Friday, March 22, 2024

2024 Oscars: The Winners

Here's the full list of winners of the 2024 Oscars:

Best Supporting Actress: Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers”

Best Animated Short: “War Is Over!”

Best Animated Feature: “The Boy and the Heron”

Best Original Screenplay: “Anatomy of a Fall”

Best Adapted Screenplay: “American Fiction”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: “Poor Things”

Best Production Design: “Poor Things”

Best Costume Design: “Poor Things”

Best International Feature: ”“The Zone of Interest”

Best Supporting Actor: Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer”

Best Visual Effects: “Godzilla Minus One”

Best Film Editing: “Oppenheimer”

Best: Documentary (Short Subject): “The Last Repair Shop”

Best Documentary Feature: “20 Days in Mariupol”

Best Cinematography: “Oppenheimer”

Best Short Film (Live Action): “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar”

Best Sound: “The Zone of Interest”

Best Score: “Oppenheimer”

Best Song: “What Was I Made For?” from “Barbie”

Best Actor: Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer”

Best Director: Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer”

Best Actress: Emma Stone, “Poor Things”

Best Picture: “Oppenheimer”

I did pretty well, correctly predicting 17 of the 23 categories correctly, but 6 of the Top 8 in my "Will Win" predictions and 5 of 8 correct in my "Should Win" hopes. I thought that Lily Gladstone would win Best Actress, and I thought Barbie would win for Adapted Screenplay but I'm quite happy that American Fiction did instead, since that was what I hoped would happen.

I've made no secret of my love for Christopher Nolan movies so it is awesome he finally has Best Picture and  Best Director Oscars! Hopefully next year Denis Villeneuve will get some love for the Dune movies.

Sunday, March 10, 2024

2024 Oscars: My Predictions in the Top 8 Categories

Here is my annual prediction post for the 2023 Oscars, i.e. the 96th Academy Awards. I really just consider the Top 8 categories on the blog but I often play the Oscar prediction game like lots of other people (on other websites) where I think about all of the categories. I generally split my predictions into who I want to win versus (i.e. who I would vote for) as opposed to who I think will win (i.e. who the Academy voters will vote for).

In 2023 I predicted five of the top eight correctly. This year I have seen nine of the (bolded) 10 Best Picture nominees (haven't seen Killers of the Flower Moon and I don't really intend to). Five of the nine we saw on streaming (either Amazon Prime or Netflix).

Best Picture:
  • "American Fiction" 
  • "Anatomy of a Fall" 
  • "Barbie"
  • "The Holdovers"
  • "Killers of the Flower Moon
  • "Maestro"
  • "Oppenheimer"
  • "Past Lives"
  • "Poor Things"
  • "The Zone of Interest"

I have been a Christopher Nolan fan boy since his film Memento broke my brain in the early 2000s. I literally listen to the soundtrack of either Interstellar, Inception or The Dark Knight on every single flight I take. I am very psyched that Oppenheimer led the nominations this year with13 (Poor Things close behind with 11) and very confident this will be his year to win Picture and Director.

SHOULD WIN: Oppenheimer.
WILL WIN: Oppenheimer.

  • Justine Triet (“Anatomy of a Fall”)
  • Martin Scorsese (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) 
  • Christopher Nolan (“Oppenheimer”) 
  • Yorgos Lanthimos (“Poor Things”) 
  • Jonathan Glazer(“The Zone of Interest”)
If this award was for "Most Directing" than Lanthimos would win for Poor Things. But Nolan won the DGA and there is a critial consensus his time has come (he's actually overdue, in my mind!)

SHOULD WIN: Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer.
WILL WIN: Christopher Nolan, Oppenheimer.

Lead Actor:
  • Bradley Cooper(“Maestro”)  
  • Colman Domingo (“Rustin”) 
  • Paul Giamatti (“The Holdovers”)
  • Cillian Murphy (“Oppenheimer”) 
  • Jeffrey Wright (“American Fiction”) 
It is a very rare occasion when there are two Black men in the Best Actor race, and they are both very deserving to be here, albeit at veru different stages of their career. I wish I could say one of them is going to win, but Cillian Murphy is pretty much a lock this year, having won most of the precursor awards that matter (Golden Globe and SAG). That being said, if I had a vote, I would vote for Jeffrey Wright, as  a career appreciation award, with Giamatti a close behind. The performance that I thought was the most amazing was Bradley Cooper's--he completely inhabits the role of Leonard Bernstein and your forget that Cooper is playing the role.

