Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Perfect Predictions!

I’m thrilled to announce that my Oscar prediction scorecard this year came up perfectly! This is the first time in a number of years where that has been the case, but I’m thankful that I finally got everything right (even if I didn’t completely agree with the results). Here are the details:

Best Picture

The Field:  “Belfast,” “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Drive My Car” (“Doraibu mai kâ”), “Dune,” “King Richard,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley,” “The Power of the Dog,” “West Side Story”

Projected Winner:  “CODA”

Actual Winner:  “CODA”

Result:  Correct call

The “CODA” juggernaut – which had been gaining strength ever since the film’s win for best ensemble cast at the Screen Actors Guild Award ceremony several weeks ago – reached its goal on Oscar night, crossing the finish line ahead of onetime-favorite “The Power of the Dog.” In many ways, this is a classic example of the Hollywood success story, the underdog “little movie that could” saga about a film that managed to rise to the top with the kind of heart-tugging uplifting message that Tinsel Town likes to beam a big, broad, self-satisfied smile about. Its run for the top award couldn’t have been more perfectly timed, either, seizing on the momentum generated by the picture’s SAG Award and multiple wins by Troy Kotsur for best supporting actor in a number of competitions leading up to the Oscars. In a backhanded way, it also probably benefitted from negative reactions to offhanded comments made by filmmaker Jane Campion when accepting her Critics Choice Award for best director, remarks that may have very well taken “The Power of the Dog” out of the running for best picture, despite being able to hold on to the Oscar in the directing category. And, of course, there was the fan favorite factor, which undoubtedly had to have had some influence with Academy voters. It was the “perfect storm” of factors coming together at the right time. In fact, even though I termed the projected win by “CODA” an upset in my predictions blog, the pendulum had swung so far in the movie’s favor that many weren’t even looking upon its eventual victory as an upset any more.

While “CODA” certainly had an inspiring message, in the annals of film history, I believe it will quickly be forgotten. As a production that ranks only slightly higher in quality than a made-for-TV movie, this is not an offering that future generations will look back upon as a piece of epic filmmaking. There were other films in this field of nominees – “Belfast,” “Don’t Look Up” and “West Side Story” – that were far better and more deserving. See those instead.

Best Actor

The Field:  Javier Bardem, “Being the Ricardos”; Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”; Andrew Garfield, “Tick, Tick … Boom!”; Will Smith, “King Richard”; Denzel Washington, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

Projected Winner:  Will Smith, “King Richard”

Actual Winner:  Will Smith, “King Richard”

Result:  Correct call

Having won virtually every award in the run-up to the Oscar’s, Will Smith’s victory came as no surprise, even if the same can’t be said of his behavior at the awards ceremony on Oscar night. While opinions vary widely about the appropriateness of his response to comedian Chris Rock’s feeble attempt at a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada, it’s not wise for one to engage in an altercation like this while on the brink of a career milestone with the whole world watching. It certainly changed the energy in the auditorium and significantly distracted viewers and the theatrical audience from the much deserved award that was about to be presented to “Summer of Soul” for best documentary feature. What this will mean for Smith’s future as an actor and producer remains to be seen, but it wouldn’t surprise me if he torpedoed himself through his actions. He’d better enjoy his Oscar; he may never get another statue or nomination ever again.

As solid a performance as this was, I still don’t see it as Smith’s best or as the best in the field. That distinction belongs to Denzel Washington for “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” I suppose it’s understandable that his two previous wins for “Glory” (1989) and “Training Day” (2001) may have worked against him for another victory for anything other than a career-defining performance, but, in my opinion, he was still the class of this category and was more deserving of the statue.

Best Actress

The Field:  Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”; Olivia Colman, “The Lost Daughter”; Penélope Cruz, “Parallel Mothers” (“Madres paralelas”); Nicole Kidman, “Being the Ricardos”; Kristen Stewart, “Spencer”

Projected Winner:  Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

Actual Winner:  Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”

Result:  Correct call

While my preference here would have been for Kristen Stewart in “Spencer,” Jessica Chastain’s win in this category was nevertheless a well-deserved victory. As the most competitive of the acting categories this year, no clear-cut winner emerged in this field until late in the game. But Chastain managed to capitalize on the momentum when it counted, finally capturing an Oscar on her third nomination (far short of the number she actually should have earned for a repertoire of fine performances over the years). Chastain may not have been my first choice, but I’m not disappointed with this result. Congratulations to her.

Best Supporting Actor

The Field:  Ciarán Hinds, “Belfast”; Troy Kotsur, “CODA”; Jesse Plemons, “The Power of the Dog”; J.K. Simmons, “Being the Ricardos”; Kodi Smit-McPhee, “The Power of the Dog”

Projected Winner:  Troy Kotsur, “CODA”

Actual Winner:  Troy Kotsur, “CODA”

Result:  Correct call

After a slow start, Kotsur claimed virtually every supporting actor honor during awards season, and there was no reason to believe that the outcome would turn out any other way on Oscar night. However, while Kotsur’s performance was solid enough and helped to draw attention to the deaf actors’ community, I still felt there were other better nominees in this field, most notably Ciarán Hinds for “Belfast” and Kodi Smit-McPhee for “The Power of the Dog.” That may not be a popular or politically correct opinion, but I stand by it.

Best Supporting Actress

The Field:  Jessie Buckley, “The Lost Daughter”; Ariana DeBose, “West Side Story”; Judi Dench, “Belfast”; Kirsten Dunst, “The Power of the Dog”; Aunjanue Ellis, “King Richard”

Projected Winner:  Ariana DeBose, “West Side Story”

Actual Winner:  Ariana DeBose, “West Side Story”

Result:  Correct call

As I wrote in my predictions blog, Ariana DeBose’s victory for “West Side Story” truly is a case of the right performer winning for the right performance. She swept all of the honors in this category throughout awards season and deservedly so. Her win at the Oscars was no surprise and certainly well deserved. Good for her!

Best Director

The Field:  Paul Thomas Anderson, “Licorice Pizza”; Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast”; Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”; Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, “Drive My Car” (“Doraibu mai kâ”); Steven Spielberg, “West Side Story”

Projected Winner:  Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”

Actual Winner:  Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”

Result:  Correct call

Jane Campion’s win for “The Power of the Dog” came as no surprise, given her multiple victories throughout awards season. What’s a little surprising, however, is a film receiving this award without winning any others. Directorial achievements typically follow the bestowing of statues in other – often many other – categories. And, even though this film received 11 nominations for other prizes, it didn’t collect on any of them, including best picture, actor, adapted screenplay and cinematography, categories in which it had at one time been considered either a favorite or strong contender. Some have even speculated that Campion was lucky to take home this prize in the wake of her offhand comments at the Critics Choice Awards, as noted earlier. Her track record through awards season and being the only woman nominated in this category might well have sustained her, though, if the Oscars had taken place several weeks later than they did, we may have well seen a different outcome in this category.

