If I Were An Oscar Voter, 2018!


Last year I wrote a 17 page blog predicting the Oscars:  This year, I ain’t got time for that!  So instead, here is a list of who I would vote for if I was a powerful Hollywood person with Oscar voting rights, complete with my inner thoughts:

Best Picture:

Greg’s Inner Thoughts: “Oooohhhhh….who do I vote for?  How do vote?  My God, I had to watch ten movies for this stupid category…I’m freakin’ exhausted.  Anyway, Darkest Hour was good, but I don’t think it was great, so I’m going to scratch that one off.  There was a lot of talking, and the acting was great, but after awhile I thought there was a little too much of both.  Now, what’s next?  Oh, sure, Dunkirk.  I felt like I was in the barrel of a gun.  I could smell the sand and gunpowder, and feel the fear and anguish. But at times I felt I was too close to see anything: it was like standing two inches from a Jackson Pollock work and trying to make sense of it all at once.  So ‘No’ to that one.  

How about Phantom Thread?  Well, I’ve never been much of a Paul Thomas Anderson fan, much as I respect his work.  I always feel his movies run 20 minutes too long, and I usually feel like I’m in a living room with a big sign on the wall that says, “Look, Don’t Touch, Please.”  But I have to say…I enjoyed this more than anything I’ve ever seen by him.  Maybe I’ve matured: I’m 35 now, almost 36, and I saw all of his films, with the exception of The Master, when I was in my 20s.  So mark this one down as ‘Maybe.’  Because I really liked it.  

Okay, let’s see, what’s next?  Oh, okay, yes, of course: Lady Bird.  Man, I thought I was going to love this one.  I showed up at the theater back in December, and all shows were sold out!  I was like, “Seriously??  I’m an Oscar voter, don’t I get a free pass or something?”  They were like, “No, sorry sir, but if you’re interested, you can go see The Killing of a Sacred Deer in another theater.’  So I did, and I have to say: it was weird as shit.  But anyway, back to Lady Bird: I feel bad, because I wasn’t able to see it until two months later, in an almost completely empty theater.  That’s never good when there’s a lot of comedy.  I would laugh, and no one else would, because there were only 3 other people there.  Kills the mood a bit, I think.  Anyway, I shouldn’t hold that against  Lady Bird, and I don’t. But I also had lots of trouble understanding some things.  It may be because I’m a man: I’ve talked with a few women I know regarding this movie, in particular about the mother/daughter relationship, and I’ve come to the conclusion that as a man, more specifically as a cisgender, hetereosexual, white man, there are some things that perhaps I might have some trouble relating to here.  But, all that being said, throwing everything about gender aside, I could not understand the character of the mother.  Like, why wouldn’t she just realize that Lady Bird was a bird who needed to fly?  I know it was for love, but, I don’t know…I liked it a lot, but I felt a little confused and troubled after this one.  Okay, Greg, mark it down as ‘Maybe’.

Okay, what’s next?  Oh yeah, how about this one? The Shape of Water.  Yeah, that’s by one of your all time favorite directors, Guillermo del Toro.  Right, and people were saying this one was his best ever, better even than The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth, two of the best movies ever, ever, ever made.  So, I mean, that was a little hyperbolic: no, it was not quite on the same level as two of the greatest goddamned films made of all time.  But, I mean, it was great.  Yes, it was definitely ‘great,’ better than ‘good.’  Though it got weird with the bit about having sex with the creature.  Sorry.  Of course, now there’s a stink being made about it having plagiarized a Paul Zindel play, Let Me Hear You Whisper, from 1969.  I haven’t read the play yet, so I can’t rightly say: I’ve requested it from the library, I should have it in my hands in a few days, so I can decide for myself.  But I have to vote before that point.  Damn.  Well, my thought is this: del Toro has strongly, strongly denied the charges.  Which looks good for him.  And here’s my question: if a movie maker intended to plagiarize something, would they really just blatantly take stuff from a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright?  I really don’t think so.  Maybe it will be more clear to me in a few days, when I read the play.  Anyway, for now, mark it as ‘Maybe’: I loved this one, but I’m not sure if it quite has what it needs.

Okay, what’s next?  Oh, how about this one?  Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri.  Wow, that one’s a mouthful.  Let’s just call it Three Billboards….Anyway it was written and directed by Martin McDonagh, the playwright who wrote The Pillowman.  That’s him, right?  Same guy?  Yeah, let me see…yes, same guy.  Anyway, this was a dark one, just like The Pillowman, and probably like some of his others.  And hey, dark is good, right?  Yeah…I think so.  But I don’t know….do I want to vote for this one?  It’s certainly an ‘Indie Darling.’  It has that feel.  And much like The Pillowman, there are some controversial takes on suicide.  Hey, playwrights are supposed to be controversial, right?  At least that’s what I’ve heard.  I don’t know, though…maybe my personal thoughts on this subject just sort of leave me at odds with McDonagh.  The man is brilliant, but, well…I don’t know.  Let’s mark it as ‘Maybe’, Greg.  The bookies are giving it the odds to win right now, so I guess it will probably win…but I think it’s a good idea to consider voting another way.  Remember Greg, your vote counts just as much as all of these other rich, powerful, Hollywood people.  So let’s just look to the next one.  Okay?

Okay.  Got it.  Let’s see here…ahh…The Post….yes, great, I love Spielberg!  I mean, he directed Jaws, my favorite movie of all time!  And E.T.!  Remember watching E.T., when you were like 5 years old?  One second you were crying profusely, and then the next minute E.T. was in the van, the kids stole the van, the bikes were flying, and was like, “Holy Shit, it’s great to be ALIVE!”  Haha, yeah…E.T. was f**king great.  And don’t forget he directed Schindler’s List, probably one of the 20 greatest films ever made.  And he’s still pumping out great stuff.  Bridge of Spies was great!  Ahh, don’t you hate it when people talk bad about Spielberg?!  Just because he’s not an ‘indie’ director?!  Spielberg is awesome!  So what was it again…oh yeah, The Post!  OMG, what a great movie!  Greg, it’s in one of your favorite subgenres: newspaper movies!  ‘Newspaper Movies’ might be the 2nd greatest subgenre of all-time, behind ‘Prison Movies.’  But I don’t know…’Newspaper Movies’ might have ‘Prison Movies’ beat.  I mean, Spotlight was a great one, even if it was a little serious.  The Paper was awesome, until it fell apart in the last 30 minutes.  But His Girl Friday?  What a damn movie!  Some of the best damn dialogue ever written!  Snap, Bang, Boom!  Seriously, Greg, you need to rewatch that one.  1940s movies can be so great!  And how about the 5th season of The Wire?  That was essentially a newspaper movie.  And I even saw a few of the same actors from The Wire in The Post.  Yeah, that was great.  I still haven’t seen All the President’s Men, though.  Greg, seriously, when you finish doing this Oscar voting stuff, you need to see that movie.  Get your shit together.  But, wait, back to The Post.  Yes, OMG, Yes!  A Newspaper Movie!  With that awesome newspaper room dialogue!  Directed by Spielberg!  I loved this movie!  I loved this movie!  I loved this movie!  Okay, settle down, Greg.  Are you going to vote for it?  Well, there’s two more movies to talk about.  Let’s do this: for now, mark it as follows: “Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow….I REALLY WANT TO VOTE FOR THIS MOVIE.”  But I have to consider two more.  So let’s see what they are….

Okay, next.  Here it is: Call Me By Your Name.  Wow, this one was great.  The music!  The music in this one was so good.  The Psychedelic Furs!  Yes!  But also the Bach, the piano, the Sufjan Stevens.  Yes, it was so musical, so beautiful.  God, I loved this film.  And Timothée Chalamet was superb playing a young gay man exiting boyhood.  Yes, there was so much to love about this movie.  Its message was powerful, in a time, 1983, when coming out as a gay man was very different than today.  And the sex in this movie: sex was everywhere, oozing from the screen and dripping onto the floors of the theater carpets around the world.  Sex with men, sex with women, even when there was no sex, even when the family was sitting together to eat dinner under the Italian sun, it was there, always: sex.  Sex and Music.  This movie was beautiful.  It didn’t have the gritty power of Moonlight, another coming of age movie about a gay man: it didn’t take place among the poverty and crime of inner-city Miami in the 1990s.  It took place on an Italian villa.  Everyone was wealthy and well-fed.  Still, this movie had a message.  Okay, come on Greg, back to the task at hand.  Are you going to vote for it?  I mean, you loved The Post.  Do you love this one as much?  Let’s do this.  Mark it as follows:  “I love this movie, really I do, I want to vote for it, really I do, buuuuuut….well….let’s see, we only have one more to talk about, right?  Which one is it.  Let me see…..

Ummm….where is it…I know it’s here somewhere…ohh, wait, here it is…oh wait, really?  Really?!?!

Um, wow….Get Out.  Wow.  Get Out.  Get Out!  Really…Get Out is an Oscar movie!?  Well, Hot Damn!  I saw Get Out months ago…haha, I didn’t think it would be here, all these months later.  Guess I was wrong.  I thought it was destined to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.  Cannes seems like a more natural fit for Get Out.  Didn’t Pulp Fiction win at Cannes?  And Barton Fink?  Yeah…those are movies that would NEVER win an Oscar, but they came up big at Cannes.  I thought that’s what Get Out would do.  Well, let’s talk about Get Out.  Yeah, let’s.  Because Get Out…Get Out f**king rocked!  Holy Shit!  Get Out!  Get Out did three things: first, it you made laugh.  It was a very, very funny film.  Second, it made you jump with legitimate scares.  This was a horror/comedy film.  Horror and comedy can go hand-in-hand really well, but it’s difficult to do it correctly.  Get Out nailed it.  But what was the third thing it did?  Oh, I remember now.  It was an absolutely amazing, original, scathing piece of satire.  Holy Shit.  When satire is done well, it burns the viewers to a crisp.  Sometimes they don’t even realize they’re being burned.  When Paul Verhoeven directed Starship Troopers back in ‘97, most people didn’t even realize he was burning them.  They thought it was just an action flick.  They got burned without knowing it.  I don’t think there was a way to miss how scathing and burning Get Out.  Get Out don’t f**k around.  Get Out was like, “I’m gonna scorch this movie theater for the next 103 minutes…deal with it, motherf**kers.  And oh yeah, while I’m at it, I’m gonna be waaaay more enjoyable than that movie Starship Troopers.  Cause honestly…that movie’s kind of boring.  I’m not boring.  Not all.  Enjoy the show.”  Yeah, I think that’s what Get Out was saying to me.

Okay…so what do I do?  I have this voter thingy thing cause I’m this rich, powerful, Hollywood person.  So I can vote.  What should I do?

Three Billboards…. is the favorite, but I’m voting somewhere else.  Sorry.

Call Me By Your Name was probably the most beautiful movie here.  But….

I think my favorite movie was The Post.  I loved that one.  Just like my favorite movie ever is Jaws.  But just because Jaws is my favorite movie, doesn’t mean it’s the best.  There are better movies than Jaws.  And I’m afraid that even though The Post is my favorite of all these movies…

…I’m gonna vote Get Out.  I have to.  I feel a duty.  Get Out karate chopped itself onto the scene, and then somehow ended up here.  I don’t understand…I think Get Out should have been at Cannes…but, since it’s here, I’m gonna vote for it.  I don’t know if it will win, but it’s getting my vote.

Vote: Get Out

Whew, now that that’s done…let’s vote for all these other categories!

Lead Actor:

Okay…let’s see here….Timothée Chalamet was great in Call Me By Your Name.  And I liked him in Lady Bird as well.  He plays a super-cool 17 year old with precision.  Daniel Day-Lewis brought his A-game to Phantom Thread.  I guess you have to when it’s your “last performance before retirement.”  Daniel Kaluuya did a fine job in Get Out…though I don’t think it will be enough to hang in this category.  I must admit…I missed Roman J. Israel, Esq., starring Denzel.  I stopped by my local RedBox, and it was sold out.  Then I went home and checked the Rotten Tomatoes ratings…51%….Ouch…sounds pretty rotten to me.  I guess that’s 2 hours of my life I didn’t throw into the trash.

Of course, it’s my opinion that Denzel was robbed last year.  His performance in Fences absolutely deserved the Oscar.  And it would have been really cool, because he would have become the first actor to win a Tony and an Oscar for playing the same role.  Maybe that’s why he didn’t win…politics always factors in this stuff, and maybe the Academy voters decided, “let’s give someone else a try.”  I don’t know…either way, I missed his performance this year.

But I’ve got my voter thingy thing, and I’m still gonna vote.  And I’m voting for Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour.  Because in all honesty, this movie could have been called The Gary Oldman Show.  In my opinion, the movie deserved a solid ‘B’ as a grade: it was good, never great.  Without Oldman at the helm, it might have been a flat and boring ‘C’.  Oldman completely drove this movie…much like Winston Churchill became the heart and soul of his country during wartime, Oldman became the heart and soul of an entire movie.  I’m voting for him, and I don’t see him losing.

