Arrival, Moonlight, The Edge Of Seventeen: Three Movies Face The Jury

Film commentary used to be a big part of the publication that you presently are gazing upon. Which is why I’m on my bended knees right now, begging the movie goddesses and gods to forgive me for not seriously evaluating any cinematic creations in oh so long a time. A quick look tells me that it has been three months since I last delved deeply into any. Three months? Man, hundreds of movies have been released in that time. And I’ve taken in a fair number of them, 20 or so. It’s not that I didn’t want to spin a review or two or three. I did. But, being a dumb f**k who seems to be getting dumber by the day, I couldn’t figure out anything meaty or nifty to say about most of the fare. Or figure out their plots half the time either, to be embarrassingly honest. Hey, not all of us are destined to inherit the mantles of Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert.

So far today, though, my dimness factor has not been deplorable. I therefore have decided to share some thoughts and observations about three movies that my wife Sandy and I caught on big screens recently: Arrival, Moonlight, and The Edge Of Seventeen. Here we go.

Two of these three films, Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, are lovingly-crafted and expertly-scripted examinations of the human condition. (Arrival is a different animal altogether, one to which lovingly-crafted possibly applies, but expertly-scripted doesn’t). They are coming of age stories that couldn’t be more different in their feels and approaches. The former, an engrossing downer that places a magnifying glass over the marginalized side of American society, is relentlessly gritty and roiling. The latter, on the other hand, is buoyant and breezy. It’s full of yuks and carries a smart, sarcastic swagger, yet is kept real by swift undercurrents of unease. Each in its own way rocks.

moonlight_2016_filmMoonlight, which unfolds in three separate segments, follows Chiron, a neglected and insufficiently loved gay black male, from his preteen years through his mid 20s. Life never is easy or a comforting experience for Chiron (played expertly, in chronological order, by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes), who is raised in poverty by a cocaine-addicted mother who loves her son but maybe loves her drugs as much or more. Compared to Chiron, pretty much any of us who thinks he/she has problems should think again. Just the basics, such as finding food and shelter, are frequent challenges for Chiron, whose less-than-wordy personality is a result of the many stones that life tosses at him. Never has he been bolstered by more than a couple of willing and able supporters. And, on top of all of that, his homosexuality confuses and frightens him. He’s uncomfortable in his own skin.

img_1266The environment presented in The Edge Of Seventeen is a far more materially comfortable one than that displayed in Moonlight, but that doesn’t mean that life is splendidly manageable for the film’s protagonist, Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld). It isn’t, not by a long shot, though Nadine’s woes, compared to Chiron’s, look like nothing more than toe bruises. Nadine, a high school junior who has struggled all her days to locate self-confidence and to forge friendships, is a funny wise-cracker. She also spends a lot of time being sad, letting the slings and arrows get to her. She’s on the verge of what? Not quite despair, but something close to that. Most fortuitously for Nadine, familial and social support systems, and opportunities, are at hand, as might be expected for a middle-class white girl living in a well-stocked house with a mother and brother of good quality, and attending a good school. It’s a question of how, or if, she’ll take advantage of what’s around her.

img_1265Do Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, as different as they are, have anything in common? I think so. A two-pronged theme that runs through both is human connections, and the lack thereof. Chiron and Nadine do not find it easy to locate the pathways that might bond them with others. They are hungry to connect, but their internal mechanisms (not to overlook outside forces, especially in Chiron’s case) get in the way. But they try. And they become better at the game as time goes on.

I’ll say little more about these two films, as I’m usually reluctant to provide data in quantities that might spoil another’s movie-going experiences. What I will mention is that the acting in both is excellent all around. Besides the leads in each movie, a tip of the hat to Mahershala Ali, whose portrayal of a very decent-hearted drug dealer who partially rescues Chiron from a totally disastrous existence, is heartbreakingly fine. Likewise to Woody Harrelson. He shines as a teacher who feels, really feels, in a most understatedly wry yet wise way for Nadine and her plight.

Connections, to my mind, is also a formidable motif running through Arrival. I’m not fully confident saying this, though, because what in the world Arrival actually is all about is significantly beyond me. And, I might add, beyond four or five other reviewers whose analyses I’ve looked at. Nevertheless, a few of those reviewers pretty much swooned over Arrival. How do you swoon over something that leaves you puzzled? Beats me. I guess that the movie’s atmospherics and high aims were enough to please them.

img_1298Anyway, Arrival is a sci-fier that definitely wants you to put on your thinking cap. Good luck with that, as I just mentioned. It is a present day aliens-visit-Earth affair. The aliens land simultaneously at 12 locations around the globe in sleek vehicles, two creatures per craft. (Spoiler alert, of sorts. I’m about to spill more beans than I did with Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen). They don’t speak any human languages, not unexpectedly, though it sure would have been keen if they did. But they do grunt and bellow in their own tongue. Unfortunately, what those noises mean no human ever figures out. But all is not lost, as they also have a written language, one composed of ink-blotty symbols. And — eureka! — eventually a couple of real smart humans decipher it, taking alien–human connections to a better level.

The visitors, super-giant octapi types that never leave their space ships, in my opinion don’t explain all too well (after the point in which their ink blots become understood) why they landed on our orb in the first place. That’s a big gripe that I have with the movie. Explain to whom, you ask? Why, to Louise Banks (Amy Adams), a linguistics expert and one of the aforementioned real smart humans. Upon the aliens’ arrival, Louise had been hauled out to meet and greet two of the huge beings, at their States-side landing site, by a befuddled and nervous U.S. military. Somehow, if I’m not mistaken (and I could be), the aliens knew in advance that they would hook up with Louise, clairvoyantly understanding that Louise is just what the world needs to help reduce high-running tensions among nations. To bring the world closer together, in other words. She’s a connector, see? Yup, the long-limbed animals are promoters and harbingers of peace, and real heroes, in my iffy interpretation of things.

There’s an unusual misty and mystical charm to Arrival that you won’t encounter every day. That’s a good thing. And a reason to check it out. There also are too many scenes loaded with clichéd actions and reactions, and dialog that frequently clunks heavily. If your movie-going time is limited, my suggestion is to put Arrival on the back burner. It’s a different story for Moonlight and The Edge Of Seventeen, though. Those you won’t want to miss. They are primo.