Personally, I wouldn’t have been particularly upset with a different winner. I would have much rather seen this award go to Kenneth Branagh for “Belfast” or possibly even Steven Spielberg for “West Side Story.” Those filmmakers created much better pictures and were more deserving of the accolades in this category.

For more on how I arrived at my predictions for the winners, please see my previous blog, “Who Will Win the 2022 Oscars?”

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 26, 2022

Reviews and Predictions on Frankiesense & More

Join new guest host Ishita Sharma and yours truly for the second helping of a double dose of movie review shows on The Good Media Network's Frankiesense & More video podcast in March! The first, on Thursday March 3, featured reviews of five new movies, and the second, on Saturday March 26, includes four new movie reviews and predictions for the Oscars in the top six categories. Tune in on Facebook by clicking here or YouTube by clicking here for all the fun and lively discussion!

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

This Week in Movies with Meaning

Reviews of "After Yang" and "Hive," as well as Oscar blog and podcast previews, are all in the latest Movies with Meaning post on the web site of The Good Media Network, available by clicking here.

A Dreamy Time on The Cinema Scribe

Tune in for the latest Cinema Scribe segment on Bring Me 2 Life Radio, Tuesday, March 22, at 2 pm ET, available by clicking here. And, if you don't hear the show live, catch it later on demand on Spreaker, Spotify, Apple, iHeartRadio, Google Podcasts, Castbox, Deezer, Podchaser and Jiosaavn.

Friday, March 18, 2022

Who Will Win the 2022 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 usually a labor of love, but, considering the dearth of truly good films in 2021 and a class of nominees that leaves a lot to be desired in many categories, this hasn’t been an especially fun process this year (sorry for the downer mood, folks). Nevertheless, while several of the likely winners have come into view, a few are still up for grabs. So, with that said and for what it’s worth, here are my picks for who will take home statues in the top six categories on Oscar night.

Best Actor

The Field:  Javier Bardem, “Being the Ricardos”; Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog”; Andrew Garfield, “Tick, Tick … Boom!”; Will Smith, “King Richard”; Denzel Washington, “The Tragedy of Macbeth”

Who Will Likely Win:  Will Smith. He has captured virtually every statue of significance throughout awards season, and I don’t see any reason why that should change on Oscar night. Having been passed over twice before for “Ali” (2001) and “The Pursuit of Happyness” (2006) (and snubbed for a nomination for his role in “Concussion” (2015)), I think the Academy believes Smith has paid his dues and is finally in line for a prize, one of those so-called “overdue Oscars.” However, while his performance as the father and manager of tennis phenoms Venus and Serena Williams in “King Richard” was eminently capable, it was far from his best work. While watching the film, I didn’t see Smith disappear into the role in the same way he has in many other parts, making me feel as though I was clearly “watching Will Smith acting” and not “seeing a character portrayed on screen.” Still, I think this is his time, and he’ll finally collect, more for a career’s worth of good work than for this particular role.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Denzel Washington. The actor’s turn as Macbeth in William Shakespeare’s classic “The Tragedy of Macbeth” truly is the class of this field, and he genuinely deserves to come up the winner. However, having already claimed two awards for “Glory” (1989) and “Training Day” (2001), along with six additional nominations, the Academy may be reluctant to award him another trophy until he delivers what is seen as a signature career-defining performance, a characterization it’s unlikely to attribute to this role, despite its excellence. There’s almost assuredly another Oscar in his future, but not this time.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Mahershala Ali. The actor’s performance in the heartfelt sci-fi drama “Swan Song” was the best male lead portrayal of 2021, and it was deservedly recognized with nominations in the Golden Globe and BAFTA Award contests. However, given that he has already won two Oscars in recent years for “Moonlight” (2016) and “Green Book” (2018), he was probably a long shot at earning another statue (and possibly even another nomination) quite so soon, especially for a film that received lukewarm reviews and precious little attention. Like Denzel Washington, though, with two Oscars under his belt, there is likely another award in his future. But, given the timing of his prior wins and the requirement that his next one will need to be a career-defining performance, he’ll have to wait for now, despite the quality of this excellent portrayal.

Possible Dark Horses:  Andrew Garfield and Benedict Cumberbatch. There has been a lot of quiet buzz about these performances, and diehard fans of the actors’ portrayals in “Tick, Tick … Boom!” and “The Power of the Dog,” respectively, are no doubt in their corner. However, I don’t think there’s enough gas in the tank for either of them to pull off an upset win. These performances can probably best be seen as clout-building portrayals, down payments on the future that may well stand them in good stead for later wins.

Also-Rans:  Javier Bardem. The actor’s solid portrayal of TV icon Desi Arnaz in “Being the Ricardos” was a solid performance, to be sure, but not especially memorable. Bardem should look upon his nomination as his award and take solace in his previous win for “No Country for Old Men” (2007).

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Andrew Garfield and Javier Bardem. Again, these were solid performances but not overly memorable, in large part because their films weren’t especially memorable. Indeed, there were other contenders (see below) who were more deserving of nominations in my opinion.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:   In my view, a number of other actors should have been considered in this category. In addition to Mahershala Ali for “Swan Song,” other worthy contenders include Leonardo DiCaprio for the raucous satire “Don’t Look Up,” newcomer Jude Hill for the heartfelt childhood memoir “Belfast,” Simon Rex for the outrageous dark comedy “Red Rocket” and Frankie Faison for the little-known indie offering “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain.”

Snubs:  Mahershala Ali, for the reasons discussed above. Some might also make a strong argument for Leonardo DiCaprio, but, as someone who won not long ago for his performance in “The Revenant” (2015) and who has been nominated five additional times, the Academy may have been reluctant to grant him another nod, especially for a film as controversial and divisive as “Don’t Look Up” (more on this in the best picture discussion).

Best Actress

The Field:  Jessica Chastain, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”; Olivia Colman, “The Lost Daughter”; Penélope Cruz, “Parallel Mothers” (“Madres paralelas”); Nicole Kidman, “Being the Ricardos”; Kristen Stewart, “Spencer”

Who Will Likely Win:  Jessica Chastain. In my view, this is the most difficult category to call, given the fact that there have been multiple winners in the competitions in the run-up to the Oscars and also because there has been no across-the-board consistency in the fields of nominees in those various contests. However, based on how outcomes have progressed over awards season, it looks like Jessica Chastain, for her portrayal of colorful televangelist Tammy Faye Baker in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” has emerged as the frontrunner. Admittedly, her status as such is not overwhelmingly strong, but it appears as though she has a slight edge over her competitors at this point.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Kristen Stewart. The actress’s superb portrayal of Princess Diana in the biopic “Spencer” truly is the best of the bunch in this category. And, even though she was considered the early frontrunner prior to the beginning of awards season, her fortunes appear to have faded. Despite her success in critics’ award circles, her failure to win any other significant awards (and, in some cases, her failure to even capture nominations in some competitions), along with mixed reviews of this controversial film, seem to have undermined her chances of capturing the Oscar. Of course, considering the volatility of this field of nominees, there’s no telling what might happen, and she could well end up a well-deserved surprise winner. (By the way, this is not to suggest that Chastain is undeserving (she turns in a fine performance here, as she did in her previous two nominations for “The Help” (2011) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2013)), but, having been passed over twice before, the Academy may be ready to reward her with an Oscar – and one that comes from a fine portrayal.)