SHOULD WIN: Jeffrey Wright, American Fiction or Bradley Cooper, Maestro.
WILL WIN: Cillian Murphy, Oppenheimer.

Lead Actress:
  • Annette Bening (“Nyad”) 
  • Lily Gladstone (“Killers of the Flower Moon”) 
  • Sandra Hüller (“Anatomy of a Fall”)
  • Carey Mulligan (“Maestro”) 
  • Emma Stone (“Poor Things”)
Only Emma Stone has won an Oscar before and she is the frontrunner for her revelator performance in Poor Things. But does she really belong in the pantheon of Double Best Actress winners like Katharine Hepburn (4), Meryl Streep (2), Jodie Foster (2), Sally Field (2) and Frances McDormand (3)? I have my doubts. This is why I think they Lily Gladstone will win as the first Native American winner, one year after Oscar crowned the first Asian American winner. However, if I was voting, I would give it to Hüller, whom I had never seen before this year and who is absolutely stunning in two European films this year that are noinated for Best Picture: The Zone of Interest and Anatomy of a Fall.
 SHOULD WIN: Sandra Huller, Anatomy of a Fall.
WILL WIN: Lily Gladstone, Killers of the Flower Moon.

Supporting Actor:
  • Sterling K. Brown (“American Fiction”) 
  • Robert DeNiro  (“Killers of he Flower Moon”) 
  • Robert Downey, Jr. (“Oppenheimer”)
  • Ryan Gosling (“Barbie”) 
  • Mark Ruffalo (“Poor Things”) 
Here DeNiro has (of course) won Oscars before, including in this category and been nominated  a total of 9 times. This is Sterling K. Brown's first Oscar nomination but he has won 3 Emmy awards. The frontrunner is Downey, and he is a key reason why Oppenheimer works so well despite its 3-hour running time. Ruffalo is devouring the scenery in Poor Things, and going against his type as an affable guy. But if I was voting I would vote for Gosling's Ken, without which Barbie would not be as effective at all.

SHOULD WIN: Ryan Gosling, Barbie
WILL WIN: Robert Downey, Jr., Oppenheimer.

Supporting Actress:
  • Emily Blunt (“Oppenheimerr”) 
  • Danielle Brooks (“The Color Purple”) 
  • America Ferrera (“Barbie”)
  • Jodie Foster (“Nyad”) 
  • Da'Vine Joy Randolph (“The Holdovers”)
Again, very psyched to see two black actors in the same category! This time one of them is the rontrunner: Randolp has won most of the precursor awards and she is one of the best things about The Holdovers--without her it would have been basically been a TV movie.

SHOULD WIN: Da'Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers.
WILL WIN: Da'Vine Joy Randolph, The Holdovers.

Adapted Screenplay:
  • “American Fiction,” Written for the screen by Cord Jefferson
  • “Barbie,” Written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach
  • “Oppenheimer,” Written for the Screen by Christopher Nolan
  • “Poor Things,” Screenplay byTony McNamara
  • “The Zone of Interest,” Written by Jonathan Glazer 
This is one category Oppenheimer is definitely going to lose, because Nolan is definitely going to win Director and there's no reason to give him THREE Oscars (since he will lamost certainly win Best Picture as well). American Fiction is the standout here, although if Oscar voters may want to make sure that the creative force behind the Billion Dollar Barbie movie gets some recognition, this is their prime opportunity to do so.
SHOULD WIN: American Fiction.
WILL WIN: Barbie.

Original Screenplay:
  • “Anatomy of a Fall,” Screenplay by Justine Triet and Arthur Harari
  • “The Holdovers,” Written by David Hemingson
  • “Maestro,” Written by Bradley Cooper and Josh Singer
  • “May December,” screenplay by Samy Burch; story by Samy Burch and Alex Mechanik
  • “Past Lives,” Written by Celine Song
I love when directors are also screenwiters and in this case Past Lives, Anatomy of a Fall and Maestro fit the bill. I didn't see May December (but intended to, and still do) but in my opinion the strongest of the bunch is Anatomy of a Fall. It looks like it must be based on prior material, but it's a completely original idea--very well-executed by Triet, who becomes one of the few women in Oscar history to be nominated for Directing.
SHOULD WIN: Anatomy of a Fall.
WILL WIN: Anatomy of a Fall.

