Death of A Nation

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Death of A Nation

(For Rightist Viewers:) ***

(For Leftist Viewers:) Negative 117 stars

 

This is a sad time for polite public discourse. But there is a happy silver lining: Fake News has been added to the national vocabulary.

No matter what side you’re on and what newspaper you are looking at, there’s a voice in the back of your head telling you that you’re reading some biased jerk’s opinion – not facts.

There isn’t just some Fake News, there is a ton. The primary narratives of politics are pathetically partisan.

If you listen to the Right, our former president was a peacenik communist who hated America, secretly prayed to Allah, and was super close to busting down your door to confiscate the guns. If you listen to the Left, our current president is warmonger white supremacist who willingly takes orders from Moscow and is super close to putting Muslims, gay people, and women who get abortions into government work camps.

Sadly, there are probably people reading this who believe that some lies in that above paragraph are true. Fortunately, there are also some who laughed at the absurd Fake News and know that their only chance of finding truth is with sober wisdom, not by parroting what they read in a newspaper.

The Establishment Media calls the concept of Fake News irresponsible and dangerous. That’s oddly defensive. As someone with a political column, I am grateful to know that reasonable readers don’t believe every word I say. I don’t believe every word I say. I’m a columnist, not a clergyman. I’m trying to be entertaining, not correct.

The most insidious form of Fake News is when the facts are true but the conclusion is false.

 

“Death of a Nation” is Fake News with a fun twist. Documentarian Dinesh D’Souza tells true stories of history and uses these facts to make illogical claims about present day Democrats.

First, D’Souza seeks to prove that Democrats are more racist than Republicans. I am not saying he is wrong (it is impossible to know such a thing), I’m saying that his argument is dumb.

D’Souza reminds us that the first great leader of the Democratic Party – Andrew Jackson – was a Native-killing monster and that President Woodrow Wilson extended Jim Crow in DC. Definitely true. But then he says that this proves that Democrats today are racist.

No, it doesn’t. Republican William McKinley resisted pressure from Bimetallists to back our currency with silver. But that obviously doesn’t prove that the current GOP is eagerly working to get us back on the Gold Standard.

Next, D’Souza seeks to prove that Democrats are more like Nazis than Republicans.

He shows that Antifa rioters closely resemble Hitler’s Brown Shirt thugs in their goals and tactics. And he highlights the bullet points of the National Socialist Party manifesto that are consistent with the current Democratic agenda (nationalized health care, free schooling through grad school, pointed criticism of big bankers).

Are these comparisons true? You know what, who cares? They don’t prove that Democrats are related to Nazis. And more importantly: it is unproductive, unsophisticated, and unkind to call fellow Americans Nazis just because you don’t like them.

The Ace in Hole for the GOP is that it doesn’t have hilariously hateful Hollywood hacks spouting hyperbolic half-truths on its behalf. There is no telling how many independent voters were turned off when Sarah Silverman went on Conan dressed like Hitler and Democrats didn’t roundly denounce her.

D’Souza concludes that all things good and free and patriotic are Republican and all things fascist, hateful, and dangerous to our country are Democratic.

Dinesh D’Souza movies are fun for Rightists, I get it. But we need to stop watching. “Death of a Nation” is intellectually vacant. It’s little more than 90 minutes of Fake News. D’Souza is the Sarah Silverman of the Right and he harms his cause far more than he helps.

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Three Identical Strangers

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Three Identical Strangers

***

 

Since the beginning of time, people have been asking themselves the same three questions:

  1. How did this all begin?
  2. What is the purpose to all of this?
  3. Do we have free will or are we mere slaves to our destinies?

 

[Spoiler Alerts ahead] In 1960, famed Freudian psychiatrist Peter Neubauer

conceived of an epic study that would answer the final question once and for all. “Three Identical Strangers” explores the extraordinary aftermath of Dr. Neubauer’s human experiment.

The first half of “Three Identical Strangers” is magnificent. British documentarian Tim Wardle tells the joyous true story of three guys who suddenly found their purpose.

In 1980, Bobby went away to college. But when he got there, people greeted him as if he was an old friend. It didn’t take long to discover that Bobby was the long-lost twin brother of gregarious Eddy.

When the New York tabloids picked up on the story, Bobby and Eddy became minor celebrities. It wasn’t long before David – who was also born on July 12, 1961 – saw what was essentially a photograph of himself in the Daily News.

The three identical strangers didn’t just reunite, they immediately became best friends.

