Sunday, April 28, 2019

THE MUSTANG (2019): The Convict and his Wild Horse

The Mustang is one of those short and low-budget films that most moviegoers will miss.  This is unfortunate since it’s probably going to be a better film than whatever wins the next best picture award.  It’s only a 96-minute film, features an actor from Belgium, Matthias Schoenaerts (not a household name in American films), and directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (also not a household name).  

I could give away the entire storyline for this movie and not spoil it for anyone.  The Mustang’s two great virtues include its visual depictions demonstrating the beauties and challenges of living side-by-side with wild horses, and the acting of Schoenaerts as convict Roman Coleman.

Roman is doing hard time due to a domestic abuse incident.  The only person who visits him in prison is his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon).  She has understandable reservations about Roman since her mother was the victim of Roman’s abuse.  The visits are anything but friendly and usually end in arguments.  Martha is pregnant at the film’s beginning, and we probably can assume that the father of her unborn child disappeared.  Possibly the only reason she first visits her father at all is so that she can sell a piece of property for which Roman has an ownership interest.  

Roman is incapable of showing warmth or communicating with anyone.  It is only by a fluke he’s recruited to work with wild horses as part of a prison program.  First assigned to shovel manure, Myles (Bruce Dern), who heads up the program, decides to let Roman work with one specific horse.  Roman calls the horse Marcus since he can’t pronounce the word “marquis.”   This horse has the identical temperament of Roman.  At first, Roman becomes so frustrated working with the horse that he physically attacks it trying to punch it into submission.  Despite this setback, Myles still provides Roman another opportunity to work with Marcus.

As the training progresses, we see a change come over Roman as he becomes accustomed to his job.  Possibly, Roman is the only one who could tame this beast.  Another prisoner, Henry (Jason Mitchell), provides Roman advice along the way and becomes the closest thing to a friend Roman ever has.  And as Roman learns to adapt to the horse, he also learns how to relate with his daughter who is coming closer to the delivery time for her child.

What saves The Mustang from sentimentality is the toughness of the acting and the storyline.  Both Schoenaerts and Adlon play their roles perfectly.  Bruce Dern is adequate in support, though it’s certainly not his finest role.  And the storyline remains intense from beginning of the film until the end.

The Mustang is not a perfect film only because the filmmakers try to say too much rather than too little.  There are storylines in which the film possibly would be better without.  For example, his friend Henry is killed for drugs by Roman’s cellmate.  This results in Roman attacking his cellmate.  This entire subplot comes close to melodrama.

Also, when the prisoners demonstrate their horses for bidders at an auction, a helicopter flies over the arena disturbing Marcus and leading to Roman being thrown from the horse.  After this, the prison staff decides they should euthanize Marcus.  When Roman hears this from Myles, he manages to break Marcus out of prison and allow him to run free.  This leads to consequences for Roman (probably additional prison time).  This storyline seems somewhat contrived.

While neither of these storylines appeared necessary to the primary plot, both of these scenes, while showing both Roman and Marcus as untamable, also portray the two as figures deserving sympathy.  The movie manages to pull off this difficult task.  Roman is not someone we want to visit our home, and Marcus is not the horse we want to take on a joyride.  But the film does a magnificent job depicting these flawed creatures as redeemable living beings.

© Robert S. Miller 2019
April 28, 2019

Thursday, March 28, 2019

SEX AND POLITICS: An Unusual Finding

I heard on the news the other day about some study suggesting that many millennials care more about politics than sex.  Fortunately, many of those millennials will never have children.  The study prompted a sex therapist to comment that dating strictly within one’s political party is making people too comfortable.

I wonder how someone goes about creating such a study.  What questions do they ask the participants, and how do they come to their conclusions?  
Still, there probably is legitimacy to this study.  And to be fair to millennials, they’re probably not the only ones who think like this.  I’ve recently witnessed individuals ending years of friendship over political disagreements.  In conversations with total strangers (workplace or social settings, restaurants and bars), I’ve heard people volunteer their opinions on anything from abortion to climate change while assuming that I am in total agreement.  And the result?  People appear foolish doing this.

People appear foolish when they can’t see more than one side to any issue.  Whether they’re from left, right or center, I imagine them picturing themselves as the champions of freedom … by wanting everyone to think as they do.