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Kristen Stewart. This truly was the best female lead performance of 2021, and Stewart genuinely deserves this award. I’d be thrilled if she ended up claiming it.

Possible Dark Horses:  Virtually everyone in the field of nominees. Again, given the absence of a clear frontrunner in this category, conceivably anyone who walks away with the statue could be characterized as a dark horse. Beyond Chastain, perhaps the strongest alternate candidate here is Penélope Cruz for her fine performance in the Spanish domestic drama “Parallel Mothers” (“Madres paralelas”), the strongest asset that film has going for it. Her momentum seems to have been steadily climbing, but it’s unclear if it will end up being enough to capture the statue.

Also-Rans:  Essentially, anyone who doesn’t win. In fact, this designation is just as applicable across the board in this field as the dark horse characterization is. However, this seems most applicable to Olivia Colman for her portrayal of a middle-aged woman looking back on herself as a onetime-young mother in the drama “The Lost Daughter” and Nicole Kidman for her role as Lucille Ball in “Being the Ricardos.” With Colman’s win for “The Favourite” (2018) and her nomination for “The Father” (2020), it may well be too soon for another award. And, as for Kidman, well, see below…

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Nicole Kidman, Nicole Kidman, Nicole Kidman. My goodness, what a dreadful performance. Kidman’s endless mugging for the camera makes for a very trying watch. It’s as if viewers are not watching a portrayal of Lucille Ball but one of “Nicole Kidman IS Lucille Ball.” The decision to cast Kidman in the role was truly an awful one; the decision to nominate her for the performance in this and other previous awards competitions is even worse.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  In a year when there were many outstanding female lead performances, it had to have been difficult to trim the field down to five nominees (though eliminating Kidman would have at least opened up one slot to a more deserving nominee). Some of those worthy of consideration include Lady Gaga for the campy biographical thriller “House of Gucci,” Tessa Thompson for the period piece “Passing,” Jennifer Hudson for the Aretha Franklin biopic “Respect,” Cannes Film Festival winner Renate Reinsve for the Norwegian romcom/character study “The Worst Person in the World”  (“Verdens verste menneske”), Virginie Efira for the French Hitchcockian drama “Madeleine Collins” and Robin Wright for the moving personal drama “Land.”

Snubs:  Lady Gaga and Jennifer Hudson. They both deserved to be in the running. Their exclusions represent significant snubs.

Best Supporting Actor

The Field:  Ciarán Hinds, “Belfast”; Troy Kotsur, “CODA”; Jesse Plemons, “The Power of the Dog”; J.K. Simmons, “Being the Ricardos”; Kodi Smit-McPhee, “The Power of the Dog”

Who Will Likely Win:  Troy Kotsur. Beginning with the Screen Actors Guild Award in this category, Kotsur has swept everything since then for his portrayal of a deaf fisherman and family man in “CODA,” and his momentum only seems to be getting stronger, something that, along with the film’s SAG Award for best ensemble cast, has aided “CODA” in becoming a viable contender for best picture honors. I expect this trend to continue on Oscar night.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Kodi Smit-McPhee or Ciarán Hinds. Despite the accolades Kotsur has earned with his multiple award wins, I don’t believe his is the best performance in this category. In my opinion, I’d much rather see the award go to Smit-McPhee for his portrayal of a sensitive young man in a world of cowboy machismo on steroids in the period piece Western “The Power of the Dog” or to Hinds for his role as a kindly Irish grandfather in “Belfast.” This might be seen as an unpopular and politically incorrect view on my part, but I’m standing by my opinion here. I simply believe these two performances were superior to Kotsur’s work.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Kodi Smit-McPhee or Ciarán Hinds. Again, I believe these were the two best supporting male performances of 2021, and I see them as the most deserving candidates. I would be pleased by a win by either of them in this category.

Possible Dark Horses:  Kodi Smit-McPhee and Ciarán Hinds. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’d have to name Smit-McPhee and Hinds as the strongest contenders in this regard. In part that’s due to the fact that these are the only two actors to best Kotsur in this category this awards season, with Hinds winning the National Board of Review Award and Smit-McPhee collecting the Golden Globe statue, even though I don’t believe either of them has enough clout to pull off an upset at the Oscars.

Also-Rans:  J.K. Simmons and Jesse Plemons. I was surprised at these nominations, since I didn’t believe that either of these performers was on the radar for such recognition. Simmons’s portrayal of gruff veteran actor William Frawley in “Being the Ricardos” was certainly adequate, but award-worthy (especially when compared to his deserved win for his role in “Whiplash” (2014))? The same can be said of journeyman actor Jesse Plemons, an often-overlooked performer, for his turn as a soft-spoken ranch owner often bullied by his brother in “The Power of the Dog.” In both of these cases, the actors should consider their nominations as their awards.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  J.K. Simmons and Jesse Plemons, for the reasons cited above.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  There were many deserving candidates in this category in 2021, and any of them would have made fine additions to this field. Some of the better portrayals in this category were turned in by Jason Isaacs and Reed Birney in the taut domestic drama “Mass”; Jared Leto,  Al Pacino and Jeremy Irons in the campy romp “House of Gucci”; Andre Holland and Bill Camp in the period piece race relations drama “Passing”; Mark Rylance in the satirical dark comedy “Don’t Look Up”; Andrew Garfield in the tragicomic biopic “The Eyes of Tammy Faye”; Willem Dafoe in the noir-esque thriller “Nightmare Alley”; Ben Affleck in the coming of age memoir “The Tender Bar”; Colman Domingo in the edgy fact-based dark comedy “Zola”; Enrico Natale for the fact-based thriller “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain”; and Fred Melamed for the hilarious Jewish yarn “Shiva Baby.”

Snubs:   Despite the wealth of worthy candidates, I can’t say there were any obvious snubs in this category, though replacements for Simmons and Plemons would have strengthened the field.

Best Supporting Actress

The Field:  Jessie Buckley, “The Lost Daughter”; Ariana DeBose, “West Side Story”; Judi Dench, “Belfast”; Kirsten Dunst, “The Power of the Dog”; Aunjanue Ellis, “King Richard”

Who Will Likely Win:  Ariana DeBose. She has captured every major award in this category for which she was eligible, and DeBose has a virtual lock on this award at the Oscars. Her portrayal of a feisty Puerto Rican immigrant in 1950s New York in Steven Spielberg’s remake of the classic musical “West Side Story” is one this film’s strongest assets, and she’s genuinely deserving of whatever honors she receives. This truly is a fine example of the right performer winning for the right performance.

