I’ve Got A Few Recommendations. How About You?

During our vacation on Cape Cod in October, my wife and I poked around the cute town of Chatham one fine, sunny afternoon. While my much better half busied herself in the aisles of a store or two, I went into the Chatham Orpheum Theater to try and find out which films would grace its screens in the upcoming weeks. Thumbing through the theater’s brochures at the ticket counter, I overheard a conversation taking place between the guy behind that counter and a patron. They were discussing literature, and one of them mentioned Cacciato. Man, I’d heard of Cacciato, so I opened my trap and said so.

“Are you talking about Going After Cacciato, the novel by Tim O’Brien?” I asked them. The ticket seller gave me what I interpreted as one of those Huh, this asshole knows about Cacciato? looks, but I wasn’t offended. Anyway, it turns out that the two fellows mostly had been gushing over another of O’Brien’s works, The Things They Carried. They briefly told me about the book, which came out in 1990 and, like Going After Cacciato, was inspired by the time that O’Brien spent in 1969 and 1970 as a soldier in Vietnam. It sounded intriguing. “Do you want me to write down the name for you?” the ticket seller asked. Indeed I did, and so he did. Into my wallet the slip of paper went.

Not long after I got back from vacation I borrowed The Things They Carried from a local library. I finished it last week. And I have to say that the gents were right. A series of interconnected, semi-fictional stories about the Vietnam War (pre, during and post), the work impressed me. It doesn’t glorify war, doesn’t dwell on battles. What it mainly does is lay on the table the emotions and mindsets of people attempting to deal with potential, immediate and imaginary dangers. You’ll find the good, the bad and the ugly in this book. And also the mysterious and the truly touching. In the best of the stories, O’Brien’s words come at you like the blows of a patient, precise boxer. Clearly, I recommend The Things They Carried.

Recommendations. There are a few other new ones kicking around inside me. And there’s no way I can contain them, so desperate are they to meet and greet cyberspace. With no further ado then, here they are.

A biopic of sorts about the late Fred Rogers, host of the legendary kids’ show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, has just come out. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood is its name, and it stars Tom Hanks as Rogers. Now, I know that Fred was a strong force for decency and love. But his nasally voice, his sloooow talking pace, and his unnervingly calm manner never appealed to me. Nevertheless, my wife and I went to see the film a handful of moons ago. And I loved it. Having read no reviews in advance, I was happy to discover that it is not a typical biopic. Instead, it’s an imagined examination of the relationship between Fred and a cynical journalist named Lloyd Vogel, who is assigned, in 1998, to interview and profile Fred for Esquire magazine (the movie is drawn from the friendship that developed between real-life journalist Tom Junod and Fred).

A Beautiful Day rings very true. Hanks is Fred. And decency and love are largely what the movie is all about. Will Lloyd Vogel come to believe in the powers of Fred? I ain’t saying. Will Fred start talking faster and become the type of guy I’d want to discuss sports, music, food and girls with? Nah, but that’s more than okay. A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood flirts with sappiness here and there, sure, but it got to me anyway. That’s because it gently aims for the heart and doesn’t miss.

Hey, it’s almost dinner time in my household, so I’ve got to wrap this up. You know what else is good? Beers from Magic Hat and New Belgium breweries, that’s what. In November I bought variety packs of their robust, soul-satisfying ales. And I’m going to apply those same adjectives (robust; soul-satisfying) to the coffees that Allegro and Green Mountain coffee companies turn out. My wife and I are hooked on several of their roasts. I’m tempted to use the adjectives also to describe myself, but I’d be lying out my ass if I did. So, I won’t.

The ball is now in your court. What’s been ringing your chimes recently? Down below is a section where you can enter your comments.

Before I go, though, I have to mention and recommend a golden oldie — Bernadette —  that has been stuck in my head for a few weeks. I’ve heard it dozens of times in my life and always dug it. But when the tune came on the radio not long ago it walloped me like never before. Bernadette, by The Four Tops, was released in 1967. And it’s never gone away. Such a great song. The desperation in lead singer Levi Stubbs’ voice sends chills up and down my ol’ spine. I don’t like having earworms. But if I’ve got to have one, this is an excellent choice. Bernadette!

When Martin Scorsese Asked For My Help, I Obliged!: A Cinematic Story Of Sorts

Martin Scorsese (Photo by Jeff Vespa; copyright WireImage.com)

“Neil! It’s Marty. Do you got a minute? I really need your help,” Martin Scorsese, the titanic film director, said to me a few days ago. He was calling from his production studios in Manhattan, where he’s putting the finishing touches on The Irishman, a crime drama with an all-star cast that includes Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking: How can a schlub like me be friends with a luminary like Scorsese? Maybe I’ll go into the details in a future article. For now, let me merely say that Marty and I first met, a few years ago, in a dream (click here to access that dream). Our relationship evolved and deepened organically from there into a real-life friendship.

Leonardo DiCaprio (photo credit: NASA/Goddard/Rebecca Roth)

“Listen, Neil,” Marty went on, “here’s why I’m calling. You know Leo, right? Leonardo DiCaprio? He’s been in a bunch of my films.”

“Sure, everybody knows who he is. But I never met him, if that’s what you mean.”

Portrait of Leonardo da Vinci (attributed to Francesco Melzi)

“Leo’s a great guy,” Marty went on. “Talented as hell. Smart as hell too, a genius in fact. That’s why, I suppose, I came up with this fabulous idea: DiCaprio should portray Leonardo da Vinci in a movie. One genius playing another genius. One Leonardo playing another Leonardo. Could anything be cooler than that? I love it, man! It can’t miss . . . except that I’m having trouble figuring out what angle the movie ought to take, what it should be about. A straight drama? Forget it. I’ve done enough of those. A comedy? Definitely could work. Picture this: Da Vinci would be a bumbler in the film, stumbling from one misadventure to another. The running gag would be da Vinci getting his humongous beard caught in a door wherever he goes. ‘Get me out of this hairy situation, I beg you! The f*cking door is stuck!’ would be his catchphrase.”

“Marty, that’s good. You can’t go wrong with a comedy. But you know what’s even better? A superhero movie, Marty, a superhero movie. Da Vinci was gifted as hell. He was a painter, an inventor, a scientist, a mathematician, a you-name-it. Shit, there was nothing that old boy couldn’t do. He was the Renaissance man of all Renaissance men.”

Marty cut me off. “I’m listening, Neil. And I like where I think you’re going with this. Tell me more.”

