Sorry to Bother You

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Sorry to Bother You

****

 

Some people say that the American Dream is dead.

I suppose that depends on your definition of what the American Dream is. But if your dream is to find a corporate job and make solid money, the Dream is very much alive.

I have been working in the same corporate office since 2001. So the blueprint I’m going to share with you isn’t an idealistic Conservative fantasy. It is the story of people I have known.

Step 1 is to move to a region that has some major corporations and get an entry level job at one of them. Easy enough.

Step 2 is to become one of the best as the entry level job. It’s not that tough. It takes a little brains, a lot of caffeine, and a boatload of ambition. When changes come, adapt to them with a smile – never complain.

Step 3 is to discover which people have real power in your office and make a connection with a few of them. Soon you’ll be promoted and the promotions won’t stop as long as you stick to the plan.

Step 4 is the hardest part for a thinking person. Step 4 is to stop thinking about your company. Just focus on your daily tasks and maintaining relationships.

Eventually you’re going to realize that your corporation makes money by exploiting its customers while providing minimal service to society. The greatest corporate leaders never think about this or internalize the official corporate propaganda about how the company is actually good for the community. Others drink heavily to assuage the guilt.

 

“Sorry to Bother You” is an extraordinary modern fairy tale. It shows how easy and fun it is for a 21st Century man to gain the whole world – while losing his soul.

The film takes place in a slightly off-kilter and dystopian version of present day Oakland. Regular dude Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) takes a job as a telemarketer, selling encyclopedias.

The job is low-paying and dehumanizing. That is until he starts calling people with a “white voice.” With his white phone voice, Cassius quickly starts loving his job and he becomes the undisputed top performer on the floor.

Things get interesting when Cassius is promoted to the company’s Top Seller floor, where salaries are multiplied and they sell war machines and cheap labor to foreign entities. Cassius is so happy to be rich and appreciated that he is able to look past his company’s villainy.

Nothing can prepare you for the uproarious climax – where Cassius attends a debauchery-filled party at CEO Steve Lift’s mansion. “Sorry to Bother You” is the most inspired comedy of the year; it announces first time writer/director Boots Riley as a powerhouse artistic force in Hollywood.

 

Some Progressives argue that the problem with our society is that people can’t make a living anymore. That is not true. Times aren’t easy, but there is plenty of money to be had in 21st Century America.

“Sorry to Bother You” explores the more serious and existential crisis that we face:

We have visionary CEOs (Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos) with grand, irresponsible, megalomaniacal plans to alter our world. And instead of fearing them and trying to stop them, we worship them, give them more money, and help them twist reality to their whims.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor

****

 

Because I write this column, I’ve watched plenty of movies over the years that I didn’t really want to see. I even break down and watch a family movie from time to time even though they are terrible.

I didn’t even enjoy the kiddie movies that everyone else liked – like “Toy Story” and “The Incredibles” and “Coraline.”

The entertainment that Hollywood makes for children is garbage. The only motivation is profit. The jokes are puns, putdowns, and potty humor. The action is always frantic, as if they are intentionally trying to erode your child’s attention span. When there is any emotion, it is nostalgic or manipulative.

 

That’s why Mr. Rogers is such a revered figure in our society.

He made wholesome, intelligent entertainment. He made shows for children – not for profit. His main goal was to help kids cope with the emotional challenges of childhood, not to help mothers enjoy twenty minutes of freedom to pour more Chardonnay.

Above all, Mr. Rogers wanted his young audience members to feel loved and capable of loving, rather than feeling like consumers in training.

Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” was the pace. Fred Rogers wanted to be the voice of calm comfort in a chaotic world. He took time every day to feed his fish. There’s a scene where he takes joy in watching a turtle slowly run across his carpet. There is even a clip of Mr. Rogers sitting through an egg timer to teach kids what a minute of silence feels like.

Documentarian Morgan Neville isn’t trying to be as revolutionary as Fred Rogers. He’s mostly just trying to remind everyone why we all loved Mr. Rogers. And he succeeds mightily.

I want to thank my father for never crying in front of me. If not for his good influence, I surely would have sobbed in a crowded theater multiple times during “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” It’s a seriously emotional film.

