Dinner with Oscar: Bohemian Rhapsody


Bohemian Rhapsody was one of the few films nominated for a best picture Oscar that I did not see in the theaters. I was interested, but it got pretty mediocre reviews and when I didn’t get around to it, it didn’t bother me.

I consider myself a Queen fan in the way that most people around my age do: I have an affection for their songs, can sing along to all of the major hits, but I don’t really have much familiarity with the band’s story. I knew they were famous in the 1970s and 80s, that Freddie Mercury was gay and had died of AIDs. That was about the limit of my knowledge.

I have heard complaints that Bohemian Rhapsody gets some important facts wrong which has contributed to some negative reviews. Fair enough. But as I am no expert on Queen, this did not bother me. I can only assess the film on its cinematic merits.

I thought this film was mostly fun and entertaining. Rami Malek plays Freddie Mercury in all of his sassy glory with aplomb (although it does seem odd that Mercury seemed to have not a drop of self-consciousness and I couldn’t help but wonder if he really was so confident, even at the beginning of his career). I liked how it was a story of a band, not just a story of a charismatic, egotistical frontman.

The performances are good throughout. The writing is mostly solid, the film is pretty tightly edited and, of course, there are Queen songs to hold an audience's attention in the case of any boredom. A lot of story is crammed into the two-hour and fourteen-minute run time, but it doesn’t really feel that long, I think because of the songs studded throughout.

But it’s also a fairly simple film. That’s not necessarily bad: it’s straightforward and uncluttered with issues that might have muddied up the story. However, there is not a lot of subtlety, even though there is plenty of room for it. And sometimes I think it is called for. The film takes a pretty uncomplicated approach to Mercury’s sexuality, which comes across as inauthentic. Other than his temporary dismay at the thought of losing fiancee, Mary Austin, when she forces him to admit he is not straight, he doesn’t seem to have many thoughts at all about his sexuality. And maybe that’s reflective of his actual attitude, but it seems unlikely.

I’m not mad that Bohemian Rhapsody was nominated for Best Picture. But having seen it now, I understand why so many people were surprised that it won best picture at the Golden Globes. I think it’s a fine movie, but I don’t think it’s better than any of the nominees I’ve seen so far, and I’ve seen almost all of them. I would be surprised if it won over A Star Is Born.

What to make: In a scene near the end, Freddie Mercury brings his boyfriend home to his family and they are served mithai, which is said to be Freddie’s favorite. I had never heard of mithai but after some research, I found that it is something of an umbrella term for Indian sweets, usually made for a celebratory purpose. It might be a lot of work, but it would be so much fun to serve this—even just one to two kinds.

Dinner with Oscar: A Star Is Born

Spoiler alert: if you have not seen this film nor any of the previous versions, this review will spoil the ending for you.

The story of A Star Is Born, by virtue of its frequent retellings, has been transformed into Hollywood legend; a cautionary tale of the price one must pay for the limited resource of fame. After the release of 2018’s A Star Is Born starring Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper (also making his directorial debut) reviewers often mentioned the previous versions of the film. Some refer to three versions and others say four but they rarely explain themselves.

The confusion is that what is widely considered to be the first A Star Is Born is titled What Price Hollywood? (1932) starring Constance Bennett. There are some differences but the bones of the story are the same: a young woman dreams of fame in show business and meets an alcoholic man who helps her get there. As she becomes increasingly famous, the public becomes less interested in her partner. He continues on a downward spiral of destruction, eventually hits rock bottom, and the female star determines to make major sacrifices to help him get better. The male partner commits suicide rather than allow that to happen. Even a version of the iconic line “I just wanted to get one more look at you” starts here (“I just wanted to hear you speak again”).

The first film titled A Star Is Born was released in 1937, starred Janet Gaynor and had the same producer, David O. Selznick, as What Price Hollywood? Then, in 1954 the version with Judy Garland was released and finally Barbara Streisand starred in a version that came out in 1976.

