Monday, January 14, 2019

Mid90s

One of the benefits of living a mile up a West Virginia holler in 1978 is that I had a mile of road -- which was paved, most of the time -- to skateboard on without any real traffic. Hell, there was so little traffic at times on that road that I could set up a slalom course, complete with small, orange cones, around which I could maneuver.

And by "maneuver" I mean "falling on my ass over and over again until I was bloody and bruised."

I didn't take to being a skateboarder, really. For lots of reasons.



First, I had a crappy skateboard. It looked a lot like the one in this photograph, although I suspect the one in the picture was of better quality. If the board I rode hit a small pebble I was thrown to the ground.

And there were lots of pebbles on the road that went up my holler.


Second --and perhaps most important -- skateboarding seems to me the sorta activity you gotta do with other people. It's a social sport, one where you watch others and try to emulate or outdo them.

You skate a little, sit and talk, skate some more, sit and laugh, skate some more. Repeat.

The social aspect of skating -- being a part of a skating community, and forming an identify around that -- is at the heart of Jonah Hill's Mid90s. The film stars several professionals who are almost as good at acting as they are skateboarding. A small band of  kids dreaming of making it big on the pro circuit, looking out for each other while all the while busting balls.

Stevie, played with remarkable authenticity by Sunny Suljic, is drawn to the group at a time in his life when he's trying to find his identify. He learns to smoke and drink and curse and skate. But more than that, he learns to be a part of something bigger than himself.

It's not always a pretty something. But it's something that fills a void.

Mid90s is a terrific film, a near-home run for first time director Hill. And, I think, it's a flick that will make Suljic a star.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

The Favourite




Costumes and accents
Illness and preservation
Lifetime in despair 


Ben Is Back


Peter Hedges' Ben Is Back could easily have been set in my home state of West Virginia. The opioid crisis that holds a vice-grip on the USA -- every 25 minutes a baby suffering from opioid withdrawal is born in the US -- is particularly bad in the Mountain State.

In 2016, WV experienced the nation's highest rate of death by opioid overdose: more than 43 deaths per 100,000 people.

The opioid epidemic in WV results from a perfect storm of causes that includes a challenging economy, geographic isolation, an under-developed infrastructure, insufficient health and wellness resources, etc. Perhaps the biggest influence, however, is greed. You want an example? In a 10 month span, a major drug company shipped over 3,000,000 prescription opioids to a single pharmacy located in the small town of Kermit, WV.

Kermit, WV has a population of just about 400 people.

Ben is Back tells the story of a young man on a brief holiday leave from an in-house drug recovery program. The movie has a strong ensemble, with Luke Hedges and Julia Roberts doing some of their best work in the most subtle of ways. Both are desperate and hopeful at the same time. The real question for both is, which emotion will win out?

The flick touches on some of the more obvious problems in the opioid epidemic. Big Pharma's hypocrisy is exposed when we see a pharmacist selling an addict a syringe, but refusing to sell Narcan to the addict's mother who wants to have it on hand in the event her child overdoses. We see the devastating effects of addiction on the mental health of those most deeply involved in the world of addiction. And throughout the film we see how cautious optimism can cause overwhelming emotional damage to the family structure.

The first half of Ben is Back is strong, with top-shelf performances by Hedges and Roberts. Courtney B. Vance and Katheryn Newton are terrific in supporting roles: each exemplifies in different ways the conflict of family members who want to believe -- but are afraid to believe -- in the recovery of an addict.

The second half of Ben is Back is less compelling. A McGuffin designed around a stolen pet is used to get Roberts and Hedges into a complicated plotline involving drug dealers. It's designed to show the audience the day-to-day lifestyle of a drug addict and the peripheral damage that lifestyle has on others. But, it feels convoluted as it morphs into something akin to Ben is Back meets A Christmas Carol.

The ghosts of addicts past and future take a little shine off an otherwise compelling film. 

Thursday, January 03, 2019

Vice

While watching Adam Mckay's Vice, I recalled these two quotes:

                 "I do not fear the Dark Side as you do. I have brought peace, freedom, justice, 
                   and security to my new empire."
                 
