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.

Advertisements

The Favourite

Related image

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

Image result for no kids meme

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

Image result for first step act

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.

 Green Book

Image result for white savior

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.

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

Image result for queen best band

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

Image result for consumerism
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.