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.

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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.

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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.

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Here Come The Docs (Movies, That Is)

They’re everywhere! They’re everywhere! And I ain’t talkin’ about nail salons or Buffalo chicken wings or right-wing crazies.

Documentaries, that’s what I’m here to discuss. Docs are out there by the thousands, old ones and new ones. You can catch them on the small screen on HBO, SHOWTIME, PBS (NOVA and Independent Lens, are two of its documentary series), CBS (60 Minutes), etc., etc. Not to mention the oceans of docs you might peruse via Netflix.

Now, I’ve seen various documentaries on the tube over the last few years, but I’ve watched more on the silver screen than at home. That’s partly because I haven’t been partial to plopping myself in front of the magic box too much. On the other hand, my cinema attendance always has been robust. Another reason, the more important of the two, is that, starting in the early aughts, many documentaries have found their way into theaters around much of the globe. That’s very true in the Philadelphia region, which I call home. My wife Sandy and I, fans of the genre, approve.

Here’s a cool thing about documentaries, which tend to be low-cost affairs and never rake in dough à la, say, Logan or La La Land: Once in a while one of them will settle into the theatrical marketplace and take nearly forever to depart. In saying this, I have in mind a doc that Sandy and I saw with friends in Philadelphia last November.

The Eagle Huntress, the film to which I refer, opened in The States one month before we viewed it. Remarkably, it’s still in some theaters across this fair land and still in the Top 100 of money grossers, as measured by the fascinating website Box Office Mojo. That’s staying power, folks, that few movies of any sort possess.

A nice movie, The Eagle Huntress spins the tale of a young Mongolian girl who is drawn to the historically male-only endeavors of taming and bonding with eagles and training them to race and to hunt in specific ways. Its central Asian scenery is gorgeous (what’s not to like about deserts and glacial mountains?), and the story line is not your everyday fare. But, to me, the plot didn’t ring quite true. I’m convinced that the final test of the girl’s gifts — to have her eagle chase down and kill a fox on treacherous mountain slopes  — didn’t go as neatly and smoothly as the director hoped for. I believe he’d have stayed out in the wilderness, filming take after take, until the desired outcome was achieved. Otherwise the movie would not have had a clean and tidy ending.

Enough quibbles. On to the three docs that Sandy and I went out to see in the past month: Kedi; In Search Of Israeli Cuisine; and I Called Him Morgan. As with The Eagle Huntress, they are playing here and there in cinemas around the USA and other countries. And if they haven’t yet made their way to Netflix or the like, indubitably they fairly soon will.

In a nutshell, I recommend these movies highly. Kedi tells the tale of street cats (felines, not hipsters) in Istanbul that have developed beneficial relationships with various humans with whom they share space. In Search Of Israeli Cuisine is a flick for foodies and for travel buffs. The goods on display in this movie, and the rural and urban settings in which they are grown, cooked, and consumed, look great. As for I Called Him Morgan, well, it made my knees go weak, as it is about one of my jazz heroes, trumpeter Lee Morgan. It also is about Helen Morgan, Lee’s common-law wife who shot him to death in a Manhattan jazz club in 1972. When Lee passed, the world lost a magnificent talent. He could play like nobody’s business and penned irresistible songs, from the nimble and fleet to the panoramic.

It’s a funny thing about Kedi. Sandy, a cat lover, liked it, but not as much as I did. That’s saying something because I decidedly am not a cat person. You’d have to pay me a few thousand dollars weekly to house one in my abode. But Kedi put me under a spell. I suppose it was the cinematography, more than the story, that got to me. I don’t know where, other than in Kedi, you’re going to see the world from cats’ perspectives. What did the director do, train a coterie of cats to become cinematographers and to follow their feline buddies around town?  Wow, seeing Istanbul from inches above the ground was, I thought, the coolest. On the opposite hand, so were the aerial shots of the city, for which feline cameramen had no input. Those images served no particular purpose, as far as I could tell, other than to look amazing. And amazing they did look.

After viewing In Search Of Israeli Cuisine I started thinking about a movie that hasn’t been made but could be: In Search Of American Cuisine. That is, it’s not easy to define what a nation’s cuisine is. Or was, for that matter. As with most issues and subjects, things often are more complicated than you might at first assume. In the Israeli case, culinary traditions from many dozens of countries and cultures have been brought to, or already existed in, the land of Israel. There they have intermingled, evolved, and been experimented upon. I went into the movie thinking that there would be an emphasis on Eastern European Jewish cooking (brisket of beef, smoked meats, kugels, etc.), but in Israel those dishes are not dominant in the least. Today’s Israeli cuisine draws more from Middle Eastern and North African cultures than from any others. Fruits, vegetables, grains, beans and seafoods are what Israelis, as do many peoples the world over, place into their mouths. I left the movie hungry for grilled fish and for hummus, Israeli staples.

What can I say about Lee Morgan? I’ve been listening to his recordings for almost 50 years. I’ve been in the long-defunct, grubby jazz club, Slugs’, where he was murdered. And for years I’ve wondered about the circumstances that led to his death. Possibly I’m wrong, but it always seemed to me that not much information ever came out about his shooting. If it did, I don’t know where. But now, lo and behold, Kasper Collin, a Swedish director and jazz lover, has seized upon and told Lee Morgan’s story, its bright beginnings and sad ending. But not fully, because that ending does not fit itself into a tight package. It never will be completely understood.