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Ariana DeBose, for the reasons cited above.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  In addition to DeBose, there are many other candidates who would have been equally deserving of a win in this category (many of them without nominations), and good arguments could certainly be made for three of them in particular: Frances McDormand as the manipulative wife of the tragic protagonist in “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Cate Blanchett as a sinister therapist in “Nightmare Alley” and Meryl Streep as a clueless, image-conscious president in “Don’t Look Up.” However, given the multiple awards that have already been captured by each of these actresses (especially McDormand’s two recent victories for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017) and “Nomadland” (2020)), nominations, let alone wins, were unlikely, despite the caliber of their performances.

Possible Dark Horses:  Aunjanue Ellis. The actress’s portrayal of the strong-willed wife of tennis promoter Richard Williams in “King Richard” has been a favorite of fans and critics since the picture’s release, and, in all likelihood, it’s the only performance with a potential shot to unseat the favorite. But, even with that generous support, it’s probably not enough to pull off the upset.

Also-Rans:  Anyone who isn’t Ariana DeBose. That’s how strong the frontrunner’s momentum is at this point. It’s a shame to have to characterize someone like Jessie Buckley for her portrayal of Olivia Colman’s younger self in “The Lost Daughter” in this way, given the strength of her performance and very deserving inclusion as a nominee in this category. However, like Garfield and Cumberbatch in the best actor race, this nomination could be viewed as a meritorious down payment toward future recognition.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Kirsten Dunst and Judi Dench. I’m at a loss to understand the fascination with Dunst’s performance as a troubled rancher’s wife in “The Power of the Dog,” and I really don’t consider it to have been strong enough to earn a nomination in this category. As for Dench, she has turned in yet another solid performance here as a kindly Irish grandmother in “Belfast,” but it’s far from her strongest work, which makes me wonder how she made it onto the radar as a potential nominee, especially since she collected no other nods for this portrayal during this year’s awards season. In both of these cases, I believe there were other candidates who were more deserving of making the cut.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  As in the supporting actor category, there were many other worthy candidates for this field. In addition to McDormand and Streep, as discussed above, and Blanchett for her roles in both “Nightmare Alley” and “Don’t Look Up,” there were others who would have made welcome additions to this list, including Caitríona Bialfe as a mother under pressure in “Belfast,” Rita Moreno as a grandmother worried about her at-risk grandson in “West Side Story,” Ruth Negga as a woman with a not-so-secret secret in “Passing,” Martha Plimpton and Ann Dowd for their gripping portrayals as grieving mothers in “Mass,” Gaby Hoffman as a young mother trying to juggle multiple responsibilities in “C’mon C’mon,” Suzanna Son as a flirtatious young vamp in “Red Rocket” and Polly Draper as an overbearing Jewish mother in “Shiva Baby.” Two final performances by legendary actresses who have passed on are also worthy of note: Diana Rigg for her role as a sinister old curmudgeon in “Last Night in Soho” and Cloris Leachman as a spry, insightful grandmother in the Canadian release “Jump, Darling.”

Snubs:  Conceivably speaking, one could argue that there were quite a few snubs in this category, but, realistically speaking, that would be hard to justify, given that there are only five nominations available. However, one could certainly argue that McDormand, Streep and Blanchett were indeed overlooked here. The same might also be said for Negga, who had deservedly earned a number of nominations in other competitions. Perhaps these omissions are better characterized as “oversights” than as blatant snubs, but their absence is nevertheless noticeable.

Best Director

The Field:  Paul Thomas Anderson, “Licorice Pizza”; Kenneth Branagh, “Belfast”; Jane Campion, “The Power of the Dog”; Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, “Drive My Car” (“Doraibu mai kâ”); Steven Spielberg, “West Side Story”

Who Will Likely Win:  Jane Campion, but with a caveat. Even though Campion has dominated awards season for her work on “The Power of the Dog,” some have speculated that her lock on the Oscar may no longer be as solid as it had been in light of off-handed comments she made during her acceptance speech at the Critics Choice Awards. It may seem petty and improbable that a very public gaffe can effectively torpedo someone’s chances at winning an award, but it has happened before, and there’s no reason to believe that it couldn’t happen again, especially in an age of unrelenting political correctness. In light of that, some believe Campion may have shot herself in the foot, opening the door to other contenders, most notably Kenneth Branagh for his semi-autobiographical memoir “Belfast.” Personally, I don’t believe this is going to happen in this category, but Campion’s misstep may have weakened the film’s chances in the best picture category (see below).

Who Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  Kenneth Branagh. For my money, Branagh is by far the class of the field in the director’s race. He truly deserves to win, and he can’t be ruled out in light of the foregoing, but it all depends on how much impact the Campion incident will affect the outcome.

Who Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  Adam McKay. In my view, the director of the satirical dark comedy “Don’t Look Up,” is the best choice for this award, but, given that the filmmaker of this divisive and controversial picture isn’t nominated, that obviously won’t happen. That’s unfortunate; this film has been unfairly criticized, and its director deserves to win.

Possible Dark Horses:  Kenneth Branagh. If the Campion incident ends up having a significant impact on Oscar voting, I believe that will open the door for Branagh, and he thus wouldn’t be seen as a dark horse at that point. If that doesn’t come to pass, however, he’ll retain this status, which could hamper his chances of pulling off an upset.

Also-Rans:  Paul Thomas Anderson, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Steven Spielberg. These three filmmakers are bona fide long shots for their work on “Licorice Pizza,” “Drive My Car” (“Doraibu mai kâ”) and “West Side Story,” respectively. They should consider their nominations as their awards.

Who Should Have Been Left Out:  Paul Thomas Anderson, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi and Jane Campion. “Licorice Pizza” and “Drive My Car” (“Doraibu mai kâ”) both left much to be desired, in my opinion, and their directors had no business being nominated. As for “The Power of the Dog,” Campion created a work that was well-acted and beautiful to look at but lacked a satisfactory narrative and script. And, even though she may be the frontrunner, I don’t believe her work was solid enough to merit a nomination in this category.

Who Else Should Have Been Considered:  Had the three directors noted above been left out of the running, it would have opened up slots for more deserving candidates. In addition to McKay (see above), other worthy contenders include Joel Coen for “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” Ridley Scott for “House of Gucci,” Pablo Larraín for “Spencer,” Rebecca Hall for “Passing,” Joachim Trier for “The Worst Person in the World” (“Verdens verste menneske”), and newcomers Alex Camilleri for “Luzzu” and Valdimar Jóhannsson for “Lamb” (“Dýrið”).

Snubs:  Adam McKay, Joachim Trier and Joel Coen. In addition to McKay’s exclusion as discussed above, the omission of Trier and Coen could be seen as possible snubs as well. Their work on “The Worst Person in the World” (“Verdens verste menneske”) and “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” respectively, was widely praised, and the lack of recognition they received in turn is regrettable, especially in light of the accolades awarded to filmmakers who produced inferior work.

