Hearts Beat Loud

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Hearts Beat Loud

***1/2

 

It is not easy to maintain a relationship with your adult relatives.

First off, there are money issues.

If you lent your relative money and now you don’t like him so much and he is ducking you, that’s a bummer and things may never get better.

Second, you can easily grow apart.

If you don’t actively find interests and activities to share with your parents and children, your relationship can slowly disintegrate.

I have a better relationship with my father than my sister does. Is it because we love each other more? I don’t know. What I do know is that we talk about CBS’s Survivor, the stock market, or baseball together every day on the phone. And my sister doesn’t have anything to talk about or watch with him.

 

Frank (Nick Offerman) and Sam (Kiersey Clemons) are another father and daughter who have almost nothing in common.

Frank is an irresponsible, unambitious aging hipster. He runs a failing Brooklyn indie record store. (For my younger readers: a record is twelve iTunes downloads that have been imprinted onto a large, flat plastic disc that can easily be scratched and ruined).

Sam is 18 going on 30. It is the summer before college and she has no interest in going out or having fun with friends. She is studying hard so she can have an advantage over her classmates when she begins pre-med classes at UCLA in the fall.

Frank and Sam’s conversations are completely relatable and familiar. Frank buys Sam a gift and she chides him for spending money they don’t have. Sam already feels comfortable correcting her father’s grammar but she doesn’t want to tell him a thing about her love life.

Thank goodness they share one thing: music.

One evening, Frank forces Sam to put her books down and have a jam session with him. Despite herself, Sam gets into it and the father/daughter team produce an awesomely catchy pop-song entitled Hearts Beat Loud.

Are they are going to be a band? Frank says yes, Sam says no. At least the music is giving them something to do as father and daughter during their last few weeks together.

“Hearts Beat Loud” is never surprising and never brilliant. It gets by on charm and music.

The cast is delightful, especially Ted Danson as Frank’s eccentric stoner buddy.

The music is the real star. Hearts Beat Loud is a first-rate song. It plays several times throughout the movie. And like a good pop song, it gets more enjoyable each time.

Frank is into indie rock, naturally. And director Brett Haley tosses in hip but organic conversations about Mitski and Animal Collective songs that alt-rock fans know and love.

 

In the end, the film works because we are rooting for Frank and Sam to find common ground together. Because we have all been there.

Maintaining a relationship with even your closest family members isn’t easy. If you are estranged from your relative because of money, there is no cure. Money is a drug that has been poisoning relationships since the beginning of civilization.

If you are a stranger to your parent or child due to a lack of things in common, that’s on you. I’ll bet you can find something. Why don’t you watch a Red Sox playoff game together this weekend?

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Borg vs. McEnroe

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Borg vs. McEnroe


 
    In 1980, the sport of tennis was dominated by a mad man. He had behavior problems and anger issues; he made life miserable for everyone around him. His name was Björn Borg.
 
    “Borg vs. McEnroe” is a college course in psychology and sociology masquerading as a sports movie. It explores the troubled psyche of champions. And it exposes the ugly but predictable ways that the sports media twists their already fragile minds.
     John McEnroe is the bigger star now, but at the time Björn Borg (Sverrir Gudnason) was the undisputed king of tennis. When we meet him, Borg is 24 and he has already won Wimbledon four times. He is easily the most accomplished Swedish athlete of all time. And he is acclaimed all over Europe for his unprecedented success, his Nordic good looks, and his gentlemanly behavior. “How will it feel to win a record 5th straight Wimbledon title?” a reporter asks. “No special feelings,” Borg respectfully answers. 
    But that Björn Borg – the heroic heartthrob with ice in his veins – was just a media creation. Fake News, ESPN style. Danish director Janus Metz takes us back to Borg’s childhood, where the young Swede was shunned and shamed for his bad behavior and his rage issues. We see him kicked out of tennis school for being a low class ruffian.
    Only one man – former tennis pro Lennart Bergalin – is willing to take a chance and train the fiery Borg. Bergalin orders the angry child to hide his true self in public and channel all his rage into his tennis game. It works like a charm on the court and on his public reputation, but it has ugly consequences for his personal life.  
     Adult Borg is an insufferable control freak, completely addicted to his many OCD routines. The pressure of having an entire continent counting on him has made winning a joyless responsibility. Borg lashes out at Bergalin and his patient fiancé because he can only express emotions behind closed doors. 
     Gudnason does an amazing job of showing us how close Borg is to losing it. In the film’s most poignant scene, Borg bravely smiles at his nemesis John McEnroe. McEnroe gives Borg a cold stare in return. In that moment, we see that McEnroe is laser focused on becoming the champion. And Borg is a lonely, isolated young man who is desperate for a friend. 
     And Borg is right; why shouldn’t they be friends? Director Janus Metz argues that Borg and McEnroe are the same man from two different angles. The only difference is that John McEnroe (Shia LaBeouf) was from Queens, and no one ever told him that he had to hide his anger from the world. 
     Yet, these two very similar guys were treated completely differently by the vampiric Sports Media. McEnroe was painted as the classless clown who was threatening to diminish the entire sport with his crass childishness. 
     Metz explores how the Media creates a false narrative and then twists reality to find evidence to support it. We see a press conference where McEnroe pleads with the Media vultures to ask him substantive questions about tennis. The reporters totally ignore his plea and continue bombarding him with gotcha questions about his behavior. This, in turn, has the intended effect of making McEnroe act like the petulant jerk they painted him as.  
      This is not a must-see. It’s actually not even the best film made about the 1980 Wimbledon Finals. The HBO comedy “7 Days in Hell” is a more sublime take on the same subject. But “Borg vs. McEnroe” makes an effective statement about the pain and isolation of stardom. 
 
