The Hateful Eight

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The Hateful Eight

***1/2

 

Some people interpret “Thou shalt not bear false witness” to mean that God prohibits lying completely.

I’m not so sure. I think that it makes more sense that the 8th Commandment is intended to condemn those who have sworn to tell the truth in a specific circumstance and then lie. Perjury=breaking a commandment. Lying=not great, but what are you going to do?

Lies are like Dollar Stores. They’re everywhere. They’re bad. The world would be better without them, but there’s no sense in trying to stop them entirely. The best thing a wise person can do is learn to spot them and deal with them.

Someday you’ll get a pop up on your computer or a call from someone who says that your computer is infected with viruses.

If you don’t recognize that the “Microsoft” guy on the other end of the phone is lying, you will be giving him your credit card number and you’ll rightly feel like a fool.

The consequences of gullibility in that case is $200. In Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” the consequences of believing lies is swift violent death.

 

The story begins in a covered wagon plodding through the Wyoming snow circa 1875. All four passengers (Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Coggins, and Samuel L Jackson) are on their way to the town of Red Rock. But they may never get there.

Because of a blinding blizzard, the four hearty old westerners end up stopping for night at Minnie’s Haberdashery. But Minnie isn’t there, four unknown men are. Our eight anti-heroes need to be smart about who they trust or they won’t live through the night.

If you like Agatha Christie-style whodunnits and don’t mind hearing the n-word every three minutes, you’ll love “The Hateful Eight.”

Quentin Tarantino’s best film, “Pulp Fiction,” was about the supernatural power of faith. The two lead characters who follow their moral instincts – Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson – survive. Meanwhile, John Travolta ignores a miracle and dies ignominiously.

“The Hateful Eight” puts a dark spin on the same theme. In Tarantino’s post-Civil War America, God has turned the other way. There are no miracles and there are no moral people. There are only savvy men and gullible corpses.

In the film’s most memorable scene, Samuel L Jackson’s character tries to infuriate an old Confederate General with a vivid, lurid tall-tale. It’s fairly obvious to us that Jackson’s story is made up. The General partly understands it, too. All he needs to do is control his foolish instincts to believe what he is told and he will live…

“The Hateful Eight” isn’t Tarantino’s best. But even mediocre Tarantino films contain more memorable dialogue and outrageous comedy than anything else out there.

 

In this deception-filled world, learning to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not is one of the greatest skills you can have. And that’s no lie.

 

 

 

 

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Cuba and the Cameraman

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Netflix Original Documentary

Cuba and the Cameraman

***1/2

 

In the 20th Century, leftists around the world were rooting for Revolutionary Cuba.

Cuba was the best chance of having a classless, Socialist Utopia in the Western Hemisphere. If Cubans could succeed while thumbing their noses at the decadent Americans at the same time, all the better.

Cuba became a political Rorschach Test. Conservative critics pointed to the thousands of political prisoners who never received a trial and the overcrowded boats filled with desperate refugees. Michael Moore, on the other hand, concluded that Cuba’s free healthcare system is more efficient and humane than our own.

Well, the debate is over. In his epic documentary “Cuba and the Cameraman,” journalist Jon Alpert has proven that Cuba is terrible. How do you know he’s right? Because he was trying desperately to prove the opposite.

Alpert began sneaking into Cuba by boat every few years in the 1970s. He would always meet up with the same locals to see how their lives were affected by the Castro regime.

He befriended Luis: a Havana slum-dweller. Young Luis was a happy dude in a free apartment with running water. All was well. Jon befriended the Borrego brothers: three 60-something farmers who joyfully worked the fields all day, did extra labor for the government in the late afternoon, and sipped rum at night.

Young Jon Alpert had a good reason for only wanting to see the best in Cuba. He knew Fidel Castro.

In addition to the intimate portraits of average Cubans, Jon introduces us to El Comandante. Fidel Castro comes off as eloquent, witty, kind, and even humble. Castro is so generous with Jon that it is only natural that Jon is unable to find anything bad to say about the dictator.

