Best Actor, but he is playing such an internally conflicted character whose actions are inscrutable - why exactly did he almost murder a professor? Seems a bit over-reactive - due to the Cliff's Notes script and Nolan's ADHD narrative that all that remains is the hat and the stare.

On the other hand, Downey Jr. is going to win for his portrayal of Strauss, a petty, vindictive man who put his pride before his fall. Strauss is the villain of the piece, leveraging Op's dalliances with Communism in the 1930s when everyone joined the Commies cuz it was the cool fad before it became a career liability in the 1950s (and ironically a career requirement for liberal politicians and entertainment folks now) into concerns over his loyalty to America. (That we repurposed a bunch of Nazi rocketeers for our space program goes unmentioned due to not being relevant.) Downey deserves to win as much for his performance as the lifetime achievement catch-all it will represent.

Which brings us back to Nolan himself and the personality cult that surrounds him and how he skates on so many flaws because he made The Dark Knight. His fetish for shooting on IMAX - Kodak had to invent a B&W IMAX film stock for this production - and making viewing Oppenheimer in 70mm a quest for his fans despite frequent technical problems in projecting a massive 11-mile-long, 600 lb. film print caused in the handful of theaters even capable of showing it, contributed to a Reality Distortion Field around the content of the film itself. He has gotten away with cranking up the sound so loud you can't hear the dialog and relying on the overwhelming impact of Cillian Murphy staring hauntedly at you six stories tall that the viewer gets bludgeoned into believing they're witnessing Something Really Important. (It made almost a billion bucks, so it clearly worked.)

But if the test of a song is how it stands up to being performed on a guitar or piano with all the other 100 tracks of pop music production stripped away, then the quality of a film should hold up when viewed on a 55-65" HDTV. (No one should be watching movies on a phone or tablet. Let's not be stupid.) And without the kilotons of picture size and sound you get in the theater, the sparsity of the film is exposed. It's a two hour movie stuffed into a three hour sack with too much time spent on the superfluous at the expense of the interesting.

It's not to say there aren't some meaty thoughts rattling around, especially the ethics of these mega weapons and the risk of making something that really shouldn't be used, but if you don't have on hand to deter those with ill intents then may land on your head. But since the science itself is so arcane, that leaves vast voids of time where we see Oppenheimer rush around to meet names nerds only will recognize, but if they cut out half the cast would anyone have noticed. Pugh's character almost seems to exist solely to provide some skin, especially in a weird moment where Blunt imagines her nude and straddling a naked JRO during the trial. Huh?

If you're trying to figure out how this is the first movie of Nolan's I haven't hated yet I've got so little to praise it for, that's the conundrum of Oppenheimer. It's a Big Story about Important People doing Momentous Things that changed the world momentarily for the better, but will probably end us all in the long run told in a fast and furious manner and my praise is mostly due to making three hours sail by without feeling it drag much. (We only took one bathroom and beverage break.)

But the nagging feeling that all the timeline jumping, flashing forward and backward to obscure the payoff that petty small men do cruel things for selfish personal reasons makes the overpraise and likely Oscars gold feel hollow. It's like how the Academy finally noticed Martin Scorsese with The Departed, but then kept nominating his progressively more bloated and unengaging movies afterwards including this year's wretched Killers of the Flower Moon.

 Where does Oppenheimer land in the ranking of the 11 movies I've seen of Nolan's? At number 7 as more the best of his bad movies than the worst of his good ones. At least he's not going to get stroked by the Academy for something awful, but still.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable. (It's on Peacock now.)

"Part Lives" Review

 Tonight the Oscars Death March teed up what can be described as the Obligatory Asian Movie - up for Best Picture and Original Screenplay - Past Lives, a melancholic thwarted romance story for people who want to end up feeling worse than the characters themselves.

 It opens with an unseen couple observing a trio at a bar late one night consisting of an Asian man (Teo Yoo), an Asian woman (Greta Lee), and a white man (John Magaro). Are the woman and the white man a couple and who is the Asian man? Are the Asians together and who is the white guy? It ends with the woman looking into the camera from the distance.

Then a title card pops up - "24 Years Earlier" - and we're introduced to Hae Sung (Seung Min Yim) and Na Young (Seung Ah Moon) the 12-year-old versions of the couple we saw in their native South Korea. They are classmates and Hae Sung is teasing her for doing better in their class grades as she's usually the top student. They like each other and their parents take them on a play date to the park, but there's little future for them because Na Young's family is emigrating to Canada for unspecified reasons.

 Then we're told "12 Years Pass" and Na Young has changed her name to Nora Moon and lives in New York City pursuing her dreams of being a writer. One day while on the phone with her mother she's looking up random people from her past and decides to look up Hae Sung and discovers he had posted on her father's Facebook page (her father is a filmmaker) that he was looking for her, made difficult due to her name change.