Best Picture

The Field:  “Belfast,” “CODA,” “Don’t Look Up,” “Drive My Car” (“Doraibu mai kâ”), “Dune,” “King Richard,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley,” “The Power of the Dog,” “West Side Story”

What Will Likely Win:  At this juncture, I see this as a three-way race among “The Power of the Dog,” “Belfast” and “CODA.” If track record is the determining factor among these leading candidates, then the edge would go to “The Power of the Dog.” However, in light of the Campion incident discussed above, the influence of the picture’s track record could be diminished, opening up the door for its two main competitors. But there’s another reason why “Belfast” and “CODA” could step up to the plate – given how image-conscious the Oscars can be, the Academy often tries to select best picture winners that send the right message. And, in a world beset by so many trying issues these days, the Academy may look to choose a winner that embodies uplifting, inspirational, heartwarming values, which is where “Belfast” and “CODA” come into play, both of which are in striking contrast to the darker, more menacing tone of “The Power of the Dog.” In particular, considering the momentum that “CODA” has been building of late, it could easily rise to the top and snatch away the Oscar in a last-minute upset win, much the way “Birdman” (2014), “Moonlight” (2016), “Green Book” (2018) and “Parasite” (“Gisaengchung”) (2019) have in recent years. So what will take home the statue? I’m going out on a limb here – I believe it will be “CODA” in an upset, despite it being an outcome I would disagree with.

What Should Win (Based on the Nominees):  “Don’t Look Up.” For the reasons covered in the best director discussion, this satirical dark comedy deserves to win. As my choice for best picture of 2021, this hilarious release had me in stitches from start to finish, all the while delivering a pointed and poignant message. However, given the controversial and divisive nature of this Netflix release, I don’t expect it to win; in fact, I’m surprised it even managed to land a nomination (though I’m certainly glad it did). As the only best picture nominee with a negative Rotten Tomatoes rating, “Don’t Look Up” doesn’t stand a chance and should consider its nomination as its award. With that said, if I were to name my pick among the three frontrunners, my choice would be “Belfast,” a delightful offering that would make a fine best picture winner. However, given its underdeveloped visibility and tepid performance at the box office, it may not have enough pull among Academy voters to claim the top prize.

What Should Win (Based on All Eligible Candidates):  “Don’t Look Up,” for the reasons discussed above.

Possible Dark Horses:  “CODA” and “Belfast,” for the reasons discussed above. And, in light of the potential impact of the Campion incident, their stars may be rising, making their designations as dark horses increasingly moot.

Also-Rans:  Anything that isn’t “The Power of the Dog,” “Belfast” or “CODA.” The other seven candidates simply don’t have enough oomph behind them to put them over the top.

What Should Have Been Left Out:  Sadly, most of the field. Given the weakness of this class of nominees, most of the contenders shouldn’t have made the cut in the first place, in my opinion. “Drive My Car” (“Doraibu mai kâ”), “Dune,” “King Richard,” “Licorice Pizza,” “Nightmare Alley,” and frontrunners “The Power of the Dog” and “CODA” have no business being in this field. They are poor to mediocre offerings not worthy of this distinction.

What Else Should Have Been Considered:  The elimination of seven contenders from the field of 10 nominees would have opened up ample space for more deserving nominees. Among those worthy of consideration are “Swan Song,” “Spencer,” “The Tragedy of Macbeth,” “House of Gucci,” “Mass,” “Passing,” “The Worst Person in the World” (“Verdens verste menneske”), “Red Rocket,” “The Killing of Kenneth Chamberlain,” “Luzzu,” “Lamb” (“Dýrið”) and “The Hand of God” (“È stata la mano di Dio”).

Snubs:  “Passing” and “The Worst Person in the World.” Given the multiple nominations “Passing” has picked up in previous competitions and the widespread praise “The Worst Person in the World” has earned, these films definitely deserved a seat at the table. It’s unfortunate that they didn’t get one.

The Oscars will be handed out in televised ceremonies on Sunday March 27. 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 © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

‘After Yang’ examines what it means to be human

“After Yang” (2021 production, 2022 release). Cast: Colin Farrell, Jodie Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Justin H. Min, Haley Lu Richardson, Clifton Collins Jr., Ritchie Coster, Sarita Choudhury, Orlagh Cassidy, Ava DeMary, Adeline Kerns, Ansley Kerns. Director: Kogonada. Screenplay: Kogonada. Story: Alexander Weinstein, “Saying Goodbye to Yang” in Children of the New World. Web site. Trailer.

We all know what it takes to be human, right? In fact, as far as most of us are concerned, it’s a done deal, case closed, no further discussion. However, in an age of rapidly evolving technology, we’ve begun to realize that those hard and fast definitions have come up for reevaluation. A friend, for instance, has always been thought of as someone we interact with in person, not someone we communicate with halfway around the globe on the internet and have never met physically. But do these circumstances with such an electronic pen pal make this individual any less of a friend? Distinctions like this can carry profound implications, even more so than by this example, as seen in the thoughtful new cinematic meditation, “After Yang.”

What constitutes a family? That’s a question whose answer has been steadily evolving in recent decades. The traditional nuclear family, consisting of a pair of heterosexual parents and their offspring, generally of the same racial or ethnic background, has gradually been giving way to alternate configurations with increasing degrees of variation and acceptance. And it’s a trend that’s likely to continue on into the future as new developments begin to enter the picture. That’s particularly true in light of the evolution taking place in the nature of individuality. Indeed, given that families inherently consist of collections of individuals, the nature of those groupings will continue to change as the nature of those who make them up also continue to change. For example, as we move forward, will individuality continue to be based strictly on questions of biology alone, or will something else – like sentience – supplant or complement it? That being the case, then, what we think of as families and individuals may become something very different from what we’ve been traditionally accustomed to.

Such is the case in the Fleming household, a San Francisco family of the future. Parents Jake (Colin Farrell) and Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith) live with their adopted daughter, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), a young Chinese girl. However, given that Mika’s Caucasian father and African-American mother come from vastly different backgrounds from her, Jake and Kyra are concerned that their daughter may not have enough of an opportunity to learn about her cultural heritage. Also, as an only child, they believe she could benefit greatly from the presence of an older sibling role model. But how can such a void be filled?

The answer is simple, thanks to a company called Brothers and Sisters Inc. The company has developed sophisticated trans-sapien technologies, enabling families to fill in the gaps in their households by making it possible to purchase synthetic beings (mostly children and siblings) who embody the qualities they’re looking for. In the Flemings’ case, for instance, Jake and Kyra approached the company to acquire an older brother for Mika, an Asian young adult who is programmed to be familiar with Chinese culture. These specifications are thus embodied in Yang (Justin H. Min), a synthetic who Jake and Kyra purchase to serve as a loving sibling and mentor for Mika. Yang cares deeply for his younger sister and readily shares an array of insights about life, as well as a wealth of “Chinese fun facts.”

