Green Book: My Thoughts

I have a soft spot for this kind of movie — movies about people who wouldn’t be expected to form a bond and who nevertheless do. I liked The Intouchables (2011) for much the same reason.

Two fantastic actors make Green Book work. Mahershala Ali is the musical genius Dr Don Shirley, an African-American classical and jazz pianist. Viggo Mortensen plays brash, vulgar “Tony Lip” Vallelonga, a New York bouncer looking for a job after his nightclub is temporarily closed.

We see the racism of the 1960s through the eyes of these two individuals.

Tony is a racist character, as insular as they come in his Italian-American enclave in New York, living in the same neighborhood as all his extended family. Before meeting Don, he goes so far as to throw away the glasses two black repairmen drank lemonade from. I had a little trouble believing Tony was so naïve about what Don would have to face in his tour through the Deep South, especially since racism existed all around him.

As for Don, he is shown as a brilliant, lonely, highly educated man who chooses to face the dangers of the Deep South as a matter of principle. But he was a musical prodigy, and it was difficult to believe he’d never heard the music of Little Richard, Aretha Franklin and others.

The two characters form a bond through two months of the southern tour. There were a few scenes that made me wince — the fried chicken scene, for example. But watching these two completely different people connect was rewarding.

Obviously there are a lot of instances of racism in the movie – that’s the point. I found it telling that the people who hosted Don in their estates and concert venues as a mark of their sophistication, were the same people who refused to let him use the nearby restroom, eat at their restaurants or stay at their hotels. The movie’s title refers to the real Green Book, which listed hotels and restaurants that would accept black travelers.

This isn’t a movie about saving the world, and it isn’t perfect.  Racism wasn’t “fixed” when the story was over. It’s simply a story about two individual characters, seeing humanity in each other, and growing a little. I like that.

The movie has won several award nominations — and won three Golden Globe awards — but also drawn criticism for how it handled the divisive issue of racism. Here’s some more info about the movie, including some criticisms:

From the Smithsonian:

From the Washington Post:

From Vulture:

The Post

When Steven Spielberg has an opinion about the value of a free press in America, he doesn’t just make a Facebook or Twitter post like the rest of us. Instead, he reaches back into history and makes a movie like The Post.

The Post is set against the backdrop of a time when the government tried to hide from the people the disastrous results of years of failing Vietnam policies. Meanwhile, we kept sending more soldiers to Southeast Asia to die in a war we couldn’t win.

Those were dangerous times, with a President in power who disdained and tried to control the press to serve his own ends. When Nixon’s government obtained an injunction ordering the New York Times to cease publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Washington Post obtained the documents and had a big decision to make — whether to publish. The consequences of a wrong call could range from financial ruin to imprisonment.

Even though we know the outcome of this movie at the start, it’s a good story. Not a thriller — but an examination of themes of power, responsibility, and courage, illuminated through the eyes of some contentious newspeople and attorneys, as well as a socialite turned champion of investigative journalism.

The movie is also a wonderful story of Katharine Graham, who inherited her position at the Washington Post after the death of her husband, and how she began to exercise her leadership in a world ruled by men. Spielberg embraces the feminist aspect of this story.

Tom Hanks does his usual good job as executive editor Ben Bradlee. Meryl Streep is excellent in the perfect-for-her role of Katharine Graham. The movie is full of lots of interesting characters, as well as a needed touch of humor here and there. It’s full of cool details from the past, showing how reporters did their jobs in the days before the Internet or cell phones. And there are fascinating touches, such as the rumbling of the newsroom when the big presses started up in the basement of the Washington Post’s building.

This movie made for an enjoyable couple of hours. And a reminder — that without the legitimate free press we’re at the mercy of those in power to control what we know. And maybe more than ever today, when anyone with an Internet connection can publish, that makes the responsible press the advocate of the people.

Here’s more information about Katharine Graham at this article at The Smithsonian magazine.

Also a wonderful Washington Post article about the closing of their historic building in 2015, with some history and stories about the old days of the newspaper business there.

Here’s some more info about the movie on  IMDb.



Ten Meter Tower

I’ve seen Ten Meter Tower twice, most recently as part of the Sundance Shorts event at the Wexner Center in Columbus. I liked it even more the second time.