She sends him a Facebook friend request and they begin to have a series of Skype calls talking about nothing in particular, mostly what they're doing in their work lives. They talk about getting together sometime, but various commitments and the whole being on the opposite side of the world thing would make any such reunion something that would take 12-18 months to arrange. Abruptly, she announces that she wants to stop the calls because she's finding herself spending more time looking up flights to Korea than focusing on her goals. She says it won't be a long break, but we kinda know better.

She then goes to a writer's retreat on Montauk and meets Arthur, the third man from the opening scene, and they get very cozy. Meanwhile, Sung has gone to Shanghai for a Mandarin language program and meets someone. Then we're told another dozen years have passed and Sung is coming to NYC to visit Nora, who is now married to Arthur. (Ruh-roh.) He's a published author and she is having a production of one of her plays mounted, so things are going pretty well. Or are they?

 When they reunite, Nora can tell that Sung came more to see her than the sights of NYC. He has recently broken up with his girlfriend and feels his life is too ordinary to get someone to marry him despite being a handsome fellow. Nora goes on about the concept of in-yun, a Buddhist concept that every encounter between people no matter how incidental, like brushing past someone in a crowded room, is a connection which carries from our past lives to future incarnations and it takes 8000 layers of in-yun for two people to be together. Uh-huh.

Naturally, Arthur begins to feel a little threatened by this guy from his wife's past. Did they get together too quickly, shacking up to save on NYC rents, getting married because she needed a green card? She reassures him that she loves him, but will that be enough to hold off destiny?

OK, to be fair I'm wildly overselling the stakes here because Past Lives is (according to my missus whose seen more of these types of movies) like the romantic dramas by Wong Kar-wai (In The Mood For Love, 2046) or The Age of Innocence (which I saw when it came out) - feel bad romances where lovers never get together because it would be The Wrong Thing To Do because reasons and stuff. You intellectually understand why they're kept apart while cursing how you don't get a happy ending.

But my problem with Past Lives is that its entire premise is founding on a case of puppy love between a pair of pre-pubescent kids that reconstitutes itself into a crippling obsession on his part and I'm not quite sure what her angle is based on what we're given. Perhaps I'm undercounting the importance of the in-yun factor to Korean culture, but it seems more like a coping mechanism for dissatisfaction with one's life. "If only me and so-and-so had brushed past each other 8000 times in past lives so we could be together now" is just an exotic take on wishing you had handled your high school sweetheart relationship more maturely.

Are we supposed to root for Nora and Sung to finally achieve their romantic destiny after 24 years and some Skype sessions a decade earlier? Sorry, Arthur, but you were just Mr. Right Now - what they have is REAL LOVE because 8000 layers of Korean mythic stuff. Due to the sketchy nature of the narrative and massive time jumps which the viewer doesn't feel because for us those 12 year breaks occur in 10 seconds so we're still feeling what we felt 10 seconds ago, not what the ill-fated non-lovers have felt (or not) for the ensuing 12 years.

There's a subtle detail in how Nora's ambitions taper down as she grows older. When preparing to leave her homeland, she says that she has to move because you can't win a Nobel Prize for Literature in Korea. When they video call in their early-20s, her goal is now to win a Pulitzer Prize. But when they finally meet her prize is a Tony Award as a playwright. It's as if the more she accomplishes, the smaller her dreams get. Is this meant to be another admission that life's refusal to just serve up your dreams means you just lower your sight or is it a commentary that Hae Sung has never moved past his unattainable childish goal?

Writer-director Celine Song has made a semi-autobiographical debut film - she is originally South Korean, but emigrated to Canada, then went to Columbia University in NYC for a MFA in playwriting in 2014 - and while it's too slight & unsatisfying for my tastes, what nags more is how Past Lives, which was one of those "Sundance hits" feels like a beneficiary of the Academy Awards need to fetishize "diversity" and their need to fill a quota of non-American, non-male, non-white filmmakers.

First it was Parasite (which I liked) winning Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay AND International Feature (formerly Foreign Language); then it was Chloe Zhao winning Best Director for the Best Picture-winning Nomadland (it was OK, but should've been a documentary); then Drive My Car winning Best International Feature and nominated for Picture, Director, and Adapted Screenplay, the Academy just loves slow, bordering on tedious Asian films - Drive My Car was three hours long and if I hadn't been able to speed watch it in just two hours, I would've given up - and Past Lives fits the bill, though thankfully it only spends 1h 45m going nowhere.