      Next time you think you know a celebrity because you’ve read about him in the Tabloids, think about Björn Borg. You probably know absolutely nothing. 

BlacKkKlansman

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BlacKkKlansman

**

 

Once upon a time, Capital One pitchman and big time Knicks fan Spike Lee was a serious filmmaker. At the height of artistic prowess (1992), Lee released an important cinematic classic: “Malcolm X.”

Spike Lee presents Malcolm X as an articulate, visionary, hateful philosopher.

In X’s version of history, the black race was the first and intrinsically the best. The white race isn’t just inferior, it is made up of devils. Consequently, as history has proven, assimilation and peaceful cooperation with white society is foolish and self-destructive. In his more charitable hours, Malcolm X called for a total separation of the races. He predicted, however, that the violent annihilation of the white race was inevitable.

After “Malcolm X,” Spike Lee kept making movies. But nobody watched and nobody cared. Sorry, but that’s the truth. I’ll bet you can’t name more than two of Lee’s last five films. Don’t worry, I can’t either. And I’m a film critic.

“BlacKkKlansman” is Spike Lee’s most popular movie in ages. But it is not a great film. It is a sad demonstration that the young genius who made “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X” has become a childish, angry, and artistically vacant old man.

It is the early 1970s. John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth: the first black cop in Colorado Springs. He is ambitious and fearless. Stallworth decides to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan by calling Klansmen, feigning a white voice, and using lots of racial slurs.

It works perfectly and soon Ron Stallworth is a member in good standing of the Klan. When Stallworth has to meet his fellow Klansmen face to face, another cop – Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) – stands in for him.

It’s a cool story of some truly audacious undercover cops. But in Spike Lee’s incapable hands, the drama and the intellectual stimulation never heats up.

The film’s best scene is early on when Det. Stallworth attends a rally featuring civil rights legend Stokely Carmichael. Carmichael’s Black Power sermon is amazing. But the words are Carmichael’s, not Spike Lee’s. Merely quoting a great man doesn’t make for great cinema.

The relationship between Stallworth and a pig-hating student activist doesn’t make a lot of sense. The subplot about the nastiest Klansman suspecting that Flip Zimmerman is Jewish goes nowhere and fizzles out. For a film about uncover cops risking their lives, “BlacKkKlansman” is surprisingly low on dramatic tension.

The ending of the film is really embarrassing. I’m surprised no one at the studio had the guts to dare Mr. Lee to do better. The scripted portion of the movie ends with a silly prank call to David Duke. Har har.

And then – suddenly – we are taken to Charlottesville, VA and shown graphic, upsetting footage of the violence last summer. It is jarring, tear-jerking, and artlessly provocative.

After all these years, it feels like Spike Lee is still itching for a Malcolm X-inspired race war. Fortunately, he will die disappointed.

In the end, sadly, Spike Lee is just like his beloved New York Knicks. They were a powerful force in the 20th Century. Since then, they’re kind of a pathetic joke.

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.

eighth grade

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Eighth Grade

***1/2

 

I know this is an unpopular opinion, but I think that our country’s child labor laws are strict and hypocritical.

Our policy seems to be something like this:

Dear Pakistan,

We Americans are morally superior to you. In our enlightened country, we toss industrialists in federal prison if we catch them employing young people. Shame on you.

Sincerely, Old Navy

P.S. We would like to place an order for 4 million super cheap Pencil Skirts for our fall collection.

 

In the early 20th Century, it was fairly normal for working class children who didn’t love school to leave and join the labor market. I am not pining for a return to those days, but I am confused about the people who are passionately certain that middle school is so much better than a factory job. They must have had a different middle school experience than me.

