Lady Bird

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The Film that is going to win Best Picture

Lady Bird

****

 

Everybody knows that marriages require work to succeed.
Strangely, though, no one ever told me that having a positive, lasting relationship with my parents takes work, too.

Half of marriages end in divorce. But what percentage of children have always liked both their parents and enjoyed spending time with them? It’s darn well less than half.

If you aren’t careful, you will find a way to dislike your child. If you aren’t vigilant, you could simply run out of things in common and stop talking to each other. It doesn’t make you bad people, it just makes you human.

Writer/director Greta Gerwig made a perfect little indie film about a lousy mother/daughter relationship.

Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) stars as Lady Bird: a high school senior in Sacramento, California.

Lady Bird is a normal, relatable teenager. She’s not so great at school, not so smart with boys, and has a terrible relationship with her mother.

Laurie Metcalf (“Rosanne”) plays Lady Bird’s mother Marion. Marion probably never should have had kids and she quietly knows it. When her husband is laid off, Marion goes from hard-working mom to put-upon, unhappy grump.

Marion will never understand why Lady Bird isn’t grateful for all that she has done to sacrifice for the family. And Lady Bird will never understand why it is horribly stressful for her mother every time she mentions that she wants to go to an expensive east coast college.

“Lady Bird” is as empathetic and relatable a film as you’ll ever see. Writer/director Greta Gerwig is an explosive talent. It’s a shame (and a little sexist) that critics are assuming that the movie is autobiographical.

None of the other Best Director nominees are being accused of this. No one is assuming that Christopher Nolan was a British soldier because he couldn’t have made “Dunkirk” so believable if he hadn’t been. No one is asking Guillermo Del Toro how many magical sea monsters he slept with to research “The Shape of Water.”

My point is: “Lady Bird” is a first-rate film and Greta Gerwig deserves more credit than she is getting.

The best scene occurs 2/3 of the way through. Lady Bird is trying on prom dresses with Marion and there is tension as always. Suddenly, Lady Bird bluntly asks her mom: “Why don’t you like me?”

Marion, taken aback, can’t even bring herself to lie. She doesn’t like her daughter. She’s a mom who is doing the best she can for her family. That’s the best she’s got.

Greta Gerwig’s conclusion is perfect and real. Maybe, just maybe, Lady Bird and Marion will learn to like each other someday. But it’s certainly going to take some work.

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Phantom Thread

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Phantom Thread

****

 

One of the most perverse and unnecessary spectacles in our society is when a woman is put on trial for killing her husband and then carted off to prison.

I am not defending murderers, but I don’t understand the point of locking away women like this for the rest of their lives. There are times when that Lady Justice statue needs to take off her blindfold, put down those scales, and use some common sense.

In every murder case, I think the primary question that jurors should be asking themselves before sending someone to prison is: “Is the defendant any danger to society?” In the case of a woman who killed her husband, the answer is a hard “no.”

To whom is she a danger? Maybe, just maybe, her next boyfriend. If you want to force a convicted killer to get a painful tattoo across her back that reads: “I killed my last husband. Beware,” I’m okay with that. But tossing her in prison? That’s not productive; it is blind vengeance disguised as justice.

If there is one thing that a dozen relationships and two marriages has taught me, it is that every love affair is different. There is no magic formula that ensures that a relationship will work and be healthy and will last.

Every couple is different. Every couple is fighting its own unique battle against the odds to make the relationships work. If you think you know everything that’s going on behind closed doors in another couple’s marriage, you are mistaken.

 

“Phantom Thread” is a simple story of a successful marriage. It’s also a unique, perverse art film that explores a relationship that most people would define as abusive and all people would define as illegal.

Daniel Day Lewis stars as Randolph Woodcock: the most revered fashion designer in post-war London. He is a rich, beloved celebrity and he’s a terrible man.

Randolph is obsessed with his work and his daily routine. Anyone who bothers him while working gets sniped at and cut down to size. He is self-centered, ungrateful, and childish. Oh, and he has weird mommy issues.

How the heck do you live with a man like that? Our heroine Alma is going to find out. For a while, it feels like “Phantom Thread” is about jerk Randolph dominating and destroying his unfortunate young lover.

But Alma is smarter, more willful, and more relentless than any of us give her credit for. The film is part Hitchcock, part Taming of the Shrew in reverse, and all genius.

