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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A Better-Than-Usual Walk Around My Hood

It was hot as hell two Fridays ago, as in 90°F (32°C), a temperature that usually makes me want to stick to the comfort of my air-conditioned house. But come 2:30 PM I was getting restless. And so, grabbing a cap to shield my hair-challenged pate and a pair of sunglasses to make me look like a movie star, I unlocked the front door and stepped outside. Ordinarily I don’t particularly like walking around my neighborhood, part of a suburb a few miles from Philadelphia, because I’ve seen it a million times and because there’s nothing much here that’s going to knock your socks off. But what the hell  . . . I needed to stretch my legs.

And stretch them I did on that tail-end day of June. For an hour. Under a summer sun that was sending down heat rays as if there were no tomorrow. Luckily, it turned out that there was a tomorrow. If there hadn’t been, then I wouldn’t be at my writing station right now, pecking out this ultra-fascinating tale.

What with the heat, a lesser man might have decided quickly that he’d made the wrong decision, that he’d be better off back inside his cozy house where he could resume reading the collected works of I. C. Fairley-Farr, the all but forgotten British existentialist whose philosophy is best summed up by a simple phrase. To quote him: Life is for living, water is for drinking, and . . . shit, where’d I put my distance glasses?

Stumps I, II And III

But on that day I wasn’t a lesser man. Nope, for some reason the brutal ball of fire in the sky wasn’t bothering me. And for some reason, right from the get-go, I found myself enjoying the walk. Why, only half a block from my house I noticed something that on another day might not have registered at all — three neat and concise tree stumps on the lawn of a church. Transfer them to the grounds of an art museum, give them a title such as Stumps I, II And III, and they’d gain esteem as a fine piece of minimalist outdoor sculpture. See? There’s always an alternative way of looking at things.

And how about the township park and playground behind the church? There wasn’t a soul there, not even on the basketball courts. Yeah man, I had the neighborhood to myself!

Well, not really. Still, during the walk I came upon only 25 or so people, many of them unloading this or that from their cars, and not a one of them out for a walk. And I crossed paths with but one dog. I exchanged hellos with its master who, positioned on his home’s front path, was eyeing me with mouth slightly agape. It must have been my sunglasses. In them, I’m a ringer for George Clooney. Or so I’ve dreamt.

Suburban jungle

Block after block I wandered along, going downhill on some and uphill on others. My area is seriously hilly, almost San Francisco-worthy in places, and the upward climbs got me decently sweaty. One thing I realized was that I should have a much better working knowledge of the layout of my hood than I do, because I trekked upon a couple of streets whose names I didn’t even vaguely recognize. And I also realized something that I knew but hadn’t experienced in a healthy while. To wit, parts of my neighborhood are very, very heavy with trees and other foliage. Those blocks are a suburban jungle, a dreamscape in shades of green.

Tiger Lillies

On the other hand, most of my hood’s blocks, though cute in a comforting way, are kind of vanilla in appearance, including the street on which my house sits. But I found myself getting into the vanilla, grooving on those blocks’ occasional good-looking flower beds and other decorative touches that homeowners here and there have added to increase their residences’ wow factor. When I passed one abode with a fine grouping of Tiger Lillies, naturally I stopped to admire them. And to take their picture. I couldn’t have done otherwise, seeing that the house in which I grew up, forever ago on Long Island (near New York City), was blessed with large patches of Tiger Lillies. My heart since then has maintained a very soft spot for that variety of flora.

And the walk turned out to be a learning experience too. Only two blocks from my house are extremely tall metal towers. I’ve lived in my neighborhood for 13 years, yet I’ve never known what the heck those towers do, if anything. For all I knew, they might have been decommissioned years ago after serving one purpose or another.

As it turns out, they are important pieces of equipment. They transmit messages to and among personnel of police departments, fire departments and 911 emergency systems. I know that now because, early in my walk, there was a worker at the towers as I approached them. I stopped to ask him what the towers’ functions are, and he told me. Yes, opportunity had presented itself, and I took advantage of it. Too bad I haven’t applied that principal consistently over the course of my life. Oh well.

As far as I can recall, this walk was the longest, time-wise, that I’ve ever taken in my neighborhood. I don’t expect my next venture into the hood, whenever that may occur, to resonate with me as satisfyingly as this one did. But that’s okay. I returned home mentally refreshed, feeling pretty chipper and somewhat seeing the brighter side of life. Not every walk is a keeper, but this one was.

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There’s No Getting Around It: Old Is Old

Holy crap, or more to the point, holy shit, I’m getting old. Old, as in old. I mean, how is this possible? I used to think that the rules didn’t apply to me. I don’t like this game!

