The Florida Project

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The Florida Project



In theory, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) is a saintly organization.

In a perfect world, DCF social workers would heroically swoop into a troubled home and save a desperate child from intolerable neglect and abuse.

And then that child would be swiftly moved into the warm embrace of her foster parents, who are definitely opening their home because of love rather than the monthly government stipend. The lucky foster child would immediately receive full parental care and acceptance. And also a pony.

In the real world, the Florida Department of Children of Families does sometimes do the right thing and gives abused children a new chance at life. And sometimes it just destroys families.


“The Florida Project” takes place at the Magic Castle: an ironically named extended-stay motel less than a mile away from Disney World.

The residents of Magic Castle pay $200 a week to stay there, but they are all living day to day. Brilliant writer/director Sean Baker gives us a documentary-style view into the lives of families who globalism has left in the dust.

21st Century Orlando is practically a 3rd World Caribbean country, with impoverished natives living off the spare change of upper middle-class tourists.

Sounds like a pretty sad movie, right? Heck no! To our six year old leading lady Moonee, every day is a celebration. The world is her playground, and every day Moonee finds a new way to beg, borrow, steal, and vandalize her way into an adventure.

Moonee has no rules, no structure, and no discipline, but she knows that she can always go home to her loving mother Halley.

Halley is a foul-mouthed, trashy green-haired girl who does not look or act old enough to have a daughter. Halley doesn’t have a job and she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends. So she has to hustle hard every week at various illegal activities to earn her rent money.

Life definitely isn’t always fun for Halley, but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She has the love of her life Moonee to hang out with every night.

“The Florida Project” is a funny, charming film about a happy, loving family. Unfortunately, we the audience know what the characters don’t: the DCF is a Sword of Damocles dangling over Halley and Moonee, and every other powerless lower-class family.

Child welfare agencies would like you to believe that they are detectives who sniff out the most at-risk children. The reality is that they visit families based on calls they receive. The people visited by the DCF aren’t the worst parents; they are the parents who made enemies of their exes or their neighbors.

Sean Baker never takes the easy way out with his social argument. He does not glorify poverty and he doesn’t defend Halley’s lifestyle or behavior.

He subtly but forcefully argues that Moonee would be better off if she had a mom with an ounce of decorum, restraint, maturity, and class. She doesn’t. But Moonee does have happiness. She does have joy. She does have love. She does have a family. She does have a mom.

In theory, the Florida Department of Children and Families is an organization that saves children. In practice, the DCF sometimes takes crying daughters out of the loving arms of their mothers.

There is no easy answer to the problem of at risk children. “The Florida Project” makes a powerful case that the DCF isn’t it. Personally, I don’t trust government to ever find a good answer.


Death Wish

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Death Wish



There was a time when gun control wasn’t a Left vs. Right issue.

Believe it or not, young readers, there was a time when a moderate Republican was allowed to support stricter gun laws without inspiring a vicious Twitter debate. And – gasp – a Democrat was allowed to take money from the NRA without being denounced as Benedict Arnold with blood on his hands.

Those days are gone and the gun issue has become hopelessly polarized like everything else.

Now both sides are locked into uncompromising, extreme positions.

People on the Right are sticking to their guns and arguing that closing all the gun stores and the gun factories won’t save lives. That’s obviously ridiculous. Making it harder for angry young men to obtain many new weapons will lead to fewer mass shootings and a smaller death toll when there are shootings.

People on the Left want government action and they want it now. A Democrat would be brave and foolhardy to even suggest that the NRA exists to protect our liberties. I predict that if there was a bill before Congress that restricted gun sales, every single Democrat would vote for it.

In a vacuum, there is nothing extreme about wanting fewer guns sold. Heck, if I were to start my own country, I would want zero gun stores. Guns make the world worse.

However, we don’t live in maxland. We live in the USA. We have a Constitution that exists largely to protect minority rights from an angry majority. And we have a Bill of Rights that explicitly says: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Anti-gun people: if you want to found a new Republic of Vermont with no minority rights and no legal guns, more power to you. I promise that I won’t fight you. But the United States has legal guns. It always has and it always will.