Director Paul Thomas Anderson forces you to rethink what you know about power struggles within a marriage. Anderson argues that all is fair in love. And that anything Alma does to take control of her relationship is clever, reasonable, and justified. In fact, she is doing her idiot husband a favor.

If you have seen “Phantom Thread,” I want you to ask yourself: if Alma kills Randolph after the closing credits, is it right to put her on trial and condemn her to life in prison? If you seriously answered yes, you are as blind and cold as that Lady Justice statue.

I, Tonya

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I, Tonya

****

 

It is open season on rednecks in our culture. In polite society, one is allowed to make fun of them, diminish them, call them awful names, or simply ignore their perspective entirely.

“I, Tonya” is the first serious film I’ve ever seen about a great redneck. This is not an indictment of the American working class, it is a condemnation of the classist jerks in Hollywood who don’t understand or appreciate them. But, hey, if you have to wait a lifetime for a film about your people, at least it should be great. “I, Tonya” is the best picture of the year.

Some critics observe that “I, Tonya” is condescending to Tonya Harding. I suppose that’s because they’ve never seen a movie like this and don’t understand it. Director Craig Gillespie tries to tell the truth about Tonya Harding to the best of his ability. And the truth is that she is an amazing athlete, an amazing competitor, and an amazing fighter. She’s a redneck, an admirable hero, and a great American champion.

The story begins in the mid 70s, somewhere in Oregon. Tonya Harding was LaVona Golden’s sixth child from her fourth husband. What did that mean? It meant no one ever treated Tonya like she was wanted or special. But she was special.

Tonya began winning skating contests at age four. By the time she was a teenager, Tonya was a nationally recognized skating dynamo. In 1991, she became the first American woman to land the Triple Axel in a competition.

It was quietly agreed upon that Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) was the greatest figure skater in the hemisphere. But she wasn’t always getting top scores, and it infuriated her.

After bravely (and profanely) confronting dozens of judges, one sheepish judge finally tells her what’s happening: “It’s not your skating, Tonya. It’s you. You’re representing America, for Goodness sake. We need to see a wholesome American family.”

Tonya Harding was the Tom Brady of skating. But she was treated like Blake Bortles because she wasn’t dainty, demure, passive, or upper middle class.

She could have sold out and acted like a proper lady to coax better scores out of the judges. But she couldn’t pretend to have a wholesome American family. Tonya was from a broken home and her loveless mother beat her. Tonya didn’t know any better so she married a loser who beat her.

Instead of giving Tonya Harding extra acclaim for overcoming her challenging personal life, people tried to keep her down. And ultimately succeeded.

Margot Robbie is a revelation as Tonya. This is the best performance by anyone in 2017. If Meryl Streep wins Best Actress over Robbie, it will be because the Academy voters are as classist as they are wrong.

Director Craig Gillespie doesn’t make “I, Tonya” a melodramatic story of heroes and victims. He presents Tonya Harding’s life as a tragic black comedy.

If you’re expecting “I, Tonya” to be about that one time a guy Tonya Harding didn’t know whacked Nancy Kerrigan in the knee, you’ll be disappointed.

This film isn’t about the Kerrigan incident, it’s about how we all reacted to it.

The fact that Tonya Harding isn’t revered as a sports hero says more about us than it does about her. America isn’t built to appreciate and admire redneck women. It’s built to laugh at them. And, when necessary, to destroy them.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars

Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

****

 

2015’s “Episode VII: The Force Awakens” was a horrible movie.

To me, it was easily the worst Star Wars installment to date. I’ve watched all the other episodes dozens of times. I tried watching “The Force Awakens” a second time at home and I turned it off after fifteen boring minutes.

When Disney bought the rights to Star Wars from George Lucas for $4 billion, I figured that there would be some greedy, uninspired Star Wars flicks. But, honestly, I never imagined that it was possible to make one as childishly bad as JJ Abrams’s Episode VII.

 

Star Wars is back. “Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” is a splendid adventure that is worthy of the Star Wars name.

“The Last Jedi” begins with the good guys in a bad spot. The Resistance is outnumbered and outgunned by the evil First Order. All the rebels want to do is retreat and regroup in order to fight another day. And it isn’t easy. The film is essentially “Dunkirk” in space.

Meanwhile, Rey – the new Resistance hero – has traveled to the far reaches of the galaxy to enlist Luke Skywalker in the fight. But Luke isn’t interested in fighting.

