between the world and me

The Atlantic magazine columnist Ta Nehesi Coates writes a heartfelt and urgent letter to his son, Samori about the state of race in post-Civil Rights America.  Coates talks about his own journey, from the streets of Baltimore, to the Mecca of African American learning, Howard University, to marriage and fatherhood, which makes the wish to protect his son from harm even more urgent.

I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but I have to be honest, (why else would I have a blog if I can’t be honest?)  I did not like this book at all.  Coates conveys the feelings of growing up African American very well.  He conveys the fear that he has for his son, who also has to grow up black in a society that in Coates’ estimation doesn’t care for black people.  But Coates view is too narrow, by focusing like a laser beam on police shootings of black men, he negates all the progress that black people have made in this country.  He is good at stating a problem, a pernicious problem, that affects all minorities disproportionately, but he is short on answers.  The real answer is that there may not be an easy answer to police shootings of minorities in America.  If we as a society are willing to place the power of life and death in the hands of a few, some of those few might abuse that power.  But Coates is guilty of political and social myopia, he only sees the one problem, and doesn’t address the larger systemic issues that result in the problem.

He dismisses the power of faith, Coates is an atheist, he dismisses Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, he dismisses Malcolm X and Black Nationalism, because he found it too violent.  He descends into intellectualism, as if there is a way to quantify hate, but that seems to be a dead end too. Coates does seem to prefer a certain solution, but that too is frustrating to me.  It seems like he’s given up on America, and I think it’s a little late for anyone to give up on America, we’re all stuck here, with people we don’t like, facing circumstances we don’t like.  I would have preferred if Coates had focused on why we are still so segregated as a country, fifty years after the end of de jure segregation. If we live in the same neighborhoods, and go to the same school, and pray in the same churches, (assuming you’re religious) it’s hard to hate a person if you see an assortment of nationalities, races and genders every day.  How do we get there?  There’s the rub, but we have to keep trying.  This book, as powerfully as it lays out a serious problem is a book for nihilists, and I’m not a nihilist. There have to be ways to de-escalate there confrontations, here are a few suggestions, police should live in the communities they police, community policing, police should walk a beat get to know the people in the neighborhood, civilian complaint review boards, body cams, dash cams. None of this might work.  But it’s incumbent on cities and towns who pay civil awards to victims of police violence to find a solution, or they will go broke. Coates doesn’t offer solutions, save one, and that is not feasible to most people.

But who am I to pan this book?  People like Maya Angelou have said that Coates is the next James Baldwin, and she certainly knows more about the African American experience than I do.  I still have hope that we can rise above most of our problems as a country.  Sometimes progress may actually be one step forward two steps back, but that doesn’t mean that progress stops.

Coates doesn’t sugarcoat the problem.

the founder

In the 1950’s, Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) was a salesman for a milkshake mixer called the Multi-Mix.  He was not very successful at it either.  He was trying to sell mixers near his home in Illinois, while drinking heavily and reading the Power of Positive Thinking. Despite his best efforts to stay positive, his business is struggling. Kroc’s downward spiral ends abruptly one day when he receives an order for six Multi-Mixers from a hamburger stand in San Bernardino California.  He decides to drive all the way to California  on Route 66, and there he finds Mac McDonald (John Carroll Lynch) and Dick McDonald.(Nick Offerman)  The McDonald brothers have laid out their restaurant based on a floor plan that emphasizes speed and efficiency.  Kroc eats the burger and he’s sold, he sees the floor plan and hears about the ups and downs of all of the McDonald’s business ventures. Kroc takes in the presentation, and after some discouraging words from his wife, Ethel, (Laura Dern) Kroc tries to go back to selling milk shake mixers, but he can’t get McDonald’s out of his mind, so he goes back to the McDonald brothers with a proposal.  He wants to franchise the brothers’ burger stand.  What do Mac and Dick say?

The Founder is unflinching in its portrayal of Ray Kroc.  He is a ruthless, unscrupulous, unethical businessman.  He’s a schemer, whose many get-rich quick schemes have failed in the past.  He sees a golden opportunity and he’s not going to let it pass.  And business is not the only aspect of his life where he has a winner take all attitude.  The McDonald brothers are portrayed as naïve yokels, who fell off the turnip truck. How much of either is true is only known by the principals in the story, but it makes for a fascinating story.

