Dinner with Oscar: Green Book

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Green Book tells the true story of an Italian-American bouncer, Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) who is hired in the early 1960s to be a chauffeur/bodyguard to Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), an African-American concert pianist planning a tour of the deep south.

Almost immediately after the film’s release came the controversies. Moviegoers seemed unable to agree on whether the depictions of race and racism were satisfactory. The family of Don Shirley spoke out against the movie saying, among other things that the assertion that Shirley was isolated from the black community was untrue and that he and Vallelonga were never friends. Then there was the mess with Mortensen using the n-word. He was trying to make a (misguided) point but I really don’t know why he thought that was going to go off well. Ali publicly forgave him but it definitely brought some bad publicity to a film already struggling with publicity issues.

I am of two minds about this film: I thought it was entertaining, mostly carried by the incredible performances of its two stars, and that a lot of the criticisms are on-point: the racism narrative is too clean and made specifically to be easily digestible for white people.

This is a movie that could have easily been very bad. What makes it not bad is, primarily, the charm of Ali and Mortensen. These are A1 actors who could probably make the simplest children’s book compelling. Their on-screen chemistry makes them come across as genuine, complicated men who are also touchingly vulnerable.

This is also the kind of movie that white people love to feel good about. The standard stereotypes are flipped here: it is the white character who is uncultured, whose English is rough, and who enjoys the baser things in life. The black character is sophisticated, has refined tastes, and wants to teach his white counterpart how to behave better. Of course, this creates the opportunity for a lot of comedy (and really, there are a lot of funny parts); it also means white people get to not feel guilty.

We are encouraged to feel enraged as Shirley encounters the ugly racism of the Deep South, where he is frequently barred from inhabiting the same spaces as whites. Vallelonga is bewildered by this racism but he has deeply held racist beliefs himself because most mainstream stories about race involve a white person getting taught by a black person how not to be racist. Green Book is no exception.

Although I enjoyed Green Book what frustrated me the most was the very end, once Shirley and Vallelonga are back in New York after a treacherous drive through the snow to make it back in time for Christmas. As Vallelonga dines with his stereotypically boisterous (and blatantly racist) Italian-American family, he is quiet, clearly feeling sad that his new friend is spending Christmas alone. But then, a lonely Don Shirley shows up at his doorstep with a bottle of wine and after a second or two of awkward silence the family welcomes him with open arms and like a Christmas miracle, their virulent racism is cured.

The message seemed to be that most white people aren’t really bad, they just need someone they trust to be cool with a black person, then they’re not racist anymore. As if it were that easy. It seemed to me too neat a bow to tie on such a messy, ugly subject and an obvious attempt to recenter white people in a good light after showing most white people as bigots throughout the film.

I think Green Book has a decent chance at winning the Oscar because I can imagine the Academy thinking this will show that they are woke. I doubt Mortensen will beat Christian Bale for best actor, but my money is definitely on Ali winning in the best supporting actor category.

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What to make: There’s fried chicken because of course there is. The dish plays a pivotal role in the relationship between the two men when Vallelonga delightedly digs into a bucket of KFC and coaxes Shirley into trying some (after expressing some confusion that he had never tried it because he thinks all black people eat and love fried chicken). Of course, because fried chicken is delicious, Shirley likes it and it’s the first bonding moment between them. The dish is sort of presented as a great equalizer, because, regardless of race, everyone loves fried chicken.

Meat-eaters will probably be happy to see fried chicken at a party (I know I would be) and it can be a great conversation starter about whether this film, written and directed by all white people, does a good job in talking about racism. Especially when they keep bringing up fried chicken.

Dinner with Oscar: Roma

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I knew very little about Roma before watching it. I knew that it was directed by Alfonso Cuarón who has directed many well-respected films and that it is in Spanish, set in Mexico, and also that it is nominated for a best foreign language film Oscar and a best picture Oscar among others (ten total nominations). When I spoke to people who had seen it, their responses were distilled to one adjective: beautiful.

When I don’t know much about a film before I watch it, I often like to keep it that way. It is a rare and delightful thing to be surprised by a movie.

Immediately, I was drawn in by the—to use a clichéd term by now—beauty of the film. I will be incredibly surprised and disappointed if Roma doesn’t win the cinematography Academy Award. Obviously, Cuarón’s films are known for their compelling cinematography but the allure of this one is definitely amplified (it’s also Cuarón’s first cinematography credit since 1990).