“Death Wish” is a carefully crafted gun movie that feels woefully outdated. And I mean that as a compliment.

Director Eli Roth (“Hostel”) has made an 80s movie for guys old enough to remember the 80s. There are no super heroes. There are no computer effects. There is a macho white good guy. And guns are neither good nor bad. They just exist.

Bruce Willis plays Dr. Paul Kersey: a regular rich family man living in a safe Chicago suburb. Or so he thought.

While he’s at work one night, he learns that vicious home invaders have murdered his wife and left his teenage daughter in a coma. Dr. Kersey’s world is shattered.

At first he does all the right things. He goes to a shrink and patiently waits for the police to find the killers. But the right thing feels wrong to him. Dr. Kersey can’t sleep and he’s increasingly angry.

To no one’s surprise, mild-mannered Dr. Kersey gets himself a gun and starts killing bad guys. Soon he has become a famous vigilante known as The Grim Reaper and he can finally sleep soundly at night.

Is a good guy with a gun illegally killing bad guys a hero or a menace? You can be a reasonable person and come down on either side of the issue. And Eli Roth faithfully presents both sides.

Another happy surprise about “Death Wish” is that there is a lot of effective comedy. Roth splendidly exposes the all-American absurdity and madness of gun dealers. But he also shows that those guns could potentially come in handy.

In the end, “Death Wish” works because you end up caring about Dr. Kersey and rooting for him, even though he does a lot of things that you know are wrong.

I’m guessing that anti-gun people will be too infuriated to enjoy it, though. It’s sad that we’ve become this polarized.

America’s Lousy China Policy

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America’s Lousy China Policy

(zero stars)

In the late 1990s, the United States granted China Most Favored Nation status. This was a disastrous mistake.

At the time, the decision was sold to the American people as a “Free Trade Agreement.” That was a pure lie.

Beijing maintained its restrictive rules, laws, and taxes that make it hard for foreign companies to sell products in China. Meanwhile, our country opened its doors to everything Chinese.

This policy was a boon for corporations that moved their factories to China and for international shipping companies. It was a disaster for everyone else.

The most visible result in our country is the rise of the dollar store. Today, every rural community in America has a dollar store or two. They pay their employees less than a living wage. And they sell Chinese-made junk that we’d be better off without.

The most visible result in China is the degradation of the environment. People like to credit the EPA for cutting down pollution in America. We didn’t really reduce pollution, though; we exported it to Asia.

People who call Chinese consumer goods “cheap” aren’t taking into consideration the environmental costs. The air and waterways of urban China have been wretchedly polluted.

It is our fault. We have a responsibility to stop buying imported junk that we don’t need. We have an obligation to support any politician who has the guts to slap a protective tariff on Chinese imports.

“But we can’t do that,” nitwits will say. “This will anger the Chinese and we need them!”

The truth is that we do not need China; China needs us. The United States owes China approximately $1.3 trillion. Beijing relies on us and our dollars to keep the regime in power.

If we anger the Chinese by putting a 25% tariff on their imports, they have to shut up and pay the tariff. If China angers us, we can default on our loans, start making iPhones in Barre, and watch as the Communist regime collapses.

“But what about their military?” Neo-cons will say. “China is a dangerous expansionist empire!”

The truth is that China is one of the least bellicose empires in human history. China’s arch-enemy Japan is located a few hundred miles off shore to the east. And China has never attacked Japan. Not once.

Don’t let Neo-cons scare you into thinking that China wants war with us. Our military continues feverishly to try to start a war with them.

We eagerly provoke the Chinese with our imperial military presence. We remind them of the bloody Korean conflict by obstinately keeping tens of thousands of troops in South Korea. We disrespectfully ignore their hatred of the Japanese by effectively acting as the Japanese defense force to this day.

We have an obligation to support any politician who proposes that we finally bring our troops home where they belong.


At the beginning of this column, I said that granting China Most Favored Nation status was a mistake. That’s not precisely true.