Not until my most recent birthday, though, did I ever feel the least bit depressed about the advancing years. But when I spun the dial six months ago and it landed on the big 7-0, I gulped. Then I gulped again. Then I said to myself, “Neil, you’ve been around a looong time. In your head you might feel no different than you did when you were 45. But times have changed. The wrinkles on your face are multiplying faster than amoebae. Not to mention that your ass is starting to look as grainy as a minute steak. And the hairs on your head? Cowboy, there are fewer of those than there are fingers on your hands.”

“Man, the days when the occasional girl would give you the eye are gone, gone, gone,” I continued. “At this point, if a girl ever looks you over it’s gonna be because she has a case of myopia so severe she would mistake a McDonald’s sign for a rainbow. Neil, your glory days, as sadly placid as they were, are so far in the rear view mirror they in effect predate the Old Testament. You’re in the home stretch, fella, even if that stretch lasts another 25 years.”

Seconds after that cheery monologue ended I was on the verge of emitting a multitude of tears. Fortunately, I remembered that crying isn’t manly, so I merely wept very gingerly and very quietly. When the drippage came to its conclusion I shrunk off to a corner and stayed there until, my bladder near-exploding, I had to answer nature’s call. I haven’t returned to that corner since then, though I’ve been tempted to do so.

Fast cut to the present day. Gentle readers, I’m here to tell you that I’ve seen the light. Moonlight, specifically, because on the evening of March 31 my phone rang. My childhood pal Mike was on the line. (We grew up in a town outside of New York City, and now reside 20 miles apart in suburban Philadelphia. Yeah, we’re stalking one another).

Mike, an astronomy buff of sorts, was calling to inform me that a Blue Moon was making its appearance, that it was the second Blue Moon of the year (the first having been in January), and that I should go out and look at it because a Blue Moon in each of two months within the same calendar year wouldn’t happen again until 2037. That’s a lot of info, especially for someone whose brain is as old as mine. I barely knew what he was talking about, but I did what Mike suggested.

The Moon was a beautiful sight. Of course, it wasn’t blue at all, Blue Moon being a phenomenon that refers not to hue. Instead it denotes the second full moon that occurs within a given month (a somewhat rare event, though not freakishly so). “Hey, if you’ve seen one full moon, you’ve seen ’em all,” I hear you saying? Uh-uh, not if you’re someone like me who 90% of the time forgets to look up when he’s out at night.

From my front lawn on March 31 I gazed hard and fairly long at the rock in the sky. It was not far above the horizon and it was huge and bright. I asked it to smile and say cheese before I took its picture, to no avail. “I don’t smile,” it said to me. “That’s not the way I roll.” I couldn’t argue with that, of course, and proceeded to document the moment. My phone’s camera doesn’t capture nighttime images too sharply, but I’m shoving that moon photo into this article nonetheless. I kind of like it despite its graininess. It reminds me of my aforementioned ass.

What does admiring the Moon have to do with feeling less than chipper about entering the stratosphere, age-wise? Well, a lot, actually. Yeah, I’ve traveled plenty farther down life’s highway than I wish was the case, but there probably are — what? — three billion members of humanity who feel the same way. All that any of us can do is keep on keepin’ on, with our heads held high and our hearts and five senses open to greet the good people and good stuff around us. No point getting too down about the nature of the cosmic set-up. We come and we go, just like everything else, even stars so large they make our Sun appear puny. I don’t particularly like that set-up, but what can you say?  It is what it is, as the truest of truisms goes.

I’m not the sort who ever will attain a relentlessly positive attitude about life. Never have been. But I get a charge out of more than a few things on a pretty regular basis. Not long after the day of my 70th I stuck the Unhappy Birthday card that I’d delivered to myself into my back pocket. I’ve been doing what I can to keep it there, out of sight and mind. As I’m typing this essay right now, picking up from where I left off the night before, I’m enjoying a cup of coffee and looking out a window at a gloriously foggy morning. I’m going to step outside for a few minutes to admire the fog. And I’ll take its picture. Onward we go.