Vote: Gary Oldman

Lead Actress:

Oh no, I missed I, Tonya!  I really want to see it.  Oh well, I guess I’m like pretty much every Oscar voter….there’s no way everyone sees every movie.  Is there?  Anyway, like I said, I missed I, Tonya, so I can’t consider Margot Robbie.  Everyone’s saying Frances McDormand is probably going to win for Three Billboards….I’m a big fan of hers, and I think she did great.  Meryl Streep is the Heavyweight here…but I’m not sure if anything she did in The Post was extraordinary enough to win.  Saoirse Ronan was great in Lady Bird, for sure.  But you know what?  I thought Sally Hawkins was just amazing in The Shape of Water.  Playing a mute character for 2 hours with that much passion is an achievement.  She gets my vote.

Vote: Sally Hawkins

Supporting Actor:

Whoops, I missed Christopher Plummer in All the Money in the World.  Didn’t they digitally replace Kevin Spacey with him in a few scenes?  Sounds wild.  Well, I’m still voting.  I loved The Florida Project and thought Willem Dafoe was awesome.  But is Willem Dafoe ever not awesome??  Richard Jenkins was great in The Shape of Water, as he pretty much always is.  But Three Billboards… has two actors going head-to-head, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, and I think it’s going to be between the two of them.  I love Woody, and I think Woody is the more interesting of the two characters.  But I think Rockwell’s character is the more difficult and emotional to play.  They both deserve recognition, but I’m voting for Sam, and I think he’ll win it.

Vote: Sam Rockwell

Supporting Actress:

Sorry, Allison Janney…I haven’t seen I, Tonya, so I can’t vote for you.  My bad.  As for the rest of you:  Octavia Spencer, you did a fine job in The Shape of Water, but I’m not sure if your character was quite dynamic enough to deserve the award.  No fault of yours.  Mary J. Blige, it was wonderful to see you play a really serious role in a very gritty movie, Mudbound.  Lesley Manville, you did a wonderful job playing a youthful muse to an artist in Phantom Thread.  But Laurie Metcalf, I think you get my vote.  You played a character that openly I disliked, at times despised, with an amazing amount of life in Lady Bird.  All characters are flawed, but I found your character to be very, very flawed, which made her all the more interesting.  And you nailed it.  You get my vote.

Vote: Laurie Metcalf

Best Director:

This is an interesting one.  Last year I voted for Damien Chazelle for La La Land, and I was right!  While we’re here, I also voted for Moonlight for Best Picture…and I was right again!  Okay, enough tooting my own horn.  Umm..let’s see…what are the choices?  Oh, sure, here we go.  Man, tough choices.  Jordan Peele, I voted for Get Out for Best Picture, but much like last year, I don’t think this award is going to go to Best Picture winning film.  Sorry.  Greta Gerwig, I’d love to see you win, as a woman surrounded by men in this category.  And this is your directorial debut!  So cool! But again…I’m not sure if your film deserves it.  Let me look around.  Okay, Guillermo del Toro is here for The Shape of Water.  Like all of his films, it’s a thing of beauty.  And there’s Paul Thomas Anderson, for Phantom Thread.  Wow, those are two Heavy Hitters, neither of whom have won this award.  Looks good for either of them.  But wait, who’s the last one.  Oh, wow, it’s another big Heavy Hitter who’s never won: Christopher Nolan for Dunkirk.  But wait, Greg….didn’t you not even enjoy Dunkirk that much?  Well, that’s true, that’s true…but I respect it as a work of art.  And as a movie that used zero CGI to film about a thousand ships,  and had thousands and thousands of extras being filmed on a beach…I mean, how do you even do that?  That is a feat of directing.  And no other film did that.  So Christopher Nolan, you get my vote.

Vote: Christopher Nolan

Best Animated Feature:

Oh no!  I haven’t seen any of these!  What should I do?  Should I abstain?  Or vote?  Oh, I don’t care..I’m gonna vote!  I love Alec Baldwin, in particular his wonderful podcast, Here’s the Thing.  So that makes me want to vote for Boss Baby.  But Loving Vincent, about Vincent Van Gogh, sounds absolutely amazing.  So…that’s how I’m gonna vote!

Vote: Loving Vincent

Best Animated Short:

Uh-oh…I haven’t seen any of these.  What should I do?  Wait, a minute….Kobe Bryant has a film?  Titled Dear Basketball?  Oh God, I can’t do this…I Abstain!

Vote: abstain

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Okay, here we go: back to things I know!  Let’s see what we have here: oh, okay, The Disaster Artist.  Yes, this was a fun movie based on a memoir, which was really only fun if you’ve actually seen The Room, considered by many to be “The Worst Movie of All-Time.”  The whole “Worst Movie of All-Time” thing is pretty subjective: I think a lot of it depends on your situation when you’re watching the movie.  For me, “The Worst Movie of All-Time” is Interzone, an Italian action movie from the ‘80s that has a main character named Panasonic.  For lack of a better term, it’s a complete disaster.  And I saw it randomly on Cinemax while I was living in Vietnam as an English teacher: Vietnam Cinemax was playing random Italian movies for like a month, and my roommate and I watched in amazement as this complete mess of a movie unfolded before us.  The fact that we stumbled upon it made it better, or actually, I’m sorry, “worse.”

So when I watched The Room with some friends on Youtube, in order to be able to watch The Disaster Artist, I was underwhelmed, because it wasn’t a surprise, and it wasn’t random.  We all knew it was bad going in.  For those unsuspecting patrons who walked into actual movie theaters throughout the U.S. 15 years ago, having paid good money to see a movie, I can understand their shock and surprise.  Because The Room is a steaming pile of shit.

And so The Disaster Artist has a lot of fun looking into the making of this, well, disaster.  And it’s enjoyable.  But there’s something about the whole thing that rubbed me the wrong way.  Maybe it’s the fact that beyond being bad, The Room is a really misogynistic, anti-woman film: the premise is that a woman doesn’t love the main character, and so because of that, she’s a terrible whore who has no heart.  Maybe it’s the fact that the movie is basically a soft core porno flick, and that the actors and crew weren’t informed of this.  The poor actress got off the bus and within a hour or so was naked on a bed in front of an entire movie crew, or so the story goes.  Maybe it’s the fact that the true story behind the making of the movie is a Bizarro Underdog Story: Hey kids, if you have enough money, let’s say 6 million dollars, you can do whatever you want, even make a movie that’s so shitty everyone will laugh at you.  Because you have money.  There you go, kids.  Go chase your dreams.  And make sure you do a shitty job at it.

I don’t know…the whole thing rubs me the wrong way…but it probably doesn’t matter, because it really doesn’t have a chance, especially now with the sexual assault accusations being thrown at James Franco by multiple women.

Anyway…where was I?  Oh yeah…Best Adapted Screenplay…well, that one doesn’t get my vote, it goes without saying.  Who else is there?  Well, there’s the script of Logan, which isn’t really a true adaption, per se: it’s really just a collection of thoughts regarding a lot of comic books featuring The Wolverine.  It was very good, though at times it was just a touch on the overly violent side.  (To be fair, Wolverine is one of the most violent comic book characters).

There’s also Molly’s Game, adapted by Aaron Sorkin, a Legend among screenwriters, who has won this Oscar before.  If there was ever a screenwriter to dream to be, it would Sorkin, the man who gets $2.5 million for his scripts and who absolutely does not have his lines f**ked with by actors on set.  This was another adaptation that wasn’t quite a true adaptation: Sorkin added some stuff that happened after the book was finished, which is pretty interesting. The movie was typical Sorkin, but it also had some action type stuff going on, like fights and Mafia stuff.  It was fun, and he did a good job in his directorial debut.

Okay, what else?  Oh yeah, Mudbound, which was available on Netflix.  This one was probably the ‘truest’ novel adaption: there was lots of voiceover, traditionally used in novel adaptations.  Though some frown on that practice, I found it a wonderful script.  It was also severely heavy: this script took us back in time to Mississippi in the 1940s, when the Ku Klux Klan regularly used lynching and other forms of terror to murder African Americans.  It’s a heavy script, and at times the movie became tough to watch due to its own weight.  But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.

Last, we have Call Me By Your Name, which of course was up for Best Picture.  And it might win Best Picture.  And it’s already won some screenplay awards at other festivals.

I think Call Me By Your Name might win this.  Because it’s very, very good.  But I’m voting for Mudbound.  For its sheer power.

Vote: Mudbound

Best Original Screenplay:

Ooohhhh, another screenplay award!  What do we have here?  Okay, let’s see.  First, we have The Big Sick, written by the husband and wife writing team, Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani.  And not only are they husband and wife, this story is about how they came to be together!  Ahhh!!!!  It’s a lovely story about two people who love each and don’t care if one’s religion says they can’t be in love.  It’s a very nice movie with some very important messages about life.  And it’s funny: Nanjiani is a pretty successful stand-up comedian, and he gets some good humor in there.  However, while this movie has a wonderful message and is well-written, I’m not sure if it’s got the ‘pop’ to win.  Let’s look around.

Okay, we’ve got some biggies: The Shape of Water, Three Billboards…, Lady Bird, and Get Out.  Hmm….I have no idea.  I think it’s a toss-up.  I think The Shape of Water will be hurt by the plagiarism allegations.  I think Get Out might win.  Or maybe Lady Bird.  Or maybe Three Billboards…I don’t know.  This is too difficult.  My brain hurts.  I’m voting for Get Out again.

Vote: Get Out.


Well, Dunkirk certainly had amazing cinematography.  As did The Shape of Water.  Darkest Hour had very, very interesting cinematography, despite the fact that most of the movie consisted of people talking.  Mudbound has been noted for its cinematography, which tried to capture the feeling of the rural South in the 1940s.  But for me, I know who the winner is: Roger Deakins, a certified king of cinematography, who has been nominated for an Oscar 14 times, yet has never won.  He absolutely deserves it for Blade Runner: 2049.  I don’t think there’s any debate.  Someone give this man his Oscar!

Vote: Roger Deakins

Best Documentary Feature: Abacus: Small Enough to Fail can be viewed for free at Frontline’s website.  I haven’t seen it yet, though, or any of the others:

Vote: Abstain

Best Documentary Short Subject:

Vote: Abstain

Best Live Action Short:

Vote: Abstain

Best Foreign Language Film:

Vote: Abstain

Best Film Editing:

Let’s see if I can make myself seem like an expert in something I don’t know much about.  Actually, scratch that.  I loved, loved, LOVED Baby Driver…but I have to vote for Dunkirk here.  This thing was shot on 70mm film, and must have involved so much intricate editing…yeah, Dunkirk.

Vote: Dunkirk

Best Sound Editing:

Umm….can I vote for Baby Driver yet?  I don’t know…what else is here?  The Shape of Water.  Blade Runner: 2049.  Dunkirk.  Stars Wars: The Last Jedi (oh no….another one I missed!).  I want to vote for Baby Driver…really I do…but I’m going to vote for The Shape of Water.  Because del Toro is a hero of mine.  So…yeah…The Shape of Water.

Vote: The Shape of Water

Best Sound Mixing:

Okay…now can I vote for Baby Driver???  I don’t know, Greg…let’s look around.  What else is there?  Blade Runner: 2049?  Nah…already voted for them once.  Dunkirk?  Nah…they got two votes already.  The Shape of Water?  Nah…I just voted for them.  Okay, let’s see.  Star Wars: The Last Jedi?  I missed it, plus I heard it was ‘good, not great.’  Okay, let’s vote for Baby Driver!  And let’s talk about Baby Driver, too!  ‘Cause I loved Baby Driver!  I had sooooooo much fun.  But my buddy that I went with, who I share a lot of tastes with, hated it.  I was like, “Why?”  He was like, “I don’t know.  I just hated it.  Actually, I hate all Edgar Wright movies.”  And he’s not the only one.  I know other people who really dislike Baby Driver, and maybe other Wright movies, for no good reason I can think of.  Anyway, I loved Baby Driver!  Yay Baby Driver!  

Vote: Baby Driver

Best Production Design:

Hmmm…I missed Beauty and the Beast, but I can only imagine the production design was amazing.  Shit, maybe I’ll even vote for them.  But let me look at the ones I saw.  Blade Runner: 2049.  Darkest Hour.  Dunkirk.  The Shape of Water.  Wow.  There is some serious production design going on there.  I think it’s going to be one of the two WWII movies, Dunkirk or Darkest Hour.  I’ll go with Darkest Hour.

Vote: Darkest Hour

Best Original Score:

Tough choice here for me: I love John Williams, who scored The Post, but I also love Jonny Greenwood, who scored Phantom Thread.  And I haven’t voted for either film.  Okay…let me think…there…I got it…

Vote: Jonny Greenwood

Best Original Song:

Lots of movies I didn’t see in this category.  In fact, I only saw two of the five: Mudbound and Call Me By Your Name.  Both featured songs were great, but I love Sufjan Stevens, who wrote his for Call Me By Your Name, so there it is.

Vote: Sufjan Stevens

Best Makeup and Hair:

Umm, there’s only three choices, and I only saw one of the three: Dunkirk.  I’m going to abstain.