 

The one blemish on this otherwise classic documentary is Morgan Neville’s foolish attempt to paint Fred Rogers (a registered Republican who died in 2003) as a committed member of the #Resistance.

Neville’s evidence is a 1968 episode where the vainglorious puppet King Friday XIII builds a wall around his castle. “Gotcha!” Neville seems to say. “Mr. Rogers hates Trump!”

Not exactly. Mr. Rogers wasn’t making a literal anti-Wall statement. King Friday represented the old guard in ’68 who were resistant to change, like racial integration. It can be argued that Mr. Rogers’s Wall metaphor is an attack on fanatical anti-Trump Establishment leaders who are fighting change in Washington at all cost.

For the record, I am not making that argument. Both arguments are equally biased and stupid. My point is that any attempt to use the memory of Mr. Rogers to attack your political opponents is nauseating and ridiculous.

 

There is no way that Mr. Rogers can save us from our current political discord.

But he can remind us that there are saints among us. And that children’s entertainment can be more than insipid corporate cartoons.

First Reformed

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First Reformed

****

 

Environmentalism is a religion.

I don’t mean that as an insult, just an observation. “First Reformed” is the first time I’ve seen an Environmentalist make this observation, too.

Environmentalism has a deity: Mother Earth. It has a devil: Corporations. It has a clergy: Scientists. It has a story that explains how the world began: the Big Bang. And it has a story that explains how the world will soon end: Climate Change.

I am a Conservationist. I no longer have an Amazon account, I eat very little meat, I have a small apartment, and I try to use as little of the earth’s resources as possible. However, when I hear people claiming that they know the future and that it is catastrophically terrible, that’s a doomsday religion – and I want no part of it.

Christians have the Book of Revelation. Environmentalists believe that Armageddon has begun. And that it’s humanity’s fault. That is super depressing.

“First Reformed” is a magnificent, artful drama about one man’s struggle with Environmentalism. Writer/director Paul Schrader begins with the clear assumption that corporations are destroying the planet. His film is about the despair that this realization causes.

Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller. When we meet him, he’s not doing all that well. He is the minister for a tiny old church in Upstate New York with a dwindling congregation. He is dying from stomach cancer and he is avoiding treatment and continuing to drink.

The story begins when one of Rev. Toller’s parishioners asks him to council her depressed husband Michael. Michael argues that the earth is quickly reaching a tipping point of destruction and that martyrdom or total despair are the only reasonable responses. Toller tries to convince Michael to search for Jesus and love and hope.

Then a darkly funny thing happens. Michael wins the argument. Rev. Toller becomes a fanatical new convert to the Environmentalist faith. And the main focus of his righteous rage is the Balq Corporation: the local manufacturing firm that is sponsoring his church’s anniversary celebration.

Writer/director Paul Schrader does an amazing job of showing us the inner workings of Toller’s conversion and building the tension and dread to a fever pitch.

Ever wonder how a decent religious man becomes a terrorist? “First Reformed” answers that question with stark clarity.

Schrader wrote the 1976 classic “Taxi Driver” and the similarities are unmistakable. Rev. Toller is a 21st Century version of Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle.

When we meet both men, they are desperately lonely and self-loathing. Then they undergo a change of mind that refocuses their depression outwardly into self-righteousness and judgment and wrath.

“First Reformed” is a first-rate character study and a painfully honest study of faith. Plus it has an ending that is guaranteed to get you talking.

 

This is an important movie.

It is the first film that explores the religion of Environmentalism from the point of view of a true believer. It makes a clear statement that extremism for a good cause is still really bad.

And it dares to ask the question: whether the end of the world is coming or not, is it worth it to believe something so depressing?

Tully

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Tully

****

 

When my first marriage was coming to an end, I made a list of the worst-case scenarios that could happen in order to keep things in perspective.

Here’s what I thought were the bottom five most terrible things that could happen to me:

  1. Die
  2. Get Divorced
  3. Get severely injured in an accident so I can no longer walk or be active.
  4. Have kids
  5. Get tortured

You know that feeling when you look at the clock on your computer at work and discover that you still have three long hours to go before quitting time? That’s how parenthood sounds to me. Except instead of three hours, you have 25 years to go before you get to stop working. 25 years during which you are often tired and always worried about money.

“Tully” is a rare film that explores parenthood in terms that make sense to me: as an existential life crisis.

