If Beale Street Could Talk

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If Beale Street Could Talk

*1/2

 

A few years ago, filmmaker Barry Jenkins captured lightening in a bottle with “Moonlight.”

It’s a magical film. It’s a unique, bittersweet tale of first love. It’s an empathetic exploration of a life spent in the closet. It introduced Mahershala Ali as the leading actor of our time.

“Moonlight” was so magical that it was able to win Best Picture even though Faye Dunaway had already given the award to “La La Land.”

The magic is gone.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” tells the story of Tish and Fonny: a black couple living in New York City in the early 1970s. Tish is pregnant; Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

About ten minutes into the film, there is one great scene. Tish’s family has invited Fonny’s family over to announce the pregnancy. The dialogue reads like a great play, where every character gets one awesome, scene-chewing speech.

Fonny’s holy roller mom does not take the news of Tish’s pregnancy very well. She stands up, gets in Tish’s face, and tears into her. She calls Tish a Godless Louisiana whore. The churchgoer calls the embryo a shriveled devil child who she hopes will not survive. The tirade only ends when her husband gives her a brutal slap with the back of his hand.

The reason I just gave away the one good scene is because the rest of the movie is so unwatchable. I earnestly urge you to skip it.

The very next scene is a ridiculous flashback to the first time Fonny and Tish make love. I had no idea it was possible to make losing one’s virginity look so dull.

How do you have an entire love scene without either character smiling or looking interested? How do you have your pretty young leading lady take her top off and have it seem clinical and tedious? It’s an astonishing achievement in incompetent filmmaking. Fonny and Tish are making a baby. But by the solemn, pained looks on their faces, you’d think they were ritualistically sacrificing one.

It feels like half the movie is just Fonny and Tish staring at each other and whispering passionless proclamations of love. And I do mean whispering. One of the film’s biggest problems is that the 70s mood music drowns out the hushed dialogue. The result is a little frustrating and a little sleep-inducing.

I imagine that there was a lot of: “this seems like a bad movie, but Barry Jenkins has got a Best Director Oscar so I don’t feel comfortable questioning his decisions” on the set of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The end result is an unfocused art film that is painful to sit through.

“Moonlight” was magic. But the magic is gone. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is the most boring movie of 2018.

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The Favourite

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The Favourite

****

 

I have no ambition.

I started my first full-time job with health insurance in 2001. For eighteen straight years, I have had the exact same career goal: keep my job.

Over the years, co-workers have asked me – in confusion – why I don’t want more. Those same co-workers tend to get disappointed and frustrated and leave the company.

Other ambitious people in my office got everything they wanted but found that promotions and power didn’t make them any happier.

Emma Stone stars as Abigail: the most ambitious person at the court of Queen Anne of England.

Abigail has noble blood and a proper education. But her family fell on hard times. By the time we meet her in 1708, Abigail is fortunate just to land a job as a palace maid.

When she discovers that Queen Anne is having a secret affair with Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), Abigail sees a golden opportunity.

While “The Favourite” is a bit too weird, dark, and artsy to be Best Picture, all three leading ladies have a solid chance of winning Oscars for their performances.

Olivia Colman sheds all vanity to play a truly disgusting version of Queen Anne. She is gluttonous, gout-ridden, and self-loathing. When she’s depressed, she has epic tantrums. And yet, Anne isn’t a royal joke; she’s a real middle-aged woman with a ton of responsibility and a sincere commitment to ruling well.

Rachel Weisz’s Sarah is the mean girl of the palace. She always has a clever comeback or a vicious putdown. The duchess has bullied herself to the top, becoming the Queen’s most influential advisor.

But Sarah’s downfall is her humanity and restraint. From Sarah, we learn that an ambitious person should smile meekly at her enemies and then destroy them without mercy. The worst thing to do is to make loud threats that you don’t have the stomach to follow through on.

Abigail never makes that mistake. I didn’t think that Emma Stone could act and she proved me wrong in a big way. Stone uses her sweet-girl image to make Abigail’s viciousness feel even more shocking.

The ending to “The Favourite” is powerful and perfect. Abigail – the meek little scullery maid who we have been rooting for the entire movie – has achieved every one of her lofty ambitions. And success has made her desperately, desperately miserable.

Mary Queen of Scots

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Mary Queen of Scots

**1/2

 

“There’s only one difference between you and me.

When I look at myself all I can see.

I’m just another lady without a baby.”