Thursday, January 25, 2024

BOOK REVIEW: Yellowface by R.F. Kuang

Yellowface is another literary blockbuster success written by R.F. Kuang, the author of the Hugo award-winning speculative fiction masterpiece Babel, or the Necessity of Violence: an Arcane History of the Oxford Translators’ Revolution (See my review) and The Poppy War trilogy. Yellowface won the Goodreads Choice award for Best Fiction in 2023, demonstrating Kuang’s widening appeal and increasing acclaim to the general public even before she has completed graduate school(!)

Yellowface is a story about writing, writers, and the never ending struggle between art and commerce. Kuang is especially skilled at selecting topics for her books that are likely to resonate with a significant segment of the book-reading (and book-buying) public. Babel is focused on the importance and nuance of words; etymological knowledge becomes a source of technological power through the application of fantastical magic. Unsurprisingly, the premise that the meaning and backgrounds of words themselves could be the central aspect of a plot was irresistible to many reader and literary critics alike.

In Yellowface, Kuang goes even further by centering the story around literary ambition itself, another thing that both readers and critics have in common. Many readers, and most (if not all?) critics have harbored secret thoughts of literary success. Another key ingredient of Yellowface is its self-conception as an expose, an insider’s view of the book industry itself. This is, of course, another subject that both readers and critics would find irresistible to consume. Yellowface is about two friends/colleagues/rivals who have a lot of similarities, but whose level of success and career trajectories (when we meet them at the beginning of the book) are very dissimilar. Juniper (June) Song is the primary protagonist  whose first-person perspective we get throughout the novel while Athena Liu is her frenemy (friend/enemy) who seems to effortlessly outshine June in every way that matters. Athena and June are both young authors who have written and published their first books, to wildly different responses from the public. Athena and June attended the same prestigious college, and ran in similar circles since they had similar interests and ambitions (literary success). However, Athena published her first novel while still in college, obtaining a prestigious literary agent and book deal. June also finished her first book in college and got an agent (and far less lucrative) book deal. 

Yellowface’s most important moment happens quite early in the book. While Athena and June are socializing (in Athena’s fabulous apartment in Washington, DC), celebrating Athena’s completion of her latest novel when Athena chokes and dies in a freak accident. (The incident is told from June’s perspective and makes it somewhat ambiguous whether June could have been more active in trying to save her “friend.” What happens next is not in doubt, however. June takes the only existing copy of Athena’s completed manuscript home with her. After a few days she takes it out and starts to edit it and check and augment the historical details included in the book. Athena’s novel was a surprising departure from her previous work; it’s a historical novel, about a little-known incident from World War I involving Chinese laborers. There’s also an interracial love story. Eventually, June decides to submit the work to her usually unenthusiastic agent, passing it off as her own. Of course, everyone loves the book, even though they are somewhat surprised that June could (and would) write something like this. June is white, and Athena is Asian-American, so questions of authenticity become raised almost immediately, internally within June’s literary agency and externally from fellow writers who knew both Athena and June, some who are still reeling over the sudden tragic death of Athena, and are extremely suspicious of June’s bona fides to publish a book about this topic.

However, what happens next is something of a slow-moving horror story. As the book becomes more and more successful, scrutiny about the provenance of the work is also heightened. Kuang skillfully shows how social media and word-of-mouth (i.e. gossip) operate within literary circles, especially in her depictions of the sometimes cozy and somewhat incestuous relationship between authors, critics, publishers, promoters and bookstores.

The ending of Yellowface is somewhat anticlimactic. Unsurprisingly, as the tension of the plot ratchets up higher and higher eventually something breaks, but in a way that is not as compelling as the setup of the story. Overall my impression of the book are generally positive but I definitely would not have voted for it as the best fiction book of 2023. Regardless, it’s clear that Kuang is an author on the rise, and I look forward to reading her future work.