But history has a way of speaking for itself.

When Jon returns to Cuba in the 1990s, he finds that Castro’s Socialist Utopia has become a 3rd World nightmare.

Jon knocks on Luis’s door. Luis’s brother reports that he was dragged off and imprisoned. No one knows why.

Luis’s brother shows Jon the dilapidated state of the apartment building. There’s no more running water. The path leading to the outhouses has collapsed so now residents have to urinate in the street.

Everyone looks fatter than before. At least Castro is feeding the people well, right? Not exactly. With no supply of meat or vegetables, citizens are stuck living on rations of sugar and rice.

Incredibly, the situation is even worse for the poor Borrego brothers. They are in their 80s now and as strong and eager to work as ever. But they can’t.

The country-wide meat shortage has taken an ugly turn. Machete-wielding bandits have been raiding the Borrego farm at night. Now all of their farm animals have been stolen and slaughtered, including their two oxen. They can’t even plow their own fields. It is a heart-wrenching scene. Even Castro-pal Jon Alpert can’t put a positive spin on it.

The conclusion is unavoidable: With a steady influx of foreign money pouring in, Cubans were able to live a tolerable 19th Century existence. Left to its own devices, Cuba became a hungry dystopian police state.

The debate about Cuba is over: President Kennedy was right. And Michael Moore is full of it.

Sour Grapes

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Sour Grapes

***1/2

 

Most people agree that wealth inequality is a serious problem. The large and growing wealth gap isn’t just unfair, it is a danger to the stability of our regime.

Politicians like Elizabeth Warren and especially Bernie Sanders are popular, above all, because they are seen as advocates for the people against the rapacious rich.

The problem is that politicians seem to think there is only one way to redistribute wealth: raise taxes. It is a little fishy that the one idea they have is the one that specifically enriches and empowers them.

If we were serious about taking from the rich, we’d come up with a more imaginative gameplan.

How about encouraging corporations to give their employees shares of stock in every paycheck? This would ensure that Wall Street rallies would benefit workers and not just the wealthy.

That’s just one idea to get some money out of the hands of super rich people. Rudy Kurniawan came up with a way better one.

With the rise of the dot.com millionaire came the rise of the high-priced wine auction. At these auctions, super rich nitwits blew thousands of dollars on individual bottles of over-hyped old French vino.

Out of nowhere, a young Indonesian immigrant named Rudy Kurniawan burst onto the scene. No one knew where he was getting his money or what his angle was, but Rudy began cornering the market on elite fine wine and driving up the price.

You would have thought that American wine snobs would hate Rudy. But the directors of “Sour Grapes” can’t find anyone who has a bad word to say about him.

Rudy was as generous and gregarious as he was mysterious. He threw parties and shared his best wine with friends. Rudy impressed wine snobs with his exquisite taste and unique ability to recognize different vintages.

But Rudy made one powerful enemy: billionaire wine collector jerk Bill Koch. While his brothers like politics, Bill likes to go out of his way to ruin people’s fun.

Killjoy Bill wants to make sure that all of his vast, overpriced wine collection is legit, so he has a professional investigator on staff. The investigator and his ex-CIA colleagues discovered some inconsistencies with Rudy Kurniawan’s wine labels.

Apparently, the FBI has nothing better to do than investigate wine fraud, so they got in on the case, too. It all ended in 2012, when the feds busted down Rudy’s door and uncovered the counterfeit wine-making operation in his kitchen.

Rudy had been bilking the superrich for years: selling $20 bottles of wine for $thousands.

The question is, though, did Rudy do anything wrong? No one complained about the wine. Rudy was such an extraordinary connoisseur that he always fooled buyers by filling the bottles with cheap wine that had the same taste as the original.   “Sour Grapes” interviews outraged Burgundy vineyard owner Laurent Ponsot. Monsieur Ponsot came all the way to America to make sure that Rudy was punished for defaming his family’s wines. I find Ponsot’s position obnoxious and absurd. If Rudy was able to fool elite wine buyers with his California counterfeits, it seems clear that Ponsot’s fancy snooty French wines aren’t that special.

