Death of A Nation

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Death of A Nation

(For Rightist Viewers:) ***

(For Leftist Viewers:) Negative 117 stars

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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?

Solo:                    A Star Wars Story

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Solo:

A Star Wars Story

***

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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.

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?