Title: Yellowface.
Author: R.F. Kuang.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 336 pages.
Publisher: William Morrow.
Date Published: May 25, 2023.
Date Read: November 9, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★  (3.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: B+/B (3.16/4.0).


Sunday, December 24, 2023

BOOK REVIEW: Holly by Stephen King

Holly is another entry by Stephen King into the universe in which the Bill Hodges trilogy (Mr. Mercedes, Finders Keepers, End of Watch) was set, although this time Holly Gibney is the primary character. Gibney is also featured  in The Outsider  and one of the four novellas that make up the 2020 collection If It Bleeds.  Even though I am not a fan of the horror genre or supernatural stories in general, I now consider myself a fan of King’s. In the last few years I have read and reviewed Fairy Tale (2023), Billy Summers (2022) and The Institute (2020) I appreciate what an amazing storyteller he is. Even so, I generally restrict myself to his non-supernatural fare, which I enjoy tremendously, and Holly is no exception.

The Bill Hodges trilogy were some of the first books by King that I read, primarily because they are in the mystery/detective/thriller genre. They feature Bill Hodges as a former cop who opens his own private detective agency (called Finders Keepers) and features Holly as his shy but capable assistant who becomes his partner as well as Jerome Robinson, a computer savvy Black teenager who does odd jobs for Bill.  Although Bill was the main character of the series, my favorites were always Jerome and Holly and I hoped that King would return to them in future work, which he has done with the publication of Holly.

Holly is the main character in Holly, which is set in July 2021 smack dab in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Trump era. Holly is mourning the death of her mom (due to COVID after refusing to get vaccinated) when she gets a call at the detective agency from a mother panicked about the disappearance of her adult daughter, Bonnie Dahl, who worked at the library of the local small college in town. Holly, who King himself has described as “obsessive compulsive with a huge inferiority complex,” is very careful about getting COVID and a fair amount of her internal monologue is about masking and her interactions with folks around her and their thoughts about COVID and Trump. This makes Holly a “political book” in the sense that  King (through Holly as his avatar) makes his thoughts about his views on these topics very clear. (Since I share these views I didn't find this aspect distracting or problematic.)

Some reviewers of  Holly question King’s choice to begin a detective mystery novel by revealing that the culprits are a pair of murderous, cannibalistic, septuagenarian professors, Rodney and Ellen Harris, who select their victims from the itinerant human flotsam available to them in the wake of a small town dominated by a prestigious college. But the detective story where the reader knows who did it from the beginning and the suspense is sourced in how and when (not really whether) the protagonist will figure it out (and stop the criminal before they crime again) is a tried and true trope of the genre. (Val McDermid is a Master at this form.) Here, I think this story structure works quite well, and especially when the reader gets first-person perspective from more than one character who is caught in the devilish flytrap of the Professors Harris.

An interesting feature of Holly is that it features not one but two subplots about young writers who are both experiencing their first successful encounters with the publishing industry. King often writes about writers in his books and his enthusiasm for this aspect of the story was palpable.

A surprising feature of Holly is that it features absolutely no supernatural phenomena. The Harrises have a reason for why they are periodically enticing, trapping, and culling people and it is because they believe that eating the human flesh of people significantly younger than they are will improve their health. For a significant fraction of the book King makes it appear as if they may be right, since they do appear to be experiencing  some relief, perhaps supernatural in nature, from their multiple health ailments not unfamiliar to people as old as the Harrises (mind-numbingly painful sciatica for her, and the numbing of the mind of dementia for him). But in the end King (again via his avatar Holly) points out that the bad guys’ evil, false beliefs are trumped [sic] by science: they were experiencing the placebo effect, completely dismantling any imagined rationale they could have posited to justify their murderous actions of killing and eating their neighbors. To me it is clear that King is trying to demonstrate that fact-based reality can be used to explain that people who do awful things (like deny the reality of COVID and the effectiveness of vaccines or vote for Trump or kill and eat fellow humans) are really doing it because they are awful people, despite what they tell themselves the reasons for doing these things are.

Title: Holly
Author: Stephen King.
Format: Kindle.
Length: 464 pages.
Publisher: Scribner.
Date Published: September 5, 2023.
Date Read: December 10, 2023.

GOODREADS RATING: ★★★★  (5.0/5.0).

OVERALL GRADE: A/A- (3.83/4.0).



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