-Jenny Lewis, “One of the Boys” (2014)

 

One of the convenient things about being a man is that there is no stigma about being childless.

When someone at work asks me why I’m 42 and have no kids, I can say it is because I’ve never wanted any and never will and that’s the end of the conversation. I’m confident that this makes me look like a decisive, independent-minded, somewhat self-centered guy; a regular dude with absolutely nothing to apologize for.

A woman in the same position faces more brazen, thoughtless questions (“are you SURE?” “do you think you’re going to regret it?). Nature forces a childless woman my age to wonder whether she has made a terrible mistake that may be too late to reverse. And society forces her to fear that her life will be a lonely meaningless failure if she never becomes a mother.

It took me a while to notice this pressure to reproduce. As far back I can remember, I viewed childlessness as the clearest, most objective evidence that an adult is winning at life. But I am certainly in the minority.

And according to the mediocre new movie “Mary Queen of Scots,” the existential pressure for women to have babies has been around for a long time.

Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular monarch, who returned from a long stay in France to rule her native Scotland from 1561 to 1567.

According to director Josie Rourke, Queen Mary was brave, proud, and intelligent. But she had two impossibly difficult issues to overcome.

The first was her religion. Mary returned from Catholic France to find that her faith made her a hated minority in Scotland.

Early on, Mary makes a speech about religious tolerance that she thinks will placate her Protestant cabinet. She is terribly mistaken.

There are a lot of villains in this story (virtually every man in Scotland, actually), but the real Dr. Evil is John Knox. The Calvinist reformer is portrayed as a hateful, blood-thirsty misogynist. Scotland is not large enough for Mary and Knox to co-exist.

Mary’s second problem caused her even more heartbreak. She had to deal with the impossible dilemma of having to produce a legitimate heir to the throne but knowing that any man who married her would only be doing so to usurp her power.

Mary’s reign is contrasted with that of her cousin: Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie). Elizabeth fully recognized that any man who married her would be driven to steal her throne and possibly kill her like her father Henry VIII. She remained the Virgin Queen out of necessary self-preservation.

Mary Queen of Scots is foolish enough to marry and even briefly fall in love. Her marriage to Lord Darnley is even more catastrophic than we are expecting. Predictably, he is hungry for power. Unfortunately, he is also hungry for young men and thirsty for booze.

However, Mary does manage to get the baby she yearned for.

This is where the film drops the ball. The troubling conclusion that director Josie Rourke draws is that Mary triumphs because she produced an heir. And Elizabeth is a non-feminine chump for being too cautious to take a risk on true womanhood.

Mary is portrayed as an awesomely tolerant 21st Century-style woman. She is cool with religious freedom, interracial love, and she even has a gay guy as one of her chambermaids. But Mary cruelly taunts Elizabeth as “barren” and we are supposed to look past it. I couldn’t. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.

What is true in the 16th Century is true today: life is tougher for a childless woman than a childless man. But if there are any 40-something childless women reading this, I want you know that there are people out there who are on your side. I think we are the ones who are winning.

The Mule

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The Mule

***1/2

 

President Trump just signed the Federal Prison reform bill called First Step Act into law.

I think the First Step Act is terrific.

The dramatic 50 year increase in federal prison population has reached its ugly peak and is starting to drop. Judges are being given more freedom to use reason and compassion in sentencing. Thousands of victims of the Mandatory Minimum Sentence era will soon be released. And many remaining prisoners are being given vocational training so that they have a fighting chance of getting a job on the outside.

This was a totally bipartisan effort. Some – like me – will argue that the prison reform bill doesn’t go far enough. It is called First Step, though, so I’m willing to savor this victory and eagerly await the day when prison reform really kicks into high gear.

The semi-permanent separation of millions of felons from their families is a serious problem and a national disgrace. Many of these so-called criminals didn’t do anything violent. One of them did nothing more than drive from El Paso to Chicago with a duffle bag in his trunk.

Clint Eastwood stars as Earl. A decade ago, Earl was a successful grower and seller of daylilies. The internet destroyed his small business and left him with no money and no purpose.

In a way, it is a blessing for Earl that he finds himself hauling cocaine for the Sinaloa drug cartel. Earl is not your average Clint Eastwood tough guy character. He is happy-go-lucky, friendly, and gregarious. He enjoys chatting with the gangsters and he relishes the opportunity to give his cash away to the needy people in his life.

