At the Movies

At the Movies: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

March 12th, 2018 24 Comments


Gentle Reader, I am now going to save you some money.

I watched Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri with great expectations, primarily because I had read some of Martin McDonagh’s plays and found them very funny. Unfortunately, what works in one culture may not translate to another, or possibly Mr. McDonagh’s judgment was simply way off this time, something that happens to all artists, but he needs to go back to his Irish roots, because he missed the mark here by a long chalk.

Welcome to Ebbing, Missouri. Where the highest IQ in town is below room temperature. Where every single person in town is a cardboard stereotype of a kind that was boringly unrealistic before the passage of the Civil Rights Bill. Where the height of humorous repartee is children calling their mothers “cunts.” Where no one—not a single character, regardless of age or profession—is capable of saying a ten-word sentence without five of the words being some variation of the word “fuck,” as either noun, verb, adverb, adjective, preposition, or conjunction. Where the chief of police talks to his five- and six-year-old daughters in a steady stream of crude profanity, not in anger, but to express affection. Where the most rudimentary concepts of the law and law enforcement are—apparently—unknown. Where a cop can commit a murderous assault against an innocent man in the middle of the day as most of the town—including the new police chief—watch, and then only get fired for his brutality. Where ridiculing a dwarf—the only character in the movie with any real humanity—is considered a source of amusement. Where the Special Forces who risk their lives for us are portrayed as rapists and sadists who enjoy terrorizing and psychologically torturing women they don’t know. And where the denouement, the epiphany, the god-like revelation of the central character, consists of her deciding she doesn’t really want to murder an innocent man she doesn’t know and has no reason to kill. Oh, breathless humanity!

Writer and director Martin McDonagh must have thought all the episodes he watched of The Dukes of Hazard were actually documentaries. He has certainly never been to Missouri or any other deplorable-packed part of fly-over country, and he revels in his contempt for the barely sentient toothless morons who inhabit that wasteland. Beyond that, he seems to think that the average movie-goer is far too stupid to be aware of such meaningless incidentals as Constitutional rights, legal rights, civil rights, or even right of way.

With the exception of a handful of movies made for brain-dead prepubescent boys that I had the misfortune to watch years ago, this is the stupidest movie I’ve ever seen. The only reason I didn’t walk out of the theater is because I watched it on Direct TV in my living room, and when the final credits ran, Darleen and I looked at each other and wondered what the hell we had wasted six dollars and two hours for.

The performances are all perfectly good, not Oscar-worthy, but good (and yes, I know who won what), but the greatest performances in the world can’t change chicken shit into chicken salad (to use a phrase that would have been eloquent in this dreadful movie) and when the script insults my willing suspension of disbelief consistently, from soup to nuts, no performance is worth the pain. I know it was intended to be a dark comedy, but even comedy has to be grounded in some kind of reality, and besides, I don’t think mindless violence and mindless profanity are all that chuckle-worthy. Beyond that, the grief of a mother whose teenaged daughter has been raped and murdered makes a poor springboard for hearty laughter.

On IMDB, the first quote of Martin McDonagh’s that caught my eye was: “Well, we’re all cruel, aren’t we?” And the greatest cruelty of all was his making this movie. The state of Missouri should sue for defamation.

At the Movies: Only the Brave

January 7th, 2018 7 Comments


I wrote a review of the movie Dunkirk, where I delineated my disappointment with that movie. Briefly, Dunkirk failed as a movie because it failed on all the basic levels of story-telling: there was no one character in the movie for the viewer to invest in emotionally; there was no understanding or explanation of the critical historical importance of that extraordinary event; and the movie failed to convey the unbelievable scope of the rescue effort, let alone the miraculousness of its success.

All of those are the reasons why Only the Brave works, and that’s an understatement. Works? My God, it reduced me and Darleen and our friends to sodden pulps, and it did so because, first and foremost, it gives you any number of characters to invest in.

The way you make your audience identify with a character is to let the viewer know something about him. You can do it directly, showing him doing good things or bad things, making wise choices or bad mistakes. Or you can do it indirectly, having the character, or a third person, say things that reveal who that character is, his strengths and weaknesses, his human graces and his equally human frailty.

Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, and Jennifer Connelly are the three primary characters in Only the Brave, and the writers (Sean Flynn, Ken Nolan, and Eric Warren Singer) and the director (Joseph Kosinski) use both of those techniques to give us three fully-fleshed, very real, very complex, yet understandable characters. Not good, not bad; not heroes, not villains; not saints, not sinners. Just very real, very human, which in turn means very loveable in their humanity. Because we know them, we understand them, and because we understand them, we care passionately about them and wish them well.

But those are the leads, the most important characters, so of course any decent movie maker is going to spend time letting us discover who his protagonists are. Where Kosinski and the three writers excel is in giving us thumbnails about subsidiary characters, the guys and gals with just a few lines here, a small scene or two there. When those subsidiary characters spring to life on the screen, you know you have a great movie, and spring to life they do. Of those secondary characters, the only ones known to me were Jeff Bridges and Andie MacDowell, but all of them turn in breathtaking performances.