Ten Meter Tower (2016) is a short study of people who are trying to decide whether to jump off the high dive for the first time. It’s a simple, universal concept — I think everyone has experienced the kind of conflicting pressures this film portrays.

The directors paid people who had never been up on the high dive before to climb up and walk to the edge of the platform. From there, we watch them decide whether to jump or climb back down. There’s pressure from the fact that the camera is watching; sometimes there’s another person present, and there’s pressure from them. There’s obviously fear involved in the decision as well — the platform is very high.

It’s interesting to see who jumps and who doesn’t. (I know which category I would fall into.) The film is elegantly done, with humor and respect for the participants. It’s a charming film that evokes personal reactions from the audience — there was occasional laughter and applause on both occasions when I saw it.

Here are a couple of links to more information about the film, including a New York Times interview with the directors and a short article from Colossal including the film itself.


A “Colossal” Movie

Colossal is a psychological drama and a monster movie. There’s some magical realism in there. I’m really not sure of the odd mix of genres that make up this fascinating movie. But is that a bad thing — a movie that doesn’t fall into a predefined market niche? Not in this case.

Anne Hathaway gives a powerful performance as the movie’s main character Gloria, who’s in trouble. Addiction to alcohol has destroyed Gloria’s career and gotten her kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment. She returns to her childhood home, where she meets up with an old acquaintance and starts work at his bar (!) while she tries to figure out what’s next.

Meanwhile, across the world, a huge monster appears, terrorizing the people of Seoul, South Korea as if we were in a Godzilla movie. Gradually, Gloria realizes this creature’s appearances have something to do with her life on the other side of the world.

It’s at about that point that I suspended disbelief and went where the movie took me. Which was a really winding path that surprised me several times.

This movie is imaginative, chilling, rewarding. It’s full of metaphor, and yet it’s very real and immediate. It handles lots of issues — alcoholism, bad relationships, and self-empowerment — but it always stays entertaining.

Jason Sudeikis’ performance as Oscar is brilliant and downright frightening. And I’ll leave the description at that! The best way to see this movie is to just go and enjoy.

If you want to read more about Colossal, here’s a link to the movie website.

Lion Movie

“If you wrote this as fiction,” my husband said, “People wouldn’t believe it.”

After the beginning credits of Lion, there’s a caption telling the viewer the movie is based on a true story. That knowledge colors everything you see thereafter.

Five year old Saroo gets on a decommissioned train and falls asleep, ending up thousands of kilometers away from his family in the huge city of Kolkata, where he doesn’t even speak the language. He manages to survive on his own among Kolkata’s many street children until he’s placed in an orphanage and eventually adopted by a loving Australian couple.

Years later he becomes obsessed with finding the mother and brother he remembers from so long ago. Using modern technology (Google Earth) and scattered memories, he tries to find his birth family.

Lion is a feast for the eyes, beautifully photographed, showing us a glimpse into the lives led by Kolkata’s thousands of street children. I held my breath for Saroo several times as he narrowly escaped some of the terrifying dangers lying in wait for these children.

Lion shows us the love of both of Saroo’s mothers — the birth mother and the adoptive one. With strong performances that are full of heart, this movie makes us feel the incalculable depth of love in a true family.

The movie is based on “The Long Journey Home” by Saroo Brierley. It’s a fantastic movie, definitely award-worthy.

Here’s more about Lion on IMDb.

The Eagle Huntress

Aisholpan, 13-year-old daughter of a nomadic Kazakh family, wants to be an eagle huntress. It’s against the traditions of her people for a woman to hunt with the eagles, but she’s determined to compete in the Golden Eagle Festival. She has the unswerving support of her father, who helps her find and train a bird of her own.

The Eagle Huntress is a beautifully-filmed documentary. It’s filled with stunning aerial views of the mountains Aisholpan’s family lives in, and dramatic footage of the eagle’s flight. (I could have watched that all day.) The documentary also gives us an outlook on how the family lives – their day-to-day routine, their home, how foreign yet familiar their lifestyle is. I understood and sympathized with their support for a beloved daughter.