With the exception of the 1976 remake, I think all of these films are fantastic but my skeptical nature meant that I was fully prepared to hate this newest version. I hated it the minute I heard it was being remade when Tom Cruise and Beyonce’s names were attached, and Clint Eastwood was set to direct and produce.

About ten minutes in, I realized that even if I tried to convince myself to hate this movie I was not going to. It is polished, well-written, heart-wrenching, and entertaining.

I dislike the 1976 A Star Is Born because it strayed too far from the soul of the story. It took too many liberties and they did not work. Bradley Cooper’s remake took some of what was good about the 1976 version—the modernization of the music and music scene, for example—and married it with the spirit of the previous versions.

What I think demonstrates this most beautifully is the very end. In the 1954 version, Esther’s first words to an audience after her husband’s suicide are: “Hello, everybody. This is Mrs. Norman Maine.” She says this with tears standing in her eyes, voice barely holding together. I find it impossible to watch this scene without my throat tightening. It’s a perfect public tribute from a famous grieving widow to her famous, tragically deceased husband.

In the 1976 version, Streisand’s Esther says nothing to the audience. She is introduced: “Ladies and gentlemen, Mrs. Esther Hoffman Howard” (the male lead’s name changed from Norman Maine to John Norman Howard). Then she sings a song that starts off appropriately mournful before suddenly breaking into a funky, energetic beat and it’s obvious that rather than mourning or paying tribute to her very recently-deceased husband, she’s just enjoying her own performance. That almost the entire scene is a close-up shot and the song is over 7 minutes long just exacerbates this effect.

Cooper’s version takes the charm of the widow singing a tribute song and combines it with the emotion of the ‘54 version. Lady Gaga’s Ally says a bit more: “Hello, I’m Ally Maine. Thank you for being here tonight to honor my husband. He wrote a song for me. I’d like to sing it for him tonight. And with your help, maybe I can” The speech, spoken quietly, is not quite as powerful as the simple words spoken by Garland but still impactful and touching. She then begins singing “I’ll Never Love Again,” an appropriately mournful song performed in an appropriately mournful manner.

There is a lot that makes this movie good but the chemistry between Gaga and Cooper is something special. This is a film that cannot work without chemistry between the two leads (see Streisand and Kristofferson) and the two of them are immediately, believably magnetized toward each other.

I do have a few criticisms. I think some of the emotion is a so heavy-handed that it veers into melodrama a bit. Also, the entire part with Dave Chapelle feels shoehorned in and stilted which is a shame because a great deal of talent and important storyline are wasted.

This is not the best version of A Star Is Born. Garland’s remake will always hold that place in my heart. But I was unsurprised when it was nominated for a best picture Oscar. The feeling I get is that the Oscars this year are going to be very unpredictable because the Academy seems to be making a concerted effort to show they are broadening their thinking. I might have said in the past that A Star is Born is basically a shoo-in for best picture, but it’s hard to tell now.

What to make: One particularly charming part is near the beginning after Ally punches a drunk in a bar who is being confrontational with Jack Maine. Jack takes her to a grocery store to buy frozen peas to put on her hand. Split pea soup is a good choice, especially for a party as it can be kept warm in a slow cooker and be made vegetarian or non-vegetarian with ham hocks.

Dinner with Oscar: BlacKkKlansman

The conversation about BlacKkKlansman and the Academy Awards is mostly that it’s Spike Lee’s first nomination for Best Director. This was news to me. How is it possible that Spike Lee, director of Do the Right Thing which has a place on the American Film Institute's most recent “100 Greatest American Films of All Time” (#96, if you’re curious), has never had a best director Oscar nomination? But, as we know, the Oscars have a long-standing diversity problem. If Spike Lee were white, might he already have a few nominations?

BlacKkKlansman is based on a real event in Colorado Springs in the 1970s. A black undercover detective, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) calls the local Ku Klux Klan chapter, and posing as a white man, expresses interest in joining. A fellow white—and Jewish—police officer, Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), pretends to be Ron for in-person interactions while the real Ron continues to communicate with KKK members, including David Duke, on the phone. Together, they infiltrate the Klan and foil a planned bombing.