                "Give yourself to the Dark Side. It's the only way you can save your friends."

No, Vice President Dick Cheney did not make those comments, at least as far as I know. The quotes are by Darth Vader, the fictional villain of Star Wars flicks.

Personally, I see a lotta similarities between the two.  

I'm more Star Trek than Star Wars. Still, I know debate exists within the Rebel Legion as to whether Vader was evil or simply a misunderstood anti-hero who did what he had to do. Likewise, Vice asks the audience: Was Dick Cheney lured to the dark side of The Force in order to realize his desire for power, or were his actions  genuine efforts to protect US citizens from terror?

McCay's Cheney is more Darth Vader than Anakin Skywalker. He seizes every opportunity to grab and wield power. And in true conspiracy-fueled story-telling, Vice depicts the VPOTUS as complicit in decades of social engineering that produced a more pro-business, climate-ruining, civil-rights-eradicating American society.

Is he a true believer? Is he grabbing power? It's impossible to say for sure. What the film makes obvious, though, is that Cheney and his wife Lynne are ruthless. They'll stop at nothing -- including hurting those they love most -- to achieve their goals.

Vice tells the Cheney story in a unique visual manner. It doesn't always work; some techniques are inspired, others seem too gimmicky. The strength of Vice rests squarely in the performances: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Steve Carell, and Sam Rockwell are brilliant as Dick and Lynne Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and George W. Bush. 

Each is able to humanize their characters at various stages of the film. These aren't stereotypes: they are people, with real-life strengths, foibles, and failings. 

Vice likely won't bank much box office, as it's seen as a partisan attack on political conservatives. Red Staters gonna hate. That's too bad, really. The movie should be seen simply for the top-shelf performances. 

They're that good.


Wednesday, January 02, 2019

Green Book

Mrs. Film Geek and I were eager to see Green Book, as we're always on the look for flicks that dramatize complicated relationships. We bought our popcorn and sat down expecting a film that touched lightly on racism and more deeply on personal connection -- and in large part that's what we encountered.

But, what we received mostly was (yet another) lesson in white privilege.

Neither MFG nor I had reference for the real-life publication The Negro Travelers' Green Book: The Guide For Travel And Vacations. For more than 30 years the Green Book was published in the USA because, as the publisher wrote on the 1956 edition, "The white traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro, it has been different. He, before the advent of the Negro travel guide, had to depend on word of mouth, and many times accommodations were not available." (See article here.)

Never in my half-century of living have I had to seek advice on where to have lunch, get gas, or lodge overnight while traveling. I've never been forced to plan my routes according to where I might feel safest. Not a single time have I feared being turned away from conducting business because of the color of my skin.

The Green Book ceased publication in 1966, soon after the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It became unnecessary because, legally, white privilege can't exist in 'Merica.

Tradition, human nature, and psychology suggest otherwise.






Aquaman

If you -- like me -- started reading comics in the early 1970s, you're most likely familiar with this version of Aquaman.

Back then, Arthur Curry dressed in orange and sea-green. He couldn't be out of water for more than an hour or he'd die. His blonde hair was short, and he traveled below the ocean depths on the backs of aquatic animals.

You know: porpoises, dolphins, super-huge seahorses and the like.

Even though he carried his own comic book title, this version of the King of Atlantis was at best a secondary character in the DC Universe. He talked with fish and made a pretty good member of the Justice League -- especially when there was a water-based threat.

But readers didn't really take him for a serious hero.


DC retconned Curry in the 1990s to more closely fit the anti-hero trend happening at the time. This Aquaman was angrier, more impulsive, and willing to cross ethical lines his 1970s version would never consider crossing. Writers even severed his hand and fit him with a prosthetic to make the character edgier. 

Meh.


In recent years, DC Comics has focused efforts to morph the literary Curry into a character that more closely resembles the matinee idol being developed for movies. Comic-book Aquaman's hair was darkened, He became more playful, a little more care-free than was his previous incarnations. He lost the throne and embarked upon a swim-about, where he tried to find himself again. The modern comic book stories make it clear: Aqaman's identify is being transformed.

