If Beale Street Could Talk

Image result for fonny and tish making love

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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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.

 

 

 

Take Your Pills

Image result for adderall college girl

Take Your Pills

*1/2

 

At the turn of the 20th Century, people had a way of staying up when they were tired, focusing on tedious tasks, saying no to food they didn’t need, and feeling up when they were down. It was an all-natural health elixir: cocaine.

Cocaine worked as advertised. But it had the troubling side effect of extreme addictiveness. For some, cocaine turns your non-high life into a bland series of meaningless events that you must endure until your next fix. There had to be something better…

In 1929, California biochemist Gorden Alles injected himself with 50mg of the synthesized chemical compound amphetamine.

Unsurprisingly, the first man to use amphetamine was quite motivated to record his experience in detail. Alles wrote that his annoying runny nose had dried up and that he was experiencing a euphoric sense of “well-being.” He also observed that amphetamine gave him a “rather sleepless night.”

There is one scientific equation that we all know is true: effective drug+America=profit.

The Netflix original documentary “Take Your Pills” educates us about a forgotten period of American history. The Benzedrine era.

Smith Kline’s Benzedrine Inhaler was a sensation. Allergy sufferers used Benzedrine as directed as a decongestant. Insecure Depression-era workers used it to impress their bosses. And students popped Benzedrine to pull all-nighters at college.

Apparently, the thought of college students getting As on their midterms was too much for the Feds to bare. Amphetamines were declared a Schedule II Controlled Substance in 1970.

But amphetamines underwent a surprising renaissance in the 21st Century. The executive brain dysfunction ADD became a known problem. And amphetamines – now packaged under the name Adderall – became the best known treatment.

“Take Your Pills” does a splendid job of telling the history of Adderall. But documentarian Alison Klayman fails miserably when it comes to convincing us that the drug is a scourge on society.

Ms. Klayman strangely and irresponsibly leaves out the fact that millions of ADD sufferers and their families are helped by the drug.

My wife and I used to get into terrible fights because I didn’t understand her ADD and she couldn’t control it.

My wife’s daily 10mg dose of Adderall has made my marriage more functional and harmonious. Thank you, Adderall.

Granted, most people who pop Adderall pills are not like my wife. They don’t have ADD. They are, technically speaking, abusing the drug.

However, Adderall abuse is not a major problem. Adderall abuse ruins hearts. It ruins livers. And ruins kidneys, I hear. But it doesn’t negatively impact society.

It’s a pill that helps kids study harder, adults work harder, and partiers dance harder.

I am not recommending that you start taking Adderall. I’m really not. I used to take it myself and I am happier and healthier without it. However, if you have the choice of taking Adderall or cocaine, please choose Adderall. I beg of you.

“Take Your Pills” is just wrong. Adderall is serious medicine for some people. And for druggies, it is a reliable upper that you don’t have to buy from a drug dealer and is unlikely to turn you into a junkie.

Compared to cocaine, amphetamines are a miracle of modern science.

A Quiet Place

Image result for a quiet place stupid

A Quiet Place

*1/2

 

I like horror movies. But I rarely watch them.

Good horror movies make me lose sleep. It’s embarrassing but true. The night after “The Blair Witch Project,” I stayed awake in terror until dawn. The night after “Paranormal Activity,” I was 80% sure that my wife slumbering soundly next to me was a vicious demon.

I only go to see horror movies when they look really good and really interesting. Last weekend I saw “A Quiet Place.” I thought it was going to be great. I was mistaken.

Writer/director and new parent John Krasinski plays Lee Abbott: the greatest dad of all time.

The movie takes place in upstate New York after the alien apocalypse.

[Spoilers Ahead] We learn from newspaper clippings that a race of monsters landed a little more than a year ago and began killing people. These alien predators are blind and can’t smell. They hunt using their super hearing. By the time humanity understood this, however, most people were already dead.

Not the Abbott family, though. They’re doing just fine. Lee and his similarly perfect wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have made a good life for themselves and their children. They have a farm with a full granary. They have electricity and running water. They have a color-coated alien alarm system with video monitors. And somehow they were able to do all of this in total silence.

And in his free time, amazing selfless Lee tinkers with tiny speakers trying to fashion a functional homemade hearing aid for his surly deaf daughter.

I have to give Krasinski credit. He has created a brand new genre: Extreme Awesome Perfect Parenting Porn. I do not like this new genre at all. I’m pretty sure actual parents will appreciate “A Quiet Place” more than I do.

Oh, and get this: Evelyn is pregnant and Lee is delighted about it. That is certainly consistent with the new genre of Extreme Awesome Perfect Parenting Porn. But in the context of a world where aliens will devour you if they hear any sound, it makes NO DARN SENSE.