 

Let me recap the score of the wealth distribution game: Senators Sanders and Warren are folk heroes for threatening to soak the rich. Meanwhile, Rudy Kurniawan is serving hard time in federal prison for selling overpriced bottles of tasty wine to rich people.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the government is working to protect the interests of the 1% rather than redistribute wealth.

Bobby Sands: 66 Days

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Bobby Sands: 66 Days

***1/2

 

Northern Ireland could have been a lovely place to live in the 1960s and 70s. It enjoyed relative peace and prosperity. It didn’t have any problems that cooperation and togetherness couldn’t solve.

But no such luck. Of all the many virtues of the Irish people, togetherness has never been one of them. This was the time of the Troubles.

The Troubles began when gangs of young Protestant men began fighting similar gangs of Catholic men. Officially, the local police and the federal government in London was neutral in the conflict. As time passed, however, it became increasingly clear to the Catholics that the Establishment was against them. In the face of oppression, the IRA became more militant.

Though the Catholic Irish Republicans were right to think of the British as colonial oppressors, it was the British who were winning the propaganda war. Most people – even most Irish – viewed the IRA as a terrorist organization. Most people didn’t see them as revolutionary heroes; they saw the Republicans as cowards who sent letter bombs and blew up cars by remote.

If the Republicans were to accomplish anything positive, they needed to flip the script. That’s where Bobby Sands came in.

 

In 1972, Bobby Sands was a teen IRA soldier serving his first prison term. While his fellow revolutionaries were reading about Mao Zedong and Che Guevara, Sands was studying Terence MacSwiney.

Terence MacSwiney was the Lord Mayor of Cork during the Irish Revolution. He had a powerful new theory about warfare. He argued that the winner is not the side that inflicts the most violence, but the side that is willing to endure the most suffering.

MacSwiney practiced what he preached. He starved himself to death in a British prison in 1920. A year later, Ireland won its independence.

During his early years behind bars, Bobby Sands was treated well. Irish revolutionaries were treated like respectable political prisoners. Suddenly, the British government decided to strip the IRA prisoners of their political status and treat them like common criminals.

Now 27 year old Bobby Sands had a cause to fight for. And he had a tactic with which to fight. On March 1, 1981, Bobby Sands began a hunger strike, demanding that the UK recognize that his men are political prisoners. Several other young men joined the Fast.

“Bobby Sands: 66 Days” does a magnificent job of teaching us about Irish history while also helping the viewer understand Bobby Sands, the brave young man who altered the fate of Northern Ireland with his martyrdom.

Republican propagandists ran Bobby Sands for Parliament to spread the word of his hunger strike. When a dying Sands won, he became a household name from Montpelier to Melbourne.

Sands’s demands were modest, but London never gave in. Unfortunately for the Fasters, Britain’s Prime Minister wasn’t known as the Empathetic Pushover Lady; she was the Iron Lady. Bobby Sands died; as did nine of his fellow Fasters.

Finally, the IRA called off the Hunger Strike.

But in death and defeat, the Republicans had learned a surprising lesson. If they could get an emaciated felon elected to Parliament, it was clear that serious political power was within their grasp. Sinn Fein began its evolution from Extreme Left mischief-makers to serious British politicians.

Replacing bombs with bon mots and Molotov Cocktails with cocktail parties led organically to The Good Friday Agreement, which finally granted Northern Ireland dignity, equality, and self-rule.

 

“Bobby Sands: 66 Days” has a happy ending, as the violence finally ended. But I don’t understand why all that that killing and bombing and maiming was necessary to begin with.

Looking back, the differences between the Catholics and Protestants were not so great as to explain or justify murderous hatred and revolutionary war.

Thank goodness we live in a country where we don’t let relatively minor difference lead us to divide ourselves and hate each other. Right?

Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

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Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution

***1/2

 

The official textbook version of the Civil Rights Movement goes something like this: Dr. King led a movement of non-violence in the South. This inspired enlightened white politicians to force naughty racists to enforce integration. And we all lived happily ever after.

I have three big problems with this official narrative.

First, it has an unearned spirit of triumphalism. It doesn’t leave room for the question of whether black Americans are truly better off now than in 1965. Today, 1 black man in 3 will serve time in prison during his lifetime. And most black children have never lived with both of their parents.

Second, the official narrative doesn’t leave any room to question whether integration was truly good for the black community. While it is clearly true that black schools in the early 20th Century were not given fair funding, they produced great doctors, towering intellectuals, and future leaders.

In many schools today, black students aren’t treated like young community leaders, chemical engineers, and CEOs. They are treated like potential threats who have to walk through metal detectors

Third, and worst of all, the official narrative gives much of the credit to white people and the government. This attitude is patronizing, paternalistic and preposterous. White America couldn’t empower black people even if it wanted to. And it has never wanted to. Only the black community has ever had the power to do that.

The Black Panthers almost succeeded.

 

About fifty years ago, a group of guys in Oakland decided that they had enough of police harassment in their neighborhood. They grabbed some guns and hit the streets. They followed police around and simply stood near them – guns drawn.

The first Black Panthers were right. By standing ominously near traffic stops, cops were far less likely to get physical. And they were right that as long as their weapons were not concealed, they were not breaking any laws.

Naturally, the laws had to be changed.

There is an amazing scene in 1967 where a bipartisan team of legislators and Gov. Reagan publicly and proudly passed a gun control bill aimed at the Panthers. Meanwhile, the Panthers themselves were there at the Capitol to stand up for the Second Amendment.

The sight of young black men proudly packing in broad daylight was striking enough to make the nightly news. Overnight, the Black Panthers were a national sensation.

While the guns grabbed headlines, the Black Panthers did a lot more charity work than killing. The organization founded neighborhood-based health clinics and soup kitchens that gave out free breakfasts to schoolkids. The Panthers were bringing black communities together just as the Welfare State and Prison Industrial Complex were beginning to tear them apart.

Apparently, the sight of empowered black men and nourished black schoolchildren infuriated J. Edgar Hoover. He concluded that the Black Panthers were the greatest threat to American order and he conceived of a plan to destroy them.

The FBI coerced vulnerable federal prisoners into joining the Panthers and spying for the government. Government agents raided Panther headquarters in city after city, arresting the rank and file while assassinating leaders.

Hoover and his G-Men stamped out a thriving organization in just a few years. Today, the Black Panthers are known for their signature style but not for their black power philosophy or their tangible accomplishments.

 

History is written by the winners. And, accordingly, history is sometimes little more than triumphalist propaganda.

The official history of the Civil Rights Movement urges us to rejoice because White America and the government did the right thing. I’m not buying it. Believing that white people and the government teamed up to liberate Black America is like believing that the fox and the farmer teamed up to free the chickens from the Hen House.

 

I don’t know what it will take to bring equality to the races. But I’m sure it will look less like the Civil Rights Movement and more like the Black Panthers.

What the Health 

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What the Health

***1/2

 

Everybody has an opinion about which foods are good for you and which are bad. Most people will claim that their diet is healthy and they’ll urge you to try eating like them.

I listen to what people say. But I don’t believe them. When it comes to food, people are passionate and biased. And no one really knows for sure what the perfect diet consists of. If a really old skinny person is telling me what she eats, I’ll listen up. But, in the end, we’re all just eating what we want and hoping for the best.

 

Kip Anderson, the star of “What the Health,” isn’t just hoping for the best. He believes that he has found the perfect diet: veganism.

“What the Health” is an entertaining, relentless documentary. With a passionate fury, Kip Anderson tries to convince the world that a plant-based diet is a cure-all and that all animal-based food is poison.