As time passes, Mika comes to adore Yang and vice versa. Yang assimilates into the family so seamlessly that it’s hard to tell he’s not a strictly biological being. He truly blends into the household, and Mika is not the only one who looks upon him as a family member. Jake and Kyra genuinely come to view Yang as their son to the same degree that they view Mika as their daughter, even though both of them are not their own biological offspring. Together they make for a loving family unit. Indeed, who says that the nuclear model is the only one that’s truly “legitimate”?

All is well until one day when Yang inexplicably starts to malfunction, a development that starkly impacts the family household. Mika is especially upset, given how much she adores her older brother. And her parents, particularly Jake, are committed to find out what’s gone wrong. They’re determined to do whatever they can to see that Yang is properly repaired, especially since he’s still under warranty. But, as this process plays out, Jake and Kyra quickly find that this may be easier said than done. The warranty, it seems, doesn’t cover what appears to be ailing Yang, and fixing the problem may not be possible. In fact, it soon becomes apparent that recycling Yang for another trans-sapien unit may be the only realistic option.

Jake is far from satisfied with this solution. He sees Yang as more than a household appliance and, accordingly, is willing to explore alternative possibilities further. At the recommendation of the family’s neighbor, George (Clifton Collins Jr.), Jake takes Yang to a free-lance repairman, Russ (Ritchie Coster), who clandestinely fixes malfunctioning units like Yang – and not always legally.

After initially examining Yang, Russ also concludes that he may well be beyond repair. His investigation is more thorough than what was done at the warranty center, though the answer is essentially the same. However, Russ proposes one additional possibility that might offer a solution, even though it would involve performing an illegal procedure. Essentially the procedure calls for opening up Yang’s central processing mechanism, a practice that would violate the manufacturer’s protected proprietary technology rights. Jake is admittedly reluctant, but, if it offers potential hope for restoration, he’s willing to go along with it.

An alternative family, the Flemings (from left, Colin Farrell, Jodie-Turner-Smith, Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, Justin H. Min), enjoy a happy outing in the latest from writer-director Kogonada, “After Yang,” now playing in theaters and online. Photo courtesy of A24.

Despite the possibilities this procedure offers, as the repair process drags out, the family grows increasingly torn. Mika has become distraught over the fate of her brother. Kyra, meanwhile, has come to believe that it’s time to move on, that the stress of this situation has begun to place undue strain on the well-being of the household. And Jake, in his efforts to be a caring and protective father, has grown weary over everything that has gone on and what it has done to his family, especially Mika. He begins to wonder how much longer he can allow this to continue and what else he might do to reach a solution that’s in everyone’s best interests.

Upon completion of the covert procedure, Russ reveals that Yang indeed can’t be repaired. However, in the course of his work, he makes a startling discovery – he finds that Yang has been fitted with a sophisticated recording device, one that compiles a wealth of the unit’s memories. Russ speculates that this device is essentially a form of spyware that the manufacturer uses to collect a wealth of highly personal information about the unit’s owners for data mining purposes, information that’s subsequently harvested and sold at the time the unit is recycled. It’s quite a revelation, not to mention an egregious invasion of privacy.

But Jake’s interest in the recording device is different. He hopes it might provide clues as to what caused Yang to malfunction, so he decides to review the recordings with that aim in mind. And what he finds is eye-opening. He gains new insight into what Yang believed to be important in his life. More than that, though, he also develops a new appreciation for the impact that Yang had on him, Mika and Kyra, as well as a mystery woman (Haley Lu Richardson) whom Jake knew nothing about. But, most importantly, this exercise provides everyone – characters and viewers alike – with a new understanding of what it means to be “human,” regardless of whether one’s nature is based on biology or technology.

What is the family to do with this information? And what’s to become of Yang? What prompted the malfunction that led to his demise? And who is the mystery woman who showed up in his memories? That all remains to be seen as events play out in the wake of this domestic misfortune.

Given the power and persistence of our outlooks on the world, it’s easy for our views to become locked into place. That’s attributable to our beliefs, the building blocks of our existence, as made possible by the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we draw upon these resources in manifesting our reality. However, as experience shows us, despite such power and persistence, our beliefs can also be quite malleable, adaptable to new thoughts and ideas, particularly when evidence appears showing us that the notions we once thought were intractably unchangeable are indeed capable of adjustment and alteration. And, as this movie shows, that’s true for such basic life assumptions as what we believe constitutes the nature of family, individuality and humanity.

For instance, “After Yang” provides us with a blueprint for how it’s possible to see ourselves and those we love as being based on considerations other than mere biology, the belief basis we have typically used for ages. As the film shows us, it’s indeed conceivable for Jake, Kyra and Mika to have a deep, meaningful relationship with a synthetic. Yang’s sentience and emotions appear to be just as “real” as anything a flesh-and-blood biological is capable of, so is it any surprise that his family members would react the same way toward him that they do toward one another? If you doubt that, think of this another way: Jake and Kyra love Mika just as much as if she were their own biological offspring, yet, as their adopted daughter, clearly she’s not, but that difference doesn’t block the connection between them. So why should it be otherwise with Yang?

Young Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja, left) shares a special moment with her older trans-sapien brother, Yang (Justin H. Min, right), in Kogonada’s “After Yang.” Photo courtesy of A24.

These changing definitions of what we believe constitutes family and individuality reflect our ability to overcome limitations in our perspectives. And that, in turn, illustrates for us how our beliefs are often based on arbitrary distinctions, choices that can be changed as long as we allow it. In fact, as conscious creation maintains, such shifts should actually be expected, since one of the philosophy’s core principles is the inherent evolution in the nature of existence, that everything is in a constant state of becoming. If this concept seems uncannily familiar, one need only look to the Buddhist precept of the impermanence of all things. Indeed, all things considered, at bottom, those notions don’t seem fundamentally different from one another. (Or, as a wise old sage once said, “You say tomAto, I say tomOto….”)

The more we look at this, the more we begin to realize, does it really matter from whence sentience arises? If the impact that another’s consciousness on us is as profound as is depicted in the Fleming household, is it really important where those feelings come from? This becomes apparent in the review of Yang’s memories, when we see his profound heartfelt interactions with Jake, Kyra, Mika and the mystery woman. As Jake, a tea vendor, discusses his fascination for the beverage and its potentially transcendental nature, we witness Yang’s sincere intent to share in this understanding. When Kyra admires Yang’s butterfly collection, they engage in a deep, meaningful philosophical discussion about the metaphorical metamorphosis that occurs when a caterpillar evolves into what it eventually becomes. In a stroll through a garden with Mika, Yang explains the age-old horticultural practice of grafting and how it symbolizes what happens in a family when “outsiders” are joined to the collective and how it makes the unit more richly diverse. These are insights and reactions one might not typically expect to come from an “artificial” life form.

Yang’s existence also draws attention to another belief worthy of being dispelled – that artificial intelligence is intrinsically – and always – harmful. Through a bevy of sci-fi stories, we have been routinely conditioned to believe that there’s absolutely nothing good that can possibly come out of such technology. But can one honestly say that the ways in which Yang interacts with his family members are innately evil? To be sure, one could make an argument in favor of that notion because of his internal recording device as a means of conducting invasive data mining, but it’s important to remember that this is a technology developed by man, not by the synthetic. Indeed, that naturally makes one wonder who the real villain is here.