“Well, only the greatest Renaissance man of them all has what it takes to save the hub of the Renaissance — Florence, Italy — from two potentially catastrophic invasions. The first assault is by aliens, the second by zombies.”

“When the aliens, looking for all the world like seven-foot tall ants, descend upon Florence from a distant galaxy, in 1505, the city’s residents are thrown into a panic,” I continued. “But Leonardo da Vinci, a Florentine, stays cool, immediately putting his scientific know-how into use. Within an hour he invents a chemical spray that anything resembling an ant will be powerless against. Then he disguises himself with a Mona Lisa mask, whose enigmatic smile stops the invaders in their tracks. They’ve never seen such a smile before, and are nearly hypnotized by it. Spray bottles in hand, da Vinci now advances on the creatures, systematically killing them one by one.”

David, by Michelangelo (photo credit: Jorg Bittner Unna)

“‘All we wanted to do was steal Michelangelo’s statue of David from your city and bring it back to our planet,’ the alien leader says to da Vinci with its final breaths. ‘David’s hung like a horse, after all. Most impressive! The statue would have sat majestically in our supreme ruler’s palace. He’d have gazed at it admiringly and enviously, sometimes bemoaning the less-than-daunting size of his own genitalia.'”

“You’re on a roll, Neil,” Marty said. “What’s next?”

“Well, only one week after da Vinci dispatches the aliens, Florence is confronted with an untold number of zombies. Those f*ckers seemingly came from out of nowhere. But they don’t stand a chance, not with our Renaissance man on the scene. He dons his signature mask, whose smile has the same effect on the zombies as it did on the aliens. That’s when da Vinci whips out the hammer and chisel that he’s borrowed from Michelangelo — the very same tools that Michelangelo used to carve the David statue — and bashes the living crap out of the baddies. Problem solved! Case closed!”

“Yes, this is the best!” Marty exclaimed. “Mega-sance Man, short for Mega Renaissance Man, is what we’ll call da Vinci’s alter ego. And that’ll be the name of the film too. Neil, I can tell that this will be the most popular movie I’ve ever made, an absolute blockbuster. I’m going to hang up now. I’ve got to call DiCaprio and tell him about your genius ideas. For years he’s been itching to play a guy who saves the world. Thank you, Neil, thank you. You’ll receive a screenwriter credit, of course, and hefty payments for your contributions.”

“Marty, in your hands Mega-sance Man will be stunning. Leonardo da Vinci, if he were alive, would be flattered and proud.”

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on social media. Mucho gracias.)

The Call Of The New: A Curious Story

Let it be known that I’m not too much the self-analytical type, which means I usually don’t give a lot of thought to what I do or why. Shit, basically I wake up in the morning and try to make a go of the day. But recently a certain aspect of my behavior became clear to me. And the more I thought about this aspect, I realized that it’s part of everybody’s makeup, that it reaches back to our baby years. It’s part of human nature, in other words. This innate need cools down for most of us as we get older, for sure, but it remains a force, one that makes our life journeys interesting and productive.

“Yo, Neil,” I hear a chorus of voices exclaiming, “time is precious and our attention spans are shorter than your dick. Give us some pertinent facts, guy. Tell us what the hell you’re talking about already!

Woe to those who ignore a chorus of voices. Here goes.

The mid-morning hours of the 20th day of April, a Saturday, found me, as usual, upon the living room sofa. The radio was tuned to Sleepy Hollow, a weekend show of peaceful music on WXPN, a Philadelphia station. I was only half-listening to the tunes being played, though alert to the possibility that a few might mesh beautifully with my inner tunings. And, as always, I was hoping to meet some music that I’d never heard before. Around 9:30 one number that met both criteria floated out of the stereo’s speakers. The song was Bird, by the singer-songwriter Azniv Korkejian, who is known professionally as Bedouine.

Bird is good. Really good. It’s about loving someone so much, you’re willing to let them go when freedom is what they require. I’ve listened to Bird several times since the Saturday in question, feeling it wash over me and into me. This song’s got power!

Bedouine, who is fairly new to the music scene, sings in a resignation-tinged voice, her words coming across in almost an offhand manner, though she probably worked on them religiously. Bird is a quiet emotional outpouring. It will remind you of introspective songs by Joni Mitchell.

Yes indeed, I’d been open to hearing something that was new to me. And very luckily, the haunting Bird came my way.

The day progressed. I could have stayed home, doing any number of things that are part of my routine. Lawn mowing, laundry, grocery shopping, etc. Invisible strings, however, were pulling on me to get out of the house and meet up with something that I hadn’t crossed paths with before.

And so, in late afternoon my wife Sandy and I went to the nearby Ambler Theater to see Amazing Grace, a documentary about the making of an Aretha Franklin gospel album in 1972. The album was recorded in a Los Angeles Baptist church, its pews filled with music lovers (the faithful and non-faithful alike), and the performances and behind-the-scenes moments were faithfully filmed. The movie was intended for release, but for various reasons sat on a shelf for lo these many years. Clap your hands, sisters and brothers, rejoicing in the undeniable truth that Amazing Grace has seen the light of day! It’s great.

Chalk another one up for following the call of the new.

And at Deterra, a good restaurant across the street from the movie house, without consciously realizing what I was doing I searched the menu for clever dishes that I hadn’t previously encountered anywhere. And I found them. Potato gnocchi, with mushrooms and fava beans and a froth of parmesan cheese, brought a big smile to my face. So did pappardelle (wide pasta noodles) served with sautéed shrimp and pesto sauce. Yowza, yowza, yowza!

The next day is when it dawned on me that what I’d done on April 20th is what I’ve been doing for as long as I can remember: I hear the call of the new and I move on it. Not obsessively. Not even every day. But regularly. Acting like this is to a large extent who I am. Partly I follow this path to keep boredom away from my door. But it’s far more than that. I seek new experiences because many of them turn out to be enlightening and inspiring. I wouldn’t want to live any other way.

And the pattern is nothing more than one that began in my early years. The world is new and intriguing to little kids, after all. They want to know. They want to explore. “What’s this? What’s that? Look at this! Look at that!” is their mantra, their engines’ fuel.

It all boils down to curiosity. Humans are born curious. And we retain our curiosity, though some far more than others. Hell, does anybody want to sit around day after day doing the same old, same old? I don’t think so. We like to shake things up, at least a little, and add interesting spices to the stew. We can’t help ourselves. I mean, where would we be without curiosity? Stalled, man, stalled, in the pre-civilization eras.