 

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Not Your Average Family: A Review Of Captain Fantastic

IMG_0844A few weeks ago my wife Sandy and I ventured out to see Captain Fantastic. It’s an oddly named movie and quite a good one. Captain Fantastic is a tale about a family, the Cashes, that for many years has been living in semi-seclusion deep in Washington State mountain wilderness. Why? Because Ben and Leslie Cash, early in their adult lives, walked out mainstream American society’s exit door. They were turned off by, and wanted no part of, the USA’s big business and big government, and the wasteful and extravagant lifestyles of many of their fellow citizens. Self-sufficient and resourceful in their wooded paradise, they have grown their own food, hunted animals and fruitfully made their way. And, via unorthodox and vigorous home schooling, they have passed on their beliefs, skills and knowledge to their progeny, all six of them, the oldest of whom, a son, is about 17. Part hippies, part isolationists, part radical thinkers, Ben and Leslie have helmed what ain’t your average family, to say the least. Average, no. Smart, book-loving and full of spunk, yes. In other words, very likeable.

Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.
Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.

I wanted to write a story about Captain Fantastic shortly after seeing it. The story definitely was inside me, pawing to get out, but it just wouldn’t congeal. Still, I kept thinking about Captain Fantastic a little bit now and then while hoping for the arrival of a special something that would set a zippy analysis of CF in motion. Such occurred recently when I heard a song on the radio, vocalist Annie Ross’ 1959 version of Give Me The Simple Life, an All-American standard recorded by many over the years (click here to listen). Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom wrote this number around 1945, meaning it to be a paean to modesty in one’s approach to living, to being happy with a small abode, basic possessions and the ones you love. As such, it would make a fairly decent though incomplete theme song for the Cashes. But Annie Ross took big liberties with the Ruby-Bloom creation. Someone, maybe she, penned some additional lyrics that turned the original song on its head. Turns out that Annie had been playing with us. “Here’s what I really want,” she in effect sang in the tune’s closing verses. “Plenty of dough, a Cadillac, caviar and really nice clothes.”

Ben and Leslie Cash, had they ever heard Annie Ross’ take on Give Me The Simple Life, would have shaken their heads knowingly. “That’s the American way.” they’d have said. “F*ck that. This mountain is where we belong.”

Ah, if only things were that clear. If they were, life would be a breeze (and there’d be little for moviemakers to make movies about). But, duh, circumstances change and situations develop. And people, if they are wise and with it, choose to or are forced to adapt. Or at least contemplate the possibility of adapting.

At the start of Captain Fantastc, we see seven of the eight Cashes in action. All but Leslie, who has been away from the household for several months, a hospitalized victim of mental and emotional disturbances. In her absence Ben is fully in charge, leading his troops through the same rigorous activities as when Leslie was present: killing deer, climbing rock walls, reading and discussing books, to name a few. The Cashes, if anything, are, with exceptions, very well-rounded. One day, though, bad news reaches Ben. Leslie, his soul mate, took her life. Apparently troubled for a long time, she had soldiered on till the pain grew too intense.

Leslie, in her will, left specific instructions as to how her death is to be observed and how her body is to be disposed. The Cashes’ quest to honor her wishes takes them off-mountain, where they ram hard into modern American life. For the Cash offspring, supermarkets and video games and big houses, all of which they encounter, are disorienting. And for Ben, the temporary immersion in society makes him look at his kids anew. He and they love their mountain home, but is it ultimately a prison for the children? To truly blossom might they need to live among their countrymen, at least in some modified manner?

Plot-wise, I’ll say no more. Now it’s gripe time, which I’ll keep very short by mentioning only one of several quibbles: Maybe I missed something, which is likely, but I didn’t come away with a good understanding of when or why Leslie’s mental problems developed and grew. I thought that the presentation of this subject was more than a little confused and hard to follow. Like me.

Which awkwardly leads me to note that for eons I’ve been amazed by how many good movies are written and/or directed by persons whom I’ve never heard of before. That’s a reflection of the amount of talent out there, and also shows that I’ve got miles to travel if I ever hope to get back in the loop. All of which is a delayed way of saying that Matt Ross wrote and directed the good Captain. As for actors who do a great job, well, everyone shines in Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen, whom I do know about, gets far more screen time than anyone else. He has no trouble revealing the many moods and facets of Ben Cash. And George McKay too is wonderful. Previously an unknown to me, he plays Ben and Leslie’s sweet and low-in-certain-life-experiences oldest child.

Movie fans, that’s a wrap.

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Me And My Muse: A Cry For Help (Hers, Not Mine)

Planet Earth contains over seven billion humans who are pushing hard to raise that number to eight billion. Of that multitude I’d estimate that 20 or 25 persons might recall my story from a few months ago about Erratica, one of the Greek goddesses and, more to the point, my wondrous muse (clicking here will make the tale appear). Clearly, my readership’s growth curve has almost limitless room to expand. That’s a positive, isn’t it? Go get ’em, cowboy! Yeah, you can do it!

Oh, Erratica, Erratica. She has helped me immeasurably since I took up blogging last year. Nearly every week she has materialized in my home to guide me, to prod me into getting my thoughts in order. Without her this blog would be nothing. Come to think of it, though, it’s kind of nothing anyway. Aww, shit.

Erratica
Erratica

Yes, like clockwork for the most part, Erratica has appeared on Thursdays. Except during my vacations, that is. She and I have an agreement that she won’t pop in on me when my wife Sandy and I are away, as we were for part of last month. But after we returned home, Erratica missed her next scheduled appointment. I didn’t give that much thought, figuring she had gotten my vacation dates wrong. But I began to worry the following Thursday when again she was a no-show. What was going on? Had Erratica abandoned me? If she had, I was staring the end of my blogging career in the face.

This past Thursday evening, as usual, I sat in my suburban Philadelphia home’s library. Decked out in hot pink cargo pants and my favorite bright blue t-shirt emblazoned with Wazzup, Dawgie? in neon green letters, I dazzled. Worn out from worrying about Erratica, sleep began to overtake me.

“Oh, Neil. I’m so glad to see you. I’ve missed you. It seems like weeks since last we met,” an unsteady voice said, quickly awakening me. Erratica was in the house.

“My goddess, where have you been? I’m overjoyed that you are here. The last two weeks without you turned me into a nervous wreck. Miraculously I was able to write articles, but it was a struggle.”

I stood up and looked Erratica in the eyes. Something was very wrong. A handful of tears slowly made their way down her cheeks. I had never seen her like this. She needed a seat. I brought a chair from the dining room and placed it next to mine. She took it and opened up her heart.

“Neil, I’m so lost. I don’t know what to do. You know my dad? Zeus?” she half-sobbed.

“Well, I’ve never had the pleasure. But I know of him,” I said. “Is he ill or something?”

Ill?” she cried. “He’s fitter than a fiddle, that old guy. He’s indestructible! But something has come between us. He can’t tolerate the way I’ve been performing my job . . . my bad attendance record, my lack of patience with my charges, the sarcastic barbs that I throw at them. Neil, I’m supposed to help unpolished writers like you, and for millennia that’s exactly what I did. But I’ve been failing them of late, including you. So, my dad has done the unthinkable . . . he has put me on probation. ‘Daughter, you better get it together fast, or you’re out!’ he said to me this morning. Neil, you are the first pseudo-scribe I’ve visited since he uttered those words. I need your help!”

