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.

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   Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare

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Escape Fire:

The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare

***

 

I got terribly sick about 10 years ago.

I’m not going to bore you with the details, but my illness made me learn more about the state of American health care than I had ever planned.

After a few miserable years, two hospital stays, two surgeries, and a boatload of drugs, I was feeling okay. I could hardly believe it.

I was going to waste away and die. But the American healthcare system gave me a second half to life; and a decent quality of life at that.

I feel unbelievably fortunate to live in this country in this period of history.

 

The American healthcare system does so much good for so many people. But eventually it won’t exist in this form. Its price tag is ridiculous and unsustainable.

In the US, we spend more than $10,000 on healthcare per person every year. Our budget crisis can be seen as simply a healthcare spending crisis. Medicare and Medicaid make up more than $1 trillion of the annual federal budget. If Washington got rid of those programs, we would have a budget surplus immediately, and for years to come.

“Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare” is a non-partisan, open-minded documentary that exposes how we got so wasteful and how we can do better.

In the first half of the movie, documentarians Susan Froemke and Matthew Heineman follow the money to show us where it is being wasted. Specialists, they argue, order too many expensive tests and procedures because that is what they are paid to do.

Primary care physicians are under constant pressure to see as many patients as possible each day, because that’s how their practices stay in business. They don’t have time to come up with a plan to help their sick patients get well; they just have enough time to dole out more pills to mask their symptom.

Unsurprisingly, “Escape Fire” criticizes the US pharmaceutical industry. All those drug ads on TV have turned us into a nation of wasteful pill addicts. And those expensive pills are still no match for diet and exercise.

Froemke and Heineman aren’t just here to bash the current system. They have several optimistic ideas about how make healthcare cheaper and better.

Instead of paying primary care physicians by how many patients they see, Froemke and Heineman propose that we pay doctors based on the health outcomes of their patients.

They also introduce us to the Cleveland Clinic, where all the doctors are paid on salary. Consequently, the doctors’ only responsibility is to cure patients and there is no incentive to perform expensive tests and unnecessary procedures.

The most intriguing solution to rising costs is the Safeway health plan. The Safeway corporation effectively pressures its employees to live healthier lives using monetary incentives. At Safeway, healthcare paycheck deductions are significantly higher for smokers, people with high cholesterol, and for those whose body mass index is over 30.

Of course the Safeway plan works. Employees had virtually no choice but to quit smoking, eat healthier, and lose weight and the company’s healthcare costs have stopped rising every year.

However, it is hard to imagine this type of plan catching on nationwide. People do not like being told what and how much to eat. “Escape Fire” states that 70% of sickness is directly due to bad lifestyle choices. I don’t know if that’s true, but I predict that approximately 70% of sick people aren’t going to want to hear it.

 

“Escape Fire” is a well-made, intellectually stimulating documentary. Ultimately, it will change nothing, though. Until there is an actual crisis of funding, the current bloated system will continue unchanged. That’s because it works really well for a lot of people like me. (And because half of Congress is in the pocket of the insurance companies and big pharma).

A Star is Born

Image result for peyton manning torments brad paisley nationwide

A Star is Born

*1/2

 

“A Star is Born” is the runaway hit of the season. It is getting great reviews and it is going to be nominated for Best Picture.

I don’t get it, though. This isn’t a well-made movie. To me, “A Star is Born” is a sloppily made melodrama from a first-time director who yearns for the white male dominated world of the 20th Century.

Writer/director/star Bradley Cooper’s first misstep was to have the lead character be a drunken country-rock superstar who is hounded by adoring fans everywhere he goes.

In this America, there is no such thing as a guitar-strumming superstar with a cowboy hat. I can picture exactly one country singer: the guy who Peyton Manning torments in those Nationwide Insurance commercials. But I don’t know his name and I most certainly wouldn’t fawn over him if I saw him on the street.

Bradley Cooper’s Jackson Maine, however, is somehow so popular that he can’t walk into a gay bar on drag night without being ogled and drooled over. It is at this drag show that Jackson first lays eyes on Ally (Lady Ga Ga).

The first half of “A Star is Born” isn’t terrible. Jackson and Ally’s first date is pretty romantic. It’s also a little sexist, though. Jackson compliments Ally on her looks repeatedly, and creepily, throughout the date.