The story follows an upper-middle class family in Mexico who is struggling with the abandonment of the husband and father, a researcher/doctor who suddenly finds that he prefers the company of a much younger woman to his wife and four young children. The narrative is primarily viewed from the perspective of Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) the nanny who, over the course of the film, becomes pregnant by her boyfriend and is promptly abandoned by him. There is clearly a theme of men abandoning women with the responsibilities they have helped to create.

Everything about this film is good: the writing, the performances, the directing, the aforementioned cinematography. The setting is gorgeous. Characters are complicated and don’t always behave the way you want them to but they behave realistically.

Some of it is brutally, unexpectedly devastating. I don’t remember the last time a movie made me cry so hard. In most other movies I would crankily call the stillbirth scene a kind of suffering porn, designed specifically to wrench hearts and win nominations. But it doesn’t come across that way in Roma. Because to rest of the movie is realistic and treats its subjects with such tenderness, it’s hard to imagine Cuarón using them for awards fodder.

I really don’t have a bad thing to say about this film. I would like to watch it a few more times because I get the sense that there is a lot I missed that can get picked up in subsequent viewings.

Other foreign films have been nominated for both best picture and best foreign language film but none have won both. Before having watched it I was skeptical at its chances of winning best picture but I now think it has a chance. If there’s any film worthy of winning in both categories, it’s this one.

What to make: I really wanted to recommend pulque, an ancient drink which is made from fermented agave sap. In Roma, a woman encourages Cleo to have a drink and offers her mezcal but Cleo protests that it’s bad for the baby and accepts pulque instead. However, a drunk dancer bumps into her, causing her to drop and break her glass. Pulque is having a bit of a resurgence in Mexico as a quintessentially Mexican drink, as its history predates the arrival of the Spanish. It was once considered the drink of the Aztec gods. Given these weighty associations with the drink, Cleo’s broken glass was probably a bad omen for the future of her unborn child. I

Unfortunately, you really need to drink pulque fresh, or it gets slimy (apparently it’s kind of slimy already—I’ve never had it but after reading so much about it I want to). If you can find good-quality bottled pulque then that would be a great choice, but it’s unlikely. Otherwise, I’d go with mezcal.

Dinner with Oscar: Bohemian Rhapsody

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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

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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!”

Dinner with Oscar: Lady Bird

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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.

I’m not sure what took me so long to watch Lady Bird. I wanted to -- it got great reviews from all the feminists I trust. I loved Saoirse Ronan in Brooklyn. It has a female director. I just never got around to it and by the time I started in earnest on these Oscar nominations, it was no longer in theaters.

But I did manage to watch it and it was the last of the Best Picture nominations I saw. In my ideal world, the two top contenders for the Best Picture award would be the two most compelling and interesting movies of the year: Get Out and Lady Bird. But I don’t need to read Oscars buzz to know that this is not my ideal world.

I generally avoid films about teenage drama because I am a high school teacher and that’s literally part of my job. Where others see a charming, nostalgic walk down memory lane, I usually see the thing that gets in the way of my lesson plans with some regularity. 

But Lady Bird gets it right in a way that most other films don’t. A lot of films focused on teenagers have a subtle air of condescension that the filmmakers may be unaware of in the way that people are unaware of their condescension when they talk to or about teenagers. That’s another reason I avoid movies with teenagers -- the judgy-ness annoys me. There’s nothing like that here. Just complete and total empathy.

And that’s because the characters are authentic. That’s where the whole strength of the story comes from. 

My favorite aspect of the story was the raw and heartbreaking portrayal of a complicated parent/child relationship. Both Lady Bird [Saoirse Ronan] and her mother [Laurie Metcalf] are deeply flawed people who love each other, and who have higher standards for each other than they have for themselves. While they are flawed, they are also both lovable and occasionally affectionate, which is what makes the relationship complicated. The viewer immediately understands why they love each other, and why they sometimes hate each other.

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Lady Bird also manages to juggle multiple stories with just the right amount of overwhelming. Being a teenager is overwhelming, so it’s appropriate that it sometimes feel like too much.