The previews make “The Mule” look like a tense thriller, but it’s not. There are more scenes of Earl driving his cool new Lincoln singing along to the radio then there are heart-pounding chase scenes.

“The Mule” is a charming comedy-drama, but Eastwood makes a few serious observations along the way.

Earl is from an era when people said what they wanted without worrying about who might be offended. Eastwood asks us who is more racist: a guy who uses the words “beaner” and “negro” but spends his days working with and hanging out with Mexicans? Or a man who is careful not to offend anyone but makes sure to live hidden away in a mostly white neighborhood or community?

Clint Eastwood is ambivalent about the criminal justice system. The DEA agents (Lawrence Fishburne, Michael Pena, and Bradley Cooper) aren’t bad guys. But they are obsessed with busts and prosecutions. You never hear them talk about protecting people or helping addicts. Their career is based on the empty fantasy that putting more men behind bars is a public good.

In the end, we’re all rooting for the drug smuggler character with ties to a Mexican cartel over the federal cops.

With “The Mule,” Clint Eastwood asks us whether we really believe that the country is safer now that a peaceful 90-year-old flower aficionado is behind bars. And since the answer is obviously ‘no,’ maybe it’s time to consider decriminalizing drugs. And emptying out some prisons.

Bill Murray Stories:                    Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man

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Bill Murray Stories:

Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man

****

 

I have great empathy for celebrities. They can’t have a break-up, a drug-addiction, or an ill-conceived Tweet without the whole world knowing about it.

However, all bets are off when celebrities start getting political and telling me what to do and think. Then my empathy quickly turns to disdain.

Just because you look handsome while robbing a casino does not mean you know more about geopolitics than me. You know less.

Fortunately, there is one celebrity who is bringing us together rather than tearing us apart. There is one celebrity is doesn’t think he is better than us but actually is. Of course it’s Bill Murray.

Apparently, the internet is full of Bill Murray stories: improbable tales about average people who suddenly found themselves spending quality time with America’s most beloved elderly actor.

Documentarian Tommy Avallone travelled the world to interview the folks who posted Bill Murray stories to see if they are true. Evidently, they are all true. Bill Murray is – as you have always suspected – the coolest celebrity.

Avallone interviews an employee at a little dive bar in Austin, TX. One afternoon, Bill Murray sat down next to him to drink a pint and chat. In a few hours, Mr. Murray was behind the bar serving drinks (poorly) to the starstruck crowd.

Later that weekend, Murray showed up to a house party with an all-girl indie band (no one knows how he picked them up). Murray chipped in for beer with the crumpled-up wad of cash in his pocket. “Let me pay; I’ve been saving up,” he insisted.

When the cops came because the party was too loud, the actor urged the police to join the party rather than break it up. Of course they did. No one says no to partying with Bill Murray.

Avallone travels to Scotland to see if the weirdest Bill Murray story is true. Apparently, the actor met a Norwegian exchange student in a bar and the student invited Murray back to his flat for a party. When he got there, Murray quietly chided the residents for keeping such a dirty kitchen. Then Bill Murray washed all the dishes in the sink before returning to the party to socialize.

The movie shows that Bill Murray isn’t a celebrity who interacts with the public as a stunt. He is a regular guy who completely rejects the celebrity lifestyle.

Bill Murray doesn’t have a famous wife or an entourage. He doesn’t live in Hollywood. His primary residence is Charleston, South Carolina. He doesn’t even have an agent; he has a landline with an 800 number.

If you like Bill Murray – and we all do, right? – “Bill Murray Stories” is the feel-good movie of the year.

With his actions, not his words, Murray is touching people’s lives and showing us a humble, wholesome way to live.

 

Oh, and as for you, George Clooney: I am disgusted by your arrogance. People do not like being talked down to or being told what to do by smug celebrities. If I were running for office, I’d try to manipulate you into campaigning for my opponent. I’m pretty sure that would swing some votes my way.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia                    Make America Apolitical Again

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It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Make America Apolitical Again

 

The saddest thing about our era isn’t the contentious state of politics. It’s the upsetting fact that politics has bled over into every other aspect of American life.

The NFL, late night comedy, natural disasters, Kanye West: everything is politicized. Everything is polarized. As a society, we desperately need something that doesn’t make us choose sides; something that brings us all together. That something is “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.”

