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?

New York Doll

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 New York Doll

                                               ***1/2

     When I was a young man, I decided that my life would be easier if I didn’t have children. So I never did.

     Now, twenty years later, I have learned the truth: my decision to abstain from reproduction was even more wise than I had even imagined.

     People without children have more freedom, more money, more options, more time, and more sleep.

     People without children have less stress and less worry.

     Seemingly, the only advantage that people with kids have is that their lives have built-in meaning. Childless adults have far less responsibility, but we have one big challenge: find meaning to our lives.

     “New York Doll” is an open-minded documentary about one man’s search for meaning during his last days.

     The story begins back in 1973. In the early 70s, American rock and roll was at its lowest point. Boring Prog rock and heavy metal ruled the airwaves.

     Into this artistic void stormed The New York Dolls. Musically, they were an amalgamation of the Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones that had just passed and the punk rock that was to come. But it was their public persona that made them infamous and influential.

     The New York Dolls dressed in women’s clothing.

     They dressed in women’s clothing, but they weren’t drag queens. And they weren’t cross-dressers in any conventional sense. They dressed like drugged-up, poorly made-up prostitutes.

Their look was too weird for the American top-40. But they inspired a generation of punks, hair metal bands, and brave weirdos. Mick Jones of the Clash sings their praises. Morrissey was the President of the New York Dolls UK fan club.

       You’d think that being part of a legendary rock band would be enough to give a man meaning to his life. Well: yes and no.

     Arthur “Killer” Kane was the bassist for the New York Dolls and the subject of this documentary.

     The memory of the New York Dolls is always fighting a war inside Arthur Kane’s head, with pride in constant battle with regret. As Kane succumbed to obscurity and poverty, he saw his old friend David Johansen (the Dolls’ lead singer) become rich and famous.

                      While watching “Scrooged” (in which Johansen plays the Ghost of Christmas Past), the former rocker hit rock bottom. He drank so much that his wife left him for good and he jumped out his third story window.

                  During his long hospital stay, Killer Kane turned to Mormonism. Yes, Mormonism. “New York Doll” wasn’t produced by VH-1. It was directed by Kane’s Mormon friend Greg Whiteley.

                  The Mormon Church saved Kane’s life and gave him a much-needed job away from the music industry. It is funny to see how well the former hedonist Kane got along with the innocent old ladies at the Family Research Library where he worked.

                  It would have been easy for Greg Whiteley to say that the Mormon Church saved Arthur Kane and leave it at that. But, to the filmmaker’s credit, “New York Doll” shows that the Church gave Kane stability – but not meaning.

                  Jesus is going to save his soul, Whiteley concludes. But for peace in this life, Kane needed rock and roll redemption. “New York Doll” goes from mundane to magical when Kane gets a call from Morrissey.

                 55 year old Killer Kane was invited to reunite with The Dolls for Morrissey’s Meltdown Festival in London. The final act of “New York Doll” is bittersweet and life-affirming.

                 “New York Doll” shows that it is possible for a childless man to find meaning in this crazy world. But it definitely isn’t easy. I’m not sure I’ve found meaning just yet. But getting to write for this wonderful newspaper is good start. Plus I’ve never changed a baby’s diaper. Not once.

The Most Hated Woman in America

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Netflix Original Movie

The Most Hated Woman in America

***1/2

 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

-The Bill of Rights

 

That phrase. That phrase you keep using. I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means.

Somewhere in our history, the meaning of the First Amendment got flipped around.

The Founding Fathers were looking to differentiate their new country from Great Britain. In the United States, there would be no state religion. Back in Britain, the state religion was the Church of England the King was its leader. The founders wanted to make it clear that there would be no Church of America with the President as the national holy man.

That was a darn good idea. Can you imagine if the religious leader of our country was the President? Head of Church Calvin Coolidge? Okay, I’ll buy that. Head of Church Bill Clinton? Uh oh.

The Founders were trying to keep the State’s grubby paws out of religion. They were not trying to completely remove God from public life.