Vote: abstain

Best Costume Design:

Two in this category I didn’t see: Victoria and Abdul and Beauty and the Beast.  I saw Darkest Hour, Phantom Thread, and The Shape of Water.  I’m going with Phantom Thread.

Vote: Phantom Thread

Best Visual Effects:

Last one! Whoo, this has been a doozy!  It’s not easy voting for the Oscars!  

So we have Blade Runner: 2049

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2

War for the Planet of the Apes

Kong: Skull Island

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Well, I missed Kong Island, along with Star Wars, so let’s scratch both of those.

I saw Blade Runner: 2049: despite being slow at times, and long, the visual effects were pretty awesome.

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2.  It was sort of a disappointment to me, after the first Guardians of the Galaxy.  But here’s the thing: I think the first Guardians of the Galaxy was the greatest Marvel movie ever made. If I was grading it, I’d give it an A+++.  So that’s tough to compete with.  Honestly, Vol. 2 was a solid ‘B’.  A very weird solid ‘B’….things got trippy…but yeah, it was good, just not great.

Then again, visual effects don’t concern how good the movie was.  The visual effects were amazing.  So it doesn’t even matter how good the movie was.

Which brings us to War for the Planet of the Apes.  I was excited for this one, because it had gotten good reviews, but I found myself kind of bored.  It was very heavy, but beyond that, a lot of it was the same stuff that’s been shown in war movies over and over through the years.  

But the visual effects: WOW.  The new ‘Ape’ movies are all amazing, because people are playing the apes, and yet…well…that about says it all right there….

I’m throwing my vote to War for the Planet of the Apes, even if the movie itself didn’t grab me.

Vote: War for the Planet of the Apes

And that’s it!  I’ve finished ‘pretend voting’ for the Oscars!  Only took my 12 pages and a few hours to get here!  If you watch it tonight, let me know how Jimmy Kimmel does.  I’ve never watched the Oscars in my life, and I don’t plan on starting now.  Have fun!!!  




Born from Novels, Raised in Hollywood, Part 1: A Review of Blade Runner: 2049

Recently, I saw two films that had their original inspiration come from novels: Blade Runner: 2049 and Stephen King’s IT.   Having read both novels before (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick, and It, by Stephen King, respectively), I figured it was my duty to see them both and write reviews for them.

I had mixed expectations for both.  I saw IT first, but I’m gonna start with the one I just saw last weekend: Blade Runner: 2049.


First, a little history: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was written by one of the ultimate masters of science fiction, Philip K. Dick, in 1968.  It told a story of a bleak, dystopian future in which Deckard, a human, is a bounty hunter whose job it is to ‘retire’ non-human androids who have gone rogue and committed violent crimes against humans.  Deckard descends into a dark underworld where it is next to impossible to tell android from human.  It’s exciting stuff: it took me about 3 days to read the 200 or so page book.



What’s really special about the book is the message: it takes existentialism to the next level.  I was blown away by the ending: I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days.  It’s the only Philip K. Dick book I’ve ever read: I’m not sure why I haven’t read more, seeing as how it kicked so much ass.

Not long after reading the book, I watched the movie that was adapted from the novel: Blade Runner, directed by Ridley Scott and released in 1982, starring Harrison Ford.

Blade Runner is a controversial movie for a lot of reasons: first of all, there are seven versions of it.  Yup…SEVEN.  I’ve only seen one.  I have no idea which cut I actually saw (there are three versions that seem to float around the most).  

Whatever version you see, they are all very, very different from the book.  From the title, to the main character, Deckard, to the ending and the message, everything is very different.  

Now…I’m one of those people who enjoys reading the novels of movie adaptations before I’ve seen them…and I’m also one of those people who strongly believes that “the book is always better,” no matter how annoying that is to hear.  But despite being wildly different from the novel, Blade Runner didn’t bother me.  In fact, I loved it when I saw it.  But one thing was clear in my mind: it was not a true ‘adaptation’ of a novel.


In reality, Blade Runner is more of a ‘re-imagining’ than an adaptation.  Nothing but the bare bones of the novel remain; the title has been changed; the main character has been changed from human to android; there are no electric sheep to be seen anywhere; and so on.  But as a ‘re-imagining’, Blade Runner (or at least the version that I saw), was pretty awesome in its own right.  It was its own thing; in a lot of ways, it was an original.  And because it distanced itself so, so, so very far from the novel, while in essence keeping its spirit alive, it did something that no movie before or since has done: adapted a novel while not adapting a novel at all.

On a side note, it should be noted that Philip K. Dick died before the movie was released, but he was happy with the drafts that he read, which would go on to become the movie.  So he must have liked something about it.

And so we come to the present day, and Blade Runner: 2049.  To be honest, I wasn’t really interested in seeing it.  Three things brought me on board:

  • It’s been getting good reviews.
  • It was directed by Denis Villeneuve.
  • I had a gift certificate to a local movie theater to use.

That was pretty much it.  Otherwise, I would have stayed in and watched a DVD.

Let’s start with the director.  Denis Villeneuve has quickly become a “must-see” director among people who like to see intellectually stimulating, visually stunning movies.  I still haven’t seen his earlier films ( Maelstrom, Polytechnique, Incendies, Prisoners and Enemy)  but I have managed to see his latest three, all on the big screen: Sicario, Arrival, and now Blade Runner: 2049.

The interesting thing about his latest three films is how they all manage to be so incredibly different, while keeping a certain flavor about them.  Sicario is an intense action movie about the illegal drug trade in Mexico; Arrival is an intellectual journey through the world of written and spoken language, as seen through the eyes and senses of humans and alien beings; Blade Runner: 2049 is a somewhat standard sequel to a science-fiction action movie.

A common trait shared by them is how visually stunning they all are: these movies should be seen in a movie theater so that their amazing wide angle shots can be truly enjoyed and appreciated.  Watching them on a computer simply wouldn’t do them justice.  This may have more to do with the cinematographers than anything else: Roger Deakins on Prisoners, Sicario and Blade Runner: 2049; Bradford Young on Arrival.  Deakins in particular is an absolute legend in the film-making world: before teaming up with Villeneuve, Deakins worked with a plethora of big directors on great films.  He shot almost every important Coen Brothers movie, as well as movies by Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard and M. Night Shyamalan.  


So where does that leave Blade Runner: 2049 as a film?  Well, it’s visually stunning, as one would expect with Villeneuve directing and Deakins behind the camera.  It captures the dark, dystopian feel of the original Blade Runner movie, and for that matter the novel that birthed Blader Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  The story is well-written and coherent, as one would expect: one of the two screenwriters on the project was Hampton Francher, who co-wrote the first one.  The acting is good: Harrison Ford returns, Ryan Gosling stars, and Jared Leto is awesomely scary as a somewhat minor character.  

And yet…I somehow felt….a little bit underwhelmed.  

This is not to say that Blade Runner: 2049 isn’t good: it is good.  It’s not to say that it isn’t interesting: it is interesting.  And it’s not to say that it isn’t well conceived: instead of making some gigantic re-make in order to cash in, they decided to make a sequel 35 years after the fact: that’s really admirable, considering the way Hollywood works these days (when in doubt, RE-MAKE SOMETHING TO MAKE SOME QUICK CASH!).

But despite all of these good intentioned things, Blade Runner: 2049 suffers from the same thing that ailed Arrival at times: it’s a little bit slow, and it drags at times.  For a movie that is just under 3 hours, it becomes sort of a chore to watch: I felt myself counting down the minutes towards the end of the film.  I just wanted it to end.  

Maybe if 20 minutes were cut, it would be just a little bit more digestible (this is something that should be done to every Paul Thomas Anderson film ever made).  The movie isn’t bad: if I was grading it, I would give it a B+.  But again: if I have to sit and watch something for almost 3 hours, something that is a B+ isn’t going to keep my attention for the whole time.

A couple notes: I read through some stuff that critics wrote: the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.  One thing everyone seemed to love was the story: some critics were saying this was one of best science fiction stories ever written.  I find that completely and utterly ridiculous.  Yes, the story worked.  Yes, the story was adequate.  Yes, it was interesting.  But to say that what was written was some sort of ground-breaking achievement is ridiculous.  It got the job done, and that was it.  Period.

Other critics have called the film sexist due to its excessive use of female nudity.  On this, I have a lot of thoughts, which I’ll try to make sense of as coherently as possible.  It wasn’t long ago that female nudity in movies was almost standard: if you saw a rated R movie, there would probably be at least one scene with a topless female actress.  If you watch a lot of movies from the ‘70s, like I do, there’s tons of full frontal female nudity.  And for the most part…examples of male nudity in Hollywood movies is extremely rare (although they’re floating around out there).  

Most of this was used for for non-artistic purposes, as in, “Let’s get some female nudity in there to sell some tickets to the fellas!”  One example of this is Carrie: I recently saw the 1976 classic in a theater, and the film opens with naked females frolicking through a hot and steamy locker room.  Though the scene was important to the story, the use of female nudity was over the top and ridiculous: nothing that followed in the movie had anything to do with it.  

On the other hand, as film-making has evolved, female nudity is often used “in the name of art.”  One example I can think of is Ex Machina: Ex Machina had a lot of full frontal female nudity: in fact, it had more nudity than almost any movie I could think of.  And Ex Machina was one of the most amazing films I’ve seen recently.  I left the theater absolutely thrilled.  And to me (keep in mind, I’m a heterosexual male), I thought the nudity was incredibly well-done and artistic, and also essential to the plot of the movie.  

Fast-forward to October 2017, when I watched Blade Runner: 2049.  First the Weinstein stuff came out, and then the ‘Me Too’ movement rocked the Facebook world.  Again, here I was, a heterosexual male, just completely in the dark, and having my eyes opened with a huge, “Oh My God, WTF” moment.

After this, I saw Blade Runner: 2049.  And yes, there was a lot of female nudity.  In my opinion, it was similar to the nudity that I saw in Ex Machina.  It was serving an artistic purpose.  And yet, I couldn’t help seeing it as somewhat exploitative. It felt jarring and uncomfortable to see numerous female nudes, many of whom were non-human, android prostitutes, approach and at times harrass K, the character played by Ryan Gosling.  All of the naked females were de-humanized, cold, and highly sexualized.  They used their sexuality as a weapon, both against the protagonist and against the audience.

All of this, of course, served an artistic purpose.  I’m not sure if it makes the film sexist.  It is likely exploitative, but in that sense anytime nudity, primarily female nudity, is used in the name of art, exploitation is part of the picture.  If you visit any art museum, there are lots of female nudes: those models were exploited in the same as those on the movie screen, though the scope and means of presenting the image have changed vastly.

In summary, I don’t know if Blade Runner: 2049 is sexist.  I do think the portrayal of naked female actresses in the film is highly sexualized and coldly impersonal: this is the point of the scenes.  But I don’t know if that constitutes sexism on the whole.  What I do know is that the idea of sexuality in film and how to present it to audiences is changing,and that’s likely a good thing.  


Oscars 2017 Extravaganza!


I’m not gonna watch the Oscars.  Never have, never will.  ‘Cause I ain’t got the time to sit around for four hours watching awkward moments and stupid jokes.  I’ll find something better to do, like I always have.

But something strange happened this year: I watched EVERY SINGLE FILM up for the Best Picture Award.  It sort of happened by accident, until I had like three movies left, and then it was like, “Okay, Greg, you can do this!”

Of course, the Academy Awards insists upon having nine freaking choices for Best Picture.  That’s beyond obnoxious: by the time I watched Hidden Figures, the last one I scratched off my list, I was absolutely sick of Oscar-type movies.  But then again, the Oscars have always been obnoxious: that’s why I don’t watch them.

The question for me has always been: why do we give a shit?  Why do we care what the members of the Academy think?  It’s been pretty common knowledge for a few years that they don’t watch all the films presented before voting; they vote not so much for the film itself, but the for the idea of the film they want to win; and they’re a bunch of asshole Hollywood power players.

So again: why do we care what they think?

I think, the answer, is: why not?  In this day and age, it’s hard to be above it all.  I can pretend like I don’t care when a movie I like get’s screwed over…I can go to a park and read a book and pretend it doesn’t matter to me.  But what does that accomplish?  What does it accomplish to bury my opinion in a book at a park?

I think it’s important to be ourselves these days, and express our opinions.  We’ve got a president who attacks us with his harebrained opinions every day…if we sit back and don’t say anything in response, the troll wins.  Of course, that asshole doesn’t have much to do with the Oscars…he’s said in interviews that he doesn’t have the attention span to watch movies to the finish (I wish I could think of something snappy to say here, but I’ve become weary of it all).

But of course, Trump’s shadow lurks behind the Oscars, as does the still simmering #OscarsSoWhite movement from last year.  And maybe that’s why I felt compelled to write my opinion on these moving pictures up for some awards.  So, if you’ve made it this far, maybe you want to stick around for a few more pages of my thoughts:

Best Picture Nominees:

I’m gonna do it backwards.  I’m gonna start with the Big Award, The Best Picture, and then move onto the little ones.

I’m gonna break down each movie, and what I think about its chances.  Here goes:

ArrivalArrival  was the most interesting film I’ve seen all year.  Hands down.  Nothing else came close to being as thoroughly thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating as Arrival was a film.

