First Reformed

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First Reformed

****

 

Environmentalism is a religion.

I don’t mean that as an insult, just an observation. “First Reformed” is the first time I’ve seen an Environmentalist make this observation, too.

Environmentalism has a deity: Mother Earth. It has a devil: Corporations. It has a clergy: Scientists. It has a story that explains how the world began: the Big Bang. And it has a story that explains how the world will soon end: Climate Change.

I am a Conservationist. I no longer have an Amazon account, I eat very little meat, I have a small apartment, and I try to use as little of the earth’s resources as possible. However, when I hear people claiming that they know the future and that it is catastrophically terrible, that’s a doomsday religion – and I want no part of it.

Christians have the Book of Revelation. Environmentalists believe that Armageddon has begun. And that it’s humanity’s fault. That is super depressing.

“First Reformed” is a magnificent, artful drama about one man’s struggle with Environmentalism. Writer/director Paul Schrader begins with the clear assumption that corporations are destroying the planet. His film is about the despair that this realization causes.

Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller. When we meet him, he’s not doing all that well. He is the minister for a tiny old church in Upstate New York with a dwindling congregation. He is dying from stomach cancer and he is avoiding treatment and continuing to drink.

The story begins when one of Rev. Toller’s parishioners asks him to council her depressed husband Michael. Michael argues that the earth is quickly reaching a tipping point of destruction and that martyrdom or total despair are the only reasonable responses. Toller tries to convince Michael to search for Jesus and love and hope.

Then a darkly funny thing happens. Michael wins the argument. Rev. Toller becomes a fanatical new convert to the Environmentalist faith. And the main focus of his righteous rage is the Balq Corporation: the local manufacturing firm that is sponsoring his church’s anniversary celebration.

Writer/director Paul Schrader does an amazing job of showing us the inner workings of Toller’s conversion and building the tension and dread to a fever pitch.

Ever wonder how a decent religious man becomes a terrorist? “First Reformed” answers that question with stark clarity.

Schrader wrote the 1976 classic “Taxi Driver” and the similarities are unmistakable. Rev. Toller is a 21st Century version of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle.

When we meet both men, they are desperately lonely and self-loathing. Then they undergo a change of mind that refocuses their depression outwardly into self-righteousness and judgment and wrath.

“First Reformed” is a first-rate character study and a painfully honest study of faith. Plus it has an ending that is guaranteed to get you talking.

 

This is an important movie.

It is the first film that explores the religion of Environmentalism from the point of view of a true believer. It makes a clear statement that extremism for a good cause is still really bad.

And it dares to ask the question: whether the end of the world is coming or not, is it worth it to believe something so depressing?

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Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

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Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

**1/2

 

In this hyper-partisan era, people on both sides are way too eager to embrace a celebrity who seems to share their opinion about the President.

It was understandable that people on the Right wanted to watch the Rosanne reboot. It was the first time that a scripted TV show presented Trump supporters as regular, sympathetic Americans. But Conservatives made a mistake when they embraced Rosanne Barr as one of their own without doing any research.

This is the same Rosanne who proclaimed that 9/11 was an inside job masterminded by George W Bush. This is the same Rosanne who went a little too far in her anti-Chick-Fil-A hatred in 2012: “Anyone who eats at ****-Fil-A deserves to get the cancer that is sure to come from eating antibiotic filled tortured chickens 4Christ.” Whoops. You backed the wrong horse, Conservatives.

Hey, don’t laugh too hard, Leftist readers. You may be making the same mistake with Pope Francis.

In May, 2016, Pope Francis made a thinly veiled attack on candidate Trump when he said that we should be building “bridges, not walls.” On that day, The Resistance fell in love. And the love affair continues.

The Catholic Church couldn’t believe its good fortune. “Liberals around the world are embracing the old white guy patriarch of our extremely patriarchal old boys club?” Cardinals exclaimed. “Wow! I don’t get it, but let’s roll with it.”

Since then, the Catholic Church and the Media have worked together to shine a spotlight on Pope Francis’s most Progressive pronouncements while quietly sweeping his Conservative comments under the rug.

“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” is an earnest new propaganda film that works to stoke the fire of liberal love for the current Pope. German documentarian Wim Wenders does an outstanding job.

Wenders proudly presents all of Pope Francis’s Progressive opinions, including the ones that contradict each other.

Pope Francis is explicitly anti-Capitalism. He calls it “terrorism against all humanity.” However, he also tells young unemployed Italians that they are being robbed of the human dignity that only steady work can bring.

