Whitney

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Whitney

***

 

First off, I feel like I should admit something: I don’t like Whitney Houston’s music. I like zero of her songs.

I have nothing against Ms. Houston personally. I just don’t appreciate songs where the singer shows off her voice at the expense of the music. I listen to a pop song because of the catchy hooks – not for some crooner demonstrating her unusual vocal range.

To me, a song is like a BLT sandwich. The percussion is the bread, the bass is the tomato, and the guitar or synthesizer is the bacon. The vocals are just the lettuce.

A Whitney Houston song is like a BLT piled high with an entire head of lettuce. On one hand, it’s kind of impressive that you could fit that much lettuce. But it makes for a bland, artless sandwich that I don’t want to consume.

 

“Whitney” is an engrossing documentary that treats Ms. Houston entirely as a human being and not as a celebrity.

British director Kevin McDonald doesn’t tell his side of the story. He lets dozens of Ms. Houston’s family, friends, and co-workers tell their side.

It’s hard to know what Whitney Houston’s childhood was like because the relatives interviewed give two completely different stories.

Some say that Ms. Houston had an idyllic childhood. Her dad was a high-powered Newark politician and her mom was a successful back-up singer who worked with Elvis. Houston’s parents could afford private school tuition for young Whitney and a big house in the suburbs.

Others say that Ms. Houston was scarred by her nightmarish childhood. With her corrupt dad wheeling and dealing and her showbiz mom always on the road, young Whitney and her brothers were shuffled off from house to house – from aunt to cousin to neighbor. One of Whitney’s female relatives molested her. With minimal supervision, drugs were part of her life from an early age.

One of the tabloid misconceptions about Whitney Houston is that her rakish husband Bobby Brown corrupted her and introduced her to hard drugs. “Whitney” tosses that lie right into the trash.

Whitney Houston, by her own admission, loved drugs. And they were a part of her life before she became famous and long before she met Mr. Brown.

Ms. Houston’s older brother states that the Houston siblings would do cocaine with Bobby Brown, but that Brown couldn’t begin to keep up. “The only time we did as much as Bobby Brown,” he chuckles, “is when we were lapping him.”

Kevin McDonald can’t give us a happy ending, of course. But he does sprinkle in some laughs along the way.

He sneaks in an unexpected dig at Al Sharpton. In 1989, Reverend Sharpton urged black record buyers to boycott “Whitey” Houston for abandoning gospel music for pop. Then, after her death, we hear a cynical Sharpton lament her passing on CNN. I guarantee you that Rev Al does not like this movie.

But everyone else will. “Whitney” is an engrossing story about a woman who got everything she ever wanted but discovered that she had wanted the wrong things.

I enjoyed it even though I didn’t appreciate any of the music. But if you happen to be the type of person who likes her BLT piled high with lettuce, “Whitney” is an absolute must-see.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor

****

 

Because I write this column, I’ve watched plenty of movies over the years that I didn’t really want to see. I even break down and watch a family movie from time to time even though they are terrible.

I didn’t even enjoy the kiddie movies that everyone else liked – like “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles” and “Coraline.”

The entertainment that Hollywood makes for children is garbage. The only motivation is profit. The jokes are puns, putdowns, and potty humor. The action is always frantic, as if they are intentionally trying to erode your child’s attention span. When there is any emotion, it is nostalgic or manipulative.

 

That’s why Mr. Rogers is such a revered figure in our society.

He made wholesome, intelligent entertainment. He made shows for children – not for profit. His main goal was to help kids cope with the emotional challenges of childhood, not to help mothers enjoy twenty minutes of freedom to pour more Chardonnay.

Above all, Mr. Rogers wanted his young audience members to feel loved and capable of loving, rather than feeling like consumers in training.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was the pace. Fred Rogers wanted to be the voice of calm comfort in a chaotic world. He took time every day to feed his fish. There’s a scene where he takes joy in watching a turtle slowly run across his carpet. There is even a clip of Mr. Rogers sitting through an egg timer to teach kids what a minute of silence feels like.

Documentarian Morgan Neville isn’t trying to be as revolutionary as Fred Rogers. He’s mostly just trying to remind everyone why we all loved Mr. Rogers. And he succeeds mightily.

I want to thank my father for never crying in front of me. If not for his good influence, I surely would have sobbed in a crowded theater multiple times during “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It’s a seriously emotional film.

 

The one blemish on this otherwise classic documentary is Morgan Neville’s foolish attempt to paint Fred Rogers (a registered Republican who died in 2003) as a committed member of the #Resistance.

Neville’s evidence is a 1968 episode where the vainglorious puppet King Friday XIII builds a wall around his castle. “Gotcha!” Neville seems to say. “Mr. Rogers hates Trump!”

Not exactly. Mr. Rogers wasn’t making a literal anti-Wall statement. King Friday represented the old guard in ’68 who were resistant to change, like racial integration. It can be argued that Mr. Rogers’s Wall metaphor is an attack on fanatical anti-Trump Establishment leaders who are fighting change in Washington at all cost.

For the record, I am not making that argument. Both arguments are equally biased and stupid. My point is that any attempt to use the memory of Mr. Rogers to attack your political opponents is nauseating and ridiculous.

 

There is no way that Mr. Rogers can save us from our current political discord.

But he can remind us that there are saints among us. And that children’s entertainment can be more than insipid corporate cartoons.

American Animals

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American Animals

***1/2

 

We tell boys in our society that they are special and that they should reach for the stars.

I’m not sure we should be doing that, though.

First off, we’re not special. The little white lie that is meant to improve a young man’s self-esteem has the opposite effect of causing feelings of entitlement and disappointment.

Second, we are not doing young men any favors when we pressure them to be the best. In our society, being the best means having the most impressive-sounding job and the most stuff.

This is a problem because most people aren’t going to succeed in being wildly successful. And the men who do achieve impressive power and material wealth will learn that those things just add stress to their lives rather than joy.

Why can’t we just tell boys the truth? You aren’t special and you probably won’t achieve great things and that’s fine. You should strive to like yourself for who you are, because that will lead to more happiness and peace than everything money can buy.

 

“American Animals” is a powerful film about a couple of young men who were poisoned by thoughtless ambition and self-importance.

Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka were Kentucky college students in 2003. Instead of being content with the good fortune of being young middle class white guys in America, they were desperate for more.

Spencer was a painter who believed that a great artist needed a transformative experience to be great. And Warren was an obsessive thief with an intense fear of being just another suburban drone. Together, they decided to plan an art heist.

The Transylvania University library happened to have an impressive special collection, including a first addition of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and John Audubon’s “Birds of America” – the most valuable book in the world.

 

“American Animals” is a lot more intellectually ambitious than the average heist movie.

Writer/Director Bart Layton interviewed the real (now 30-something) Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka. We hear their perspective every step of the way.

Even though these guys were best friends sharing the most important event of their lives together, they remember every single aspect differently. Sometimes, Spencer and Warren directly contradict each other. It’s pretty funny.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone who mistakes their memories for snapshots of reality. True Story is an oxymoron. Our brains are built to assign meaning to meaningless events and to fill in the blanks rather than admit we are clueless.

The most important thing to know about the past is that literally no one ever knows what really happened. It is frightening that we still allow eye witnesses in court when people’s lives are on the line.

One more useful point of having the real Spencer and Warren narrating the heist is that we the audience can just sit back and enjoy the action. None of us have to judge them because they are already judging themselves very hard.

But they are just victims of a culture that gave them the wrong life lessons. If only they had known that they were not special and felt no pressure to achieve great things. If only they had known how unwise it is to crave more than their parents, when they definitely would have been happier with less.

 

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?

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.