Tuesday, March 5, 2024

‘Tótem’ celebrates life in the face of death

“Tótem” (2023). Cast: Naíma Sentíes, Iazua Amador, Montserrat Marañon, Saori Gurza, Marisol Gasé, Mateo García Elizondo, Teresita Sánchez, Marisela Villarreal, Alberto Amador, Juan Francisco Maldonado. Director: Lila Avilés. Screenplay: Lila Avilés. Web site. Trailer.

It’s never easy to face difficult situations, especially when they’re impending and it seems as though they’re inevitable, circumstances in which there’s nothing we can do about them. Indeed, it’s hard enough for us as adults to process and cope with such conditions, but how are children supposed to handle these kinds of situations? Youngsters seldom possess the experience and wisdom needed to deal with their feelings, leaving them unable to address their emotions and outlooks and to find ways to get by. These events can lead to devastating if not irreparable damage that can scar them for life. But are there ways of handling such scenarios that minimize the impact? Those are the issues beautifully and sensitively examined in the touching new Mexican comedy-drama, “Tótem.”

Nine-year-old Sol (Naíma Sentíes) should be spending the carefree days of youth enjoying life and having fun. But that’s not easy, or at times even possible, given that her young father, Tona (Mateo García Elizondo), a gifted painter, is struggling with a debilitating form of cancer, a condition that’s been getting worse and appears to be heading into its final stages. Sol has difficulty understanding how someone so young has become so weak and frail. She believes that someone his age, with so much talent and potential, should be vibrant and vital, so her dad’s illness truly mystifies her. What’s more, she’s having trouble processing the idea that he’s reluctant to see her. She’s confused, convinced that she’s done something wrong or that he doesn’t like her, when, in fact, his reluctance stems from the fact that he’s uncomfortable with his daughter seeing him in such a depleted state. Sol thus struggles to cope with both Tona’s failing health and his ongoing unexplained absence from her life.

Sol is not the only one having difficulty dealing with these circumstances. Tona’s sisters, Nuria (Montserrat Marañon) and Aléjandra (Marisol Gasé), provide for the daily needs of their brother with the aid of a professional caregiver, Cruz (Teresita Sánchez). Together, they make sure Tona has a roof over his head and vigilantly attend to his well-being. But, given that they’re so close to the situation, they witness the heartbreak of Tona’s decline firsthand, making for trying circumstances and prompting them to look for ways to cope. Then there’s Lucia (Iazua Amador), Sol’s mother, who has the dual responsibility of attempting to assist in the management of both Tona’s physical state and their daughter’s emotional health. The four women do their best to meet these challenges, but, after all, they’re only human. They thus each struggle to come up with their own means of addressing this difficult situation, some of which create additional issues of their own.

Of course, when trying to lift someone’s spirits, it doesn’t help to let one’s own feelings of despair become apparent, in this case for both Tona and Sol. So, to counter the prevailing sense of gloom, the family decides to throw a birthday party for Tona. He’s not particularly keen on the idea, given his worsening health and his dread of loved ones seeing how far he has slid. But his relatives insist on holding the party, whether or not he chooses to make an appearance. The event is intended not only to acknowledge that he has made it to yet another birthday, but also to provide an opportunity for his family and friends to show him how much he means to them, a celebration of life – and, everyone hopes, a meaningful one at that. After all, this could well be the last chance for something like this to take place.

Cancer victim Tona (Mateo García Elizondo, left) shares a rare tender moment with his scared young daughter, Sol (Naíma Sentíes, right), in the sensitive, touching new Mexican comedy-drama, “Tótem.” Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

But efforts aimed at promoting Tona’s well-being involve more than just throwing him a party. For instance, Uncle Napo (Juan Francisco Maldonado) spends considerable time looking into various treatment options. Likewise, Aléjandra is willing to try implementing alternative approaches, including practices based on native Mexican spiritual beliefs, such as having the house smudged with sage by a colorful shamanic practitioner, Lúdica (Marisela Villarreal), and conducting meditative prayer circle sessions with the entire family.

And, through all this, everyone pitches in to help Sol cope with everything that’s going on around her. She’s experiencing a wide range of emotions, from sorrow to confusion to anger, and she’s having difficulty understanding how to express them under the circumstances. But it often seems that things are so big that they’re more than she can handle.

In some ways, this would appear to be a no-win situation all the way around. But is giving up a truly viable option? There must be a way to evoke some good out of circumstances like these, but how can it be achieved? The starting point for an undertaking like this begins with our beliefs, for these powerful tools shape what emerges in our existence. This is the product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains our thoughts, beliefs and intents are responsible for the manifestation of our reality. It’s unclear how many of us are aware of or seek to implement this school of thought. However, given the breadth of possible beliefs, this thinking provides us with the means to materialize a virtually infinite range of options, including finding ways to draw the good out of seemingly otherwise-dire conditions. Or, in this case, helping to provide love, meaning and support to a dying man and a scared little girl at a critical time in the unfolding of their lives.

Using our beliefs to attain these results, however, requires an important first step – thinking outside the box, letting go of limitations to envision possibilities that may not have been conceived of before. And, admittedly, under circumstances like these, that could be challenging, as these kinds of conditions could be extremely distracting, keeping us from letting our consciousness flow freely to devise imaginative and effective solutions. Nevertheless, should we be able to surpass such barriers, we can thus allow ourselves to come up with a host of unimagined options.

As noted above, that’s especially crucial where both Sol and Tona are concerned. They need relief from the oppressive conditions weighing on them. And, in Sol’s case, it’s also essential for providing clarity in her thinking. Her worries have obviously gotten in the way of enabling her to see things clearly, planting errant beliefs in her mind that, unfortunately, have a way of clouding her judgment and putting elements into place in her existence that are both off-base and don’t serve her well-being.

It’s difficult for a frightened young girl, Sol (Naíma Sentíes), to enjoy the festivities of a birthday party when faced with the prospect of losing her dad, as seen in the latest offering from writer-director Lila Avilés, “Tótem.” Photo courtesy of Janus Films.

This is also true, to a certain extent, where other family members are concerned. Consider Nuria’s case, for example. She’s distraught over her brother’s condition, and that distraction is getting in the way of her carrying out seemingly simple tasks, like baking a birthday cake. It doesn’t help that these beliefs have also prompted her to engage in excessive drinking, a behavior that has contributed to the foregoing anxiety and the beliefs that feed into it, as well as creating new problems of their own.

Similarly, there’s the quiet despair of Roberto (Alberto Amador), Tona’s aging father, who has himself experienced his share of health-related issues. He feels helpless to assist in his son’s care, given his own well-being challenges, and dreads the thought of outliving one of his children. Such beliefs evoke occasional emotional outbursts, his anger at the circumstances getting the better of him.

This is where the value of inventive solutions comes into play. Not only do they have the potential to make things better, but they have the power to help relieve the stress on those closest to Tona and Sol. Aléjandra’s hiring of the “house cleaner,” for instance, is an attempt at employing something alternative to help create a more soothing (and possibly healing) environment for Tona. And, even if it doesn’t work, it beats doing nothing and letting the prevailing conditions take over unfettered.