Aisholpan herself is amazing, a strong young woman and a great hero for the girls-can-do-anything message the movie promotes.

Much of the story is devoted to the physical challenges Aisholpan had to face, from climbing down steep cliffs to retrieve her eaglet, to hunting in minus-40-degree temperatures. The film crew had to struggle with the same unforgiving environment. I found this interview with director Otto Bell that describes what they had to go through.

The Eagle Huntress has a simple message — “Girls Can Do Anything” — which seems to be directed at a younger audience. In spite of the tremendous challenges the movie shows us, the storyline lacks complexity, making this a light viewing experience. But it’s still well worth watching for adults, because it feels like a glimpse into another world.

Here’s a link to the movie’s website.


Captain Fantastic

In spite of its title, Captain Fantastic has nothing to do with superheroes. Its protagonist is Ben Cash, who is raising his six children in the wilderness, somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. He’s not a superhero, just an iconoclast.

With the noble goal of raising “philosopher-kings”, Ben is authoritarian yet honest to a fault, teaching athleticism, strength of character, and skepticism of capitalism, religion and popular culture. His kids scale cliffs and rejoice in the gifts of new hunting knives while reading the classic books of literature and political thought.

Then the kids’ mother dies. Ben Cash and his children venture into the alien melee of modern American life, with its shopping centers, ignorance, and separation from nature, to provide his dead wife the funeral she really wanted – a rescue of sorts from the clutches of the world she had fled.

It’s easy to be distracted by the collision of the isolated Cash children with the dominant popular culture. The kids don’t understand social norms, the violence of popular media, the games between young people who are attracted to each other. It’s funny and painful at the same time.

Then there’s the deeper theme, about the consequences of the choices parents make for their children. We all make them, based on our own values that usually conform more or less to the dictates of our cultures, our religions, our education. Ben Cash’s values are in sharp conflict with the dominant culture. As his sons mature they see the real world and prepare for their own places in it, and they inevitably challenge their father’s choices.

I don’t know why this didn’t occur for the daughters in the movie. I was looking for it, and didn’t see it.

And what if, instead of “philosopher-kings”,  Cash was raising his children alone in the wilderness to believe in white supremacy, or conspiracy theories, or something else I don’t believe in? How would that affect my opinion of the movie? Great food for thought!

All along the way there are laughs, complex characters, beautiful photography and gorgeous terrain. The role of Ben seemed perfect for Viggo Mortensen, and the young actors were outstanding. Nobody was the bad guy here; even the kids’ grandfather (Frank Langella), while trying to wrest the kids away from Cash, had only their best interests in mind.

This is a good film, in spite of an ending that seemed out-of-step with the main portion of the story. It works on many levels. I enjoyed it and I’m still thinking about it.

The movie website is at


Eye in the Sky

Eye in the Sky is a powerful look at how people make decisions – or don’t make decisions — when faced with a terrible dilemma.

In Eye in the Sky, there’s at least one thing that doesn’t often happen in real life: there’s almost perfect information. Through the use of modern surveillance technology and assistance from an ally on the ground, British military intelligence, working in England, knows that terrorists are preparing suicide vests. There’s no doubt about the analysis: they can see the terrorists arming inside a surveilled safehouse in Kenya. Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren), working with American drone pilots operating from Nevada, commands a missile strike on the target.

That’s when things go haywire. A young Kenyan girl brings bread to sell at a table outside the safehouse. If the strike proceeds, she will probably die. If the strike is called off, the terrorists will kill as many as 80 people.

The movie proceeds through a gripping, sometimes agonizing series of delays as Powell requests clearance from military, legal and political superiors. The American pilot struggles with his own decision. Meanwhile, a bug drone in the safehouse transmits video of the terrorists loading and donning the suicide vests.

The movie was intense and surprisingly even-handed. Helen Mirren was brilliant as the focused Colonel Powell, determined to complete the mission. Alan Rickman’s last performance was outstanding.

Eye in the Sky explored the ethical decisions that have always had to be made in warfare – even more immediate in this era of terrorism and targeted death from the sky. It even made the viewer a participant in the drama; as I watched, I weighed the decision just as the characters did.

Even through the tension of delays, as the window of opportunity began to close, it was clear that each character’s viewpoint had validity. Fascinating stuff, especially for a writer.

