They Shall Not Grow Old

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They Shall Not Grow Old

****

 

What is the biggest threat to our national security? What is the one existential threat to all mammalian life on this planet?

It’s nuclear war. Of course it’s nuclear war. It has been for 70 straight years.

When the Eastern Hemisphere is a pile of ashes and radioactive clouds are slowly drifting over to snuff out the Americas, it won’t matter whether earth’s median temperature is 14.4 or 14.9C.

It’s mind-blowing that people don’t take the threat seriously. The maniacs who run our foreign policy are arming Ukraine seemingly just to push Russia toward nuclear war with us.

H-bombs use nuclear fusion – like the sun – to produce an explosion that is thousands of times more powerful than the relatively puny fission A-bombs that we dropped on Japan. I fear that powerful people in Washington don’t understand that.

If I were President, I would push for peace with Russia under any conditions. I would eagerly agree to let Russia conquer Kiev and force the Ukrainians to work in Vodka distilleries if Moscow would also agree to bilateral nuclear disarmament with us.

Are you thinking that no one will use an H-Bomb because it is too destructive? That is not how history works. In real life, humans invent new ways to kill people and then the weapons get used. No matter horrible and ghastly, the weapons get used.

In case you doubt the willingness of armies to use any weapon at their disposal to inflict any level of suffering, “They Shall Not Grow Old” is a vivid reminder.

We learn that WWI’s Western Front was never “all quiet.” For four straight years, artillery guns boomed relentlessly. What I didn’t know is that artillery shells were made to explode in mid-air, raining seething chunks of hot shrapnel down into the trenches.

World War I also introduced poison gas into warfare on a mass scale. The soldiers say that gas masks were helpful against burning lungs but not so great at preventing temporary blindness. For those who didn’t have a gas mask, a urine-soaked rag was your best bet.

For those who survived long enough to take part in a good old-fashioned advance on German positions, most were killed by the newly invented machine gun within five minutes of leaving the trenches.

Some of the horrors of the 14-18 War were not technological in nature. Rats love feeding on corpses evidently and lice were a constant nuisance. Boot Rot doesn’t sound so bad; but Boot Rot is just a catchy nickname for gangrene and it crippled more soldiers than land mines.

Peter Jackson (“The Lord of the Rings”) has made a unique documentary. Almost all of the visuals are brilliantly restored contemporary footage. Jackson makes the interesting artistic choice of muting the drama rather than enhancing it.

The veteran narrators speak with a stiff upper lip and never ask you to feel sorry for them or their many dead colleagues. Apparently, after the war, returning soldiers were treated like lepers so they got used to pretending that the Great War was no big deal.

The profound indifference to the suffering of men was demonstrated plainly enough when Britain and Germany set up an exciting WWI rematch not long after. They just waited long enough for the babies of 1918 to grow old enough to fight.

As many civilians as soldiers were killed in WWII, however, and civilized countries don’t have nearly as much stomach for that. Western Europe, to its credit, has decided to entirely give up fighting wars against each other.

And, hey, I’m confident that after a few dozen H-bombs are dropped in WWIII, people will decide that they are too destructive, too. You know, if there are any people left.

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Brexit

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Brexit

***

“I don’t vote because it won’t make a difference, anyway.”

-Half the Electorate

 

They say democracy is in danger and I agree.

But it is not because of nationalism or foreign influence.

The biggest danger to our system of government is meaningless elections. It is getting to the point where it doesn’t matter whether you vote for a loud-mouth politician on the Left or on the Right because big companies have all the real power.

If Presidents had power, Trump would have made up some bogus reason to invade Mexico – James K Polk-style – and marched through the country wreaking havoc until Mexico City was eager to build the wall.

In real life, the powerless President is forced to beg for Congressional table scraps like a puppy. If Jeff Bezos wanted a border wall, it would be built already. If everyone in Texas was an Amazon Prime member, the wall would have been there in two business days or less.

Trump was elected in part because of his sensible observation that the US shouldn’t be mired in “endless wars” in the Middle East. In December, he ordered half of our soldiers back from Afghanistan and all the troops home from Syria.

He’s merely the President, though. Boeing and Lockheed Martin profit handsomely from the endless wars, so our troops may never come home.

While I think that meaningless elections are the gravest danger to our democracy, British screenwriter James Graham thinks that it is technology.