And then, of course, there are the festivities themselves, which are the central focus of the film’s story. The family truly wants to make the celebration fun and special for Tona and Sol, given that there may not be any more after this one. They arrange an extensive, diverse joyful event for the guest of honor, one that’s somewhat challenging to pull off in light of the expense involved. So much of the household income goes to paying for Tona’s medical bills and caregiving that it makes things financially tight for throwing a big party. But the family believes it’s worth it, both as a celebration of Tona’s birthday and as a celebration of his life. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting and more uplifting tribute to someone facing death.

As hard as it may be to imagine, there’s a great deal of fun going on here, both for the characters and viewers alike (especially during the smudging sequence). It’s somewhat surprising to see how much comic relief has been incorporated into this picture’s narrative. But it serves a useful purpose, showing the characters how it’s possible to stay upbeat under conditions like these. It also gives the audience some much-needed breathing room during the course of what can sometimes be a difficult, tearful watch. To that end, it lends considerable credence to the idea that “laughter is the best medicine.” It may not provide a cure, but it can certainly offer relief at a time when it’s needed most. That’s food for thought for any of us facing situations like this.

Nuria (Montserrat Marañon), sister of a dying man, struggles with his impending fate by imbibing in excessive drinking as a coping mechanism, as seen in the touching new Mexican comedy-drama, “Tótem.” Photo courtesy of Limerencia Films.

The everyday lives of average individuals ordinarily might not make for especially engaging storytelling. However, when they’re framed within the context of extraordinary circumstances, they take on an added new dimension, as witnessed in this second offering from Mexican writer-director Lila Avilés. This warm, heartfelt, bittersweet comedy-drama tells a simple yet endearing story of a family preparing a birthday celebration under trying conditions, often involving comparatively mundane tasks with delightfully funny twists and sublimely heartfelt moments as we witness the various means with which the celebrant’s relatives are dealing (or not dealing) with what lies ahead. Yet what might seem destined to be an exercise in forced festivities with an underlying sense of morbidity turns out to be a loving, earnest celebration of life, despite the undeniable presence of an unwanted, intangible “guest” lingering in the background. While the film incorporates a few sequences that are inherently a little too incidental in nature compared to the larger overall narrative, “Tótem” nevertheless serves up a charming, touching, authentically presented tale that reaches out to audiences and surrounds them with sincere, loving feelings and a big, well-earned hug.

This National Board of Review winner and Independent Spirit Award nominee is a fine, little-known indie gem that will surely move you, even if it leaves you with uncomfortably mixed feelings as its story unfolds. It effectively illustrates that there indeed can be times of boundless, overwhelming joy even in the face of overwhelming lament but that what ultimately matters most is what we make of these circumstances when they play out, especially when it comes to expressing how we feel for those whom we truly care about most. The film has been playing in limited arthouse theater release and is likely to be available for streaming in the near future.

As much as we might want to try to deny it, death eventually comes to us all (and often seemingly too soon). This is why we need to make the most of our lives while we have the chance, both for ourselves and others. And, even when the end approaches, we still have an opportunity to make our existence fulfilling beyond measure, celebrating our being for all its worth and what it has meant both to ourselves and those we care about. Even if we’re facing the prospect of blowing out our candles for the final time, that doesn’t mean it’s not something to be commemorated with joy, gusto and a hearty salute. May all of our days be so festive and meaningful, right up until the very last one.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 4, 2024

Who Will Win the 2024 Oscars?

It’s that time of year again – time for my predictions of the winners at the upcoming annual Academy Awards. For me, this is a labor of love, especially since there were some excellent releases in 2023 that are very deserving of the accolades they have received, either as Oscar nominees and/or as nominees or winners in the major competitions leading up to this event. And so, with these contests now in the books, that leaves just the main event for the season’s biggest winners to be announced.

Many of the prospective victors in the top six categories – actor, actress, supporting actor, supporting actress, director and picture – have come into view, though a few are still potentially up for grabs. So, with that said and for what it’s worth, here are my picks for who will take home statues on Oscar night.

Best Actor

The Field:  Bradley Cooper, “Maestro”; Colman Domingo, “Rustin”; Paul Giamatti, “The Holdovers”; Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer”; Jeffrey Wright, “American Fiction”

Who Will Likely Win:  This is essentially a two-horse race between Cillian Murphy for “Oppenheimer” and Paul Giamatti for “The Holdovers,” with Murphy currently holding the edge. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a lock, but this result comes about as close to that as one can get. Murphy has won many of the major prizes in this year’s awards season contests, including top honors in the Golden Globe, BAFTA and Screen Actors Guild Award competitions. Giamatti, meanwhile, has taken home statues in the National Board of Review, Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award programs. However, Murphy has bested his chief rival in head-to-head contests, and that track record, combined with the overall juggernaut momentum behind “Oppenheimer” with its 13 overall nominations, are likely to sway in Murphy’s favor on awards night. Admittedly, there has been considerable campaigning behind Giamatti’s candidacy, and some prognosticators are expecting an upset. Personally, however, I don’t sense enough support to score him the win. In large part, this seems to be due to the fact that his role as persnickety boarding school instructor Paul Hunham isn’t all that different from many of his previous screen roles and doesn’t represent a project in which he has been able to stretch his capabilities. That sets Murphy apart, who has shown acting chops here that we haven’t seen from him in earlier roles, a quality that often wins over Academy voters in close races. That could well be the deciding factor in bringing home the prize for Murphy’s performance in the film’s title role.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer.” Murphy truly is the class of this field, and he’s earned this award, not only for this portrayal, but for years of solid, journeyman work as an actor. Should he win, it will be a well-deserved honor.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Cillian Murphy, “Oppenheimer.” Murphy has been front and center in this category even before the film was released. He’s the year’s best lead actor and deserves the win.

Possible Dark Horses:  Paul Giamatti, “The Holdovers,” and Jeffrey Wright, “American Fiction.” It’s somewhat misleading to call Giamatti a dark horse, given the place he currently holds in this field, but he nevertheless appears to be the most likely candidate to pull off an upset. Meanwhile, Jeffrey Wright can’t be totally ruled out at this point either, particularly in light of his victory for best lead performance at the Independent Spirit Awards. However, at this point, Wright seems to be an even longer shot than Giamatti, although, to his credit, this nomination has put the actor on the radar for future awards competitions, having finally broken through the barriers that have held him back over the years, despite the many fine performances that he has delivered in a wide range of pictures. Wright should consider his nomination as his award, one that could well represent a significant down payment toward future victories.

Also-Rans:  Bradley Cooper, “Maestro,” and Colman Domingo, “Rustin.” Like Wright and Giamatti, these nominees should consider their nominations their awards. That’s particularly true where Domingo is concerned, who, like Wright, has finally been recognized for his efforts and has likely placed himself on the radar for future awards consideration. As for Cooper, please see below.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Bradley Cooper, “Maestro.” To be perfectly honest, Cooper has no business being a nominee in this category. His hammy overacting and mugging for the camera alone should have gotten him ruled out. There were other contenders more deserving of an Oscar nod here (see below).