If the comedians who make “It’s Always Sunny” are passionately pro or anti-Trump, they hide it incredibly well. The characters talk frankly about politics, social issues, and race in every episode, but the show never takes sides. It’s an incredible achievement in inclusiveness and restraint.

They have been making fun of overly political ignoramuses for years. Back in season 9 – in the episode “Gun Control Too: Still Hot” – the gang tackled the extremely polarizing gun control issue without taking sides.

The episode begins with amoral businessman Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito) going on local news to tell the story of how his two guns purchased at Gunther’s Gun Shop saved him from a violent robbery. Mac and Charlie are convinced. Dennis and Dee are disgusted.

Mac and Charlie arm themselves and go to an elementary school to try to protect the children. Meanwhile, Dennis and Dee try to prove their point by showing how easy it is to get an assault rifle. Slowly, each pair realizes the flaw in their argument and switch sides in the gun debate.

In the end, Frank admits that he doesn’t care about the issue at all; he just bought a stake in Gunther’s Gun Shop and stoked the city’s fear to make more money. Frank compares himself to Al Gore, who spread panic about Global Warming and got rich in the process. “In America,” Frank concludes, “you are either the duper or the dupee.”

This cynical view of politics is more relevant than ever. If you are fired up about something political, consider who profits from your rage. And, above all, consider laughing at yourself for being duped into caring so much.

In season 13’s amazing premier episode, “Make Paddy’s Great Again,” new cast-member Mindy Kaling gives a heartwarming speech about how the formerly crass and bigoted crew at Paddy’s Pub have become woke. Behind closed doors, the gang laughs at the left-wing customers and counts the money they made selling cheap Cabernet labeled as “Conservative Whine.”

Then, Kaling reveals her grand scheme, which is to switch sides, pretend to be conservative, and steal customers from the Right-Wing bar around the corner. Mac and Charlie begin relabeling the cheap wine as “Liberal Tears.”

The characters on “It’s Always Sunny” are terrible people. But the people who make the show are not. In another episode last season – “The Gang Solves the Bathroom Problem” – the show successfully depoliticized another issue that was dividing our country.

I can’t imagine anything less important than the toilet that transgender people use. But every conservative father in America has had an impassioned argument with his liberal daughter about that very issue.

With zero partisanship and zero cultural sensitivity, the “It’s Always Sunny” gang broke down the debate for a half hour. Ultimately, they concluded that the most sane option was for us to toss the Men and Women signs in the trash and label every bathroom in America with a sign that reads “Animal Poop.” Problem solved – and everybody was offended equally.

“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” used to be the best comedy on television. Now it is something even more valuable: it’s the last inclusive political show left in our fractured culture.

A populist guy and a raging feminist gal can sit on the couch – hand in hand – and enjoy this show as loving equals. “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” makes us laugh at the nitwits on the screen, and at ourselves.

A Sober Reckoning of George H W Bush’s Presidency

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A Sober Reckoning of George H W Bush’s Presidency

 

I was disappointed by the overwhelmingly positive bi-partisan coverage of George H W Bush last week.

I know we are not supposed to speak ill of the dead. And, since I didn’t know the guy personally, I will agree that he was a nice guy and a loving family man. For all I know he’s in heaven right now, chatting with the angels about why the Astros couldn’t get the 3rd out in some of those key innings of the ALCS.

But he was a lousy president.

George H W Bush was a one-term president who got 37.7% of the popular vote when he ran for reelection. He left office with the country mired in a recession.

Pat Buchanan was the undisputed intellectual champion of the Republican Primary – successfully attacking President Bush from the Left and paving the way for the Populist direction the GOP would eventually move. In the general election, more than a third of Republican voters jumped ship and voted for Ross Perot.

Americans did not want four more years of President Bush.

“Read my lips, no new taxes.” Politicians lie. I am not going to tear down President Bush because he lied and signed a huge tax increase into law. I am going to tear down President Bush because he was a Republican who raised taxes!

Many of you don’t care for Republicans. I have some serious issues with the Grand Old Party myself. However, we really do need one party to show restraint keep government from taking all of our money. A Republican President who raises taxes is like a homeless shelter with no beds that is just as cold as outside; it’s a deeply troubling surprise.

Politicians talk a good game about making the rich “pay their fair share.” But they don’t want fairness; they want as much money as they can get from whomever they can steal it. $5 per pack cigarette taxes and State Lotteries are aimed squarely at poorer Americans, trying to move as much spare cash from poor pockets into the hands of rich politicians.

