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.

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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?

The Mule

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The Mule

***1/2

 

President Trump just signed the Federal Prison reform bill called First Step Act into law.

I think the First Step Act is terrific.

The dramatic 50 year increase in federal prison population has reached its ugly peak and is starting to drop. Judges are being given more freedom to use reason and compassion in sentencing. Thousands of victims of the Mandatory Minimum Sentence era will soon be released. And many remaining prisoners are being given vocational training so that they have a fighting chance of getting a job on the outside.

This was a totally bipartisan effort. Some – like me – will argue that the prison reform bill doesn’t go far enough. It is called First Step, though, so I’m willing to savor this victory and eagerly await the day when prison reform really kicks into high gear.

The semi-permanent separation of millions of felons from their families is a serious problem and a national disgrace. Many of these so-called criminals didn’t do anything violent. One of them did nothing more than drive from El Paso to Chicago with a duffle bag in his trunk.

Clint Eastwood stars as Earl. A decade ago, Earl was a successful grower and seller of daylilies. The internet destroyed his small business and left him with no money and no purpose.

In a way, it is a blessing for Earl that he finds himself hauling cocaine for the Sinaloa drug cartel. Earl is not your average Clint Eastwood tough guy character. He is happy-go-lucky, friendly, and gregarious. He enjoys chatting with the gangsters and he relishes the opportunity to give his cash away to the needy people in his life.

The previews make “The Mule” look like a tense thriller, but it’s not. There are more scenes of Earl driving his cool new Lincoln singing along to the radio then there are heart-pounding chase scenes.

“The Mule” is a charming comedy-drama, but Eastwood makes a few serious observations along the way.

Earl is from an era when people said what they wanted without worrying about who might be offended. Eastwood asks us who is more racist: a guy who uses the words “beaner” and “negro” but spends his days working with and hanging out with Mexicans? Or a man who is careful not to offend anyone but makes sure to live hidden away in a mostly white neighborhood or community?

Clint Eastwood is ambivalent about the criminal justice system. The DEA agents (Lawrence Fishburne, Michael Pena, and Bradley Cooper) aren’t bad guys. But they are obsessed with busts and prosecutions. You never hear them talk about protecting people or helping addicts. Their career is based on the empty fantasy that putting more men behind bars is a public good.

In the end, we’re all rooting for the drug smuggler character with ties to a Mexican cartel over the federal cops.

With “The Mule,” Clint Eastwood asks us whether we really believe that the country is safer now that a peaceful 90-year-old flower aficionado is behind bars. And since the answer is obviously ‘no,’ maybe it’s time to consider decriminalizing drugs. And emptying out some prisons.

Hearts Beat Loud

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Hearts Beat Loud

***1/2

 

It is not easy to maintain a relationship with your adult relatives.

First off, there are money issues.

If you lent your relative money and now you don’t like him so much and he is ducking you, that’s a bummer and things may never get better.

Second, you can easily grow apart.

If you don’t actively find interests and activities to share with your parents and children, your relationship can slowly disintegrate.

I have a better relationship with my father than my sister does. Is it because we love each other more? I don’t know. What I do know is that we talk about CBS’s Survivor, the stock market, or baseball together every day on the phone. And my sister doesn’t have anything to talk about or watch with him.

 

Frank (Nick Offerman) and Sam (Kiersey Clemons) are another father and daughter who have almost nothing in common.

Frank is an irresponsible, unambitious aging hipster. He runs a failing Brooklyn indie record store. (For my younger readers: a record is twelve iTunes downloads that have been imprinted onto a large, flat plastic disc that can easily be scratched and ruined).

Sam is 18 going on 30. It is the summer before college and she has no interest in going out or having fun with friends. She is studying hard so she can have an advantage over her classmates when she begins pre-med classes at UCLA in the fall.

Frank and Sam’s conversations are completely relatable and familiar. Frank buys Sam a gift and she chides him for spending money they don’t have. Sam already feels comfortable correcting her father’s grammar but she doesn’t want to tell him a thing about her love life.

Thank goodness they share one thing: music.

One evening, Frank forces Sam to put her books down and have a jam session with him. Despite herself, Sam gets into it and the father/daughter team produce an awesomely catchy pop-song entitled Hearts Beat Loud.

Are they are going to be a band? Frank says yes, Sam says no. At least the music is giving them something to do as father and daughter during their last few weeks together.

“Hearts Beat Loud” is never surprising and never brilliant. It gets by on charm and music.

The cast is delightful, especially Ted Danson as Frank’s eccentric stoner buddy.

The music is the real star. Hearts Beat Loud is a first-rate song. It plays several times throughout the movie. And like a good pop song, it gets more enjoyable each time.

Frank is into indie rock, naturally. And director Brett Haley tosses in hip but organic conversations about Mitski and Animal Collective songs that alt-rock fans know and love.