Oaths in courtrooms have invoked God from the beginning. Several Chaplains were on the very first Federal payroll. George Washington mentioned God in his Inaugural Address. So has every President since.

Thomas Jefferson was the most religiously progressive of our Founding Fathers. But even Jefferson, a Deist, cited God four times in the Declaration of Independence. The notion that the Founders wanted to protect Americans from ever hearing a prayer in public is comically absurd.

Where the heck did people get the idea that church and state must be completely separate?

Apparently, it was Baltimore, 1963. And Madalyn Murray O’Hair was to thank. Or blame.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair is a great hero and a great villain of atheist history.

On one hand, she bravely went on talk shows and wrote articles in the 60s that educated people about what atheism is and demonstrated that atheists are regular Americans as opposed to Communist infiltrators.

On the other hand, O’Hair made atheists look like jerks with her obnoxious crusades to try to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” from the currency.

In my ideal world, atheists would be seen as normal folks who just happen to know that there is nothing supernatural in the universe. Due to O’Hair, atheists have an unfortunate reputation as malcontents who want to be a thorn in the side of Christians.

O’Hair founded an activist organization called American Atheists in 1963. The Netflix original film “The Most Hated Woman in America” shows how O’Hair (played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo) quietly transformed American Atheists into her own personal cash machine, taking the donated estates of like-minded atheists and squirreling away the money in overseas accounts.

In the 60s, O’Hair ticked off a whole lot of Christians. But her real mistake was that she trusted one shady co-worker with her financial secrets. The film’s drama comes from the 1995 incident where a former office manager of American Atheists kidnapped O’Hair and held the feisty old lady hostage until she paid him $1 million.

“The Most Hated Woman in America” is educational, gripping, and sad.

In the end, Madalyn Murray O’Hair learned the truth the hard way. The truth is that people who believe in God are mistaken – nothing more, nothing less. Christians aren’t robbing anyone of their civil rights. And they aren’t defying the Constitution when they worship in public.

It is telling that Ms. O’Hair was done in not by the worship of God, but by the worship of money.

Fences

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Fences

***1/2

 

It seems like the polite thing to say to a young man is: “you’d make a great father.”

I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me.

And they are right. I can definitely see myself being a horrible father. Some men just aren’t built to be great parents.

I could see myself resenting my child because I am wasting my money and the last decent years of my life on him without getting enough gratitude in return.

I could see myself resenting my child because my years of opportunity have come and gone while his have just begun.

Worst of all, I could see myself not liking my child. I don’t like everyone I’m related to. What happens if I stop liking my kid? Do I ruin his life and my own?

I would never walk out on my child. No chance. I am above that. But I am not above being miserable and angry. And I am not above drinking myself to death.

Am I a bad person? Yeah, maybe. Am I alone? Heck no. “Fences” is a raw, honest drama that explores what happens when a guy like me has some children. Spoiler alert: it’s bad for everybody involved.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson: former Negro League baseball slugger and current jerk.

On paper, Troy has a sweet life. He has a solid career, a loyal wife, and two healthy sons who yearn for his approval. But Troy can’t stop obsessing over what he used to be, what he should have been, and what he wants but can’t have.

Denzel Washington has a special talent for playing foolish, self-destructive alpha-males. Troy is one of Denzel’s most memorable characters. Troy passionately rages against time, fate, reality, and sobriety even though we all know he is destined to lose.

The tragedy of Troy is that all he ever needed to do was learn to be content with his humble life.

The film contrasts Troy with his brother Gabriel. On paper, Gabriel has a terrible life. He was severely wounded in WWII and has a metal plate in his head. Gabriel will never be able to land a job or a wife, and he has the mental capacity of a seven year old.

But Gabriel is happy. He is obsessed with the afterlife and he believes that he will play a part in convincing St. Peter to open the gates of heaven to himself and the people he loves.

If only Troy had been able to learn something from his little brother. Or if only Troy had had the good sense to understand how selfish he is and just never have any children.

