Boulevard (explosions that must come)

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There is a moment during the climax of Boulevard when Kathy Baker (Joy) openly expresses her desire for a lifestyle that so many live and fight to maintain. The fight is a subtle one, but the feelings involved are anything but, even if they are not outwardly expressed on a regular basis. Everything is below the surface in the marriage between Nolan Mack (Academy Award® Winner Robin Williams) and Joy. Both are suppressing desire, but only one grows to want to take steps to have more. They respect each other and have a neat, clean home and have neat meals. But it’s not real. Usually I remind myself that there are so many people around me living that way, but I was so enthralled with the Mack household that I was only thinking about when something would blow up in it. The silence is deafening.

Directed by Dito Montiel and written by Douglas Soesbe, Boulevard is the last released onscreen Robin Williams performance (and his final dramatic role). I had the privilege of seeing this film as a screening of the New York Film Critics Series. To me, the quietness of the film reflects the below-the-surface life of Williams’s and Baker’s characters. Nolan steps outside of his world to find fulfillment because either he lives a more authentic life or he dies. Some people are made to live in fantasy, and some are not. Others can for a while or for years, but then have to get out. Some go in and out for their entire lives. Eventually Nolan makes his decision, but let’s just say he makes a big one. Roberto Aguire is vulnerable and magnetic as Leo, to whom Nolan is drawn for the companionship he needs. When Leo resists this would-be emotional connection, as a viewer you are wondering what will happen and what will be Nolan’s reaction.

These quiet performances have explosions, but those explosions are muted because of the people who have them and because that is what most explosions are: real people in real situations. Besides, I want to take back the word explosions from those action/adventure movies that are all actual explosions and fires with no actual story. Robin Williams is truly a rare treasure. His talent transcends all labels, categories, and boundaries. His tortured Nolan makes you feel along with him, wonder along with him, and desire along with him. I couldn’t breathe because I knew Nolan couldn’t breathe in his life. It is a wonderful performance. Kathy Baker forces you to empathize with Joy because of her sincereness even if she is living a silent lie. Baker brings out her explosions (that are coupled with indignation) to perfection. You should see this film to see a communication of the truth that goes on behind closed doors and, through various means, can come spilling out.

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Love & Mercy–not your typical biopic

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I have seen and loved “typical” biopics. You know—that formula that takes us on quite the ride of the life and loves and losses of an individual, spanning decades. The short montage that represents the years passing just so the movie can settle into the new, exciting time period during which “more stuff happens.” I’ve often found those to be cheesy. Why not just cut to the next scene and put the year on the screen? But then there are the biopics that do focus on a specific time in an individual’s life (not decades) but are still “typical” in their formula, often (as the first case is also often accused of) in order to become “Oscar Bait.” Just like with their counterparts of wider scope, the pacing, the dramatic scenes that focus on incidents that tug at the heartstrings of moviegoers, and, of course, the choice to leave out certain incidents that wouldn’t “play into the narrative” that moviegoers have been sold are all elements.

When I walked out of Love & Mercy (dir. Bill Pohlad, wri. Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner), based on the life of Beach Boy Brian Wilson, my first thought, after I’d just seen (and liked, actually) a biopic that was, in fact, formulaic, my first thought was that this was not your typical biopic and is worth watching for that and for the pacing, the performances, the incidents, and all of those choices made, but because they are not formulaic or what you’d normally see.

LOVE AND MERCY - 2015 FILM STILL - Pictured: Paul Giamatti, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks - Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel Roadside Attractions Release.
LOVE AND MERCY – 2015 FILM STILL – Pictured: Paul Giamatti, John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks – Photo Credit: Francois Duhamel Roadside Attractions Release.

There is a montage, but it is so well done that I, in the best possible way, did not know what had hit me. I will not reveal the way it is put together, but it takes place at such a height of emotion and showcases how excellently Paul Dano and John Cusack share the role of Wilson. The way the film treats time is one of its main strengths. Dano displays his talents as his character is caught in the conflict between commercial success and true artistic fulfillment, which, as it mostly always does, involves pressure from others to favor the former. Cusack shows us the toll years of unbearable pressure, work, and mental illness can take when there is no help available and there are people around taking advantage of you. Paul Giamatti (Dr. Eugene Landy) is terrifying as one of those people (and he does it so so well—he can do anything).

In my book, the standout performance comes from Elizabeth Banks, who plays Melinda Ledbetter, who meets John Cusack in a car dealership. She is a character in her own right and has a life and a history. Banks very impressively carries all of that and brings weight to the role as a woman who is adding to her life unpredictably bizarre situations and manages to achieve what no one else is ever able to achieve.

What Happened, Miss Simone?–“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”

“How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?”


“I want to shake people up so bad that when they leave a nightclub where I performed, I just want them to be to pieces.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? Title

It isn’t hard to figure out “what happened” to Nina Simone. She was born in North Carolina in 1933 and was not allowed to talk about race in her home. Racial terrorism during the 1960s spurred her on to use her art, unapologetically, to speak out—and to figure out who she was and encourage all African Americans to do the same.

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When she was a child named Eunice Waymon, white teachers noticed her extraordinary talent and taught her classical piano. In order to get to her lessons, she —a girl who, for purposes of survival, was taught not to question racism and segregation—had to cross the railroad tracks that divided black and white worlds.

After a traumatic end to her dreams of becoming a classical pianist, she found herself a singer. When she chose to use her career as a platform for her activism (see her song “Mississippi Goddam“), her lack of concern for commercial appeal caused people to ask, “What happened?” Life-long demons and increasing frustration about Civil Rights led to abusive relationships; the unrelenting rigor of performing, traveling, and attempting to live up to expectations resulted in health struggles.  

Liz Garbus’s documentary, What Happened, Miss Simone? (Netflix), is a wonderfully unflinching look at Simone. The strength of the film is the use of rare, archival footage of her performances and recordings of and interviews with Ms. Simone and those who worked with her and loved her. It was clear to me what happened to her, and I was touched by how she so willingly gave of herself to inspire people and bring attention to the race problem. She used her art, which was what she had to express herself. “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” she famously said. In order to achieve what she believed to be the true artistic task, she allowed herself to feel intensely.

Her problems nearly destroyed her, but she had the gift of loving friends who came to help save her.

So when people ask, “What happened?” I hope they also ask themselves how brave they themselves are. In Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin in the Sun, Lena Younger (Mama) says to her daughter, Beneatha, at probably the second-most emotional moment of the play, “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most? When they done good and made things easy for everybody? Well, then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all. It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ’cause the world done whipped him so! When you starts measuring somebody, measure him right, child, measure him right. Make sure you done taken into account what hills and valleys he come through before he got to wherever he is.”

What Happened, Miss Simone? tells us what happened but leaves it to us to decide whether or not to consider those “hills and valleys.” I don’t see how anyone could not.