The acting was mainly carried by Michael Keaton, he didn’t try to humanize Kroc at all, he just portrayed him as a tough, driven, SOB, who would run over people to get what he wanted.  It was a tough role, and Keaton didn’t even try to be likeable in it.  Despite the single note performance, it’s a good comeback for Keaton. John Carroll Lynch was excellent as Mac McDonald, he made Mac seem honest likeable, and even sympathetic.  Nick Offerman was also good as Dick McDonald, he played Dick as a tough but fair businessman, who only wanted to serve a decent burger. Even though Offerman played Dick as a by the book businessman, the viewer also feels sympathetic toward him.   Laura Dern was dull as Kroc’s wife Ethel, the most she ever did was glower at Keaton, and that’s all.

The direction was ok, the pacing was kind of slow, but the cinematography was fantastic, there are shots of an early McDonald’s lit up with neon and it looks gorgeous, so inviting to go into and eat.  He got some good performances, from Keaton, Offerman and Lynch but surprisingly, it was the visuals that made it fun to watch as well as informative.

The Founder:  Keaton doesn’t clown around as Kroc.



In the year 2029, the mutant population has shrunken dramatically, and Logan (Hugh Jackman) is finding life difficult now that the X-men have disbanded.  He is working as a chauffeur, and medicating himself by drinking quite a bit.  He realizes after fending off an attack from a group of youths trying to steal his car, that his ability to heal is vastly depleted.  Logan tries to maintain his loyalty to Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) by taking care of him in his older years.  Xavier is suffering from either Alzheimer’s disease or ALS, and if these diseases are not treated with medication, Xavier’s powers go haywire.  Logan is aided by Caliban, (Stephen Merchant) as the three learn to deal with the fragilities of aging bodies.

Adding to the chaos that’s become Logan’s everyday life, a woman named Gabriella (Elizabeth Rodriguez) is desperate for Logan to help her.  She is a nurse and she is taking care of a pre-teen girl named Laura.(Daphne Keen)  There is a story that Gabriella adamently wants to tell Logan, what is the story?  Who is Gabriella?  Who is Laura?  Why do they need Logan’s help?  Does Logan help them?

Logan is a very interesting story about men who used to have superhuman abilities who is now learning to cope with his mortality.  It’s also part Western (with a telling reference to the movie Shane) part odd mutant nuclear family story, and part road trip, its settings seem like they are post-apocalyptic, and they may be for mutants, but the roads are mostly empty in the small rural towns where the film is focused.  That seems purposeful.   It is far from the traditional superhero movie where the heroes team up to stop some catastrophe, instead it’s a very personal story about being mortal, after living as an immoral.  It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s touching, nothing anyone would expect from a superhero film, but all qualities that abound in this film.  All the more reason to watch it.

The acting in Logan is superb.  Hugh Jackman is an amazing actor who knows this character so intimately, that he knows how to play him in every circumstance, and in this circumstance the role requires different emotions for Jackman to draw upon, and he does so successfully.  I can’t imagine anyone else playing Logan or Wolverine.  I know it will happen, eventually  but I won’t like it. Patrick Stewart also gave a standout performance.  He is no longer the cool, calm, collected mentor of the X-Men he is a man on the verge of losing his mental faculties and watching his powers spiral out of control. Stewart conveys the desperation of that situation well, but manages to maintain the character’s dignity, humor and compassion. Daphne Keen is ok as Laura, but she us silent for much of the movie, then screams for more, she is just not given much to do.

The direction is very effective in conveying that this is not one of those epic end of the world movies. James Mangold wrote and directed this movie, as well as the previous movie Wolverine, so he knows this territory.  He also  directed  3:10 to Yuma so he knows how to direct a Western too. The scenes in the rural countryside give a sense that this is a modern day Western, and also a quieter movie devoid  of the massive amounts of special effects that are so prevalent in movies like this.  This is a long movie because there is a lot of exposition and there needs to be because there are a lot of pieces to put together, but when the pieces come together, it is a very satisfying film.  He gets good performances from the leads, and the ending is satisfying as well.