In addition to Best Picture, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf gained well-deserved nominations for Lead Actress and Supporting Actress, respectively. Greta Gerwig is nominated for Director, but she won’t win. I will be very happy if she does, but she won’t. It was also nominated for Original Screenplay but as I’ve said for this entire series, I think Get Out should win that based on creativity alone. If I’m judging screenplays based solely on authenticity, I’d give it to Lady Bird.

What to make: Poultry is the obvious thing here. There’s a Thanksgiving scene so a roasted turkey would work and would feed a crowd! I recommend butterflying it for faster and more even cooking, but if the idea of a turkey in March is too much for you, you can also butterfly and roast a chicken. 

Or, while I haven’t really gone the pun route with my recommendations, you could do Lady [Bird] Fingers for dessert.

Dinner with Oscar: The Post

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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.

I’m calling it now: The Post will win the Best Picture statue at the 2018 Academy Awards.

It’s not my favorite of the 8 films nominated; I've liked Get Out and Phantom Thread the best of the bunch. And I know Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri won the Golden Globe for best picture even though The Post was nominated as well. But I have a strong feeling that the Academy will favor The Post.

It’s the kind of movie the Academy loves. While the Golden Globe sometimes goes to quirkier, funnier, or more action-y movies, the Oscar award tends to favor more serious films with more serious topics. For example, The Revenant won the Golden Globe, but Spotlight won the Oscar; Avatar won the Golden Globe while The King’s Speech won the Oscar. It's not always true but it is true that the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes don’t often overlap with Best Picture (they have only agreed on 3 movies in the past 10 years, and that’s if you count Slumdog Millionaire which one both but in two different years, since the Globes are months before the Oscars). 

There’s the fact of who is voting: individuals working in the production side of the film industry make up The Academy. The Post has the holy trinity never before come together for a picture: Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep, and Tom Hanks. Obviously, those three carry a lot of clout with that crowd.

It’s also just as political as the Academy Awards likes to get -- it’s sort of peripherally political. It’s a story about the press being under attack at a different time in American history that is a fairly obvious comment on our current political/media climate. In addition to that, there’s a focus on women in power in workplaces where they are sometimes disrespected and not taken as seriously as they should be. 

Surprisingly, the only other award nomination The Post garnered was Lead Actress for Meryl Streep. That’s the only point that gives me pause about it winning Best Picture. But I’m standing by it.

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What to make: There are a couple of mentions of food and drink in the movie. The scene in which reporters are frantically poring over the Pentagon Papers, and Hanks’s wife brings in sandwiches. So you could do roast beef with horseradish sandwiches, and turkey with mustard. Easy and party ready! I suggest pairing them with vodka lemonades—or just lemonades, for the kids—as a nod to the little girl with the lemonade stand and the amazing Carrie Coon asking if there is vodka in them.

Or, if you want to be really punny, a vanilla and chocolate cake with red icing. It’s black and white and red all over, get it? Please don’t be mad at me, that was my husband’s idea. I’m so sorry.

Dinner with Oscar: The Shape of Water

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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.

When a movie like The Shape of Water comes around, I feel completely out of touch with the rest of the American, movie-going public. When I hear or read people raving about how much they like it, I wonder if we saw the same movie.

Granted, I began watching this movie pessimistically. I really had no interest in seeing it, but I did because I’d committed to writing about all of the Best Picture Oscar nominees. The truth is, while I haven’t seen many Guillermo del Toro movies, I haven’t liked any of them. I didn’t like Hellboy and I didn’t like Pan’s Labyrinth. I did not see Pacific Rim because I thought it looked really stupid. 

This probably says something more about me than about his movies. But it always seems to me that they are nice to look at but there isn’t much to think about. I am not a visual person, I am a cerebral person. That probably makes me sound like an asshole, but it also makes me find Guillermo del Toro movies really, really boring.

Everyone who has seen The Shape of Water trailer knows exactly what the movie is about. There are no surprises, no narrative twists. I’m not saying a movie has to have a shock ending for me to enjoy it, but there does need to be some layers to the characters, some subtlety. There is nothing like that in this film.

The movie annoyed me in the first few minutes and I have to admit I sort of checked out from there. Here’s what it did that irritated me so: there is a shot of Elisa’s [Sally Hawkins] naked body with her head chopped out of the frame. Has del Toro never read a single article on the male gaze in cinema? Are we still doing that?