I am definitely not defending everything about the world economy. I am with Pope Francis 100% when he criticizes our Throwaway Culture and urges us to consume less. But let’s be real: capitalism is what gave you and me a job and the free market is the best bet for those who don’t yet have one.

The people next to me in the theatre were nodding their heads vigorously when Pope Francis displayed his environmentalist cred and criticized us for ravaging Mother Earth.

But look closer, serious environmentalists: Pope Francis is not part of the solution. He actively denies that the exponential growth in human population is a problem. And he obstinately stands by the Church’s insane prohibition on birth control.

“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” is not a biography, it’s a hagiography. And the Pope’s greatest miracle is convincing Democrats that he is on their side.

What the film doesn’t mention is that Pope Francis has put the clamp down on nuns looking for any added authority or recognition (never mind priesthood). He has called the movement for gay marriage “the envy of the Devil.” He compared arguments for transgender rights to a nuclear arms race.

Pope Francis argues against gay adoption in the same language as he condemns pedophiles. Because, in his eyes, gay adoption robs children of the right to live a normal life in a “suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity.”

 

Conservatives have had their Whoops moment with Rosanne. Liberals: get ready. Pope Francis is not your ally. The louder you support him, the more embarrassed you’ll be when he is exposed.

Solo:                    A Star Wars Story

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Solo:

A Star Wars Story

***

 

When Walt Disney Corporation paid George Lucas $4 billion for the rights to Star Wars, I thought that it had a simple plan. I thought the company was going to produce Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, sell some toys and lunchboxes, and try to make a modest profit on its investment.

That was stupid of me. Somewhere, Mickey Mouse is laughing so hard that he fell into his gigantic vault full of gold coins. Don’t worry, Mickey is okay. He went right back to swimming through the gold like Scrooge McDuck.

Disney’s real plan is to release a new Star Wars movie every year until people finally get sick of Star Wars and refuse to go.

2016’s “Rogue One” was a success by any measure. It grossed a $billion worldwide and did it without pandering. “Rogue One” is a grim World War II-style war movie aimed at adults that just happens to be set in the Star Wars galaxy.

Not everyone liked “Rogue One.” And that’s what made it so impressive. Disney gave serious artists a chance to make a Star Wars film rather than pressuring a well-known director to make an easy-to-swallow, derivative blockbuster.

“Solo” is an easy-to-swallow, derivative blockbuster directed by Ron Howard. I like it anyway, though.

The film is set in the anarchic time between Episodes III and IV. The Republic and the Jedi Council have been liquidated but the Emperor and Darth Vader haven’t solidified their power yet.

“Solo” takes place in a lawless region of the galaxy that is controlled by organized crime syndicates.  Ron Howard makes the bold but reasonable observation that order – even evil Sith order – is sometimes preferable to chaos.

That is as intellectually stimulating as the movie gets, however. Mostly, “Solo” is an old-fashioned Hollywood heist flick, with double-crosses galore and even a train robbery.

What “Solo” is lacking in intellectual stimulation, it makes up for with surprisingly good acting. Alden Ehrenreich does an outstanding job of matching Harrison Ford’s lovable swagger without doing an imitation of the iconic actor. The amazing Woody Harrelson anchors the movie as Beckett – the grizzled thief who takes young Solo under his wing.

Along the way, to no one’s surprise, Han Solo runs into Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian.

If you’re looking for surprises, you’ve got the wrong Star Wars movie (you want “The Last Jedi”). This is a safe movie made to blandly satisfy Star Wars nerds like me.

Before shooting began, Mickey Mouse walked up to Ron Howard in an intimidating fashion and said: “Rule 1: don’t do anything to damage the Franchise.” Then he went back to swimming in his huge vault of gold coins.

 

Disney is going to continue to greedily and cynically churn out Star Wars movies until it stops being profitable.

As long as they are as enjoyable as “Rogue One” and “Solo,” I’m okay with that.

Waco

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Television Mini-Series:

Waco

***1/2

 

“I feel like we’ve gotta call 911. But who do you call when it’s your own government attacking?”

-David Thibodeau, from inside the Branch Davidian compound

 

One of the most troubling political developments of the past few years is that I’ve heard people – from the Right and the Left – defend the FBI.

Like I always say, if Republicans and Democrats agree on something, it must be a terrible idea.

The scary thing is: I didn’t think that the FBI was even trying to behave in a defensible way. I thought that they were working hard to be cool fascist villains in nice suits.