It took me more than a few moments to process what I had heard. Then I took a deep breath, not knowing what words would tumble from my mouth.

“Erratica, somehow you have it all wrong. You have been a lifesaver to me these past many months. Sure, you can be crabby and mean, but so what? The bottom line is that your kicks to my ass have been productive. Because of you I’ve turned out a load of stories. Without you, I’d spend my writing sessions with fingers frozen to my computer’s keyboard.”

“But I need to become more reliable and customer-friendly, Neil, like I used to be. Somehow I got worn down by all the griping and whining that you and your amateur tribe are famous for.”

“Erratica,” I said, gently placing a hand on her left shoulder. “The world, on a human level, is a tough place, filled with negatives that make griping and whining seem like pablum. And I think that all of those real problems have gotten to you, even though you’re not human. If I tell you about a few good things that have been going on, might that help?”

“It might,” Erratica said quietly. “It might.”

“Okay,” I said. “Here goes. As you know, Sandy and I went to Paris and Amsterdam last month. We had a superb time. They are such great places. We did a lot and were with a couple of our friends for most of the trip. It was primo fun. For instance . . . ”

She cut me off. “I’m familiar with the details. Believe it or not, I read your stories about the vacation. I’m one of the few who did.”

“And you liked them?” I asked, wary of the forthcoming answer.

“Uh, they were okay. You’re not exactly Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux, though, are you?”

“Be nice, Erratica.” I said. “I’m your friend.”

“Forgive me, Neil. It won’t happen again,” she said. And for some reason I believed her.

IMG_0793 (2)“And very recently we went to the movies to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. It’s delightful. Taika Waititi, who I never heard of before, wrote and directed it. The flick takes place in New Zealand. It’s about a 13 year old who has spent his whole life in the child welfare system being passed around from one foster care family to another. At the start of the movie he looks and acts like a sullen bag of trouble. Doesn’t talk to people, dresses like a gangsta-in-training, which he fancies himself to be. Then he gets placed with a back-to-nature couple living in bush country, and his world changes. His sweetness and innocence begin to emerge, don’t ask me why considering everything he’s been through. Probably he barely knew himself that they were there. It’s a wonderful thing to watch the transformation. And he’s not the only person who changes for the better. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you, so I’m not going to tell you anything else. Erratica, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket to see Hunt For The Wilderpeople. We all need a healthy dose of healthy emotions these days, and this movie will give that to you.”

The sofa that Erratica eyed.
The sofa that Erratica eyed.

Erratica’s face brightened. She looked at me and smiled. “Thanks for the boost,” she said. “Sounds like a good movie. And sounds like you’ll be banging out a story about it for your blog.” She paused for a second. “Neil, I’ve been in a bad way for a long time now. But I’m going to try hard to get back on track. My father’s a no-nonsense sort and means what he says. If he kicks me off of Mount Helicon I’ll have nowhere to go.” She walked into my living room to take a peek. I followed her there. “Could I crash on this sofa if it comes to that?” she asked. “It looks comfy. Oh my, how the time flies. There’s a nitwit in Vermont who I have to visit now. For kicks he gets a colonoscopy every week and writes narratives about them for his blog. The blog’s called Checking Up On My Innards. And it’s actually pretty interesting, a lot better than you’d expect. Somehow he doesn’t run out of things to say. Neil, I’ll see you in a week.”

And in a poof she was gone.

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My Amazing Interview With Julia Roberts And George Clooney (Money Monster Is Their Latest Movie)

Charlie Rose, you’ve got company. You’re not the only one who can get big name celebs to sit around a table and gab. You’re not the only one who hopes to ask probing questions. For sure, I’m not even remotely in your league. Still, last week there I sat at my dining room table. And sitting across from me were none other than the mega-stars of a cracker jack new movie, Money Monster. That’s right, Julia Roberts and George Clooney were in my house.

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An hour before they arrived I took a look at my notes about Money Monster. My wife Sandy and I had seen the flick a couple of weeks before, and it needed to be fresh in my mind. Wow, it’s a good one, a tight thriller. Jodie Foster directed. Clooney plays Lee Gates, the star of a full-throttle television show about finances called Money Monster. Gates’ show is a glitzy production, with bells and whistles and bright lights up the wazoo, dancing girls, and sometimes-party-hatted Gates making stock picks and handing out financial advice as he prances around the stage.

Doing her best to orchestrate the semi-madness is the show’s director, Patty Fenn (Julia Roberts). Good thing that someone with steel nerves and observant eyes is behind the scene, because one day a young, armed guy named Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), who lost all of his money on a Gates stock tip that went bad, finds his way onto the studio set while the show is in progress and takes Gates hostage. The cameras remain on. The whole world is watching.

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“George,” I said out loud, rehearsing a question I planned to ask. “Money Monster takes a hard look at corporate greed and dishonesty and how hard it is for the little guy to stay afloat. Did you agree to do the movie because of empathy you have for the average Jill and Joe?” I knew that he’d like that query.

“Julia,” I then said to the air. “The hostage situation in Money Monster forces some of its characters to drop their facades and take deeper looks at themselves than they have in ages. Have there been circumstances in your personal life that caused you to do the same?” I imagined Julia thinking deeply before giving me an eye-opening response.

I was ready.

The doorbell rang at 1:00 PM. George Clooney and Julia Roberts smiled at me from my doorstep. Their limo, with its driver, was parked in my driveway. Who’d ever have thunk that a day like this might arrive? Here’s how it happened:

Not long after seeing Money Monster I’d read that Clooney would be in Philadelphia the following week to promote MM on a few of the city’s television and radio shows. A lightbulb went off in my head. I did some Googling and uncovered the phone number of George’s manager, Doris Do-right. I called her and, to my astonishment, she picked up. “Doris, my name is Neil. Rhymes with schlemiel, which is kind of what I am. I’m getting deep into my retirement years. Spend half my life intertwining my fingers in interesting patterns and binge-watching old episodes of Wheel Of Fortune and The Match Game on Netflix. And when I’m not doing that I bang away on a computer keyboard, writing articles for my blog. Anyway, one of the things I write about is movies. I loved Money Monster. Is there any chance that George Clooney would want to step outside the normal public relations box while he’s in Philadelphia and do an interview with an online publication — mine — whose readership is so low it’s pathetic?”