Logan:  The claws that refresh.

Queen of Katwe

Phiona Mutesi (Madina Nalwanga) is a young girl growing up in a poor village called Katwe in Uganda, selling maize in Uganda to help feed her mother and siblings.  One day Phiona follows her younger brother to a run-down building.  She wants to make sure he stays out of trouble.  What the kids are actually doing in that building is playing chess.  The kids in the building make fun of Phiona because she is poor and does not smell good, but the man running the program, Robert Katande, (David Oyelowo) invites Phiona in and gives her a cup of warm milk.  Phiona takes to chess almost immediately,  and beats the champ of their small group, which inspires Robert to plan for her to compete in an expensive private school competition.  One problem, Phiona’s mother, Nakku Harriet (Lupita Nyong’o) is suspicious of Robert’s intentions, and threatens to keep Phiona away from Robert’s chess school, and the private school’s headmaster wants Phiona or her mom to pay the exorbitant entry fee for the tournament. Does her mother let her go to Robert Katande’s chess school?  Who pays the tournament fee?

I love chess, so I may be biased, but this is a great film.  It shows the seemingly endless possibilities that can open from a young girl’s exposure to chess.  Phiona’s journey is not sugarcoated in the least, she faces a lot of problems, her mother faces a lot of problems raising a large family alone.  Despite all that, Phiona has hope and that hope is provided by Robert Katande and by chess.  Hope imbues this film with a warmth that is very gratifying. One of the things that I hope to achieve with this blog is to make people want to see movies that they may not want to see.  This is a film that you may not have wanted to see, or may not even know about, but you should see it.  You will not be sorry.

The acting is superb.  Hollywood played a mean trick on Lupita Nyong’o, at 34 she’s playing a mother of 5, and several of her kids look like they’re in their late teens.  Lupita pulls of the role with grit and honesty, sometimes angry, sometimes achingly heartbroken.  I didn’t even know it was her until halfway through the film, that it was her she looked older and acted like an authority figure, so she really made me believe in the character, what better compliment can I give her?  Credit her also for taking difficult roles and downplaying her beauty.  In 12 Years A Slave she was abused mercilessly, in Star Wars VII, she was under tons of prosthetic makeup, and in this movie she is nearly unrecognizable. David Oyelowo is also outstanding as Robert Katande, he gives Robert Katende a genuine sense of honor, dignity and self-sacrifice.  He was also outstanding as Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. Madina Nalwanga is also incredible as Phiona, this is her debut role, to show such poise and confidence, and then unleash emotion at the drop of a hat, is incredible.

Mira Nair, the director of this film, deserves a lot of credit for the way this story was told, her pacing in prior movies is horrendously slow, but she keeps the pace going at a good pace here.  Nair also lives in Uganda, so a lot of this film was shot in Uganda and other parts of Africa, so that gives the movie an authentic look and feel .  She gets great performances from everyone in the film, many of whom are kids which can be difficult.  David Oyelowo is Nigerian ethnically Nyongo is Nigerian ethnically, and Madina Nalwanga is from Uganda, so Nair deserves a lot of credit for casting the movie authentically.

The Queen of Katwe:  A Good Knight At the Movies.

miss sloane

Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a lobbyist.  She has engaged in some pretty morally reprehensible things, but she supports her causes unquestioningly. But when her boss, George Dupont, (Sam Waterston) asks her to support a campaign to make women more ardent gun rights supporters, she refuses to work on the campaign and moreover quits the lobbying firm and joins the Brady Campaign, a  gun control organization.  Elizabeth takes along five co-workers, she wants to take a sixth co-worker, but her protégé, Jane Malloy (Allison Pill) stays behind.

