Get Out (directed by Jordan Peele) 2017

With Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams, Catherine Keener.

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The story is simple.  Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), a talented young photographer, is invited by Rose (Allison Williams), his girlfriend, to meet her parents for the first time.  He is black and she is white, and the parents don’t know that, because Rose says it doesn’t matter.  “If my father could have voted for Obama for the third time, he would have.” So much for the bona fides of not being racist.

But when they arrive at the nameless suburb, we remember the opening scene when a hapless young black man in search of a house in an unnamed suburb is kidnapped by a man in a black helmet who appears from an ominous white sports car.  The set up is scary, and the music adds to the feeling of creepiness, beginning with a lyric whose refrain is “run rabbit run.”  Throughout the movie there are references to hunter and prey.  Animals sometime stand in as black surrogates, beginning with  a suddenly violent accident with a deer on the road which sets everyone’s teeth on edge.  We are in horror movie country here.  Is the deer real? Will it rise up and strike its killers?

As the weekend goes on, more signs indicate that the young man is not safe.  The movie explores a paranoid nightmare of a black man who cannot trust white people, and even less, the black folk who work on the estate and seem to have suffered some kind of brain damage.

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We kept some of Grandma

I loved the humor in the movie.  At one point, Chris’ friend Rod (LilRel Howery), who suspects that things aren’t right when Chris doesn’t return on time, goes to the police to report a missing person. While there, he gives his theory of what the white folks are doing to the black men in that neck of the woods.  What the on duty officer does with the information is funny. It also shows how important it is to have one good friend.  Rod is a member of the TSA and knows his way around an investigation.

The photography captures each scene with its alternating twistedness and fear, the acting is dead on, and the music by Michael Abels sets the mood perfectly.  This movie’s brilliance lies in how it lands its points in two different genres: as a horror movie and a social satire.

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Catherine Keener plays a psychohypnotist

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Beauty and the Beast (dir. Condon) 2017.

With Emma  Watson and Dan Stevens.

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Written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos.  Music and lyrics by HOward Ashman and Alan Menken.

With Emma Watson,  Dan Stevens, and Kevin Kline.

The remake of Disney’s animated film has many things going for it.  The fairy tale of the redemptive power of love and compassion features a feminist heroine.    The musical score has aged very well.  Cast members Emma Watson, Kevin Kline and company perform beautifully.

Disney is Disney is Disney.  You can’t get away from the extra flourishes on the gown, the cutifying of the candlestick and arms holding up the candelabra.  How can you outdo the original re-imagining of the enchanted castle by Cocteau?

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Scene from Cocteau’s La Belle et La Bete featuring human arms holding candelabra

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is also hard not to compare the live action film with the animated one released in 1991, which the 2017 version seems to want to recreate with special effects.

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There are visual references to the Morgan Library when Belle comes upon her dream library, complete with balcony stacks and ornate marble flooring that has a circular pattern in the center.  My ear heard “Don’t go into the west wing!” come straight from the Hitchcock drama, Rebecca.  And who would not recognize the mountain top scene in the Sound of Music as Belle finally feels free from her provincial life?

Gaston (Luke Evans) has the appropriate mean streak.  He and his side kick, LeFou (Josh Gad) sing it loud and proud what louts these provincial men just returned from war are.   The streak of homoeroticism is welcome along with the witty narcissism.  How to tell the story of the redemptive power of love without making it too mushy is made easier because Belle is a heroine of the first order. Her father admonishes her to be fearless and so she is.

Maurice (Kevin Kline) and Belle’s (Emma Watson)  scenes together really click,  convincing you of their tight bond.   Maurice seems to be a tinkerer creating a beautiful contraption made from mysterious gears and precious metals.

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Some of the scenes seem needlessly busy with choreography more suitable for Gladiator, with its digitally enhanced cast of thousands.  Bill Condon likes musicals with great pizzazz, so he has dressed up the set making me long for the neatness of the animated movie which actually seemed to have given the filmmakers more freedom.  How tiresome is Dan Stevens’ opening scenes with the over-costumed ladies and gentlemen dancing.  When he is transformed into a beast, I felt sorry for whoever was having to wear that gigantic costume.  Stevens’ voice is altered as if he is in a witness relocation program.

Auto tune just about ruins the song about Gaston, or is it the sound design that drowns out the human voice with amplified orchestral bombast?  In fact, I would guess that all of the songs are autotuned.  Why would you need to autotune Audra MacDonald’s voice?  Richard Condon has an over the top style of directing that takes a perfectly good premise and overdoes.  Is he afraid that we won’t get it that Gaston is a narcissistic bully?  This overdoing every flourish feels like the director does not trust the intelligence of his audience, and slightly annoys me.  It is the equivalent of a great chocolate cake with too much frosting.

Still those scenes with Kline and Watson are worth seeing, and the star of the show for me is someone I had not known of before, Hattie Morahan. Morahan plays several crucial roles including the witch who appears at the opening scene and puts all of the wheels of the plot into motion.

 

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I Am Not Your Negro (directed by Raoul Peck). 2016.

With voiceover by Samuel L. Jackson.