Amazingly, Doris didn’t hang up. I gave her the name of my blog. She said she’d get back to me. And she did, only 40 minutes later. “Schlemiel, I mean Neil, George is a go. He loves the idea. You live just outside Philadelphia, right? And is it okay if he brings Julia Roberts along? The girl doesn’t get out enough. George thinks that a visit to the Philly suburbs might be just the ticket for her. How about next Tuesday at 1:00 PM?”

As I mentioned, the doorbell rang. “Hello, Schlemiel, I mean Neil,” George Clooney said, extending his right hand to shake mine. Starstruck, I barely could raise my hand to meet his. He stepped in, and Julia Roberts did likewise. She gave me a peck on the cheek. “Humma . . . humma . . . humma,” I elegantly stammered. Luckily, Sandy was there to save the day. She greeted our guests perfectly, made small talk with them and then led them to the dining room table where a spread of cheeses, breads, olives, beer and wine awaited. We all sat down, began to nibble and sip, and then I flipped the switch to record the conversation.

My composure more or less had returned. “Guys,” I said. “Your new movie is terrific, and it’s an honor having you here. You’re doing me a big favor. My blog needs a shot in the arm. I’d be correct in saying that readership is down, except for the fact that it never was up in the first place. But a meaty interview with George Clooney and Julia Roberts no doubt will turn the tide! George, I’ll start with you.” I gazed into his luminous brown eyes and said: “Money Monster takes a hard look at corporate — ”

“Hold it, Schlemiel, I mean Neil,” George exclaimed, his eyes twinkling as he gave Sandy a sly wink. “We’ll get to the movie in a few minutes, but there’s something important I want to say. When Doris Do-right told me about the conversation she had with you last week, I got the feeling that I might be able to help you out a whole, whole lot. And I don’t mean in terms of your blog. I mean you.”

He reached into the left pocket of his sport jacket and pulled out a bottle filled with a truly dark liquid. “Neil, if you’re tired of  being a schlemiel, the contents of this bottle are all you need.” He turned its label to face me. It read I Don’t Wanna Be A Doofus No More.

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“I started taking this wonderful stuff, one teaspoon each morning, about 30 years ago. It’s a life saver. You think that I was always a dapper, sharp guy? Uh uh, pal. I was a stumblebum. Just like you’ve been all these years. Girls couldn’t have cared less about me. My career was in Nowhereville. Forget it man, I was lost. Then I saw an ad for I Don’t Wanna Be A Doofus No More in the back of Cool Dude Magazine, and I ordered a bottle. It’s expensive, but it works. The company gets the ingredients from Amazonian jungles. They boil rare orchid petals in river water to extract their essence and add dried dung from giant bats and pulverized teeth particles from crazed boars. I turned Pitt, Damon and Affleck onto I Don’t Wanna in their struggling days. If I hadn’t, they’d be flipping burgers at Mickey D’s right now. Those guys used to be useless.”

My jaw had dropped so low I had to push it back into place. I started to speak, but Julia cut me off.

“What he says is true, Neil. He forgot to take his morning dose one day when we were filming Money Monster, and nobody could believe the change in him. George was shy, listless. The makeup and hair styling girls on the set were worried. They came to me and told me he’d had almost nothing to say to them, wouldn’t make eye contact. And when filming began later that day he couldn’t remember half of his lines. George and I are old friends, and he had told me about I Don’t Wanna a long time ago. So, finally I figured out what the problem was. Back to his dressing room we headed, and down the hatch a teaspoon of the magic potion slid. Minutes later, all was well.”

“Holy crap,” I said. “It’s a miracle that the two of you are here with me.” My eyes were misting. I stood up and walked to the opposite side of the table and embraced these people who had gone out of their way to do a good deed.

George and Julia were choked up, too. “I’m sorry Neil, but we gotta go,” George said, reluctantly, a few moments later. “I’m taping an interview at 3:30 at one of Philadelphia’s TV stations. And Julia needs to get back to her home in Manhattan. Schlemiel, I mean Neil, it really has been a pleasure.” He gave me a knowing tap on the shoulder, planted a big kiss on Sandy’s forehead, and left the bottle of I Don’t Wanna Be A Doofus No More on the dining room table. Julia, after hugging me and Sandy, led the way out the door.

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Thumbs Partly Down, Thumbs Way Up: Reviews Of Sing Street And Miles Ahead

Movies, movies, movies. They make good fodder for opinions. I never knew I had so many opinions about movies, and about all kinds of things for that matter, till I started writing this blog. Now I can’t shut myself up. When I retire from blogging I plan to go back to my former ways, which involved a vow of near-silence and rigorous mental training to keep opinions at an unmeasurably low level. For now, though, here we go again:

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My wife Sandy and I caught two movies, their themes heavily musical, in suburban Philadelphia on a recent weekend. First we saw Sing Street. The next day it was Miles Ahead. Sing Street came with a three and a half star rating from The Philadelphia Inquirer. I took a look at The Inquirer’s 50-word summary of the movie and at some words of praise quoted in the film’s newspaper advertisement, and I was sold. I mean, here was a story, set in 1985, about an Irish lad infatuated with the idea of forming a rock and roll band, and also infatuated with a girl. Undoubtedly it would be a charmer. Count me in.

Turns out that Sing Street ain’t da bomb. Very surprising, since John Carney, its director and author, previously turned out way solid fare with two music-infused films, both of which he also wrote and directed. Is there anybody who didn’t like Once, the lower-than-low budget love story from 2007 that brought the world to tears with dazzlingly tender songs such as Falling Slowly? And what was there to dislike about Carney’s 2013 opus Begin Again? It starred Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo, and it did nothing but snap, crackle and pop.

Now, Sing Street isn’t the worst. It’s watchable. It’s pleasant. But halfway through I began scratching my head, wondering if I was viewing the same flick that the Inquirer’s reviewer had fawned over. Admittedly, on paper the set-up seems good: Fifteen-year-old Conor, a nice, directionless kid, is living in Dublin with his sister and older brother and squabbling parents. He is introduced to emotive, big hair 1980s rock and roll (The Cure, Duran Duran) by his slacker brother. Then he meets a cute 16-year-old girl who knocks his socks off, and decides to become a musician and put together a rock band to impress said girl. Conor, natch, will be the band’s big-haired lead singer. So, what’s my gripe? In two words, sloppy screenplay.

Example number one: This is a movie partly about a boy and his band, yet only one of Conor’s four bandmates gets to do much yapping. Whatever personalities the three others possess are pretty invisible. Collectively those three lads recite maybe 60 words during the movie.

Number two: Family-wise, the movie delves only into Conor’s relationship, which is strong, with big brother Jack. But Conor seems to get along pretty nicely with the other family members. Which is why I was lost at sea when Conor, permanently leaving the parental household near the end of the film, directs moving words toward his mother but not a syllable toward good ol’ Dad or Sis.