As far as the performances, I would've nominated Lee over Sandra Huller or Lily Gladstone as her performance is enigmatic. That there's any doubt as to how this story will go it's because she imbues Nora with an inner life that I don't think Song really put on the page for her. Yoo is less successful because his character is a one-note mopey puppy dog pining for this girl from so long ago. Song gives us scenes of him drinking with his buddies, but we never see his relationship(s?) and thus he seems to only exist to want Nora. Magaro draws the shortest straw as Arthur only exists to be a third wheel wondering if his wife is going to dash on their marriage for some childhood friend like he's Bill Pullman, who was that guy in so many 1990's romance films; the guy whose only flaw was not being exciting enough compared to the guy Sandra Bullock really has the hots for.

While discussing the movie, the missus suggested that perhaps the kids should've been older in the beginning, but my counterpoint was that if they had been hot and horny teens who'd lost their virginity to each other, for instance, then that would establish a more understandable basis for longing whereas by having it founded on what was really nothing but puppy love made the spiritual angle more relevant while also making it seem all the sillier that this is supposed to really matter. (I heckled as one of Sung's pals, "Bro, you held hands when you were KIDS and you're still hung up on the bitch? You're 36 and have a career now. Move on!" I am not a romantic man.) 

If you're a fan of deliberately unsatisfying stories of doomed non-romance, you may enjoy Past Lives despite all my kicking at its shins. But even on its modest merits, it's yet another "not a Best Picture" film which sadly seems to account for so much of what gets nominated these days.

Score: 6/10. Catch it on cable.

The trailer makes it look much more love triangle contentious than the actual film & downplays just how much subtitle-reading you'll be doing, which is about 80% of the film.

"American Fiction" Review

Let's not bury the lede here: Of the six 2024 Best Picture nominees I've seen so far (see update below), American Fiction is the one I would vote for if I could. After so much absolute garbage that has been lauded by the Academy for too long - though to be fair the last five Best Picture winners would've been my votes, but that doesn't mean I thought they were all classic movies - it's the first one I would've had nearly no reservations about. Of course it won't win a damn thing, most likely. Shame.

Nominated for Best Picture, Actor (Jeffrey Wright), Supporting Actor (Sterling K. Brown), Adapted Screenplay (Cord Jefferson), and Score (Laura Karpman), American Fiction (bland title aside) is a movie that I frankly can't believe exists because it punches hard to the Left at the condescension of liberal elites towards black people, a feat that's doubly surprising considering writer-director Jefferson is a former journalist for liberal trash sites like the Huffington Post and Gawker. But unlike overpopular agitprop like Barbie, it grinds its axes with precision and purpose.

Wright stars as Thelonious "Monk" Ellison, an author and college professor in Los Angeles who we meet coping with a triggered snowflake white student with green hair offended that he had written a book title on the board with the N-word in it. Her po' widdle feewings were hurtied at having to see the word while in class and Monk has zero tolerance for her childish tantrum saying if he can deal with it as a black man, so can she. She can't even.

She stomps out of class and the school tells him to take some time off and go to a scheduled book fair appearance in Boston, where he's originally from and in not much of a mood to see his family. His panel was poorly attended because it was scheduled across from an reading by Sintara Golden (Issa Rae) where she talks about her career after graduating from snooty liberal arts college Oberlin and quickly landing a job at a New York publishing house then reads from her best-selling book We's Lives in Da Ghetto, which is nothing but the lowest stereotypical rendition of Ebonics-speaking ghetto folk.

Monk is disgusted by how well received such tripe is especially since his latest book has been rejected for not being "black" enough. This ghettoization of his work is illustrated by a scene where he goes to a chain bookstore looking for his books and finds them not in the Mythology section, but in the African-American Studies section even though they have nothing to do with that field.

 As for his personal life, he is first hit by the sudden death of his physician sister, Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross), then the realization that his mother, Agnes (Leslie Uggams), is beginning to have Alzheimer's. His plastic surgeon brother, Cliff (Brown), is ill-equipped to help with her care because he lives in Tuscon and financially strapped after a messy divorce in the wake of his wife catching him in bed with a man.

Frustrated by the dumbed-down nature of literature and financially squeezed by Agnes' care bills, he decides to write a super black novel called My Pafology (sic) filled with drugs, fatherless men, gang violence, Ebonics - all the things publishers want. His agent, Arthur (John Ortiz), is terrified by Monk's joke, but agrees to send it out under his pseudonym of Stagg R. Leigh (after the folk song "Stagger Lee"). Since this is the kind of movie this is, it immediately sells for $750,000 and millions more in film rights are in the offing.

