Green Book

Kish and I have taken a break from going to the movies — the holidays were hectic, we were on the road, and the standard superhero and shoot-’em-up fare just isn’t very appealing — but we wanted to get back into the habit of identifying thoughtful, interesting films and supporting them with our ticket money.  Yesterday, we went to see Green Book.  It was an excellent vehicle for allowing us to reengage with the movies.

16GREEN-BOOK-articleLargeGreen Book tells the story of a brilliant African-American pianist, Dr. Donald Shirley, who decides to take his musical trio on a tour of the Midwest and then the deep South during the last two months of 1962.  It was a brave decision intended to help spur social change, because in 1962 Jim Crow treatment of African-Americans, and legally enforced segregation, was still very much alive in the South.  Dr. Shirley’s record label decides he should hire a driver to shuttle him from performance to performance and also help him to navigate the racist barriers that he will inevitably encounter.  Dr. Shirley chooses Tony Vallelonga, a bouncer at the Copacabana who is temporarily unemployed while the club is undergoing renovations.  Vallelonga knows how to use his fists and is nicknamed “Lip” because, by his own admission, he’s a consummate bullshitter who can talk his way out of a jam.  The record label then gives Vallelonga the “Green Book” that gives the film its name — a paperback publication for African-Americans that tells them which hotels and establishments in the South will actually welcome them as guests and patrons.

Dr. Shirley and Tony Vallelonga are an odd couple indeed.  One is a virtuouso musician who is highly educated, extremely refined in his tastes, and impressively (and at one point in the film, surprisingly) multi-lingual; the other is a barely literate graduate of the school of hard knocks who has street smarts and a prodigious appetite for hot dogs, fried chicken, and just about everything else in life.  And, Vallelonga is a product of the casual, everyday racism found even in the North at that time.  According to the film, at least — the Shirley family disputes the film’s accuracy on this point — during the tour Dr. Shirley and the Lip overcome their differences and become friends.  Dr. Shirley schools Vallelonga on his diction, helps him to write more meaningful and expressive letters to his wife, and exposes him to music, musical talents, and concepts that Vallelonga had never experienced before.  Vallelonga, in turn, introduces Dr. Shirley to fried chicken and popular music and uses his bullshitting skills and street smarts to support and protect Dr. Shirley as he deals with racist treatment on a daily basis.

The story of the friendship is entertaining — and Mahershala Ali, as Dr. Shirley, and Viggo Mortensen, as Vallelonga, are terrific — but the emotional core of the movie is found in its depiction of the Jim Crow South and the ugliness of its racist, segregated, hateful ways and of the people who stubbornly refuse to change.  Whether it is the overtly racist small-town deputy enforcing a “whites only after dark” law, or a rich owner of a lavish house who won’t let Dr. Shirley use the bathroom in his home, or the country club manager who refuses to allow Dr. Shirley to eat in the dining room and pleads with him to “be reasonable,” the onslaught of racist ugliness is constant, jarring, and deeply appalling.

Green Book is a powerful film that will leave you embarrassed, sick to your stomach, and shaking your head about a terrible chapter in American history.  It’s well worth seeing.

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Bohemian Rhapsody

Yesterday Kish and I went to screen Bohemian Rhapsody, which tells the story of Freddie Mercury and Queen.  Biopics about rock stars have become something of a genre unto themselves these days — according to the previews yesterday, there’s another one coming out soon about Elton John, by the way — and Bohemian Rhapsody is a worthy addition to the playlist.

BOHEMIAN RHAPSODYThe film begins as Mercury and Queen prepare to perform at the Live Aid concert, then takes us back to the group’s earliest roots.  We meet Farrokh Bulsara, a buck-toothed baggage handler at a British airport who dreams of doing something bigger.  He finds a struggling band called Smile playing in pubs, and when the group loses its lead singer, Queen’s journey begins and Farrokh becomes Freddie Mercury.  The film traces the artistic arc of the group, which became one of the most inventive, boundary-breaking bands of the ’70s — as the song that gives the film its name attests — and the band steadily moves from playing small towns to filling some of the largest stadiums in the world, with the flamboyant Mercury leading the way.

As the band’s story is told we get glimpses into Freddie Mercury’s personal life, from his frosty relationship with his Indian parents and their Zoroastrian faith, to his long-term bond with a woman he called the love of his life, to his embrace of his gay lifestyle and ultimately to his discovery that he had AIDS at a time when that diagnosis was viewed as a death sentence.  And, as always seems to be the case with rock star biopics, enormous success and fame have their price, and we see Mercury dealing with drugs and alcohol, leaving the band that was like a family to him, and supporting the creeps and hangers-on who always seem to find a way to latch on to the successful creative minds and sap them of their unique energy.  But Mercury breaks the downward spiral, sheds the leeches, and reunites with the group just in time for a triumphant performance at the Live Aid concert.

