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.

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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?

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.

Chappaquiddick

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Chappaquiddick

****

 

I am sick and tired of political scandals.

In my ideal world, people would only read about scandals in National Enquirer. Scandals wouldn’t be seen on the news. They wouldn’t be viewed as news at all; they would be guilty pleasure bathroom reading material.

In our world, scandals aren’t just on the news – they are the news. If you turn on CNN, there is virtually no chance that you’ll hear an informative conversation about underemployment, the urgent need to break up Amazon.com, the environmental benefits of tariffs and reduced international trade, or the prison-industrial complex. You will probably become a Stormy Daniels expert, though.

When you do a good job at work, your boss doesn’t say: “That doesn’t count because I read you were a jerk to your husband last night.” That makes no sense. But that’s what politicians have to deal with when people mistake scandals for relevant news.

Picture it: it’s 2021. President Elizabeth Warren successfully brought every soldier back to the United States. President Warren just shook hands with Putin and both leaders agreed to shut down our nuclear submarine programs and let the subs sink harmlessly to the bottom of the ocean.

I will rapturously applaud President Warren. If a scandal comes out that she is a terrible person behind closed doors, I will not care. There is nothing she could do or say or tweet that would make me dislike her as a leader. Her personal flaws and sins can not change the fact that she brought us world peace.

I suppose there’s limits, though, right?

There has to be a threshold where a politician’s personal evil-doing is so ghastly that you can’t vote for him in good conscience. The outstanding film “Chappaquiddick” explores this threshold.

The story begins on an appropriately sorrowful note. On a lovely summer evening in 1969, senator Ted Kennedy got drunk with a young lady who was not his wife and flipped his car over into the water. Somehow, Kennedy escaped. His passenger did not.

This is not so good. What makes this accident go from sad to horrible is that Senator Kennedy checked into a posh hotel and didn’t call the cops until the next morning. Meanwhile, poor Mary Jo Kopechne slowly suffocated as she franticly breathed the remaining oxygen that was inside the car.

The Senator (Jason Clarke) isn’t particularly troubled about the woman he just killed. He isn’t even scared that he will have to go to prison, even though he definitely would have served time if he had been poor or non-white. Ted is concerned that he – the last surviving Kennedy bother – has just spoiled his chance to become President.

Family patriarch Joe Kennedy assembles an absurdly accomplished team of great minds (including Ted Sorensen and Robert McNamara) to come up with a damage-control plan to save Ted Kennedy’s career. And they do a darn good job.

The best and brightest minds of the Democratic party should have been solving America’s problems; instead they were working as scandal spin doctors. The scenario is darkly funny, and director John Curren mines the situation for a lot of laughs.

The comedy reaches a surprising crescendo when Senator Kennedy dons a fake neck brace at Mary Jo Kopechne’s funeral to try to gain sympathy.

Don’t worry, Democrat readers: This isn’t an anti-Kennedy hatchet job. “Chappaquiddick” is an admirably even-handed film. Curren really does make us feel for Ted Kennedy. He never encourages us to judge the Senator.

The film definitely doesn’t encourage us to judge the voters of Massachusetts, who largely looked past the scandal and reelected Senator Kennedy seven more times.

There is absolutely no defense for what Ted Kennedy did on that terrible summer night in 1969. It is one of the worst personal scandals in US history. But the scandal does not diminish Kennedy’s legislative achievements. They have nothing to do with each other.

Next time a political scandal comes on your TV, please consider that you are watching meaningless tabloid trash, definitely not the news.

A Quiet Place

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A Quiet Place

*1/2

 

I like horror movies. But I rarely watch them.

Good horror movies make me lose sleep. It’s embarrassing but true. The night after “The Blair Witch Project,” I stayed awake in terror until dawn. The night after “Paranormal Activity,” I was 80% sure that my wife slumbering soundly next to me was a vicious demon.

I only go to see horror movies when they look really good and really interesting. Last weekend I saw “A Quiet Place.” I thought it was going to be great. I was mistaken.

Writer/director and new parent John Krasinski plays Lee Abbott: the greatest dad of all time.

The movie takes place in upstate New York after the alien apocalypse.

[Spoilers Ahead] We learn from newspaper clippings that a race of monsters landed a little more than a year ago and began killing people. These alien predators are blind and can’t smell. They hunt using their super hearing. By the time humanity understood this, however, most people were already dead.

Not the Abbott family, though. They’re doing just fine. Lee and his similarly perfect wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have made a good life for themselves and their children. They have a farm with a full granary. They have electricity and running water. They have a color-coated alien alarm system with video monitors. And somehow they were able to do all of this in total silence.

And in his free time, amazing selfless Lee tinkers with tiny speakers trying to fashion a functional homemade hearing aid for his surly deaf daughter.

I have to give Krasinski credit. He has created a brand new genre: Extreme Awesome Perfect Parenting Porn. I do not like this new genre at all. I’m pretty sure actual parents will appreciate “A Quiet Place” more than I do.

Oh, and get this: Evelyn is pregnant and Lee is delighted about it. That is certainly consistent with the new genre of Extreme Awesome Perfect Parenting Porn. But in the context of a world where aliens will devour you if they hear any sound, it makes NO DARN SENSE.

So, the family is boring. There’s virtually no dialogue. The aliens aren’t intriguing. And the ending is a carbon copy of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 alien movie “Signs.” “A Quiet Place” stinks.

Oh, well. At least it didn’t make me lose any sleep.

The Death of Stalin

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The Death of Stalin

****

 

Most everyone knows that the Soviet Union was a nightmarish place to live.

I’m not sure people know exactly why, though.

I don’t have enough room here to list all the atrocities, but the forced collectivization of agriculture was one of the worst.