They went on the talk show circuit – wearing the same outfit and talking about how they smoke the same cigarettes and have the same taste in women. They took advantage of being young, cute, and famous by moving to Manhattan and sharing a bachelor pad together.

In their 20s, they started families and opened a successful SOHO restaurant – called Triplet’s. Life was a fairy tale for Bobby, Eddy, and David. Until it wasn’t…

Investigative journalist Lawrence Wright (“Going Clear”) uncovered the dark-ish secret behind the fairy tale.

At the height of his fame and hubris, Dr. Peter Neubauer convinced an adoption agency to separate identical twins and triplets and secretly send them off to different families. Then he had his staff follow the children and carefully document their developmental growth.

Dr. Neubauer’s grand scheme was to discover – once and for all – which parts of our personality were determined by genetics and which parts were influenced by our environment and free will.

“That is like Nazi ****,” Eddy states.

No, Eddy. It’s not.

After a few years of fun and success, the triplets begin fighting with each other over their restaurant. Documentarian Tim Wardle tries to blame the experiment for the brotherly strife. That is absolutely ridiculous. Relatives who go into business together inevitably have issues, whether they’ve grown up together or not.

I agree with Wardle that secretly separating identical siblings in the name of science is arrogant and unethical. But you can’t blame every problem the triplets had on the experiment.

I think the saddest thing about the experiment is how useless it was. Reasonable people have always known that our identity is based partially on our DNA and partially on our environment. We will never know what percentage because everybody is different and we are infinitely complex creatures.

 

The reason people have been asking those same three philosophical questions since the beginning of time is that they are totally unanswerable.

If any man claims to be able to tell you how this all began, what the meaning of your life is, or why exactly you behave the way you do, don’t trust him. That guy is nothing but trouble.

Whitney

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Whitney

***

 

First off, I feel like I should admit something: I don’t like Whitney Houston’s music. I like zero of her songs.

I have nothing against Ms. Houston personally. I just don’t appreciate songs where the singer shows off her voice at the expense of the music. I listen to a pop song because of the catchy hooks – not for some crooner demonstrating her unusual vocal range.

To me, a song is like a BLT sandwich. The percussion is the bread, the bass is the tomato, and the guitar or synthesizer is the bacon. The vocals are just the lettuce.

A Whitney Houston song is like a BLT piled high with an entire head of lettuce. On one hand, it’s kind of impressive that you could fit that much lettuce. But it makes for a bland, artless sandwich that I don’t want to consume.

 

“Whitney” is an engrossing documentary that treats Ms. Houston entirely as a human being and not as a celebrity.

British director Kevin McDonald doesn’t tell his side of the story. He lets dozens of Ms. Houston’s family, friends, and co-workers tell their side.

It’s hard to know what Whitney Houston’s childhood was like because the relatives interviewed give two completely different stories.

Some say that Ms. Houston had an idyllic childhood. Her dad was a high-powered Newark politician and her mom was a successful back-up singer who worked with Elvis. Houston’s parents could afford private school tuition for young Whitney and a big house in the suburbs.

Others say that Ms. Houston was scarred by her nightmarish childhood. With her corrupt dad wheeling and dealing and her showbiz mom always on the road, young Whitney and her brothers were shuffled off from house to house – from aunt to cousin to neighbor. One of Whitney’s female relatives molested her. With minimal supervision, drugs were part of her life from an early age.

One of the tabloid misconceptions about Whitney Houston is that her rakish husband Bobby Brown corrupted her and introduced her to hard drugs. “Whitney” tosses that lie right into the trash.

Whitney Houston, by her own admission, loved drugs. And they were a part of her life before she became famous and long before she met Mr. Brown.

Ms. Houston’s older brother states that the Houston siblings would do cocaine with Bobby Brown, but that Brown couldn’t begin to keep up. “The only time we did as much as Bobby Brown,” he chuckles, “is when we were lapping him.”

Kevin McDonald can’t give us a happy ending, of course. But he does sprinkle in some laughs along the way.

He sneaks in an unexpected dig at Al Sharpton. In 1989, Reverend Sharpton urged black record buyers to boycott “Whitey” Houston for abandoning gospel music for pop. Then, after her death, we hear a cynical Sharpton lament her passing on CNN. I guarantee you that Rev Al does not like this movie.

But everyone else will. “Whitney” is an engrossing story about a woman who got everything she ever wanted but discovered that she had wanted the wrong things.

I enjoyed it even though I didn’t appreciate any of the music. But if you happen to be the type of person who likes her BLT piled high with lettuce, “Whitney” is an absolute must-see.