Luke isn’t just retired, he is cynical. In my favorite scene, Luke Skywalker rails against the Jedi for losing to the Emperor. He rightly observes that the Jedi failed as leaders due their lack of vision and their hubris. The Jedi were so certain that they were in the right that they waged a self-destructive war that ended the Republic.

 

“The Last Jedi” is everything “The Force Awakens” failed to be. “Force” was an action flick; “Jedi” is a philosophy-filled drama. “Force” was an improbable story of underdogs winning against all odds; “Jedi” is a story of underdogs failing again and again.

JJ Abrams’s Kylo Ren was the worst thing about “The Force Awakens” and the worst villain in Star Wars history.

Kylo Ren is reborn in “The Last Jedi” as an interesting character. You believe that he’s powerful. You believe that he’s conflicted. You see him harnessing the Dark Side of the Force to feed his mad ambition. I can’t wait to see what he does in Episode IX.

 

“The Last Jedi” is so darn solid that you could almost be fooled into thinking that “The Force Awakens” served a purpose. With his disgraceful stupidity, JJ Abrams showed Disney everything NOT to do when making a Star Wars film.

As Yoda explains: “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

Bush and Clinton: A New World Order

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Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States

Vol IX

Bush and Clinton: A New World Order

****

 

One of the lessons from the novel “1984” is that an oppressive government needs to have an enemy.

In the beginning of “1984,” Big Brother is at war with Eurasia. Suddenly, halfway through the book, the country is at war with Eastasia.

It doesn’t especially matter whether the threat is real. The point of having an enemy isn’t just perpetual warfare; it is total control over the minds of your own people.

Only in this context is it possible to understand American foreign policy from 1989 to 2001. On paper, the US acted with foolishness and needless bellicosity. When compared to the government in “1984,” it was a splendid success.

 

The story begins with the fall of Communism and the election of George H. W. Bush.

With visionary leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Oliver Stone asserts, we had a golden opportunity to change history and make Russia our lasting ally. Our leaders didn’t want that at all, though.

To make sure we stayed arch-enemies with the Russians, we shamelessly betrayed them. In 1990, the Kremlin agreed to let East Germany reunite with NATO country West Germany. In exchange, Washington agreed to halt the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe.

We what we should have done was disband NATO entirely. Its stated purpose was to guard Western Europe against the aggressive onslaught of Stalinist Communism. What the US did, however, was actively betray Moscow’s trust during its hour of weakness.

During the 90s, NATO began a belligerent advance right up to Russia’s doorstep. Today, the US is officially obligated to come to the defense of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania if Russia attacks them. Do our leaders genuinely care about the Estonians? Nah, they just want to antagonize Moscow.

Our leaders successfully ensured that the Russians continue to fear and hate us. Bravo. For their next trick, they found a way to have endless war in the Middle East.

 

In 1990, a US envoy told our old friend Saddam Hussein that he could take over Kuwait without inference. When Iraq invaded its neighbor, however, the Bush Administration changed its mind.

Operation Desert Storm was a splendid military success. But it had severe long-term consequences.

Osama Bin Laden had formerly viewed Communist Russia and the decadent Saudi monarchy as the ultimate enemies of Islam. After seeing thousands of US soldiers stationed in the Holy Land, Al-Qaeda had a new #1 target: America.

To Oliver Stone, Bill Clinton was a neo-con wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Under Clinton, our military became the ever-present policemen wherever there were Muslims misbehaving or in danger. US boots and bombs were active in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Iraq – often without the American people’s knowledge.

Stone argues that when 9/11 sparked the War on Terror, it wasn’t a real change; it was just a continuation of the Clinton policy of multi-theater warfare in the Muslim World.

After the Cold War, the United States could have chosen peace. Instead, it mapped out a path of perpetual conflict with Russia and Islam.

 

Essentially, we are at War with Eurasia and Eastasia. And the only winner is Big Brother.

 

 

Project Censored

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Project Censored

****

“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum.”

-Noam Chomsky

 

We’ve heard a lot about Fake News recently. But “Project Censored” exposes an even bigger problem than Fake News: Real News.

The news is pure trash. The only possible way that an American can understand what is going on in the world is to turn off the news for good.

The powerful and important documentary “Project Censored” explains why the news is so harmful and offers an exciting alternative to the nightly propaganda.