 

In the end, the film works because we are rooting for Frank and Sam to find common ground together. Because we have all been there.

Maintaining a relationship with even your closest family members isn’t easy. If you are estranged from your relative because of money, there is no cure. Money is a drug that has been poisoning relationships since the beginning of civilization.

If you are a stranger to your parent or child due to a lack of things in common, that’s on you. I’ll bet you can find something. Why don’t you watch a Red Sox playoff game together this weekend?

   Oliver Stone’s Untold History of The United States         Episode V: The 50s – Eisenhower, the Bomb, and the Third World

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Oliver Stone’s Untold History of The United States

Episode V: The 50s – Eisenhower, the Bomb, and the Third World

***1/2

 

The history books have been kind to Dwight Eisenhower. Ike is the least polarizing and least hated President of the Post-War Era. He is remembered as America’s benign grandfather figure during a time of relative peace and prosperity.

Oliver Stone has an explosive new take on President Eisenhower. Stone’s Eisenhower wasn’t responsible or level-headed – he was a globalist general leading our country into a buzzsaw of perpetual hostility.

Ike drove up to a huge fork in the road in his first year in office; and he took the wrong turn. Stalin had just died and the new Soviet leader sent a letter to Eisenhower. Khrushchev invited the President to end the Cold War and move on to a new era of friendly competition.

Eisenhower didn’t even respond to the letter personally. Secretary of state John Foster Dulles rebuked the offer, accusing the Politburo of planning communist world domination. Instead of peace, we got 65 years of mutual suspicion and nuclear brinksmanship with Russia (and counting).

While Sec. Dulles was poisoning our relationship with the Soviets via traditional diplomacy, CIA director Allen Dulles was poisoning it in sinister new ways. Boo, Dulles brothers.

In one of our government’s all time most self-defeating blunders, the CIA overthrew the democratically elected president of Iran and replaced him with a sellout Persian puppet. This got us easy oil for 25 years and an Islamist enemy for 40. And it ticked off the Soviets even further since we installed an America-alligned kingdom right on their southern border.

Oliver Stone says that Eisenhower was an old-fashioned Republican deficit hawk. He was troubled by the fact that America’s peacetime military was gobbling up half of the federal budget (vs 15% today).

Ike’s plan was to trim conventional forces and bulk up our nuclear forces dramatically. He embraced the notion that there was a dangerous Missile Gap even though he knew that we were far outpacing the Soviets.

As is always the case in Washington, expanding government is easy and cutting spending is impossible. By 1960, our conscription military was as bloated as ever, only now it included 1000s of nukes that could be delivered by missile, bomber, or submarine.

This would have been an irresponsible foreign policy if there were thousands of Atomic bombs. But these were Hydrogen bombs – hundreds of times more powerful than the ones we dropped on Japan.

Oliver Stone paints President Eisenhower as brazenly indifferent to the unfathomable devastation that a nuclear war would unleash. He just thought of nukes as another tool in our military arsenal, as opposed to the potential end of all mammalian life on earth forever.

 

As always, Oliver Stone paints a complex and compelling picture of history. And I agree with him most of the time. However, it is worth mentioning that Eisenhower did not, in fact, blow up planet earth. That’s a pretty important side note.

And no one wants peace with Russia more than me. I don’t go as far as Stone, though, in absolving the USSR of its imperialist crimes. Stone glosses over the Soviet crackdown on Hungarian protesters in 1956. To me, it was pure brutal colonialism; Budapest is a solid 1000 miles away from Moscow.

 

In the end, though, Oliver Stone’s conclusion is elegant and inescapably true: President Eisenhower was a failure by his own standards. The man most famous for warning America about the dangerous influence of the Military Industrial Complex was the one most responsible for solidifying its power.

Borg vs. McEnroe

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Borg vs. McEnroe


 
    In 1980, the sport of tennis was dominated by a mad man. He had behavior problems and anger issues; he made life miserable for everyone around him. His name was Björn Borg.
 