Solo:                    A Star Wars Story

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Solo:

A Star Wars Story

***

 

When Walt Disney Corporation paid George Lucas $4 billion for the rights to Star Wars, I thought that it had a simple plan. I thought the company was going to produce Episodes VII, VIII, and IX, sell some toys and lunchboxes, and try to make a modest profit on its investment.

That was stupid of me. Somewhere, Mickey Mouse is laughing so hard that he fell into his gigantic vault full of gold coins. Don’t worry, Mickey is okay. He went right back to swimming through the gold like Scrooge McDuck.

Disney’s real plan is to release a new Star Wars movie every year until people finally get sick of Star Wars and refuse to go.

2016’s “Rogue One” was a success by any measure. It grossed a $billion worldwide and did it without pandering. “Rogue One” is a grim World War II-style war movie aimed at adults that just happens to be set in the Star Wars galaxy.

Not everyone liked “Rogue One.” And that’s what made it so impressive. Disney gave serious artists a chance to make a Star Wars film rather than pressuring a well-known director to make an easy-to-swallow, derivative blockbuster.

“Solo” is an easy-to-swallow, derivative blockbuster directed by Ron Howard. I like it anyway, though.

The film is set in the anarchic time between Episodes III and IV. The Republic and the Jedi Council have been liquidated but the Emperor and Darth Vader haven’t solidified their power yet.

“Solo” takes place in a lawless region of the galaxy that is controlled by organized crime syndicates.  Ron Howard makes the bold but reasonable observation that order – even evil Sith order – is sometimes preferable to chaos.

That is as intellectually stimulating as the movie gets, however. Mostly, “Solo” is an old-fashioned Hollywood heist flick, with double-crosses galore and even a train robbery.

What “Solo” is lacking in intellectual stimulation, it makes up for with surprisingly good acting. Alden Ehrenreich does an outstanding job of matching Harrison Ford’s lovable swagger without doing an imitation of the iconic actor. The amazing Woody Harrelson anchors the movie as Beckett – the grizzled thief who takes young Solo under his wing.

Along the way, to no one’s surprise, Han Solo runs into Chewbacca and Lando Calrissian.

If you’re looking for surprises, you’ve got the wrong Star Wars movie (you want “The Last Jedi”). This is a safe movie made to blandly satisfy Star Wars nerds like me.

Before shooting began, Mickey Mouse walked up to Ron Howard in an intimidating fashion and said: “Rule 1: don’t do anything to damage the Franchise.” Then he went back to swimming in his huge vault of gold coins.

 

Disney is going to continue to greedily and cynically churn out Star Wars movies until it stops being profitable.

As long as they are as enjoyable as “Rogue One” and “Solo,” I’m okay with that.

Death Wish

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Image result for nra terrorist organization

 

Death Wish

***

 

There was a time when gun control wasn’t a Left vs. Right issue.

Believe it or not, young readers, there was a time when a moderate Republican was allowed to support stricter gun laws without inspiring a vicious Twitter debate. And – gasp – a Democrat was allowed to take money from the NRA without being denounced as Benedict Arnold with blood on his hands.

Those days are gone and the gun issue has become hopelessly polarized like everything else.

Now both sides are locked into uncompromising, extreme positions.

People on the Right are sticking to their guns and arguing that closing all the gun stores and the gun factories won’t save lives. That’s obviously ridiculous. Making it harder for angry young men to obtain many new weapons will lead to fewer mass shootings and a smaller death toll when there are shootings.

People on the Left want government action and they want it now. A Democrat would be brave and foolhardy to even suggest that the NRA exists to protect our liberties. I predict that if there was a bill before Congress that restricted gun sales, every single Democrat would vote for it.

In a vacuum, there is nothing extreme about wanting fewer guns sold. Heck, if I were to start my own country, I would want zero gun stores. Guns make the world worse.

However, we don’t live in maxland. We live in the USA. We have a Constitution that exists largely to protect minority rights from an angry majority. And we have a Bill of Rights that explicitly says: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”

Anti-gun people: if you want to found a new Republic of Vermont with no minority rights and no legal guns, more power to you. I promise that I won’t fight you. But the United States has legal guns. It always has and it always will.

“Death Wish” is a carefully crafted gun movie that feels woefully outdated. And I mean that as a compliment.

Director Eli Roth (“Hostel”) has made an 80s movie for guys old enough to remember the 80s. There are no super heroes. There are no computer effects. There is a macho white good guy. And guns are neither good nor bad. They just exist.