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The movie opens with an interview on the Dick Cavett show in 1968 which was a period in American television that Johnny Carson, talk show host of the Tonight Show, reigned supreme.  Dick Cavett took on Johnny Carson as an alternative talk show host, and interviewed a slightly more intellectual set of guests.  It is in this context that Baldwin appears on his show.   James Baldwin speaks, in full command of his language, his ideas, his persona as he describes the condition of black men in America. Besides the Cavett show interviews, there are other conversations and a chilling debate at Cambridge University where he receives a standing ovation– every member of the audience white, educated, privileged, moved by his rhetorical skill and fervor.

Raoul Peck uses the idea of Baldwin’s last would be book, a memoir about his relationship with three great black leaders brought down by assassination– Medgar Evers, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King.  The film shows a brief summary of each man’s significance to the civil rights movement.  These scenes are stitched together with more contemporary scenes, from Ferguson, genesis of the Black Lives Matter movement, and seamlessly segue from the assassination of three major leaders of the movement in the 1960s to the continuing slaughter of young black men in the present.

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The Cavett interview took place in the mid 1960s, sometime between Evers’ and Malcolm’s murders.  I felt the sorrow and tasted the outrage of an intelligent writer, witness to so much death at the hands of bigots.  We watch them full of hatred as they spit on a young black girl attempting to go to school.  There are also images of lynched black men, and scenes of the police beating men senseless, including the sickening footage in Los Angeles of Rodney King which launched riots in Los Angeles in 1991 that resulted in dozens of deaths.  

Baldwin explains why he left the United States in 1948; he wanted to live free in Paris and be safe from the vicious eyes of whites who live separate from blacks and don’t understand them at all.When he returns during the Civil Rights movement to pay his dues, his voice has a clarity and urgency touched with literary brilliance. Here is a man who loved words and used them perfectly to decry the inglorious history of the Untied States, which has no place for blacks.  

Movie clips demonstrate this.  I had never seen Joan Crawford dance in that movie from the early 1930s (Dancing Lady), or the murder mystery where a terrified janitor is wrongly accused of murder.  I was familiar with Stepin Fetchit, and John Wayne’s relentless pursuit of Indians in  John Ford movies, movies where the Indians might easily stand in for the black race. We watch clips of Sidney Poitier, Doris Day, Ray Charles.  Baldwin elaborates the contrast between the white vision of purity and happiness, and their notion of black beasts prowling on their white women.  

Watching I Am Not Your Negro made me wonder if our nation can make any progress in race relations until there is a commission like the Truth and Reconciliation commission in South Africa that reckoned with the sordid history of apartheid.  It is important that we acknowledge the racism upon which our country is founded.  In the wake of recent killings– Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, it feels as if everything Baldwin is saying on the Dick Cavett show in 1965 still holds true today, more than 50 years later.   He takes pains to say that he is not a Christian, or a Muslim, or a member of the NAACP.  He is a witness to the ugly hatred that has killed so many, and continues to kill.  Peck’s movie made me feel the sorrow of Baldwin afresh today. 

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Hidden Figures

with Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner.

hidden-figures-posterA trio of brilliant black women work on the space program at Langley in Virginia in 1961.  Obstacles abound:  sexism, racism, a few hundred white men stupider than you standing in your way.

The story begins in 1961 when the cold war demanded that NASA defeat the Russians in the space race.  Mathematicians sit in bullpens  cranking out the figures that will result in successful launch and landing ond ultimately an orbit around the earth.

Jim Parsons reprieves his role as a geek, Jim Stafford, one of the mathematicians working under an autocratic supervisor, Al Harrison (Kevin Costner).  But the movie is a tribute to the three women who prevailed over an unjust system that would deny them entry in the halls of power there they belonged– solving the math problems and science of engineering space flight.

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Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) is the star, working in Harrison’s office for manned space flight, trying out her formulas for the trajectory of the space capsule on the huge blackboard.

Octavia Spencer who plays Dorothy Vaughan works her magic.  Vaughan knows that  human computers will be replaced by machines, and learns FORTRAN on her own so that she can program them.  “Atta girl” she hums as she gets the behemoth machine to run for the first time.  White men had been floundering for days to do what she did in a minute.

Maybe we are all hungry for uplift but I found the happy ending just what I needed on the day after President Trump fired his Attorney General for trying to enforce the constitution.  It is more than heartening to see women overcome sexism and racism not through through the assistance of other more privileged white men, though John Glen gave them a boost.  It was through their great intelligence.

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Katherine Johnson at her desk 

 

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Leonard Cohen

This movie, made in 1972, during a 20 city tour, explores the fatigue, the technical snafus, the distractions, the allure, and the insanity that accompanies a bunch of musicians who must please a different audience every night one night after another in a rigorous schedule sort of like a campaign of battles fought by soldiers.  What if your mission is not made clear?  Or if the guns fail to fire?

And after a while, if the customers demand a refund because the equipment keeps backfiring and sending out reverb and static and screeching noises instead of music.