Here’s more information about Eye in the Sky on IMDb.

The Big Short

Credit default swaps, collateralized debt obligations, and subprime loans. These things sound like the foundation of a good movie, don’t they?

They are! The Big Short somehow manages to be a fascinating, even funny movie about the machinations of Wall Street that ultimately led to the economic collapse of 2008. Yet, the movie doesn’t minimize the human cost of the games played by the big banks. Through the eyes of hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carell), we realize this is more than a Wall Street game. It’s real money, and people lost their homes and jobs in the fallout.

The Big Short is based on the non-fiction book by Michael Lewis. The story follows several investors who discover in 2006 that the housing market is unstable. Complex investments are built on bundles of mortgages, so that the banks have lost sight of the health of the underlying loans, and many of these are about to go bad.

The banks laugh at the investors but are nevertheless happy to sell them instruments called credit default swaps to “bet against” the housing market. The investors put up with the disbelief and anger of their own clients, until they realize corrupt ratings agencies are lying about the reliability of the underlying mortgages, leading to a chain of increasingly bigger bets on bad loans. When the house of cards fell, the collapse led to the crisis of 2008.

The cast is a heavyweight one: Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and others do a great job of showing us some of the characters whose idiosyncrasies bring the movie to life. It’s through Steve Carell’s character, though, that we really sense the magnitude of the financial sector’s failure; he’s the one who’s angry about it, and we feel it through him.

None of the main characters are heroes. They all profited, even those who were in shock about the ramifications of Wall Street’s corruption. They aren’t the ones who paid the price.

And as the end of the movie makes clear, the game goes on.

The movie took a dense and technical financial subject and made it real, and amusing (“Here’s world famous chef Anthony Bourdain to explain more about Collateralized Debt Obligations!”). It’s good storytelling, and excellent directing. The Big Short was nominated for several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director among others.

I think this movie, perhaps along with 99 Homes, should be shown in every business-school program in the country. Because it’s true: this is what people chasing money, and insufficiently regulated markets, do. And it’ll happen again.

Here’s more info on The Big Short website.

99 Homes

For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? – King James Bible, Mark 8:36

This Bible quote is maybe the best synopsis of the theme of the movie 99 Homes. It’s a look at the human cost of naked capitalism, specifically real-estate speculation during the recent housing bubble. It’s also a look at what human beings will do, not just for greed but for “success”, which is defined in the narrowest way in this film.

99 Homes follows Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), a young construction worker who loses his job and then can’t make house payments. He, his mother and his son are evicted. Desperate for work, Nash strikes a deal with the shady real-estate broker who evicted him, and ends up putting other homeowners through the same ordeal, all in a quest to regain his lost family home.

Broker Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) rigs the game and then throws homeowners who are behind on their payments into the street. He recognizes the pain he’s causing but ignores it, scamming homeowners and the government alike. In his worldview the rich know how the game works, and they manipulate the rules to grow richer.

“America doesn’t bail out the losers,” Carver says.

I appreciated how even Carver – the bad guy of the piece – still isn’t portrayed as a total villain. Instead, he’s a complex individual who fully understands the misery he causes even while he wheels and deals his way to wealth.

Multiple scenes show Carver, then Nash foreclosing on homeowners who seem to have no clue how things work, and persist in believing that the system will work for them to save their houses. Instead, the system is rigged. The movie portrays the average home as spoils, and the homeowner as something to be tossed aside.

I did have a couple of quibbles with the movie. The ending scenes seem rushed, never hinting at the consequences of Nash’s final decision. It still makes for a satisfying finish.

It is odd, however, how women characters were written. They’re either clueless about how the world works, dependent on the men; or perks to be won, decorative as the houses.

This began to be annoying early on, and got worse. Nash’s mom (Laura Dern) seemed more clueless than I could easily believe. In fact her role serves little other purpose than as a reminder of the concept of “family” that Nash tries to preserve.

Other than that, I liked 99 Homes. It was intelligent, well-acted and intense. Most of the characters were nuanced and complex. Its connection with the recent housing bubble and recession gave it immediacy.

Here’s a link to more info about 99 Homes on IMDb.