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.

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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.

 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.

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.

Howard Zinn: A People’s History of the United States           Part I (1900-1920): Bread and Roses

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Howard Zinn:

A People’s History of the United States

          Part I (1900-1920): Bread and Roses

                             ****

          History books tell the Great Man version of history.

American history starts with great man Cristopher Columbus, continues with great men George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and moves forward quickly to great man Abraham Lincoln.

When the history of our time is written, future generations will read about Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos.

“But what about us?” you may ask. “Aren’t we as important as the great men of our time?” No, we are not. The best we can hope for is that one historian will buck the trend and tells our side of the story.

          Howard Zinn (1920 – 2010) is one of the most well-known and respected 20th Century historians. He was able to toss the Great Man blueprint in the trash and create a completely new narrative.

          In Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” the story of America is a perpetual battle between we the workers vs. the powerful people who exploit us.

          According to Zinn, the battle began at the very founding of our nation. He argues that the Revolutionary War was not a popular conflict. He points out that men had to be drafted to fight and that they were promised free land in exchange for their blood. But after the war, many of those men were evicted from their homes because they couldn’t afford the taxes that their new State governments were levying.

          Fast forward a century to the Chicago Haymarket Riot of 1886. Organized labor demanded an 8-hour work week and the demonstration turned violent. The business leaders and authorities got together and arrested the Union bosses on bogus charges. The Union leaders were hanged. Management won this round, but the fight definitely wasn’t over.

          Workers were better prepared during the 1912 Textile Strike in Lawrence, Mass. With organizational and monetary help from the IWW (International Workers of the World), the workers outlasted management. After grinding the cotton industry to a halt for more than two months, the workers earned a 20% raise.

According to Howard Zinn, the US Establishment learned a valuable lesson from Lawrence: never give an inch to organized labor.

When the silver miners in Ludlow, Colorado went on strike in 1914, negotiation was not an option. When the National Guard couldn’t crush the miners, President Wilson sent in the army. Hundreds of strikers were wounded and 75 were killed in The Ludlow Massacre.

Faced with the imminent threat of reduced power and profit, the titans of industry colluded with Washington to crush Organized Labor.

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses…” No, Zinn says; that’s a lie. The reason the Establishment opened our borders was to import a fresh supply of cheap labor and to weaken the bargaining power of American Unions.

 “The world must be made safe for democracy…” No, Zinn says; that’s a lie. The reason that the Establishment chose to join World War I was because Britain and France owed billions of dollars to American businesses and an allied victory was the only way they’d get paid back. And under the cover of war, the government was able to pass the Sedition and Espionage Act, which had the intended effect of silencing, imprisoning, or deporting Labor agitators.

“A People’s History of the United States Part 1” is a first-rate documentary for history lovers. It entertained me the whole time and I learned a lot.

 I don’t agree with everything that Howard Zinn had to say. I love the non-Partisanship and the pacifism, but not so much the obsession with Marxist theory. By ambitiously tossing aside the Great Man version of history, though, Zinn was – in the end – a great man.

Sorry to Bother You

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Sorry to Bother You

****

 

Some people say that the American Dream is dead.

I suppose that depends on your definition of what the American Dream is. But if your dream is to find a corporate job and make solid money, the Dream is very much alive.

I have been working in the same corporate office since 2001. So the blueprint I’m going to share with you isn’t an idealistic Conservative fantasy. It is the story of people I have known.

Step 1 is to move to a region that has some major corporations and get an entry level job at one of them. Easy enough.

Step 2 is to become one of the best as the entry level job. It’s not that tough. It takes a little brains, a lot of caffeine, and a boatload of ambition. When changes come, adapt to them with a smile – never complain.

Step 3 is to discover which people have real power in your office and make a connection with a few of them. Soon you’ll be promoted and the promotions won’t stop as long as you stick to the plan.

Step 4 is the hardest part for a thinking person. Step 4 is to stop thinking about your company. Just focus on your daily tasks and maintaining relationships.