For those who haven’t seen it, some alien ships mysteriously appear in random places around the planet.  Planet Earth, that is.  And after some failed attempts at communication, a linguist is brought in to mingle with the scientists and communicate with the unknown life-forms.

The film is interesting because it opens our eyes to the fact that, really, we don’t understand what language is.  Or what its capabilities are.  As an ESL teacher, I think about language and its structure, its often arbitrary structure, every day.  And so it was a real treat for me to watch these life-forms from another planet try in vain to communicate with these lesser life forms in front of them, the humans.

Arrival is based on Story of Your Life, a short story by the legendary science fiction writer Ted Chiang.  It makes us think about things that are out of our realm of our imagining.  It’s amazing to see difficult to conceive ideas appear on the big screen.  

But I had one problem with it, something not mentioned by most of the amazing praise it received when it was released: it was a little bit slow.  Sure, there was an explosion, and some juicy bits of drama.  And as we approached the end of the movie, it seemed like the world might end.  And of course, there are enough dips and turns in the plot to tie one’s brain into knots.  But for me…the whole thing was just a little bit slow.  It was always more interesting than enjoyable, and I was never really worried about what might happen to the world at the end.

Either way, its odds on bookmaker sites are better than one might think.  But it doesn’t mean it has a serious chance of winning Best Picture.  In fact, of all the films up for Best Picture, this is the one that really, really just doesn’t seem to belong.

Hacksaw Ridge – I’m not sure who I dislike more: Mel Gibson the person, or Mel Gibson the moviemaker.  The Mel Gibson who made Braveheart, a bloated, self-righteous piece of crap that didn’t really tell the story of William Wallace, but rather told the story of Mel Gibson, actor-director-producer, playing a caricature of Wallace, which of course won Best Picture at the Oscars.  Or the Mel Gibson who once called a female cop who pulled him over “sugar tits.”  The Mel Gibson who once told an arresting officer, who happened to be Jewish, “Fucking Jews…the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world.  Are you a Jew?”  Or the Mel Gibson who made the wildly anti-Semitic, grossly over-violent The Passion of Christ.  

Gibson’s film Hacksaw Ridge is up for Best Picture.  It’s a war movie, and if there’s anything Gibson knows how to make through the medium of film, it’s war.  War, violence, love story, more war, more violence.  This is how Mel Gibson makes films.

And it works.  Mel Gibson is a wonderful director of violent films that tell the story of love and war.  To call him anything other than a genius at making these kind of films would be wrong.  Hacksaw Ridge tells the story of Desmond Doss, a Seventh-day Adventist Christian who served as a medic with the U.S. Army during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II.  Despite being a conscientious objector to the war, he took part in the battle as a medic, and he saved the lives of 75 men who were wounded during the vicious fighting.  For his actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest medal a member of the U.S. military can receive.  He was the first conscientious objector to win the Medal of Honor.

It’s a wonderful, gritty story, that deserves to be told.  And maybe Mel Gibson was the best to tell it.

But some things need to be kept in mind when watching it, things that become evident in the opening minutes of the film.  Two boys, two brothers, run through the woods of West Virginia: just boys being boys, being wild.  They run to the top of a cliff and start jumping around.  Two adults below, a husband and wife it’s assumed,  shout up to them: “Hey, you kids, stop it, that’s dangerous.”  It’s sound advice, considering they’re standing on top of a cliff.  But the boys don’t listen.  They jump and laugh, jump and laugh.  The husband below says: “Those boys are crazy.  Just as crazy as their father.”  This is the Mel Gibson hero: they’re crazy (stupid) and they just don’t care (stupid).  They’re not gonna let society hold them down.  Even if society tells them they’re nuts, they’ll show the world what’s what in the end.

Soon after this scene they come home and begin to wrestle in front of their drunken father.  The mother comes out, yelling at them not to fight.  “Let them fight,” says the father.  And then one boy, our future hero, takes a brick and smashes his brother’s face with it.  The parents freak out, and our little hero looks on with sad and confused eyes, like “Why would a brick to the face hurt my brother?  That’s strange.”  

Our little hero goes inside and sees a stitching of the Ten Commandments, because he lives in a very religious home.  And he sees the words “Thou Shall Not Kill,” the 6th Commandment, and he ponders it.  We don’t know what he exactly he thinks: does he think about his brother’s possible, looming death by brick?  Or does he think to himself, “Now that I’ve smashed my brother’s face with a brick, can I ever receive salvation?”  We, as the audience, don’t know.

His father comes in to beat him with his belt, but the mother intervenes: “What good will that do?” she asks, imposing her wise, non-violent womanly presence upon the men of this backwoods home.  And the father walks away.

“Don’t worry,” says the mother.  “Your brother’s going to be okay.”  And sure enough, he was.  And little Desmond Doss grew into the movie’s hero, choosing a wife for himself to goggle over in classic, awkward 1940s-era manner before he set off to the Army.

So, with all this mind, it’s important to remember: this isn’t your ordinary pacifist.  This is a pacifist who thought it was okay to smash a brick into his brother’s face.  This, by definition, is a Mel Gibson pacificist.

Manchester By The Sea  

Manchester by the Sea is a really good movie.  By all means, it’s really good.

Written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan, starring Casey Affleck in his first tour de force role, the movie is really, really good.  It tells a gritty story about real people with real problems.  Casey Affleck plays the role of perhaps the most misunderstood person in America today: a white, working-class male, a man marginalized by everything from the economy to crooked politicians to the Black Lives Matter movement.  White, working class males overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump in November.  And a lot of people want to know: why?

Maybe some people think the answer lies in Manchester by the Sea.

And Manchester by the Sea does a really good job of doing just that: telling the story of a white, working class man who has to deal with the everyday occurrences of life around him.  What makes this movie so good is its style: when watching it almost feels like one is watching a documentary, as if a team of cameras and sound people are following around a real guy living a real life in a real town in America.

Of course, the real inspiration here are the classic Italian neorealism films of the late 1940s.  Rome, Open City by Rosselini, and Bicycle Thieves by De Sica, and so many more: the grittiness and realness of those films, filmed on the broken streets of post-war Rome, have been the model of realism in films for decades.  And really, that’s what Manchester by the Sea is: a tragic look at a tragic life through realism.

One thing to notice about Manchester by the Sea is that there’s almost no music.  Again, realism, real life put to the silver screen.  One of the only times we hear music is loud, thundering, sad classical music, during the emotional climax of the movie.  And when the music comes, it drowns everything else.  The characters are muted.  All we hear is the music.  (In a lot of ways this recalls Ran, the 1985 war epic directed by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.  When the climatic battle scene occurs, all the audience hears is silence.)

The only problem with Manchester by the Sea is that it’s only really good.  It never becomes great.  At no point in this movie does make one feel like something special is happening.  That may be because Lonnergan stays so true to the realism of it all, the almost documentary-like style.  But the tragedy of the film is not enough to carry it to greatness by itself.
Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is an excellent movie about the racism that was so prevalent in this country not very long ago.  And it’s an also excellent movie about three African American women (referred to as Negro women in the film) who helped to shape America’s history.  They were intricate in helping NASA to achieve so many of its goals during the Space Race.

It seems surprising to me that this story hasn’t been taken advantage of by Hollywood before now.  But, of course, the book that the screenplay was adapted from wasn’t even written until last year (it was actually written at the same time as the screenplay).  So maybe it’s more surprising to me that this amazing story has stayed unseen for so long.

This is the type of story that Hollywood absolutely loves.  It’s heart-warming, it’s true, it’s inspirational, and it’s easily made into a PG-13 movie that children can see.  And children should see this film.  Because the message in this movie is clear: no matter what obstacles are put in front of you, if you keep trying, you can always achieve your goals.

Much like Manchester by the Sea is very good, this movie is excellent.  It is an excellent movie that tells a wonderful story and should be inspiring to anyone who watches it.  And the odds makers are giving it pretty decent odds to win Best Picture, considering the competition.

One criticism some might give it is that it’s almost too perfect, too excellent.  It can feel a little Disney-esque at times.  But I don’t think this is a really fair criticism.  And it never really comes close to dipping into sappy, Disney territory.

Hidden Figures is a true story, and it’s a remarkable story.  Yes, we’ve seen this brand of anti-racism film before, but the difference here is that it’s remarkably good and original.  We’ve seen scenes similar to the one where Kevin Costner knocks the ‘Whites Women Only’ Ladies’ Room sign down, but I don’t think I usually get the amount of goosebumps that I did during similar scenes in other movies.  We’ve seen movies about racist times in the 1960s before, but not one about the subtle, read-between-the-lines racism at NASA during the Space Race.

Granted, Hidden Figures likely doesn’t have the fire power to win Best Picture.  But it’s a remarkable picture that proves that anyone can accomplish anything they put their mind to, no matter what horrible obstacles are put in their way.  If anything, this movie should be watched for that reason alone.


Lion is the only film that openly made me cry.  With about five minutes left in the film, the tears started pouring down my cheeks.  Shit, I thought.  I didn’t see this coming.  

Lion is an amazingly heartwarming movie that tells a true story, just like Hidden Figures and Hacksaw Ridge.  It’s based on the autobiographical story A Long Way Home, written by Saroo Brierley.  The story told is an amazingly uplifting, and yet incredibly sad, tale of a man’s journey through the first quarter of his life.  I don’t think I was the only one crying in the theater at the end: it was very difficult not to be moved by Lion.

And that’s why I don’t understand the not so good odds it’s getting on gambling websites right now.  Granted, Lion is an outsider.  It probably won’t win.  In fact, if it wins, it would be a shocker.  But right now it’s getting noticeably worse odds than Arrival and Hidden Figures.  In my opinion, it should be at least on par with these two films.

The Best Picture pick is always affected by the world, whether it be social issues, political issues, or both.  In 2008, when Slumdog Millionaire won Best Picture, it seemed fitting that a movie that told the story of India would win.  It was America’s first real taste of Bollywood; it even had a Bollywood-esque dance during the ending credits.

Today, Lion just seems out of place.  We have our own problems here in the USA, and India and Australia are on the other side of the planet.  The focus on film in Donald Trump’s America seems to be on white working class males (Manchester by the Sea, Hell or High Water), being black in America (Hidden Figures, Fences, Moonlight), and just being in America (La La Land).  And for those reasons, Lion seems to be on the outside looking in.  

But it’s a shame.  Because Lion was the only that openly made me cry.  


For anyone who hasn’t seen or read an August Wilson play, you’re missing out.

August Wilson was one of the most powerful voices to ever be represented on the stage. And always, always, always, his plays were about being black in America.

As a white guy in my 30s, I have zero experience with being black in America.  It doesn’t matter that I have black friends, or that I myself have written and performed in a play that deals with racism towards black people in America.  It doesn’t matter at the end of the day.  ‘Cause I don’t know shit about being black in America.

Dave Chappelle famously gave the first SNL monologue after Donald Trump was elected president.  People freaked out, like, “Wow, Dave Chappelle was so on point!”  And of course, anyone who knows Chappelle, who watched his show on Comedy Central back in the day, knew that he would be on point.  Because Dave Chappelle is perhaps the greatest comedic genius of the last century.  Yes, Dave Chappelle is a genius.  Go back and watch some Chappelle Show episodes.  It’s frightening how outdated they are, and at the same time, how amazingly current they are.  It’s as if he predicted the future.

Anyway, one of the most poignant things Chappelle said during his SNL monologue addressed the Black Lives Matter movement, and the Blue Lives Matter police movement that was a response to it.  What he basically said was:  “You don’t choose to be black.  You don’t pick your skin color.  If I could have traded my color in for white, I would have done that a long time ago.”

And as best as I can tell, as a white man in my 30s, that’s what being black in America is, and always has been.  It’s a disadvantage.

August Wilson once said in an interview that he wrote his plays to show white people what it was like to be black.  Not so much to show them the perhaps unnoticed glaring racism seen in Hidden Figures, but instead to show them the conversations black people had when white people weren’t around.  In most of his plays, it’s difficult to find white people who are flat out racist.  In most of his plays, there aren’t any white people.  But the disadvantage of being black in White America is always a backdrop to the conversation; it always shadows the movements of the characters.

Fences is maybe his most famous work.  It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1987, his first of two.  It tells the story of a family in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, perhaps one of the most obviously racist decades in our history.  

For years Hollywood tried to make his plays into movies, and for years Wilson refused to oblige unless a black director was put in charge.  In 2005, Wilson tragically died of liver cancer.

And so here we are, twelve years later, and we have Fences on the screen, directed by none other than Denzel Washington, who also starred in it.  

All things considered, Fences is getting good odds on the gambling sites.  And I don’t care what people say about Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea…Denzel gave the most absolutely riveting performance of anyone on screen this whole year.  If he doesn’t win Best Actor, it will be a serious crime.

But like many playwrights, Wilson worked in mysterious ways.  The answers to his questions aren’t always clear.  Is Troy, the main character, a villain?  Or is he a hero, damaged by the society he lives in?  What about his son, always coming by to grab ten dollars?  Are we to believe that he really loves his father?  And what about the title?  Fences?  What was Wilson really referring to there?