As for the events that inspired the movie, and the unbelievable courage of those young men, again, Kosinski makes it very clear what they were up against, what it meant both to them personally, and to the towns of Yarnell and Prescott and…

Ah. That is what makes the young firefighters—in this case, the Granite Mountain Hotshots out of Prescott, AZ, but also every other young man or woman who risks his or her life to fight wildfires anywhere—such incomparably courageous human beings: no one knows, no one can accurately predict what a wildfire will do or where it will go next.

Many years ago, Darleen and I were the last vehicle, literally the last in line, allowed through on the 395 in Mono County during a wildfire. For those of you unfamiliar with that part of California, think the high eastern slope of the Sierras more or less near Mammoth. (Tom’s Place was the nearest community.) The fire was on the western side of the 395, moving east down the mountain, toward the highway, and what stunned me was the speed with which the wall of flames traveled, virtually leapfrogging down that rugged slope faster than any living thing could run. How far away it was and how high the flames were, are things impossible for me to guess, but I remember thinking that if anyone broke down in front of us, we would all be crispy critters in short order. We were miles away, in a truck, and I’m sure the firefighters and law enforcement involved would never have let us through if we had been in danger, but it got my attention, big time. Now think of being out there on foot, fighting such a monster, up close and personal. Like law enforcements officers and soldiers, those young men and women are the best of the best of America. Some are ex-convicts; some are college graduates; some are clean and sober former drug addicts; some are high school athletes who are adrenaline junkies; some are the lost looking to redeem themselves; some have always known who they are and where they belong; all deserve our unreserved respect and gratitude.

All of that is made clear by Kosinski: the dangers; the unpredictability; the varied characters of the Granite Mountain Hotshots; the critical importance of being able to depend, completely and absolutely, on the man standing next to you.

The one thing the director of Dunkirk (Christopher Nolan) did exceptionally well was to convey, visually, a taste of the terrifying horrors of war. In Only the Brave, Director Joseph Kosinski somehow combines actual footage of real forest fires and computerized special effects, in ways I’m nowhere near smart enough or knowledgeable enough to understand, and the effect is overwhelming. The shocking and devastating wall of flame Darleen and I saw all those years ago was just a tiny soupçon of what Kosinski exposes his audience to, and—again—it gives you respect upon respect for those extraordinary young men and women who risk their lives to save our homes.

Finally—I’m not giving anything away here; everyone knows the tragic outcome and unspeakable loss caused by that fire—it is sometimes the unseen that conveys certain emotions more eloquently and viscerally than the seen can do. In a scene at the end, Jennifer Connelly is waiting to find out if her husband is alive or dead, and there is a late afternoon/early night-shot of the barn where she and Josh Brolin keep their beloved horses. Just a shot of a barn, with its interior lights on, backlit by a blood-red, fire-red, Arizona sunset. And from that barn comes the most agonizing howl of pain the human animal can make. Those of us who have lost loved ones to sudden violence have made that sound and know it too well.

Jennifer Connelly, Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Joseph Kosinski, and Only the Brave deserve every award there is. Take a box of Kleenex with you when you go to see this powerful film. Take two. And doff your hats, my darlings, as the firemen pass by.

At the Movies: Maudie

October 31st, 2017 5 Comments


Darleen dragged me off to see a movie I hadn’t heard about, nor did I particularly want to see it when she tried to explain what it was about. But it was clearly something that was important to her and—let’s face it—there aren’t all that many movies even made these days for people over forty inches in height, so we went to see Maudie.

Part of the reason I wasn’t particularly wild with desire to see it was that Darleen made the mistake of telling me about a review she had read in The New York Times. I compounded her mistake by actually paying attention and imaging, erroneously, the Times might have something intelligent to say. After we saw Maudie, I was so stunned by the complete disconnect between the movie and the review that I took the time to read of bunch of reviews in some other major papers and magazines, and before I give you my own reaction to the movie, let me fill you in on what I read so that you too, gentle reader, will never trust anyone or anything other than your own opinion. That includes me.

A quick synopsis of what I read in various mainstream publications:

The opening is so boring and bleak that the only reason to bother sitting through it is the performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke;

The opening is the best part of the movie, which is only redeemed after that by the performances of Sally Hawkins and Ethan Hawke;

The director (Aisling Walsh) and writer (Sherry White) wisely don’t adhere to the reality of Maud Lewis’ life;

The director (Aisling Walsh) and writer (Sherry White) might have created a better movie by sticking closer to the truth of Maud Lewis’ life instead of going for commercial success;

The directing is a masterpiece of subtle understatement, wisely staying out of the way and not trying to impose theatrical conventions on the story;

The directing is uninspired and vacillates between the irreconcilable extremes of Maud Lewis’ life;

The score was hauntingly beautiful and understated;

The score was pushy and inappropriate.

I have used my own words here, obviously, but essentially stuck to the essence of what was written.

And then there were the snarky, Snidely Whiplash comments within the reviews, as if each critic had his or her own personal animosities they wanted to air, the most egregious one dismissing Kari Matchett’s lovely turn as the vacationing New Yorker who basically discovered Maud Lewis as “Cate Blanchette doing Katherine Hepburn.”

Yet, to be fair, all these critics grudgingly praised the film and especially the performances of Hawkins and Hawke.

For my part, I was absolutely blown away by everything to do with Maudie.