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:   Leonardo DiCaprio, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and Nicolas Cage, “Dream Scenario.” Both of these performances were worthy candidates for nominations and could have easily replaced the undeserved slot occupied by Cooper. Cage turned in one of his finest portrayals in years in this wickedly funny satirical dark comedy, and DiCaprio was very effective as a dimwitted stooge taken in by slick 20th Century con men. Either of them would have made fine substitutes.

Snubs:  Andrew Scott, “All of Us Strangers.” As much as I enjoyed the performances by DiCaprio and Cage, however, I truly would like to have seen Scott earn a nomination for his stellar portrayal in this surreal, deeply affecting romantic drama, a picture that, sadly, was completely shut out for Oscar nods despite having received recognition in virtually all of the season’s other awards competitions. Scott’s exclusion is truly a snub in every sense of the word. He should have been in the running.

Best Actress

The Field:  Annette Bening, “Nyad”; Lily Gladstone, “Killers of the Flower Moon”; Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”); Carey Mulligan, “Maestro”; Emma Stone, “Poor Things”

Who Will Likely Win:  As with the best actor category, this one is also a two-horse race between Emma Stone for “Poor Things,” and Lily Gladstone for “Killers of the Flower Moon.” But, unlike the actor’s race, this one is tighter, and, at this point, it’s a virtual toss-up, with each nominee’s prospects being just about even. While Stone dominated the early awards season contests with wins at the Golden Globe, Critics Choice and BAFTA Awards, Gladstone appears to have been making up ground with her high-profile win in the Screen Actors Guild competition, often a barometer of what occurs at the Oscars. Gladstone has also received recognition from the National Board of Review and the Golden Globes, a combination of honors that has helped to level the playing field in this category. The actresses each have elements working in their favor (and potentially against them) that could contribute to victories (or losses) on Oscar night. Stone’s performance is easily the best of her career, showing a range we haven’t seen from her, even in some of her previous impressive work. However, Stone received an Oscar not long ago for her performance in “La La Land” (2016), and such a recent win could work against her if voters want to spread around the slate of victors a little more evenly. Gladstone, meanwhile, also delivers a solid performance, and her nomination represents a milestone event as the first Native American woman to receive an Oscar bid, a quality that could work to her advantage in an increasingly politically correct Hollywood. But, as good as her performance is, it faces stiff competition from a chief competitor with a better known track record and wider name recognition. So who will take home the statue? At this point, it’s too close to call, a prediction I’m reluctant to make (and have never done so before in all of the years of writing these blogs). In light of that, my “prediction” for this category comes down to who I believe should win, despite the fact that there’s no guarantee behind that call (see below).

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Emma Stone, “Poor Things.” As much as I enjoyed Gladstone’s portrayal, I believe the edge belongs to Stone for her wildly wacky, inventive and wide-ranging portrayal. The role demands more from its performer than that of the character Gladstone portrayed, and it’s on that basis – simplistic though it may sound – that prompts me to give the edge to Stone as the more deserving nominee. Whether that turns into a win, however, remains to be seen.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Emma Stone, “Poor Things.” Bella Baxter is handily one of the most distinctive female characters to have graced the screen in years, requiring much from the actress portraying her, and Emma Stone truly delivers the goods in her performance. To me, she’s the class of the field and of the universe of potential nominees. She deserves to take home the top prize on Oscar night.

Possible Dark Horse:  Carey Mulligan, “Maestro.” As with Jeffrey Wright in the actor category, Mulligan is a very long shot to win the Oscar, though it certainly wouldn’t be unwelcome if it were to come to pass. To be honest, Mulligan’s performance is easily the best thing this film has going for it, and it’s unfortunate that the actress didn’t have better material to work with in carrying out her portrayal. Both the actress and the character she played deserved better from this production, and the deficiencies in the film’s narrative and screenplay may be responsible for diluting Mulligan’s chances of a victory here. This is Mulligan’s third Oscar nomination, and she’s likely to be passed over again, having to wait for yet another future role that will finally bring her that elusive award.

Also-Rans:  Annette Bening, “Nyad,” and Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”). These actresses should consider their nominations their awards. Despite having earned five Oscar nods and delivering yet another stellar performance as marathon open water swimmer Diana Nyad, it unfortunately looks as though Bening will be passed over yet again for a portrayal that, in almost any other year, might have been strong enough to garner a win. As for Hüller, she has a lot working against her. This previously little-known German actress stars in a French arthouse film, the kind of boutique picture that can be a hard sell to Academy voters, qualities that could well work against her candidacy. What’s more, Hüller likely would have stood a better chance at taking home an award if she had received a nomination for her supporting role in “The Zone of Interest,” a far superior portrayal that earned her a well-deserved BAFTA Award nomination. It’s not unusual for the Oscars to nominate the right actress for the wrong film, as has happened here. However, this bid has put Hüller on the radar for future consideration, a development that could pay dividends down the road.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Sandra Hüller, “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”). As noted above, given the strength of her supporting performance in “The Zone of Interest,” Hüller and the Oscars would have been better served with a nomination in that category. Such a change would have opened up a slot in the lead actress race for someone more deserving and would have provided Hüller with better prospects for her own chances elsewhere.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  Jessica Chastain, “Memory”; Jennifer Lawrence, “No Hard Feelings”; Natalie Portman, “May/December”; Julia Louis-Dreyfus, “You Hurt My Feelings”; Charlotte Rampling, “Juniper”; and Fantasia Barrino, “The Color Purple.” While none of these actresses delivered portrayals capable of winning in this category, they were all certainly noteworthy enough to earn a nomination should a slot have opened up with Hüller’s reassignment to the supporting competition. It’s regrettable that their chances were passed over.

Snubs:  Margot Robbie, “Barbie.” While I have to question the merits of including Robbie as a nominee in this category, I nevertheless recognize that many viewers found her exclusion to be a definite (and inexcusable) snub. Personally, I didn’t think her performance was strong enough for such an honor this time out, but I understand (and can’t rightfully ignore) why so many moviegoers saw this development in this light.

Best Supporting Actor

The Field:  Sterling K. Brown, “American Fiction”; Robert De Niro, “Killers of the Flower Moon”; Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer”; Ryan Gosling, “Barbie”; Mark Ruffalo, “Poor Things”

Who Will Likely Win:  Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer.” This is Downey’s award to lose, as he has a virtual lock on it. Except for National Board of Review honors, he has swept everything else throughout this year’s awards season competitions. If anyone else’s name is called on Oscar night, I’ll be shocked.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer.” The many accolades Downey has earned are certainly well deserved. He demonstrated acting capabilities here that I don’t believe anyone knew he possessed. He truly is the class of this year’s field, especially given the relative strength of the category’s nominees.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Robert Downey Jr., “Oppenheimer.” Again, Downey has proven himself in this performance, and that’s not an easy feat in light of the many fine supporting actor portrayals that appeared in 2023’s releases. This really is a case of the right actor winning for the right role.