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That’s enough examples. Hey, sometimes you lose. But sometimes you win, and I can’t say enough good things about Miles Ahead. This is a most unorthodox and highly creative take on Miles Davis, the superb jazz musician whose aura blanketed the globe for over 40 years. Miles was a force musically and sartorially, and set the standard, if you can call it that, for hipster cool. He was a singular talent, a complicated guy, multisided. Not everybody he knew necessarily saw the same sides. And he was a prolific and hardworking musician, recording many dozens of albums as a leader, starting in 1951. His final studio sessions took place in 1991, the year he died at age 65.

A strange thing happened, though, during the second half of Miles’ career. Due to health problems and drug addictions and who-knows-what-else, he went into near-seclusion in 1975, holing himself up in his Upper West Side townhouse in Manhattan. And for the next several years apparently he didn’t do much of anything worth noting. Eventually he felt the urge to make new music, and returned to the recording studio in 1980. The next year he began to tour again. But what was life like for Miles during his period of withdrawal from public life? What was going on inside his head? Those are the questions that Miles Ahead grabs hold of. Fantasizing some answers, the movie takes the audience on a wild ride.

Miles Ahead is Don Cheadle’s baby. He plays Miles in the movie. He looks a lot like him, nails the raspy voice, and constructs a cinematic Miles so natural and believable I have a feeling that he comes damn close to the real thing’s personality. Not only that, Cheadle directed the movie — to me, flawlessly — and co-wrote the screenplay. Yeah, you bet this guy is talented.

Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.
Frances Taylor Davis is on the covers of these two Miles albums.

During his self-imposed confinement, was music ever far from Miles’ mind? Probably not, though he had hit a huge creative roadblock. The movie opens in 1979 or so, in Miles’ spacious and disheveled home, where he has yet to come out of his lengthy funk. And where he dwells on the past, on the music he had made. In flashback scenes throughout the film, covering the late 1950s through about 1966, we see Miles at work. And in love. That was a fecund musical period for Miles, and during it he was head over heels for Frances Taylor, a professional dancer who married (and divorced) him and helped inspire him. Seamlessly blended with the past is an invented scenario in which 1979’s Miles becomes involved in a loopy caper that has some good results: It gets him out of his house and ultimately leads him to reclaim his misplaced musical mojo. His semi-trusted companion in the adventure is a music journalist (done just right by Ewan McGregor) who has edges as flinty and unpredictable as Miles himself. And that is why Miles comes to like him.

I won’t say more about the plot. What I’m wondering, though, is if a viewer needs to be a Miles Davis fan to enjoy this movie. Me, I’m a big fan. But I think I’d have loved the movie even if I weren’t. It seems so real. It breathes like Miles Davis trumpet solos . . . on the trumpet, Miles might dartingly probe the outer planets of the solar system, or might ruminate bittersweetly. And it’s the opposite of the standard biopic in more ways than its fantastical caper. After all, it entirely skips about 55 years of Miles’ life. If Miles, a forward thinker, were alive to view the flick, no doubt he’d say something like this to Don Cheadle: “Man, I don’t know how you came up with this crazy plot, but it slays me. Motherf**ker, that’s me up there on the screen.”

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Everybody Wants Some!! (A Look At Linklater’s Latest)

They keep their noses to the grindstone, often think outside the box, avoid publicity most of the time, and write and direct movies right and left. Not being a film scholar, I’m unable to say how many of our fellow humans currently fit that description. But I’ll offer the two names that pop into my mind: Woody Allen. Richard Linklater.

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Maybe I’ll pen an essay about Woody one of these days. But today not being that day, I’ll proceed with some thoughts about Richard Linklater and about his latest movie. It’s called Everybody Wants Some!!, and it’s a really raunchy comedy. If you’re uncomfortable with fu*ks and sh*ts filling the air like swarming gnats, then you’re gonna wanna sit this one out. I saw Everybody recently with my wife Sandy, who doesn’t always go for raunchy comedies. She liked this one, though. And so did I. It’s cruder than crude, but it’s also kind of sweet and nutty and charming.

You know, Linklater’s newest ain’t no masterpiece. But who cares? It’s a romp. A blast. And Linklater undoubtedly needed a breather of sorts after finishing production on Everybody’s predecessor, Boyhood, in 2014. Boyhood had to have been a challenge and a half. It followed the life and times of a lad over a 13 year period, up to the start of his freshman year at college. And it did this in real time. Linklater filmed Boyhood for a few days every year from 2002 through 2014. Same cast each year, and pretty much the same crew. It’s hard to imagine the patience and discipline required to devise and orchestrate a project of such magnitude.

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Boyhood aimed high, examining life’s nuances and complexities. Everybody Wants Some!! aims a lot lower. Its focus is on the cravings of the gonadal regions of a group of collegiate male student-athletes gathered together a few days before the start of classes, in 1980 Texas. The boys comprise the college’s baseball team, and have been allowed, and assigned, to live together in a big old house off-campus for the upcoming school year. The college’s administrative geniuses who made that decision never saw Animal House, for sure.

Boys being boys, and testosterone being testosterone, the baseball tribe’s upperclassmen lead the newbies from bacchanalia to bacchanalia all over town for several days, including the blowouts in their big old house. Vast numbers of college girls are ogled and flirted with. And some, certainly not as many as the boys would have hoped for, are bedded. Actually, though, Everybody details the high life too. Amazing quantities of beer are drunk during the movie. And so much cannabis smoke is inhaled, I left the theater with a contact high. Thanks, Linklater, I needed that . . . and I’m not joking.

Not every scene in Everybody plays out as wackily as intended, and not all the dialogue slips easily off the actors’ tongues. But the pursuit of wild fun rarely slows. Where else are you going to see guys and girls, gleefully drunk, riding a mattress down a flight of stairs? Or watch a team’s veteran players duct-tape its new guys to an outfield wall, and then launch balls at them during batting practice?

Everbody Wants Some!! is drawn from Linklater’s collegiate life, and is a follow-up, in spirit, to his 1993 movie Dazed And Confused, which emerged from his high school experiences. High school, for Linklater, was a time of frustration and confinement. College? Hey, kind of the opposite. Goodbye to parental restraints, hello to freedom and experimentation. Linklater’s quasi-alter ego in Everybody, freshman Jake (smoothly played by Blake Jenner), is the eyes and gonads through which the movie unfolds.

As part of my attempt at research for this article, I read an interview that Linklater gave not long ago to help promote Everybody. He said: “That’s what the [new] movie’s about, navigating that transitional period and the notion of identity. Who are you? Who do you want to be?”