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The Final Curtain . . . Oy Vey

finalcurtain-hqdefaultMortality, one of the less-than-fun subjects to ponder, has been on my mind a tad more than usual of late, and I’ve been dealing with it like the well-adjusted adult that I fantasize being. I know why my gaze has moved slightly in that direction, and I’ll get to that shortly. Luckily, though, I normally don’t give the topic a whole lot of thought, which I suspect is the case for nearly all of us. Most days I subconsciously shrug my shoulders in the face of the inevitable and continue performing my clumsy dance through life. There’s nothing we can do about the final curtain, so why sweat it? It’s out there. We know that. And one of these days it’s going to drop . . . Hey, wait a minute. That’s really true, isn’t it? One of these days it is going to drop. On little ol’ me. Me, who never hurt more than a few thousand flies in his life. Me, who makes it a point to help the elderly cross the street whether they want my assistance or not. It’s not fair, I tell you! It’s not fair! Holy crap, I’m bumming myself out. I need to walk away from my computer’s keyboard and try to calm down before I resume work on this depressing essay. A beer, that’ll help. Let’s make it a six pack. Better yet, a full case. I’ll be back at some point, unless that f**king curtain falls sooner than I expect it to.

(Three days later). As promised, I’ve returned. And I’m in fighting shape once again. It’s time to continue. I recall a conversation I had six or seven years ago with a childhood friend. I was in my early 60s at the time and recently had celebrated a birthday. “You know, I’m not getting any younger,” or something similarly clichéd I said to her. “Neil, you’re not old. To me you’re youthful,” she more or less said to me. What? Was she kidding? All I could think of was an indisputable fact: Even if I were to live for another 30 years, I was a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. And today, as I barrel down the track towards age 70, which is a mere 10 months away, that’s far truer than it was then. Oy vey, what’s a poor boy to do?

Aging. Closing in on the finish line. They are mystifying phenomena. And when you’re truly getting up there in years they can be hard to wrap your head around. My mother, for example, couldn’t believe it when she turned 70. She laughed and laughed when talking to me about the dubious milestone she had reached. 70? Hah! She probably thought of herself as being 45 or 50, and those numbers pretty well reflect the way I think about myself today. But time marches on unconcernedly, despite what’s going on in our imaginations. My mom, a wonderful person whose health problems were considerable and heartbreaking, is long gone. The grains of sand in her hourglass’s upper section emptied pretty quickly after her 70th spin around the Sun.

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike

And now it’s time to mention the reason I’m writing this story, which for sure is not of the fluffy and puffy sorts that I usually populate cyberspace with. Yes, philosophy fans, once in a blue moon I cautiously reach into my mental library of deep thoughts and pull out a couple. Problem is, my supply is incredibly limited, so I have to ration them carefully. Right, I still haven’t mentioned the reason. Well, Sharon Jones is the reason. Sharon Jones, the gritty and splendid soul/funk singer. Sharon Jones, who didn’t find musical success until firmly in her middle age and probably was all the more appreciative of it for that. Sharon Jones, who a couple of weeks ago joined the long list of notable musicians (Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, et al.) whose tenures on Planet Earth ceased in 2016. She made it to only age 60.

When I heard about Sharon’s death I felt sad. Quite sad. And not because I was a devout fan of hers. I wasn’t, though probably I should have been, as she was really, really good. Instead, her passing brought me up short because of something that I suspected to be very true. Namely, that undoubtedly she was a lovely person, someone whom I’d have been lucky to know and be pals with. I came away with those observations five years ago when my wife Sandy and I went with a group of friends to see Sharon perform in Philadelphia. As always, she was with The Dap-Kings, a horn-heavy, swaggering band she’d hooked up with in 2002, and found acclaim with over the succeeding years.

Sharon and The Dap-Kings’ performance was part of a weeks-long arts celebration that Philadelphia put on in the spring of 2011. On April 30 of that year she and her bandmates climbed the outdoor stage set up in the heart of town. They were the final act of that day’s street fair. The stage sat in the middle of Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main thoroughfare, and all around it were oceans of human bodies. I don’t know how, but Sandy and I and our friends found a few feet of open space pretty close to stage right. I was pumped. I knew that Sharon and company would be good, but had no idea they’d be fantastically good. And Sharon led the way. For an hour and a half or so she absolutely commanded the stage, shimmying and strutting and testifying and propelling songs to the skies with her powerful vocal cords. My God, she and The Dap-Kings rocked the city to its knees.

I was entranced. Not only that, I could tell that Sharon Jones was beyond ordinary in more than musical ways. That became obvious when she invited a group of little kids, who had been dancing their hearts out a few feet in front of her, to join her onstage. Sharon went wild with them, and the crowd roared. And they also roared, during the group’s signature song (100 Days, 100 Nights), when, with a “Come on, baby,” she motioned to a young man in the audience, Thomas, to climb up and party madly with her. She and Thomas made an exuberant couple. Here is the video of Sharon Jones, The Dap-Kings and Thomas:

What can I say? Beautiful people, those who are open and joyful, behave as Sharon did that afternoon. By that I mean that Sharon was a beautiful person. Which is why many in this world will miss her. It’s a sorrowful day when a bright light goes out.

 

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