In a 2016 referendum, the British people shocked the world by voting to leave the EU. The HBO film “Brexit” blames the underdog Leave victory on one obnoxious nerd: Dominic Cummings (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Cummings used social media to find three million non-political Britons who had never voted and convinced them to register and support Leave. That’s pretty good for democracy, right?

“Wrong,” says James Graham. The movie argues that Cummings made a mockery of civil discourse by manipulating angry working class rubes into voting his way.

The Leave techies sent fun looking soccer quizzes to people’s Facebook timelines. The quiz results allowed the Leave team to send persuasive political ads that focused directly on the individual’s preferences and prejudices.

That sounds convincing. But it ignores the demographic reality of the Brexit vote breakdown.

Northern Ireland, Scotland, non-white British people, and wealthy cosmopolitan Londoners all voted decisively to Remain in the European Union.

That leaves ethnic English people, who voted overwhelmingly to Leave the EU and to take back control.

Brexit was not a story of gullible nitwits getting bamboozled by social media. This was the story of English people concluding that they could do a decent enough job of ruling themselves. It isn’t unreasonable; they have been leaders good governance for 800 years, after all.

I don’t know if the Leave side was right or wrong. I don’t know if life for the average British worker will be worse because of Brexit.

But I do know that the bankers and businessmen who run the UK really need to leave the EU next month. If they don’t respect the results of the referendum, the people who never vote because it doesn’t make a difference will be proven right once and for all.

And then democracy will die and the Era of Corporate Oligarchy will begin. Or has it begun already?

 

A Sea of Plastic

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A Sea of Plastic

**1/2

 

I don’t think like a mainstream environmentalist. I view humanity’s responsibility to the planet very much like my responsibility to the apartment complex where I live.

My cats scratch the carpet, they vomit on the carpet, and they even rub their butts across it sometimes. I do not feel like I’m a bad tenant. Stuff happens.

I do not smoke. But if I did, I would shamelessly smoke inside my apartment until the walls were yellow. I would not feel like I’m a bad tenant. Smoke happens.

I’m here to live my life and be happy, not tip toe around like I have something to feel guilty about.

But if I discovered that the stuff I was bringing into the apartment was non bio degradable, I would view that a problem that needs to change. If I learned that my trash would be junking up the apartment complex for millions of years, I would feel like a bad tenant.

According to the upsetting documentary “A Sea of Plastic,” the problem of plastic in our oceans is even bigger and more insidious than it sounds.

There are the obvious issues, like the bottom of the sea becoming a pile of garbage and large plastic bags and ropes entangling seals and choking whales.

But then the whole pieces of trash get broken down by sun and surf and become little chunks of plastic. Fish and birds eat these little chunks and slowly starve because their digestive system is choked with microplastics. The long-term effects of an ocean filled with trillions of inorganic shards is unknown and frightening.

There are also microbeads in consumer goods like face wash and toothpaste that make it to the ocean and poison the entire food chain.

“Hey,” you say, “we should all separate our garbage and toss our plastic in the recycling. Problem solved.” Unfortunately no.

According to “A Sea of Plastic,” the US doesn’t have nearly enough recycling capacity. In reality, a good percentage of what we thought we were recycling actually just got dumped into landfills.

Even worse, we actually export our recyclable plastic to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam that have weaker environmental regulations. So not only are we selfishly junking up poorer countries with our plastic trash, a lot of it ends up – you guessed it – in the ocean.

In turns out that recycling plastic is like going to Confession. It is a meaningful ceremony that helps clear your conscience. But it doesn’t make much tangible change in this world.

The only real solution is a permanent reduction in the production of plastic. Bravo to the environmentally conscious people who are finding ways to buy less plastic! But this problem is so enormous that we need a collective response as well. I support any government law that taxes, regulates, or even bans the use of plastic in disposable products.

If the government refuses to act, we could start dumping our plastic refuse on the lawns of the boards of directors for Coca Cola and Pepisco. When the piles get high enough, I think they will agree to switch back to aluminum cans.

As you can tell, I didn’t give “A Sea of Plastic” **1/2 stars because I disagree with the message. I can’t fully recommend the movie because it provides a half hour worth of information in a two hour running time. There are scores of made-up statistics that no one could possibly know and superfluous scenes with animal experts repeating the same message.

I didn’t need to hear the bogus prediction that there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 or see another dead bird stomach full of colored microplastics.