What immediately follows is Elisa masterbating within the confines of an egg timer. I get it, he’s trying to show that this woman is not just a mute but she has a rich inner life full of the desires that most everyone has. I’m all for normalizing female pleasure and self-pleasure, but there is a better way to do it. This felt like a cinematic version of the “feminist” bro. You know what I’m talking about.

Furthermore, del Toro commits another sin to women in cinema: he literally takes away her voice. Our main character is a female—great—but she is a female who cannot talk. In a time when women are fighting hard to be listened to, literally, and are finally achieving it, this part of the story struck a particularly sour note with me. Then again, I have been repeatedly accused of being unable to separate my political from my personal. Maybe these are my own hangups and I actually am missing something brilliant. It’s not that she doesn’t communicate throughout the movie. She does. I just don’t understand the goal of making her a mute, except to drum up sympathy for the character which feels very heavy-handed.

The other characters are similarly flat. I love Michael Shannon but his character is the most boring kind of bad guy. We don’t know why he’s such a dick--he just is. Octavia Spencer is a tiresome black sidekick stereotype with her stock phrases of “Mmm-hmm” and “Oh, honey,” not to mention her domestic abuse situation. 

I get that the story is an allegory of love and intolerance. Maybe the problem for me is that I have never loved allegories. I like a story that will look a problem straight in the face and go on with saying its piece. 

Clearly, the Academy did not take my complaints into account because The Shape of Water has the most nominations of any film this year with 13. Best Picture, Lead Actress for Sally Hawkins, Richard Jenkins for supporting actor [he plays Elisa’s gay neighbor], Supporting Actress for Octavia Spencer, Best Director, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Original Score, and Costume Design.

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What to make: Something with hard boiled eggs is obvious here. Deviled eggs or egg salad would work nicely for a party. This next suggestion my husband gets either the credit or blame for, whichever you want to assign: hot dogs cut in half with mustard on them, to symbolize Michael Shannon’s character’s lost fingers.

Dinner with Oscar: Darkest Hour

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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.

I am not the first reviewer to point out how odd it is that two Oscar-nominated films cover the same very specific historical incident: the evacuation of Allied troops from the northern French beach, Dunkirk. While Dunkirk tells the story of the evacuation from the point of view of the military men and civilians sent to save them, Darkest Hour is focused on the political side, especially Winston Churchill’s role. 

The most significant buzz surrounding Darkest Hour is Gary Oldman’s physical disappearance into Winston Churchill. Oldman is nominated for Best Actor, and I will be surprised if he doesn’t win. It’s also nominated for Hair and Makeup and I will be very surprised if it doesn’t win. But while the film tells a compelling story, it is really just a vehicle for Oldman and I don’t think it does much more than that. Which is OK! A movie being a vehicle for a good actor does not make a bad movie, but I did leave the theater feeling like I wanted something more.

It’s very difficult to talk about either Dunkirk or Darkest Hour without making a comparison which is probably a disservice to both of them. But, regardless, here’s why I think Dunkirk is the better movie: it is more unique. We have scores of films about important [old, white] men making important decisions about war and politics. And that’s really all Darkest Hour is about. Sure, we also have plenty of movies about men in the trenches, so to speak, but the three-pronged way Nolan approached the evacuation and the way he truly immerses the audience in the action is remarkable.

I think that Darkest Hour is a good movie and I would watch it again. It has a clear narrative structure and builds tension masterfully. I think it would be very hard to watch this movie and not feel stressed out, which is a good thing. But I also think the best parts feel the most forced. The secretary [Lily James] is clearly a narrative tool to allow the audience to get to know Churchill better, especially his softer and more quirky sides. Narrative tools are fine, but this one wasn’t exactly subtle.

The most memorable scene is when Churchill spontaneously boards a London Underground train after disagreeing with his cabinet members about whether to sign a peace deal with Hitler. Once aboard, he interacts with the people in his car and asks if they think, as British citizens, it would be a good idea to enter peace negotiations with Nazi Germany or if they should fight it out. All of the people: men, women, and adorable little girl say they should fight. This mobilizes Churchill enough to refuse to enter into talks with Hitler, they go through with the original evacuation plan, and commit to fighting Nazis.

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It’s a good scene, but it’s also a touch too precious. The fact is, history is messy. Far messier than can adequately be covered in a film with a reasonable run time so scenes like this serve to make it into something that’s more easily digestible. But it came across as phony to me, however entertaining and touching it also was.