A Republican politician who agrees to raise taxes isn’t being responsible, he is being rapacious.

President Bush had a splendid opportunity to usher in a new era of peace after the Cold War. With his imperialist domination plan called New World Order, he eagerly accomplished the exact opposite.

Instead of extending a sincere offer of friendship to Russia, Bush cynically supported drunken buffoon Boris Yeltsen. Instead of doing the right thing and disbanding NATO, President Bush began to extend the belligerent alliance right up to Russia’s doorstep. We have perpetual hostility with Russia and no one deserves more blame than President Bush.

The Bush Administration quietly promised their old buddy Saddam Hussein that the US military wouldn’t interfere in any little Arab wars. When Hussein took the bait and conquered Kuwait in 1990, President Bush reneged on his promise.

Desert Shield is remembered as a splendid little war, wiping away the humiliation of Vietnam. On the battlefield, it was a success. But the blowback was terrible.

The always amoral Saudi monarchy was perfectly happy to let the US military use the Muslim holy land as a staging ground for Desert Shield. Devout Muslims weren’t so keen on the idea.

Have you ever wondered when and why Islamic terrorists like Osama Bin Laden began calling Americans “Crusaders”? This is when and this is why. I am not saying that Desert Shield was a grand evil scheme to lead us into perpetual hostility with the Muslim world. But I do know that no deserves more blame than President Bush.

I am not trying to spread hate here. I honestly hope that Mr. Bush is in heaven right now having a lovely conversation with Saint Michael about Justin Verlander’s slider. But he was clearly a bad President. We agreed on that in 1992, remember?

 Green Book

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Green Book

****

 

Hollywood has been making dumb movies about race for a long time.

From “To Kill A Mockingbird” to “Mississippi Burning” to “The Help,” they’re all dumb is same way. In Hollywood’s self-righteous fantasyland, white people are the saviors who swoop in and bravely save black people from Jim Crow.

And in these movies, black characters are written as saints, not as actual people. In contrast to hateful white racist villains, the black people in the Hollywood version of the Civil Rights era are inhumanly patient and forgiving.

I don’t know what is going on in the guilt-ridden minds of white directors that makes them want to pretend that black people of the 1950s and 60s were not subject to the same character flaws as everyone else. Indeed, logic dictates that black people were probably angrier on average since they had to put up with more indignity and hardship.

The star of “Green Book” – Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) – is no saint. And he’s definitely angry. He’s the opposite of Morgan Freeman’s character in “Driving Miss Daisy,” and not just because Dr. Shirley is the one being chauffeured around.

“Green Book” tells the true story of a mob-affiliated bouncer who was hired to drive a black musician around the American south in 1962.

When we meet Dr. Shirley, he is conducting a job interview from the African throne he has in the middle of his living room. This sets the stage for the first half of the film, where Dr. Shirley – an acclaimed concert pianist – treats everyone around him like his servants.

Dr. Shirley is especially hard on his chauffeur/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen). The artist is arrogant, haughty, demanding, impatient, ungrateful and judgmental.

Dr. Shirley is an intellectual bully. Fortunately, Tony is such a good-natured, happy guy that he weathers the abuse with a smile. Shirley has a doctorate in psychology, but it’s streetwise Tony who understands that the artist’s behavior is driven by loneliness and sorrow.

Slowly, Tony’s patience and professionalism wins Dr. Shirley over. On the surface, this is a classic mixed-race buddy movie where both guys learn to appreciate each other. Tony learns to appreciate his boss’s awesome piano talent. But mostly it is fancy-pants Dr. Shirley who learns a lesson about how working-class white people aren’t so stupid and worthless after all.

Director Peter Farrelly (“Dumb and Dumber,” “There’s Something About Mary”) makes Tony undeniably lovable, but he never gives in to the White Savior trope. For all his character flaws, it is Dr. Shirley alone who battles the outrageous rules of the Jim Crow south.

There is nothing brilliant or surprising about this family-friendly PG-13 movie. But it is better than the sum of its parts thanks to the restrained, realistic performances by the two amazing lead actors. I think they both will get Oscar nominations.

“Green Book” is the feel-good dramedy of the Holiday Season. It is less artsy, less pretentious but more intelligent and well-crafted than the average Hollywood race movie. It has more in common with “Rush Hour” than “The Help,” and I mean that as a compliment.