Bruce Willis plays Dr. Paul Kersey: a regular rich family man living in a safe Chicago suburb. Or so he thought.

While he’s at work one night, he learns that vicious home invaders have murdered his wife and left his teenage daughter in a coma. Dr. Kersey’s world is shattered.

At first he does all the right things. He goes to a shrink and patiently waits for the police to find the killers. But the right thing feels wrong to him. Dr. Kersey can’t sleep and he’s increasingly angry.

To no one’s surprise, mild-mannered Dr. Kersey gets himself a gun and starts killing bad guys. Soon he has become a famous vigilante known as The Grim Reaper and he can finally sleep soundly at night.

Is a good guy with a gun illegally killing bad guys a hero or a menace? You can be a reasonable person and come down on either side of the issue. And Eli Roth faithfully presents both sides.

Another happy surprise about “Death Wish” is that there is a lot of effective comedy. Roth splendidly exposes the all-American absurdity and madness of gun dealers. But he also shows that those guns could potentially come in handy.

In the end, “Death Wish” works because you end up caring about Dr. Kersey and rooting for him, even though he does a lot of things that you know are wrong.

I’m guessing that anti-gun people will be too infuriated to enjoy it, though. It’s sad that we’ve become this polarized.

Kedi (cat)

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Kedi

(Cat)

***

 

Everybody knows about the love that parents have for their children. Everybody knows about the loyalty that dogs and their owners have for each other.

America’s love affair with our cats is less well-known. That is because cats are mostly hidden behind closed-doors. You only see a cat-lovers’ beloved baby if you go into her house. And, even if you are in her house, the cat may have run away and hidden from you.

For nearly 40 years, cats weren’t even on my radar. I didn’t know anything about them. And I certainly had never loved one.

My feelings have changed in a big way since I’ve been living with my wife’s cats Lucy and Felicia. Now they are my cats, too. They are my children. The cats make our apartment a home.

During our toughest times as a couple, our cats have been there to comfort us and to remind us that we are a family.

In my few years of being a cat daddy, I’ve learned that cats are not as smart as dogs. They don’t understand the concepts of gratitude or guilt or the dignity of labor.

But what they lack in sophistication, they more than make up for in love. A large portion of their tiny little brains are devoted to love – the love they feel for you.

In America, only us lucky cat people fully understand the magic of felines. In Istanbul, everybody does.

 

In Istanbul, there are no housecats. There are just cats.

During the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was one of the busiest international trading ports in the world. Back then, it was common for trading vessels to have a cat on board to kill mice. Often, those cats would get off the boat and make their home on the streets of the city.

When Istanbul built its sewer system, large rats became a dreaded problem. Neighborhoods eagerly welcomed feral cats to help clean up their communities.

Organically, a unique system was created. The city has tens of thousands of cats on its streets, and millions of owners in its houses. The local cat is no one’s property. It is everyone’s pride and joy.

All the locals interviewed for “Kedi” have different stories about how cats impacted their lives. But they all have the same philosophy: it is wrong to keep a cat locked up; they belong to the city and they belong being free.

They are free, but doesn’t mean they are unloved. Some cats crave human affection even more than they crave Fancy Feast.

For the people in Istanbul who are lucky enough to be chosen by a cat as their primary human friend, there is a special pride and gratitude.

Several Turks interviewed explain how they used to be overwhelmed by the city and close to depression and madness. But their relationship with a neighborhood cat grounded them and gave them positivity, perspective, and purpose.

Cat-lovers will adore “Kedi.” The film explores the fundamental truth about cats that we have discovered: with their quiet, mysterious companionship, they help us more than we could ever help them.

1945: The Savage Peace

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1945: The Savage Peace

***

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

-Jesus, about the people killing him

 

The way we treated the Japanese during World War II is unfathomably heartless. We all apparently agreed that it would be great if every Japanese person was shot, burned, or blown up.

Yes, a few hundred Japanese soldiers attacked Pearl Harbor. But Pearl Harbor isn’t exactly Putney; it was a military base located 2500 miles away from the US.

On paper, that doesn’t feel like a reasonable justification for the relentless mass murder of Japanese civilians; but that’s exactly what we did.

We claim to be a Christian country. Theoretically, we follow the teachings of the man who told us to “turn the other cheek.” In practice, we are no more moral or mature than a seven-year-old boy shouting “he started it” after we beat up a kid we don’t like.

Vengeance is not a moral justification for violence. Wrath is a deadly sin; it’s the most terrible and destructive deadly sin of all.

 

“1945: The Savage Peace” is not your father’s World War II program.