Fences is beautiful, heady stuff.  But because it’s so heady, and because that’s not really what the Oscars is all about, this one doesn’t really have a chance at winning Best Picture.

Hell or High Water 

Hell or High Water is the most intriguing movie on this list.  

First of all, it seems to be out of place.  Much like Arrival, I don’t think it really should be on this list.  But because the Academy insists on putting up nine movies for the award, it’s here, for our consideration.

Hell or High Water is an absolutely fantastic movie.  I don’t know if it’s the best movie here, but it may be my favorite.  It’s gritty, but not in the Mel Gibson “let me smash a brick in your face” style.  It’s much more real, more…imperfect.

It’s also a movie that, much like Manchester by the Sea, focuses on the white, working class male.  But it does it in a different way.  Manchester by the Sea is by all means a sort of normal story.  Yes, it’s tragic, but the things that happen to Casey Affleck’s character could happen to any of us.  And Casey Affleck doesn’t do much about it.  He gets into some bar fights, he drinks some beers, he complains, but in the end, he rolls with the punches.

There ain’t no rolling with the punches going on in Hell or High Water.  Instead, after years of getting screwed over by the government, two brothers in Texas decide to take matters into their own hands.  They decide to rob banks in order to provide for their family.  It’s the type of movie that Tarantino might have made 10 years ago.  But unlike a Tarantino movie, it doesn’t feel like much fun for the characters.  It’s more like a heavy chore, a nasty job that has to be done.

This movie sits on its own: it’s its own little masterpiece.  If it voted, it probably voted for Trump, but not because it wanted to…it voted that way cause it didn’t want its gun taken away.  (In an early scene, an old man fires his gun at the bank robbers.  The point is made: guns make Texas a safer, better place.)  In contrast, if Casey Affleck’s character voted, he probably voted for Hillary, even though he didn’t like her.  And Desmond Doss, Mel Gibson’s hero, would have voted for Trump, if only to make abortion illegal again.

Hell or High Water doesn’t want to make friends with either of these other two films.  Or any of the other films up for Best Picture.  It doesn’t give a shit about who votes for it, or what the hell any of the other movies are about.  

It only cares about the gritty story it has to tell. It holds its middle finger high and tells the rest of America, “I’m from Texas, I own a gun, I make inappropriate jokes at times, and I’m violent.  You can all go to Hell.”

I love Hell or High Water.  But it doesn’t seem to belong here.  It doesn’t know how it got here in the first place.  It’s gonna hang out at some parties, eat some hor d’oeuvres, and then hit the road and get the hell away from these Hollywood-types.  

La La Land

Ahh, La La Land.  How I love thee so.  If I could write a love poem about you, it would go something like this:

La La Land,

I love you,

I love the way you sing,

Will you sing to me…please?

Yeah…or something like that.  Let me tell you about my experience with La La Land.  It went like this:  A week or so before I saw it, I saw Moonlight in the theaters.  Which was amazing.  I hadn’t been moved like that by a film in a long, long time.

A week or so later, the Golden Globes happened.  And some movie I hadn’t seen, a musical, about Hollywood, called La La Land, pretty much swept the awards.  And it was going head-to-head on most categories against Moonlight, this film, this beautiful film, that I had just seen and had just moved me so strongly.

My reaction was strong: how could they?  A musical?  About white people and jazz?  How could this possibly beat Moonlight, such an incredibly powerful film?

There was one notable thing, though: Moonlight won Best Drama, which, of course, is the biggest prize of the night.  La La Land, the darling with all the Globes, wasn’t in that category.  It won Best Musical/Comedy.

And so as I watched the Twitterverse blow up, with #goldenglobessowhite hashtags floating around, I wondered to myself: what the hell is with this movie?  It’s just some musical?  Is it that good?  It’s obviously not a drama, and Moonlight won that award.  So…what is this movie?”

So with all of that in mind…I saw La La Land.

And I was completely blown away.  The opening to the film, which takes place on an LA Highway, is beyond mesmerizing.  And it just goes from on the there.  This movie uses colors and sounds in ways that other directors simply don’t know how to do.  I don’t care of this wasn’t his first film: this was Damien Chazelle’s Citizen Kane moment.  He is officially the Wonder Kid of Hollywood, the new Orson Welles, the Kid Genius.

La La Land is one of the most riveting and exhilarating films to watch.  If there’s an anecdote to Trump’s America, this is it.  It screams at you: “Don’t look at the darkness!  Here, look to the light!  The colors!  The music!”  

And sure…La La Land has its faults.  It has faults that will probably doom it to #OscarsSoWhite anger.  Namely, it focuses on a white jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) who doesn’t understand why the black jazz musicians he plays with (namely, a band leader played by the amazing musician John Legend) don’t understand what he’s trying to do musically.  This is playing with fire.  It seems like a head scratcher as to why Gosling’s character isn’t black; but maybe it isn’t.  Hollywood is still a very white place; and a white movie star like Gosling still sells a lot of tickets.  And this is where those ugly warts appear on this movie.  This movie is a celebration of music and life: but it also, in its own way, steals an art form, jazz, which was created by African Americans; and it makes into something white and beautiful, sort of like how Elvis was singing the Blues to white high school girls.

La La Land will probably win Best Picture.  And when it does, it will be deserved.  Because it’s a lovely film that should be seen by all.  But it also makes it plain to see that Hollywood, and the Academy, is still a very white place, a place that will remain white for a very long time.


And finally…my pick for Best Picture.  Moonlight.

You just read what I had to say about La La Land.  Yes, I love La La Land.  And yes, I do think it will probably win Best Picture.  (The oddsmakers certainly do…it’s the heavy favorite right now.)

But if I had a vote on the Academy, I’d vote for Moonlight.

I’d vote for Moonlight because of its sheer power.  When you look at the list of Oscar winners over the years, there’s a lot of power to be seen.  Last year’s Best Picture winner, Spotlight, portrayed the story of a newspaper trying to remove child molesters from the Catholic church.  Power.  In 2013 12 Years A Slave won for telling the story of a free black man with a family sold into slavery.  Power.  In 2009 The Hurt Locker won for showing us the different ways that war affects different men.  Power.  In 1991 The Silence of the Lambs won when a woman locked minds with a cannibalistic killer.  A year later, in 1992, Unforgiven won when Clint Eastwood showed us all what it really is to kill man, demolishing the genre of Western as we knew it in the process.  And a year after that, in 1993, Schindler’s List won for telling the true story of a how a high ranking Nazi decided to save as many Jews as he could as the world around him fell apart.  Power, power, and power.

Of course, power doesn’t always win.  In 1998 Shakespeare in Love beat Saving Private Ryan.  For the life of me, I can’t understand how this happened.  

Forrest Gump, in my opinion, deserved to win in 1994, because it became a national icon of a film almost overnight.  But The Shawshank Redemption was surely a more powerful movie.  

In 2012 The Artist swept the hearts of the judges.  But it wasn’t necessarily power that did it.

I guess my point is that the Academy does appreciate power in movies.  They’ve shown that through the years.  But they don’t always give the award to the most powerful movie there.

Moonlight deserves Best Picture.  It deserves it, just like it deserved Best Drama at the Golden Globes.  It deserves it because its story is so powerful.  It deserves it because it tells the story of a boy who becomes a man in a brutally tough world, the crime ridden streets of Miami.  It deserves it because like an August Wilson play, it shows the plight of a black man up against an impossible situation, a world in which crime is everywhere, white people are nowhere but also everywhere all at the same time, and a world in which his mother is a demon bent on her own destruction.  

It deserves Best Picture.  In a perfect world, Moonlight would win Best Picture, and Damian Chazelle would win Best Director for La La Land.  But who knows if that will happen.

Just like Chiron in Moonlight, the odds are stacked against this one.  Only the Academy really knows what will happen.  

Well, now that I finished all that, here are other thoughts:


Best Director:  Damien Chazelle, La La Land

To film the opening scene to La La Land, writer/director Damien Chazelle had sections of the 105 and 110 freeways in L.A. shut down.  Some people might call this a director overstepping his bounds.  I call it a director being just ballsy and audacious enough to pull off something genius.

That alone makes him the deserved winner of this one.  I think Moonlight is the Best Picture, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Damien Chazelle is the best director.


Best Actor, Denzel Washington, Fences

Right now on betting websites, Casey Affleck is the favorite to win Best Actor.  Let me tell you something: if Casey Affleck wins, it will be an absolute crime.

Much like the movie he’s in, Manchester by the Sea, Casey Affleck’s performance is really good.  It’s really, really good.  But it’s never great.  I’m sorry; it just isn’t.

To be fair, the role doesn’t really call for greatness.  Because it’s shot in such a realistic manner, Affleck plays it perfectly: he doesn’t over act, and he doesn’t come out of character.  He’s perfect.  But that doesn’t mean he deserves to win Best Actor.

If Denzel Washington doesn’t win for playing Troy in Fences, it would just be absurd.  Troy is one of the most powerful characters that August Wilson, one of the greatest playwrights of our time, ever wrote.  And not only does Denzel absolutely dominate this role, he also directs the film, which should be considered.

Denzel absolutely murders this role.  He sings the words of Wilson like no one else could.  When he gives his monologue about his father, one of the darkest, scariest monologues you’ll ever hear, the hairs on the back of my neck rose about a mile high.

If Denzel Washington doesn’t win, it’s time to start getting out the #OscarsSoWhite protest signs and hitting the streets.


Best Actress – Blank

Sadly, I missed all of these films except La La Land.  So I have no idea.


Best Supporting Actor – Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Right now the oddsmakers have Mahershala Ali as the favorite, and I think that’s right.  He’s only in one third of the movie, which I thought might make it tough for him.  But he’s such a pivotal character in those opening 40 minutes or so that he just can’t be ignored.  His presence is missed on screen when he’s gone, which of course is the point, and makes the movie that much more powerful.

When he gives his monologue on the beach to Little Chiron about the moonlight in Cuba, it’s beyond mesmerizing.  It’s entrancing.

Jeff Bridges did a fine job in Hell or High Water, and the oddsmakers aren’t giving him much of a chance, but he could pull off an upset.  But if he did, I don’t think it would be right.  This should belong to Ali.

One note: I haven’t seen Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, for which Michael Shannon is up for this award.  I’ve heard it’s good, and Michael Shannon is always amazing, so who knows.  But I really hope Mahershala Ali wins.


Best Supporting Actress: Naomi Harris, Moonlight

Right now, the odds on favorite to win this one is Viola Davis for Fences.  Much like Denzel Washington, she took the powerful words of one of the most masterful playwrights of our times and did something special with them.  She was absolutely wonderful.

But despite her being so good, and being the bookmakers’ favorite at this time, I wouldn’t vote her.  My vote would go to Naomi Harris for Moonlight.  Naomi Harris was an absolute force on the screen, and much like Mahershala’s Ali character, she dominated the screen in the first third of the movie.

But if Ali’s character was a symbol of good, despite being a drug kingpin who sold crack, Harris’s character was seen a symbol of lost hope and despair.  And, hidden through the facade of loving mother, especially in the early parts of the movie, she’s seen as something downright sinister, something evil.

Of course, much like an August Wilson character, you need to ask yourself: what is the source of this evil?  Is she just a horrible person, a horrible mother?  Or is it her surroundings, and the country she lives in, the people she meets, the opportunities she hasn’t had, that makes her who she is?  She plays this character with the same force that Mo’Nique played the mother with in Precious, and of course Mo ‘Nique won the Oscar for her role.

Naomi Harris can only be described as ferocious in the way she played the mom of Chiron in Moonlight.  I think she deserves the Oscar.

(Side Note: Octavia Spencer was also nominated for this award for her role in Hidden Figures.  She did a wonderful job, as did Janelle Monae and Taraji P. Henson.  But as controversial as it may seem, especially since race is such a major player in these awards now, I think Kirsten Dunst should get credit for the job she did in Hidden Figures.  She plays a wildly unlikeable, racist-who-doesn’t-realize-she’s-racist bitch to the fullest.  I’ve heard over the years some people claim that Kirsten Dunst can’t act.  Well, go watch Hidden Figures and come back to me and tell me that.)

Best Original Screenplay: La La Land

A lot of times, if a movie is lucky, it won’t win Best Picture, but it will win Best Original Screenplay.  This usually happens because either the Best Picture is an adapted screenplay, or the Best Picture screenplay simply loses to another one.  In 2011 Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris beat Best Picture winner The Arist.  In 2000, Almost Famous beat Best Picture winner Gladiator.  In 1995 The Usual Suspects beat Best Picture winner Braveheart (Thank You!).  In 1992 The Crying Game beat Best Picture winner Unforgiven (I’ve never seen The Crying Game, but now I feel I have to, because Unforgiven is one of the best goddamned films ever made, so The Crying Game is either amazing or an undeserved winner that needs to be trashed for winning).

Either way…sometimes the Best Picture script is in the Best Original Screenplay category and doesn’t win….but it’s not that frequent.  In recent years the following movies have won both awards: Spotlight, Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), The King’s Speech, The Hurt Locker, and Crash.  And that’s just in the last few years.