And, come to think of it, that would be okay. Sure, our fair species’ prodigious achievements over the last 10,000 or so years have resulted, in part anyway, from the curiosity genes populating our cells. That’s because curiosity is one of the mothers of invention. But in the process, Planet Earth has been brought to its knees since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Carbon dioxide emissions, depletion of resources and pollution of the waters have done an excellent job of that. Oy vey, to say the least!

Hey, this essay has taken a turn that I wasn’t expecting. Writing can be funny that way. Seeing that I ain’t in the mood for bumming myself out, I’m now going to remove my digits from the keyboard. It’s a bright, sunny morning as I type this paragraph. My lawn needs mowing, and I hear its call.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. I thank you.)

To The Moon And Beyond!?

It was appropriate that my pal Mike and I, with my wife Sandy, recently went together to a cinema in the Philadelphia suburbs to see the excellent documentary Apollo 11. I mean, a few months short of 50 years ago Mike and I took a road trip through parts of New England and Canada soon after our college graduations, a trip during which the Apollo 11 mission was very much on our minds and before our eyes.

Mike suggested the journey to me in Roslyn, the Long Island town where we grew up and still lived (Long Island is near New York City). There, in a pizzeria, we bumped into each other after being out of touch during our college days. “Sure, let’s do it,” I said, because, clueless and planless when it came to life’s bigger pictures, there was nothing on my agenda, socially or work-wise, to interfere.

And so, a couple of weeks later off we went in Mike’s bright red Ford Mustang convertible. We had a blast, happily taking in the gorgeous landscapes and seascapes that we encountered. And, as the Mustang racked up the miles, time after time we sang along to Bad Moon Rising, The Israelite, and Spinning Wheel, songs that were glued into heavy rotation on radio stations everywhere that summer.

When July 16, 1969 arrived, somewhere in the province of Quebec we watched Apollo 11 begin its journey. Five days later, at another Quebec location that’s faded from memory, we, along with just about everyone else in the world, saw Neil Armstrong and, some minutes later, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin step out of their lunar module, becoming the first homo sapiens to set foot on the lunar surface. While they did their thing, Michael Collins remained in orbit around the Moon in a command module, awaiting his mates’ return.

Yeah, it’s pretty cool that, half a century later, those two former Long Island boys live a mere 15 miles apart from one another in the Philadelphia burbs, are still tight, and in one another’s company got to think about and talk about their glorious Moon-enhanced road trip from the distant past.

Apollo 11 isn’t your typical documentary. There are no reminiscences by Aldrin and Collins, the mission’s surviving astronauts, nor commentary by other talking heads. What we have here, aside from a few newly-made graphics that demonstrate some of the expedition’s technical aspects, are video and film clips and photographs shot during the mission’s duration by earthbound NASA camera operators (NASA is the American space agency), by cameras attached to the command module and to the lunar module, and by the astronauts themselves. And there’s earlier footage, from 1962, of a speech by John F. Kennedy in which he explains why he thinks that the USA must, and will, go to the Moon.

Todd Douglas Miller, the film’s editor and director, did a hell of a job selecting and piecing together the oceanic amount of material at his disposal. Want to feel as though you’re climbing aboard a rocket, then blasting off, and then cruising along on your way to our cousin in the sky? Not to mention inching around gingerly on the Moon’s granular top layer? Right, who doesn’t? Which is why catching Apollo 11 is a good idea.

Lunar module returning from the Moon to command module.
Photo credit: NASA

I thought that one sequence alone was worth the price of admission. The footage, filmed from the command module, shows the lunar module on its way back from the Moon. The LM’s aim was to dock with the command module which, after jettisoning the LM, would transport the three space travelers the rest of the way back home. A softie, watching the Armstrong-and-Aldrin-inhabited craft draw nearer and nearer to Collins’ vehicle made me go limp with wonder. With the stark and stoic Moon as its backdrop, those hard-to-believe images are more dramatic and beautiful than any ever created for a sci-fi flick.

In all, six space missions placed men on the Moon, the last one in 1972. After a while, I think that people became kind of blasé about them though. Lunar overkill, if you will. Still, the accomplishments were undeniably remarkable. But were they necessary? I lean toward the nay side on that. We’re an inquisitive species, and our brains are big, so we always need to push the envelope, investigating and exploring our asses off. It’s what we do and always have done. Hey, it’s human nature.

And I guess that’s fine where Planet Earth is concerned. But is there really any point to traipsing around elsewhere? Hell, it’s not as if we learned the secrets of the universe by going to the Moon. And we sure as shit won’t learn them by visiting or establishing colonies on Mars, goals that are on the drawing boards for several nations and at least one private company. What’s more, people are people. Meaning, we’re highly emotional creatures with more than our share of less-than-stellar instincts. If Mars were colonized by earthlings, it wouldn’t take long before frustrations, hurt feelings and greediness morphed into feuds and armed conflicts (“Hasta la vista, motherf*cker!” I can hear one good ol’ boy saying to another, 100 years from now. “There ain’t enough room on this miserable red planet for the two of us. Which of these roomy craters do you want to be buried in?”). Can there be any doubt?

None of which is to say that I’m not an admirer of the heavens near and far. I am, and in a pretty big way. I love sitting outside on a clear night, staring up at the Moon, the stars, the planets. A little while ago, taking a break from writing this story, I grabbed a look at the night sky (it’s 10:30 PM on March 27 as I type. Publication date remains up in the air, however). It was magnificent. But, wouldn’t you know? The Moon wasn’t in sight. A tad of googling revealed that it won’t rise till almost 2 AM, by which time I’ll have been snoring away for over an hour. As usual, the universe didn’t consult with me when drawing up its schedule.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Gracias.)

The Best Movie Of 2018 Is . . .

I speak nothing but the truth when I say that I’ve never paid much attention to the Golden Globe Awards, which are honors bestowed upon the film and television industries. (I’m not anti-awards shows, by the way, being a lifelong Oscars devotee.) However, two news flashes are in order in regard to that opening sentence: 1) Hardly anybody gives a shit about what I do or don’t pay attention to, which is entirely as it should be. 2) Many millions of people pay a good deal of attention to the Golden Globe Awards, which may or may not be as it should be.

Recently, though, for the first time ever I did spend a few minutes looking online at the nominees and winners from the Golden Globes event held on January 6. That’s because I was curious about how much overlap there would be between my choices for 2018’s best flicks and the choices of the folks who vote for the GGs.

