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Final dispatch from Oscar Land. Reporting from Far Places today. Jordan, Romania and Mars. And a final word from Brooklyn and the UK.

I am momentarily satiated with movies so these last three will get short shrift. They are Theeb, Aferim and The Martian. There are five nominees in the foreign film category. Only three are available at this time: Theeb, Mustang and Son of Saul. To make up the five, I added Aferim and Rams. Even relatively mild OCD kicks in at the oddest times—five nominations, then I must see five films of Academy foreign film genre!

Theeb was almost the first seen in this meandering journey through Oscar Land. And remains indelibly imprinted on my mind’s eye. Beautiful beautiful, filmed in epically scenic Jordan, mostly in Wadi Rum. It’s an adventure story with ‘coming of age’ overtones. A Bedouin boy and his older brother take on a guiding mission with a British soldier during WW 1 right after the Great Arab revolt, and the story goes on… The actors are really from the Bedouin community…untrained, real, excellent. When I make ‘my choices’ list in a little while, Theeb will be near the top for its beauty, authenticity and historical perspective.

It just so happens that The Martian, which I surprised myself and like a lot, was filmed in that very same Wadi Rum as Theeb. So for the surreal landscape alone it is worthwhile. But it’s also Swiss Family Robinson, one of my all-time favorite kid books, brought up to date. How to survive when marooned wherever. Plus I’ve always favored Matt Damon over Leonardo DiCaprio. However we all know Matt is not going to win because Leo worked so damn hard being cold dirty alone lost abused-by-bear-and-man-alike. It’s okay, I’m resigned.

Then there’s Aferim. One weird Romanian flick. Shot in black and white and, you will swear, shot in the 1800s. How they recreated that society, peasant villages and all, is impressive. Aferim is rude, crude, funny, horrifying and as politically incorrect as could be, but definitely fits a slot of innovative filmmaking. I tend to believe the critics who say it’s ‘deeply intelligent’ while still pushing all sorts of buttons concerning what Romanian society was really like at that time. Maybe it is a sort of Canterbury Tales story in a way—I will retain the vision of the father, a sort of sheriff, and his son riding through the countryside, meeting (and insulting and abusing) a great variety of people.

Enough. Except for a final word about Brooklyn, pleasant non-event…boring really. And Amy…shouldn’t a documentary make you care about something in the story. Anything. The people, the cause, the place, the time, the film quality, the music, the food…something, anything? Amy does none of the above.

Done. NOW. A whole day of Downton Abbey rerunning Season 6 as background before the finale next weekend. Yay…11am to 5pm with my Downton people. Another one of those ‘life is good’ days.




Idealism, Cynicism and the Wars Between



M. Neset Here. Tonight I’m the Academy’s war correspondent. Bridge of Spies, Son of Saul, What Happened, Miss Simone?, Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom, The Look of Silence, and Cartel Land are all about wars of one kind or the other. Or is that politics as the famous Clausewitz quote would have it, “…War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means.”

Here’s one way of looking at some of the nominees and their message(s)—by following a little bit of a theme based on this quote from writer David Wolf, “Idealism is what precedes experience; cynicism is what follows.”

Starting with idealism then…What Happened, Miss Simone? does what the best documentaries do, give us the person and/or the time and/or the event(s) up close and personal. I knew way too little about Nina Simone the Blues singer, and less about Nina Simone, civil rights activist and songwriter of “Mississippi Goddam” and “To Be Young, Gifted and Black.” Now I am a fan. One might wonder if we’re not on a course to need an “America Goddam” if the current political landscape doesn’t change.

Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom is brimming over with idealism. Another surprise for me. Realizing how shallowly I had followed the news from the Maidan, also realizing without Aljazeera we would, and will again shortly, have little international news on television…time for some serious streaming from elsewhere in the world and giving our television media over to pop politics, sports and weather disasters—oh yeah, and gunplay.

What happened in Ukraine is that people like us took to the streets and forced a government out of office. Like us—ordinary working and professional people of all ages and at all economic levels. We’re not there yet, too many of us still just comfortable enough to keep us in our houses in our connected Cloud worlds which the bullets haven’t pierced. Mostly. Yet.

Moving on to experience. Son of Saul is a horrific portrayal of real life and events that took place in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944.  It’s the story of one Hungarian prisoner’s attempt to bury the body of a boy that may be his son in a sanctioned Jewish ceremony. As the gassings and burnings and shootings of and by his fellow human beings crowd around him, he undertakes a series of desperate measures to find a rabbi who can conduct a proper burial, in fact risking an escape plan to do so. This is one dark, dreary, intense and soul-wearying movie.