The film likens the Corporate Media to a magician. The news is a big, showy misdirection. Elites uses the news to avert your eyes away from the real world and the real issues that the Establishment doesn’t want you to think about.

Strategy #1 – the film says – is to feed us a daily dose of Junk Food News.

Junk Food News is scandal, fluff, and celebrity gossip. While it is certainly true that we are less-informed and worse off due to Junk Food News, I think that the problem is our fault more than it is the Media’s.

We need to get together as a society and decide that the personal lives of politicians, sports stars, and celebrities are none of our business. We need to say: “Tiger Woods didn’t know about it when my marriage was falling apart and Tiger Woods didn’t judge me that time that I drove to the store after taking a prescription pill. So I have no right to know about his love life or judge him for his bad decisions.”

Strategy #2 – the film says – is to practice News Abuse.

News Abuse is a more insidious problem. This is where the Media takes an important current event but twists it so much that we end up ignoring the important core issues.

For example, “Project Censored” reminds us of the Jessica Lynch story. For a few weeks in 2013, Jessica Lynch was the face of the Iraq War. She was an adorable army private who was captured by the enemy and dramatically rescued.

The News Abuse misdirection worked like a charm. Millions of Americans were asking “did you hear about Pvt Lynch?” And few were asking the important question: “Which companies are benefitting financially from the War in Iraq? Let’s find out and boycott them until they go bankrupt.”

 

Project Censored isn’t just a movie, it is an active alt-News website that covers the substantive stories that the Corporate Media ignores.

To Project Censored, the most important story of the 21st Century is how the Federal Government has robbed us of our 800-year-old right to Habeas Corpus. If Washington labels you an enemy combatant, you can be arrested this very day and detained for the rest of your life without ever seeing a judge.

Be warned, left-wing readers: if you’re expecting to agree with the Project Censored guys, you will be disappointed and infuriated. This film is slightly more anti-Democrat than anti-Republican.

The ultimate hero to Project Censored is Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. Everyone interviewed admires his selfless commitment to releasing unedited government documents that the Establishment doesn’t want you to read. They talk about Mr. Assange like he is literally Lady Liberty born into human flesh.

 

“Project Censored” is a forceful reminder that the same cadre of elites who run our government also own the Media.

On the surface, MSNBC and Fox News appear to be wildly different, but they are both on the same side. They argue back and forth about a few minor current events, while they work hand in hand to shield us from the major issues that face our world.

 

 

The Battered Bastards of Baseball

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                   The Battered Bastards of Baseball

                                  ****

 

          Tim Tebow is one of the most famous sports figures in America.

          He is best known for being Christian, but he actually plays sports from time to time as well. Tebow was a star quarterback for the University of Florida. Then he was a lousy quarterback in the NFL. 

          This year, he made headlines with his unusual decision to become a professional baseball player. The media scoffed. I scoffed. But, strangely enough, Mr. Tebow is doing all right. He is a productive starting Outfielder for the St. Lucie Mets, a single-A affiliate of the New York Mets.

          At work the other day, a guy who saw a Tebow story on ESPN stated that Tebow is living the good life, getting paid well, and is one step away from the Major Leagues. None of that is true.

And that’s when it hit me: most people – even most sports fans – don’t know anything about Minor League baseball.  

          The annual MLB Draft has 40 rounds. A kid who is drafted is, at best, a few years away from getting to the big leagues. More realistically, he will never come close. For every Major League team you have heard of, there are at least four minor league teams that you’ve never heard of (AAA is the highest level, single A is the lowest).

          The reason why even baseball fans don’t care about Minor League baseball is that affiliated minor league teams are little more than soulless corporate factories that help a few gifted kids become Major Leaguers and weed out the Tim Tebow-esque 90%.  

         

In 1972, every single minor league team in America was affiliated with a Major League ballclub. In 1973, every team was affiliated except one.

          “The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the joyous, upbeat story of the Portland Mavericks.

          In the 1960s, Bing Russell (Kurt Russell’s dad) was best known as the Deputy Sheriff on Bonanza. But though he liked acting, he loved baseball.

Bing Russell used his own money to fund astoundingly serious and nerdy baseball coaching videos meant to teach fundamentals to little leaguers. Multiple Major League managers showed Bing’s tapes to their own players.