Charlize Theron is magnificent as a 40 year old mom named Marlo.

In her 20s, Marlo was a cool Brooklynite. She was a bohemian bisexual libertine. She was the kind of person who makes dark clever quips during a conversation and doesn’t care that most people aren’t quick enough to get her jokes.

Now Marlo is a suburban mom. When we meet her, she is about to give birth to her third child, and it is no secret that it was an accidental pregnancy.

After the new baby is born, director Jason Reitman gives us a frighteningly realistic montage of Marlo’s life. From her perspective, existence has become an endless, meaningless series of diaper changes, loud rides to school, and late-night breast pumping while watching bad reality TV.

Marlo is frazzled and starting to lose her mind. Then Tully shows up.

Tully is the Night Nanny that they hired to take care of the new baby so that Marlo can relax for a few hours and get some sleep.

But young Tully (Mackenzie Davis) ends up being much more than that. She also sees it as her mission help Marlo gain a new perspective on motherhood, self-esteem, and happiness. Tully is Mary Poppins and Dr. Ruth mixed together in one extremely good-looking package.

Screenwriter Diablo Cody (“Juno”) has written her masterpiece. “Tully” is a deep, empathetic character study of a smart woman on the edge of sanity. This is what all chick flicks would be like if I ran Hollywood.

 

“Tully” is a perfect film that reminds us that life changes in ways that you never expect.

I was certainly wrong about my worst-case scenario list when I was getting divorced. Divorce is much more wonderful than death.

Maybe I am wrong about the first and second items on my list, too. Having kids is probably the very worst thing that could happen to me. Torture might be tolerable if it doesn’t go on for too long, right?

Chappaquiddick

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Chappaquiddick

****

 

I am sick and tired of political scandals.

In my ideal world, people would only read about scandals in National Enquirer. Scandals wouldn’t be seen on the news. They wouldn’t be viewed as news at all; they would be guilty pleasure bathroom reading material.

In our world, scandals aren’t just on the news – they are the news. If you turn on CNN, there is virtually no chance that you’ll hear an informative conversation about underemployment, the urgent need to break up Amazon.com, the environmental benefits of tariffs and reduced international trade, or the prison-industrial complex. You will probably become a Stormy Daniels expert, though.

When you do a good job at work, your boss doesn’t say: “That doesn’t count because I read you were a jerk to your husband last night.” That makes no sense. But that’s what politicians have to deal with when people mistake scandals for relevant news.

Picture it: it’s 2021. President Elizabeth Warren successfully brought every soldier back to the United States. President Warren just shook hands with Putin and both leaders agreed to shut down our nuclear submarine programs and let the subs sink harmlessly to the bottom of the ocean.

I will rapturously applaud President Warren. If a scandal comes out that she is a terrible person behind closed doors, I will not care. There is nothing she could do or say or tweet that would make me dislike her as a leader. Her personal flaws and sins can not change the fact that she brought us world peace.

I suppose there’s limits, though, right?

There has to be a threshold where a politician’s personal evil-doing is so ghastly that you can’t vote for him in good conscience. The outstanding film “Chappaquiddick” explores this threshold.

The story begins on an appropriately sorrowful note. On a lovely summer evening in 1969, senator Ted Kennedy got drunk with a young lady who was not his wife and flipped his car over into the water. Somehow, Kennedy escaped. His passenger did not.

This is not so good. What makes this accident go from sad to horrible is that Senator Kennedy checked into a posh hotel and didn’t call the cops until the next morning. Meanwhile, poor Mary Jo Kopechne slowly suffocated as she franticly breathed the remaining oxygen that was inside the car.

The Senator (Jason Clarke) isn’t particularly troubled about the woman he just killed. He isn’t even scared that he will have to go to prison, even though he definitely would have served time if he had been poor or non-white. Ted is concerned that he – the last surviving Kennedy bother – has just spoiled his chance to become President.

Family patriarch Joe Kennedy assembles an absurdly accomplished team of great minds (including Ted Sorensen and Robert McNamara) to come up with a damage-control plan to save Ted Kennedy’s career. And they do a darn good job.

The best and brightest minds of the Democratic party should have been solving America’s problems; instead they were working as scandal spin doctors. The scenario is darkly funny, and director John Curren mines the situation for a lot of laughs.