Tom Hanks offers up a cold war experience in Bridge of Spies. It is just such a good old fashioned spy story with Tom Hanks playing Tom Hanks as he does so perfectly—this time he’s Tom Hanks the spy with the worst sniffly stuffy cold/flu symptoms one could have in the worst possible place to have them—freezing and newly divided Berlin.

Moving right on to cynicism. The Look of Silence and Cartel Land will make the most idealistic among us go ‘Oh what’s the use!’ The Look of Silence is just that—a long piercing quietly questioning look at what happened to one young activist in Indonesia’s ‘anti-communist’ purge during the 60s. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing, nominated as best doc a couple of years ago, covers much the same territory but without the very personal story told in The Look of Silence by a young optometrist whose older brother was murdered during the purge. Some reviews describe the movie as ‘stomach-churning’ and yes that is true.

If you need another dash of cynicism move right on to Cartel Land and try to figure out who the good guys are, who the bad guys are and what separates them. Mexican villagers and their horny doctor-leader fighting the cartels or the crazy dude on the American side of the border leading his merry band of racists against the border crossers. Why is everyone so damn flawed?

I found this quote by Nikita Khrushchev on-line. It seems to go well with the cynicism part: “Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.”

One more post and my Oscar work for this year will be complete.


August 2012 119

No shortage of GOOD movies. Big and small, bold and cold, fur trappers and sheep farmers. The Revenant and Rams.

Back from a frenzy of writing—for work, trying to satisfy State demands for ever more info on anyone served by our program, and—for school, trying to become the-writer-of-a-book of which the latest chapter-attempt was messily unsuccessful. Too busy to comment on the movies I’ve been seeing but I have managed to exhaustedly remain in a filmland frenzy of sorts.

I still love movies. And will tomorrow night when watching the red carpet and pretty people and listening to raunchy jokes and the Academy being castigated for its whiteness…which brings me to the point of this post: The Revenant and Rams.

I love movies even when they go on and on with such scenic intensity and repetitive color-contrasting of blood on snow with never a hint of humor that the sheer relentlessness of it all makes you just want to give the Oscar to Leo and get it over with…  Or when the only signs of love and affection are directed at sheep, big and round and fluffy as those pretty Icelandic sheep are…

So I intended to dislike The Revenant thinking my love of ‘westerns’ for the horseflesh had been dulled by the years and my fatigue with our gun culture. But turns out I really couldn’t hate or even dislike it. DiCaprio works just too damn hard; the scenery is in Grand National Geographic style; and boy oh boy that ever-spreading bloody crimson against the icy snow white is too too camera-friendly. It is relentless however. R e l e n t l e s s. Drink coffee before and maybe sneak in a sandwich for during.

I would still want Idris Elba to win the best actor Oscar—if he’d been nominated (Beasts of No Nation) but since whiteness prevails, it probably should be DiCaprio in the snow.

Most of you won’t see Rams since it’s already been at the Guild and there’s too much to stream on Netflix and Amazon in one lifetime in any case…but that is your loss. It has something in common with The Revenant in the coldness of the environment, maybe the coldness of human nature. But Rams is intimate in spite of the sweep of barren, chilly hills of rural Iceland that’s the ever present background. Two brothers who haven’t spoken to each other for 40 years although living on adjacent sheep farms are brought together finally in a tragedy of major proportions for a farming people. Doesn’t sound exciting. Maybe you’ve been seeing too much American blood and guts? Because it is…very…in that quieter (and even darker in a way) Scandinavian film mode.

I’ve been reading a lot from and about the Icelandic Sagas lately and Rams could have existed then, in Viking times. The intimacy of the small farm houses, the closeness to and love of animals, the humanity of the community in all its hates and loves and chuckles and mishaps—it’s straight out of the sagas as far as I can tell.

Rams gets in your personal space in a way The Revenant never can. The final tragic image from the former in its white on white, pallid bodies linked forever against the colorless snow, dead quiet after a storm of relentless proportions will stay with you forever. Leo almost surviving through yet one more blood-against-snow spectacle will only last through tomorrow night’s ceremonies.

But Go Leo—since the aging Icelandic actors weren’t nominated either.

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