Don’t worry, World readers: I do understand how selfish I am. I don’t have any kids.

Two Days, One Night

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Two Days, One Night

***1/2

 

“It’s the economy, stupid” was written on the wall of Bill Clinton’s campaign headquarters. He went on to comfortably win two elections.

“I’m With Her,” read Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan. Though it may as well have read “Please don’t ask me about the economy. Those uncomfortable debates with Bernie made me not want to talk about it.”

For most people, the economy is the most important issue. For people who don’t have a decent job, the economy is the only issue. Social issues don’t matter when your mortgage is two months past due.

The official Democratic Party spin is to blame Putin and Comey. But Hillary Clinton is no fool. She knows what really happened. She knows that she would be President right now if she had taken the time to promise working people something.

Clinton didn’t even have to promise anything realistic or logical. She just had to demonstrate that she cared about the economic plight of some voters.

If she had said: “I promise to give a $50,000 federal job to every person under 5’3’’,” she absolutely would have won. There are 100,000 short women in Pennsylvania and Michigan who would have thought: “I was leaning toward Trump. But $50k a year?! I’m With Her!”

“Two Days, One Night” is a gut-wrenching Belgian drama about a family on the edge of financial oblivion.

Sandra (Marion Cotillard) is about to return to work after an extended illness and she discovers that her job might not be there. On Monday, everyone at the office will vote on whether to keep her on or lay her off. The catch is: if Sandra gets laid off, everyone else gets a 1000 euro bonus.

Granted, this is a silly and contrived premise. But it sets the stage for a compelling race against time as Sandra travels around town trying to lobby her co-workers to vote for mercy rather than money.

Sandra’s husband is supportive and patient. But you can see that the situation is wearing on him. He signed up to be a husband and father of two children. And now he’s starting to feel like he is becoming the father of three children.

Marion Cotillard gives the performance of a lifetime. You absolutely forget that she’s a beautiful actress. As Sandra, she is disheveled, desperate, and guilt-ridden. She teeters right on the edge of mental illness and you feel like she could tip over at any time.

Life is difficult enough as it is. What will happen if it I lose my job?, the film makes you ask. Will I lose my house? My family? My self-worth? My happiness? My sanity? I can’t imagine being so financially and emotionally secure as to withstand a few years without a full-time job.

That’s why I chuckle at the malcontents who are taking to the streets to protest the Travel Ban or Milo’s speeches or whatever they are angry about this week.

Here are the hard facts: If President Trump can somehow get blue collar Americans back to work, he will be the most popular President since Bill Clinton. And if cutting up TPP, renegotiating NAFTA, and rolling back regulations does not bring jobs back like he promises, Trump will be a hated one-term failure.

It’s the economy, stupid. It always has been.