Like many of Lee’s films, BlacKkKlansman combines drama with comedy, making for an entertaining film with a conscience. It is apparent that this is the product of someone with not just a knack for storytelling, but also many years of filmmaking experience. There are also some positive departures from Lee’s previous well-known films—notably the over-sexualization of female characters. Stallworth’s romantic interest, Patrice (Laura Harrier) is the president of the local Black Student Union. She is intelligent, independent, fully-formed, and fully-clothed.

Lee comes at two prominent films in American cinema: Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone With the Wind (1939). The movie opens with the iconic scene in Gone With the Wind in which Scarlett O’Hara is searching for the doctor while the camera pans out to capture a field of injured and dead Confederate soldiers—a scene clearly meant to elicit sympathy for the Confederacy, as is true of the entire film.

Birth of a Nation is shown most prominently at the ceremony in which “Ron” (actually Flip) is inducted into the KKK. After the ceremony, the members gather to watch the film and heckle the black characters. When people talk about Birth of a Nation they generally talk about D.W. Griffith’s innovative and influential direction style, but a movie is never that huge without also influencing ideas. The disturbing ideas it influenced are not really talked about but, as is discussed in BlacKkKlansman, Birth of a Nation sparked a resurgence in the KKK.

There are three main components to the film which, taken together, convey a very specific message. One: the scenes from—and conversations about—two films which are cinematically significant and significantly racist. Two: the highly unusual event in which a black man infiltrates the KKK in the 1970s. And three: the most upsetting--that which can’t be cut with any humor: footage from the white supremacist Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017 during which a member of the counter-protest died when a white supremacist drove his car into the crowd where she was. The message: racism is an integral, often socially accepted, part of American history and it is not over.

I’ve heard the criticism that this footage at the end is “heavy-handed.” What I think people are saying is that it’s uncomfortable to watch. It’s difficult to reckon with. But it happened and I think Lee is saying that we should be intentional and not forget about it. Nor should we forget about our President defending some “very fine people” on the white supremacists’ side (clips from that infamous press conference are featured, as well).

It won’t win best picture but it is a very good film and the additional nominations for best director, best supporting actor (for Adam Driver), adapted screenplay, editing, and score are all well-deserved. Yes, even editing! I complain a lot about the length of movies, but I didn’t really feel this drag much, even at a 2 hour 15 minute run time.

What to make: Ron is a cop, and he and Patrice clash over the use of the term “pigs” so I suggest pigs in blankets. But do your fellow party-goers or guests a favor and elevate the basic “hot dogs on canned crescent dough” route. Use andouille sausage, or add some cheese between the pastry and the sausage. Martha Stewart uses puff pastry and brushes it with honey mustard before baking—that sounds nice. Do something besides dry hot dogs in pastry. People will thank you and praise you.

Dinner with Oscar: Black Panther


Each year, I try to watch every movie nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award before the Oscars ceremony. As I do this, I will write a brief review of each movie, along with a suggestion of what to eat and/or drink to pair with the movie.

The release of Black Panther was one of the major cultural events of 2018. Many very good articles have been written about the impact of a mainstream superhero movie made up of an almost exclusively black cast and so I will leave that commentary to them. This article will be about the merits of the movie and why I think it was nominated for a best picture Oscar. I have a lot to say about it, so this piece will be a bit longer than my usual reviews of Oscar-nominated films.

Black Panther is about Wakanda, a fictional African nation which the rest of the world believes is third-world, but is actually rich in a powerful metal called vibranium. Their exclusive access to vibranium has allowed them to build a prosperous city and advanced technology. However, they are isolationist which is a problem for the villain Killmonger [Michael B. Jordan] a half-Wakandan who was abandoned in Oakland by the previous king T’Chaka, after T’Chaka killed Killmonger’s father [who is also his own brother] for betraying Wakanda. Killmonger’s father betrayed Wakanda because he believed vibranium should be used to help the plight of African-Americans, a cause which Killmonger takes up. He challenges the current Wakandan king and the Black Panther, T’Challa [Chadwick Boseman], son of T’Chaka and briefly wins the throne, throwing Wakanda into chaos.