First off, it is simply bad form to repeatedly compliment a woman’s looks on a first date. Second, the movie is written so that Ally swoons every time Jackson suggests that she might be good-looking enough. Give me a break. A 30-something woman who looks like Ally has been called beautiful a hundred times by creepy dudes. Bradley Cooper treats her like a deformed charity case.

I guess there was a time in the mid-20th Century when it was novel to have an ethnic starlet who wasn’t blond and blue-eyed with a small nose. But that time is long gone. A key plot-point is that Jackson is the only man who believes Ally is acceptably presentable enough to be a star.

But that’s completely absurd. It is a known fact that a woman who looks JUST like Ally was the biggest pop princess in the world ten years ago.

It is no spoiler alert that Ally becomes a star. It is a minor [Spoiler Alert] that Jackson and Ally get married.

Ms. Ga Ga is being given rave reviews for her performance, but Cooper doesn’t give her a chance to play a realistic character. Ally is a rising superstar with a jealous junkie husband bringing her down. But Ally is always upbeat, good-natured, and forgiving.

Ally is an angelic caricature, not a real woman. In real life, juggling a career in music with a troubled husband is an unimaginably stressful experience (RIP Whitney). Ally never gets angry or overwhelmed.

In the end, “A Star Is Born” would have been an almost worthwhile movie experience if the music was any good. But it’s not. Jackson Maine’s ballad Maybe It’s Time is pretty. Ally’s first song on stage is good. But the rest of the music is boring.

All of Ally’s solo songs are bland. That’s a total disappointment, because we all know that Ms. Ga Ga is capable of making catchy pop hits. I get that it is part of the story that Ally’s songs are mediocre and soulless, but what this movie desperately needed was a little Lady Ga Ga. Instead, all we hear is Radio Blah Blah.

Hey, I’m happy that my mom and most moviegoers liked “A Star is Born.” I think it stinks, though. It feels like a relic from a time that I’m glad is gone.

 

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody

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Bohemian Rhapsody

****

 

Queen is the greatest rock band of all time.

Everybody knows Freddie Mercury. But Queen had four guys, each with a knack for writing songs that are immediately catchy and magically timeless.

Another One Bites the Dust (1980) is a disco song. Bassist John Deacon had just discovered American black music and you can hear it in his funk-inspired bass riff. Legend has it that the band didn’t know they even had a hit on their hands until Michael Jackson urged them to release it as a single. Two generations later, Dust doesn’t seem like a disco song anymore; it is a timeless rock masterpiece.

We Will Rock You (1977) is an anti-rock song. Brian May was an immensely talented guitarist. But for his greatest composition, he tossed his Red Special aside and wrote a song with almost no music. The lyrics are obscure and pessimistic; it’s an anti-protest song about the futility of youthful passion. But his stomp-stomp-clap is one of the most recognizable hooks in the history of music. We Will Rock You doesn’t seem like an anti-rock song anymore; it is a timeless rock masterpiece.

Bohemian Rhapsody (1975) is in a class by itself. There’s no sense trying to analyze it; the song is a piece of art that is as sublime and timeless as the Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling or Andy Warhol’s Campbells Soup Can. It takes vision and bravery to release a pop single with the lyrics: “Scaramouche Scaramouche, can you do the fandango?”

Rhapsody was a hit in 1975. It was a hit again in 1992 after “Wayne’s World.” It is playing every hour on SiriusXM Hits 1 right now.

It is great enough to make “Bohemian Rhapsody” a must-see blockbuster.

 

The band had four talented guys, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” is all about Queen’s famous front man.

Farrokh Bulsara was an ethnically Persian immigrant from Zanzibar. And he wasn’t particularly handsome. He was not an obvious choice to become one of Britain’s biggest stars. Legally changing his name to Freddie Mercury was a wise first step.

This is not a rags to riches story. Queen were not in rags for long. Killer Queen (1974) was a bonafide hit in the UK. And Bohemian Rhapsody made them a beloved rock band world wide.

Director Bryan Singer made some unorthodox choices. “Bohemian Rhapsody” has several factual errors and the events are presented wildly out of order. But that’s all for a good cause because the story is entertaining and fast-moving. The 135 minutes absolutely flies by.