Possible Dark Horses:  Robert De Niro, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” and Mark Ruffalo, “Poor Things.” In any other year, DeNiro and Ruffalo would both make very deserving winners, but, given the strength of Downey’s portrayal, they probably don’t stand a chance, no matter how remote. DeNiro gives one of his best performances in years, and Ruffalo is the only actor to have bested Downey with his receipt of the National Board of Review’s award in this category. But, that aside, these two are still long shots and likely to remain that way.

Also-Rans:  Sterling K. Brown, “American Fiction,” and Ryan Gosling, “Barbie.” Brown and Gosling should be grateful for their nominations, questionable as they are (see below).

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Sterling K. Brown, “American Fiction,” and Ryan Gosling, “Barbie.” In my opinion, these two nominations were careless throwaways. Brown’s portrayal was adequate, but award-worthy? (I have to wonder what the Academy was thinking.) Likewise, Gosling’s cloying portrayal of an implausible character was annoying (and how he succeeded in capturing a nomination when many of his more qualified peers failed to do so is utterly baffling). In a category where there are only five available slots, the Academy can’t afford to waste them on substandard prospects.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:   Matt Damon, “Oppenheimer”; Jeffrey Wright, “Rustin”; Aml Ameen, “Rustin”; Glynn Turman, “Rustin”; Michael Cera, “Dream Scenario”; Nicolas Cage, “Renfield”; Glenn Howerton, “BlackBerry”; and Jacob Elordi, “Priscilla.” Any of these performances would have been acceptable as replacements for the misguided nods granted to Brown and Gosling. It’s too bad they weren’t recognized as such.

Snubs:  Willem Dafoe, “Poor Things.” Having earned nominations in the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award contests, Dafoe should have been a shoo-in for an Oscar nod. His exclusion represents a blatant snub. Like Downey, DeNiro and Ruffalo, he should have been in the running.

Best Supporting Actress

The Field:  Emily Blunt, “Oppenheimer”; Danielle Brooks, “The Color Purple”; America Ferrera, “Barbie”; Jodie Foster, “Nyad”; Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers”

Who Will Likely Win:  Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers.” This is Randolph’s award to lose, as she has a virtual lock on it. If anyone else’s name is called on Oscar night, I’ll be shocked.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers.” The many accolades Randolph has earned thus far are certainly well deserved. She truly is the class of this year’s field, especially given the strength of the category’s nominees.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Da’Vine Joy Randolph, “The Holdovers.” From the moment I saw this film, I knew that Randolph was someone special. While I was unfamiliar with her and her work, she instantly stood out in this role, clearly the best thing about this picture. It’s been so gratifying to see her capture honor after honor throughout the 2023 awards season, accolades that are richly deserved and stand out above all other potential candidates in this category.

Possible Dark Horses:  Jodie Foster, “Nyad,” and America Ferrera, “Barbie.” Having turned in one of her best performances in years, Foster might easily have captured her third Oscar were it not for the frontrunner. And Ferrera, winner of this year’s Critics Choice SeeHer Award, made a huge splash with her now-famous monologue about female empowerment in “Barbie,” significantly raising her profile in the film industry. However, both face an uphill battle to surpass Randolph, so they remain long shots at best, despite the quality of their work. This is another case of their nominations being their awards.

Also-RansAnyone who isn’t Da’Vine Joy Randolph. The frontrunner’s competitors, unfortunately, won’t be able to overtake her.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Emily Blunt, “Oppenheimer.” I’m somewhat surprised about the amount of attention that has been given to Blunt’s performance. She’s a fine actress, and she’s certainly capable here. But award-worthy? I can’t say I see the rationale behind this selection. It could be that she got swept up in the “Oppenheimer” momentum, even if her performance didn’t quite measure up to the same level of quality of the work in the other categories in which the film received nominations. If anything, I would have much rather seen a nomination bestowed on the performance of Florence Pugh from the same film instead (see below).

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  Florence Pugh, “Oppenheimer”; Leslie Uggams, “American Fiction”; CCH Pounder, “Rustin”; Gloria Münchmeyer, El Conde” (“The Count”); Stella Gonet, El Conde” (“The Count”); Rhea Perlman, “Barbie”; Teyonah Parris, “They Cloned Tyrone”; Laurie Metcalf, “Somewhere in Queens”; and Sherry Cola, “Shortcomings.” Pugh’s case is made above. As for the others listed here, any of them would have made fine additions to this field in place of Blunt. Granted, some of them may have flown below the radar, but that doesn’t diminish their worthiness, and I would have loved to have seen them recognized.

Snubs:  Claire Foy, “All of Us Strangers.” The lack of recognition given to this performance throughout awards season genuinely mystifies me. Except for a BAFTA Award nomination, Foy was completely overlooked for this outstanding supporting performance, and I’m at a loss to understand why. It seems that there’s always one acting portrayal that inexplicably stays below the radar each year, and Foy’s role, regrettably, was the one to do that for 2023.

Best Director

The Field:  Justine Triet, “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”); Martin Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon”; Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer”; Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things”; Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest”

Who Will Likely Win:  Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer.” While there are many fine directorial efforts in this category, Nolan truly is the class of the field and is long overdue for this recognition. And, given his track record of wins leading up to the Oscars, I don’t see this changing on awards night. This is a virtual lock at this point.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer.” See above.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Christopher Nolan, “Oppenheimer.” Even though there were some other fine directorial efforts that weren’t nominated, I don’t think there’s anyone who can beat Nolan’s work this year, no matter how commendable their films were. This has been a virtual slam dunk for Nolan ever since this offering was released.

Possible Dark Horses:  Martin Scorsese, “Killers of the Flower Moon”; Yorgos Lanthimos, “Poor Things”; and Jonathan Glazer, “The Zone of Interest.” In theory, any of these filmmakers could pull an upset for their fine movies, but I certainly wouldn’t bet on it. If Nolan weren’t in this category, this would be a much tighter race, and, conceivably, any of these three could have been squarely in the running. Not this time, though.

Also-Rans:  Justine Triet, “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”). She should consider her nomination her award. Foreign pictures seldom receive much recognition outside of the best international film category, and, among directors in particular, only Bong Joon-Ho comes to mind as a victor for his work on “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”) (2019). I don’t expect that to change here this year.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Justine Triet, “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”). In my view, this was one of the most overhyped releases of 2023, and much of its praise is, frankly, undeserved. I find it hard to fathom how the filmmaker ended up as a nominee in this category. There were others more deserving who should have been recognized here.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  Kore-eda Hirokazu, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”); Nicole Holofcener, “You Hurt My Feelings”; and Pablo Larraín, El Conde” (“The Count”). All three of these filmmakers could have (and should have) replaced Triet for her ill-considered nomination. The fact that their films didn’t receive much attention probably worked against them, which is unfortunate in light of the quality of each offering. That’s especially true of Kore-eda; how his picture managed to fly so low beneath the awards season radar truly baffles me.