Huh? Richard, I disagree. Only a smattering of screen time is assigned to analyses of the big concepts that you mentioned. Yeah, the guys (and the one girl who has more than five lines during the flick) are possibly semi-consciously on a quest for self-discovery, but who isn’t? To me, what Everybody Wants Some!! is about is grabbing hold of good times while you can. Because they don’t necessarily last forever.

And something very basic dawned on me in the midst of my research. Namely, without having realized it before, I’m a Linklater fan. He has directed 18 feature films over the years, and I’ve seen (and liked) eight of them. That’s 44%, which isn’t bad. But his five most recent movies, a string that began with 2008’s Me And Orson Welles, are a different story. I’ve caught them all, which was news to me. The quintet includes Bernie, a delightful movie from 2011 starring Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine that I urge all to see.

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Me And My Muse

My muse.
My muse. Her dress might be from Saks.

The stage was set in its usual way this past Thursday evening. I sat in the library of my suburban Philadelphia home, clad in comfy pajama pants and a sporty smoking jacket, sipping a cup of piping hot chamomile tea laced with two shots of Kentucky bourbon. I was awaiting my weekly visitation from Erratica, my wondrous muse. Erratica, the little-known but essential Greek goddess, and sister of the nine muses who have gotten all the headlines since bursting on the scene about 3,000 years ago. Terpsichore, for instance, the inspiration for dancers, and Calliope, without whom Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and other authors’ epic poetry, would be stink-o for sure.

Yes, Erratica. She whose job through the millennia has been to aid countless amateur storytellers and scribes in need of a push, in need of direction, such as me.

My eyes were heavy and my mind was foggy due to the typically poor night’s sleep from which I had awoken that morning, not to overlook the spiked tea. In other words, I was in what for me passes as fighting shape. I was straining my brain, trying to come up with some story ideas for my blog, when a series of sharp jabs on my left shoulder got my attention. I looked behind me.

“Hello, Erratica,” I cheerfully said to the beautiful creature who had delivered the blows, eyeing her flowing robes. “You are right on time. I love your dress, by the way. Where’d you get it? At Saks?”

“I’m in a hurry, Neil,” Erratica answered, as she moved from behind my chair to face me properly. “You’re not the only pseudo-writer in need of help. Let’s skip the small talk.”

This girl gets right to the point. There’s nothing erratic about her. Instead, her name derives from the erratic creative talents of those whom she shepherds. “Okay,” I gulped. “Here’s the situation. A week ago, with your assistance, I got it together to write a piece about Willie Nile, and I published it yesterday. But now I’m stuck, really stuck. I can’t think of a single thing to write about. I’m constipated, for gawd’s sake! My handful of readers won’t know what to do if I don’t publish something next week. Please inspire me, Erratica. Please. I’m on bended knees.”

Erratica gave me one of those long, hard looks. I felt uneasy. I knew what was coming. “Neil,” she said. “You have been a big disappointment to me the last couple of months. Getting you to deliver stories once every week or so has been much too difficult. And now you say that you’re totally out of ideas? Are you kidding? Look at all the movies and other things you’ve seen that you haven’t written about. The world is your oyster, whatever that means, and you’re leaving so much of it on the table. There you were last month at the Philadelphia Flower Show, a world-famous exposition, and you wrote not one word about it. Three hundred thousand people went to that show, but it wasn’t good enough for you? What are you, some kind of elitist? And a couple of weeks ago you took in Hello, My Name Is Doris, a sweet movie with adorable Sally Field. Where’s your review, guy? And I could mention so much more. Neil, you’re frustrating me. Big time.”

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“Oh, Erratica. I know you’re right. You always are. But hear me out. Sure, I liked Hello, My Name Is Doris pretty well. I came close to writing about it. But the more I thought about the movie, the more I saw what I think is a gaping hole in its central logic. I said to myself, ‘Yo, schmuck. Why spend several hours analyzing a flick that’s kind of flabby in its design?’ What I’m saying, Erratica, is this: Doris is what, 65 years old? And she’s been a semi-wallflower pretty much all of her life. And then one day— presto! — she falls in with a bunch of hip millennials who practically adopt her into their tribe. I mean, c’mon. The odds of that happening are about as high as my winning the Powerball jackpot on the same day that NASA accepts me into its astronaut training program.”

Erratica gave me another of those long, hard looks. Obviously she wasn’t buying my explanation. Maybe I wasn’t either.

One of the Japanese displays.
One of the Japanese displays.
Part of Big Timber Lodge, which was the entrance to National Parks exhibits.
Part of Big Timber Lodge, which was the entrance to national parks exhibits.

“And here are my beefs about the Philadelphia Flower Show,” I continued. “Yeah, going in I was primed to write it up. But going out I was muttering ‘nah’ to myself. I mean, the show was okay. I liked some Japanese displays. And the themed exhibits representing various national parks were decent, but that’s all they were . . . representations. You could walk through and around them in seconds. All they really made me want to do was head to the great outdoors and explore the real parks. And don’t get me started on the juried flower exhibits. The flowers in my local supermarket’s flower department look as good, probably better, than what I saw at the show. Grouse and grouse some more, that’s mostly what I would have done if I’d written about the Flower Show. There’s no fun in that for me.”

 

Erratica snorted. Her patience clearly was exhausted. “I don’t know if I can take this anymore,” she said. “I have to have a talk with my father. His name is Zeus, in case you forgot. You amateurs have worn me out. For 3,000 years I’ve been dealing with marginally-talented, confused whiners. I deserve a new assignment. Calliope’s, for example. Amateurs . . . bah!”

And, just like that, Erratica was gone. Possibly forever. I don’t know how I will cope if she doesn’t return. But I do know this: Bereft of ideas, there’s little chance that I will publish anything this week.

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(Doris and flower show photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

King Georges: A Possibly Tasty Movie Review

On our way to dinner at The Broad Axe Tavern on a recent Friday night I told my wife Sandy about the approach, since abandoned, that I might take in writing the article you currently are reading. It was to be a comparison of dinner at The Broad Axe with what my opinion would have been, had I ever eaten there, of dinner at Le Bec-Fin, a famous, majestic and now-closed French restaurant in Philadelphia. All of this made possible sense because the movie that Sandy and I were headed to later that evening in suburban Philadelphia was King Georges, a documentary about the last few years (2010 to 2012) of Chef Georges Perrier’s involvement with Le Bec-Fin, which he opened in 1970.

Yup, I had thought that my culinary tastes and scrutinies would make for way cooler reading than a review of King Georges. And, dope that I tend to be, I was quite certain about what my conclusion would be, even before seeing King Georges. Namely, that I’d prefer to eat at The Broad Axe than at fancy-schmancy Le Bec-Fin. Broad Axe food I understand. It’s good for the most part and you don’t need a translator to figure out what’s what. Le Bec-Fin’s fare, which I had read about for decades, would have intimidated me. That’s because I knew and still know diddly-squat about high-level French cuisine.