How do you make a feel-good movie about a guy who died of AIDS? Bryan Singer found a way. He ends the film abruptly and triumphantly six years before Mercury died. There is nothing obvious about that decision and it works splendidly.

At first I was disappointed when I heard that the Queen movie was going to be PG-13 and it would gloss over Mercury’s hedonism and debauchery. But I was wrong. This is not a documentary; it is a family movie that celebrates music. Thanks to the PG-13 rating, a new generation of young people are discovering Queen.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” isn’t an artful film. If the music was mediocre, the movie wouldn’t be great. But the music IS great. Timelessly great.

  Leave No Trace

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Leave No Trace
****

One of the saddest things about our society is our unquenchable obsession with wanting more.
If everyone were offered one free item from Amazon.com, most people would be delighted and take Bezos up on it. Very few people would say: “No, thank you. I don’t want to waste the earth’s resources on another material possession that won’t make me any happier.”
Most people have also been seduced by the notion that if they can afford a bigger house, it makes sense to upgrade. Not only do I not share that notion, I believe the exact opposite.
I used to live in a house and I look back on that part of my life with embarrassment. I make more money now, but I am proud to live in a cheap, efficient one-bedroom apartment with my family.
If someone gave me a free mansion, I would stay in my little apartment and sell the mansion. The truth about life is that money brings freedom. The material things that money can buy rob you of that freedom.
People are always accumulating more stuff. But the most successful people are the ones who are content with the least.
When we meet Will (Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (Thomasin McKenzie), they have virtually nothing. And they are quite content.
Will is a widower grappling with PTSD, and he has chosen to raise Tom in isolation in the woods in a state park just outside Portland, Oregon.
What kind of teenager would be happy living in a tent in the woods? The kind that never experienced anything different and never watched commercials that pressured her to want more. Tom is satisfied with a hug on Christmas under a real tree because no one ever got her addicted to a pile of presents under a fake one.
Everything changes when the police arrest Will and put Tom into a State facility.
Even after Will and Tom are reunited, their relationship is never quite the same. Will is still committed to life in the wilderness but Tom has gotten a taste of socialization and comfort and doesn’t mind it so much.
Writer/director Debra Granik has no agenda and she asks more questions than she answers. Her questions are all thought-provoking, though.
Why is a public park outside the most liberal city in America just there for yuppies to visit but not for poor citizens to inhabit? Why are self-proclaimed environmentalists in big houses so quick to dismiss Americans with the smallest carbon footprint as crazy dangerous homeless people?
I am not a veteran and I don’t claim to know a thing about their perspective. But “Leave No Trace” was recommended to me by my film-loving veteran brother in law, so I’m guessing that Debra Granik does a solid job of empathizing with veterans’ issues. Ms. Granik doesn’t have a clear anti-war agenda. But she subtly asks us: what the heck are we doing to all these guys?
You won’t see a more intelligent drama this year than “Leave No Trace.” It is a unique but believable coming of age story. And it quietly questions every basic value in our consumerist society. It is time to reconsider whether the Americans who have the least are bums or whether they are the biggest winners of all.

First Man

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First Man

**

 

Ryan Gosling can’t act.

I don’t know how this guy keeps getting work. Well, I know he keeps getting work because he’s great looking and because his movies make money. But I really don’t understand how he bamboozles people into mistaking him for an actor.

Ryan Gosling’s most effective performance was as a cyborg in “Blade Runner 2049.” That’s because playing a non-human robot is what he does in every role.

Standing tall and looking beautiful in the face of adversity is modeling, not acting. I would expect a more expressive performance from Lindsay Lohan in “Sharknado 5: Great White Sharkclone” than Ryan Gosling in his next movie.

It may seem like I’m overreacting here. But I see a lot of movies and it would be awful for me if Ryan Gosling’s understated acting method became more common. It makes for boring cinema.

Some of the most ridiculous scenes in “First Man” are when Gosling’s Neil Armstrong learns that one of his friends and colleagues has died. “Oh” and “thanks,” he responds, completely stone-faced.

Darn it, Gosling, I know that there are strong silent-type men in this world. But every guy you play ends up being a strong silent-type. And characters who speak in complete sentences and laugh sometimes and have a range of emotion are more interesting.

So, I suppose I have to explain how “First Man” is getting glowing reviews and Oscar buzz.