The FBI systematically gathered dirt on politicians and told them about the secrets. In this way, the FBI politely blackmailed elected officials into silence and ensured that they’d stand back and let the Agency do what it pleased.

And what the FBI has always done is flout the rule of law and due process to harass and destroy its perceived enemies. The FBI’s enemies were anti-war activists, feminists, and civil rights workers.

The FBI tried to destroy Martin Luther King. The Bureau sent Dr. King an anonymous letter detailing his extra-marital affairs and urging him to commit suicide.

There has never been anything defensible about the FBI. It is the enemy of freedom, democracy, and our Republic. Any leader who tries to disband the FBI is a great American hero. Sadly, he will probably be sabotaged and assassinated before he succeeds.

 

The TV mini-series “Waco” chronicles the darkest hour of Federal Law Enforcement: the completely unprovoked murder of 76 Texans in the spring of 1993.

The Branch Davidians were a peaceful little Christian cult that centered around prophet David Koresh (Taylor Kitsch).

The oddest thing about the group was that Koresh made a rule that he must be the only man among them to have sex. He began marrying his friends’ wives and he even married the teenage sister of his first wife. Obviously this was selfish, disgusting, inexcusable behavior. But it was no danger to the general public or to our society. The Branch Davidians just wanted to be left alone.

On the morning of Feb 28, the ATF raided their isolated church compound with dozens of heavily armed men and three helicopters. The Branch Davidians fought back. In the firefight, 4 federal agents and 5 Branch Davidians were killed.

This is the point where the story goes from unfortunate to upsetting. The Feds could have admitted their error, sent a letter of apology to the church, and left Waco forever. Instead they lied about the facts of the raid, demonized Koresh and his followers, and began an insane and cruel siege.

The sole voice of reason in “Waco” is real-life FBI negotiator Gary Noesner (Michael Shannon). He is constantly calling for restraint and transparency and all it gets him is confused looks and active hostility from his fellow agents.

Some viewers are going to be turned off by “Waco” because creators John and Drew Dowdle are unambiguously sympathetic to the Branch Davidians. FBI leaders are portrayed as dishonest and blood-thirsty.

But, really, is there any other way to look at it? As Agent Noesner cautions to his supervisor: an organization that arms itself with machine guns and tanks is destined to become a murderous war-machine.

 

I doubt that the FBI will ever do anything to make my community safer. There is a decent chance, however, that the FBI will bug my phone and put me on an Enemies List because I wrote this column.

Hostiles

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Hostiles

**1/2

 

When my parents were children, they were taught that cowboys and American lawmen were the good guys and Native Americans were savages to be defeated. Now, children are taught that the Natives were the virtuous victims and white men were the blood-thirsty villains.

There’s truth to both of those perspectives. But they are both outrageous oversimplifications. I suppose you have to keep stories short for children. I just hope that adults are sensible enough not to mistake either narrative for the truth.

The White Men Are Bad theory is based on the notion that Native Americans were here first. I have two problems with the “they were here first” justification.

One: “I was here first” is the argument that a 6-year-old uses when she’s angry that there are too many kids in the sandbox.

Two: “They were here first” wasn’t always true. It’s vastly more complicated than that.

For example, the Cherokees weren’t here first. Several hundred years ago, a group of Iroquois split off and formed their own tribe. They moved south, encountering an existing society of more primitive Mound Building Indians. The Cherokees massacred the natives and annihilated them from the earth and from the history books.

The victorious Cherokee tribe conquered and settled much of the mid-Atlantic region in the mid 17th Century. This was approximately fifty years after the English landed at Jamestown. And even a few years after the Swedes settled Wilmington, Delaware. The Swedes got along reasonably well with the Native tribes but got bullied back to Europe by the Dutch.

The theories of Whites vs Natives and They Were There First break down when confronted with the infinite complexities of real history.

 

“Hostiles” is an ultra-violent western that makes an effort to present American/Native American relations without oversimplification.

The story begins in 1892. Grizzled army captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is given one more dangerous mission before retirement. He must lead a cancer-stricken Cheyenne chief up to his ancestral home in Montana. Early in the journey, Blocker picks up a distraught woman (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family was just slaughtered by Comanches.

I’ll bet the Old West was violent. But I’m guessing it wasn’t quite as relentlessly violent as writer/director Scott Cooper makes it appear. And that’s fine by me because guys don’t watch westerns with the expectation that everyone is going to be smoking peace pipes for 90 minutes.