By extension, the film also makes clear how important it is for us to incorporate elements in our existence that help to offset the impact of a high-tech world. The ubiquitous presence of technology in this future existence is routinely and deliberately counterbalanced with high-touch aspects – prolific and beautiful gardens, environments filled with serenity-inducing elements, and, of course, the presence of gentle, compassionate, empathetic artificial life forms. We need such influences in our lives (especially these days), and their essential importance is recognized in this society of tomorrow. Such elements can be introduced any time we want; all it takes is the will to do so and the supporting beliefs to make it happen.

When cultural trans-sapien Yang (Justin H. Min, lying) malfunctions, he’s comforted by a mystery woman (Haley Lu Richardson, standing) in Kogonada’s “After Yang.” Photo courtesy of A24.

The impact on biologicals like us can truly be significant, too. It urges a greater respect toward others and the world around us, including all of its elements, regardless of the fundamental foundations underlying their existence. It promotes wider acceptance and tolerance of others, including those who are different from us. In fact, it even prompts a heartfelt desire for honored remembrance, such as when Jake contemplates memorializing Yang’s life in a museum exhibit with the assistance of a compassionate curator (Sarita Choudhury). If that’s not a step forward for humanity, I don’t know what is.

It’s also impressive to see the lengths that Jake is willing to go to in order to save Yang. It’s more than just trying to effect repairs to a piece of broken-down technology. It’s a genuine effort to save a member of the family, to preserve the loving, collective nature of the household for its continued health and well-being. This kind of touching heroic effort is to be commended for what it seeks to achieve, illustrating a kind of compassion and appreciation that we could all stand to learn from. And to think that such a lesson in learning what really matters in life comes to the family – and us – from a machine. What a tremendous irony – and insight – that is.

How often does a movie seek to address the big questions of life? Well, if you’re the filmmaker Kogonada, the answer to that question would appear to be “every time.” Like his previous beautiful and ambitious release “Columbus” (2017), the director has successfully followed up that offering with this even more beautiful and ambitious project. Based on the short story “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” this thoughtful and emotive cinematic meditation raises intriguing questions about what it means to be human, largely through countless recollections that bring those considerations to the fore and give both characters and viewers pause to examine and reevaluate outlooks that may have once been rigid but can now be looked upon in a more fluid light. With fine performances all around, stupendously gorgeous cinematography (a Kogonada hallmark) and a lovely background score, “After Yang” evokes a profound array of moods, from joyful to sad to reflective, leaving one supremely touched by the experience, and it’s all accomplished without violence, evildoers or malevolence. There are occasional pacing issues, and a few of the ideas raised are left less than resolved (most likely intentionally), but overall this is a truly stirring experience, one whose impact will linger long after the lights come up. The picture is playing theatrically and online.

When all is said and done in our lives, do the tangible qualities of those who have impacted us the most really matter in the end? Perhaps that might be true in certain contexts, like sexuality, but, when it comes to the things that really matter most – the intangible emotional bonds we forge with such individuals, for example – does it really matter if they’re biological, technological or even physically present in our lives? When framed in that way, we have an entirely new perspective to draw from, even though the bottom line influence and connection may be the same in either case. Indeed, it’s the bond that ultimately really matters most, and that, it would seem, is what truly counts when it comes to our assessments of what it means to be human. Yang shows us this here. Maybe we should listen.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

‘Hive’ inspires courage, hope and determination

“Hive” (“Zgjoi”) (2021). Cast: Yllka Gashi, Çun Lajçi, Kaona Sylejmani, Mal Niah Sadqiu, Shkelqim Islami, Astrit Kabashi, Kumrije Huxha, Adriana Matochi, Molikë Maxhuni, Blerta Ismaili, Armend Smajli. Director: Blerta Basholli. Screenplay: Blerta Basholli. Web site. Trailer.

When life beats us down, it can be nearly impossible to pick ourselves up off the ground. With so much holding us back, we may be unable to know how to go about it or even where to start. Yet, if we’re to carry on, we somehow have to figure out how to summon up the courage, hope and determination to move forward. Such is the experience of a group of wartime survivors as seen in the troubling yet inspiring new fact-based drama, “Hive” (“Zgjoi”).

When the madness of war mercilessly tears families apart, the survivors are left to pick up the pieces, a process that can sometimes be far more complicated than one might expect. So it was for the women of Kosovo in the wake of the tiny Balkan republic’s bombardment by neighboring Serbia in 1999, a conflict that resulted in the “disappearance” of many of the nation’s husbands and fathers, leaving their wives and mothers to carry on. But their efforts to do so were often thwarted by a misogynistic culture that sought to prevent them from engaging in anything other than the traditional roles they typically played, including earning a living even in the ubiquitous absence of male breadwinners.

Such is the story of Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi), wife of Agimi (Armend Smajli), mother of two children, a teenage daughter, Zana (Kaona Sylejmani), and a young son, Edoni (Mal Niah Sadqiu), and caregiver to her aging and ailing father-in-law, Haxhiu (Çun Lajçi). In 1999, the family’s town of Krusha e Madhe was stormed by invading forces in which many of the men were summarily rounded up and taken away. Their fates were officially unknown, even though most everyone knew that they had been killed, their bodies dumped in mass graves or a nearby river. This left many families, including the Hoti household, without husbands, fathers and incomes.

While the United Nations stepped in to search for the missing in the wake of the unspeakable carnage, the process was slow, and, in most cases, all that was found were badly decomposed remains and remnants of tattered clothing – not much to work with when it came to making definitive identification of who was found. And, after seven frustrating years of few meaningful results, the survivors of the lost needed to get on with their lives, particularly generating income to keep their family households afloat. Given who was left behind, this was a task that fell to the women, but most attempts aimed at making a living were met with fierce opposition from the remaining men of the village.

The region’s longstanding chauvinistic mindset maintained that women were supposed to clean the house, cook the meals and rear the children only, not engage in prohibited pursuits like starting businesses or even driving cars. After all, these clueless sexists believed, what would their men think once they finally returned home and found their women doing such heinous things? Free-thinking attitudes like this were incontrovertible evidence that these disobedient women were inherently untrustworthy, raising the specter that they were also probably involved in all manner of other nefarious and lascivious activities. This scorn toward them led to acts of violence against them and their property, as well as rampant namecalling that earned them such disparaging labels as “whore.”

In a remote field in Kosovo, Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi) quietly observes United Nations forensic investigators in their search for the remains of the missing, including her husband, in the wake of a brutal 1999 attack by Serbian forces in the gripping and uplifting new drama, “Hive” (“Zgjoi”). Photo by Astrit Ibrahimi, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Nevertheless, bills had to be paid, and food had to be put on the table. To earn money, Fahrije initially took over the beekeeping operation launched by Agimi, producing honey sold by Haxhiu in the local market. But, even though it produced a modest income, it wasn’t enough. And, compared to many of her peers, Fahrije was fortunate to be earning anything. The women of Krusha e Madhe clearly had to do something to support themselves, despite the obstacles.