Snubs:  Andrew Haigh, “All of Us Strangers,” and Greta Gerwig, “Barbie.” While Andrew Haigh’s exclusion was a definite snub in my book, I was neither upset (nor surprised) by the same for Greta Gerwig, despite the widespread criticism for being left out. The snubbing of Haigh’s superb film for any Oscar consideration was criminal in my view, but especially in the directors’ category. As for Gerwig, her film and her work on it were vastly overblown, and her exclusion for directorial consideration was a good call. While the picture may have excelled at the box office, it has underperformed during awards season, and that comes as no surprise to me. It helps to restore my faith in the notion that it’s indeed possible to spot the emperor when he’s naked, as is very much the case where “Barbie” and Gerwig are concerned.

Best Picture

The Field:  “American Fiction,” “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”), “Barbie,” “The Holdovers,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Maestro,” “Oppenheimer,” “Past Lives,” “Poor Things,” “The Zone of Interest”

What Will Likely Win:  “Oppenheimer.” Given the number of projected wins for this film, as well as in other categories not discussed in this blog, it’s hard to see anything stopping the momentum behind this release and preventing it from taking the top prize on Oscar night.

What Should Win (Based on the Nominees): “Oppenheimer.” This was the best picture of 2023 and deserves to win – hands down.

What Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  “Oppenheimer.” See above.

Possible Dark Horses:  “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Poor Things,” “The Zone of Interest” and “The Holdovers.” Unlikely though the prospects are, these four films could conceivably pull an upset. In the case of the first three, it’s primarily due to the quality of the pictures, all of which are quite commendable, though I don’t believe they have enough gas in the tank to put them over the top. As for “The Holdovers,” there has been an aggressive marketing campaign to secure a win, but I think that’s money being wasted on a lost cause. To begin with, the film just isn’t of the same quality as “Oppenheimer” and the other three contenders. And, second, this offering did not earn a best director nomination, a qualification that’s a virtual prerequisite for any film hoping to be named best picture. While “The Holdovers” was modestly entertaining and featured the superb performance of Da’Vine Joy Randolph, this was not one of director Alexander Payne’s better efforts, and that’s apparent by his exclusion from the directors’ category, both here and in many other competitions. That’s why it’s ironic that this release is simultaneously a dark horse and an also-ran. Either way, don’t expect it (or any of the other three dark horses) to take home any hardware on Oscar night.

Also-Rans:  Anything that isn’t “Oppenheimer,” “Killers of the Flower Moon,” “Poor Things” or “The Zone of Interest.”

What Should Have Been Left Out:  “American Fiction,” “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”), “Barbie,” “The Holdovers,” “Maestro” and “Past Lives.” Since all of these nominees (except “Anatomy of a Fall” (“Anatomie d’ine chute”)) failed to receive nominations in the directors’ category, that alone should explain why they should have been left out, given that nominations in these categories nearly always walk in tandem. More importantly, though, except for “American Fiction” (and, to a certain extent, “The Holdovers”), these other nominees simply left much to be desired as award-worthy contenders. They had to have been riding the crest of a wave of hype to reach this point, especially given how many other more noteworthy candidates were out there.

What Else Should Have Been Considered:  “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”), “Fingernails,” “You Hurt My Feelings,” “Dream Scenario,” El Conde” (“The Count”), “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), “When Time Got Louder” and “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”). These contenders were all laudable candidates and should have received consideration ahead of those that should have been left out. It’s unfortunate that they’ve not been accorded that recognition.

Snubs:  “All of Us Strangers.” I probably sound like a broken record where this offering is concerned, but I’ll say it again: The exclusion of this film from the best picture field is just plain wrong. It deserves to be there.

The Oscars will be handed out in televised ceremonies on Sunday March 10. I’ll post my report card on these predictions thereafter. Enjoy the show!

(Oscar® and Academy Award® are registered trademarks of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences.)

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Monday, February 26, 2024

Biting Satire on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, beginning Tuesday February 27, available by clicking here. You can also catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Podchaser, Audible, Deezer, Podcast Addict and Jiosaavn.

Sunday, February 18, 2024

‘Upon Entry’ tests our resolve to live up to our contentions

“Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”) (2022 production, 2023 release). Cast: Alberto Ammann, Bruna Cusí, Ben Temple, Laura Gómez. Director: Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. Screenplay: Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. Web site. Trailer.

Questions related to immigration have been asked with increasing frequency in recent years. This has been particularly true where illegal entry has been concerned, providing considerable fodder for widespread public debate. But what of legal immigration – is that a benign subject, one worthy of little attention or recognition? Indeed, if would-be immigrants are doing everything by the book, there shouldn’t be any concerns, right? The answer to that might not be as simple as it seems, as illustrated in the gripping Spanish drama, “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”).

Diego (Alberto Ammann), an urban planner, and Elena (Bruna Cusí), a contemporary dancer, have gone to great lengths to change their lives. The couple lives in Barcelona, Spain, but they have meticulously made extensive arrangements to relocate to the US to begin again, primarily to advance their careers and join family members who have already made the move. They look forward to this new opportunity, confident that they have done everything necessary to ensure a smooth transition. And, as they head off to New York for a connecting flight to Miami, their eventual destination, they’re optimistic about what lies ahead.

Upon arrival in New York, however, they’re in for a rude awakening. While they sincerely believe that all of their immigration papers are in order, they’re nevertheless pulled aside as they’re processed through customs. Diego and Elena are escorted to a secondary screening room, where they’re told to have a seat and await further instructions. They ask questions that go unanswered and are often met with gruff, terse responses as authorities bark out commands to them. Needless to say, they’re perplexed by what’s unfolding and concerned about what it might mean.

Before long, Diego and Elena are taken to a private interrogation room, where they’re met by Agent Vásquez (Laura Gómez), a no-nonsense inquisitor who asks hard-edged questions, often giving them little time to provide answers and virtually no time to offer explanations or elaboration. There’s also little indication of where this questioning is heading or what’s behind it, leaving Diego and Elena even more confused. And, when they note that they’re running out of time to make their connecting flight, they’re summarily told that they should forget all about that.

Would-be immigrants Diego (Alberto Ammann, left) and Elena (Bruna Cusí, right) face harsh and unexpected scrutiny from authorities after landing in New York, as seen in the edgy Spanish drama, “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), now available for streaming on Tubi TV. Photo courtesy of Zabriskie Films.

Not long thereafter, Agent Vásquez is joined by a colleague, Agent Barrett (Ben Temple), another tough-as-nails official who tag-teams his partner in asking additional questions, either individually or collectively with Diego and Elena. The inquiries grow progressively more intrusive, as if the agents are prying into the duo’s private life to validate the truthfulness of their responses. For example, Diego is grilled about the sincerity of his feelings for Elena, a line of questioning aimed at determining whether his relationship with her is as genuine as he contends or a matter of convenience for preferential treatment regarding their immigration status. Authorities are especially interested in this because of how quickly the couple became romantically involved after he broke off relations with an old flame, a relationship that Diego never discussed with Elena, an eye-opening revelation for her. And, thanks to these interrogation tactics, it’s not long before the trust between Diego and Elena appears to begin eroding.