“Hostiles” does a splendid job of showing that a man’s people are the ones who he is traveling with and fighting next to, not the ones who share his skin color. Blocker and his multi-racial crew quickly band together as one in the face of mortal danger.

The film is perfectly entertaining, but I have two big problems with it.

Cooper wants to his movie to be sympathetic to Native Americans but he couldn’t bring himself to write any interesting Indian characters. The Cheyennes are nothing more than dull, bland one-dimensional stereotypes.

Even worse: there are no jokes in this movie. More than two hours and not a single laugh. Scott Cooper seems to think that comedy was invented in 1900. It was not. I’m pretty sure that on long trips out west, a cowboy would let a huge one rip and then blame it on his horse. And then all the other cowboys would laugh heartily, because there was nothing better to do.

 

There is no single story of the clash between Native Americans and Europeans. There are dozens of different peoples and a million different stories. The best you can do is tell one of those stories really well.

“Hostiles” doesn’t even do that. It’s a mediocre, humorless western. Take it or leave it.

Tully

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Tully

****

 

When my first marriage was coming to an end, I made a list of the worst-case scenarios that could happen in order to keep things in perspective.

Here’s what I thought were the bottom five most terrible things that could happen to me:

  1. Die
  2. Get Divorced
  3. Get severely injured in an accident so I can no longer walk or be active.
  4. Have kids
  5. Get tortured

You know that feeling when you look at the clock on your computer at work and discover that you still have three long hours to go before quitting time? That’s how parenthood sounds to me. Except instead of three hours, you have 25 years to go before you get to stop working. 25 years during which you are often tired and always worried about money.

“Tully” is a rare film that explores parenthood in terms that make sense to me: as an existential life crisis.

Charlize Theron is magnificent as a 40 year old mom named Marlo.

In her 20s, Marlo was a cool Brooklynite. She was a bohemian bisexual libertine. She was the kind of person who makes dark clever quips during a conversation and doesn’t care that most people aren’t quick enough to get her jokes.

Now Marlo is a suburban mom. When we meet her, she is about to give birth to her third child, and it is no secret that it was an accidental pregnancy.

After the new baby is born, director Jason Reitman gives us a frighteningly realistic montage of Marlo’s life. From her perspective, existence has become an endless, meaningless series of diaper changes, loud rides to school, and late-night breast pumping while watching bad reality TV.

Marlo is frazzled and starting to lose her mind. Then Tully shows up.

Tully is the Night Nanny that they hired to take care of the new baby so that Marlo can relax for a few hours and get some sleep.

But young Tully (Mackenzie Davis) ends up being much more than that. She also sees it as her mission help Marlo gain a new perspective on motherhood, self-esteem, and happiness. Tully is Mary Poppins and Dr. Ruth mixed together in one extremely good-looking package.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”) has written her masterpiece. “Tully” is a deep, empathetic character study of a smart woman on the edge of sanity. This is what all chick flicks would be like if I ran Hollywood.

 

“Tully” is a perfect film that reminds us that life changes in ways that you never expect.

I was certainly wrong about my worst-case scenario list when I was getting divorced. Divorce is much more wonderful than death.

Maybe I am wrong about the first and second items on my list, too. Having kids is probably the very worst thing that could happen to me. Torture might be tolerable if it doesn’t go on for too long, right?

The Irish Famine               and What it Means to Us

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The Irish Famine

and What it Means to Us

 

Schoolkids are taught that the United States was founded on freedom and Enlightenment ideals. That’s partially true. But at its heart, the American Revolution was a colonial uprising.

The rich guys in the States thought of themselves as respectable Britons. The problem was, actual British people thought of them as mere colonists. Americans thought of their States as equal to Yorkshire or the West Midlands. London thought of America as a cash register to be taxed and exploited.

Schoolkids are also taught that colonialism is based on race. And while it is true that imperialists have sometimes used race as an excuse for colonialism, the motivation has always been money. The color of the exploited colonists doesn’t matter at all. Blind greed doesn’t discriminate.

 

One of the most ghastly episodes in colonial history is the Irish Famine.

During the 17th Century, Great Britain reconquered and brutally pacified Ireland. Naturally, the British began to use their colony for selfish profit.

The British took the most fertile farmland in Ireland and used it for raising animals. Soon, wealthy and noble Englishmen were eating like kings, dining on meat from the fields of Ireland.

Meanwhile, the Irish themselves were eating like…Irish people; dining on potatoes.