Whether it is a good transformation or not remains to be seen.

Aquaman (2018) gives us pretty good insight into who the comic-book hero will eventually become. The character from the flick is arrogant, impulsive, stubborn, and slightly immature. He's a hard-drinking do-gooder with the soul of a pirate. He lives and loves hard.

The film version of Arthur Curry is -- like the movie itself-- melodramatic. The movie exaggerates even the most obvious banalities common to super-hero-movies. Aquaman is shown in a cliched "super-hero pose" at least three times, and King Orm's "Call me Ocean Master" moment made me laugh so hard I nearly did a spit-take. This despite the fact the moment was supposed to be dramatic.

Aquaman can't seem to find a good balance between humor and drama. It's inconsistent (why can some Atlanteans breath on land while others cannot?), cheesy, and contrived.

The movie will make tons of cash at the box office. But I doubt the flick moved DC any closer to Marvel in its ability to get its universe right on-screen.





Saturday, October 06, 2018

A Star Is Born (2018)

The Top 5 Things I Loved About A Star Is Born:

5. Charlie, the Goldendoodle that steals every scene he's in, is the real-life pet of director and star Bradley Cooper.

4. Dave Chappelle is back!

3. Andrew Dice Clay is so good in a supporting role that you forget he's Andrew Dice Clay.

2. The songs. The songs. The songs.

1. The chemistry between Cooper and Lady Gaga is genuine, intense, and the stuff from which really great films are made.


Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Guest Review)


Three Billboards is a complex film that brings out complex feelings in its audience. Here's one reflection of the film by TFG's daughter, Maddisen, a social justice warrior:

Many leftist reviewers targeted Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, with claims that Officer Dixon’s “redemption arc” represented a problematic humanization of racist officers — a group that many leftists deem undeniably deserving of dehumanization, myself included.

There’s no question that as a whole, government officials and police officers have targeted and continue to target people of color in our country, and as a group deserve to be dehumanized and held accountable for the systemic racism thrusted upon our social operations. But the key theme in this need for accountability can be seen in the words “group,” “systemic,” and “whole.” It is when groups become individuals that I, even as a leftist, will form a separation. As much of a cop hater I am, I still will recognize the need to humanize Willoughby and Dixon.

It was precisely the point of the film and was beautifully presented: human potential.

I am no denier that privileges exist in white men, and I was wary when seeing the film knowing that white men, especially white officers, were given a platform of any kind. But again I point out, it was not these men as officers that were given the spotlight. The spotlight was given to the humanity of the men, the individuality, and the struggle that their own lives held, as people in general. We were given a glimpse into the men’s views of the world; their unique perspectives and what shaped them as racists, be it illness, poverty, lack of education, or years of abuse. What I will not do is justify their racism; what I will do is understand it. I do believe there is a difference — justifying it excuses the behavior, but understanding it gives us a causal factor that leads us to a solution.

That’s exactly what I saw in Three Billboards; their stories gave us an understanding of the men’s convictions, and Dixon’s redemption gave us a glimmer of hope. His struggles and his racism should have never made their way into his career as a police officer; that’s a problem in the way we choose and train our officers, and their philosophy as a group. But individually, it was important to humanize him to give us an understanding. There is hope in understanding; when causes are found, solutions are more attainable.

As for humanizing Dixon, I’m reminded of the short scene that almost felt out of place, though was important for the overall theme of forgiveness. When Red Welby and Jason Dixon are paired as hospital roommates, Welby acts as expected when he realizes it is Dixon under the bandages. But at the end of the scene, Welby pours Dixon a glass of orange juice, pointing the straw in his direction, as a sign of humanity on Welby’s part, and a sign of acknowledging Dixon’s humanity as well.

