Hostiles

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Hostiles

**1/2

 

When my parents were children, they were taught that cowboys and American lawmen were the good guys and Native Americans were savages to be defeated. Now, children are taught that the Natives were the virtuous victims and white men were the blood-thirsty villains.

There’s truth to both of those perspectives. But they are both outrageous oversimplifications. I suppose you have to keep stories short for children. I just hope that adults are sensible enough not to mistake either narrative for the truth.

The White Men Are Bad theory is based on the notion that Native Americans were here first. I have two problems with the “they were here first” justification.

One: “I was here first” is the argument that a 6-year-old uses when she’s angry that there are too many kids in the sandbox.

Two: “They were here first” wasn’t always true. It’s vastly more complicated than that.

For example, the Cherokees weren’t here first. Several hundred years ago, a group of Iroquois split off and formed their own tribe. They moved south, encountering an existing society of more primitive Mound Building Indians. The Cherokees massacred the natives and annihilated them from the earth and from the history books.

The victorious Cherokee tribe conquered and settled much of the mid-Atlantic region in the mid 17th Century. This was approximately fifty years after the English landed at Jamestown. And even a few years after the Swedes settled Wilmington, Delaware. The Swedes got along reasonably well with the Native tribes but got bullied back to Europe by the Dutch.

The theories of Whites vs Natives and They Were There First break down when confronted with the infinite complexities of real history.

 

“Hostiles” is an ultra-violent western that makes an effort to present American/Native American relations without oversimplification.

The story begins in 1892. Grizzled army captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is given one more dangerous mission before retirement. He must lead a cancer-stricken Cheyenne chief up to his ancestral home in Montana. Early in the journey, Blocker picks up a distraught woman (Rosamund Pike) whose entire family was just slaughtered by Comanches.

I’ll bet the Old West was violent. But I’m guessing it wasn’t quite as relentlessly violent as writer/director Scott Cooper makes it appear. And that’s fine by me because guys don’t watch westerns with the expectation that everyone is going to be smoking peace pipes for 90 minutes.

“Hostiles” does a splendid job of showing that a man’s people are the ones who he is traveling with and fighting next to, not the ones who share his skin color. Blocker and his multi-racial crew quickly band together as one in the face of mortal danger.

The film is perfectly entertaining, but I have two big problems with it.

Cooper wants to his movie to be sympathetic to Native Americans but he couldn’t bring himself to write any interesting Indian characters. The Cheyennes are nothing more than dull, bland one-dimensional stereotypes.

Even worse: there are no jokes in this movie. More than two hours and not a single laugh. Scott Cooper seems to think that comedy was invented in 1900. It was not. I’m pretty sure that on long trips out west, a cowboy would let a huge one rip and then blame it on his horse. And then all the other cowboys would laugh heartily, because there was nothing better to do.

 

There is no single story of the clash between Native Americans and Europeans. There are dozens of different peoples and a million different stories. The best you can do is tell one of those stories really well.

“Hostiles” doesn’t even do that. It’s a mediocre, humorless western. Take it or leave it.

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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.

A Quiet Place

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A Quiet Place

*1/2

 

I like horror movies. But I rarely watch them.

Good horror movies make me lose sleep. It’s embarrassing but true. The night after “The Blair Witch Project,” I stayed awake in terror until dawn. The night after “Paranormal Activity,” I was 80% sure that my wife slumbering soundly next to me was a vicious demon.

I only go to see horror movies when they look really good and really interesting. Last weekend I saw “A Quiet Place.” I thought it was going to be great. I was mistaken.

Writer/director and new parent John Krasinski plays Lee Abbott: the greatest dad of all time.

The movie takes place in upstate New York after the alien apocalypse.

[Spoilers Ahead] We learn from newspaper clippings that a race of monsters landed a little more than a year ago and began killing people. These alien predators are blind and can’t smell. They hunt using their super hearing. By the time humanity understood this, however, most people were already dead.

Not the Abbott family, though. They’re doing just fine. Lee and his similarly perfect wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have made a good life for themselves and their children. They have a farm with a full granary. They have electricity and running water. They have a color-coated alien alarm system with video monitors. And somehow they were able to do all of this in total silence.