The comedy reaches a surprising crescendo when Senator Kennedy dons a fake neck brace at Mary Jo Kopechne’s funeral to try to gain sympathy.

Don’t worry, Democrat readers: This isn’t an anti-Kennedy hatchet job. “Chappaquiddick” is an admirably even-handed film. Curren really does make us feel for Ted Kennedy. He never encourages us to judge the Senator.

The film definitely doesn’t encourage us to judge the voters of Massachusetts, who largely looked past the scandal and reelected Senator Kennedy seven more times.

There is absolutely no defense for what Ted Kennedy did on that terrible summer night in 1969. It is one of the worst personal scandals in US history. But the scandal does not diminish Kennedy’s legislative achievements. They have nothing to do with each other.

Next time a political scandal comes on your TV, please consider that you are watching meaningless tabloid trash, definitely not the news.

The Death of Stalin

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The Death of Stalin

****

 

Most everyone knows that the Soviet Union was a nightmarish place to live.

I’m not sure people know exactly why, though.

I don’t have enough room here to list all the atrocities, but the forced collectivization of agriculture was one of the worst.

In 1929, the Soviet Politburo announced the mass collectivization of agriculture. Successful capitalist peasants – labeled Kulaks – were not invited to join. The Kulaks were marched off to work camps or killed.

For the remaining peasants, collectivization was nearly as bad. With the best farmers gone, the large State farms were run by city bureaucrats. The bureaucrats knew a lot about Das Kapital but nothing about das wheat.

Inevitably, grain production plummeted. Farmers were still expected to ship the same amount of food to the city party leaders, though, and the USSR continued to export grain to fund its industrialization projects.

The farmers themselves received a smaller share of a shrinking bounty. The communists’ perverse experiment led to a man-made famine that killed 5 to 7 million peasants.

The hardest thing for us to believe about this horror story is that the architects of this mass murder were regular human beings like us. Soviet leaders were just people – with feelings and families and fears. And funny bones.

“The Death of Stalin” is a delightful, charming, audacious comedy about a few funny weeks in Soviet Russia.

It is 1953 and fearsome dictator Joseph Stalin just had a massive stroke. Nobody knows for sure how sick he is because all of the best doctors have been sent to the Gulag. But the leading members of the Politburo have already begun to jockey for position in the new government. And every human weakness and frailty is on display.

Ruthless Beria is letting political prisoners free with hopes of currying favor with the people (even though he’s the one who put them in prison to begin with).

Halfwit Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) has been named interim leader. One minute he’s drunk with his new power and ordering people around; the next minute he looks like a deer in headlights because he’s overwhelmed by the job.

Poor Molotov (Michael Palin) is too traumatized by the madness of the Stalin era to move on. It’s darkly funny to hear Molotov earnestly condemn his wife as a traitor even though he has no clue why Stalin arrested her.

There is definitely no hero to this story. But the closest thing we’ve got is Steve Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev. He’s the only one who fully understands what is going on. This is not a battle of communist vs. capitalist or good vs. evil. Politics is about building a coalition by any means necessary. It’s fun to watch a perpetually frazzled Khrushchev convince, cajole and bully all the idiots in the Kremlin.

Writer/director Armando Ianucci (HBO’s “Veep”) has made the most inspired comedy of the year. It combines the witty wordplay of early Woody Allen with the anarchic slapstick of The Marx Brothers.

Mark Twain theorized that “humor is tragedy plus time.” “The Death of Stalin” proves it once and for all. I love this movie. See it if you can.

The Florida Project

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The Florida Project

****

 

In theory, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) is a saintly organization.

In a perfect world, DCF social workers would heroically swoop into a troubled home and save a desperate child from intolerable neglect and abuse.

And then that child would be swiftly moved into the warm embrace of her foster parents, who are definitely opening their home because of love rather than the monthly government stipend. The lucky foster child would immediately receive full parental care and acceptance. And also a pony.

In the real world, the Florida Department of Children of Families does sometimes do the right thing and gives abused children a new chance at life. And sometimes it just destroys families.

 

“The Florida Project” takes place at the Magic Castle: an ironically named extended-stay motel less than a mile away from Disney World.