In addition to the nominations already discussed, Darkest Hour is also nominated for Cinematography, Production Design, and Costume Design for a total of six nominations.

What to make: Since Churchill is always smoking a cigar, you can make pastry cigars. Or just have scotch. Even better if you watch this movie in the morning, make yourself a full breakfast, ignore the breakfast and drink only the scotch. And have the pastry cigar.

Dinner with Oscar: Call Me by Your Name

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I had a very visceral reaction to Call Me by Your Name and it wasn’t a good one.

The film is about a relationship between Elio [Timothée Chalamet] and Oliver [Armie Hammer] when Oliver stays with Elio’s family in Italy as a doctoral student and assistant to Elio’s professor father. It is well-written and the performances are fantastic. But I feel unqualified to assess this movie on its cinematic merits.

What I didn’t like about the movie was what a lot of people found uncomfortable about the movie: the age difference between Elio and Oliver. Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24. Granted, if we’re just counting years, that’s not that much. My own husband is 6 years old than me, so I might sound like a hypocrite. However, I did not begin my relationship with my husband when I was 17. 

I watched this movie over a week ago, and have been mulling it over since then. My reaction to this movie comes from two places, one was immediately apparent to me and one was not. The obvious perspective I have that made me dislike this movie is that I am a high school teacher. I have taught hundreds of students of Elio’s age and in my mind, teenagers are students and absolutely off-limits. Teenagers are still children. I spend every work day with 15-18-year olds and am more familiar with teenagers’ psyche than are most adults. If one of my students told me that they were having a relationship with someone in their mid-twenties, I would be very concerned. 

Which brings me to my next point, a thing I generally avoid thinking about and have trouble writing about. When I was 18, a year older than Elio, I had a relationship with someone much older than I. And that relationship was psychologically damaging to me, because of the power imbalance among other things. Watching Call Me by Your Name and having the reaction I did made me realize how predatory that relationship was. That’s obviously my own personal baggage; there are probably people with a similar experience who did not find it harmful. But my negative experience certainly colored the way I viewed the movie. 

This is not a question of sexual harassment or assault. The relationship between Elio and Oliver was not lacking in consent. Elio certainly gave enthusiastic consent -- he was the one who actively pursued Oliver. But I just couldn’t see it as a portrayal of a beautiful relationship the way others are seeing it because to my mind, Oliver should have never let it happen. He should have been a responsible adult, realized that Elio is just a kid with raging hormones, and put a stop to the whole thing.

Maybe this all makes me sound like a prude, but I can’t help it. I found the movie upsetting. 

In addition to its nomination for Best Picture, Timothée Chalamet is nominated for Lead Actor, James Ivory is nominated for Adapted Screenplay, and “Mystery of Love” is nominated for Original Song.

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What to make: Apricots are mentioned throughout the film, as Elio’s family grows them. There is also that scene with the peach. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. So a peach and apricot pie would be suitable. Or, is it going too far to suggest peaches and cream?

Dinner with Oscar: Phantom Thread

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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.

I was excited for Phantom Thread because I love movies that people describe as lush. Period dramas with extravagant costumes and set designs are my favorites, and this is a period drama about costumes and clothes.

People tend to get excited about Paul Thomas Anderson films but I haven’t seen anything from him than Fiona Apple music videos and There Will Be Blood. I’ve been told this is a deficiency I should correct. And after seeing Phantom Thread, I’m inclined to. This movie deftly redirects expectations and plays fast and loose with traditional antagonist/protagonist roles. It’s also a beautiful, highly textured film, filled with shots of beautiful fabrics, clothes, people, and food. 

No review of mine would be complete without a complaint, though. The picture is about a highly creative and talented man, Reynolds Woodcock [Daniel Day-Lewis] who behaves like a tyrant to the people in his life. Yawn. It’s also about an older man who has a young female muse du jour who he keeps and discards at his pleasure. Double fucking yawn. 

However, just because a movie has tropes doesn’t always mean it’s bad, and in this case the power dynamic shifts in unexpected and darkly delightful ways. 

In addition to Best Picture, Daniel Day-Lewis is nominated for Lead Actor, Lesley Manville [who plays Day-Lewis’s sister] is nominated for Supporting Actress, Paul Thomas Anderson got a Best Director nomination. It’s also nominated for Score and Costume Design.