I don’t see an upset happening here.  The Lobster is weird and quirky, and weird and quirky can win this category.  Manchester by the Sea is really good.  And I absolutely love Hell or High Water.

But none of them should beat La La Land for Best Original Screenplay.  If they do, write up some #OscarsSoNonMusical signs and hit the streets.


Best Adapted Screenplay – Arrival

The Best Adapted Screenplay award is similar to the Best Original Screenplay in that if the Best Picture award is part of the group, it usually wins, but not always.

This year my vote for Best Picture, Moonlight, is part of the Best Adapted Screenplay awards.  But if I had a vote with the Academy, I wouldn’t vote for it.

Nor would I vote for Lion, which brought tears to my eyes.

Nor would I vote for Hidden Figures, a very moving film about the struggle against racism that three African American women had to face to help NASA put astronauts into space.  

Nor would I vote for Fences, a Pulitzer Prize winning play adapted into a screenplay by the author himself, August Wilson.

Nope.  My vote would go to Arrival.

You may remember Arrival as the movie that I called interesting but slow, a film that didn’t deserve to be among the Best Picture candidates.  My mind hasn’t changed about that.

But as an adaptation, the degree of difficulty has to be taken into consideration.

Arrival is adapted from the short story by Ted Chiang titled Story of Your Life.  Not only was a two hour script adapted from a short story (no easy task), but a lot of things had to be changed to make it work on the screen.  Linguists from universities had to be brought in to help analyze the script.  An incredibly smart short story, written by an incredibly intelligent smart story writer, had to be changed in a way that would make sense to the viewer while not compromising the story.

To me, there is really no choice except to go with Arrival.  It might be one of the best adapted scripts ever written.


Best Animated Feature – Zootopia

Sadly, I haven’t seen Moana, which I’ve heard is very good.  But I have seen Zootopia, and it seems like a winner.  It’s a very good movie with a very strong message that should be seen by everyone.  It’s very relevant to the world we live in today.


Best Foreign Language Film – The Handmaiden (illegal move, not a valid choice)

Sadly, I haven’t seen any of the films listed here by the Academy.  I’ve heard Toni Erdman is really good, so maybe that will win.

But I am curious…how the hell did The Handmaiden not make the cut here?  The Handmaiden, directed by Park Chan-wook of South Korea, is absolutely spell-binding.  It’s also told in two foreign languages, Korean and Japanese.  I’m confused as to why it’s not here.

Best Documentary Feature – blank

I haven’t seen any of these.  I very much want to see I Am Not Your Negro.


Best Documentary Short – blank

These were playing at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, but I missed them.


Best Live Action Short – blank

These were playing at the Kendall Square Cinema, but I missed them.


Best Animated Short – blank

These were playing at the Kendall Square Cinema, but I missed them.


Best Original Score – Moonlight

I guess this goes to La La Land…right?  But I remember the music of Moonlight as being haunting, just like the movie…so I’ll go with that.


Best Original Song – La La Land

La La Land has two songs in this category.  I think it’s going to be a battle between those two…unless La La Land fans split the vote, leading to a surprise victory by Moana or Trolls…you never know….


Best Sound Editing – La La Land

Because sound plays such an intricate part in La La Land, I don’t see how any of the other films can beat it here.


Best Sound Mixing – La La Land

Again…La La Land is a musical.  I don’t see how it could lose this one.  I mean, maybe Rogue One sneaks in with a win…but I don’t see that happening.


Best Production Design – La La Land


Hail Caesar! is in this category, and the productions design on that movie was wonderful.  I loved Hail Caesar!, and I would love nothing more than for it to win an Oscar.  But I don’t think it will happen, and I don’t think it’s deserved…the colors presented in La La Land are so amazing, is deserves this award.


Best Cinematography – La La Land

This is pretty similar to the Best Director award, which I think it’s firmly in La La Land’s fist.  If it wins Best Director, how does it not win Best Cinematography?

Best Make-Up and Hairstyling – blank

Hey!  A category without La La Land!  Sadly, or maybe not sadly, I haven’t seen any of these films (I heard Suicide Squad was awful).  I don’t know if want to a movie that had such bad reviews to win, so maybe one of the other two films here will win.


Best Costume Design – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I haven’t seen Fantastic Beasts.  In fact, I’ve only seen one film in this category…La La Land.  But here’s the thing: the production, directing, script, sound, music, it was all amazing in La La Land.

But costumes?  I’m not so sure.  And that’s why I think another film should probably win here.

Fantastic Beasts seems like a film with good costume design, so maybe that will win.


Best Film Editing – La La Land

Again, because music and sound is such a prominent part of this film, and those components make up a large part of the editing process…I don’t see La La Land losing this one.


Best Visual Effects – Doctor Strange

Sadly, I haven’t seen Rogue One, which I’ve heard is very good.

Because I haven’t seen Rogue One, and because the only movie I’ve seen in this category is in fact Doctor Strange, I have to go with Doctor Strange.

But it’s not just a default pick.  Doctor Strange, to me, was an okay movie.  If I was grading it, I would give it a B.  It was mildly interesting and entertaining, though I think it was always doomed to that fate: the origin story of a somewhat quirky Marvel character was always going to be a little bit awkward (of course, it made over $600 million…so how awkward was it, really…?)

Either way, as so-so as it was as a movie, the visual effects were pretty amazing.  Doctor Strange is the most psychedelic of the Marvel characters, and he didn’t hold back…at times I felt like I was watching a Pink Floyd concert happen.  

So yes…I’d give my vote to Doctor Strange for Best Visual Effects.

And that’s it.  I’ve finished….now it’s time for me to sit back and not watch the Oscars tonight.  Tell me how it goes!




Battle of Two Kafka Adaptions: Welles vs. Scorsese

Do you like to read?  Do you like to watch films?  Are you unsure of which novel adaptations and/or remakes you should be watching?  If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of the above questions, then read on!

This week we’ll decide which novel adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial is better: Orson Welles 1962 version, titled The Trial, or Martin Scorsese’s cult film from the ’80s, After Hours.

The Trial, Franz Kafka

Most Famous Adaptation: The Trial, Orson Welles

Lesser Known Adaptation: After Hours, Martin Scorsese

In 1914-1915 Franz Kafka, a little known office clerk who wrote short stories on the side, decided to write something big and huge: The Trial, his epic novel masterpiece, which was never finished and wasn’t even published until 1925, 11 years after he started writing it and 1 year after he died.

Such wa5223s the case with Franz Kafka.  Kafka was sort of like Vincent Van Gogh: an artist of amazing uniqueness and vision, who lived in relative obscurity despite his amazing gifts.  Of course, it’s not really fair to compare the two; Kafka, after all, did manage to publish some of his most well-known short stories during his lifetime, even if they weren’t appreciated and didn’t make him much money.  Van Gogh, on the other hand, only managed to sell two paintings in his entire life, one to his neighbor and another to his brother.  (Then again, Van Gogh was much more prolific than Kafka…he painted many more pictures than Kafka ever wrote stories).

Either way, this was Kafka’s life…mundaneness during the day at his office job followed by the writing of strange and dark stories at night.  The Trial is truly Kafka’s masterpiece…even unfinished, it shines from the pages like a dark and beautiful flower that smells of toxic pollen.  Toxic because nothing positive comes out of it…all we see is a nightmare vision of society, where no one is trusted, where everyone is against one man.

I first gained interest in The Trial while living in Southeast Asia.  While living there I frequented the country of Cambodia often, and visited sites where terrible events occurred in the not too distant past: S-21 prison, The Killing Fields, even the temples of Angkor Wat, where machine gun craters scar the front entrance.  While living in Vietnam and traveling around Cambodia, I read as many books about Cambodian history as possible, simply to try and get a hold of what had happened.  One such book was Voices from S-21, an academic study done by David Chandler, an expert on Cambodian history at Monash University in Australia.  Chandler has written numerous books on different aspects of Cambodian, or rather Khmer, history.  Voices from S-21 focuses exclusively on the former prison which sits near the Russian Market in Phnom Penh, where 17,000 people, all deemed enemies of the state, were systematically processed, photographed, tortured, and murdered (no murders actually took place at the prison…all murders were done a half hour’s ride outside of town, in the Killing Fields).

Chandler did a marvelous job examining what took place behind the walls of the prison…it’s tough to really know when there are virtually no survivors (in actuality, there were seven survivors).  He pulled on numerous sources to explain what happened, most of them historic.  But two literary sources kept popping up during his work: 1984, by George Orwell, and The Trial, written by Kafka.  At the time, I had read neither.  When I read 1984, I became convinced that Pol Pot and some of the other monsters whom he worked with probably garnered inspiration from the pages of Orwell’s masterpiece.  But when I read The Trial, I kne18557_lgw that none of them could ever have read it, or appreciated it.  Orwell’s 1984 provides a recipe book on how to use terror and torture to keep an entire population under control, which would be useful to the Khmer Rouge; The Trial does not provide any of this.  The Trial lacked the side plots, characters, and intricacies that Orwell deployed so masterfully in 1984; instead, there was simply a man walking through a never-ending nightmare, accused by everyone of committing a crime unknown only to him.

Chandler referenced The Trial mainly to emphasize that when the Khmer Rouge were in power in Cambodia (1975-1979), the authorities didn’t need a reason to arrest you.  What happened to Josef K. in The Trial happened to real people, everyday, in 1970s Cambodia.  Josef K. is the protagonist of The Trial, a relatively ordinary guy with an office job (presumably not much different from Kafka).  He’s arrested in the opening pages at his home, on his birthday no less, and the trouble goes from there; as the novel continues K. finds himself wrapped deeper and deeper into a terrifying narrative starring himself, accused of a crime he doesn’t know or understand.  Throughout the novel he never stops trying to figure out his dilemma, and he remains ever positive that he will get to the bottom of things by means of communication with other residents of the city he lives.  But no one ever helps him; in fact, everyone seems to be against him.  The normalcy of K. as a human being, as well as the characters he meets, is terrifying: can people really act this way?  The sad answer is that all too often, people do act this way.

K.’s character is trusting and positive, despite his problems.  This is in stark contrast to 1984, where the protagonist, Winston, is very much aware from the beginning that he lives in a terrible, terrible world.  By talking to as few people as possible, Winston plans to outsmart Big Brother, the government that watches his every move.  K., on the other hand, leads a normal life until the police come to the door of his small, normal apartment.  And even then, for awhile, things seem normal, until the paranoia starts to seep through the cracks of reality.  Most noticeably in contrast to 1984 is the agreeableness of K.; though at times he becomes indignant, and he never stops questioning what his crime is, he is always willing to talk it over with authorities.  This never helps the situation; in actuality it seems to make things worse, which of course was also true of Cambodia in the mid-1970s: if you were accused of a crime by the Khmer Rouge, you probably ended up being tortured and murdered, and you probably never committed a crime in the first place.

Perhaps this is why I’ve never been a huge fan of the adaptation done by Orson Welles in 1962, also titled The Trial.  Welles was working in Europe at the time, banished from Hollywood once again, and he used the locations available to his advantage to set up a dark, foreboding atmosphere that would be appropriate for Kafka’s nightmare vision.  And, indeed, the lighting and effects produced by Welles were not of this world.  Once again, Orson Welles had proved himself to be the Great Auteur of film.Orson Welles Shooting Ro.Go.Pa.G. In Rome, 1962

But despite the dark shadows and ominous lighting, Kafka never comes to mind for me when watching Welles’ take on The Trial.  Instead, Welles does.  Orson Welles and Franz Kafka, of course, are two giants of their respective worlds, literature and film.  It’s difficult for one unique master to represent another unique master in this sense; I’m not sure if Michelangelo would have done well copying down The Mona Lisa.  It seemed somehow inevitable that Welles would put his own unique footprint on Kafka’s work.

One major problem for me was Anthony Perkins, who was cast to play K.  Perkins was an amazing actor who was most famous for playing Norman Bates, the innkeeper of Psycho fame.  If anyone could nail the feeling of paranoia, it was Perkins (the guy seemed like every weird, neurotic neighbor you’ve ever met).  But for me Perkins dialed it up too high: this may have been due to Welles direction, and what he wanted from his actor.  In the opening scene, when the police come to arrest him, Perkins jumps around his room indignantly, crying bloody murder and demanding to know what the problem is.  But the K. in Kafka’s novel gave off a feeling of quiet indignation before succumbing to authorities; sure, he was indignant, but he wasn’t dramatic.  Kafka’s K. was always willing to go along with the charade, and always seemed slightly unaware (though not stupid).  Perkins, on the other hand, seems to be ahead of the authorities at times; it’s almost as if he expected the police to show up at his door, and was waiting to go crazy with rage.  He’s defiant and extremely untrusting, as if he knows the world is against him and he’s ready to fight.  Kafka’s K. never wanted to fight, never wanted to be a hero: he just wanted to get to the bottom of whatever crime he was accused of.  1-The-Trial

What we’re left with is still a treasure: it is one of the few films that Orson Welles, the greatest director of our time, ever directed.  It’s perhaps the most wildly dramatic performance that Anthony Perkins ever game us, including Pyscho.  The lighting, on location filming, and overall atmosphere of the film are incredibly unique, and provide us with another example of why Orson Welles was the Great Auteur, the Master of Atmosphere.