There wasn’t a ton of overlap. The Globes nominated 20 films (five nominees in each of four categories: drama; musical or comedy; animated; foreign language). I saw only six of them, of which I thought highly of three (A Star Is Born; BlacKkKlansman; Isle Of Dogs). And as for the winners, I caught but one: Green Book, good but not special in my estimation, won in the musical or comedy division, though in my view it isn’t a member of either of those genres. It’s a drama with light comedic brushstrokes. Whatever.

Also bringing home the bacon at the GGs were Bohemian Rhapsody (drama), Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (animated), and Roma (foreign language). I have a feeling that I’m going to love Roma when I see it. As for the latest Spidey affair, there’s almost zero chance that I’ll fit it into my schedule during my remaining time on Planet Earth. Bohemian Rhapsody, though, definitely is on my radar screen.

So much for the Golden Globe Awards, then. The time now has arrived for me to pen some thoughts about my nominees for best picture and about why my winner from that pool captured the top spot. Caveat: Even though I’ve seen a lot of movies — 32 — that were released in the USA during 2018, there’s no question that numerous good ones didn’t pass before my eyes. But you can’t see everything. Away we go.

Of the 32, a few, such as The Death Of Stalin and On Chesil Beach, stunk up the joint mightily, in my modest opinion. But most of the others were enjoyable, some remarkably so. And a small group were not only highly enjoyable but thought-provoking and poignant too. It’s those three characteristics that elevate them into my Best Films Of 2018 category. Here they are: The Hate U Give; The Insult; American Animals; BlacKkKlansman; The Rider; Leave No Trace. Three others (Eighth Grade; First Man; Can You Ever Forgive Me?) came awfully close to making my list, but six is more than enough for me to deal with.

That sextet is a very fine group. I mean, these are thoughtful, carefully-crafted movies. The Insult, filmed in Lebanon and subtitled, peers at the societal and familial ramifications brought about by two men’s stubbornness and unchecked emotions. BlacKkKlansman and The Hate U Give throw American racism right smack into your face. American Animals, about which I’ve previously written (click here), is a depiction of screwy, exciting people on a crazy quest. Their quest kept me nervous as hell.

The final two flicks, unlike the four just mentioned, are enveloped with calmer vibes. A quiet, contemporary tale set among Native American cowboys, The Rider matter-of-factly and movingly presents tragedy and love in equal measures. And what about Leave No Trace (click here to read my earlier comments about it), in which a father and his teenage daughter, living off the grid, eventually have to decide how far into society they will venture? Well, among other things, it absolutely broke my heart.

When I began tossing around ideas for this article, I thought it would be difficult for me to select a winner. Turns out it wasn’t. Only one of the nominees has popped into my mind semi-regularly since I watched it. And although each of the six got to me in one or more meaningful ways, the depth to which Leave No Trace penetrated leaves no doubt that crowning any other movie would be oh so wrong. Leave No Trace, I bow before your powers.

At the start of Leave No Trace, directed and co-written by Debra Granik (who notched those same credits for 2010’s excellent Winter’s Bone), dad Will (played by Ben Foster) and daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) are doing their best to keep away from organized society. They live in a makeshift campsite deep within an Oregon public forest, where they forage and hunt. Will, an emotionally and psychologically damaged war vet (he probably served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, though we never find out), has chosen this life for them. But he’s not a hopeless case, not when it comes to Tom, who is the apple of his eye and for whom he’d do just about anything. And Tom’s feelings for her father are as deep as his are for her.

As might be expected, though, time and the legal and social welfare systems catch up with the duo. After evaluations by social workers, Will and Tom are placed into a soft corner of the real world. The second half of the movie is an elegant laying out of their responses to their new circumstances. The movie’s end, sad and profound, yet life-affirming in a sense, just might break your heart as much as it did mine.

Okay, I’m about to bid you adieu, but first I have to state the obvious. Namely, it’s as clear as a bright, sunny day that no one movie is the best of 2018, or of any year. Everyone has their own opinions. The Golden Globes picked their 2018 winners, and I’ve picked Leave No Trace. I’d be very interested to know which films, from 2018, you think stand out from the rest, or any other thoughts you have about movies. So, please don’t be shy about adding your comments. Gracias. Goodbye till next time!

Gutsy People: Thoughts About A Movie, A Book, And The Wider World

When I comment about movies on these pages, I try to be a good guy by not revealing all, especially endings. I mean, for anyone with an itch to see a certain flick, that itch might damn near disappear if they become privy to too much telling information.

But a spoiler alert ain’t needed for Free Solo, a documentary profiling the great rock climber Alex Honnold that was released in September and is still in some theaters. That’s because the beans already have been spilled in every review and article that has been written about this movie. In other words, hell yeah, he made it to the top! To the top of El Capitan, that is, the monster, vertical wall of granite in California’s Yosemite National Park. And he reached the top, about 3,000 feet above ground, by climbing El Cap without ropes, a harness or safety equipment of any sort. And without a climbing partner or partners. That’s what free solo means. The only item, other than clothing, that Honnold wore while becoming the first (and, so far, only) person to accomplish this superhuman feat on El Cap was a small bag on his back that contained chalk, a substance he’d periodically coat his hands with, the better to grip the rock. (Others had scaled El Cap over the years, but always with ropes and additional equipment.)

What any rock climber does seems pretty well off the charts to me. Shit, I would make it about two feet off the ground on El Capitan’s face, maybe three. Which isn’t bad actually. Only 2,998 or 2,997 feet to go. But what Honnold did on June 3, 2017 was so far off the charts as to be laughable, in a magnificent way, and nearly inconceivable. The film crew that captured his exploits agree. Skilled rock climbers themselves, they are shown in the documentary, nervous as can be and totally awed by what was taking place in front of their eyes.

For anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense, this is a movie not to be missed. If possible, watch it in a theater rather than at home. Whatever the venue, the bigger the screen the better. My wife, brother and I went to see Free Solo in early November. We sat in the sixth or seventh row of a cinema, nice and close to the action. We were captivated. You will be too.

By the way, when I mentioned for anyone who has a taste for danger and suspense a few sentences ago, I meant to include and an appreciation of guts. As modest and unflappable as Alex appears in Free Solo’s interview segments, there’s no denying that he is in possession of an oceanic amount of guts, and I for one find his courage to be very inspiring, And although not too many people are going to try and scale giant rocks, it’s of course true that in less dramatic ways many or most of us display courage throughout parts or all of our lives. And that’s inspiring too. Hell, for much of humanity, simply getting out of bed and facing the day is a brave act, considering the nasty, even horrific, realities facing them.