As a person, Cohen sails through the rocky shoals that a sexy musician like him must. Many women have crushes on him.   Women who back him up on vocals seem to have more than a professional relationship with him.  The camera crew itself dogs him on tour, and keeps insisting on extreme close ups of his face, and blacking out any detail that might help us understand why he is  going through mental anguish.

But then there are the brilliant songs, and his singing of them.newcastleThere is the inner peace and mystical aura of the man.  Cohen’s attractiveness draws crowds who hunger for more of him than he can provide. You understand the conflict. An artist of the first order is introspective, but is expected to singing songs to huge crowds night after night.

When I think of Bob Dylan, his contemporary, who wrote and still writes equally compelling songs, and how Dylan is on the Endless Tour, I cannot think of two artists more dissimilar.  Dylan thrives on performing.

The story of Cohen and his need to tour at the end of his life after being bamboozled by his business manager is well known.  But by then, in the years just before he died last year, he was able to present the songs without  giving up his soul.  In his thirties, when this movie was made, it is not so clear.

I only wish the filmmaker provided more information.  For instance, who was the footage of small children, and families of?  Why was the blonde woman shown so significantly?  Was it so hard to identify these people?   The impression I got from the film was that the filmmaker or his heirs were cashing in on Cohen’s recent death and pulled this relic out of storage.  They might have done a tiny bit of editing but just showed it with all of its flaws.  Still, I never tire of hearing him sign those great songs.

 

 

 

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Manchester by the Sea (Dir. K. Lonergan). 2016.

with Casey Affleck, Michele Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges.

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“I just can’t beat it” admits Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), a downcast man who had suffered inconsolable loss already when his brother dies and leaves him in charge of his nephew , 16 year old Patrick (Lucas Hedges) .

Patrick lives in Manchester by the Sea where he assumed his father’s boat business would slip into his hands one day, just as easily as he juggles several girlfriends at once.  However, the Chandler temper sometimes gets the better of him, and like his uncle Lee, he can suddenly turn violent, as it does in a fracas on the ice during hockey practice.

The movie unfolds gracefully with a series of vignettes that frame Lee’s life as a handyman in a multiple dwelling where he deals with the usual plumbing mistakes, wiring malfunctions and other things that can make tenants cross and defensive.  We learn about Lee’s previous happier days with his wife and three children and as we travel back and forth in time, the relationship with his brother John and his nephew Patrick becomes clear.

Lonergan’s brilliance comes in flashes of dialogue between siblings who take responsibility for each other even when they’d rather not.  He has a dark palate brightened by flashes of humor. There is a comic scene where the director appears as a buttinsky questioning Lee’s parenting style when he argues with his nephew on the street.  Lee grows into his role as a protector and guardian of Patrick.  Patrick resists, yields, and is ultimately swayed to the similarity between this man and his father who has just died.

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Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges

Lucas Hedges as Patrick is superb, as are all the supporting cast especially Michelle Williams. Her key scene leads the path to redemption for Lee.  There are also beautifully structured scenes with Matthew Broderick as an Evangelical Christian recently hooked up with Patrick’s recovered mother.  And the band rehearsals with Patrick and his fellow musicians reflect the ugly power plays of teens.

If I have one complaint about the movie, it is that the music overwhelms at times as if grandly underlining the sorrow of certain scenes.

But overall, Lonergan has pulled off another beautifully written, well directed, and expertly acted movie, joining his other excellent movies, You Can Count on Me and Margaret.

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20th Century Women (directed by Mike Mills, 2016).

with Annette Bening, Billy Crudup, Greta Gerwig, Elle Fanning, Lucas Jade Zumann.

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Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) grows up with his mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) in the late 1970s in Santa Barbara California. Dorothea decides that she alone can’t provide everything it takes for her fifteen year old son to grow up into an honorable strong man.  So she enlists other people to help her.  She does not search far.  She simply asks those boarders who pay her rent to give her an assist.

These include Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a twenty something photographer suffering from cervical cancer, William (Billy Crudup), a handyman in the midst of upgrading the magnificent piece of architecture they all live in, and Julie (Elle Fanning), a teenage girl who sneaks in at night to sleep with the young boy who she considers her closest friend.

There is rhapsodic photography of Jamie skateboarding around the curved roads of the California coast towns near Santa Barbara.  Elle Fanning, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup do more than the heavy lifting required of the screenplay.  They carry the movie.  I am not sure that I swallow Annette Bening’s performance.  It is not all her fault.  There is something off putting about her performance, or even of the part.   It seems she took a master class in smoking cigarettes, as if that were the key to acting her role.   In fact there is a class on smoking Julie gives to Jamie who flunks it.  Julie should have taught Dorothea instead.

The narration by the boy looking back thirty years is at first charming, but increasingly intrusive, and then repetitive and annoying.  There is a stop and start rhythm to the editing that doesn’t carry the day.  But when the movie is at its best, it demonstrates the differences in generations beautifully.  Watching Gerwig fling herself about as she dances to punk music is a beautiful thing.  And Lucas Zumann is terrific as Jamie.

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Each day he takes down the stock prices of his mother’s portfolio.  Strangely, this becomes one of the most lovely affectionate things about the film.

 

 

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