Our current China policy had the successful intended effect of making globalist corporations richer and keeping the East Asian wing of our military empire in business.

The rest of us are losing, though. We need tariffs. We need less foreign-made junk. We need to bring our troops home. We need a new China policy.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri


“Always remember, people will hate you. But they don’t win unless you hate them back. And then you destroy yourself.”

-Richard Nixon


People have a funny idea about the virtue of vengeance.

If a bad guy does something to your family, you are given free reign to hate him and work to have bad things happen to him. Vengeance is considered satisfying, justified, and cool.

People know that wrath is a deadly sin and that we are supposed to love our enemies, but they don’t want to hear it. “Why is the church being such a killjoy? They are taking all the fun out of my sweet vengeance!”

But the church is right and it’s doing us a favor. When a bad guy wrongs your family, the selfish thing to do is forgive him and move on; that’s your best shot at happiness and peace. Wrath is rightly called a deadly sin because it makes life miserable for the people around you and destroys your soul.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh certainly agrees. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the perfect anti-vengeance movie.

McDonagh starts off with a classic Hollywood premise.

On one side, you’ve got the heroine: Mildred (Frances McDormand). Mildred’s daughter was murdered several months ago and she demands justice. Mildred rents out three billboards in town that explicitly call out the police for failing to find the killer.

On the other side, you’ve got the bad guy: Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon is a drunken, racist, angry bully cop.

McDonagh has an easy movie on his hands, right? Just make poor Mildred look sympathetic and make Dixon look like an irredeemable villain. Heck, let’s find that killer in the final act, too, for closure, justice, and a happy ending.

No. No. No. “Three Billboards” defies every expectation you have. This film is full of surprises; brave surprises that are never gimmicky.

There are no heroes or villains in Ebbing, Missouri. There are just people making decisions. Every decision that’s based on anger leads to more anger. And every moment of forgiveness leads to more togetherness and peace.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred is an amazing, realistic lead character. she’s no fool, but she’s too angry and stubborn to ever learn her lesson. We the audience slowly realize what Mildred doesn’t: Even if she finds her daughter’s killer, she won’t be happy. She has already turned too many people against her and she is too overcome by hate.

Vengeance is never a virtue. Forgiveness is always the sensible choice.



Lady Bird

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The Film that is going to win Best Picture

Lady Bird



Everybody knows that marriages require work to succeed.
Strangely, though, no one ever told me that having a positive, lasting relationship with my parents takes work, too.

Half of marriages end in divorce. But what percentage of children have always liked both their parents and enjoyed spending time with them? It’s darn well less than half.

If you aren’t careful, you will find a way to dislike your child. If you aren’t vigilant, you could simply run out of things in common and stop talking to each other. It doesn’t make you bad people, it just makes you human.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig made a perfect little indie film about a lousy mother/daughter relationship.

Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) stars as Lady Bird: a high school senior in Sacramento, California.

Lady Bird is a normal, relatable teenager. She’s not so great at school, not so smart with boys, and has a terrible relationship with her mother.

Laurie Metcalf (“Rosanne”) plays Lady Bird’s mother Marion. Marion probably never should have had kids and she quietly knows it. When her husband is laid off, Marion goes from hard-working mom to put-upon, unhappy grump.

Marion will never understand why Lady Bird isn’t grateful for all that she has done to sacrifice for the family. And Lady Bird will never understand why it is horribly stressful for her mother every time she mentions that she wants to go to an expensive east coast college.

“Lady Bird” is as empathetic and relatable a film as you’ll ever see. Writer/director Greta Gerwig is an explosive talent. It’s a shame (and a little sexist) that critics are assuming that the movie is autobiographical.

None of the other Best Director nominees are being accused of this. No one is assuming that Christopher Nolan was a British soldier because he couldn’t have made “Dunkirk” so believable if he hadn’t been. No one is asking Guillermo Del Toro how many magical sea monsters he slept with to research “The Shape of Water.”