I think it’s among the best of the films nominated, but it’s going up against Three Billboards which won the Golden Globe and The Post. Those two seem to be the films to beat and I don’t think Phantom Thread will do it. 

This movie has garnered extra attention because Daniel Day-Lewis has said this is his last film, and so it wouldn’t be surprising if the Academy awarded him based on that. But he’s also won three Oscars already and I think the statue is going to Gary Oldman this year. 

I don’t think Anderson will win for director this year, but I’d like to see it win for Costume Design. The costumes really are gorgeous.

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What to make: The obvious choice here is a mushroom omelette, but that’s impractical for party purposes. Stuffed mushrooms would be a much more party-ready dish while still winking at a pivotal scene in the movie.

Another choice is asparagus, alluding to the scene in which Woodcock berates Alma for preparing it incorrectly. Make sure to prepare it with oil, so as not to upset any temperamental savants who might be in attendance.

Dinner with Oscar: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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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.

Like Get Out, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is relevant to issues that are a part of the larger conversation today. The film deals with sexual assault and, to a less successful degree, racism.

Mildred [Frances McDormand] has put up the titular billboards because her teenage daughter was sexually assaulted and murdered and she feels the police department has not done enough to apprehend the assailant(s). Her ire is aimed especially sharply at Chief Willoughby [Woody Harrelson] and things get complicated when it becomes known that he has advanced cancer and not much time left.

By and large the town is not on Mildred’s side and she doesn’t help matters by being acerbic and destructive. She continues on with her crusade with full knowledge of Willoughby’s prognosis. 

Sam Rockwell plays Dixon, an officer on the force with a reputation for being violent, racist, and usually both at the same time. This is where the film has attracted some controversy. Critics complain that Dixon is redeemed at the end, and the black characters are largely flat plot-devices: fodder for the more complex white man who in theory sees the error of his ways but does no real work to change his behavior. 

I see the criticism, and the way the film handles race is a Hollywood weakness since time immemorial. It wants to pat itself on the back for addressing the issue of racism, but the way it places white characters at the center of the narrative to the exclusion of black characters defeats its purpose. 

However, I do think it is a good film and it has a fair chance at winning the Best Picture award as it did at the Golden Globes. It is a complex, “messy” film [which was director Martin McDonagh's defense when faced with the criticism discussed above] and the performances are powerful. The thread running through the narrative is that a young girl was violently sexually assaulted and the one main female character feels that the men in power are not taking it seriously. I doubt the story realized how on the nose it would be while in production but it certainly turned out to be, and in a good way.

Three Billboards was nominated for a total of seven awards: Best Picture, Lead Actress for Frances McDormand, Supporting Actor for both Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell, Original Screenplay, Film Editing, and Original Score. I admit that I haven’t yet seen any of the other nominees for Lead Actress but I’m pretty much always rooting for McDormand. Sam Rockwell won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting, but my money is on Harrelson -- for no observable reason, I just like Harrelson better. But as far as direction and screenplay go, I think Get Out has it beat.

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What to make: In honor of Frances burning down the police station with a Molotov Cocktail, a Molotov Cocktail cocktail seems a good direction for those of us who don’t have to work early the next day. There are a few recipes on the Internet, but the most common one calls for vodka with Bacardi 151 floated on top, then lit, then shot. However, I heard that Bacardi 151 has been discontinued, so you can do this if you still have some in your liquor cabinet, or with some other high-proof liquor. 

Or, if you want to be really irreverent and morbid you can make burnt ends, which originate from Kansas City BBQ and also refers to, well -- there’s a lot of fire in this movie. 

Or you can simply make three sandwiches and call them sandwich billboards. 

Dinner with Oscar: Get Out

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At the time of this writing, I have seen four of the nine films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar and I’m ready to say with confidence that Get Out is the most clever of the bunch.

Get Out is a modernized, genre-bending Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner written and directed by Jordan Peele. Chris [Daniel Kaluuya] is nervous about visiting his white girlfriend’s family, especially when Rose [Allison Williams] tells him that she has not told her family that he is black. She assures him that he has nothing to worry about, but, of course, it’s not true. Just not in the way a viewer might initially think.