But it’s not really Kafka; what it is, more or less, is Welles doing Welles, pretending to do Kafka.

For those of you who really want to watch a movie that evokes the feeling of Kafka, in particular The Trial, you need to try an often overlooked film made by an immensely popular director: After Hours, directed by Martin Scorsese in 1986.  In 1985, while he was trying to get funding to make The Last Temptation of Christ, Scorsese got his hands on a script that had been written years earlier by a film student in his twenties.  Scorsese decided to direct it in his spare time.Depois-de-horas-poster01

After Hours isn’t a real adaptation; it’s more of what you’d call a “loose adaptation”, taking plot elements instead of the entire plot.  It follows the misadventures of an office worker named Paul (Griffin Dunne) in Lower Manhattan.  It starts innocently enough, with Paul meeting a girl named Marcy at a coffee shop one evening; she gives him her phone number, and from there all Hell breaks loose.  But the entire storyline fits nicely with The Trial; as ominous as authorities at your home are, the opening scene to The Trial seems somewhat innocent: just head to the courthouse and see what the problem is, yuck yuck yuck.

Paul spends the entire evening going from one place to another, meaning well the entire time, and yet making everyone angry as he goes.  It starts when his cab fare inadvertently blows out the cab window, infuriating the driver, and it never stops.  Everywhere he goes he is considered an asshole, though he isn’t; everywhere Charles K. went he was considered a criminal, though I think it’s safe to assume he wasn’t one.

As Scorsese’s film moves along, it gets darker and darker; the plot is not important, but the mood is.  What starts as funny becomes terrifying: we see two thieves, played by Cheech and Chong, stealing a piece of art: Oh, that’s funny, it’s Cheech and Chong.  But soon thereafter we discover a woman has committed suicide, and things become decidedly darker and scarier: they become Kafka-esque.  The outcome of the film isn’t quite as dreary as Kafka’s novel (or what passes for the ending today), but it’s still a nonsensical nightmare vision, a normal world turned completely mad and hostile for no reason whatsoever.  The contrasting humor and darkness are important: anyone who has read The Trial knows that despite its overall darkness, it is a very funny read at times, particularly the dialogue between characters.  This is one area where Welles version of the film is different: it is devoid of any humor that may have been found in Kafka’s story.

Scorsese’s film nailed everything Kakfa did perfectly: the comedy of a completely absurd situation, the darkness of a world gone completely mad, and the feeling that everyone is out to get you for reasons unknown.  It’s unclear why After Hours has fallen through the cracks the way it has.  Scorsese was fairly well established by this point: Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, among others, had garnered him international fame and respect.  It did well with critics, even if audiences weren’t crazy about it.  It even won Scorsese the Best Director Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986, so it certainly wasn’t ignored.  But in the years that followed Scorsese became a mega-director: The Last Temptation of Christ, Goodfellas, Cape Fear, Casino: these films, which resonated with critics and audiences alike, probably helped to push After Hours to the back of our unconscious.  After Hours didn’t have any stars (besides Cheech and Chong); it was quirky and artsy; it was small.  Why watch After Hours when one can watch Goodfellas, a film directed by Scorsese, that, it must be said, is much better than After Hours?  

And so it is: there is a little known film out there by the name of After Hours, directed by mega-director Martin Scorsese, and it just might be the best Kafka interpretation we have on film.  If there were still video rental stores out there, it would probably be sitting on a shelf in the corner, the dust collecting on its edges, just waiting to be picked up by some unsuspecting movie renter a Friday night.  It’s a film that deserves to be watched, and if he was alive in our time, it’s probably a film that Kafka would have enjoyed.


Samurai Champloo: Music Videos? TV Series?



I don’t have much anime experience.  Maybe that’s a bad thing.  I don’t know.

I’ve only watched three anime series in their entireties: Cowboy Bebop, the popular in America, not so popular in Japan, Japanese anime that has been played on Adult Swim off and on for the last 15 years or so; Trigunthe renowned series that may just be one of the best TV shows I have ever seen; and Samurai Champloo, which I just finished a few nights ago.  The fourth anime series I’ve been intimately involved with, Sword Art Online, is currently half eaten.  Maybe I’ll throw it in the microwave and try and finish it someday.

Because my experience is so limited (there are hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and HUNDREDS of anime shows and anime enthusiasts out there) I feel like maybe I’m not the right person to critique an anime.  But maybe that makes it more REAL.  More GRITTY.  Because I’m A NOVICE.  Because I DON’T KNOW SHIT.


Samurai Champloo was conceived and created by Shinichiro Watanabe in 2004.  Watanabe was previously known for creating Cowboy Bebop, a 1998 anime that fell flat in Japan but became a cult favorite in the U.S., due largely to late night airings on Adult Swim.  Samurai Champloo follows three characters as they travel across feudal Japan.  Two of them are fierce samurai warriors: Jin, the strong, silent one, and Mugen, the loud, crass and wild one.  They serve as bodyguards for a 16 year old girl, Fuu, as she travels towards Nagasaki in search of a mysterious “samurai who smells like sunflowers.”  As is typical of many animes, each episode has the characters facing different challenges and adventures, while a larger, more important theme/storyline is always visible in the background.  In this case, the large storyline is simply that they are taking a long trip across Japan.

The show mixes genres, old and new, together.  Hip-hop and jazz play a large part in the feel and mood of each episode, and the animation is startlingly beautiful.  Dark, vibrant colors mix with the music to create an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere; in some ways, each episode is like an extended music video.  But this also detracts from what it actually is: a TV show with characters and plots.  Sadly, what Samurai Champloo has in aesthetic beauty, it lacks in story and depth.  It doesn’t take long for the stories and characters to become very predictable; in the end, these really are glorified music videos, as harsh as this may sound.

Watanabe’s previous show, Cowboy Beboy, was similar in layout: three characters, two male and one female, went on a series of adventures over a period of 26 episodes.  Much like Samurai Champloo, the show was never really interested in the deeper, more philosophical theme or storyline behind the series; it was a very much an episode to episode, story to story existence.  But Cowboy Bebop, despite having a lack of depth, was fun.  There was a sense of wild creativity and freshness with each episode; there were numerous nods to famous movies and cultural occurrences.  It never took itself seriously, but it could be dark and dreary if it wanted to be.  The viewer never knew where a certain episode might go.

But Samurai Champloo lacked any sense of story, freshness or creativity.  After episode 16 or so, watching the show became a chore, because it was pretty clear what would happen: the trio would meet some dark and evil characters on the road, Mugen and Jin would have to fight and probably kill some bad guys, and in the end the characters would probably learn some sort of lesson.  Even the comedic side plots became predictable; they liked to gouge themselves on food to the point of sickness; Mugen was always trying to get laid and steal stuff; and Jin had some vaguely philosophical things to say about the journey.  None of the bad guys were memorable; there was none of the awesomeness of the villains that we saw in Trigun, or even Sword Art Online, a show that I stopped watching midway through.

To sum everything up, this was a show that was afraid to take any chances with its characters, and suffered because of it.  In the second season of The Sopranos (SPOILER ALERT!) the writers decided to kill of Big Pussy, one of the most memorable and likable characters from Season 1.  While Big Pussy was missed, it made the show stronger overall; it made it seem real.  Anyone could die.  At anytime.  Even Tony.  There was no inkling ever that anything could ever happen to the characters in Samurai Champloo.  When you already know what’s going to happen or not happen to the characters in a TV show, it gets pretty boring pretty fast.

Chuck Klosterman, a writer for Esquire and Grantland.com, once wrote an interesting article about the television series Lost, and how the island where the survivors were stranded was filled with abnormally strong characters: Locke, Jack, Sawyer, Sayid, etc, etc…It was something that as viewers we wanted to pretend was normal: it was normal that this many mentally, physically strong leaders would somehow be on this plane.  Of course it wasn’t normal; of course Lord of the Flies, with its long list of weak followers, was a more realistic look at humankind.  But we liked watching Lost.  We like strong characters.  The characters in Samurai Champloo became too strong, to the point that they were robots.  None of the bad guys or women they met were nearly as interesting or strong as they were; there was never any doubt that they would survive their battles.  There was never any intrigue.  There were never any real pots, never any real danger.  All we were left with as viewers were glorified hip-hop music videos with beautiful, amazing artwork.  Which is fantastic, if you’re into that.  But I like my stories to actually be stories.  I like to feel something about the characters I’m watching.  I like to watch plots unfold.  I like to be surprised once in awhile.  In 26 episodes, Samurai Champloo never once gave me the satisfaction I need as a fan of TV shows.


Badlands: Peering into the mind of Terence Malick


Terence Malick has become something of a lightning rod among film fans over the last few years.

It all started in 2011 when the highly-reclusive Malick directed The Tree of Life, and then won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for it. The Tree of Life was vintage Malick: a slow, meandering journey across a landscape of existentialist, quasi-religious, ‘what-is-the meaning-of-life’ themes. There were farm landscapes. There was family strife. There were beautiful, mesmerizing shots of waterfalls. There were dinosaurs.

I hated it.

I wasn’t alone. When The Tree of Life was announced as the winner at Cannes, there were boos and cheers from the crowd in about equal proportion. It’s very rare that a film is able to split lots of like-minded film lovers in this way. It’s like turning a bunch of relaxed, non-political friends into a bunch of frothing Democrats and Republicans in the blink of an eye, complete with inane arguments and highly-convincing propaganda. If nothing else, Malick had accomplished something unique: he created emotion where few filmmakers can. Perhaps he deserved the Palme d’Or for that alone.

I didn’t enjoy The Tree of Life at all. I felt like it was a filmmaker taking a pee on the idea of being a filmmaker. To me, it was a man making a film about nothing, and then silently laughing to himself when people actually liked it. It seemed like film critic’s bait: a delicious looking worm sitting on a hook, waiting to be eaten by some unsuspecting bass. Now I’ve got them.

But perhaps my problem was that this was my first Malick film. His more recent films, namely The Thin Red Line (1998) and The New World (2005), received similar analysis to The Tree of Life: slow, existentialist, deep in meaning. But his two earlier films, Badlands (1973) and Days of Heaven (1978) have been analyzed differently: more easy to comprehend, more down to Earth. And so it was that I found myself at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, MA a few weeks ago, watching Badlands.

Badlands has always been a film I’ve wanted to see. It was Malick’s film debut, and it starred a young Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek as two lovers traveling across the country in the 1950s, murdering people as they went. Quentin Tarantino has cited it as one of his all-time favorite films, and even if Tarantino isn’t my favorite director (though I like him), I try to watch all the films he recommends. Cause Dude loves movies.

Badlands follows Kit (Martin Sheen), a fired trash collector, and Holly (Sissy Spacek), a fifteen year old girl, as they travel the countryside on the run from the law. Things start out innocently enough; they fall in love. But as often happens in life, shit gets in the way. When Holly’s overprotective father (Warren Oates) confronts Kit, Kit buys a gun. Again, it is an innocent start; the violence is initiated by the father, who murders Holly’s dog in response to her relationship. But things spiral to tragedy; the gun is fired; the bullet does its damage; and Kit and Holly have no choice but to go on the run.

There are many themes visited during Kit’s and Holly’s journey from both the law and society. Love, hatred, the law, and fear are some of the obvious ones. But nothing with Malick is ever obvious. One needs to look beyond the murders and mayhem to see the real themes to think about: Life; Death; Society; Human Nature; The Difference Between Good and Evil.

Malick, reclusive as he may be, has talked about this film a little bit. He stated that we’re supposed to note how the power of a gun changes Kit; how the ease of killing someone with a gun can sometimes fix a problem more effectively than simply fixing it. These are important issues that humans should take note of; they are the roots of genocide. Just a few years after this film was released, the Khmer Rouge came to power in Cambodia, and they would follow a philosophy similar to what we can assume Kit was thinking: you might not hurt me alive, but you definitely won’t hurt me dead, so it’s time for you to die.

This film is a poignant and fulfilling look into the human psyche. It shows us how good intentions can be manipulated by weapons and human laziness; how even if we’re good, we’re really actually bad. Everything comes full circle when Kit is captured; he’s suddenly a good ole’ boy, getting slaps on the back from the country cops as he heads to the electric chair.

I think it’s safe to say that this was Terence Malick on a leash. People have described Malick as a secretive genius who is difficult to understand; I would agree. In some ways, Malick is not of this world. But in Badlands we see a restrained Malick: the themes that he loves to play with are there, and his movie is deep. But it is also grounded. There is a story to watch and follow, and not only that, but it is enjoyable to watch. Perhaps Malick doesn’t really want us to enjoy his films; he wants us to digest them, think about them, watch them over and over again and obsess about them. But as a young director in 1973, he was forced to give us something more easy to digest. And the result is quite possibly the best film he ever directed.

Of course, I can’t know for sure. It’s time for me to eat my vegetables.