We saw King Georges at the Ambler Theater.
We saw King Georges at the Ambler Theater.

But after watching King Georges I did an about-face. Who cares about my food preferences when a terrific piece of filmmaking is at hand? Clear the way! Movie review, here I come! And by the way, I should have given pricey LBF at least one spin during its lifetime. I’d have parted with some serious cash, but the meal and the experience would have been worth it. I hadn’t because I was a culinary coward.

Sure, the food looks great in King Georges. But that’s not the reason to see the movie, as food isn’t primarily what it’s all about. What we have here is a vibrant look at a pretty complicated guy. King Georges is filmed mostly in close-up and often in tight quarters, Le Bec-Fin’s kitchens, and reveals an extremely colorful and self-driven character as he wrestles with the reality that his famed and celebrated baby, LBF, ain’t the destination that it once had been. And that maintaining his customer base is hard and ultimately maybe not possible. What’s a top chef to do? In Georges Perrier’s case, keep on truckin’ and truckin’ until . . .

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King Georges shows Perrier as a sometimes-crazed dynamo in the kitchen, his senses aware of what’s going on in every pot and pan attended to by the small army of chefs under his command at LBF. He rants and raves. He praises and hugs. He includes sh–t and/or fu–k in half the sentences that pour from his mouth. He’s a pip, a perfectionist, an incredibly hard worker who seems to have gotten no more than a handful of hours of sleep nightly for forty-plus years. How can you not love someone like this? I mean, he cares. Born and raised in France, he came to the USA in the mid 1960s hoping to own, cook for and run one of the best restaurants in the States. All of which he ended up doing for years and years. And he became a celebrity of sorts in the process, a big name in certain circles around the globe, eons before the likes of chefs/restaurateurs Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali became media fixtures.

During the last few years, though, Georges Perrier hasn’t been too visible. Whom, then, do we have to thank for bringing him to our eyes and ears in 2016? None other than Erika Frankel, she whom neither you nor I ever heard of before. Frankel has earned her keep producing documentaries and other works since the early 2000s but, before King Georges, never had donned a director’s cap. How did she manage to handle the job so well? Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Probably it was innate talent. Whatever, having a charismatic figure to make a movie about didn’t hurt.

You know, writing this article has made me hungry. I’m going to head into the kitchen and labor over one of my exotic specialties, a grilled cheese sandwich. I’m sure that Chef Perrier would approve of my sandwich-flipping technique, the precise and practiced manner in which my right wrist rotates just so. Before I say goodbye, however, let me mention that King Georges isn’t making waves at the box office. In fact, Sandy and I were lucky to see it in a theater, because nationally only a single digits number of cinemas are showing it. But happily for the inhabitants of our planet, King Georges is obtainable via Amazon Prime and other online operations. Be it at a theater, or more likely in the comfort of your home, here’s your chance to be the first on your block to watch King Georges. Take it from me, kids. I think you’ll like it.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Anomalisa: A Review Of An Oddball Movie

My well-worn Fruit Of The Loom crew socks always are knocked off when I think about the number of really creative people sharing space with me and the rest of the less-gifted on Planet Earth. And I think about this fairly often. I mean, worthy musicians and visual artists and novelists and comedians and you-name-it form an eye-popping total. Part of that is due to the insane volume of humans (over seven billion) inhabiting our orb. Still, body count aside, I’m pretty certain that the percentage of seriously creative humans today is higher than ever before in our species’ long and unsettling history.

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That inspiring notion was trotting through my mind last weekend as I watched a most unusual movie, Anomalisa. As the final credits rolled I wasn’t certain exactly how much I liked the movie, but I sure as shootin’ was immensely impressed by its meticulous construction and idiosyncratic pilings, by its very existence to tell you the truth. Who the heck except those with non-standard orientations would decide to have the story of a depressed and lonely man represented on screen by stop-motion puppets instead of by humans? And be able to pull it off? Well, it happened, and Anomalisa, quirky and profound, was the result. And yet, the credits still rolling, I remembered the words of my excellent friend Dave last year in the lobby of the movie theater where we had just watched Clouds Of Sils Maria. “This one’s not for everyone,” he wisely had observed. I would say the same for Anomalisa.

Last year I bravely composed a review of Clouds Of Sils Maria, fully admitting that my teensy level of brain power had penetrated only a fraction of Clouds’ wonders (read it by clicking here). I found Anomalisa far more comprehensible than Clouds. Here’s the set-up: Michael Stone, a celebrated self-help book author, flies from his home in Los Angeles to Cincinnati, where he is to address, with words of wisdom, a convention of customer service workers gathered there from around the USA. His job is to instruct the tribe how to become more productive, how to relate better with customers. Michael has a problem though. A really big problem. He, a guru to many, is desperately in need of help, and he knows it. Life has lost its meaning to him. Everyone, everything seems homogenized and bland, boringly repetitive and predictable. He is irritable and teetering on the edge. Things have gotten so bad in Michaelville, he can’t differentiate anyone’s voice. Male or female, all voices sound the same to him. And yet he plods on, a drink and/or a smoke never far from his hands.

In his hotel, the day before his scheduled speech, Michael meets Lisa, a sweet youngish lady with no special talents. Lisa, a customer service rep, has driven to Cincinnati to attend the convention. Michael immediately takes to her. Why? Miraculously, her voice is the one and only in the world that is distinctive to him. And thus he considers her to be unique, an anomaly. And possibly his salvation. He pet-names her Anomalisa: Anomaly + Lisa = Anomalisa.

If you end up seeing the movie you’ll thank me for what I’m about to do now, for here is where, for the most part, I will stop giving details about the storyline. But don’t hang up yet. There are a few things that I can’t hold back. Let’s start with sex. Hey, it might be limited to one scene, but man, it’s raunchy. Pretty weird seeing puppets going at it with gusto. Maybe kind of creepy too, though in an intriguing sort of way. And definitely not something you come across every day.

And I dare not overlook the larger implications of Michael Stone’s circumstances, or my credentials as a pseudocritic might be withdrawn. Charlie Kaufman, the writer of a few out-there movies (Being John Malkovich; Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) authored Anomalisa. Not that I’ve discussed Anomalisa with him (C’mon, Charlie, take my calls. I’m harmless), but I think that Charlie is commenting on what he sees as the modern world’s dehumanizing nature, the result of which is a fair number of people who don’t know themselves and don’t know what to do about that. Michael Stone, for example.