Peele cleverly uses the horror genre to demonstrate what it’s like to be a black American in a so-called “post-racial” country, where it is no longer socially acceptable to be racist and where white Americans use their support for Obama as a shield against accusations of racism. That it’s not socially acceptable does not mean that racism has disappeared, it just means it has gone underground and is exhibited in a way that is often more sinister and insidious. What looks like a progressive attitude is actually fetishization and, in this case, is taken to its horrifying conclusion. 

I don’t want to spoil the end for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet. When the movie was released last year, I saw the movie spoiled for someone and it wasn’t pretty. So I won’t do it. But if you’re looking for a recommendation then my recommendation is to see it.

Get Out is nominated for three more awards in addition to Best Picture: Best Director and Best Original Screenplay for Peele, and best Lead Actor for Daniel Kaluuya. I highly doubt that Get Out will win the Best Picture statue. In fact, it probably won’t win anything, just like it didn’t win anything at the Golden Globes but I would love to see Peele get the prize for either writing or directing. The story is intricate without seeming so, and the tension is masterfully built to the film’s climax.

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What to make: The scene in which Rose is eating Froot Loops and drinking milk from a straw is representative of the film in that it’s comedy mingled with horror. You could make Rice Krispies Treats but replacing the Rice Krispies with Froot Loops.

Or, if you want to be clever and spoiler-y, go with chocolate cake filled with white cream. Or, fuck it, how about Oreos?

Dinner with Oscar: Dunkirk

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The Oscars: The Super Bowl for cinephiles. I went to a Super Bowl party and paid far more attention to the food and drink than I did to the game. But for the Oscars party I’m attending I will be zoning out all conversation around me and focusing on the speeches, the jokes, the clothes and, of course, the awards.

My husband and I do our best to watch every movie nominated for the Best Picture award before the ceremony. We also attend a party for which attendants bring a dish that is somehow connected to the movie they were randomly assigned. 

At this point, I have seen three of the nominated pictures, so I have five to go. I will be writing short reviews of each film and, as a bonus, suggesting a dish or two to accompany the film. 

First up: Dunkirk

Christopher Nolan is a well-respected director who, before this year, had never been nominated for a Best Director Oscar. He has two Best Original Screenplay nominations for Memento [2000] and Inception [2010] and Inception also garnered a Best Picture nomination but was beat out by The King’s Speech.

Nolan does not direct the kind of movies that get nominated for Academy Awards, but he also directs exactly the kind of movies that get nominated for Academy Awards. His filmography is mostly made up of superhero movies and action movies and, in that way, he’s been a victim of the genre snobbery of the academy. But his movies are also cerebral and creative -- exactly the kind of thing the Academy loves to award. 

So, when he released war drama Dunkirk, whispers of an Oscars nomination started right away. Like the Academy was just waiting for him to release the right kind of movie. It’s silly, but Dunkirk is absolutely deserving of the nomination. 

It is a film about the evacuation of the beaches and harbor of Dunkirk, France during World War II, a topic which is oddly popular this year. Fellow Best Picture nominee and Gary Oldman vehicle, The Darkest Hour is about the same situation from Winston Churchill’s perspective. Dunkirk views the operation from three perspectives: air, land, and sea. 

I saw it in theatres shortly after it was released and thoroughly enjoyed it. My only gripe was that the dialogue was difficult to understand because the background noise of general mayhem was so loud. But that may very well have been intentional: it seems like a Nolan kind of thing to do to imitate via sound the chaos and confusion of a terrifying military evacuation.  

Nolan likes to reuse actors. Tom Hardy and Cillian Murphy, some of his regular players are here with the addition of Mark Rylance in a forceful portrayal of a citizen sailor trying to save as many soldiers as possible. I’m surprised Rylance didn’t garner a best supporting actor nomination.

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Dunkirk is nominated for a total of 8 awards: Picture, Director, Cinematography, Film Editing, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Production Design, and Original Score. If I had to guess, while I think Dunkirk is a very good film, I think it will win only one or both of the sound awards. Of course, I have at this point seen only two of the other nominees so it’s hard for me to say anything with too much confidence at this point. 

Now for the main course, what to make as you celebrate Dunkirk: Brie and jam hand pies, because brie is French, hand pies are British, and jam is both. You can use frozen puff pastry to make this extra easy (and decadent). 

Alternatively, if you want to be a bit cheeky, you can make bangers surrounded by German potato salad.