Eventually you’re going to realize that your corporation makes money by exploiting its customers while providing minimal service to society. The greatest corporate leaders never think about this or internalize the official corporate propaganda about how the company is actually good for the community. Others drink heavily to assuage the guilt.

 

“Sorry to Bother You” is an extraordinary modern fairy tale. It shows how easy and fun it is for a 21st Century man to gain the whole world – while losing his soul.

The film takes place in a slightly off-kilter and dystopian version of present day Oakland. Regular dude Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) takes a job as a telemarketer, selling encyclopedias.

The job is low-paying and dehumanizing. That is until he starts calling people with a “white voice.” With his white phone voice, Cassius quickly starts loving his job and he becomes the undisputed top performer on the floor.

Things get interesting when Cassius is promoted to the company’s Top Seller floor, where salaries are multiplied and they sell war machines and cheap labor to foreign entities. Cassius is so happy to be rich and appreciated that he is able to look past his company’s villainy.

Nothing can prepare you for the uproarious climax – where Cassius attends a debauchery-filled party at CEO Steve Lift’s mansion. “Sorry to Bother You” is the most inspired comedy of the year; it announces first time writer/director Boots Riley as a powerhouse artistic force in Hollywood.

 

Some Progressives argue that the problem with our society is that people can’t make a living anymore. That is not true. Times aren’t easy, but there is plenty of money to be had in 21st Century America.

“Sorry to Bother You” explores the more serious and existential crisis that we face:

We have visionary CEOs (Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos) with grand, irresponsible, megalomaniacal plans to alter our world. And instead of fearing them and trying to stop them, we worship them, give them more money, and help them twist reality to their whims.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor

****

 

Because I write this column, I’ve watched plenty of movies over the years that I didn’t really want to see. I even break down and watch a family movie from time to time even though they are terrible.

I didn’t even enjoy the kiddie movies that everyone else liked – like “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles” and “Coraline.”

The entertainment that Hollywood makes for children is garbage. The only motivation is profit. The jokes are puns, putdowns, and potty humor. The action is always frantic, as if they are intentionally trying to erode your child’s attention span. When there is any emotion, it is nostalgic or manipulative.

 

That’s why Mr. Rogers is such a revered figure in our society.

He made wholesome, intelligent entertainment. He made shows for children – not for profit. His main goal was to help kids cope with the emotional challenges of childhood, not to help mothers enjoy twenty minutes of freedom to pour more Chardonnay.

Above all, Mr. Rogers wanted his young audience members to feel loved and capable of loving, rather than feeling like consumers in training.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was the pace. Fred Rogers wanted to be the voice of calm comfort in a chaotic world. He took time every day to feed his fish. There’s a scene where he takes joy in watching a turtle slowly run across his carpet. There is even a clip of Mr. Rogers sitting through an egg timer to teach kids what a minute of silence feels like.

Documentarian Morgan Neville isn’t trying to be as revolutionary as Fred Rogers. He’s mostly just trying to remind everyone why we all loved Mr. Rogers. And he succeeds mightily.

I want to thank my father for never crying in front of me. If not for his good influence, I surely would have sobbed in a crowded theater multiple times during “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It’s a seriously emotional film.

 

The one blemish on this otherwise classic documentary is Morgan Neville’s foolish attempt to paint Fred Rogers (a registered Republican who died in 2003) as a committed member of the #Resistance.

Neville’s evidence is a 1968 episode where the vainglorious puppet King Friday XIII builds a wall around his castle. “Gotcha!” Neville seems to say. “Mr. Rogers hates Trump!”

Not exactly. Mr. Rogers wasn’t making a literal anti-Wall statement. King Friday represented the old guard in ’68 who were resistant to change, like racial integration. It can be argued that Mr. Rogers’s Wall metaphor is an attack on fanatical anti-Trump Establishment leaders who are fighting change in Washington at all cost.

For the record, I am not making that argument. Both arguments are equally biased and stupid. My point is that any attempt to use the memory of Mr. Rogers to attack your political opponents is nauseating and ridiculous.

 

There is no way that Mr. Rogers can save us from our current political discord.

But he can remind us that there are saints among us. And that children’s entertainment can be more than insipid corporate cartoons.