For those of you who don’t know who Maud Lewis was (I didn’t), she was essentially a Canadian Grandma Moses, an untrained folk artist, whose cheerful and colorful depictions of rural life in Nova Scotia caught the attention of the world.

That’s the sanitized version. It’s true, but as with all human affairs, the truth was rather more difficult: a life that was mostly very grim, very hard, and very unforgiving. Whatever the reality was or was not is unimportant here. This is a movie and should be judged solely on its merits as a movie, and on that basis, it knocks the ball right out of the park.

Everything starts with the script. Written by Sherry White, a Canadian actress and writer I had never heard of, the script is as spare as it should be, considering she is writing about a shy and reticent lady married to an almost non-verbal man, but within that framework Ms. White manages to balance beauty and brutality, laughter and tears, the physical fragility of her heroine and the indomitable resilience of her spirit. There are lovely touches of humor and hope in the bleakness of these two people’s extremely circumscribed lives, but I confess I had to take my glasses off and wipe them more than once.

Directed by another lady I had never heard of, Aisling Walsh, an Irish director who managed to balance the widely disparate elements of the story with remarkable grace, and who had the sensitivity to allow two immensely gifted actors to bring their characters to life, even when that life sometimes took them off-script. Ms. Walsh also did an exquisite job of capturing the harsh beauty of the environment that inspired Maud Lewis, a job that must have been exceptionally difficult: filming in cold weather is fraught with challenges, from fogged-up lenses to frozen batteries that can no longer power the cameras, to freezing cast and crew members. And much of the film takes place in different seasons, something that must have brought its own challenges. Kudos to her.

And then the performances! Oh, my. There isn’t a false note or bad lick from anyone anywhere in the film, but it is Ethan Hawke and Sally Hawkins who simply took my breath away. Actors choose projects for many varied reasons, but the challenges inherent in any given role are the primary lures for actors who have confidence in their own abilities. How do you find and convey the wisdom and humor in a tiny, fragile, deformed, possibly limited lady whose only means of real expression was through her art? Sally Hawkins does it.

If you like the kinds of action/adventure movies that depend so heavily on stunts and special effects, Maudie is almost certainly not going to be your cup of tea. But if you are interested in your fellow man, if the hidden bits and pieces of the human psyche that we know are there in all of us but that we so rarely see, if William Blake’s world in a grain of sand and Heaven in a wildflower, if those things appeal to you more than gun fights and car chases, you will love this movie. No matter what conflicting nonsense the damned critics spout.

Oh, Yes!

October 10th, 2017 9 Comments

Darleen (above) as the stewardess of my dreams.

A friend of Darleen’s sent a link ( to a British blog about a movie Darleen made back in 1973. The blog is very entertaining and has a lot of very enticing photographs of my beautiful wife. You tell by glancing at the photo above just why the blogger was so smitten by her.

At the Movies: Dunkirk

August 10th, 2017 12 Comments

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.”

That famous aphorism is usually attributed to Joseph Stalin, sometimes to Adolf Eichmann, and occasionally to Erich Maria Remarque (author of All Quiet on the Western Front), more rarely to various other people. It makes no difference who said it first; it is one of the most cold-bloodedly trenchant assessments of war (or, in the case of Stalin, the merry butchering of an entire people by a tyrant) ever made. And it is also the perfect encapsulation of everything that is wonderful and everything that is not so wonderful about Dunkirk.

The evacuation, in just three days, of roughly 400,000 British (and French, Belgian, and as well as some Polish and Dutch) forces from the beaches of Dunkirk, where they were trapped between the sea and the invincible might of the German Army, is one of the most unbelievable, magical, miraculous triumphs of will, sacrifice, determination, and above all of courage, in all history. The Royal Navy, augmented by hundreds of private, shallow-draft boats—fishing boats, pleasure yachts, ferries, anything seaworthy—crossed the channel (some of them multiple times) to rescue Allied troops from the extremely shallow beaches around Dunkirk.

Were the Battle of Dunkirk and the battles that led up to it defeats for the Allies? Of course, but Dunkirk was also, in a perverse way, a victory in terms of its positive morale boost for the Allies and its negative morale effect on Hitler. It is axiomatic among all military forces that a single act of courage can inspire an entire army and turn the tide of battle. The courage of the beaten soldiers and their intrepid rescuers—so many of them civilians—at Dunkirk, inspired the British people in ways that probably, ultimately, led to victory, even as it showed Hitler he could not roll over the British as easily as he had over other European democracies and armies. At least, that’s my theory; I have no idea if historians agree with it.

To satisfy both the demands of story-telling and the first part of Stalin’s aphorism, the movie wisely focuses on a single man, played by Fionn Whitehead (playing an architype named Tommy, “Tommies” being British slang for their soldiers in World War Two), whose death would be a tragedy. Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t tell us enough about him to make us really care; it would be a far greater tragedy if we knew him more and better, but the only character in the movie who is given any backstory whatsoever is the civilian owner and skipper of a yacht, played by the incomparable Mark Rylance.