In 1929, the Soviet Politburo announced the mass collectivization of agriculture. Successful capitalist peasants – labeled Kulaks – were not invited to join. The Kulaks were marched off to work camps or killed.

For the remaining peasants, collectivization was nearly as bad. With the best farmers gone, the large State farms were run by city bureaucrats. The bureaucrats knew a lot about Das Kapital but nothing about das wheat.

Inevitably, grain production plummeted. Farmers were still expected to ship the same amount of food to the city party leaders, though, and the USSR continued to export grain to fund its industrialization projects.

The farmers themselves received a smaller share of a shrinking bounty. The communists’ perverse experiment led to a man-made famine that killed 5 to 7 million peasants.

The hardest thing for us to believe about this horror story is that the architects of this mass murder were regular human beings like us. Soviet leaders were just people – with feelings and families and fears. And funny bones.

“The Death of Stalin” is a delightful, charming, audacious comedy about a few funny weeks in Soviet Russia.

It is 1953 and fearsome dictator Joseph Stalin just had a massive stroke. Nobody knows for sure how sick he is because all of the best doctors have been sent to the Gulag. But the leading members of the Politburo have already begun to jockey for position in the new government. And every human weakness and frailty is on display.

Ruthless Beria is letting political prisoners free with hopes of currying favor with the people (even though he’s the one who put them in prison to begin with).

Halfwit Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) has been named interim leader. One minute he’s drunk with his new power and ordering people around; the next minute he looks like a deer in headlights because he’s overwhelmed by the job.

Poor Molotov (Michael Palin) is too traumatized by the madness of the Stalin era to move on. It’s darkly funny to hear Molotov earnestly condemn his wife as a traitor even though he has no clue why Stalin arrested her.

There is definitely no hero to this story. But the closest thing we’ve got is Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev. He’s the only one who fully understands what is going on. This is not a battle of communist vs. capitalist or good vs. evil. Politics is about building a coalition by any means necessary. It’s fun to watch a perpetually frazzled Khrushchev convince, cajole and bully all the idiots in the Kremlin.

Writer/director Armando Ianucci (HBO’s “Veep”) has made the most inspired comedy of the year. It combines the witty wordplay of early Woody Allen with the anarchic slapstick of The Marx Brothers.

Mark Twain theorized that “humor is tragedy plus time.” “The Death of Stalin” proves it once and for all. I love this movie. See it if you can.

Black Panther

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Black Panther

**

 

I had no interest in watching “Black Panther.” Normally, I don’t see Hollywood superhero movies. It has been a long time since I really liked one. (“Spider-Man 2,” 2004).

My best friend saw “Black Panther” last week and told me it is worth seeing. My wife saw it and told me that I’d find it interesting.

So, I gave in and watched “Black Panther.” I was right the first time when I had no interest.

I feel old and out of touch saying this, but I doubt that I’ll ever understand the appeal of 21st Century action flicks.

When I was a kid, action movies were fairly lousy, but at least they took place in the real world: with real cars, real fists, and real stuntmen performing real acts of heroism that are at least slightly plausible.

Now action flicks are nothing more than cartoons: computer-generated images of masked comic book characters performing impossible feats of acrobatics. And I’m supposed to care? About what? A bunch of 0s and 1s?

The last time “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler and co-star Michael B. Jordan teamed up, they made the 2015 Rocky sequel “Creed.”

“Creed” had characters I deeply cared about and the fight scenes took place on real sets with real human beings. “Creed” is an emotionally powerful four-star classic. “Black Panther” can’t come close.

 

“Black Panther” is about the fantastic fictional country of Wakanda. Wakanda is the only African country that has never been colonized. Coogler’s point that colonization is always bad for those being colonized is well-taken.

In addition to being inventive and industrious, Wakandans have the good fortune of living in a region rich in the rare metal Vibranium. Vibranium is used in their infrastructure, weapons, and even medicine.

The hero of “Black Panther” is new King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). He is an enlightened, restrained monarch. He resists pressure from humanitarians to allow refugees into Wakanda. And he resists pressure from expansionists to use Wakanda’s superior weaponry to dictate how other countries behave.

The villain of “Black Panther” is rival Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). He is driven by righteous fury to use Wakandan power to overthrow white empires and create a new world run by dark-skinned peoples.

The first three quarters of “Black Panther” is pretty solid. I absolutely hate the final act.

The climactic one on one battle between T’Challa and Erik is just plain boring. To my eyes, it looked like a pair of poorly-lit cat cartoons flying all over the place and preposterously punching in midair.

It wasn’t even good by cartoon fighting standards. I was more emotionally invested when Popeye fought Bluto. I was more emotionally invested when Peter Griffin fought that big chicken.

The ending of “Black Panther” is infuriating and depressing. I was rooting for King T’Challa because he was humble and anti-colonialism. Then, suddenly, he pulls an ugly 180 and sets up shop in Oakland, California – with a new mission to help African-Americans be more like Wakandans.

Wait…what?! Wakanda was blessed with a magical metal and it just had a hideous civil war. Meanwhile, American blacks have been dealt a horrible hand by history and they have made immense contributions to world culture and art. Wakandans should be learning from Americans, it seems to me; not the other way around.

The heroic king suddenly transformed into T’Challa Kipling: a cultural colonizer suffering from Non-White Man’s Burden. Is self-righteous paternalism less obnoxious when it is coming from people who share your skin color? Ryan Coogler thinks so. To me, it was a sad ending to a mediocre movie.

“Black Panther” is just another Hollywood superhero movie. I don’t understand who would rather see average “Black Panther” than amazing “Creed.”

According to the box office, 9 out of 10 people would rather see “Black Panther.”

Oh, well. I’m the 10th. And I’m right.