          When Russell founded an unaffiliated club in Portland, Oregon, the baseball world assumed that it would fail. Every other minor league team in America consisted of players drafted and paid by Major League clubs. How would The Mavericks find players? And compete?

          Bing Russell put an advertisement in The Sporting News announcing open tryouts. Five hundred men showed up. Russell himself selected the twenty-five best. Not the youngest. Not the strongest. Not the most physically gifted. The best.

          They competed pretty darn well. In their very first game, the Mavericks pitcher threw a no-hitter. And that set the stage for years of consistent dominance by the upstart Portland team.

          Their philosophy was to run the bases hard, take chances, be ridiculous, and have fun. While every other club in their league lost their best players to AA, the Mavericks became a tight family – all working hard to impress their baseball-savant boss.

          Minor League baseball is so uninspiring that the only minor leaguer that you have even heard of is a washed-up Quarterback.

           It doesn’t have to be that way. Following a baseball team is one of the most wonderful things about being an American. You get to share a magical summer with guys that you care about, watching them play a sport that you love.

“The Battered Bastards of Baseball” is the feel-good baseball movie of the year. Watch it on Netflix tonight. (you know, after the game).

         Boom Bust Boom

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Boom Bust Boom

****

 

By now, anybody who can sit through an economics lesson knows how the 2008 financial meltdown happened.

Banks assumed that housing prices would continue to go up forever, so they lent money to new homeowners who couldn’t afford the loans. Then the banks sold the loans to other banks and to private investors. This insured that a drop in housing prices would affect every financial institution and take down the entire economy. Then housing prices dropped…

It’s easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback and blame who you want to blame for the meltdown. You can blame the naughty banks. You can blame the lax regulators. You can blame the materialists who wanted to live in McMansions that they couldn’t afford.

People on the Right can blame big bad government for forcing lenders to make loans in poor communities. People on the Left can blame big bad Reagan and/or Bush for trusting the private sector with so much power and money.

Monty Python’s Terry Jones has a completely different take.

Jones achieved the impossible. He made a documentary about economics that is apolitical, upbeat, and easy to follow. And full of singing puppets.

 

The film’s hero is 20th Century economist Hyman Minsky. (As a puppet), Minsky explains his ground-breaking theory about business cycles.

First, there is a painful panic. After a panic, people become cautious and responsible. They take fewer risks. They do not invest on margin or using credit. Governments pass and enforce sensible regulations.

This responsibility leads to stability. And this starts the downward cycle over again. Stability leads to optimism and rising prices. Rising prices leads to euphoria. In the euphoria of ever-rising prices, investors use credit again and ignore regulations. Finally, inflated prices suddenly drop and a painful panic ensues.

This explains the 2008 Mortgage Crisis. According to Terry Jones, it explains every financial crisis.

Jones’s solution isn’t Socialism. Or more regulation. It is acceptance.

Terry Jones doesn’t blame anyone for the 2008 meltdown. “Boom Bust Boom” claims that cycles of boom then bust aren’t flaws in the Capitalist system – they are flaws in our nature.

If there are villains in “Boom Bust Boom,” they aren’t the capitalists – they are the mainstream economists. Jones states that the study of economics rests on a fundamentally flawed theory: the notion that people in the open market are rational.

When it comes to money and trading, Terry Jones asserts, we are irrational to our very core and always will be.

Jones illustrates his theory of irrationality with an experiment using Rhesus Monkeys.

A colony of monkeys was given coins that could be exchanged with humans for food. Food dealer #1 showed a bowl containing one grape. When the monkey gave him a coin, the human gave the monkey two grapes. Food dealer #2 showed a bowl containing three grapes. When the monkey gave him a coin, the human gave the money two grapes.

If the monkeys made decisions based on rationality, they would shop with dealer #1 as often as dealer #2.

But monkeys, like us, are emotional idiots when it comes to money. The monkeys all wanted to buy from Food dealer #1 and avoided dealer #2 like the plague.

When it comes to investment decisions, we are all monkeys. When our investment goes up, we feel pride and joy and euphoria. When our investment goes down, we feel shame and disgust and panic. The smartest among us know that our feelings are irrational, but we feel them anyway.

“Boom Bust Boom” is the exact opposite of a muckraking documentary. It presents a serious problem that plagues humanity. But there is no blame and there are no solutions. Just monkeys and puppets.