So, the family is boring. There’s virtually no dialogue. The aliens aren’t intriguing. And the ending is a carbon copy of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 alien movie “Signs.” “A Quiet Place” stinks.

Oh, well. At least it didn’t make me lose any sleep.

Downsizing

Image result for matt damon team america gif

Downsizing

*1/2

 

Around 1900, progressive dreamers wrote a series of Utopian novels, sharing their vision of a perfect Socialist future.

One thing that they all had in common is communal living. In the perfect future, they assumed, people would live together in large apartment complexes.

Communal living is just rudimentary common sense. It saves lumber, brick, and steel. It saves electricity. It saves fuel because people are close to town and closer to work. It saves heating oil.

Somewhere in the 20th Century, this efficient communal ideal was tossed in the garbage and was replaced by the ideal that a respectable American has to live in a house.

Nothing, it seems, can shake the ideal of the single-family home.

It has been proven that home ownership primarily benefits big banks, oil companies, IKEA, and Home Depot. It doesn’t make the people who live inside the houses happier – just more indebted.

But check out any commercial during the playoff games this weekend. Whether they are selling Fabreze, Fritos, or Pharmaceuticals, the smiling Americans in the ads are all living in spacious single-family houses. It’s as if apartment dwellers or people who share their houses with renters are too poor or too uncivilized to even show on television.

 

“Downsizing” shows us a 21st Century Utopia where almost everyone can afford to buy a house in cash.

In writer/director Alexander Payne’s imaginative new world, people have the choice to undergo an irreversible procedure that reduces their size by approximately 99%.

Living a new life at 5 inches tall is extremely appealing to two very different types of people: environmentalists who want to leave a smaller carbon footprint. And hedonists who want to enjoy all the finer things in life (diamonds, drugs, and mansions) for a fraction of the price of regular-sized people.

Alexander Payne’s point is that people are eager to buy any product that makes them feel like they are saving the planet or keeping up with the Joneses. But they aren’t willing to do the one thing that will actually lead to environmental conservation and happiness: stop wanting more things.

If Payne had nailed this point home and given us a few laughs along the way, “Downsizing” would have been an American classic. But he takes the film in a very different direction. “Downsizing” is full of surprises, but each surprise takes the story further off course.

Matt Damon’s lead character is so boring and bland that you never care whether he finds himself.

Matt Damon was once a great movie star with a cool sense of humor. Now he seems more and more like the dense marionette caricature version of him from “Team America: World Police.” When Damon isn’t educating us about the difference between butt slapping and sexual assault (wow, thanks Matt!), he is making lousy movies. What was his last decent film? 2006’s “The Departed” maybe?

 

“Downsizing” is an over-long, unfocused bummer of a film. I haven’t felt this ripped off since that time that I foolishly bought a house.

La La Land

Image result for ryan gosling no talent

La La Land

*1/2

 

A few weeks ago, the biggest stars in Hollywood gathered for an opulent black-tie anti-Trump political rally. It was called the Golden Globes.

I did some investigative reporting. It turns out that during this political rally, they also gave out some movie awards! “La La Land” was the big winner, capturing Best Picture (Musical or Comedy), Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Director.

Wrong again, Hollywood.

I don’t know if Golden Globes voters like “La La Land” because it is set in Los Angeles. Or if they have a crush on Ryan Gosling. All I know is, to me “La La Land” is dull, sentimental trash.

The movie tells the story of Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone): an aspiring jazz pianist and an aspiring actress. Together, they overcome extreme lack of character and charisma to make it in Hollywood by sheer force of good looks.

“La La Land” clocks in at more than two hours, but don’t let that fool you. It is a short, lightweight movie that is low on substance. The running time is bloated by the many boring musical numbers.

I suppose this is the main difference between me and the people who like “La La Land:” I was miserably bored during the songs. Every song is terrible. I would have walked out of theater early except for the fact that I was planning on writing this column.

The darndest thing was: I was expecting to like it. Writer/director Damien Chazelle’s last movie – “Whiplash” – is terrific. And the films are similar. They are both explorations of young musicians and how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve their artistic ambitions.

Same theme, different result. “Whiplash” is intense, passionate, and gritty. “La La Land” is saccharine and shallow.

Rumor has it that Ryan Gosling is a talented actor. But I haven’t seen any sign of that. Someday, when he loses his youthful good looks, he could surprise me and start making great films like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matthew McConaughey. But I doubt it.

Sometimes Hollywood is just terribly out of touch with Middle America. And that can be a good thing. If they are as wrong about Trump as they are about “La La Land,” we could be in for a wonderful four years.

Thin

 

                                      Thin

                                      *1/2

 

          There’s a memorable scene in “The Sopranos” where the boss of the New York family – Johnny Sack – is in prison and his wife and kids come to visit.