I heard once that there are two prongs to conformity in America:

  • Corporate identity.  Since the 1960s, corporate advertising has turned Americans envious.  To fit in, we have to drive the right car and wear the right clothes.  Even own a cellphone.
  • Governmental oversight.  With a $5 trillion budget, the federal government can reach just about everything – including private behavior.  (The irony is that the most vocal critics of the current administration propose to make the government bigger.)

It comes down to the same thing in either case: we’re afraid.  In the 20th Century, we followed lots of tyrants out of fear.  In the 21st Century, we join groups because we’re afraid of being alone.   To belong, we endorse causes, products and messages while not giving it much thought.  Sometimes we do this in places like Facebook and Twitter.  (Facebook, by the way, now has a net worth of $470 billion and takes in close to $56 billion each year.)

We seem to be doing well at making each other miserable.  In the last month, we’ve heard of people buying admissions for their children to enroll in prestigious colleges.  There was another mass killing at a mosque in New Zealand where the killer filmed the shooting to appear on Facebook.  There’s more talk about immigration and building a wall.  And the Mueller Report is another argument starter.

If millennials (or anyone else) do care more about politics than sex, it makes me wonder if they have lost all sense of fun.  Maybe they are more afraid of disapproval than being alive.

March 28, 2019

© Robert S. Miller 2019

Sunday, February 24, 2019

GREEN BOOK (2018): Friendship with a Lonely Black Artist

The film Green Book, a relatively non-controversial film, is the subject of controversy.  Hollywood loves stirring up real or imagined controversy to keep attention upon itself.  So do many film critics who wish to appear relevant.

In this 130-minute movie biopic, Don “Doc” Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a black classical pianist, hires Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer at a bar, for protection as he goes on a tour to play at a number of venues in the south.  The movie takes place in the early 1960s.  Though at first ill at ease in the company of each other, they become the closest of friends after many close calls.  Both are relieved to be leaving the south by the end of the film.

Besides Don and Tony, the only major character in the film is Dolores (Linda Cardellini), Tony’s wife.  She’s the only one who seems to understand early on that Tony is a better person than what we at first see. When Tony is not caught up in acting a part, he is capable of sincere feeling.

Though popular with movie audiences, reviews of the film are mixed.  Some reviewers, unsure about what they see on the screen, feel the need be on the safe side of any controversy.  It’s difficult to take seriously such film critics to begin with.  They like to describe the film as another Driving Ms. Daisy, and claim Green Book is really about a white savior upstaging the central black character on the screen.  In point of fact, Mortenson portrays Tony as a character with racist tendencies who nevertheless comes around to admire the black man he is there to protect.  Tony grows up overtime throughout the course of the film.

More to the point, the character of Shirley shows a great deal more complexity and depth than some reviewers (and even other Hollywood actors including Bill Murray) seem to acknowledge.  He is neither stereotypical nor a sidekick for Tony.  Shirley, a black classical pianist who also apparently was gay deciding to make a tour of the south in the early 1960s, was certainly an anomaly.  He knew what he was getting into when taking the tour, and decided to go ahead with it in any case.  How could such an individual not feel lonely or misunderstood at certain points in time?

Family members of Don “Doc” Shirley, one of the two main characters in this biopic, object to the movie as not being true to the facts.  The family felt that the film wrongly projected Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, as lonely and cut off from the black community.  They mention the real-life Shirley’s involvement in the Selma march as evidence of this.  Also, they claim there was no real friendship between Shirley and Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, played by Viggo Mortensen.  They describe the relationship as an “employer-employee relationship.”

I sympathize with such criticism if it was indeed true.  But it’s not clear if the family got the facts right.  Don Shirley stated in the 2011 documentary, Lost Bohemia that: “I trusted him [Tony Vallelonga] implicitly. Tony, not only was he my driver.  We never had an employer-employee relationship.  We got to be friendly with one another.”

Putting aside controversies, Peter Farrelly directs a straightforward and overall entertaining film.  Green Book is also a bit too predictable.  Going in, we know that the two main characters will become friends by the film’s end.

Still, what is refreshing about this movie as compared to a film like If Beale Street Could Talk, is that Green Book contains humor.  Humor is almost entirely missing in a Hollywood that takes itself far too seriously.  While Mortenson gets to say most of the comic lines, Mahershala Ali provides his share of humor as well.  More importantly, the two characters who have almost nothing in common, form a credible if difficult friendship.  Green Book is not a film that is cynical or crass.

© Robert S. Miller 2019
February 24, 2019