Since Monk is already a published author and this is a gag that's gotten out of hand, he and Arthur construct the excuse that Stagg is a fugitive and thus most remain in hiding. Naturally, this only ups his mystique with the promo people on phone calls as as the erudite Monk struggles to sound street enough to maintain the ruse, not that these upper class twits could tell the difference, eagerly agreeing to his demand that the book be retitled Fuck.

And as a cherry on the top, Monk is asked to be a judge for New England Book Association's Literary Award only to find that his publisher has submitted Fuck to the competition and Sintara Golden is also a judge as part of the diversity emphasis along with the three white members of the panel. So Monk is judging a book he wrote as a reaction to what his fellow judge was cashing in on. Hijinks ensue!

What makes American Fiction ironically depressing is that it portrays something so alien to movies: Educated upper-middle class black professionals with messy family lives almost completely divorced from racial issues. (Television had The Cosby Show and Black-ish, which I guess was about trying to retain "black identity" - whatever that is - living amongst white people which isn't exactly like being a 1st Century Christian under Roman rule.) The family patriarch was a doctor, Monk's siblings are doctors making him the outcast for being an author/professor, the family home is a massive three-story house with a swimming pool and a housekeeper, Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and they have a beach house where Monk makes the acquaintance of the divorced lawyer, Coraline (Erika Alexander) across the street. The only hood for these folks are on their hoodies and isn't it sad that a movie about people who are black as opposed to Black People is so novel?

If there's one word which sums up American Fiction it would be authenticity, specifically the characters struggles to be true to themselves in a world which may have other ideas about how people should be based on their color or sexual preference. This clicked when Monk and Cliff discuss whether their father knew if the latter was gay. Cliff says he wished he could've told his father before he died. But what if he rejected you, asks Monk, to which Cliff replies that at least he would've hated me for what I really was.

 Monk is trapped in a situation of his own making where he tried to show up those who were demanding he deny his true self thus forcing a reckoning of how important is being true to one's self when there's a big pile of money waiting for those who play the game? This leads to a somewhat predictable conclusion as the meta joke somewhat stumbles on the landing, but it's not fatal and has it's own ironic charm.

Rooting the proceedings is Wright's tightly wound simmering performance as Monk. He's a serious man in an unserious world and while he's not a misanthrope, you get that he could be hard to love or live with. The friction with his family isn't overblown, but realistic for relatable reasons. He can be prickly, but he's not as off-putting as someone like Paul Giammati's teacher in The Holdovers, but while he bristles at being judged superficially, he's not above looking down his nose at other's tastes to his detriment.

 I've been a fan of Jeffrey Wright since his first starring role in Basquiat in 1996, several years before he caught more mainstream critics eyes as Peoples in 2000's Samuel L. Jackson topped Shaft (which also co-starred Christian Bale the same year he blew up with American Psycho). But despite having prominent supporting roles in the Daniel Craig James Bond films as Felix Leiter; Beetee in the three The Hunger Games sequels; HBO's Westworld series, and recently as Jim Gordon in The Batman, he's never really broken out and led a film and now that he's done so and snagged an Oscar nomination, hopefully he will get more opportunities.

 The rest of the cast is also top shelf, especially Brown who first popped on my radar in 2016's American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson playing Chris Darden right before everyone discovered him in This Is Us (which I never watched because I'm not an over-emotional suburban wine mom). He makes the most of his screen time delivering one of the biggest laughs in the movie (about drinking at 8 am) while portraying a man who is trying to live his truth (ugh, what a trite saying) as someone coming out in middle age and not always seeming happy being gay.

But none of the performances would've mattered if not for Jefferson's sharp screenplay adapted from Percival Everett's 2001 novel Erasure. By anchoring the satirical aspect of Monk's joke of a novel on the bedrock of a family drama it steers clear of being simplistic agitprop and racial grievance mongering. I normally don't approve of white people being lazily negatively portrayed (like how everyone Harold and Kumar meet on their odyssey to White Castle was a racist redneck), but here I'll allow it because it's the same sorts of folks as portrayed in Get Out who would've voted for Obama a third time getting shown up for their patronizing woke white liberal racism. I just hope that if he wins an Oscar for his script he doesn't immediately fall off like Jordan Peele has with everything since his smashing debut.

It's not often a movie comes along that really excites me intellectually, so (bland title aside; did you catch how many movies and shows use American in their titles?) American Fiction is a gift we should cherish and Cord Jefferson is a talent we must pray stays this sharp. Warm, funny, yet bitingly satirical, American Fiction is the triple truth, Ruth.

(Note: I'm finishing this review 20 days after viewing it and since the lede I've seen 9 of the 10 Best Pictures and my vote still stands. While the overrated Oppenheimer is going to win, breaking my streak of at least liking the winners, this is the best picture IMNSHO.)

Score: 9/10. Catch it on cable.

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