I read the late novelist Kent Haruf’s final book, Our Souls At Night (it was published in 2015, the year after Haruf died), a few days after watching Alex climb. There are a variety of ways in which to look at Our Souls At Night, as there are with Free Solo. It’s about love and the lack thereof. It’s about emotional pains that do not fully heal. And it’s also about the guts shown by a man and a woman, each around 70 years old, who throw aside their normal inhibitions and begin a relationship with one another.

Addie Moore and Louis Waters, both widowed, are longtime neighbors who are acquainted only slightly. They live in Holt, Colorado, the fictional town that is the setting for all six of Haruf’s novels. But, as becomes apparent, Addie has had Louis on her mind for some time. One day she pays Louis a visit. Here’s some of what Haruf writes on Our Souls At Night’s second and third pages:

You probably wonder what I’m doing here, she said.
Well, I didn’t think you came over to tell me my house looks nice.
No, I want to suggest something to you.
Oh?
Yes. A kind of proposal.
Okay.
Not marriage, she said.
I didn’t think that either.
But it’s kind of a marriage-like question. But I don’t know if I can now. I’m getting cold feet. She laughed a little. That’s sort of like marriage, isn’t it.
What is?
Cold feet.
It can be.
Yes. Well, I’m just going to say it.
I’m listening, Louis said.
I wonder if you would consider coming to my house sometimes to sleep with me.
What? How do you mean?
I mean we’re both alone. We’ve been by ourselves for too long. For years. I’m lonely. I think you might be too. I wonder if you would come and sleep in the night with me. And talk.

Wow! Addie has guts. An abundance of it. Don’t know how many folks in her age bracket would do what she does. Couldn’t be a lot. In any event, Louis accepts Addie’s offer. They begin their affair — a platonic one at the start — cautiously. And, finding that they are getting along just fine, take it to higher levels. They become a strong and true couple, telling each other their life stories, opening up more than they did to their deceased spouses.

Addie and Louis do not go unnoticed in Holt. Snide and angry comments and actions come their way from the small-minded, which includes Addie’s adult son Gene. How do Addie and Louis end up? Hey, unlike with Free Solo, I’m not revealing the conclusion, a conclusion that I found to be wanting in relation to what had preceeded it. Still, I give Our Souls At Night a thumbs-up. Haruf, as is clear from his words above, writes beautifully. His style is direct and unflowery, and the book’s characters feel real.

Alex Honnold doesn’t boast about courage in Free Solo. Neither do Addie Moore or Louis Waters in Our Souls At Night. In fact, the three barely talk about it. But they each own courage and use it for their personal betterment, and in manners that bring no harm to others or to the natural world.

(As always, comments are welcomed. Thanks.)

When Opportunity Knocks: A Book (Falconer), A Movie (Leave No Trace), And Me

Last month I read a good novel (Falconer, by John Cheever), and two weeks ago I saw a very good movie (Leave No Trace) at a local theater. Wanting to write about both I racked my brains for themes common to them. No doubt there are any number waiting to be discovered, but in the end I realized that I’d be better off limiting my focus, so as not to enter rooms that I wouldn’t explore properly and likely would never find my way out of. Therefore I’ll take a look at just one key point made in the book and in the flick: Some folks have the ability to recognize when a meaningful opportunity is at hand, and they act upon that knowledge.

And while I’m at it, I’ll work myself into the discussion. As I noted once before on these pages: If I don’t write about myself, who the hell will? Hey, the answer is a six-letter word that begins with n and ends with y. And the middle letters are obod. Shit, I’m ordinary as hell, but that’s never stopped me from throwing a few details about my life into cyberspace!

In his day, John Cheever (1912-1982) was a celebrated and popular writer of fiction, an examiner of the American scene and psyche. Not sure how well-known he is anymore. Falconer, which hit bookstore shelves in 1977, was the fifth of his six novels. I’ve come across articles online that proclaim it a masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far, as I found it to be a little too loose at some of the seams, but I enjoyed the heck out of the book.

Set in the 1970s, Falconer tells the tale of one Ezekiel Farragut, an upper middle-classer who, in a fit of anger, murdered his brother and, as a result, found himself deposited in New York State’s (imaginary) Falconer State Prison. Cheever plays flexibly with time in his book. It’s possible that I missed it, but I didn’t notice any mention of the length of Ezekiel’s sentence nor of how many months/years went by on the novel’s pages. This open-endedness clothes Falconer in gauzy mystery. You never can be sure what’s coming next, an approach that pulled me in.

Falconer struck me as an extended dream, a workaday one at times, transcendent at others. It contains many beautifully written, near-hallucinatory sequences. Cheever’s words often drift and float, meant I think to represent how difficult it is for constricted individuals — prisoners — to keep their heads on straight, what with their activities being limited and each day being not much different than any other for them. And even when his passages are direct, they sometimes are dreamy nonetheless. And often heartbreaking too, such as these lines from an inmate who opens his soul to Ezekiel.

In those days I was the kind of lonely man you see eating in Chinese restaurants. You know? Anywhere in this country and in some parts of Europe where I’ve been. The Chung Fu Dynasty. The One Hung Low. Paper lanterns with teakwood frames all over the place. Sometimes they keep the Christmas lights up all year round. Paper flowers, many paper flowers. Large family groups. Also oddballs. Fat women. Square pegs. Jews. Sometimes lovers and always this lonely man. Me.

Yes, Cheever could write.

Okay, then. What about answering opportunity’s call? Farragut is good at that, without even trying in most instances. His prison mates feel comfortable around him, due to his unthreatening demeanor, and unburden themselves to him, as the excerpt above shows. Farragut is open to the opportunity to allow his peers to find a bit of peace of mind.

And in the book’s ending pages, Farragut takes a plunge that he hadn’t been consciously contemplating. A window of opportunity, heavily camouflaged, opens for a few seconds. Farragut sees it, seizes it, and takes the steps that might lead to a better life for himself. We’ll never know how his actions ultimately pan out, as the book concludes only hours after Farragut’s entrance into the unknown. But, as they say, he did what he had to do. And that’s important.

Taking the plunge is a major component of Leave No Trace, one of the best movies I’ve seen in 2018. Directed and co-written by Debra Granik, it is a quiet, contemplative work.