It’s impossible to say how many directors have been influenced by Badlands, as the examples are probably countless, but there are a few examples that are impossible to ignore. Most prominent and obvious is True Romance, a film that Quentin Tarantino wrote, but did not direct, in 1993. In typical Tarantino style, the structure and plot of his screenplay follows the storyline of Badlands almost to a tee. A man and a woman fall in love, get in trouble with gangsters, and go on a similar romp across America. True Romance can be interpreted as a pretty straight forward re-make of Badlands.

The Coen Brothers directed Fargo (1996) a few years later and also paid homage in a heavy way to Badlands. But instead of resurrecting the skin and bones of the plot and putting them back together, as Tarantino did, they focused on smaller themes and scenes. Some scenes are re-shot in Fargo in almost the same exact way that Malick shot them in Badlands. One scene in particular is seemingly plucked from Badlands and incorporated into Fargo over twenty years later. The plot, motives and characters are very different in each film, but the feel and intensity of the films are almost identical. In a completely different way, the Coen Brothers also constructed a re-make of Badlands.

Finally, we come to Natural Born Killers, the dark comedy directed by Oliver Stone in 1994. The original story was written by Tarantino (hmmm…), but heavily re-written by Stone and Dave Veloz. It is an absurdist, surreal and grotesque look at American society, and perhaps human society in general. This film, unlike the two already mentioned, focuses on the celebrity aspect of serial killers, which Malick addresses at the end of Badlands. Make no mistake; Badlands is also a surreal, absurdist film, following the lives of people living in some deranged fairy tale. But we don’t find that out until the end. We don’t find out until suddenly an arrested Kit is transformed into some kind of hero to be celebrated; it’s then that the movie officially becomes a work of Postmodernist Art.

Natural Born Killers basically makes a two hour movie out of the ideas that Malick presents for us in the last 15 minutes of his film. It’s an acquired taste; I find Natural Born Killers to be un-enjoyable and revolting. But it’s a film of note, and it’s another big one that is obviously and heavily influenced by Badlands.

An Ex-Expat’s Take on the Crazy Buffalo Burning


I logged into Facebook the other day, scrolled down the page absent-mindedly, and froze in my tracks. I was staring at an image that brought up a strange sensation of feelings from deep inside me: shock, disbelief, amusement, and sadness.

The Crazy Buffalo was on fire.

The Crazy Buffalo is a bar in the Pham Ngu Lao area of Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam. It’s actually not located on Pham Ngu Lao street; it sits on the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham. It’s not really a good bar; in fact, it’s pretty terrible. The one time I ventured into the Buffalo, nearly four years ago, the only people inside seemed to be the staff, and they were insisting we party with them. When we went into the bathroom there were video screens at the bottom of the urinals so you could watch the news and pee on it at the same time. My friend inadvertently peed on an image of Ho Chi Minh, which was being displayed in the urinal at the time he was relieving himself. This prompted him to move to Ha Noi; “There’s no f**king way I can live in a city where it’s cool to piss on Ho Chi Minh.” I sort of nodded, sort of agreeing, staring into my beer.

That’s the only time I went to the Buffalo during my time in Vietnam.

But the Buffalo wasn’t really a bar; not really. No one who lived in Vietnam ever, EVER, went to the Buffalo. GO2, across the street, was a better place to get drunk and dance around like an idiot. And Lily’s, 185, Lily’s 2, and all the other seedy little places that line De Tham were the real hotspots, a never-ending mixture of expats, backpackers, bar girls, shady guys parking bikes, children selling things, and book girls. De Tham is the real city that never sleeps; forget New York.

The Buffalo wasn’t really the place to be: it was the symbol of everything crazy going on around it.  It was always there, a giant, obnoxious beacon overlooking everything: all the madness, all the drunken craziness, all the illicit behavior.  In that sense it was similar to the famous Citgo sign overlooking Fenway Park in Kenmore Square, Boston.  There’s not much history surrounding the Citgo sign, and there hasn’t been a gas station there for over 30 years.  It’s simply a hollow symbol: a mirage, the gold at the end of the leprechaun’s rainbow, a non-existent entity that lights up bright at night.  When people see the Citgo sign they think of the Red Sox, Fenway Park, guys selling programs and peanuts, traffic on the Pike, Boston.  But there’s nothing there; you can’t buy any gas there if you’ve happen to run out.

The Buffalo was the same.  I wasn’t looking to get a beer there, but sometimes, if I was out with friends and we’d end up at 185 or some such place, I’d glance up at the big giant electric buffalo above and smile.  That giant, obnoxious monstrosity looking down at us from above always reminded me that I was somewhere unique, somewhere that in my opinion is like nowhere else on the planet.

Pham Ngu Lao.



Maybe that’s why my shock and amusement at seeing the Buffalo burning was mixed with a deep sense of sadness.  After living in Vietnam for nearly four years, soaking in everything that I possibly could, I’m back living in my hometown: Boston, or more specifically, Somerville. Being back in Boston is great, but it can be a difficult transition at times. It’s just so entirely different from the place where I was living for the last four years that it’s impossible not to miss things here and there.  The other night, I opened my fridge and realized I was out of beer.  So I walked down the street to Downtown Liquor and Spirits to grab a six-pack.  When I got there the lights were on but the doors were locked.  I glanced at my cellphone: 11:16pm.  No beer for me.  I turned around to walk home without any beer and thought to myself, “In Vietnam I could buy a beer any goddamned time of the night.”

Being able to buy a beer whenever I want is just one of the little things from Vietnam that I miss.  They mix together to make a collage of stuff that has become my memory of Saigon.


The Pham Ngu Lao/Bui Vien/De Tham area is another one of the little things from Vietnam that I miss, although in a more abstract way.  When living in Ho Chi Minh City I would always tell visitors the same things: that Pham Ngu Lao is not the typical Vietnamese experience; that it’s important to leave Pham Ngu Lao if you’re staying in that area, because otherwise you won’t see ‘the real Vietnam.’ And that if you want real Vietnamese food, you MUST venture away from the restaurants of the Pham, if only for a few blocks.


But as atypical an experience as the Pham is for most of Vietnam, (and it is very ‘atypical Vietnam’), it has also become something unique to Ho Chi Minh City, making it a non-typical, yet uniquely Vietnamese experience.

What I mean by that is that there is probably no other place on Earth quite like Pham Ngu Lao.

Khaosan Road, in Bangkok, is the original backpacker’s area: it’s larger than the Pham, and on the surface it’s wilder. But when you start investigating Khaosan Road, you find that it’s inherently different than the Pham. It’s bigger, sure, and there’s more people walking around drinking beers on the street…but it’s also a little bit tamer. The Thai police make sure to instill the fear of God into everyone (you WILL go to prison if you are caught with drugs in Bangkok), and the other seedy activities that people associate with Bangkok are contained in other neighborhoods. Khaosan Road is like the PG-13 version of the Pham: you can get a suit tailor made from the Indian dudes yelling at you from their shops, or you can get a tattoo applied to your forearm as you sit on a dirty sidewalk, or you can drink beer until you pass out unnoticed at your table, but you can’t get away with anything. There’s a limit to what’s allowed.

In the Pham there’s not much limit to what goes on.  I once saw a drunk British guy headbutt a police officer in GO2, and nothing happened. Motorbike thieves prowl the outskirts of the neighborhood once the sun goes down, waiting for some unsuspecting woman with a bag over her shoulders to leave on a motorbike. It’s an inherently ugly place with ugly things happening: children walk around selling gum and flowers, serving as slaves for their unseen pimps. When a child was severely beaten earlier this year, expats responded with anger and indignation that such a terrible thing could happen. But everyone knew the situation before that child showed up on the street with black eyes. No one who lives in Ho Chi Minh City doesn’t know that the kids who are selling gum at all hours of the day live terrible lives. And no one in their right mind could possibly think that some low-life pimp could ever be a nice person, even if they don’t beat the children that work for them.

In a lot of ways, the Pham is like the Wild West packed into a five block radius.  It’s an area of concentrated madness, the utmost wickedness in condensed form.  Spending too much time in the Pham is like drinking the lemonade mix without the water: it’s tasty but sour, thick enough to stick in your throat and make you choke.  In that sense it’s different than Phnom Penh, Cambodia, a place with an equally crazy reputation spread out across an entire city, or the Old Quarter, Ha Noi, a much less wild, more spread out and more typically Vietnamese backpacker’s area.

Anything goes for the most part in the Pham, and you tend to see the lesser qualities of humanity on display when you walk around, especially at night. But like anything else you get used to it after awhile and it becomes normal. It became normal to me that there was a part of town that essentially has no laws; it was normal to me because for almost four years I was never more than a ten minute motorbike drive away it. Now that I’m back in Boston, I’m beginning to realize that it wasn’t normal at all; it was f**king crazy.

These thoughts crossed my mind as I stared at an image of the Crazy Buffalo engulfed in flames.

Coming back home to Boston, I’ve noticed more changes than I thought I would.

Some changes are minor; walking through Harvard Square a few days ago, I was planning on buying a drink at the Tedeschi’s on the corner of JFK and Mt. Auburn Street. But the Tedeschi’s isn’t there anymore; now it’s a Tasty Burger. I’ve never even heard of Tasty Burger, although I think it’s the name of the fake burger chain in Pulp Fiction. My initial emotions upon seeing a Tasty Burger was annoyance: Why the Hell is there a stupid burger place here now?  Why isn’t there a convenience store here anymore?  But then I came to my senses and realized that I’ve been gone for four years.  Things change.  If you live with a puppy you see it grow gradually over a period of time, and it’s not too shocking when it becomes a full grown dog; but if you’re a friend who sees the puppy once when it’s little, and comes back a few months later to find it’s full grown, it’s a little bit shocking.  I had a normal reaction to the Tedeschi’s being gone.  I was surprised and annoyed.  But some changes are more unexpected.

I’ve never owned a smartphone.  For that matter, I’ve never even really used a smartphone.  When I left Boston to live in Vietnam four years ago, smartphones were sort of a novelty: some people had them, but for the most part people still had flip phones.  When I got to Vietnam, pretty much no one had smart phones, and I did what most everyone did: bought a pre-paid Nokia for 20 bucks.  There are many more smartphones in Vietnam now, and you can buy cheap iPhones on Nguyen Trai, but as far as I can tell old school phones still outnumber smartphones.

Now I’m back in Boston and everyone has a smartphone.  Except me.  I knew this was going to happen; but what I didn’t realize was how far behind the times I was going to feel.  My parents have officially passed me in the technology game.  I don’t know what an app really is or how to use it.  I have trouble sending emails on a tablet.  I’m not familiar with the green and white bubble text messages that show up on people’s phones now.

Ofcourse I’ll buy a smartphone soon and learn how to use it. But the point is that Boston, and America, has changed.  I jumped on the T the other night to head to Cleveland Circle, and 90% of the people were on smartphones or tablets.  In my eyes, that’s f**king crazy. When I left a few years ago, the idea of there being wifi on a train was unheard of.  Now we’re living in an ocean of wifi with wifi devices everywhere.  The internet is never more than a button’s hit away.  And that shit is scary to me.  It’s scary to me cause I’m not used to it and I didn’t expect it.

I guess that makes me feel just a tiny bit sad.  Shit went and changed when I wasn’t looking.


I’m sure the Pham won’t be changing much anytime soon.  I messaged a friend who’s still living there to get the scoop on the Buffalo fire; he said he drove by the next day and they have a big sign over the charred buffalo face advertising drink specials.  Apparently the party hasn’t slowed down much.

If I was to return to Vietnam several years from now, a lot of things would be about the same.  The food would be about the same, the weather would still be hot.  I’d still be able to go to a cafe and drink a fruit juice while listening to terrible music, there’d still be geckos running around the walls at nice restaurants, and Hai Ba Trung would still be a long line of lights at night, leading down to the river.  I’d still be able to get a good meal at a restaurant with metal tables and plastic chairs, and people would still be smoking cigarettes, clanging their beer glasses together and yelling “Mot Hai Ba Yo!”

But things will change, and I now I’m beginning to wonder how much.  Will the arrival of McDonald’s be a bad thing for the city?  Will there be a lot more cars on the road in a couple years?  Will everyone be on smartphones within three years?  If I go back and visit a restaurant some night in the future and see a group of guys drinking beers and smoking cigarettes together, clanging their glasses together and yelling “Mot Hai Ba Yo!”, will there be couple of guys who don’t join in because they’re distracted by something on the internet?

I don’t know.  But I know one thing that will be different: the Crazy Buffalo.  Because the face of the Beast that overlooks Pham Ngu Lao went up in flames and got blasted with a fire house.  The overseer of the madness of the craziest street on the planet is no longer what it once was.

And maybe that’s why the whole thing makes me a little bit sad.  Some things change over time.  They have to.  But I don’t want too many things to change while I’m looking the other way.  And if there was one thing that I always thought would be in Ho Chi Minh City, greeting the overwhelmed backpackers stepping off their buses and being swarmed by xe oms whispering things about marijuana and massages, it was the Crazy Buffalo.

I didn’t think that motherf**ker would ever come down.