Bohemian Rhapsody has been criticized for glossing over some aspects of Mercury’s life, especially his sexuality, but the film is telling a wide-ranging story that simply doesn’t allow it to delve deeply into every relationship — whether it be Mercury’s relationships with fellow bandmates or his relationships with his lovers.  The result is a film that increased my appreciation of Queen and the dazzling personality who was one of its principal creative forces.  And Rami Malek is himself brilliant as the brilliant Freddie Mercury.

Why are there so many rock star biopics?  I think it’s because the music world is home to a lot of very interesting stories that are well worth telling.  The story of Freddie Mercury and Queen is one of those stories, and Bohemian Rhapsody tells it well.

First Man

Last night we went to see First Man at the Gateway Film Center. The movie tells the story of Neil Armstrong, from his days as a test pilot flying the X-15 over the California high desert to his work as a NASA astronaut and, ultimately, to his step onto the Moon that indelibly wrote his name into the history books.

It’s a riveting tale, and the movie leaves a powerful impression as it follows two narrative threads — the arc of the lunar space program and the equally compelling story of the impact on families. The film presents the life of the astronauts with intense realism, as they wedge themselves into cramped spaces atop enormous rockets, are routinely shaken to bits even in a successful launch, and have to deal with technical malfunctions that, in Armstrong’s case, left him in a Gemini capsule spinning out of control above the Earth and on the verge of passing out before he discovered a fix. Tragedy and death are an accepted part of the job, and above it all is the sense that the astronauts were playing a key role in an essential national mission. You can’t watch the film without acquiring a new appreciation for the brave and resolute men who were part of the astronaut program.

But the home front tale is just as powerful. There, too, untimely death has a huge impact, and families struggle as husbands and fathers become increasingly absorbed in the mission and are frequently away. The wives shoulder the burden of keeping their families together and moving forward, listening worriedly to the mission control feeds in their suburban homes as TV crews and photographers and reporters jostle on the front lawns, and living with the oppressive reality that, at any moment, their husbands might be killed and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The grit and fortitude of wives and mothers were just as crucial to the success of the mission as the courage of the astronauts.

Ryan Gosling is terrific as Neil Armstrong, the buttoned-up and buttoned-down engineer who immerses himself in the mission and strives to keep his emotions in check, and Claire Foy is equally terrific as Janet Armstrong, the pillar of the family who holds it all together. The film is beautifully photographed and the sense of realism is total — from the buttons and switches and configuration of the spacecrafts to the shuddering rocket launches to the desolate lunar surface . . . and to the cans of Budweiser, the TV sets with rabbit ears, and the clothing that were part and parcel of suburban life in the ’60s.

First Man is the best film I’ve seen in a long time; I give it five stars. And as we left the theatre I was struck by the thought that once, this country could come together to try to do great things — and then actually accomplish the mission. I wish we could capture more of that spirit these days.

Searching For Planet X

Astronomers want to know what’s out there beyond the orbit of Pluto, the tiny world that once was deemed a full-fledged planet but now is classified with the non-PC designation of a “dwarf planet.”  Specifically, they want to know whether, far past Pluto’s orbit, the gigantic and provocatively named “Planet X” lurks in the dark interstellar void.  And now they are beginning to find evidence that suggests that Planet X may actually exist.

181002095442-01-planet-x-super-teaseIn 2015, researchers at Caltech concluded that there was mathematical evidence that there was a “Planet X” that followed a long, elongated orbit at the far outer reaches of the solar system.  The Caltech team used data about the unique orbits of certain objects in the solar system, applied advanced equations and computer simulations, and hypothesized that the orbits were being affected by the gravity of a large planet with a mass about 10 times the mass of Earth that followed an orbit about 20 times farther from the Sun than Neptune.  The hypothetical planet was called “Planet X,” or “Planet 9.”  (Either planet name, in my view, would fit well in the title of a ’50s sci-fi thriller beginning with The Creature From . . . .)  The hypothetical planet won’t get an official name, by the way, until it is actually discovered and its existence is confirmed.