My middle school experience wasn’t particularly traumatic. But it was terrible and worthless. All I remember was being continuously unhappy for four years. And all I remember learning was how to conjugate French verbs. Et ce n’est pas très important.

I thought it was an agreed upon fact that eighth grade is the most terrible thing that happens in every person’s life right up until she is diagnosed with a degenerative disease.

The indie hit “Eighth Grade” certainly agrees with me.

27-year-old writer/director Bo Burnham has made a startlingly insightful debut film. He tells the painfully realistic story of five average days in the life of a 13-year-old girl.

Burnham shows that the stress of adolescence is universal. And he documents how we have made growing up even more isolating for 21st Century children by getting them hopelessly addicted to their smart phones.

Formerly adorable child actress Elsie Fisher is amazing and brave as the non-heroine Kayla Day. She is exactly like an average 13-year-old and nothing like what you’d expect from a Hollywood character.

Kayla is average looking and has an acne problem. She is relentlessly impatient and unkind to her doting father. She is not smart. Her only talent is visual art, but she is not self-aware enough to know that yet.

Kayla was voted Most Quiet by her class, but she mistakenly thinks that she is articulate and that people would think she is cool and interesting if they got to know her.

Kayla records an online motivational speech every day, but nobody follows her vlog. And she says “um,” “like,” and “you know” so often that her messages are almost incoherent.

Burnham explores the exquisite anxiety of middle school. For years, you do absolutely nothing of interest or importance. And yet – to you – every day and every interaction feels stressful and fraught with potential humiliation.

What could be difficult about a pool party at a rich classmate’s house? Everything, if you’re Kayla. Burnham powerfully communicates how tortuous social interactions can be if you have no friends, nothing to say, and are uncomfortable in your own skin.

The amazing thing is, “Eighth Grade” is a positive film with a hopeful message about a girl from a great family who doesn’t have any real problems. That’s how ghastly adolescence is: even if you have zero problems, you have100% awkwardness and unhappiness.

 

For the record, I am not arguing that we need to put children to work. I am just saying that I don’t understand why people think that school is infinitely better than the workforce.

Those early 20th Century industrialists must have been exploitive jerks since we decided that sending our kids to miserable miserable middle school is superior to sending them to the factory.

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.

American Animals

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American Animals

***1/2

 

We tell boys in our society that they are special and that they should reach for the stars.

I’m not sure we should be doing that, though.

First off, we’re not special. The little white lie that is meant to improve a young man’s self-esteem has the opposite effect of causing feelings of entitlement and disappointment.

Second, we are not doing young men any favors when we pressure them to be the best. In our society, being the best means having the most impressive-sounding job and the most stuff.

This is a problem because most people aren’t going to succeed in being wildly successful. And the men who do achieve impressive power and material wealth will learn that those things just add stress to their lives rather than joy.

Why can’t we just tell boys the truth? You aren’t special and you probably won’t achieve great things and that’s fine. You should strive to like yourself for who you are, because that will lead to more happiness and peace than everything money can buy.

 

“American Animals” is a powerful film about a couple of young men who were poisoned by thoughtless ambition and self-importance.

Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka were Kentucky college students in 2003. Instead of being content with the good fortune of being young middle class white guys in America, they were desperate for more.

Spencer was a painter who believed that a great artist needed a transformative experience to be great. And Warren was an obsessive thief with an intense fear of being just another suburban drone. Together, they decided to plan an art heist.

The Transylvania University library happened to have an impressive special collection, including a first addition of Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and John Audubon’s “Birds of America” – the most valuable book in the world.

 

“American Animals” is a lot more intellectually ambitious than the average heist movie.

Writer/Director Bart Layton interviewed the real (now 30-something) Spencer Reinhard and Warren Lipka. We hear their perspective every step of the way.

Even though these guys were best friends sharing the most important event of their lives together, they remember every single aspect differently. Sometimes, Spencer and Warren directly contradict each other. It’s pretty funny.

This is a cautionary tale for anyone who mistakes their memories for snapshots of reality. True Story is an oxymoron. Our brains are built to assign meaning to meaningless events and to fill in the blanks rather than admit we are clueless.

The most important thing to know about the past is that literally no one ever knows what really happened. It is frightening that we still allow eye witnesses in court when people’s lives are on the line.

One more useful point of having the real Spencer and Warren narrating the heist is that we the audience can just sit back and enjoy the action. None of us have to judge them because they are already judging themselves very hard.

But they are just victims of a culture that gave them the wrong life lessons. If only they had known that they were not special and felt no pressure to achieve great things. If only they had known how unwise it is to crave more than their parents, when they definitely would have been happier with less.

 

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?