And in his free time, amazing selfless Lee tinkers with tiny speakers trying to fashion a functional homemade hearing aid for his surly deaf daughter.

I have to give Krasinski credit. He has created a brand new genre: Extreme Awesome Perfect Parenting Porn. I do not like this new genre at all. I’m pretty sure actual parents will appreciate “A Quiet Place” more than I do.

Oh, and get this: Evelyn is pregnant and Lee is delighted about it. That is certainly consistent with the new genre of Extreme Awesome Perfect Parenting Porn. But in the context of a world where aliens will devour you if they hear any sound, it makes NO DARN SENSE.

So, the family is boring. There’s virtually no dialogue. The aliens aren’t intriguing. And the ending is a carbon copy of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 alien movie “Signs.” “A Quiet Place” stinks.

Oh, well. At least it didn’t make me lose any sleep.

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.

Black Panther

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Black Panther

**

 

I had no interest in watching “Black Panther.” Normally, I don’t see Hollywood superhero movies. It has been a long time since I really liked one. (“Spider-Man 2,” 2004).

My best friend saw “Black Panther” last week and told me it is worth seeing. My wife saw it and told me that I’d find it interesting.

So, I gave in and watched “Black Panther.” I was right the first time when I had no interest.

I feel old and out of touch saying this, but I doubt that I’ll ever understand the appeal of 21st Century action flicks.

When I was a kid, action movies were fairly lousy, but at least they took place in the real world: with real cars, real fists, and real stuntmen performing real acts of heroism that are at least slightly plausible.

Now action flicks are nothing more than cartoons: computer-generated images of masked comic book characters performing impossible feats of acrobatics. And I’m supposed to care? About what? A bunch of 0s and 1s?

The last time “Black Panther” director Ryan Coogler and co-star Michael B. Jordan teamed up, they made the 2015 Rocky sequel “Creed.”

“Creed” had characters I deeply cared about and the fight scenes took place on real sets with real human beings. “Creed” is an emotionally powerful four-star classic. “Black Panther” can’t come close.

 

“Black Panther” is about the fantastic fictional country of Wakanda. Wakanda is the only African country that has never been colonized. Coogler’s point that colonization is always bad for those being colonized is well-taken.

In addition to being inventive and industrious, Wakandans have the good fortune of living in a region rich in the rare metal Vibranium. Vibranium is used in their infrastructure, weapons, and even medicine.

The hero of “Black Panther” is new King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). He is an enlightened, restrained monarch. He resists pressure from humanitarians to allow refugees into Wakanda. And he resists pressure from expansionists to use Wakanda’s superior weaponry to dictate how other countries behave.

The villain of “Black Panther” is rival Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). He is driven by righteous fury to use Wakandan power to overthrow white empires and create a new world run by dark-skinned peoples.

The first three quarters of “Black Panther” is pretty solid. I absolutely hate the final act.

The climactic one on one battle between T’Challa and Erik is just plain boring. To my eyes, it looked like a pair of poorly-lit cat cartoons flying all over the place and preposterously punching in midair.

It wasn’t even good by cartoon fighting standards. I was more emotionally invested when Popeye fought Bluto. I was more emotionally invested when Peter Griffin fought that big chicken.

The ending of “Black Panther” is infuriating and depressing. I was rooting for King T’Challa because he was humble and anti-colonialism. Then, suddenly, he pulls an ugly 180 and sets up shop in Oakland, California – with a new mission to help African-Americans be more like Wakandans.

Wait…what?! Wakanda was blessed with a magical metal and it just had a hideous civil war. Meanwhile, American blacks have been dealt a horrible hand by history and they have made immense contributions to world culture and art. Wakandans should be learning from Americans, it seems to me; not the other way around.

The heroic king suddenly transformed into T’Challa Kipling: a cultural colonizer suffering from Non-White Man’s Burden. Is self-righteous paternalism less obnoxious when it is coming from people who share your skin color? Ryan Coogler thinks so. To me, it was a sad ending to a mediocre movie.

“Black Panther” is just another Hollywood superhero movie. I don’t understand who would rather see average “Black Panther” than amazing “Creed.”

According to the box office, 9 out of 10 people would rather see “Black Panther.”

Oh, well. I’m the 10th. And I’m right.

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.

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.