The parts of Ireland that weren’t deemed suitable for grazing were left to the local peasants to farm. English landlords – some of whom never stepped foot in Ireland – owned large tracts of land and rented out of parcels of it to Irish families.

To maximize profit, the absentee English landlords split their property into smaller and smaller pieces so that they could have as many Irish families paying them rent as possible. Soon, the average farm size in Ireland was so small that peasants didn’t have room for animals or low-yield grains like wheat or barley.

The highest yield staple food that exists is potatoes. So that’s what most every Irish tenant farmer grew and that’s what most every Irish peasant was forced to eat every meal.

In the whitewashed version of history, a potato blight caused crop yields to plummet between 1845 and 1849, leading to the death of a million Irish people and the emigration of a million others. In just a few horrible years, the island’s population dropped by 25%.

In the history books, the Irish Famine was a natural disaster. In reality, it was a colonialist crime.

The blight only effected potatoes. The fertile grazing fields continued to produce meat at pre-blight levels. During the height of famine, imports of livestock, bacon, and butter into Liverpool actually increased.

There was plenty of food to go around in the 1840s, it’s just that the Irish didn’t have any money and the British didn’t have any desire to share.

 

Colonialism isn’t just an ugly page in history books. Our country is still arbitrarily ruling over territories that we conquered in the 20th Century.

I’m certainly not saying that the American empire is as villainously exploitive as the British. I am saying that colonialism is always wrong and that it is directly repugnant to the spirit of our country’s founding.

I will be especially proud to be an American on the day that our government finally grants Guam, Samoa, the Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and Puerto Rico their freedom and independence.

Take Your Pills

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Take Your Pills

*1/2

 

At the turn of the 20th Century, people had a way of staying up when they were tired, focusing on tedious tasks, saying no to food they didn’t need, and feeling up when they were down. It was an all-natural health elixir: cocaine.

Cocaine worked as advertised. But it had the troubling side effect of extreme addictiveness. For some, cocaine turns your non-high life into a bland series of meaningless events that you must endure until your next fix. There had to be something better…

In 1929, California biochemist Gorden Alles injected himself with 50mg of the synthesized chemical compound amphetamine.

Unsurprisingly, the first man to use amphetamine was quite motivated to record his experience in detail. Alles wrote that his annoying runny nose had dried up and that he was experiencing a euphoric sense of “well-being.” He also observed that amphetamine gave him a “rather sleepless night.”

There is one scientific equation that we all know is true: effective drug+America=profit.

The Netflix original documentary “Take Your Pills” educates us about a forgotten period of American history. The Benzedrine era.

Smith Kline’s Benzedrine Inhaler was a sensation. Allergy sufferers used Benzedrine as directed as a decongestant. Insecure Depression-era workers used it to impress their bosses. And students popped Benzedrine to pull all-nighters at college.

Apparently, the thought of college students getting As on their midterms was too much for the Feds to bare. Amphetamines were declared a Schedule II Controlled Substance in 1970.

But amphetamines underwent a surprising renaissance in the 21st Century. The executive brain dysfunction ADD became a known problem. And amphetamines – now packaged under the name Adderall – became the best known treatment.

“Take Your Pills” does a splendid job of telling the history of Adderall. But documentarian Alison Klayman fails miserably when it comes to convincing us that the drug is a scourge on society.

Ms. Klayman strangely and irresponsibly leaves out the fact that millions of ADD sufferers and their families are helped by the drug.

My wife and I used to get into terrible fights because I didn’t understand her ADD and she couldn’t control it.

My wife’s daily 10mg dose of Adderall has made my marriage more functional and harmonious. Thank you, Adderall.

Granted, most people who pop Adderall pills are not like my wife. They don’t have ADD. They are, technically speaking, abusing the drug.

However, Adderall abuse is not a major problem. Adderall abuse ruins hearts. It ruins livers. And ruins kidneys, I hear. But it doesn’t negatively impact society.

It’s a pill that helps kids study harder, adults work harder, and partiers dance harder.

I am not recommending that you start taking Adderall. I’m really not. I used to take it myself and I am happier and healthier without it. However, if you have the choice of taking Adderall or cocaine, please choose Adderall. I beg of you.

“Take Your Pills” is just wrong. Adderall is serious medicine for some people. And for druggies, it is a reliable upper that you don’t have to buy from a drug dealer and is unlikely to turn you into a junkie.

Compared to cocaine, amphetamines are a miracle of modern science.