The story begins in a heavily forested state park in Portland, Oregon, and eventually moves to even denser forest lands in Washington state. As far as I could tell, it’s a present-era tale. The movie’s main characters, war-veteran father Will (portrayed by Ben Foster) and his teenage daughter Tom (played by Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) have been off the grid, societally and electronically-speaking, for years. Will, wanting no part of regular life, has chosen to live by his wits in the woods, and Tom is just happy to be with her dad. The film provides very little back story. That’s not a problem. What matters are Will and Tom’s present circumstances.


In the film’s opening scenes, they cautiously are going about their business, doing their damndest to not be seen or heard in the state park. Theirs is a life of basics. Foraging, chopping wood, cooking, eating, sleeping in a small tent, playing chess and reading. They are content to different degrees, Tom much more so than Will, who is inflicted with emotional demons from his stint(s) in an unspecified war. Probably he served in Iraq and/or Afghanistan. Will and Tom are incredibly close, dependent and reliant on each other.

But their way of life always is in peril, what with park rangers and hikers and joggers rarely too far away. Eventually they are discovered and gently brought into the social service system. Life opens up, potentially anyway, when Will and Tom are relocated to normal housing. The second half of Leave No Trace depicts how they handle the possibilities, opportunities some would say, that subsequently present themselves. Is it better to be among people rather than not? To learn a trade and earn money rather than perpetually scrounging for food in the woods? To become more than what one has been?

Leave No Trace faces those questions. The answers might not surprise you, but the telling ways in which they are revealed will.

Now, getting back to me, let me say this: I wouldn’t be pecking out this essay at my writing perch, in a wood-paneled den on the ground floor of a cozy and comfortable suburban house, if I hadn’t grabbed an opportunity available to me back in 1977. Can’t imagine where I’d be if I’d let the chance pass. Very likely nowhere particularly good.

I’d been floundering for much of the 1970s, a big-time non-success story following my college graduation in 1969. After a series of going-nowhere jobs, I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 to work as a caseworker for Pennsylvania’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW). Idiotically, I quit the job after little more than one year. My hormones must have been totally out of whack for me to do that, along with my mind.

Anyway, during the aforementioned 1977, unhappily spinning my wheels, I applied for reinstatement with DPW, an option that I’d been resisting. They hauled me back aboard. Hallelujah! Mama Mia! Things began to work out swimmingly. My income improved dramatically, I made friends and in 1990 met my wife-to-be. And I stuck around DPW for 33 years . . . damn right I’d learned my lesson. All of which proved that it’s never too late to answer the door when opportunity is trying to get your attention. Do I hear an Amen?

(As I always say: Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.)

Two New Movies That I Liked A Lot: “American Animals” And “RBG”

As I’ve mentioned a few times before on this publication’s pages, I go out pretty often to the movies. So far this year I’ve caught 20 of ’em. Maybe early in 2019 I’ll do a nice, big writeup on the flicks that passed before my eyes and ears during this, our current year. But for now I’m going to limit my focus and write briefly about only two. I saw both very recently and they agreed deliciously with my delicate system. Okay, away we go.

By the time you read this essay, American Animals may be gone from the theaters. If it remains in one near you, however, I urge you to drop whatever you’re doing and go to see it. Or do likewise in the comfort of your home whenever it materializes on Netflix or HBO or whatever. (But note the caveat several paragraphs below).

What we have here is an indie effort that struck me as near-perfect filmmaking. The movie is entertaining as hell. Its plot unravels tantalizingly. Its screenplay nails the way that people talk. The acting is excellent. And you’ll be sweating bullets when the going gets rough. Hey, you get the idea. I’m an American Animals fan!

American Animals tells the story of four college-age guys who, in 2004, attempted to steal rare and valuable books (including an early edition of John James Audubon’s The Birds Of America) from the special collections department of Transylvania University’s library. Believe it or not, there really is a Transylvania University. That institution is located in Lexington, Kentucky. And believe it or not once again, the story that plays out in American Animals really did happen. Writer and director Bart Layton constructed the movie by cutting between reenactments of the crazy story lines, using professional actors, and interviews with the real-life perpetrators. The latter offer fascinating commentaries on what was going through their minds at various points in the heist’s planning and execution.

It would be wrong, wrong, wrong for me to spill any more beans about American Animals. You’ll thank me, should you view the movie, for not being a spoiler kind of individual. And so I’ll end my discussion of Animals by noting that anyone who wilts and/or takes shelter from barrages of F-bombs should stay away. As for everyone else, I believe that this one’s for you.

Oh wait. There is another thing or two: I’d never heard of Bart Layton before, and knew but one member of Animal’s cast (Blake Jenner), but so what? The movie proved to me, as numerous others have, that the world is awash with very talented though hardly famous individuals. I’m totally down with that.

RBG, a hit documentary that entered a sizeable number of American cinemas in May, and is still in quite a few, was not on my to-be-seen list. I don’t know why, but I decided that I wasn’t all that interested in learning about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the oldest (age 85) of the nine justices who comprise the USA’s Supreme Court, the highest federal court in the land. But my wife Sandy badly wanted to see it and, peerless spouse that I am, I capitulated. Off we went on a miserably hot day to watch the film in downtown Philadelphia.

I’m here to report that I was wrong. RBG (directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West) is really good. Justice Ginsburg has led a remarkable life, one devoted to her family, to the advancement of human rights and to the intricacies and necessity of the law.

This movie might not be up the alley of those who, like The Donald, are narrow-minded, mean-spirited and eager to restrict and oppress. But if you believe in respect and equality, then I imagine you’ll become an admirer of Ruth. Hell, you probably already are. Unbeknownst to me, without trying in the least she became a cultural icon and a judicial rock star over the last 10 or so years. This was quite an unexpected phenomenon, since Ginsburg is a quiet, unassuming sort. But millions of Americans have become captivated by her steadfastness, by her support of abortion rights and of gender rights. And by the slight twinkle in her eye and shy smile on her face that she often wears. She’s endearing. No other justice on the high court has a devoted fan base like hers.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg is smart as a whip. She graduated from law school in 1959 and began to make her name in the legal world in the 1970s, co-founding The Women’s Rights Project and ultimately arguing six gender-rights cases before the Supreme Court. Little did she know that she herself would become a member of that court in 1993, after Bill Clinton nominated her for the job.

Now, I’m anything but a jurisprudence expert, but I’m being more than decently accurate, I think, by describing Ginsburg’s philosophy on the high court as liberal but cautious, common-sensical and mindful of people’s needs. She has taken her job extremely seriously, as well she should, working enormous numbers of hours. And she has no plans to retire. As she says in the film, she won’t step down until she feels that she is unable to keep up her full-steam-ahead pace. She’s a source of hope and pride for many in these right-wing crazy, Trumpian times.