As for the last part of the aphorism, the approximately 400,000 thousand other soldiers are only hinted at, admirably hinted at, but never seen in their entirety because, logistically, how could they be shown? So too, the makeshift armada of rescuers (some 800 boats, historically, of all sizes and shapes) is only hinted at, and the result of those diminished representations leaves the casual, historically uneducated viewer with the impression that a few thousand soldiers were rescued by a few score civilians, and that—sadly—diminishes not only the movie, but the historical context and importance of this most valiant and heroic moment in man’s bloody story.

And that is perhaps the greatest weakness of Dunkirk. I am no historian, and my knowledge of World War Two comes as much from my father’s voice—ah, that beloved and greatly missed voice!—as we walked around the many varied battlefields he took me to during the eight years we lived in Europe as it does from books, yet I was ahead of Darleen, who had to keep asking me questions all through the movie. Who? Why? Why not? Where? When? And why again? If the movie had been able to convey the magnitude of danger for Great Britain, it would have mattered less that we have no vested emotional interest in the soldier played by Fionn Whitehead.

(For the record, if those soldiers had been lost, England, that sceptered isle, that royal throne of kings, that other Eden, that happy breed of men, that precious stone set in a silver sea, would have been completely unable to defend itself, and Hitler’s planned invasion would have gone ahead and his armies would have rolled over the last European stronghold of freedom and democracy as easily as they had over all the rest of Europe. As it was, even with the unparalleled triumph of Dunkirk, the British were still nearly helpless. Ever since World War One, the British government had been systematically disarming its citizens, in violation of their own rudimentary Bill of Rights and unwritten constitution, so that their entire civilian population was armed with nothing more than a handful of custom sporting shotguns and even fewer custom sporting rifles to defend their sceptered isle. Thousands and thousands of Americans voluntarily stepped into the breach and donated their beloved hunting rifles so the Brits could defend themselves. Having learned nothing from history, Great Britain is today once more completely disarmed and has a higher rate of violent crime than South Africa’s and twice as high as America’s.)

On the other side of the equation, if the script had given us even as little backstory about Fionn Whitehead as we had for Mark Rylance, we would have been emotionally hooked enough to find the death of that single man a tragedy. Unfortunately, the movie never does either, and the result is that we have neither fish nor fowl nor good red meat to sink our teeth into.

On the plus side, the movie uses special effects and unrelenting sound to convey some of the equally unrelenting violence and horror of war. Young Tommy is on the move constantly in his desperate effort to stay alive, and each new sanctuary turns out to be a more horrible death trap than the last. You can understand all too well the blank, thousand-yard stares of those men who are lucky enough to survive major battles; it is a look the movie captures very well toward the end, when Tommy and some of the other lucky ones find themselves back in England. And I know it is just special effects, but kudos to the director for capturing a small taste of the nightmare of men being burned to death as they drown, the floating fields of oil on the water’s surface bursting into flame and roasting men alive.

To quote the last line of Bridge on the River Kwai: “Madness! Madness!”

But special effects don’t make a movie, and while we know this was a critically important pivotal point in the war, and while we know this was one of the truly transcendent moments of courage and altruism in all of human history, both the majestic triumph and the personal humanity are lost in muddy middle ground between tragedy and statistics.

At the Movies: The Best Years of Our Lives

April 9th, 2017 3 Comments


I’m reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch. It is considered to be one of the greatest novels in the English language, but what drew me to it was a comment ascribed to V.S. Pritchett (I think) who called it “unsurpassed in its depiction of human nature.” I take exception to that. Think of Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, William Trevor, Tolstoy, Roddy Doyle, Julian Barnes… Oh, I could go on at length, naming authors ancient and modern, alive and dead, classic and casual, whose books have characters that so epitomize aspects of humanity that those characters’ very names have become bywords for real and enduring qualities of human nature, both good and bad.

But it was that description, “unsurpassed in its depiction of human nature,” that came back to me as I watched The Best Years of Our Lives the other night, because that movie is, if not unsurpassed, certainly up there at the top of the heap in its depiction of human nature. It is rich, complex, tragic, funny, multi-layered, compelling, but above all very real, real in its humanity, real in its understanding of the difficulties soldiers faced returning to civilian life following the horrors of World War Two, real in their hopes and dreams and disappointments, real too in each one’s final tenuous and ambiguous triumph over his own personal adversity.

Ambiguous? So, is there a happy ending or not? Yes, there is, to the same extent that you can say The Graduate has a happy ending: Dustin Hoffman gets the girl and they escape on a bus, but the final shot of Hoffman and Katharine Ross shows both of them beginning to comprehend the uncertainty of their choices, and the fragility of their future. So too in The Best Years of Our Lives, when Dana Andrews takes Theresa Wright in his arms at the end and kisses her rapturous face, a part of you thrills for them, but you also hear Andrews lay out succinctly and brutally just how difficult their life together is going to be.

I think movie-making may be the single most vulnerable art of all precisely because it is such a collaborative effort. Writing, directing, acting, cinematography, sound mixing, editing, lighting, art direction, set decoration, props, make-up, all these and more have to come together perfectly, and any weakness in any one of them can tweak the whole production enough to reduce potential greatness to mediocrity. (If you should doubt me, I will cite as an example a 1950’s-era mystery I tried to watch recently that had such stark and garish lighting, as if every Manhattan apartment was lit by Klieg lights, that I turned the thing off.) But it all starts with the script, and in this case Richard Sherwood’s script is simply perfect. He won an Academy Award for it, and the movie also raked in awards for William Wyler (directing), Fredric March (best actor), Harold Russell (best supporting actor), best film editing (Daniel Mandell), best score (Hugo Friedhofer), and then topped it all off by winning best picture.

