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?

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   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.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.