(As I always say: Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this essay on good ol’ social media.)

The Oscars Are A-Comin’

I’m very well acquainted with some people who wouldn’t watch the Academy Awards telecast if the fate of the world was hanging in the balance. They can’t stand all the pomp and the self-congratulatory aura that the show is partially dressed in. Well, if the fate of the world was hanging in the balance I’d watch anything, you know, even brain-dissolving entities like The Maury Show or Chrisley Knows Best. That’s the kind of guy I am. Looking out for humanity and nature and all that, you dig?

You’d hardly have to twist my arm, though, to get me to turn on the Oscars, a broadcast that I’m pretty well addicted to. I like seeing big cinematic stars on the Academy Awards’ stage and in the audience. I like the good gags that often fly from the mouths of the hosts. I like holding my breath every time a high-heeled and flowingly-gowned actress heads uneasily toward the podium, doing all she can not to trip in front of a billion viewers worldwide. And, more than anything, I enjoy keeping alive a personal tradition that dates back to when, eons ago, I began watching the Academy Awards with my mom. She was an Oscars lover of a high order. She’d be happy to know that I’ve missed nary an Oscars presentation since those days of yore.

Well then, as surely we all know, the big day is nigh. The Academy Awards extravaganza takes to the airwaves on Sunday, March 4 at 8 PM in the USA’s Eastern Time Zone, the area in which yours truly resides. My wife Sandy and I will be glued to the boob tube. She, like me, wouldn’t miss the show.

And I’ve decided that I shouldn’t pass up the opportunity to jot down a few remarks about the Oscars. I’ve given a fair amount of thought as to what I might say herein. If I had it in me, which I don’t, I’d churn out thousands of words right now about great performances by actors over the years and about brilliant screenplays and spot-on directing. However, I’m someone who, knowing his limitations, tries to keep things manageable. Thus I’ve made the command decision to limit my realm of discussion. Seeing that the Best Picture category probably is the one that most people pay the most attention to, I will fill up the remainder of this essay by paying attention to it too.

This year there are nine nominations for Best Picture, all of which, needless to say, came out in 2017. A film-going dynamo of sorts, I hit the cinemas 46 times last year, a spree during which seven of the nominees passed before my eyes. The two that I didn’t see (Call Me By Your Name and Get Out) I wouldn’t presume to comment upon. As for the others, I shall, but not before mentioning that, of the flicks I took in last year, I thought that the un-nominated The Florida Project was the best (you can read my review here). It is a work of fiction that feels like real life, which is something I cannot say for many movies. The Florida Project is delightful, poignant and troubling. It will test the emotional strength of your heart. I highly recommend it.

Back to the subject at hand. In alphabetical order, the seven nominated films that I caught are: Darkest Hour. Dunkirk. Lady Bird. Phantom Thread. The Post. The Shape Of Water. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

That’s a sturdy and imposing list. Very fine movies reside on it. But not every one. The Post, for instance, isn’t a very fine movie. A retelling of the Pentagon Papers crisis during Richard Nixon’s presidency, The Post seemed to me to be not much more than standard filmmaking. The Washington Post newspaper (from which the film derives its title) without question stepped up to the plate for democracy by publishing, against enormous legal pressure, leaked government documents (the Pentagon Papers) that showed that the Vietnam War likely was unwinnable. But the movie has far too many preachy moments. They bring an artificial flavor to the proceedings. Director Steven Spielberg has been involved with considerably better work (Jaws, Schindler’s List and Lincoln, to name a few).

Nor is Phantom Thread top-notch, to my way of viewing things. I definitely liked its oddness, its peculiar charm, but felt unsatisfied in the end. It’s the tale of a fastidious and successful British fashion designer (played by the fabulously talented Daniel Day-Lewis) in the 1950s, a gent of 60 or so who marries a lady much younger than he. They feel each other out, they sometimes butt heads and worse . . . but their mental and emotional states, the whys behind what is happening between them, were never clear to me. Way too much understatement for my tastes. I have relatives and friends who rave about Phantom Thread, though, so what do I know? Give it a try.

Ah yes, Lady Bird, the saga of a discontented California high school senior (portrayed by Saoirse Ronan, one of the numerous non-Americans who have no trouble nailing American accents) who is fumbling her way toward whatever her destiny might be. The girl’s given name is Christine but, in trying to become her own person, she demands to be known as Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, herself an actress, wrote and directed the movie, a double-barreled feat that she pulled off most admirably.

No, it wouldn’t be an upset if Lady Bird grabs the Oscar for Best Picture, but if the decision were up to me, I wouldn’t hand it the award. I didn’t find myself being drawn deeply enough into the movie, probably because Lady Bird/Christine is not a particularly likeable individual. Still, this is a quality film. You won’t go wrong by spending time with it.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the Battle of Dunkirk, in May and June of 1940, for the British and other Allies. Imperiled in their positions on French coastlines, the Allied forces, several hundred thousand strong, seemingly had little chance against advancing and surrounding German fighters. Rather amazingly though, most of the Allied troops were safely evacuated.

The movie drawn from the struggle, Dunkirk, is a powerful one. It reeks gloom, fear and claustrophobia, Anyone interested in history or human nature will want to see it. My only gripe about Dunkirk is that many of its sequences, even the ones in open water, don’t capture the scale of the events taking place. Enormous numbers of boats and planes were in action during the battle, but often only a smattering are pictured in the movie. This was by design, I know, an attempt to describe the big picture in small strokes. Still, I left the theater feeling pretty shaken.

Darkest Hour takes on some of the same subject matter as Dunkirk, as it is the story of Winston Churchill during his early days as Prime Minister of Great Britain. Churchill took office about two weeks before the Battle of Dunkirk began. He was a powerful presence, a leader who refused to compromise with Germany, who did his damndest to instill and elicit strength and courage from the Brits in the face of incredible danger. Gary Oldman is fabulous as Churchill. The movie is all his in a sense. But, then again, it’s not all his, for Darkest Hour would be far less than the excellent production that it is were it not for a screenplay, cinematography and direction that come from the top of the barrel. If Darkest Hour wins the Oscar, it deserves it.