There’s also the question of Diego’s Venezuelan heritage, having left his troubled homeland before relocating to Barcelona. Diego’s desire to now come to the US through Spain raises skepticism among the agents in light of the strained relations that currently exist between America and Venezuela. Is Diego legitimately pursuing a lawful course to immigrate to the US, or has he concocted a questionably clandestine scheme to accomplish his goal by way of a trumped-up romantic relationship with a Spanish woman (someone who, on her own, would come under less scrutiny than someone partnered to an individual of his background)? Indeed, should Diego be discovered to be pulling off a fast one, he could be deported directly back to Venezuela (not Spain) and denied any future chance at filing an immigration claim to come to the US. This naturally raises further suspicions in the minds of the agents, not to mention additional doubts in the heart of Elena.

To make matters worse, as the interrogation wears on, the couple grows increasingly reluctant to cooperate, particularly when the agents aren’t forthcoming about their intents or any clear basis for their line of questioning. Diego and Elena are pushed to the brink, refusing to cave in to the pressure but reaching the point where they can’t help but wonder whether their dream is going to be fulfilled. They’re clearly drained by this ordeal, but they’re in doubt about what’s going to transpire with their plan – and with each other.

Immigration Agents Vásquez (Laura Gómez, left) and Barrett (Ben Temple, right) subject a pair of new arrivals to unduly harsh questioning, trying to identify the intents behind their immigration plans, as seen in the edgy Spanish drama, “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), now available for streaming on Tubi TV. Photo courtesy of Zabriskie Films.

So what exactly is going on here? Do the agents have concrete evidence to question the sincerity of the couple’s intentions? After all, when it comes to their immigration preparations, they appear to have nearly everything solidly nailed down; except for the failure to dot a few i’s and cross a few t’s, all seems in order, and they’ve substantially proved that it in their completed paperwork. So does that mean authorities have other means of confirming their suspicions, or are they on some kind of fishing expedition? Indeed, what’s prompting them to believe that something is truly amiss? No matter what underlies their actions, it hasn’t stopped their brutal interrogation, with their leading questions, accusatory tone and inferences that plant nagging seeds of doubt in the minds of Diego and Elena.

The key to understanding this, of course, rests with the beliefs of those asking and answering the questions, for those notions play a central role in how events play out, the outcomes that emerge from the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the manifestation of our existence. It’s unclear if any of the principals in this drama are aware of this school of thought, but the means driving it clearly have a pivotal role to play as evidenced by how matters unfold here.

So what beliefs are at work here? That’s hard to say, because the intents aren’t completely clear. Are the agents asking questions based on their beliefs in some kind of concealed evidence? Or are they following some kind of standardized interrogation protocol used in situations where they have suspicions about what could be transpiring without hard evidence to back up such speculation, a tactic designed to draw out potentially hidden truths? If it’s the former, the responses would likely validate whatever evidence they have. And, if it’s the latter, the answers would either confirm or dismiss their suspicions, but the questions will have helped them arrive at such conclusions either way.

As for those being interrogated, the questions would either enable them to remain resolute in their truth or expose any attempted hidden deception, the results, of course, reflecting what they believe in their hearts. In addition, the questioning could also be seen as a sort of litmus test for the veracity of the partners’ relationship, specifically the faith and trust they place in one another. For instance, is Diego being square with Elena about the sincerity of his intentions, both as a romantic partner and as someone who’s sincerely seeking to make a new life with her (as opposed to using her as a means to an end)? Scenarios like this can be difficult to endure, but sometimes they can help to reveal strengths – and weaknesses – in relationships, even if the subject matter of the interrogation bears no direct connection to the partnership itself.

Would-be immigrant Diego (Alberto Ammann) faces tough questions from authorities about his Venezuelan heritage and his romantic relationships after landing in New York, as seen in the gripping Spanish drama, “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), recipient of three Independent Spirit Award nominations. Photo courtesy of Zabriskie Films.

However, the foregoing considerations aside, there are some additional concerns to bear in mind here, specifically with regard to policies regarding the process of immigration. As noted above, illegal immigration is a subject of great debate these days, and good arguments exist on each side of the issue as to what we should believe about it and, hence, how we should proceed in handling it. But, also as noted earlier, what about legal immigration, the subject at the heart of this story? Is it really necessary for would-be immigrants to be subjected to such intense and intimidating scrutiny, especially if they appear to have done everything correctly? Indeed, if there were red flags that needed to be investigated, shouldn’t they have been looked into before the couple arrived in New York? In light of that, then, these practices raise the question, what exactly do we believe about the nature of immigration in the first place? Are we truly walking our talk on this matter, or are we being hypocrites? Do we genuinely believe what we claim, or are these contentions some kind of window dressing, smoke screen or camouflage?

Let’s consider the facts. As a nation, the US generally has a history of welcoming immigrants who follow the proper legal protocols. They have played a vital role in the growth and development of this country, providing us with rich cultural, artistic and technological contributions. The diversity this practice has afforded American society has made the US a model for other countries to follow. It’s been a win-win situation all around.

However, when we see incidents like this play out, all of those ideals and aspirations get thrown into doubt. Do we mean what we say? If so, however, then why are individuals who are acting in good faith subjected to unsavory practices like this (which, by the way, aren’t necessarily recent developments, either)? And, if that’s how we really feel, then why are we sending out mixed messages to those wishing to come here? Given the track record of immigrant contributions, as well as current issues related to labor shortages in a wide array of employment sectors, why would we make these circumstances so needlessly difficult, especially when they appear to fly in the face of everything we supposedly claim?

This is not to suggest throwing caution to the wind. It’s certainly reasonable to diligently employ prudent security precautions in immigration and customs practices. But, as events unfold here, we can’t help but observe that the US might be a nation moving from a standpoint of legitimate suspicion to one of rampant paranoia. If we’ve truly reached a point where we have inherent doubts about not only illegal but also legal immigration, we need to step back and assess our beliefs about this practice. Do we want it to continue? Do we recognize the benefits it can afford us? And, if we don’t believe that the advantages outweigh the risks, then what are we going to do about it? Can we be honest with others – and ourselves – about what we truly believe about this subject? And, if so, can we make the appropriate adjustments in our policies and protocols with regard to it? Implementing such changes may not be easy if we decide to adopt them, but the toughest part may come up front where the core of this issue rests – in our beliefs.

Would-be immigrant Elena (Bruna Cusí) learns previously undisclosed secrets about her partner during questioning from government authorities in “Upon Entry” (“La Ilegada”), the gripping debut feature from the writing-directing duo of Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. Photo courtesy of Zabriskie Films.

Welcome to America, land of the free and home of the brave, a sanctuary for the world’s poor, tired and huddled masses. Or is it? That’s the question uncomfortably raised in this gripping, edgy debut feature from the writing-directing duo of Alejandro Rojas and Juan Sebastián Vasquez. It begs the question, is this the America we want? And, if so, then why would anyone want to come here in the first place, even when making a diligently concerted effort to follow all of the legally sanctioned protocols? This film sends a powerful message, spotlighting issues disturbingly brought to light by the film’s meticulously scripted writing, which keeps characters and viewers alike guessing about what’s playing out. Although crafted very much like a stage play, the film never comes across as stilted or stagey, thanks in large part to the superb performances of the four principals, who effectively convey the anguish and fright being wrought on screen. This Tubi TV offering is highly deserving of its three Independent Spirit Award nominations for best first feature, best first screenplay and best editing, even if it’s also the kind of picture that makes audiences uneasy – but, then, maybe that’s the point behind it, too, a goal at which it succeeds brilliantly.