So far, there is no visual evidence that Planet X exists.  This week, however, astronomers from the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center announced that they have verified the existence of a 200-mile wide rock orbiting billions of miles beyond the orbit of Pluto.  They found the object using telescopes in Hawaii, Chile, and Arizona, and the existence of the object is consistent with the Planet X theory.  In fact, one of the astronomers said:  “These distant objects are like bread crumbs leading us to Planet X.”

The Bread Crumbs Leading To Planet X wouldn’t be a bad name for a sci-fi thriller, either.  Either way, it’s good to know that scientists are out there looking for evidence of whether we should add a long-lost, distant cousin to our solar system family.

BlacKkKlansman

Yesterday Kish and I went to the Drexel to screen BlacKkKlansman, the new film by Spike Lee that has been getting some Oscar buzz.  It’s a powerful, jarring film that is well worth seeing.

blackkklansman-0BlacKkKlansman tells the story of Ron Stallworth, the first African-American police officer in Colorado Springs played by John David Washington.  In the early ’70s, Stallworth becomes an undercover officer who — first via telephone, and later through a white surrogate played by Adam Driver — successfully infiltrates the local chapter of the KKK.  He even establishes a telephone relationship with David Duke, the national Grand Wizard of the Klan.  At the same time, Stallworth is dealing with outright and implicit racism in his own police department, and trying to establish a relationship with the head of the local Black Student Union, who is the target of attention from the racists in the Klan.  Ultimately the local KKK decides to act at the same time Duke comes to town for a membership initiation, and the investigation turns to a race to try to prevent the Klan’s terrorism.

Washington and Driver are terrific, but this is one of those movies where it seems like every actor is at the top of his or her game.  The film very convincingly conveys the danger of the undercover operation and the simmering menace of some of the Klan members, who like to carry guns and drink and voice their bigotry and hatred and radiate rage and hostility.  It’s not a movie for the faint of heart, and the scenes depicting outright racism are especially hard to watch.  And lest we think this is an issue that has been buried in the distant past, the end of the film presents footage of a 2017 march of “white supremacists” in Charlottesville, Virginia, during which a lunatic drove a car into a crowd protesting the “white supremacist” march, killing one of the protesters.  The footage is stomach-churning, and leaves the audience with a lot to think about as it quietly files out of the theater.

Kish and I haven’t been to the movies in a while, because it’s hard to find an interesting film among all the superhero schlock and remakes.  BlacKkKlansman shows what film can accomplish if it’s willing to tackle hard issues and deserves every bit of the Oscar buzz it has been getting.

Burt’s Best

I was sorry to read of Burt Reynolds’ passing today.  He was a huge Hollywood star in his heyday, but he never seemed to take himself, or his acting ability, too seriously — which is an all-too-rare quality in the film and television industry these days.

longest-yeard-470x350Reynolds’ death has caused some people to debate what was his best movie.  I think Deliverance is great — and Dueling Banjos clearly was the single best song — but for my money the original version of The Longest Yard can’t be beat.  It came out when I was in high school, and it combined everything that would appeal to an adolescent boy — sophomoric humor and pranks, football and football players, a ridiculously implausible plot, crotch hits to bad guys, and the use of Burt Reynolds’ overwhelming sex appeal to convince the warden’s pasty-faced, beehived secretary (played wonderfully by Bernadette Peters in one of her first big roles) to part with some much-needed game film.  In fact, you can argue that no single movie is more calculated to appeal to teenage males.  And watching it, even now, remains a guilty pleasure.

RIP, Burt Reynolds, aka Paul Crewe.  Adolescent boys of the ’70s salute you.

The Significance Of Sound

Doug Grindstaff died late last month, at age 87.  It’s a loss for anyone who has enjoyed the Star Trek universe.

Who’s Doug Grindstaff, you say?  He’s the guy who came up with all of those nifty sound effects on the original Star Trek — the beeps and bloops and whooshes that made the show a feast for the ears.  The sssshhh sound when the doors from the turbolift to the bridge opened.  The blurbling bleeps that were emitted when a communicator was opened.  The puffing air that we heard when Dr. McCoy injected someone with some advanced medicine.  And the kind of crackling, whirring humming that the transporter made when Scotty beamed the away team down to the surface of a new planet, where one of the anonymous red-shirted security guys was bound to meet his maker.

We forget about how important sound can be to TV shows and movies.  But take a look at this snip from the beginning of the epic Star Trek “City on the Edge of Forever” episode — and then think about what it would have been like without all of those classic, memorable, and entirely fitting sound effects.  It’s hard to imagine Star Trek without those sounds.  We can thank Doug Grindstaff’s special form of genius and creativity for that.