Firstly, a solid 55% of viewers enjoy watching endless close-ups of Ryan Gosling’s face. Heck, I’ll bet if Lili Reinhart played Neil Armstrong, I’d have given the movie ***1/2.

Secondly, the action scenes in “First Man” are very well done.

Director Damien Chazelle proved that he is talented with his intense breakthrough indie hit “Whiplash.” Then he proved that he is ambitious with the extraordinarily bad and insufferable musical “La La Land.”

It turns out that Chazelle’s greatest talent is making realistic action scenes. I had assumed that the 1969 lunar mission involved one rocket ship flying to the moon and then flying home. Chazelle takes the time to explain the sophisticated truth about how men really got to the moon.

Apparently, a huge mega rocket ship took off from Florida. Once outside of the earth’s atmosphere, most of the rocket was discarded and a smaller space vessel drifted to the moon. Once near the moon, a smaller lunar module actually landed on the surface. Then a small piece of the lunar module flew back up to the moon’s orbit and docked with the main space vessel for the return flight to earth.

In other words, landing on the moon and bringing the astronauts back safely was a mind-blowing scientific achievement. The 1966 Gemini 8 scene where Neil Armstrong succeeds in docking one space craft to another for the first time is brilliantly shot and heart-pounding.

But every time an action scene fires up your interest, an awkward dramatic scene brings us back to tedium. Clare Foy has nothing to do but pout and glare as Neil Armstrong’s put-upon wife. We get it: Armstrong was a terrible, neglectful husband and father. It doesn’t make the movie any better to keep nailing that point home.

Corey Stoll (“House of Cards”) stands out like a diamond in the rough as the brutally honest Buzz Aldrin. Every time he says something funny and entertaining, the other characters look angry and confused. It’s like they don’t want to be reminded that the movie world they inhabit is so humorless and antiseptic.

At the end of “First Man,” we are left with a greater understanding and appreciation of the 1969 moon landing. But we have no insight into the motivations of the men who risked their lives to get there and we know little about Neil Armstrong. Thanks for nothing, Ryan Gosling; stick to playing cyborgs.

Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power

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Anita Hill: Speaking Truth to Power

**

 

I loathe Political Correctness.

I admire people who speak their mind with eloquence, intelligence, and offensiveness. If I don’t offend at least one person with this article, I have become too boring and cowardly to deserve a column.

The PC police should get the heck out of our schools and college campuses. But they are welcome to stay in my place of employment.

In my office, we are not supposed to talk about politics, religion, race, sex, gender, and sexuality. There is no touching apart from fist bumps and any manager caught having a relationship with an underling is immediately fired.

I think all these rules are great. Instead of Mad Men-esque mad houses, 21st Century offices are comfortable and inclusive places to work.

“Boo hoo,” some people say. “Men are too afraid to even hug or flirt in the office now.” To me, that’s a very small price to pay for women to be able to have a career without being forced to negotiate a minefield of objectification and Sexual Harassment.

 

Back in 1991, I didn’t even know what Sexual Harassment is. I’ll bet I wasn’t alone. And that was a problem.

The problem of mass ignorance was solved in a big way when President Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.

University of Oklahoma Law Professor Anita Hill was expecting a call from the FBI and she was ready to tell the truth when it came. Hill reported that Judge Thomas had made her work life uncomfortable when he was her boss at the EEOC in 1981.

Anita Hill was called to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“I didn’t anticipate any partisanship,” Hill recalls. “I was expecting that the Senators were going to ask me questions to help learn whether Clarence Thomas was qualified.” Come on..really, Professor Hill? I’m sorry: either she is lying or she was shamefully ignorant about the basic realities of politics in America. Especially for a law professor who worked for the government in DC for years.

Apart from that embarrassing quote, Anita Hill comes off as brave, poised, and downright heroic.

The first half of “Speaking Power to Truth” is terrific. Documentarian Freida Lee Mock shines a spotlight on the awful senators who cross-examined Anita Hill like she was a hostile witness. We cringe as the senators cruelly make her repeat the same humiliating details over and over again.

Ms. Hill never wavered as she exposed fundamental truths about men in power.

The second half of the documentary is useless. Frieda Lee Mock just follows present day (2014) Anita Hill around on as she earns a living as a public speaker. If you watch this movie, I urge you to turn it off after 45 minutes.