Undaunted, Elizabeth joins the Brady campaign, and befriends Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) a fervent believer in gun control who confides her reasons to Elizabeth, but wants to keep her reasons private.  Elizabeth wastes no time in raising money for her new found cause, from wealthy donors like Evelyn Sumner (Christine Baranski) and she gets to work flipping Senators’ votes, 60 is the magic number to withstand a filibuster.  But her slash and burn tactics, and her reckless proclivities anger her political enemies and endanger her friends.  Finally, in a desperate attempt to stop her momentum she is called in front of the Senate Ethics Committee to testify by Senator Ronald Sperling. (John Lithgow)  What comes out at the hearing? Does the bill Elizabeth is championing pass the Senate?

Miss Sloane tries very hard to be a sophisticated version of Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.  But it really is a sad day in America when a lobbyist is a protagonist in a political drama.  Mr. Smith was a political neophyte and a complete innocent, and that was part of the charm of that movie.  This movie has no charm, it portrays cynical move after another.  And it’s not very realistic, either. If flipping votes in the Senate was as simple as pulling a few political stunts, than fighting the NRA would be easy.  It is not, If Newtown Connecticut can happen and the Congress can’t pass background checks, then nothing will ever defeat the NRA.  So this is just Hollywood wish fulfillment, if Congress can’t pass the real thing, Hollywood can make it up.  And it doesn’t even work as wish fulfillment, because it’s so overtly political, and people, all people, go to movies to escape politics, not to revel in it.

I really love Jessica Chastain, because she enjoys playing a wide variety of roles, and she plays them all pretty well.  She really ties hard to play a tough woman and yet make her likeable, it’s a tough job.  I only wish the script was better and not so contrived, I still like Chastain, but I doubt that anyone could have pulled this role off.  I like Gugu Mbatha Raw too, but the writers make her a victim throughout the film, and she is never allowed to break out of victim mode.  And she disappears almost completely near the end of the film. John Lithgow seems to enjoy playing a puppet politician, but again his role is too predictable.

The direction is nothing special, the pacing is slow at times the movie is very long, and takes a long time to get to its ending.  The director doesn’t get great performances from anyone in particular, and the ending is predictable.

Miss Sloane:  Misses the mark.





guardians of the galaxy 2

Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and the Guardians, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) Drax (Dave Bautista) Rocket  (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) are tasked by the Sovereign to protect space age batteries from alien monsters who want to steal them.  The Guardians fend off the monsters, and Gamora is set to collect a bounty on her sister, Nebula, (Karen Gillan) but Rocket steals some of the batteries for himself, and Ayesha (Elizabeth Debecki) leader of the Sovereign orders an attack on the Guardians.  The Guardians barely escape to the nearest inhabitable planet.  A ship follows Peter and lands on the planet, the pilot of the ship is Ego, (Kurt Russell) and he claims to be Peter’s dad. Ego takes Peter to Ego’s planet, Gamora and Drax tag along with Peter, while Groot and Rocket stay behind.

Ayesha,  still angry that her batteries were stolen, hires Yondu Udonta (Michael Rooker) to find Peter and the rest of the Guardians.  Yondu captures Rocket and Baby Groot and then ends up in jail himself after a mutiny by Taserface. (Chris Sullivan)  Yondu Rocket and Baby Groot manage to escape with Nebula’s help, but Taserface tips off the Sovereign, who chase after the two Guardians, while they try to find Peter on Ego’s planet.  Nebula just wants revenge on Gamora.  Is Peter convinced of his lineage by Ego?  Do Gamora and Nebula bury the hatchet?  Does Ayesha get her revenge?

Guardians of the Galaxy volume 2 works very well as a comedy, but then the script calls for everyone to get in touch with their feelings, and this is where the movie descends into an Oprah stained hell.  Peter has daddy issues, Gamora has sibling rivalry issues with Nebula, and Rocket the snarkiest character if all is made to confront deep seated feelings of inadequacy.  When a summer popcorn film wades into the nature vs nurture debate, it’s gone a bridge too far. The ending is predictable, even the post ending credits are predictable.   The comedy was better than the first movie, the family drama was wholly unnecessary.