I was already completely won over by the film’s premise: we are being rude, trashy tenants to our kindly landlord planet earth. Let’s do better!

Vice

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Vice

***1/2

 

I have an easy question for you: Who is the worst living Republican president?

Your gut instinct is telling some of you to say Trump. I am a pacifist, though, so the decision is easy for me.

President Trump recently decided to pull all US troops out of Syria, infuriating the Republican establishment. You remember the troops in Syria, right? They were sent there by Nobel Peace Prize winner Barak Obama without Congressional approval to try to clean up the mess created by the Bush Administration.

If you think Arab lives matter – at all – the choice between Donald Trump and George W. Bush is clear. Just in case you were able to forget what a calamity the Bush Administration was for the people of the Middle East, “Vice” is a friendly reminder.

While President Trump doesn’t mind saying ‘no’ to the warmongers in his administration, George W. Bush always said ‘yes’ to Dick Cheney.

Love him or loathe him, Dick Cheney was an extraordinary figure in American history. As Vice President – an office with no official power – he became a fearful warlord who reshaped American imperialism.

Writer/director Adam McKay (“The Big Short,” “Talladega Nights”) presents Dick Cheney as a reasonably likable man. He has a wonderful relationship with his ambitious wife and he adores his two daughters. He unconditionally supported his openly lesbian daughter and refused to argue against gay marriage.

The first half of “Vice” is light and funny. We can’t help but root for young Cheney (Christian Bale) as he shrewdly works his way up through the ranks of the Nixon and Ford Administrations. Steve Carrell is delightful as Donald Rumsfeld, Cheney’s mentor and political soulmate.

When George W. Bush is elected in 2001, Dick Cheney goes from likable guy to arch-megavillain.

Adam McKay claims that Cheney invited dozens of his buddies from the petroleum industry to the White House to divvy up Iraq’s oil fields just in case they became available to steal. This was before 9/11.

After 9/11, Vice President Cheney worked to concede America’s moral high ground as quickly as possible. According to McKay, Cheney was the one who came up with the sick idea of moving POWs to secret prisons in allied countries that allow torture.

When Bush (Sam Rockwell) expresses concern about the plan, Cheney answers: “Mr. President, the United States does not torture. Therefore, what we’re doing is not torture.” We are not convinced.

All told, approximately 750,000 people were killed as a result of Mr. Cheney’s ill-fated invasion of Iraq. And if it were left up to him and his fellow foreign policy experts, US troops would remain in the Middle East indefinitely.

If you want to argue that Donald Trump is a bad president, that’s reasonable. I could add a few pieces of evidence to bolster your argument. His handling of the Wall has been embarrassingly incompetent. But if you want to say that he’s as bad as Bush/Cheney, then no. That’s not okay with me.

Bush is only better if you think that the sovereignty of Middle Eastern countries doesn’t matter. Bush is only better if you think that paying for CIA agents to torture men in Egypt doesn’t matter. Bush is only better if you think Arab Lives Don’t Matter.

Roma

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Roma

***1/2

 

It’s pretty ridiculous when I hear someone being accused of being racist against Mexicans.

There is no conceivable way to be racist against Mexicans. Mexican is a nationality, not a race. Racism against Mexicans is as absurd as racism against Americans.

This conversation underscores the awkward fact that Americans know virtually nothing about the country of Mexico. An educated American is bound to know something about the history and culture of the UK and France, and probably even a little bit about Germany and Russia. But a perfectly respectable educated American might know bupkis about our neighbor to the south.

Mexico is a diverse country of 130 million people. There are millions of Native Mexicans who are the direct descendants of the Aztecs, Mayans, and other indigenous groups. There are millions of Spanish Mexicans who are more lily white than I am. Did you know that there are nearly half a million ethnically Arab Mexicans (mostly Lebanese Christians)? I’m guessing those who call Mexican a race do not.

“Roma” is not a four star classic and I don’t know why it is a front-runner for Best Picture.

I strongly recommend it, however, because it is a wonderfully educational snapshot of Mexico – a country that we all know way too little about.

The title refers to the ritzy, mostly white neighborhood in Mexico City where the characters live. “Roma” follows one tumultuous year in the life of a white upper middle class family.

Director Alfonso Cuarón takes us back to the Mexico City of his youth in 1971. It’s a society very much like ours. The lead characters live in luxury and chat about NFL football and beach vacations. Meanwhile, their indigenous housekeeper Cleo does the dirty work with a quiet smile. She lives in their modern world but doesn’t share in its freedom or opportunity.