With the assistance of a local women’s organization, Fahrije and a group of her kindreds banded together to form a company that manufactured ajvar, a relish made from red peppers and eggplants, which they sold in a local supermarket. They faced numerous challenges, such as vandalism of their delivery vehicle (Fahrije’s car) and attempted sexual abuse by a local produce wholesaler (Astrit Kabashi). They also went to great lengths to keep the business afloat, such as pooling their funds from the sale of family jewelry. But they remained committed, sticking together and drawing from the strength of Fahrije and Nazmije (Kumrije Huxha), the wise old matriarch of the group.

Through it all, in addition to the ongoing financial and cultural challenges, the women also had personal issues to deal with. Fahrije, for example, still had a family to care for, including an often-belligerent adolescent daughter and a father-in-law who vociferously tried to dissuade her from her “dangerous” ventures. Then there was the frustrating ongoing search for Agimi’s remains, a process aided by a forensic investigator (Shkelqim Islami) who, unfortunately, repeatedly failed to obtain a DNA sample from Haxhiu, a tool that could potentially expedite the matter and at last put the issue to rest. This, of course, perpetuated the profound grief that Fahrije felt over the disappearance of her husband and the lingering doubt about what actually happened to him. This all made for quite a full plate.

However, the collective strength of the group helped to keep the business going at a time when its continued existence was essential. Indeed, cooperation and teamwork can be powerful forces to counteract the perils that surround us, as the women of this village learned for themselves. Like the bees who kept their hives thriving, this determined collective did the same, not only for themselves, but also for their sense of hope for a better future.

The burdens placed on Fahrije and the other women of her village are unimaginable. Difficulties in just one of these areas would be challenging enough, but, considering the myriad issues they’re up against, it’s almost inconceivable to fathom how they could possibly carry on. Missing husbands, economic hardship, unresolved grief and relentless ignorance-based harassment represent quite an array of adversity, but what can the women do under these circumstances? Simply giving up is not an option, so something has to be done. But what? And how?

Tending to the bees in her backyard hives, Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi) ekes out a living to help keep her family’s household afloat in director Blerta Basholli’s fact-based debut feature, “Hive” (“Zgjoi”), now playing in limited theatrical release and available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Overcoming obstacles as overwhelming and pervasive as these is indeed possible, but success depends on one’s ability to become convinced about the prospect. And that, in turn, rests with one’s beliefs, the building blocks of one’s reality according to the conscious creation process, the philosophy that makes such manifestations possible. Embracing that notion is imperative in Fahrije’s case, as everything she and her collaborators hope to achieve depends on it.

For starters, the women of Fahrije’s collective must adopt beliefs that rid them of fears and limitations, impediments that could easily hold them back from attaining any of their goals. And, in light of their circumstances, they have an abundance of potential fear- and limitation-based beliefs to vanquish, any of which could undercut their aims. However, given the power of their motivations and the depth of their needs, they also have ample inspiration and impetus to drive the formation of suitable beliefs designed to overcome these undermining influences and enable them to fulfill their objectives.

Once armed with ample courage, fortitude and determination and free of the hindrances that had long held them back, the women were then able to allocate their energies to the development of beliefs aimed at helping them envision possibilities and creative solutions that they previously had been unable to do. This led to the formation of their support group, then the idea to start a business, and then the means to make its formation, development and growth possible. It also enabled them to stand up to those who tried to undermine their efforts, to put the naysayers in their place, and to allow them to come into their own as fully actualized individuals, savvy entrepreneurs and empowered heroes.

Undoubtedly this all came about largely as a result of the individual strivings of Fahrije and her colleagues. But it also resulted from their collective efforts, their ability to work jointly in committed acts of co-creation, not unlike the bees in Fahrije’s hives. By pooling their belief resources, they were able to significantly amplify the magnitude of their intentions, making it possible to not only achieve, but also to exceed, their expectations. That certainly proved comforting, at least when it came to addressing their everyday basic survival needs. And, with that matter covered, it freed up resources to work on beliefs and solutions for their personal considerations, such as their efforts aimed at searching for their lost spouses and dealing with their long-unresolved grief, concerns that were hard to attend to when faced with issues as fundamental as putting food on the table.

By pooling financial resources with her peers, business owner Fahrije Hoti (Yllka Gashi, second from left) struggles to keep their fledgling operation afloat in the face of numerous challenges as seen in director Blerta Basholli’s fact-based debut feature, “Hive” (“Zgjoi”). Photo by Alexander Bloom, courtesy of Kino Lorber.

Most importantly, though, these creative efforts helped to put Fahrije and the other women on a firm footing for the future. It may not have restored what they lost, but it provided them with a foundation on which they could build new lives for themselves and their families. Even their culture was impacted by the introduction of progressive new ideas, concepts designed to help sweep away archaic, outmoded notions that benefitted only a privileged few and kept the remainder of society on the outside looking in. In the process, they realized gains for their gender, as well as the ability to exercise the joy and power of creation for the betterment of themselves and their society, quite an accomplishment from humble beginnings.

Director Blerta Basholli’s fact-based debut feature hits all of the right notes with this inspired yet troubling offering. Its unique combination of raw emotions, steely determination and supportive sisterhood make for a one-of-a-kind viewing experience, one that’s sure to draw out an array of heartfelt feelings and stirring responses from viewing audiences. The film’s striking cinematography and superb script are genuine stand-outs, placing viewers squarely in the circumstances faced by the finely crafted ensemble of characters. But perhaps its greatest asset is the masterful lead performance of Yllka Gashi as the beleaguered but defiant protagonist. With world events being what they are at the moment, this outstanding release reminds us all too poignantly about what we face in the wake of these insane, misguided catastrophes and the difficulty of coming back from them, a challenge that calls for an abundance of commitment and determination in the face of adversely unrelenting circumstances. The film is currently playing in limited theatrical release and is available for streaming online.

While “Hive” hasn’t earned any major awards season accolades (despite having been shortlisted as Kosovo’s submission for the Academy Awards’ best international film), it has nevertheless fared well on the film festival circuit. The picture has earned 17 wins and an additional 11 nominations in international competitions around the globe, quite an accomplishment for a first-time narrative feature filmmaker. That should say something about the quality and merits of this fine debut production.

The uplifting example set by the women of Krusha e Madhe should inspire anyone who has come up against adversity and needs to determine how to carry on. The challenges they managed to overcome make many of those that we face pale by comparison. It’s hard to imagine how they could have vanquished everything that they did, but, when our circumstances necessitate us having to do so, somehow we manage to find the inner strength and suitable supporting beliefs to make it happen. We should remember that the next time our backs are against the wall. After all, if these courageous souls can rise up to meet their circumstances, there’s no reason why any of the rest of us can’t – especially when we seemingly have no other choice available to us.

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.