In addition to Andrews, March, Wright, and Russell, the film also stars Myrna Loy, about whom Jimmy Stewart once said: “There ought to be a law against any man who doesn’t want to marry Myrna Loy.” That pretty much tells you all you need to know about her personally, and it shines through in her acting.

But what gives the film its humanity is the very real, three-dimensional depth of all the characters. There are no heroes here away from the battlefields and jungles, beyond the extraordinary heroism shown by practically all of the Greatest Generation, nor are there any villains. The only “bad” person (played by Virginia Mayo) is bad only to the extent that she is vain and vapid, shallow and narcissistic, and people like that are on every street corner; in fact, who among us has not been all those things at one time or another? The good guys and gals make stupid mistakes that are little better than the deliberate selfishness of Virginia Mayo and all of them have to live with the consequences of those mistakes.

Given that the three males (Andrews, March, and Russell) are all thrown back into normal, everyday, middle American, big town/small city life after four years of unparalleled hell and horror, it is small wonder that they make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Given that the women who love them (Wright, Loy, Mayo, Cathy O’Donnell) have no training or experience to prepare them for helping or even dealing with their wounded men, it is small wonder they make bad choices and stupid mistakes. Not as many as their men, but they too stumble and fall. Being women, they all—with the exception of Mayo—pick themselves up more quickly and gracefully than their men. Loy’s character in particular epitomizes the wisdom and patience we all wish all women had all the time, yet she also has just enough humorous annoyance to make her maternal paradigm as believable as she is engaging. It is a remarkable performance, and it should have earned her an award. The scene where she tells her daughter of all the times she and Fredric March had to struggle to keep their marriage intact could be a masterclass in the very best kind of acting, where all the pain and all the tears are only subtly hinted at, resonating beneath the surface of the calm and beautiful face. It’s human nature at its best.

The other parallel I could make to Middlemarch (and I’m only comparing it because of the accidental juxtaposition of taking a break from the book to watch the movie) is that each of the returning soldiers in The Best Years of Our Lives represents a different socio-economic level, just as each of the primary characters in Middlemarch represents a different level of England’s rigidly stratified society. The problems Andrews, March, and Russell have to deal with are the same in terms of wounds, physical or psychological, but greatly different in terms of the reaction and support of their families and loved ones.

One last note: watch for Hoagy Carmichael’s compelling turn as Uncle Butch, the owner of the bar where the three soldiers congregate to lick their wounds and drown their pains. He radiates the same kind of quiet strength and wisdom that Myrna Loy does, asking the right questions at the right time, giving the right direction at the right time, without ever being overbearing, all of it while playing the piano and listening, listening, listening. Listening, after all, is the actor’s most important job.

At the Movies: Fences

February 8th, 2017 6 Comments


A better title might have been “Barriers.” The fences referred to in the play/movie are, on the surface, those we put up intentionally to (as one of the characters says) keep some things in and other things out. But it also refers to the fences we put up unintentionally, unconsciously, the self-limiting fences that keep us from doing and being what we wish to do and be. And perhaps most importantly, it refers to the fences society puts up, all those barriers of the Jim Crow era that were meant to keep black folks in certain jobs and certain neighborhoods and within the confines of certain limited dreams and ambitions. Fences is the sixth play in the ten-play cycle written by August Wilson as a portrait of black America from 1900 to 1990. If Wilson had not died much too young (at only sixty) he might have continued the cycle, and it would have been fascinating to see how he perceived the repetition of unfulfilled promises and squandered opportunities (primarily by politicians) that have circumscribed the lives of black Americans over the past quarter century. In any event, the movie stays remarkably true to the play, which is hardly surprising, since August Wilson wrote both scripts.

I saw the play back in the late 1980’s, starring James Earl Jones. Jones created the lead role on Broadway and won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award as best actor, and the play itself also won a Tony and a Drama Desk Award, but it was Jones’ towering performance that overshadows any other memory I have of the play itself.

In the interim, in fact just a year or so ago, I wrote a short story about Sonny Liston (Teaching the Bear to Read, on my website under “Other Writings”) for which I had to do a lot of research into Sonny Liston’s life, and what struck me about watching the movie Fences was that Sonny Liston’s appalling childhood, his brushes with the law, his eventual success, and his final fall from grace, seem to have been a relatively common experience for a specific kind of black man in America at a specific time in which a few specific doors had been opened and a few others were just beginning to open (small, suspicious cracks, a white foot cautiously braced at the bottom) even as the bulk of the doors remained shut, doors that were and are ultimately much more important and more universal than the few that were opened. It is this kind of black man who must have been so prevalent in the 1950’s era playwright August Wilson wrote about, the kind of black man who represented the failure (a more cynical person might say the sick joke) of emancipation and the gap between the promise and the reality.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson (if that name resonates with memories of high school American history classes about the Mason-Dixon Line, it is not an accident), a sharecropper’s son who had the skills to be a Major-League baseball player, but who missed the chance due to timing, due to the fact of being black in white America, due to the realities of the black experience of that particular time. Yes, I know those realities still exist, but the causes have changed.