Next up are our final contenders, The Shape Of Water and Three Billboards Outside Of Ebbing, Missouri. I liked them both very much. The Shape Of Water is a dreamy fantasy, a story about many things, including how love can develop most unexpectedly. The movie has an element of the supernatural, in the guise of a mythical type of creature that has been captured in the Amazon jungles and brought to the USA to be studied. And it has the radiant Sally Hawkins. She plays a joyful individual, a mute, who works as a janitor at the science facility to which the lizard-man has been transported. Hawkins, through fluid body movements, subtle gestures and expressive eyes creates a loveable character, a person of true depth. Hawkins is an astonishing talent.

There are sublime sequences in Water that carried me away. And there also is a good guys versus bad guys theme (with “I’m gonna get you” scenes and the like that you’ve seen a million times over the years) that I thought holds down the movie. As good as Water is, it might have been better.

Finally we come to Three Billboards. What we have here are a taut plot and superb acting from its main players. You’re not going to find performances superior to those turned in by Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson. Three Billboards is a high-power meditation on evil, tragedy, bigotry and redemption. And I’m certain I’m leaving out other big subjects that it tackles.

All of that takes place in a dusty Missouri town where hard-as-nails Mildred Hayes (McDormand) is determined to prod the local police to find her teenage daughter’s killer, as the crime has gone unsolved for many months. She goes to unusual means in this pursuit, taking shit from nobody. Three Billboards will grab you by your collar. If you’re not wearing a collar it will find something else to grab you by. My guess is that the Oscar will end up in its hands. And I will have no complaints if that turns out to be the case.

Nor will I moan if Darkest Hour takes home the gold. Like Billboards, it is gritty and packs a wallop. To me, those two films are equally good. And totally Oscar-worthy.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece on Facebook, Twitter and such. I thank you.)

Things I’m Thankful For, Only One Of Which (A Movie) Is Real

After the Thanksgiving affair that my wife Sandy and I hosted last week, I really am feeling thankful. Thankful that the big day is over and that (hopefully) I won’t see the guests again for a long time. Never again would be ideal.

What with most of our family scattered around the world, far from our suburban Philadelphia home, and what with our friends chowing down elsewhere, Sandy and I, as usual, were reduced to inviting only the three cousins who live near us — Tom, Dick and Larry — to sit around our dining room table on Turkey Day.

Tom, Dick and Larry are from my side of the family. I never can keep straight precisely how they are related to me. Third cousins twice removed. Or second cousins thrice removed. Something like that. Whatever the blood connections may be, several things are definite: These guys are suspicious characters, unmarried and without girlfriends, and never receive Thanksgiving invites from anyone else. I won’t delve deeply into describing how thoroughly they distressed me last week. Let’s just say that after Tom glared at me 20 minutes into the meal and hissed “pass the gravy . . . or else,” I came this close to soiling my Mickey Mouse-emblazoned boxer shorts. Holy crap, I’m very thankful that didn’t happen! One painful hour later the meal was over and five minutes after that the boys were on their way home. Unsafe travels in the future, fellas.

Now, I pride myself on being not too concerned about lucid juxtapositions. One of these days maybe I’ll set aside my wobbly ways, but that day hasn’t arrived just yet. Which is why I, without embarrassment, now turn away from a Thanksgiving fantasia and toward something entirely unrelated. Its name is The Florida Project. It’s a movie, one that I thought only relative handfuls of people were visiting the theaters to see. But I was wrong about that. A quick look at Box Office Mojo reveals that TFP is in a substantial number of cinemas in the States. It deserves to be. The Florida Project is superb, a piercing examination of human plight. I caught it a couple of weeks ago, am thankful that I did, and can’t get it out of my head.

The Florida Project, though scripted, has the feel of cinema verite. Episodic, it follows the lives, day after day during one summer, of several young kids and their parents who call the Magic Castle motel home. The motel is in Orlando, Florida, close to Disney’s Magic Kingdom theme park, but for many of Magic Castle’s residents it might as well be a million miles from that pricey wonderland. That’s because the Magic Castle, where a room may be had for under $40 a day, is loaded with those near the bottom of the economic ladder — folks with low-paying jobs, hustlers and pensioners who are barely getting by, and transients on their way to who knows where.

Moonee, a smart, playful and happy six-year-old girl, has been living in the Magic Castle for quite a while with her single mom, Halley, an angry and majestically-tattooed 20-something who, clearly and unfortunately, never has been part of the mainstream and won’t be joining it soon. Money comes to Halley in various ways, mostly by scheming, and its flow is erratic and unplentiful. Life’s been a bitch for her, as her white-hot temper shows, but the temper never is directed towards her daughter. Moonee is the apple of Halley’s eye, the wondrous creature who can do no wrong, the one person on Earth she loves unconditionally.

The Florida Project is filmed in colors that blaze with brilliance. I think the director, Sean Baker, chose this somewhat jarring motif to demonstrate the way in which Moonee views her surroundings. To her they are an adventureland meant to be savored and explored. And explore it she does with her pals Scooty and Jancey — the fields close to the motel, the ice cream stand where they twist the arms of customers to buy them cones, abandoned buildings that sit under the Sun peacefully and half-forgotten.

At first, none of this seems like much. But the cumulative effect of the seemingly ordinary soon becomes powerful, as Baker paints the children and their parents with unadulterated strokes. The characters are real, vividly real, and totally believable. I’m still hearing Moonee’s glee-infused voice, which provides one of the soundtracks to the film. It’s been a year since I saw a movie, Moonlight being the last, that rang as true as this one.

Well, as they pile up it becomes apparent halfway through the movie that the details within The Florida Project are not a collection of random observations and occurrences. The plot is headed in a definite direction. And it would be most unfair of me to give away the final destination. I will say, though, that anyone whose heart is not composed of stone better be prepared to have it wrenched.

Performance-wise, what can you say about Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite, who portray Moonee and Halley, respectively? Brilliant jobs, young ladies. Utterly brilliant. And Willem Dafoe? He’s the sole actor I was familiar with in the film. His handling of Bobby, the motel manager whose job requires him to put out metaphorical fires right and left, and who keeps a watchful eye out for dangers that might be heading for the children, is understatedly strong.

Sean Baker, who also co-wrote The Florida Project, is yet another I never knew about previously. Maybe I should have been aware of the sitcoms he helped create a few years ago, Greg The Bunny and Warren The Ape. But I wasn’t and am not.

In any event, somebody waved a magic wand over Baker’s head some time ago when he began thinking about the ideas he wanted to get across in The Florida Project and how they might take shape. The magic wand worked.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. I thank you.)