 

Anderson comes right out with guns blazing: he states that virtually all illness is due to meat consumption. If you have cancer, it was due to meat. If you have diabetes, it was due to meat (not sugar. Meat). Bad bones? Meat. Bad joints? Meat. Asthma? Meat. Lack of energy? Meat.

Meat is bad due to the fat and cholesterol, due to the hormones and antibiotics, and due to the fact that piling up protein in our body does more harm than good.

How about milk, cheese, eggs, and fish? According to “What the Health,” they are just as bad. Dairy is fuel for baby cows but poison to us. Eggs are cholesterol-filled death bombs that are unsafe even in small quantities. Fish is loaded with industrial toxins and frightening levels of mercury.

 

“What the Health” does a laughably bad job of convincing us that every animal product is terrible for you. It does a disturbingly good job of convincing us that mass-produced meat is disgusting.

Factory farm animals live their miserable lives in dark, over-crowded pens. Disease is rampant. Anderson states that pigs and cows suffer from infections, inflamed abscesses, and pus-filled sores. Then he shows us the video proof that these diseased animal corpses fire right through the assembly line and into our food. It is nauseating.

 

Anderson concludes that a serious environmentalist cannot eat meat. At the very least, it is a natural fact that raising animals is an inefficient use of arable land and water resources.

“What the Health” also exposes the fact that factory farms systematically destroy rural communities wherever they can get away with it. Kip Anderson takes us to a mostly black county of North Carolina, where the unending mountains of pig poo have poisoned the air, the soil, and the waterways.

 

Okay. I’m convinced. Meat is the worst. Going vegan is the right thing to do.

“What the Health” goes from powerful to absurd in the final act. Kip Anderson goes from muckraker to evangelist and makes a series of impossible claims about the health benefits of veganism.

He says that going vegan will turn you into a superhuman athlete. He says that vegan blood kills cancers cell just by touching them. He claims to have proof that a vegan, high-sugar diet cures diabetes.

Anderson meets a 61-year-old lady who limps around her house with a walker because her bones and joints are so brittle. Then, after just a few weeks of eating vegan, she tosses aside her walker and strolls happily around her neighborhood.

This isn’t science, obviously; it is faith-healing fanaticism. It’s like they are filming the movie version of the 9th Chapter of Matthew, with a stalk of broccoli playing the role of Jesus.

 

“What the Health”’s heart is in the right place. Even though its scientific compass is all over the place. I don’t believe half of it, but I’m still glad that I watched it.

silence

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Silence

***1/2

 

The history of religion during the past 1000 years is the story of Islam and Christianity.

Muslim and Christian missionaries have tirelessly spread their faiths to all corners of the earth. Indonesia is 87% Muslim. There are more ethnic Indians who are Muslim than there are total people in North America. 30% of South Koreans are Christians. There are even 50 million Christians in Red China.

There is exactly one civilized country on the planet that has not been touched by the cross or the crescent: Japan.

From business suits to central banking to baseball, Japan has often been eager to adopt Western customs. But when it comes to Western Gods, Japan has always said “no” harder than a three year old listening to Amy Winehouse.

The question is why.

My theory is that the Japanese commitment to Family Unity is not consistent with religious conversion.

In America, if your brother has a religious conversion and is happy with his new faith, you are probably going to be happy for him. In Japan, if your brother has a personal religious conversion unrelated to the family, he is a traitor who has betrayed his father and his ancestors.

In Japan, the social necessity to get along with your group is more important than religion, faith, and truth.

Anyway, that’s just my theory as to why Japan never became Christian. Martin Scorsese has a different theory.

“Silence” tells the story of two Jesuit Priests – Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) – who make a perilous journey to 17th Century Japan. They know full well that Christianity is punishable by death in Japan. But there is a rumor that their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced the faith, and the young priests are driven by the need to save him.

In Japan, the Priests meet two types of people: Desperate Christian peasants who are brave but ignorant. And the Japanese authorities, who are smart, civilized, philosophical, and focused on their task of ridding their homeland of outside influences.