It exposes – in unflinching detail – the mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Germans.

At the war’s end, it was decided that all 12 million ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe would be removed as quickly as possible. Coming up with a humane way to make this happen was not high on the list of priorities for the victors. “These are Germans, after all,” they thought. “The very people who started all of this.”

Czechoslovakia was probably the least ravaged of any Eastern European country. Nevertheless, the proud Czech people did not care for the fact that they had been ruled by Germans. Soon after the Nazi regime fell, new Czech president Edward Benes called for “the Final Solution to the German question.”

This was as bad as it sounds. Armed bands of semi-sanctioned vigilantes rounded up German citizens and harassed, beat, or killed them. The Sudetenland had been largely German for generations. The millions of residents were kicked out of their homes and forced to march to Germany.

As with everything in WWII, things in Poland were worse. The least fortunate Germans were shipped to the USSR as “reparations labor” and never seen again.

The hundreds of thousands sent to Concentration Camps didn’t fare so well, either. It’s a little known fact that soon after Nazi Concentration Camps were liberated, they were repopulated with ethnic Germans.

East Prussia had been German for all of modern history. Suddenly, the region was part of western Poland. Millions of Germans were uprooted and forced to move west with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No one knows how many died of starvation and disease along the way. And nobody cared.

 

We are quick to separate groups of people into Us and Them. And once someone from the Them group hurts one of Us, it is disturbingly easy to start thinking ourselves as the good guys and them as the bad guys. Then all bets are off.

That’s why Czechs and Poles were comfortable slaughtering Germans. That’s why our grandparents were comfortable fire-bombing Japanese cities. That’s why no one seems to care that our government is blowing an Arab’s limbs off with a drone this very afternoon.

Vengeance is never noble and never morally defensible. It’s just another type of murder.

Until we all agree to forgive our enemies instead of hate them, humanity is doomed to perpetual violence.

Tokyo Idols

 

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Tokyo Idols

***

 

One of the strangest aspects of our society is that it’s normal for young women to fanatically obsess over pop stars. From the Beatles to the Backstreet Boys to Bieber, young women have been screaming together at concerts for our entire lives. And we all just shrug our shoulders and accept it.

I’m not ready to accept it. It is collective madness. For years, I assumed that it has something to do with the female psyche since we never see men going to concerts together and screaming for Beyoncé or Pink.

Well, I was dead wrong. It isn’t just women who go insane for pop stars. In Japan, men do it too.

“Tokyo Idols” is an educational, eye-opening documentary. It teaches us about a different culture’s pop music scene. And it explores the troubled psyches of people who devote their lives to it.

 

Right now, there are hundreds of teenage girls in Japan who call themselves Idols.

The Idols perform upbeat pop performances at clubs. If they get big enough, they record songs and music videos. They make most of their money by participating in well-organized meet-and-greet events, where they chat one-on-one with passionate supporters.

This all sounds pretty normal and pretty American, right? Absolutely not. All of the fans at the Idol meet-and-greet are men. Mostly older men.

You would think that a documentary about Idol culture would condemn the participants or at least make fun of them. Director Kyoko Miyake does neither.

You can’t help but respect and root for Rio. When we meet Rio, she is 19. She is an aging elder statesman in the business and she knows it. Rio is trying to parlay her Idol fame into a serious singing career.

At her core, though, she is a sensible hard-working young woman with a loving family and a growing bank account. Good for her.

Life is not going so well for her fans.

Kyoko Miyake could have easily said: “Hey, look at these creepy old men who may or may not be pedophiles! They can’t tell the difference between an animé character and a real girl. Let’s judge them!”

But to her credit, Miyake helps us understand how a normal Japanese man could grow up to become an Idol groupie.

Rio’s fans all have similar backstories. When they were Rio’s age, they were trying to lead a normal life. They had girlfriends, and they were trying to get promoted at work and save enough money to marry and start a family. Somewhere along the line, they gave up and dropped out of the Tokyo rat race.

They couldn’t handle the cost or the responsibility of taking care of a family. But they can handle the lesser challenge of filling a studio apartment with Idol merchandise and going to shows every night.

By the end of “Tokyo Idols,” I didn’t think most of the fans are creepy. They are just sad, lonely human beings. They are grasping onto the one thing in their life that brings them joy.

 

In the end, I have to admit that there is nothing fundamentally wrong about going to concerts and screaming for your favorite pop star, whether you’re male or female. It is ridiculous and undignified, but it doesn’t hurt anybody.

If you are still doing it at age 25, however, you probably need to reassess your life.