          Johnny Sack’s wife is obese. His eldest daughter is just as big. And his youngest daughter is rail thin. She angrily accuses her mom and sister of talking about nothing but food.

          This three-minute scene contains more honesty and insight about eating disorders than the entire documentary “Thin.”

          It seems like the socially appropriate, politically correct thing to say is that people with anorexia and bulimia are sick. The unpleasant truth, however, is that the society around them is sick.  

          Low self-esteem is the root cause. Unhealthy obsession with food is the problem. Compulsive overeating and reckless undereating are just two sides of the same coin.

          “Thin” is a troubling documentary about people who are earnestly trying to help young women with eating disorders but don’t seem to actually understand the problem at all.

          “Thin” takes us inside the Renfrew Eating Disorder Clinic in Florida for a few depressing weeks. We never hear from the doctors who founded the Clinic, but we certainly see their odd strategy for trying to cure anorexic women.

           The Clinic seems to be modeled after basic training. Or prison. There is an endless list of rules that the young women must follow; most of them appear to be arbitrary. And when one of the many rules is broken, the staff cruelly pressures the women to rat on their friends to expose who did it.

          Instead of helping the women transition from troubled childhood to healthy adulthood, the Clinic does the opposite. The Clinic works to infantilize the patients and makes them feel even more powerless and unable to tackle their self-improvement goals.

          “Thin” is interesting, but it is a lousy documentary. The filmmakers don’t make it clear whether they view the Renfrew Eating Disorder Clinic as a legitimate treatment center or as a counterproductive scam like I do.

          Now, I don’t claim to have the one cure to save all people with eating disorders. But I sincerely believe that I have a better plan than the Renfrew Clinic. I’d write a self-help pamphlet. And this is what it would say:

“You are very thin. I know that it doesn’t always feel that way when you look in the mirror, but I promise that it is true. You set a meaningful goal for yourself and you made it happen. Congratulations!

Now, I want you to take your proven talent for hard-work, discipline, and dedication and use it to get just as great at school. Or your career. Or your relationships with the people you love.

Before long, you will be thin AND successful. And happy. And then one day you’ll wake up and discover that you can eat without feeling so much shame and guilt. You really can do this. I believe in you.”

 

One thing I would not do in my motivational pamphlet is call the reader sick.

I honestly don’t think anorexic women are sick. They are just trying to make it in this crazy, food-obsessed society like everyone else.

The Revenant

The Revenant
*1/2

Leonardo DiCaprio has pulled a complete McConaughey-180.
A McConaughey-180 is a term that I just made up for a celebrity who starts his career as a lightweight pretty boy known for doing chick flicks. Then, through a series of amazing performances (“Dallas Buyers Club,” “Bernie,” “True Detective”), he transforms himself into a respected actor.
Ten years ago Matthew McConaughey was universally loathed by every guy in America. Now he’s so cool that he makes me want to buy a Lincoln MKS.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s McConaughey-180 has been even more remarkable. At the turn of the century, Leo was known to guys as the blond kid who’s in the movies that your girlfriend makes you watch.
After 15 years working with the most talented directors in Hollywood, DiCaprio isn’t just well-respected – he’s the best. “Django Unchained” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” are my one and two favorite films of the decade. And if those movies aren’t your taste, maybe you love “The Departed” and “Inception.” Either way, it’s a known fact that the man makes great movies now.
I don’t think DiCaprio is the best actor, though. He does not have a ton of range. What he does really well, though, is play crazy. Leo’s characters are always outrageous enough to make things weird and interesting but not so insane that your mom refuses to watch.
In “The Revenant,” I think Leo might have taken his crazy-act a step too far.
I don’t recommend this movie to anyone, least of all my mom.
If you read “The Odyssey” and thought “this book is all right, but it would be nice if Odysseus really faced some hardships and wasn’t such a powder puff,” this movie is for you. If you thought “who wrote this book? Homer or Ghandi? I need a little more graphic violence in my revenge stories,” this movie is for you.
But it isn’t for me. “The Revenant” is just three hours of a hideously injured man grunting and crawling and suffering. Whether it’s good or bad is subjective. But I don’t think anyone is claiming that this is a fun night at the movies.
They say “The Revenant” is based on a true story of a wounded man fighting his way through the wilderness on the American frontier. But I’m pretty sure it is only loosely based.
One time as a kid I fell through the ice of the little pond at the foot of Hubbard Park. Only my lower legs were submerged and for only a minute. Still, I had to shuffle home and defrost in a warm bath for an hour before I could feel my feet. My point is: there is no darn way that DiCaprio’s character could have spent that much time wading around in icy water and lived to tell the tale.
But, hey, amazing actors make lousy movies from time to time. Even Matthew McConaughey. Did you see “Interstellar?”