What makes Black Panther good is that it’s a complex movie about complicated racial and economic issues. A good story always has a good conflict. The best conflicts are ones in which the audience can understand both sides. This is true in Black Panther; we sympathize with Killmonger, even if we don’t agree with his methods. In fact, Nakia, T’Challa’s love interest [Lupita Nyong’o] gives the same argument Killmonger makes: Wakanda should be helping the rest of the world. When we first meet her, she is on a mission helping black women who had been kidnapped. She and T’Challa clash on his devotion to the Wakandan philosophy that they must keep to themselves and keep vibranium out of the hands of outsiders.

In what I think is one of the most narratively brilliant parts of the film, we see a smaller version of this conflict with T’Challa on the other side. When he asks M’Baku, the leader of a tribe within Wakanda for an army to help defeat Killmonger, M’Baku declines, stating that T’Challa’s problems are not his problems. T’Challa must make the case that if Killmonger is not stopped, these will become his problems and that M’Baku must help his fellow Wakandans. Presumably, this helps T’Challa see the perspectives of Nakia and Killmonger and leads him to make the decision he does at the film’s conclusion.

I don’t think we, the viewers, are supposed to feel great about this ending. We’re meant to feel conflicted. We’re supposed to agree with the majority of Wakandans when they say that vibranium will be dangerous in the hands of the US government or whoever else gets it. But we’re also supposed to agree with Killmonger, his father, and Nakia when they make the case for helping one’s fellow human being. In short: there’s no good answer to the problem Wakanda has. T’Challa made the choice he thought was best, but in addition to providing aid, it will very likely lead to trouble for Wakanda and for the world. This is not a run-of-the-mill, clear-cut, good guy/bad guy superhero movie. It is far more complex--and better--than that.

Black Panther is making a lot of waves for being the first superhero movie to be nominated for a best picture Oscar and my first response to that was that the Academy is wisely choosing not to ignore two things: the increasing influence of films like Marvel movies [see the failed attempt to introduce a new “popular film” category] and the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. And maybe that’s true. But it’s also true that Black Panther is genuinely deserving of a best picture nomination.

It’s impossible to assess Academy Awards nominations without the context of politics. No one thinks that the Oscars are an objective assessment of film quality. The powers that be behind the Academy Awards are concerned with getting people to watch the Academy Awards so criticisms are going to have an impact. This impact has taken a dismally long time to sink in, though, and I wonder if Black Panther would have been nominated for best picture if it had come out in 2010 or even 2015.

I doubt it. Not because it’s not worthy of a nomination but because the Academy and its biases would not have thought a superhero movie worthy.

Then again, there have been blips in the Academy’s best picture nominations. A few horror films have been nominated [The Exorcist being the most representative of that genre, but also Silence of the Lambs and Get Out just last year]. The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King while based on a highly respected book in the fantasy literary canon was still a fantasy adventure film which generally goes ignored by the Academy except in the technical categories. So the question is: is the nomination of Black Panther just a blip, or does it represent a larger shift in the thinking of the Academy?

I highly doubt Black Panther will win Best Picture although it’s been a comparatively lackluster year for movies [except for Eighth Grade which, mystifyingly, did not garner any nominations]. And it would certainly be momentous if it did win.

What to make: I like to pay attention to food and drinks that characters consume in the film when thinking of recommendations for this blog. Upon watching this for the second time in preparation to write this piece, I noticed the characters eat literally nothing. The only thing that is consumed is the bright purple drink made from the Heart-Shaped Herb, which gives the power of the Black Panther. So I thought a purple cocktail would be perfect.

It is very hard to make a purple cocktail and even harder still to make one that tastes good. Everything I tried came out more or less the color of watered-down red wine and tasted like all the bad parts of college [or the good parts, depending on your perspective]. The best I can tell you is to get some purple-colored kids’ fruit drink and pour booze in, if you’re so inclined. Bonus points for garnishing with an edible flower. This purple concoction will make everyone say, “Vibrani-yum!”