#MeToo is a great. Anita Hill is great. I agree with almost everything Frieda Lee Mock has to say. I have a fundamental disagreement, however, with her assertion that we can uncover the truth about past harassment incidents.

It’s one thing to believe a victim’s story, it’s another thing to believe you are capable of knowing the truth about an incident from ten years ago. Zero people know the absolute truth, not even the people who were involved.

Victims of Sexual Harassment have their memory tarnished by trauma and time. And perpetrators of Sexual Harassment will honestly remember themselves as acting less creepily than they actually did.

Sleezy men don’t think they are bad people or want to be bad people. For the most part, they are acting out creepy behavior that they learned from men growing up or foolishly mistaking the friendliness of their female co-worker as possible romantic interest.

That’s why I am passionately in favor of strict PC rules in the workplace. They don’t just make office life better for women, they clearly help men. They teach creepy men the rules of gentlemanly behavior that their fathers should have taught them.

More gentleman and fewer creeps makes my office – and America – a better place. Thank you, PC Police! (Get the heck out of the classroom, though. Seriously).

Fahrenheit 11/9

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Fahrenheit 11/9

**1/2

 

When 22nd Century historians teach a lesson about the 2016 election, they’ll only need one primary source document. In the autumn leading up to the vote, Michael Moore wrote an essay entitled “5 Reasons Trump Will Win.”

Moore recognized that Donald Trump was the “Roger & Me” of presidential candidates. His message was music to the ears of forgotten Rust Belt workers who were fed up with globalization and the New World Order.

Trump criticized arrogant coastal elites for passing NAFTA, leading to the deindustrialization of the once vibrant American Midwest. He offered classical Progressive solutions: more worker-friendly trade deals and protectionist tariffs.

Michael Moore labeled the Trump revolution American Brexit. And he cited the four Obama states – Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Moore’s own Michigan – that the candidate was going to win on his way to earning the Presidency. The article is pure genius. You should read it.

“Fahrenheit 11/9” feels like the work of a different artist. The film is surprisingly overlong and unfocused.

Anti-Trump viewers will probably be disappointed. Yes, Moore accuses the President of simultaneously leading our country toward Nazism and nuclear war, but Trump is onscreen less than one quarter of the movie.

As much as anything, “Fahrenheit 11/9” is an angry takedown of the politicians who created and abetted the Flint, Michigan water crisis.

Moore accuses Michigan governor Rick Snyder of building an unnecessary new pipeline out of pure greed and leaving the impoverished citizens of Flint to drink poisonous, lead-filled muck.

And when he discovered that the dirty water was corroding parts at the GM plant, Gov. Snyder took immediate action and gave the company back its clean water. The people continued to drink swill.

Viewers will be surprised to learn that the ultimate villains of “Fahrenheit 11/9” aren’t the Trumpists; they are the leaders of the Democratic Party.

Moore condemns the DNC for stealing the 2016 nomination away from Bernie Sanders.

Moore eviscerates Bill Clinton, accusing the former President of selling out black citizens, blue collar workers, and private sector Unions. Moore concludes that after Clinton, the Democratic Party was just as corporatist and globalist as the Republicans.

Thank goodness for Obama, right? In the film’s only great scene, President Obama swoops into Flint on Air Force One. The teeming crowds cheer their beloved leader as he rushes through the town via limo to save them.

Barak Obama takes the podium. The crowd cheers and hoots. But the President has a cough…He asks for a glass of water to soothe his throat. Then he takes a sip – a tiny, tiny little sip – of tap water and declares that Flint water is safe.

The Flint audience gasps and so do we. This is easily the finest moment of this otherwise forgettable film.

 

Viewers are going to be disappointed that Moore doesn’t attack Trump with the same intellectual passion as Clinton and Obama.

“How the **** did this happen?” Moore asks us with a straight face. The problem is, he already answered this question – splendidly – two years ago.

“Fahrenheit 11/9” isn’t just unfocused, it is insulting to the viewer. It feels like Moore is saying that it’s okay for his functionally literate fans to know to the even-handed truth about the 2016 election. However, the movie-viewing masses can only handle information in dumbed-down, easy to swallow accusations, conspiracy theories, and comedy skits.

“Fahrenheit 11/9” made me laugh a lot. But Michael Moore can do better than this. Skip the movie and read “5 Reasons Trump Will Win” instead.