The acting varies wildly in this film.  Chris Pratt will never be a leading man, no matter how hard Hollywood tries to foist him on an unsuspecting public.  He is ill-equipped to handle the more emotional scenes in the movie.  Zoe Saldana is a good actress, but she wan’t given enough to do, she is pushed into a romance with Pratt, and she battles her sister literally and figuratively in the movie.  Bradley Cooper is a great actor, but they made him emote as a CGI raccoon, that doesn’t work for me.  I wish he was playing Peter Quill and Pratt was playing the raccoon, I think that would have worked out better.  Dave Bautista is surprisingly funny as Drax, and is just sullen when not laughing insanely. Karen Gillan was also very good as Nebula, her intensity never relents, in a difficult role.  She plays a villain, with sympathetic touches. Kurt Russell hams it up relentlessly as Ego, an aptly named character if ever there was one. The only performance worse than Russell’s  was Sylvester Stallone’s performance as Stakar Ogord.  He is barely intelligible.  He had more trouble with the English language than Korean actress Pom Klementieff.  Her acting was better than Stallone’s but not by much.

Director James Gunn does a pretty good job as a director, the pacing is good, the special effects are good, without being overwhelming, he gets some good performances, but he also gets overwhelmed by subplots and lengeth, and that drags the pacing down to a crawl by the second half of the movie, by the end of the film I was looking at my watch, never a good sign.  Gunn also gets points off as writer for overindulging in melodrama.  I walked into a sci-fi movie, and a Tyler Perry movie broke out.That’s Gunn’s fault, for not keeping the drama to a minimum.

The Star Lord burns out.


la la land

An out of work actress named Mia (Emma Stone) keeps bumping into a soon to be out of work jazz pianist named Sebastian. (Ryan Gosling)  The first time they meet they give each other “the bird” in a traffic jam.  The next time they meet is shortly after Sebastian gets fired during Christmas.  The two meet again at a party when Mia requests a cheesy 80’s song and asks Sebastian to play the keyboard portion of it.  They meet again looking for their cars during a lovely sunset.  Later, Sebastian finds out that Mia has never seen Rebel Without A Cause and asks her to come see it, but she’s got a boyfriend, and she hates jazz, and he doesn’t want a girlfriend, especially one who doesn’t like jazz.  And they’ve both got big dreams.  She wants to be an actress, he wants to open a jazz club.  Does she go to the movie?  Or are their meetings just coincidental?

There are many good things about La La Land, but the writing is for most of the film is trite.  It follows all the conventions of every romantic comedy ever made including the man and woman hating each other at first sight.  Why does this always happen in the movies?  Nobody hates someone in real life and then, poof magic.  Nothing works that way.    There is a twist near the end, and the ending itself evolves into somewhat of a mystery, which belies the happy mood of the first hour, but is still better than a conventional Hollywood ending.

Ryan Gosling has made a living playing brooding, taciturn, characters, like in Driver, or Blue Valentine, so it was anyone’s guess how he would handle the lead in a musical romantic comedy.  He handles  the comedic part of the role well, but when the script turns more dramatic, his delivery is surprisingly flat. The same can be said for Emma Stone, she couldn’t really handle the more dramatic scenes, and even the comedic scenes, she would sometimes make a  silly face.  The two didn’t seem to have any chemistry, maybe it was the age difference.  Gosling is 8 years older than Stone, maybe that’s why they didn’t seem to have any sparks.   J.K. Simmons had a small role, I wish it was bigger, he is a heck of an actor.

There is a lot of good in this film, and most of it comes from  the director’s chair.  Damien Chazelle is a very talented director, and he realizes that film is a visual medium. This film pops with color, even the scenes filmed at night are brightly lit and look as if they were painted with a brush.  This is also a love letter to classic film, movie posters are strewn all over Mia’s apartment and the cameras catch all of it.  Even when the colors don’t pop, the camera is shooting from some interesting angle or other.  This is not Top Hat or Singin in The Rain, but that it aspires to be and tries to bring back the movie musical is a laudable aspiration.   The choreography is great, the songs are great, those two elements by  themselves make the movie worth watching. There are  portions of this this movie that are told without a word being spoken, that is an incredible achievement.

La La Land:  Mostly music to my  ears.