What we believe, either individually or collectively, can have wide-ranging implications, sometimes extending far beyond our immediate surroundings, even affecting individuals we don’t know or have never met. For what they’re worth, though, those beliefs may have impact – and may even potentially inflict harm – on others. We may not be aware of this, but, as members of a society to whose policies we may tacitly consent, we could be just as responsible for them as those who devise and enforce them in the first place. This behooves us to stay informed of what’s going on and providing our feedback when these policies and practices don’t jibe with our beliefs, as may be the case with incidents like those depicted in this film. Looking the other way won’t make these issues go away, something we must never lose sight of if we profess to be citizens of a society that holds itself out as everything it claims to be.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "The Zone of Interest," "The Teachers' Lounge" and "When Time Got Louder" are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

‘The Teachers’ Lounge’ charts a molehill’s evolution

“The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”) (2023). Cast: Leonie Benesch, Leonard Stettnisch, Eva Löbau, Michael Klammer, Anne-Kathrin Gummich, Kathrin Wehlisch, Sarah Bauerett, Rafael Stachowiak, Uygar Tamer, Özgür Karadeniz, Can Rodenbostel, Vincent Stachowiak, Elsa Krieger, Padmé Hamdemir, Oskar Zickur, Lewe Wagner, Lisa Marie Trense. Director: Ilker Çatak. Screenplay: Johannes Duncker and Ilker Çatak. Web site. Trailer.

We’ve all no doubt heard about the proverbial molehill unwittingly being made into a mountain. The inconsequential somehow manages to become overly (and unnecessarily) inflated, taking on undeserved significance. This usually comes about as a result of undue attention paid to it by those who have self-serving agendas that they want to see escalated and addressed to resolve petty or trumped-up grievances. And the result is a chaotic maelstrom characterized by overhyped shrieking and misplaced ridicule, often directed at the wrong parties or the wrong issues. Such scenarios, unfortunately, have become far too commonplace these days, frequently blowing matters all out of reasonable proportion. If you doubt that, it’s possible to see an example of such lunacy at work in the satirical new German comedy-drama, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”).

Middle school is one of those few remaining environments thought to be safe, secure and free of troubling incidents, but such is not the case at a facility in the German city of Hamburg. A rash of petty thefts involving student possessions has been occurring, and administrators like Principal Bettina Böhm (Anne-Kathrin Gummich) want to get to the bottom of the issue. Several teachers have also become involved in the investigation, such as recently hired Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch), one of the school’s most liked instructors, to help make possible student witnesses feel at ease during questioning. While officials are eager to find out what’s going on, they also want to create a comfortable environment for those who may be apprehensive but have important information to share.

But, even when a suspect is supposedly identified, the situation is still unresolved, only this time it involves the theft of teacher property, specifically items that go missing from the faculty lounge, to which no students have access. One of those affected is Ms. Nowak, who has money pilfered from her jacket pocket when she leaves it unattended on the back of a chair. She catches a break, however, when an image of the perpetrator’s distinctively patterned clothing is caught on her laptop camera, which was placed opposite the aforementioned chair and had been left on at the time of the theft. And, even though the thief’s face was not captured in the recording, it was easy to identify the individual in question given the outfit she was wearing – the culprit being one of the front office administrative aides, Frederike Kuhn (Eva Löbau).

Recently hired teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) reaches the end of her rope when a minor incident gets blown all out of proportion and lands an unexpected motherlode of fallout squarely on her, as seen in the new German satire, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”). Photo by Judith Kaufmann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

When Carla identifies Frederike as the offender, she confronts her but is immediately met with outrage and indignation. Frederike is insulted and incensed, throwing a fit. The mild-mannered Carla, meanwhile, calmly tries to defuse the situation, even going so far as to say that she would be willing to overlook the matter as long as Frederike returns the stolen money. But that solution falls flat when Frederike escalates the situation, necessitating Bettina’s involvement. And, when that doesn’t work, the principal mentions that this may become a matter for the police.

But this is far from the end of things. Frederike’s son, Oskar (Leonard Stettnisch), is one of Carla’s students, and he quickly gets drawn into the fray. It causes a strain in his relationship with his teacher, with whom he had previously gotten along well given the attention and recognition she gave him as one of her class’s best students. He goes through a change in attitude, becoming noticeably more belligerent and subsequently winning over the support of his classmates, who grow progressively more untrustworthy of and confrontational toward their teacher and even amongst themselves. There’s also a growing sense of racial, ethnic and social prejudice emerging in the classroom and at the school overall, a reflection of issues arising in contemporary German culture with the increasing arrival of immigrants and refugees from places like Eastern Europe and the Middle East. And word of all this, of course, eventually makes its way home to the parents of the pupils, who also grow skeptical about who’s teaching their kids, especially when physical harm surfaces.

Carla then learns that she may be in hot water with the faculty for having left her laptop camera running and recording them without their consent, an invasion of privacy issue. Needless to say, the staff becomes infuriated when word of this surfaces, even though nothing of consequence was filmed, making Carla a pariah among her peers. Suddenly the victim of a crime may be guilty of committing one herself. And the police – who were supposed to be investigating what happened to her – remain out of sight throughout all of this. So much for justice.

If all of that weren’t enough, Carla comes under further attack in the student newspaper. When interviewed for a previously scheduled article profiling the newly arrived instructor, she’s ambushed by the student journalists, who ask leading questions and make unsubstantiated accusations that end up in print as misleading reporting with quotes taken out of context. Like so many others in the public eye these days, Carla is charged, tried and convicted in the court of public opinion based on biased journalism, a victim of brutal character assassination. This development, coupled with everything that preceded it, leads to frenzied circumstances in which an individual who tried to quietly bring about an equitable, discreet solution to a containable incident is pushed to the edge. The molehill is now long since gone, with the mountain on view for all to see.

Gifted student Oskar Kuhn (Leonard Stettnisch) has a change in attitude toward the teacher he once liked when she levels damning accusations against his mother, one of the school’s administrative aides, as seen in the Oscar-nominated German comedy-drama, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”). Photo by Judith Kaufmann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

However, some viewers might look at this story and wonder why a film was built around it. In the greater scheme of things, the narrative here could be viewed as somewhat inherently … unimportant, insignificant or negligible, and good arguments could be made in favor of that perspective. At the same time, though, also in the greater scheme of things, such an outlook might be viewed as selling this tale short in terms of its metaphorical nature, particularly when, sadly, it comes to depicting conditions found to be present all too often in the wider world these days. In that sense, it’s a cautionary fable for our times, illustrating just what we’ve come to, and where we’re at, nowadays. And that’s especially true when showcasing the state of our individual and collective beliefs, an important consideration in light of the role they play in shaping the nature of our existence, a product of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that accounts for how these intangible resources influence the emergence of the reality we experience.