The residents of Magic Castle pay $200 a week to stay there, but they are all living day to day. Brilliant writer/director Sean Baker gives us a documentary-style view into the lives of families who globalism has left in the dust.

21st Century Orlando is practically a 3rd World Caribbean country, with impoverished natives living off the spare change of upper middle-class tourists.

Sounds like a pretty sad movie, right? Heck no! To our six year old leading lady Moonee, every day is a celebration. The world is her playground, and every day Moonee finds a new way to beg, borrow, steal, and vandalize her way into an adventure.

Moonee has no rules, no structure, and no discipline, but she knows that she can always go home to her loving mother Halley.

Halley is a foul-mouthed, trashy green-haired girl who does not look or act old enough to have a daughter. Halley doesn’t have a job and she doesn’t appear to have any family or friends. So she has to hustle hard every week at various illegal activities to earn her rent money.

Life definitely isn’t always fun for Halley, but she doesn’t feel sorry for herself. She has the love of her life Moonee to hang out with every night.

“The Florida Project” is a funny, charming film about a happy, loving family. Unfortunately, we the audience know what the characters don’t: the DCF is a Sword of Damocles dangling over Halley and Moonee, and every other powerless lower-class family.

Child welfare agencies would like you to believe that they are detectives who sniff out the most at-risk children. The reality is that they visit families based on calls they receive. The people visited by the DCF aren’t the worst parents; they are the parents who made enemies of their exes or their neighbors.

Sean Baker never takes the easy way out with his social argument. He does not glorify poverty and he doesn’t defend Halley’s lifestyle or behavior.

He subtly but forcefully argues that Moonee would be better off if she had a mom with an ounce of decorum, restraint, maturity, and class. She doesn’t. But Moonee does have happiness. She does have joy. She does have love. She does have a family. She does have a mom.

In theory, the Florida Department of Children and Families is an organization that saves children. In practice, the DCF sometimes takes crying daughters out of the loving arms of their mothers.

There is no easy answer to the problem of at risk children. “The Florida Project” makes a powerful case that the DCF isn’t it. Personally, I don’t trust government to ever find a good answer.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

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Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

****

“Always remember, people will hate you. But they don’t win unless you hate them back. And then you destroy yourself.”

-Richard Nixon

 

People have a funny idea about the virtue of vengeance.

If a bad guy does something to your family, you are given free reign to hate him and work to have bad things happen to him. Vengeance is considered satisfying, justified, and cool.

People know that wrath is a deadly sin and that we are supposed to love our enemies, but they don’t want to hear it. “Why is the church being such a killjoy? They are taking all the fun out of my sweet vengeance!”

But the church is right and it’s doing us a favor. When a bad guy wrongs your family, the selfish thing to do is forgive him and move on; that’s your best shot at happiness and peace. Wrath is rightly called a deadly sin because it makes life miserable for the people around you and destroys your soul.

Writer/director Martin McDonagh certainly agrees. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” is the perfect anti-vengeance movie.

McDonagh starts off with a classic Hollywood premise.

On one side, you’ve got the heroine: Mildred (Frances McDormand). Mildred’s daughter was murdered several months ago and she demands justice. Mildred rents out three billboards in town that explicitly call out the police for failing to find the killer.

On the other side, you’ve got the bad guy: Dixon (Sam Rockwell). Dixon is a drunken, racist, angry bully cop.

McDonagh has an easy movie on his hands, right? Just make poor Mildred look sympathetic and make Dixon look like an irredeemable villain. Heck, let’s find that killer in the final act, too, for closure, justice, and a happy ending.

No. No. No. “Three Billboards” defies every expectation you have. This film is full of surprises; brave surprises that are never gimmicky.

There are no heroes or villains in Ebbing, Missouri. There are just people making decisions. Every decision that’s based on anger leads to more anger. And every moment of forgiveness leads to more togetherness and peace.

Frances McDormand’s Mildred is an amazing, realistic lead character. she’s no fool, but she’s too angry and stubborn to ever learn her lesson. We the audience slowly realize what Mildred doesn’t: Even if she finds her daughter’s killer, she won’t be happy. She has already turned too many people against her and she is too overcome by hate.

Vengeance is never a virtue. Forgiveness is always the sensible choice.