The Founder

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The Founder
***1/2

It was a dark time in human history; a time when hungry people couldn’t get hot food on demand. 1950.
During this dark time, the old folks say, people who lived together had to gather around the dinner table whenever the food was ready. They had as little control over their meals as a cat meowing next to her empty food bowl. They had to dine together or go hungry. They had listen to stories of each other’s day while eating. Each savory bite was mixed with the bitterness of boredom and awkwardness.
In the 1950s, visionary businessman Ray Kroc swooped in and saved America from this dinner-table disaster. He unshackled us from the chains of food fascism. And he showed us a new world of food freedom.
With McDonald’s, Kroc allowed almost every American access to a hot, clean meal for an economical price wherever or whenever they want to eat.
“The Founder” begins in 1954. Traveling salesman Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) discovered a remarkable eatery called McDonald’s in Santa Barbara, California. The McDonald brothers had developed an assembly line kitchen system. This was the first restaurant that sincerely respected the valuable time of its customers.
The McDonald bothers were serving many identical burgers very quickly and making a small fortune.
Ray Kroc got the franchising rights and went back to the Midwest to make a huge fortune.
Kroc had never done anything like this before. No one had. “The Founder” shows how the tenacious business titan slowly came up with the winning formula. The first McDonald’s locations were started by wealthy investors that Kroc found at his country club. The problem with them is that they just wanted to make a quick buck and play golf while their teenage employees ran the place.
Kroc’s biggest innovation was to hire hungry young entrepreneurs to open individual restaurants and run them hands-on themselves. This formula worked from day one.
McDonald’s is rightly criticized for underpaying its employees. But the company also has transformed thousands of penniless franchisees into middle class businessmen.
Director John Lee Hancock (“The Blindside”) has made a wildly entertaining biopic. To me, it was a feel-good movie. I don’t think that was Hancock’s intention, though. He wants us to loathe Ray Kroc for stealing the McDonald brothers’ idea.
But Ray Kroc didn’t steal anything. He paid handsomely for the name of the restaurant and its kitchen blueprints. It was Kroc’s idea to create a multi-national food empire and he’s the one who made it happen, with the myopic McDonald brothers dragging their feet the whole time.
To me, the only crime Ray Kroc is guilty of is hastening the death of the family farm and the rise of the agricultural industrial complex. McDonald’s buys almost exclusively from factory farms that commoditize and torture millions of animals every day.
To domesticated animals, Ronald McDonald is Stalin in a clown suit. To humans, McDonald’s is a symbol of liberation. We are no longer slaves to the dinner bell. We can eat whenever we want at a place that respects our valuable time and our limited budget.
Thank you, Mr. Kroc.

The Fantastical World of Hormones

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The Fantastical World of Hormones

***1/2

 

When we are feeling good, we tend to credit ourselves.

We think we are healthy because we’ve unlocked the secret to eating well, sleeping well, staying active, and giving up bad habits.

The truth, however, is that good health is often as lucky as it is fleeting. There are aspects of your body that are out of sight, out of mind, and beyond your control.

“The Fantastical World of Hormones” is a surprisingly fun documentary that explains and explores the disturbing power that hormones have over our bodies.

The story begins in Europe hundreds of years ago. I don’t want to know how they figured it out, but opera companies discovered that if they castrated a great singer before puberty, he would continue to sing soprano beautifully for his entire life. They knew that no-testicles equaled no-voice-deepening and no-sex-drive. They had no idea why Castrati also had smaller Adam’s apples, long skinny arms, and a lady’s hairline.

In the late 19th Century, a scientist claimed that he had consumed a beverage made of semen and ground-up testicles and it had given him super-human focus, energy, and vitality. Even though the scientist was as wrong as he was creepy, his elixir sold well. And it had the happy unintended consequence of spurring a revolution in hormone research.

For nearly all of human history, type-1 diabetes was a death sentence. The inability to metabolize sugar left its young victims desperately frail during their short lives.

By experimenting on dogs, a clever American doctor deduced that the pancreas was somehow involved in sugar regulation. One of his colleagues developed the first diabetes treatment when he gave a dying patient a serum made from animal pancreas.

We had conquered diabetes, but people still didn’t understand the science of hormones or how they worked.

My sister has been convinced for years that she is healthy because she is careful not to put chemicals into her body. “The Fantastical World of Hormones” exposes how delightfully absurd it is for a person to be scared of chemicals in their body.

The film’s nerdy and charming narrator explains that the hormones that govern growth, development, digestion, and sexuality are, in fact, chemicals. These chemicals are produced by the glands in our bodies and travel to their intended organs via the blood stream.

But how do these little chemicals know how to find their way from the gland where they were born to the far flung body part they are supposed to effect? The answer is that they don’t.

A testosterone hormone will travel aimlessly around a young man’s body, visiting millions of cells, until it finally happens upon a cell in the Adam’s apple. Then the little chemical opens up the cell, like a key opening a lock, and goes inside and tells it to get to work and grow. Amazing, improbable events like these are going on in your body right now.

If you are feeling healthy right now, that’s great! Savor it. Heck, you can even give yourself a little credit; springing for that organic tofu probably didn’t hurt.

But the truth is that good health has more to do with luck than any of us want to admit. Luck and strange little chemicals.