If all you want is to know what it was to be a black man in America in the 1950’s, you will learn that from Fences. But you will also learn something about the human condition—forget black or white—and what it means to be a man fighting and raging against the fate of one’s time and place in history, and—in a conscious or unconscious tip of the hat to King Lear—the futility of that fight. You will learn all that and more, and those are good reasons to go see Fences. But if nothing else, you should go see it because it is acting at its best.

It’s hard for me not to compare Denzel Washington with James Earl Jones, and because I am such an ardent admirer Jones’ work, no one could possibly live up to my memory of his performance. And yet, and yet… Washington has taken a very different approach to the character, one which makes him both less likeable and more understandable and—it is this that convinces me of Mr. Washington’s brilliance—equally unforgettable. Washington is always memorable even in his most mediocre movies. Training Day leaps to mind (yes, yes, I know it was ballyhooed and that it earned—quite rightly—Washington an Academy Award, but go back and pay attention to the script), a film I actively disliked and that had holes you could drive an eighteen-wheeler through, but Denzel Washington’s performance lingers. In Fences, his performance lingers in ways that make me keep going back to it in my memory, just as I do with James Earl Jones. I can give no higher praise than that.

Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, none of whom I had never heard of, even the little girl at the end, Saniyya Sidney, all of them turn in the kinds of performances that make me wonder why I ever thought I could act. They’re that good.

And then there’s Viola Davis. Lord have mercy! A diamond will always shine to best advantage in a turnip patch, but this ain’t no turnip patch; these are some of the finest, most memorable performances I’ve seen, and even surrounded by all this coruscating talent Viola Davis walks away with the movie. She is, without exaggeration, one of the finest actresses of our time, and she deserves all the accolades, all the roles, all the rewards and awards. She alone would make this a movie eminently worth seeing.

I have one minor quibble with some of August Wilson’s psychology at the end, when the family tries to apotheosize the deceased Troy, and I have a minor quibble with Denzel Washington’s direction at the same point, making too much of the sun bursting through the clouds, a clichéd device, but these are picayune in the final sum of a brilliant movie.

At the Movies: La La Land

February 1st, 2017 12 Comments



When I first started this blog, I made a conscious decision not to write negative reviews of books or movies. It’s far too difficult to create any kind of work of art, and far too easy for any fool to criticize and belittle what he can’t do himself.

But last night I saw something that angered me.

La La Land has been nominated for fourteen Academy Awards, including best picture, best actor, best actress, best director, best original screenplay, best original score, best original song, and more. It received seven Golden Globe Award nominations, and Emma Stone won best the actress award from the Screen Actor’s Guild.

I was suspicious about all those nominations when I saw the trailers on television, but, hey, a lapse in someone’s judgement can result in a dreadful trailer for a great film or a great trailer for a dreadful film, so I went to see La La Land, not with high expectations so much as with an open mind. If I had gone with high expectations, I would have really become enraged.

La La Land is the kind of inoffensive movie to which you can safely take your grandmother and your movie-infatuated ten-year-old daughter, and after I’ve said that, I have exhausted my repertoire of a compliments.

Embarrassingly mediocre, one incoherent cliché after another, it’s “best original screenplay” consists of an impoverished storyline watered down and rebottled from half a dozen real musicals written by real writers and real composers. Has no one ever seen, or does no one remember such trifles as An American in Paris or Singin’ in the Rain, to name the two that La La Land steals from most egregiously? Can anyone with a room temperature IQ and over the age of ten honestly pretend to compare the musical genius of the Gershwin brothers to the mild and modest work of Justin Hurwitz? I won’t insult Alan Jay Lerner’s memory by even bothering to compare his script to Damian Chazelle’s lame, incoherent, and uninspired platitudes.

Unfortunately, this pedestrian version is performed by actors who can’t sing and can’t dance, neither of whom had enough charm or charisma to keep me from wandering out of the theater to get a drink of water I didn’t desperately need. Both Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are good young actors, but neither one of them has singing chops that should ever be heard outside of the privacy of their respective showers, and neither one of them would ever make it through the audition phase of Dancing with the Stars or the first round of So You Think You Can Dance?  Contrast that to Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. Hell, contrast it to Fred and Ginger in any one of their magical confections.

Darleen tells me Emma Stone won her SAG Award for best actress over Meryl Streep’s bravura portrayal of Florence Foster Jenkins. SAG must have awarded it for best monotonous walking sequence, because I’ve never seen so much unnecessary walking from nowhere to nowhere for no purpose. This in a film set in a city where Steve Martin famously drove next door to talk to his neighbor in LA Story. (I think that was the movie.) Motion pictures are called that because they use visual images to tell a story. That, by definition, means the images you see on the screen must cause the storyline to advance. Random wandering from one spot to another does not advance the story. If Emma Stone had taken her award and walked over to Meryl Streep and presented it to her, it would have left me with a more charitable opinion of Ms. Stone. Her performance in La La Land no more deserves an award than it deserves to be remembered.