My point is: “Lady Bird” is a first-rate film and Greta Gerwig deserves more credit than she is getting.

The best scene occurs 2/3 of the way through. Lady Bird is trying on prom dresses with Marion and there is tension as always. Suddenly, Lady Bird bluntly asks her mom: “Why don’t you like me?”

Marion, taken aback, can’t even bring herself to lie. She doesn’t like her daughter. She’s a mom who is doing the best she can for her family. That’s the best she’s got.

Greta Gerwig’s conclusion is perfect and real. Maybe, just maybe, Lady Bird and Marion will learn to like each other someday. But it’s certainly going to take some work.

The Shape of Water

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The Shape of Water



“The Shape of Water” does a magnificent job of bringing us into its world.

The film takes place in an alternative version of early 1960s Baltimore: with huge apartments, secret military laboratories, kind-hearted Russian spies, and very few black people. Oh, and one magical sea creature.

Director Guillermo Del Toro is unquestionably a talented director. And he has a niche genre that’s all his own.

Del Toro makes fairy tale fantasy movies. The plots sound like they are for children. But children aren’t allowed to watch his films due to the extreme graphic violence, copious F-bombs, and full-frontal nudity.

Del Toro’s breakthrough hit, 2006’s “Pan’s Labyrinth,” is a 4-star classic. It’s the story of an imaginative little girl in 1930s Spain who creates a macabre alternative world. Del Toro’s point is that she is incapable of imagining anything as scary and terrible as her real life in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War.

“The Shape of Water” doesn’t have a clear point. And it’s not nearly as good as “Pan’s Labyrinth.”

“Water” tells the story of a mute lady named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) who takes a liking to the sea creature who is chained up in the military lab where she works. When Elisa sees him, it is love at first sight. That doesn’t make any darn sense, but it is convenient for the plot.

Unfortunately, military man Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) hates the creature as much as Elisa loves him.

The rest of the movie is essentially a Loony Tunes cartoon as Elisa’s Bugs Bunny outsmarts and hurts Strickland’s Elmer Fudd. Only this time, Elmer Fudd’s wounds bleed and get ghastly infections.

The problem with fairy tales is that they don’t have good characters – only heroes and villains. “The Shape of Water” is no different.

The film is perfectly entertaining. But ultimately I didn’t care about the love story and didn’t root for the heroes because they are so perfectly likable and bland.

Guillermo Del Toro didn’t foresee the problem with having a pack of flawless heroes and a villain played the great Michael Shannon who possesses every human vice. Eventually, intelligent viewers are going to begin to empathize with Strickland.

Strickland’s last words to the sea creature “****. You are a god” is the film’s only moment of true magic and wonder.

In the end, though, this is not a great movie. “The Shape of Water” does a magnificent job of bringing us into its world. But a lousy job of relating it to our world.

Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread



One of the most perverse and unnecessary spectacles in our society is when a woman is put on trial for killing her husband and then carted off to prison.

I am not defending murderers, but I don’t understand the point of locking away women like this for the rest of their lives. There are times when that Lady Justice statue needs to take off her blindfold, put down those scales, and use some common sense.

In every murder case, I think the primary question that jurors should be asking themselves before sending someone to prison is: “Is the defendant any danger to society?” In the case of a woman who killed her husband, the answer is a hard “no.”

To whom is she a danger? Maybe, just maybe, her next boyfriend. If you want to force a convicted killer to get a painful tattoo across her back that reads: “I killed my last husband. Beware,” I’m okay with that. But tossing her in prison? That’s not productive; it is blind vengeance disguised as justice.

If there is one thing that a dozen relationships and two marriages has taught me, it is that every love affair is different. There is no magic formula that ensures that a relationship will work and be healthy and will last.

Every couple is different. Every couple is fighting its own unique battle against the odds to make the relationships work. If you think you know everything that’s going on behind closed doors in another couple’s marriage, you are mistaken.


“Phantom Thread” is a simple story of a successful marriage. It’s also a unique, perverse art film that explores a relationship that most people would define as abusive and all people would define as illegal.