The characters’ peaceful lives are shattered by two awful outside events. The Cold War is raging. In Mexico, the Cold War was a lot hotter than in the US. Student activists, frustrated peasants, and Marxist guerillas were demanding change. Meanwhile, government soldiers and ruthless paramilitary militias were not afraid to bust some heads to maintain order.

Even worse than the violence, however, are the men. The two lead male characters are completely uncaring and undependable. Some people view “Roma” as a love letter to Mexico. It can also be seen as a sincere warning to women to stay single and celibate.

Cleo exhibits almost superhuman patience and poise and the family loves her for it. But they never respect her or view her as human in the same way as they are.

The film’s most telling scene is when the family matriarch is checking Cleo into the hospital. The nurse asks for Cleo’s full name and date of birth. To her embarrassment, the matriarch discovers that she hardly knows anything about the woman who has been living in her house for a decade.

Then – as now – there is no racism against Mexicans. There’s just the usual dehumanization, commoditization, and exploitation of non-white and indigenous peoples by rich white folks. That’s the history of the Western Hemisphere since 1492, isn’t it?

If Beale Street Could Talk

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If Beale Street Could Talk

*1/2

 

A few years ago, filmmaker Barry Jenkins captured lightening in a bottle with “Moonlight.”

It’s a magical film. It’s a unique, bittersweet tale of first love. It’s an empathetic exploration of a life spent in the closet. It introduced Mahershala Ali as the leading actor of our time.

“Moonlight” was so magical that it was able to win Best Picture even though Faye Dunaway had already given the award to “La La Land.”

The magic is gone.

“If Beale Street Could Talk” tells the story of Tish and Fonny: a black couple living in New York City in the early 1970s. Tish is pregnant; Fonny is in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

About ten minutes into the film, there is one great scene. Tish’s family has invited Fonny’s family over to announce the pregnancy. The dialogue reads like a great play, where every character gets one awesome, scene-chewing speech.

Fonny’s holy roller mom does not take the news of Tish’s pregnancy very well. She stands up, gets in Tish’s face, and tears into her. She calls Tish a Godless Louisiana whore. The churchgoer calls the embryo a shriveled devil child who she hopes will not survive. The tirade only ends when her husband gives her a brutal slap with the back of his hand.

The reason I just gave away the one good scene is because the rest of the movie is so unwatchable. I earnestly urge you to skip it.

The very next scene is a ridiculous flashback to the first time Fonny and Tish make love. I had no idea it was possible to make losing one’s virginity look so dull.

How do you have an entire love scene without either character smiling or looking interested? How do you have your pretty young leading lady take her top off and have it seem clinical and tedious? It’s an astonishing achievement in incompetent filmmaking. Fonny and Tish are making a baby. But by the solemn, pained looks on their faces, you’d think they were ritualistically sacrificing one.

It feels like half the movie is just Fonny and Tish staring at each other and whispering passionless proclamations of love. And I do mean whispering. One of the film’s biggest problems is that the 70s mood music drowns out the hushed dialogue. The result is a little frustrating and a little sleep-inducing.

I imagine that there was a lot of: “this seems like a bad movie, but Barry Jenkins has got a Best Director Oscar so I don’t feel comfortable questioning his decisions” on the set of “If Beale Street Could Talk.” The end result is an unfocused art film that is painful to sit through.

“Moonlight” was magic. But the magic is gone. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is the most boring movie of 2018.

The Favourite

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The Favourite

****

 

I have no ambition.

I started my first full-time job with health insurance in 2001. For eighteen straight years, I have had the exact same career goal: keep my job.

Over the years, co-workers have asked me – in confusion – why I don’t want more. Those same co-workers tend to get disappointed and frustrated and leave the company.

Other ambitious people in my office got everything they wanted but found that promotions and power didn’t make them any happier.

Emma Stone stars as Abigail: the most ambitious person at the court of Queen Anne of England.

Abigail has noble blood and a proper education. But her family fell on hard times. By the time we meet her in 1708, Abigail is fortunate just to land a job as a palace maid.

When she discovers that Queen Anne is having a secret affair with Sarah, the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz), Abigail sees a golden opportunity.

While “The Favourite” is a bit too weird, dark, and artsy to be Best Picture, all three leading ladies have a solid chance of winning Oscars for their performances.