It’s not that La La Land is so unspeakably bad that angers me, because it isn’t unspeakably bad. It’s that the Academy and the Screen Actors’ Guild and the Golden Globes committee are so unaware of their own history and the history of magic real Hollywood musicals once offered that they would have the temerity to praise such mediocrity. It’s either ignorance, or they allowed themselves to be bought or bullied.

John Legend was the best thing in it (Legend and a quick glimpse of a beautifully restored blue and white ’66 Corvette in the background of one sequence) and there wasn’t enough of him or his music to keep me or Legend-groupie Darleen in our seats. I’m angry at myself for having wasted two hours desperately clinging to the hope that the damned film might improve and that something, ANYTHING, noteworthy would happen. Where the hell is Kim Jong-Un when you need a little diversion?!

At the Movies: Hidden Figures

January 25th, 2017 10 Comments

Hidden Figures


In 1959 (I think) my father took me out into a field near the Rhine, away from the lights of our little town, to watch a sputnik pass overhead. Ten years later, I stood on beach in Bermuda watching a full moon as Neil Armstrong took his giant leap for mankind. Quite a lot happened in the wide world between those two events, and Hidden Figures touches on two of the most salient and absorbing issues in America during those years. It was a time when we hovered on the verge of transcending our earth-bound limitations, and hovered too on the verge of transcending some of our moral limitations. We’ve come further faster in one of those areas and still have a way to go in the other.

Very briefly, the plot of Hidden Figures tells the story of (some of) the black women who worked with NASA and helped make John Glenn the first man to orbit the earth. What is not told (and it couldn’t be told within the context of the story the movie needed to tell) is that black men and women had been working in various ways for various branches of the defense industry ever since the outbreak of World War Two. Many of them had stayed on after the war as one (or possibly several) of these defense and intelligence agencies morphed into what is now known as NASA. In theory, they were supposed to work on an equal basis with their white co-workers, and apparently that was accomplished to a certain extent, but… There is always a but. That’s basically the plot.

What is more important, however, is the view the movie provides of Jim Crow racism in pre-civil rights America. I was aware of this theme and it almost made me avoid the movie; I saw enough of that as a child and in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Act to last me a lifetime. I am very glad I went to see Hidden Figures because I learned much about the extraordinary achievements of the so-called “colored computers” (which was how the black “girls” were referred to) and because the handling and portrayal of racism are spot on. This was not the crude, overt racism of mental midgets such as yesterday’s KKK or today’s so-called white nationalists, those loathsome offshoots of Hitler’s National Socialism with its hateful and dishonest ideology. (That kind of hateful and stupid evil will never be completely eradicated from the world. If you believe in God, you know the devil must exist too.) Instead the movie shows the unthinking, unconscious racism of people who grew up in a certain time and with certain norms and who never stopped to think about them. There is a scene where one of the ladies (Taraji P. Henson) explains to her supervisor (Kevin Costner) why she disappears for forty-five minutes at a time, and as she explains—standing by her desk, rain-soaked, embarrassed, in front of all her watching white co-workers—her anger rises, a long-festering boil finally bursting, and she talks about having to drink her coffee from a separate pot, not the one the white folks she works with drink from. When she finally stops, no one speaks, and Kevin Costner turns to look at the table where the coffee pots and cups are assembled, one pot carefully labelled “colored.” It is clear that if he has ever even laid eyes on that little symbol of segregation, he hasn’t seen it, in the sense of taking in the reality of what he sees. That was racism in those days, an unthinking acceptance of what had always been, without ever understanding the pain and humiliation it might cause, without even considering there might be another way to do things.

The three ladies who play the main characters (Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monáe) should all have gotten Academy Award nominations. They were that good. But the performances that absolutely blew me away were Kevin Costner’s quiet, understated, multi-layered portrayal of the busy, preoccupied head of the team Taraji P. Henson works on, a man neither less nor more than any other man of his time and place, but who transforms into something else following that moment when he first really sees the coffee pots. I’ve always admired Costner’s work, but this took him to an all new level.

And then… And then there is Mahershala Ali as Taraji Henson’s suitor. Lord have mercy! Mr. Ali became a specific person so completely and subtly that it will now be hard for me to ever shake the memory of that gentle, strong, dignified persona to see him as anything else. He inhabits the role in the way all actors always strive to do, but I can vouch for the fact that it’s hard enough to strive for, harder still to achieve, and impossible for all but the most gifted few to achieve as perfectly as Mr. Ali did.

And so many others in smaller roles that resonate still: Jim Parsons as a rigid, tight-assed, unthinking racist so typical of that day and that place; Glen Powell as John Glenn, capturing the niceness and decency of that man in just a few, brief scenes…

I could go on, but I would have to list the entire cast.

Two things shocked me about this movie. First, while I can understand—not approve of, but comprehend—the reason why these ladies were never given their due back in that era, why the hell has it taken fifty years for them to be given their rightful place in history?

Second, doing some research about the book I came across the following sentence on Margaret Lee Shetterly’s website (she is the author of the book Hidden Figures, upon which the movie is based):

“A ‘girl’ could be paid significantly less than a man for doing the same job.”

The Equal Pay Act was written into law in 1963, a year before the Civil Rights Act, and women are still marching in the streets for equal pay? It would seem we’ve come further overcoming racism (think of Barack Obama in the White House, voted in by a large majority both times) than we have with pay equality for women, and as far as I know, equal pay has no negative equivalent to the moronic white nationalists. Not America’s finest hour.