There are a few prime examples, like the hospital scene, of holding the group accountable instead of the individual: Mildred’s anger is my favorite. In my favorite scene of the film, Mildred is at the police station with Chief Willoughby after drilling a hole into her dentist’s thumb. Mildred is spouting cop-insults, “ex-cop, ex-wife beater – what’s the difference?” But then, Willoughby accidentally coughs up blood onto Mildred’s face. We can see the shock, the worry, and the embarrassment in his eyes as he says to Mildred, “I didn’t mean to. It was an accident.” And Mildred replies, “I know, baby. I’m going to go get someone.”

Mildred sees the humanity in Chief Willoughby in this moment – she separates his evil doings as an officer and moves to tend to his needs as a human being, all while we see the painful humanity in his eyes.

Another obvious example of this is when Mildred burns down the police station. She calls the station three times to make sure nobody is inside. This is because she is attacking the group, the evil cop society, rather than the individuals that make it up.

This is why I love Mildred’s anger in the film, and I believe her anger is the perfect force to drive humans to not only show their potential, but to strive, even if only a little, to achieve it as well.

Mildred’s anger was successful because while she was glaring and obvious in her anger, she knew when to not use it. Mildred’s anger forms the entire purpose of the film, which was to show that anger can coincide with acknowledging someone’s humanity, and thus we are all people, capable of being human.

So as a cop-hating leftist, I will say that we can hate cops justifiably, and simultaneously understand each other’s views of the world. There is room for progress and there is room for growth. And while personal responsibility is not to be neglected, there is some blame to place in our society as a whole for the evil in the world. Sometimes, taking a step back to acknowledge the humanity in people can give us some hope.

Sunday, March 04, 2018

2018 Academy Awards: Shoulda, Coulda, Will Win Edition

The Oscars are upon us! The red carpet is laid, the designer duds form fitted. It's time to get to the nitty-gritty -- who's gonna win. 

Here's The Film Geek's Shoulda, Coulda, Will Win pick-ems for 2018:

Best Picture

Shoulda: "Call Me By Your Name" is beautifully shot and scripted, takes its time to tell a very emotional story, has remarkable acting and great cast chemistry. Contains at least three powerful scenes that move the audience. 

Coulda: "Get Out" is a real long-shot, but people love a long-shot. I'm hedging a bit, because it's not a close-to-perfect flick, but it could surprise us down the stretch.

Will Win: "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Unforgettable individual performances and emotional content told simply. It's an academy member's dream movie. 


Lead Actress

Shoulda: Sally Rodgers, "The Shape of Water." Every moment she is on-screen is a jewel.

Coulda: Saoirse Ronan, "Lady Bird." How does one emote so well using a completely foreign accent? That's some acting. 

Will Win: Frances McDormand,  "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." The Bethany College (WV) and Yale School of Drama graduate is a powerhouse. 


Lead Actor

ShouldaTimothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name." He comes out of the gate fast and stays ahead of the pack through the finish line. A performance of a lifetime.

Coulda: Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” He carried a mediocre film on his back and turned it into something that was OK. 

Will Win: Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour." This is Oldman's finest hour. He's so good, I forgot I wasn't really watching a bio-pic of Churchill. 


Supporting Actress

Shoulda: Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”

Coulda: Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”

Will Win: Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”

The first of only two categories where, I think, the person who should win will win. Janney wins in a battle of emotionally distant mothers.


Supporting Actor

Shoulda: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." His turn at a complicated, destructive deputy with a heart of gold was brilliant. 

Coulda: Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water." Funny, sad, desperate, enlightened -- all in one character!

Will Win: Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." Harrelson is one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood, and he's deserved nominations in many of the films he's starred in. The Academy often likes to reward actors like that with a supporting actor nod. This is his time.

Director

Shoulda: “The Shape of Water,” directed by Guillermo del Toro, is from start to finish a masterpiece. In every respect. Period.

Coulda: “Get Out,” Jordan Peele. The academy loves first time nominees. But not for Best Director.

Will Win: “The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro. See above.

Finally, a shout out to “Heroin(e),” by Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon. This Best Documentary Short Subject nominee was shot in my hometown of Huntington, WV. It's focused on an increasingly bad opioid epidemic, yet illustrates hope. Watch the flick to see real heroes trying to save a city. 

I predict it will win, too. I'm a homer.