As I’ve noted many times before, it’s unclear how many of us are aware of this school of thought. However, even if we’ve never heard of it or made use of it, we may well sense its presence in our lives on a subconscious level. And, if we don’t like what we see in our existence, we might find the notion unsettling. To a certain extent, this may likely be the case where this story and this film are concerned, a possible explanation for why this picture has not been warmly received in many circles. Nevertheless, that may also account for the impact of this offering: It makes viewers uncomfortable because it hits a little too close to home. The result is that some audience members might find themselves squirming in their seats, making them feel as though this release is cutting through a lot of carefully layered camouflage and exposing us for who and what we believe – and are – in many respects, a response that reinforces the view that we don’t like what we see, particularly since it’s coming from us.

The exposure of underlying beliefs that yield the kinds of outcomes depicted here is a theme that has been – thankfully – gaining momentum in recent years, as evidenced in movies like this, as well as such other productions as “Don’t Look Up” (2021) and “Dream Scenario” (2023). They shine a bright light on us, serving as a mirror of ourselves, reflecting what’s really going on deep down inside us at the core of our beings. “The Teachers’ Lounge” shows how pervasive the impact of this can be, too, both on the grand stage of our world and in the little, everyday events that characterize our respective lives. Whether themes like those explored here are incorporated into big picture events or the small-scale happenings of daily existence, their effects are the same in each case, and we should be cognizant of that when it comes to the reality we manifest and subsequently experience.

The relationship of recently hired teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch, left) and one of her once-favorite students, Oskar Kuhn (Leonard Stettnisch, right), turns sour when extenuating circumstances put undue pressure on them, as seen in the satirical new German comedy-drama, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”), Oscar nominee for best international feature. Photo by Judith Kaufmann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

It may be tempting for some of us to dismiss this notion, especially when we see things about our existence that we don’t like – particularly about ourselves and what we materialize. However, given that these initiatives originate with us, we can’t realistically abrogate our responsibility for them and what unfolds from them as a result. There are many areas in which this is true in this story, many of them disturbing, especially when it comes to revealing aspects of ourselves and our beliefs that we find unflattering or intrinsically troubling. Hence the viewer discomfort with this title.

This film provides us with a look at how this all plays out both individually and collectively. In many regards, there are individual agendas at work that unfold over the course of the narrative. At the same time, these individual belief threads combine to form the essence of the larger, collectively generated scenario. And, considering the often-inflammatory nature of the various agendas, it becomes easy to see how and why they jointly grow into something larger and more troubling, with consequences that appear in myriad ways. Put another way, it’s easy to see how the molehill becomes a mountain.

We see scenarios like this popping up more often than ever before these days, again, whether on either grand or minor scales. Situations that start out small take on lives of their own, often with multiple components that each carry potentially significant implications and that, collectively, combine to make for unwarranted high drama. Circumstances that seem like they should be able to be handled with relative ease and simplicity swell into major confrontations, with emotions that run hot, heavy and adversarial over matters that are far from deserving of such attention and treatment. In this film, we see that occur with respect to not only the original criminal accusations, but also with a host of ancillary concerns that aren’t part of the initial conditions and somehow become wrapped up in the course of the overall story.

For example, what do elements like racial and national prejudice, the incendiary role of the media, the impact of unsubstantiated innuendo, the protection of personal privacy, the indulgence of contemporary youth, and the sway of fake news in shaping public opinion have to do with the petty theft of cash from someone’s jacket pocket? As all of this comes to light, the individual at the center of this scenario – Carla – is judged by those around her, including by some who have no direct bearing on the outcome of the seminal event, generally with distorted views and without all the pertinent facts, a situation similar to what unfolds in the recently released Japanese offering, “Monster” (“Kaibutsu”). And, as all these sideshow matters come front and center, the person whose needs are most crucial of bring met – the aggrieved teacher – go unattended by those one might think would help her: her peers and the officials responsible for resolving this situation. Is that fair? What’s more – and perhaps more troubling – doesn’t this sound like something we hear about on an almost-daily basis these days? And to think it all begins with our individual and collective beliefs. Is that the way we truly want things to be?

Recently hired teacher Carla Nowak (Leonie Benesch) gets beaten up – literally and figuratively – by multiple parties when she gets caught up in an exaggerated school conflict, as seen in writer-director Ilker Çatak’s latest offering, “The Teachers’ Lounge” (“Das Lehrerzimmer”), now playing in theaters. Photo by Judith Kaufmann, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Our beliefs are powerful tools for shaping the world we experience. They can be employed to manifest virtually anything we can envision, for better or worse. Consequently, though, it’s incumbent upon us to use that power carefully, because, as this film illustrates, it can quickly get out of hand, becoming inflated in ways with wide-ranging and potentially damaging ramifications. After all, those mountains can be difficult – if not impossible – to dispense with once they emerge. Remember that the next time you’re quick to unduly raise a fuss or erroneously point fingers at someone else.

In recent years, we’ve all seen examples of incidents that start out comparatively small but that rapidly get blown all out of proportion – and perversely so at that. As developments emerge and explode under these conditions, they often lose all sense of reason, expanding into tangential and seemingly unrelated areas that have virtually nothing to do with the event that spawned them. And, in the end, we’re left with outcomes that seem inappropriate and ill-suited to what launched these insane scenarios in the first place. That’s what writer-director Ilker Çatak explores in his latest offering, a microcosmic metaphor for what’s happening on a wider scale in society at large today. While some may fervently contend that the outcomes depicted here are somewhat exaggerated in nature, they nevertheless collectively draw attention to undeniably troubling issues desperately in need of attention in our increasingly out-of-control world, global concerns that obviously transcend national borders, all punctuated here with more than a few hefty infusions of wickedly absurdist humor. “The Teachers’ Lounge” might not appeal to everyone, but, for those who enjoy films that aren’t afraid to present biting social commentary, this should be added to your watch list. As the picture so regrettably shows, even supposedly civil environments aren’t immune from the kind of social nonsense depicted here, a troubling teaching for all of us who are looking for a return to sanity in an increasingly crazy existence.

“The Teachers’ Lounge” has played widely on the film festival circuit, but it is now available in limited general release. As one of the National Board of Review’s Top 5 International Films for 2023, it’s a worthwhile watch that will make viewers think and, even more importantly, laugh. It’s such qualities that have also earned this release a well-deserved Oscar nomination for best international film. But, as you’re watching it, try to keep your composure and not let emotions take over if it starts to make you feel uncomfortable. That’s the lesson we should all strive to take away from this insightful offering – and apply it when called for.

Molehills can indeed be annoying nuisances, but, when kept in check, they’re generally manageable, seldom assuming mountain form. However, like a nagging hangnail, sometimes we can’t resist the temptation to relentlessly pick at it, needlessly making it worse until it blows up into a full-fledged infection. Is that really called for? That’s a question we should ask ourselves more often when we see minor quibbles pointlessly become transformed into full-fledged conflicts that ultimately leave us decidedly worse off. If this film teaches us nothing else, it should be that. Let’s hope we take the lesson to heart.

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