Would you have to be a jazz fan to enjoy I Called Him Morgan? Well, I’m going to say that even the non-aficionado will go for this one. The movie has a brooding, moody quality, especially in the snow-filled wintery sequences leading up to and following Lee’s death. And, in marvelous film clips, it shows off his bristling musical chops. What got to me the most, though, was the telephone interview, captured on cassette tapes, that Helen Morgan gave to Larry Reni Thomas in North Carolina, where she lived after serving hard time in New York for her crime. Thomas, who has worked as a writer, teacher and radio host, conducted the interview in 1996, a few months before Helen’s death. The slow relating of her life story in her creaky voice and her explanations of why she came to pull the trigger were, I thought, the movie’s core and backbone. And maybe its heart. Without the interview there’d have been not much of a movie.

Lee Morgan, famed though he once was (his hard-bopping song The Sidewinder was a pop hit in 1965), has faded into semi-obscurity. I Called Him Morgan might help to reverse that truth a bit.

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La La Land: Now, That’s A Great Movie!

The answer was staring me in the face, but it took a while before registering with me. There I was the other day, pawing through the nooks and crannies of my mind in search of the next topic for my blog. I was in the mood to write another of the impressionistic, ruminating pieces that have been rolling off the assembly line pretty regularly the past few months. Trouble is I hadn’t had any mini-adventures of late that I could wrap any impressionistic ruminations around. That’s when I turned my thoughts in a different direction, a cinematic one. My wife Sandy and I had taken a trip recently to a local theater where we sat close to the screen, figuring that doing so would help us become one with the movie’s charms if what we were about to see turned out to be as good as we were hoping it would.

img_1260Which is a longwinded introduction to my announcing that I have some thoughts to impart about La La Land, a musical that came out at the tail end of 2016 and now is in wide release throughout the States. This, to me, is a great movie. An example of near-perfection. An alluring and enticing creation that deserves the viewership of all who have good hearts and soft spots therein.

Yeah, I’m prone to gushing. That’s OK. There are worse ways to be. And when it comes to La La Land I’m not the only gusher by a long shot. I don’t read a lot of movie reviews, but the reviewers whose words I took a look at fell hard for this one. Sandy, who is more tuned in than I to a lot of things, confirmed that seemingly everyone carrying the title of critic had pointed their thumbs upward after watching La La Land.

What, then, do we have here? La La Land is a girl-meets-boy story. And, when well done, that template is boffo, isn’t it? Hey, I hear a few of you in the back of the room murmuring “nah.” Get out! Class is dismissed for you.

img_1334La La Land’s girl is Mia (Emma Stone), an aspriring actress caught up in the confidence-squashing eddies of the audition mill. The boy is Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a sensitive-fingered jazz pianist scrambling to make a living while dreaming of the day he opens his own jazz club. Mia and Sebastian first cross paths on a Los Angeles freeway. The freeway, witness to a traffic jam from Hell, becomes the stage for the movie’s opening sequence, a lilting and athletic song and dance routine unfurled by scores of traffic stuckees who exit their vehicles to sing and jump and prance giddily on car roofs and hoods, making the best of what normally would be a real bad situation. Finally, the tangle of metal and tires begins to ease up. But Mia, slow to gun her engine, becomes the victim of relentless horn blasting from someone in a car behind hers. Sebastian. To which she responds by flipping the bird at him as he pulls out and breezes by. Take that. fella!

Needless to say, things become better between Mia and Sebastian when, as fate absolutely would have it, they unexpectedly meet again and again in The City Of Angels and realize that they are meant for each other and destined to fall in love. Which they do. But will love endure? La La Land, though bright and frothy much of the time, isn’t that way all of the time, so the answer to the question is far from a given. Damien Chazell, La La Land’s writer and director, throws more than a few dollops of darkness and pain into the mix. La La Land is a colorful, romantic bonbon laced with the realities of life.

img_1337It didn’t take long for me to fall under La La Land’s spell. Stone and Gosling possess the type of feels-right screen chemistry that often is elusive. Their Mia and Sebastian banter easily with one another, before the day arrives when cracks open in their relationship, and the two stars sing and dance in a sweet and natural manner. The songs (music by Justin Hurwitz, lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) that they and others emit are strong and tuneful. And sometimes piercing, as is the case with the stream of consciousness-like Audition (The Fools Who Dream), sung by Mia/Stone at a, natch, movie audition. And La La Land is filled with sequences so gorgeously done I felt honored to be watching the flick. Especially when Mia and Sebastian, at Los Angeles’ Griffith Observatory, take each others’ hands and begin to dance, soon lifting from the floor to merge with the cosmos projected on the observatory dome’s underside.

You don’t see a whole lot of original movie musicals, which La La Land is, anymore. Or musicals based on stage productions either, for that matter. Both varieties used to be a staple of the film industry, but that was eons ago as measured in cinematic years. Don’t know why they’ve faded away. I mean, who doesn’t love The Wizard Of Oz, Singin’ In The Rain, An American In Paris, Cabaret . . . ? In any case, I left the theater thinking that La La Land is up there with those titans. You have to give it to Chazelle, who also scripted and directed 2014’s Whiplash, a nerve-wracking, music-themed opus that decidedly isn’t a musical. The guy has immense guts to have attempted La La Land, not to mention the vision and skills to pull it off. And he’s only 32. My God, when I was his age I hadn’t even mastered tying my shoes yet. Come to think of it, I still haven’t.

Well, I could go on but I won’t. You get the idea. If you haven’t already seen La La Land, make a date.

 

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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.

money monster IMG_0338
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.

IMG_0349
“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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