Daniel Day Lewis stars as Randolph Woodcock: the most revered fashion designer in post-war London. He is a rich, beloved celebrity and he’s a terrible man.

Randolph is obsessed with his work and his daily routine. Anyone who bothers him while working gets sniped at and cut down to size. He is self-centered, ungrateful, and childish. Oh, and he has weird mommy issues.

How the heck do you live with a man like that? Our heroine Alma is going to find out. For a while, it feels like “Phantom Thread” is about jerk Randolph dominating and destroying his unfortunate young lover.

But Alma is smarter, more willful, and more relentless than any of us give her credit for. The film is part Hitchcock, part Taming of the Shrew in reverse, and all genius.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson forces you to rethink what you know about power struggles within a marriage. Anderson argues that all is fair in love. And that anything Alma does to take control of her relationship is clever, reasonable, and justified. In fact, she is doing her idiot husband a favor.

If you have seen “Phantom Thread,” I want you to ask yourself: if Alma kills Randolph after the closing credits, is it right to put her on trial and condemn her to life in prison? If you seriously answered yes, you are as blind and cold as that Lady Justice statue.

I, Tonya

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I, Tonya



It is open season on rednecks in our culture. In polite society, one is allowed to make fun of them, diminish them, call them awful names, or simply ignore their perspective entirely.

“I, Tonya” is the first serious film I’ve ever seen about a great redneck. This is not an indictment of the American working class, it is a condemnation of the classist jerks in Hollywood who don’t understand or appreciate them. But, hey, if you have to wait a lifetime for a film about your people, at least it should be great. “I, Tonya” is the best picture of the year.

Some critics observe that “I, Tonya” is condescending to Tonya Harding. I suppose that’s because they’ve never seen a movie like this and don’t understand it. Director Craig Gillespie tries to tell the truth about Tonya Harding to the best of his ability. And the truth is that she is an amazing athlete, an amazing competitor, and an amazing fighter. She’s a redneck, an admirable hero, and a great American champion.

The story begins in the mid 70s, somewhere in Oregon. Tonya Harding was LaVona Golden’s sixth child from her fourth husband. What did that mean? It meant no one ever treated Tonya like she was wanted or special. But she was special.

Tonya began winning skating contests at age four. By the time she was a teenager, Tonya was a nationally recognized skating dynamo. In 1991, she became the first American woman to land the Triple Axel in a competition.

It was quietly agreed upon that Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the greatest figure skater in the hemisphere. But she wasn’t always getting top scores, and it infuriated her.

After bravely (and profanely) confronting dozens of judges, one sheepish judge finally tells her what’s happening: “It’s not your skating, Tonya. It’s you. You’re representing America, for Goodness sake. We need to see a wholesome American family.”

Tonya Harding was the Tom Brady of skating. But she was treated like Blake Bortles because she wasn’t dainty, demure, passive, or upper middle class.

She could have sold out and acted like a proper lady to coax better scores out of the judges. But she couldn’t pretend to have a wholesome American family. Tonya was from a broken home and her loveless mother beat her. Tonya didn’t know any better so she married a loser who beat her.

Instead of giving Tonya Harding extra acclaim for overcoming her challenging personal life, people tried to keep her down. And ultimately succeeded.

Margot Robbie is a revelation as Tonya. This is the best performance by anyone in 2017. If Meryl Streep wins Best Actress over Robbie, it will be because the Academy voters are as classist as they are wrong.

Director Craig Gillespie doesn’t make “I, Tonya” a melodramatic story of heroes and victims. He presents Tonya Harding’s life as a tragic black comedy.

If you’re expecting “I, Tonya” to be about that one time a guy Tonya Harding didn’t know whacked Nancy Kerrigan in the knee, you’ll be disappointed.

This film isn’t about the Kerrigan incident, it’s about how we all reacted to it.

The fact that Tonya Harding isn’t revered as a sports hero says more about us than it does about her. America isn’t built to appreciate and admire redneck women. It’s built to laugh at them. And, when necessary, to destroy them.