When doing my spotty research into Anomalisa I found an article that went into the movie’s genesis. For me, Anomalisa’s puppetry by far is its most head-turning aspect. Turns out, though, that Charlie Kaufman, for all his unusual takes on life, didn’t birth the puppet idea. Kaufman originally had written Anomalisa for the stage, where it ran in Los Angeles in a very limited engagement about 10 years ago. Dino Stamatopoulos, a writer/producer/actor and a pal of Charlie’s, saw the play and concluded that it would translate handsomely to the silver screen. With puppets. I’m guessing that Dino often doesn’t drive on the proper side of the road. Kaufman, at first resistant, eventually agreed to the splendid suggestion. Charlie ended up directing the flick with stop-motion animation virtuoso Duke Johnson.

Anomalisa was a labor of love. The puppets, the sets, were beautifully fashioned and filmed. As far as I can gather, nearly everything we see on screen was hand-made. Whew! I can’t imagine how many hours of puppet-molding and fabric-stitching and carpentry went into Anomalisa. Gazillions. Not to mention the time needed to move the puppets’ bodies incrementally and film each new position to present the illusion of movement. The work paid off. The puppets had me believing in their human personas, and the sets are realistic, subdued and glowing in an Edward Hopper-like way.

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How much, then, did I enjoy Anomalisa?  I saw the movie in Philadelphia with my wife Sandy and our wonderful friends Cindy and Gene. They all might have liked Anomalisa a little more than I did. I thought it was good but not great, primarily because the plot dragged here and there. On purpose, for sure, because life’s ordinariness is part, but hardly all, of Anomalisa’s stew. Has any other movie presented mundanity with such unnerving precision, though? I doubt it.

 

Aomalisa is odd, a curiosity with a strong human face. And it’s just up some folks’ alleys. Cindy used the word compelling to describe Anomalisa, and I don’t disagree. To those willing to take a plunge I say “go for it.”

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Two Movies With One-Word Titles: Brooklyn And Carol

Is it my imagination, or were there a whole lot more movies than usual with one-word titles in 2015? Burnt. Room. Minions. Spectre. Trainwreck. Trumbo. Phoenix. Pixels. Grandma. On and on the list goes. Luckily for me and my readers, this article will not be an examination of how, if at all, movie quality correlates with title length. I’ll leave that project to PhD candidates frantically in search of an original research topic. However, I am going to write about Brooklyn and Carol, two more movies with really short names. They hit theaters in the latter stage of 2015, which is when my wife Sandy and I saw them. I thought that both were very good and that they had some things in common besides the title situation.

Let’s start with the interesting but unimportant. It’s pretty cool that here we are with two movies partly set in New York City circa 1950. Dig the voluptuous cars and snazzy hairdos. Brooklyn spends much screen time in, who’d have guessed, Brooklyn. Carol takes place in various places, most prominently in Manhattan. And, amazingly, each movie features a girl employed as a sales clerk in a department store but not destined to remain there. What’s more, both flicks are based on novels. Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn came out in 2009. Carol is drawn from Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 opus, The Price Of Salt.

But none of the above is glue. Where the movies, to me, really seem to reflect off one another is in their multi-angled looks at the meaning and value of a big-time human concept: Home. What is home? Is it a place, a state of mind, both? Do people know when they are home? Does feeling at home matter? Where does live fit in with all of this?

Whew! Tough questions. There’s a good chance I’ll get nicely tangled up trying to address them. Before that happens, though, I’ll make what probably are my most important comments: Brooklyn and Carol are thoughtful movies, and they have different tones. The former has its slightly unsettling sequences, but overall is bouncy, laden with brightness and bon mots, and maybe too stagey. Still, it firmly gazes at human relationships and life’s pitfalls, as does Carol. Carol, though, is deliberately paced and dead serious. Muted lighting, a quiet jazzy soundtrack and ubiquitous cigarette smoke add a dreamlike quality to its decidedly realistic proceedings. If you need some laughs mixed in with the cerebral, then Brooklyn likely is for you and Carol isn’t. But both are strong productions. Fluid direction (Todd Haynes helmed Carol, and John Crowley took the wheel for Brooklyn) and excellent acting propel them. Brooklyn‘s leads, Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, are terrific. Likewise Carol‘s main players, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

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Brooklyn and Carol are love stories of the heterosexual and homosexual varieties, respectively. Brooklyn follows the ups and downs of Eilis Lacey (Ronan), an 18-year-old or so Irish lass living with her adoring mother and adoring older sister, Rose, in County Wexford. Rose wants the best for Eilis. Duly noting that career opportunities for her younger sister are limited in Ireland, Rose arranges for Eilis to live and work in America, in Brooklyn, where presumably a fine future will be attainable. Large numbers of Irish and Irish-descended already populate Brooklyn. There, Eilis might feel as if she almost were home. But she doesn’t, not at first. Far away from everything that matters to her, she flounders. Then she meets Tony Fiorello (Cohen), a young guy of Italian background who seems for real, who loves her, and her world changes. But life, as is its wont, throws curveballs at Eilis. Where is Eilis’ heart most at home? In Brooklyn? In Ireland? With Tony? The answers mutate over time.

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Carol presents a similar mix of conundrums.  Therese Belivet (Mara), maybe a few years older than Eilis, lives alone in a small Manhattan apartment. She has a loving boyfriend, Richard. But she feels unsettled. She doesn’t know herself, hasn’t come to many conclusions about her needs and likes and directions. At her department store sales counter one day she meets an intriguing customer, Carol Aird (Blanchett), a polished and moneyed missus living with, but divorcing, her husband. Carol Aird is twice Therese’s age. They take to each other, feel comfortable with each other. Start spending a good deal of time together. And ultimately take a road trip, a trip necessitated by Carol’s wish to try and make her unhappy marriage a distant memory for awhile. Carol and Therese are platonic partners at the start of their adventure, but not for too long.

At a restaurant during the journey, Carol asks Therese if she misses Richard. Therese says she hasn’t thought about him since hitting the road. In fact, she says, she hasn’t thought about home at all. Carol looks at Therese and, with a gentle snort and slight shake of the head, mumbles “home.” Carol knows that she has no home, not really. She feels unanchored in the stately house she shares with her spouse, has no real connection to her community. Both she and Therese are homeless in spirit. But they are discovering each other.

Gentle readers, little more will I divulge about Brooklyn and Carol. Except for this: Both movies reach clear and understandable conclusions. Which, being on the slow side, is something I appreciated. But those conclusions sent my mind into overdrive, and I projected past the closing scenes. Life’s complicated. Answers and resolutions do not come easily. And even in those instances when the fogs eventually lift, as they do in Brooklyn and Carol, who can say what the future will hold?

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