    “Borg vs. McEnroe” is a college course in psychology and sociology masquerading as a sports movie. It explores the troubled psyche of champions. And it exposes the ugly but predictable ways that the sports media twists their already fragile minds.
     John McEnroe is the bigger star now, but at the time Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) was the undisputed king of tennis. When we meet him, Borg is 24 and he has already won Wimbledon four times. He is easily the most accomplished Swedish athlete of all time. And he is acclaimed all over Europe for his unprecedented success, his Nordic good looks, and his gentlemanly behavior. “How will it feel to win a record 5th straight Wimbledon title?” a reporter asks. “No special feelings,” Borg respectfully answers. 
    But that Björn Borg – the heroic heartthrob with ice in his veins – was just a media creation. Fake News, ESPN style. Danish director Janus Metz takes us back to Borg’s childhood, where the young Swede was shunned and shamed for his bad behavior and his rage issues. We see him kicked out of tennis school for being a low class ruffian.
    Only one man – former tennis pro Lennart Bergalin – is willing to take a chance and train the fiery Borg. Bergalin orders the angry child to hide his true self in public and channel all his rage into his tennis game. It works like a charm on the court and on his public reputation, but it has ugly consequences for his personal life.  
     Adult Borg is an insufferable control freak, completely addicted to his many OCD routines. The pressure of having an entire continent counting on him has made winning a joyless responsibility. Borg lashes out at Bergalin and his patient fiancé because he can only express emotions behind closed doors. 
     Gudnason does an amazing job of showing us how close Borg is to losing it. In the film’s most poignant scene, Borg bravely smiles at his nemesis John McEnroe. McEnroe gives Borg a cold stare in return. In that moment, we see that McEnroe is laser focused on becoming the champion. And Borg is a lonely, isolated young man who is desperate for a friend. 
     And Borg is right; why shouldn’t they be friends? Director Janus Metz argues that Borg and McEnroe are the same man from two different angles. The only difference is that John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) was from Queens, and no one ever told him that he had to hide his anger from the world. 
     Yet, these two very similar guys were treated completely differently by the vampiric Sports Media. McEnroe was painted as the classless clown who was threatening to diminish the entire sport with his crass childishness. 
     Metz explores how the Media creates a false narrative and then twists reality to find evidence to support it. We see a press conference where McEnroe pleads with the Media vultures to ask him substantive questions about tennis. The reporters totally ignore his plea and continue bombarding him with gotcha questions about his behavior. This, in turn, has the intended effect of making McEnroe act like the petulant jerk they painted him as.  
      This is not a must-see. It’s actually not even the best film made about the 1980 Wimbledon Finals. The HBO comedy “7 Days in Hell” is a more sublime take on the same subject. But “Borg vs. McEnroe” makes an effective statement about the pain and isolation of stardom. 
 
      Next time you think you know a celebrity because you’ve read about him in the Tabloids, think about Björn Borg. You probably know absolutely nothing. 

eighth grade

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Eighth Grade

***1/2

 

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I think that our country’s child labor laws are strict and hypocritical.

Our policy seems to be something like this:

Dear Pakistan,

We Americans are morally superior to you. In our enlightened country, we toss industrialists in federal prison if we catch them employing young people. Shame on you.

Sincerely, Old Navy

P.S. We would like to place an order for 4 million super cheap Pencil Skirts for our fall collection.

 

In the early 20th Century, it was fairly normal for working class children who didn’t love school to leave and join the labor market. I am not pining for a return to those days, but I am confused about the people who are passionately certain that middle school is so much better than a factory job. They must have had a different middle school experience than me.

My middle school experience wasn’t particularly traumatic. But it was terrible and worthless. All I remember was being continuously unhappy for four years. And all I remember learning was how to conjugate French verbs. Et ce n’est pas très important.

I thought it was an agreed upon fact that eighth grade is the most terrible thing that happens in every person’s life right up until she is diagnosed with a degenerative disease.

The indie hit “Eighth Grade” certainly agrees with me.

27-year-old writer/director Bo Burnham has made a startlingly insightful debut film. He tells the painfully realistic story of five average days in the life of a 13-year-old girl.

Burnham shows that the stress of adolescence is universal. And he documents how we have made growing up even more isolating for 21st Century children by getting them hopelessly addicted to their smart phones.

Formerly adorable child actress Elsie Fisher is amazing and brave as the non-heroine Kayla Day. She is exactly like an average 13-year-old and nothing like what you’d expect from a Hollywood character.

Kayla is average looking and has an acne problem. She is relentlessly impatient and unkind to her doting father. She is not smart. Her only talent is visual art, but she is not self-aware enough to know that yet.

Kayla was voted Most Quiet by her class, but she mistakenly thinks that she is articulate and that people would think she is cool and interesting if they got to know her.

Kayla records an online motivational speech every day, but nobody follows her vlog. And she says “um,” “like,” and “you know” so often that her messages are almost incoherent.

Burnham explores the exquisite anxiety of middle school. For years, you do absolutely nothing of interest or importance. And yet – to you – every day and every interaction feels stressful and fraught with potential humiliation.

What could be difficult about a pool party at a rich classmate’s house? Everything, if you’re Kayla. Burnham powerfully communicates how tortuous social interactions can be if you have no friends, nothing to say, and are uncomfortable in your own skin.

The amazing thing is, “Eighth Grade” is a positive film with a hopeful message about a girl from a great family who doesn’t have any real problems. That’s how ghastly adolescence is: even if you have zero problems, you have100% awkwardness and unhappiness.

 

For the record, I am not arguing that we need to put children to work. I am just saying that I don’t understand why people think that school is infinitely better than the workforce.

Those early 20th Century industrialists must have been exploitive jerks since we decided that sending our kids to miserable miserable middle school is superior to sending them to the factory.

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.