Movie Review: Hacksaw Ridge

November 14th, 2016 16 Comments



On Veteran’s Day I went to see Mel Gibson’s World War Two movie, Hacksaw Ridge. I almost didn’t go because the title made me think it was going to be just another manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie filled with stirring heroics and a few heartwarming moments. One of the few reviews I read (in a national newspaper I deign to identify) primly shook a reproving finger at director Mel Gibson’s “appetite for gore,” and for making “a rousing celebration of the thrills of battle,” which didn’t do anything to inspire me, even as it praised the movie generally. (Keep those two phrases, “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle” in mind.) I decided to go when it finally dawned on me that this was a true story.

On one level Hacksaw Ridge is in fact a manly, hairy-chested, two-fisted, courageous war movie, because those physical virtues—and in war, those are virtues—are contrasted against the very different virtues of deep religious conviction and adhering to one’s beliefs even under unimaginable duress.

Very briefly, in both real life and the movie, Desmond Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector who not only refused to kill or fight, but even to touch or carry a weapon. With those slight impediments to the soldier’s life, but with a strong sense of patriotism and duty, he enlisted in the Army with the objective of becoming a medic and serving his country and his fellow man by saving lives. He ended up as the only conscientious objector in World War Two, and the first ever, to earn a Congressional Medal of Honor for, in President Truman’s official words, “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action above and beyond the call of duty.” In battle, mind you, without ever touching a weapon. He also won three Bronze Stars with two Oak Leaf Clusters and “V” Device, three Purple Hearts with two Oak Leaf Clusters, and a slew of other medals.

And it is the contrast between the quiet, humble, and absolutely unshakeable courage of Mr. Doss’ convictions and the physical courage of his fellow soldiers—the rare and shining courage so many young men show in war—that makes up the heart of this extraordinary movie. Mr. Gibson makes Doss into a Christ figure, not in any superficial, symbolic sense, but rather in the very real sense of the Christ within us all. The difference between Mr. Doss and the rest of us was his own vastly increased awareness of and sensitivity to the Christ within, and the duty that demands. Mr. Doss also clearly had the kind of courage—both moral and physical—very, very few people possess.

Reducing the plot and message to a handful of words makes the movie sound like a boring sermon. Nothing could be further from the truth. Mel Gibson and the screenwriters (Pulitzer-Prize-winner Robert Schenkkan and Andrew Knight) clearly understand that the single most important function of any work of art is to evoke an emotional response, and Lord have mercy, do they ever! Every single character in this movie is fleshed out and made real, made sympathetic in their reality, proving that all people are far more interesting and have far more depth and humanity than we can ever completely know. More conventionally, they create a love story (again, based on real life) between Mr. Doss (played by Andrew Garfield) and his fiancée (played by the exquisite Teresa Palmer) that makes you ache for a happy ending.

I want to go back to Mr. Gibson’s “appetite for gore” and “the thrills of battle.” Perhaps I am reading more into this than I should, but there is a minginess and smug self-righteousness in those pejorative phrases that diminishes Gibson’s brilliance as a director, and diminishes too the sheer horror of war that Mr. Gibson was clearly trying to emphasize because, after all, it was that terrifying horror that Desmond Doss’ faith enabled him to overcome. (The greater the obstacle, the greater the victory; it’s a well accepted tenet of storytelling.) I know a little bit about what a bullet can do, and I have twice had to clean up the bloody consequences of violent death, but even with that knowledge, it is hard to imagine what the Greatest Generation saw and endured during that unspeakable war. Go back and read For Esmé, with Love and Squalor¸ and remember that J. D. Salinger’s oblique and sanitized reference came from his experiences on Utah Beach on D-Day, in the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, and liberating various concentration camps, yet that short story created a furor when it was published just for alluding to the reality of what was. And the truth is, what was, what those men lived through, did, had done to them, saw, heard, felt, smelled, was incomprehensibly, unimaginably appalling. Part of the genius of Mr. Gibson’s direction is that he makes it as unrelentingly and horrifyingly real as he can, not because he has an appetite for gore, or because he is trying to create cheap secondhand thrills of battle (there is no thrill, except in bad John Wayne movies, only terror), but because he wants to create what even that same critic described as “a taste of hell.” It is so real, so terrifying, so nightmarish, that the only things lacking—that I know of personally—are the pain and the smell.

One last comment about any reviews you might have read: I read a few reviews after seeing the movie and they all seemed to dwell at length on Mel Gibson and his moral shortcomings. Why, I wonder? When did we start equating the art and the artist? Mr. Gibson had, apparently, a long struggle with alcoholism and offensive behavior when he was drunk. So did the late Senator Ted Kennedy, but it was usually glossed over by the press, including the famous incident that resulted in the death of a young lady. If I didn’t go see movies made by people who hold radically different political views than I, I’d probably never see anything.

This a brilliant, devastating, triumphant movie. It got a ten-minute standing ovation at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival. It got a prolonged round of applause from an audience of veterans and others at a small theater in the mountains of California. It, the director, the writers, and the magnificent cast, deserve all the applause in the world.

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