Olivia Colman sheds all vanity to play a truly disgusting version of Queen Anne. She is gluttonous, gout-ridden, and self-loathing. When she’s depressed, she has epic tantrums. And yet, Anne isn’t a royal joke; she’s a real middle-aged woman with a ton of responsibility and a sincere commitment to ruling well.

Rachel Weisz’s Sarah is the mean girl of the palace. She always has a clever comeback or a vicious putdown. The duchess has bullied herself to the top, becoming the Queen’s most influential advisor.

But Sarah’s downfall is her humanity and restraint. From Sarah, we learn that an ambitious person should smile meekly at her enemies and then destroy them without mercy. The worst thing to do is to make loud threats that you don’t have the stomach to follow through on.

Abigail never makes that mistake. I didn’t think that Emma Stone could act and she proved me wrong in a big way. Stone uses her sweet-girl image to make Abigail’s viciousness feel even more shocking.

The ending to “The Favourite” is powerful and perfect. Abigail – the meek little scullery maid who we have been rooting for the entire movie – has achieved every one of her lofty ambitions. And success has made her desperately, desperately miserable.

Mary Queen of Scots

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Mary Queen of Scots

**1/2

 

“There’s only one difference between you and me.

When I look at myself all I can see.

I’m just another lady without a baby.”

-Jenny Lewis, “One of the Boys” (2014)

 

One of the convenient things about being a man is that there is no stigma about being childless.

When someone at work asks me why I’m 42 and have no kids, I can say it is because I’ve never wanted any and never will and that’s the end of the conversation. I’m confident that this makes me look like a decisive, independent-minded, somewhat self-centered guy; a regular dude with absolutely nothing to apologize for.

A woman in the same position faces more brazen, thoughtless questions (“are you SURE?” “do you think you’re going to regret it?). Nature forces a childless woman my age to wonder whether she has made a terrible mistake that may be too late to reverse. And society forces her to fear that her life will be a lonely meaningless failure if she never becomes a mother.

It took me a while to notice this pressure to reproduce. As far back I can remember, I viewed childlessness as the clearest, most objective evidence that an adult is winning at life. But I am certainly in the minority.

And according to the mediocre new movie “Mary Queen of Scots,” the existential pressure for women to have babies has been around for a long time.

Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular monarch, who returned from a long stay in France to rule her native Scotland from 1561 to 1567.

According to director Josie Rourke, Queen Mary was brave, proud, and intelligent. But she had two impossibly difficult issues to overcome.

The first was her religion. Mary returned from Catholic France to find that her faith made her a hated minority in Scotland.

Early on, Mary makes a speech about religious tolerance that she thinks will placate her Protestant cabinet. She is terribly mistaken.

There are a lot of villains in this story (virtually every man in Scotland, actually), but the real Dr. Evil is John Knox. The Calvinist reformer is portrayed as a hateful, blood-thirsty misogynist. Scotland is not large enough for Mary and Knox to co-exist.

Mary’s second problem caused her even more heartbreak. She had to deal with the impossible dilemma of having to produce a legitimate heir to the throne but knowing that any man who married her would only be doing so to usurp her power.

Mary’s reign is contrasted with that of her cousin: Elizabeth I of England (Margot Robbie). Elizabeth fully recognized that any man who married her would be driven to steal her throne and possibly kill her like her father Henry VIII. She remained the Virgin Queen out of necessary self-preservation.

Mary Queen of Scots is foolish enough to marry and even briefly fall in love. Her marriage to Lord Darnley is even more catastrophic than we are expecting. Predictably, he is hungry for power. Unfortunately, he is also hungry for young men and thirsty for booze.

However, Mary does manage to get the baby she yearned for.

This is where the film drops the ball. The troubling conclusion that director Josie Rourke draws is that Mary triumphs because she produced an heir. And Elizabeth is a non-feminine chump for being too cautious to take a risk on true womanhood.

Mary is portrayed as an awesomely tolerant 21st Century-style woman. She is cool with religious freedom, interracial love, and she even has a gay guy as one of her chambermaids. But Mary cruelly taunts Elizabeth as “barren” and we are supposed to look past it. I couldn’t. It was wrong then and it is wrong now.

What is true in the 16th Century is true today: life is tougher for a childless woman than a childless man. But if there are any 40-something childless women reading this, I want you know that there are people out there who are on your side. I think we are the ones who are winning.