“Silence” is a long, harrowing movie. It’s a personal story of faith that is clearly meaningful to writer/director Scorsese. As a young man, Martin Scorsese almost became a Priest. And you can feel his love of Christ mixed with anguish and doubt as expressed through poor Rodrigues.

But though Scorsese’s heart is with the Christians, his mind is with the Japanese. When the Inquisitor engages Rodrigues, he tries to gently help the Priest understand how unwise it would be for him to let Westerners have too much influence over his subjects. Rodrigues sounds like a selfish simpleton, speaking only in theological dogmas and ignoring the Inquisitor’s concerns.

Perhaps my theory that Christianity is inconsistent with Japanese culture is nonsense. “Silence” makes a stronger argument about why Western religion never took hold in Japan.

In the end: the Japanese aren’t Christian because their leaders didn’t want them to be. And they had the organization and strength of will to stomp out Western influences in a way that no one else could.

The Wizard of Lies

 

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The Wizard of Lies

***1/2

 

I have discovered the most suspicious sentence in the English language:

“I am a Money Manager; give me your money.”

Money Managers are charlatans.

“I am an expert at investing,” he says. Of course he isn’t, though.

You already know for certain that the Money Manager isn’t actually great at investing. If he was, he would be wealthy already and wouldn’t need to be wasting his time conning you.

“The stock market is complicated,” he says. “You can’t do it yourself!” Of course you can, though.

I have a brief project for you: Go to www.cnbc.com and search for three companies. Any three…I’ll give you a few minutes…

Welcome back. Did you notice how those random companies have gone up during the past year? And during the past 5 years. And 10 years.

Stocks go up. People in the market make money. It’s pretty sweet. You don’t need a snake oil salesman in a suit to make your money grow. You can do it yourself.

 

In the end, a person who is thinking of giving her life savings to a Money Manager needs to ask herself one question: who does she trust more: herself? Or the Money Manager?

“The Wizard of Lies” answers that question emphatically.

 

The HBO film chronicles one gut-wrenching year in the life America’s most famous Money Manager: Bernie Madoff.

Thousands of people trusted Madoff (Robert DeNiro) with their life savings. These people thought they were wealthy and smart. It turns out they were only wealthy. Soon they were neither.

Bernie Madoff conned chumps into giving him $65 billion. They thought that Madoff was a master investor who had figured out how make double digit gains even during Bear Markets.

Madoff was a master of the Ponzi scheme. He made rich dupes eager to fork over their fortune. And instead of investing the money, he just kept it. He sent his clients statements showing how much profit Madoff had made them. But the financial statements were lies. They really had nothing.

Director Barry Levinson argues that Bernie Madoff had nothing, too. Sure, he had piles of other people’s money. But the cost of his wealth was a gigantic secret that he had to keep from his family.

Lying was Bernie Madoff’s greatest skill. By systemically lying to his wife and children to keep them from being accessories to his crimes, lying became Madoff’s greatest virtue. Ultimately, he succeeded.

It can be argued that Bernie Madoff was a good father. He provided for his family. His sons weren’t arrested after the Ponzi scheme was uncovered, even though they had been working in Madoff’s firm for decades.

Bernie Madoff saved his sons from prison. He couldn’t protect them from the Media, however. The horror of “The Wizard of Lies” isn’t the many super wealthy people who messed up and became less wealthy; it is the one American family that got torn apart by scandal.

De Niro’s Bernie Madoff says that it is no coincidence that he was arrested just as the 2008 financial meltdown hit. He claims that he is just a scapegoat for a broken system.

And he has a point. In the end, what did Madoff really accomplish? He took wealth from millionaires and billionaires and redistributed it – not unlike that other old guy named Bernie wants to do.

Meanwhile, what were Madoff’s clients expecting? They were looking for him to pick stocks in a rigged market where the investor always wins and the American worker always loses.

“The Wizard of Lies” dares to ask the question. Was Bernie Madoff a thieving sociopath? Or was he a Money Manager?