Detroit

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Detroit

***

 

The 1967 Detroit Riot was hideously destructive.

More than 1000 people were injured. 43 died. More than two thousand buildings were destroyed.

After five days of looting and anarchy, the combined forces of police, National Guard, and army troops were finally able to enforce the 9pm curfew and reestablish order.

Thank goodness for those armed men in uniform. They maintain order and save us all from the destructive forces of anarchy.

Without the cops and troops, just imagine what would have happened to Detroit. At best, the riot would have reduced the city to ashes. At worst, there could have been an armed war between the city-dwellers and suburbanites, with 10 Mile Rd as the Front Line.

If you think that is far-fetched, that is because you have lived your whole life in a well-policed country. As soon as legitimate order breaks down, chaos ensues. Look at the situation in Somalia and Libya and Venezuela. Anarchy isn’t just a theoretical fear; it is the natural state of man.

If you think that many cops are on a power trip, you’re right. If you think that many cops use excessive force, you’re obviously right. If you think that many cops are racist, you couldn’t be more right.

If you think you would be better off without the police, you’re preposterously wrong. And you know it. That’s why you haven’t moved to Somalia.

 

 

“Detroit” is a well-made, entertaining, gripping, outrageously biased film about one ugly incident that happened during the 1967 Detroit Riot.

It began innocently enough, with a black guy firing a loud starter pistol in the direction of some cops. The officers did not know that it was just a starter pistol and they hideously overreacted.

A handful of rogue cops busted into the building from which the shots were fired, lined everyone up against the wall at gun point, and proceeded to terrorize everyone until they got a confession.

Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigalow (“The Hurt Locker”) is a master of violent suspense. As entertainment, “Detroit” is first rate. As a horror movie, “Detroit” works on every level. As a political statement, “Detroit” is a dubious achievement at best.

Making a film about the Detroit Riot and making it all about police brutality is an odd spin indeed. It’s kind of like making a film called “Nazi Germany” and telling the heart-warming story about Hitler’s relationship with his loyal German Shepard Blondi. On one hand, the movie would be 100% true. At the same time, it would be laughably biased and expose the filmmaker’s ugly political agenda.

 

“Detroit” is the right movie set in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Riots are the times where we need cops the most.

Our country has a lot of problems. But none of them are as bad as anarchy.

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  Dunkirk

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     Dunkirk
                     ***
   In 1939, the UK declared war on Nazi Germany. That said: the British weren’t actually in any position to fight a war.
   In spring 1940, the German army tore through the Netherlands, Belgium, and then northern France. The combined French and British armies were no match. Within just a few weeks, UK soldiers had stopped fighting. When the film begins, 400,000 men are on the beaches of Dunkirk, desperately waiting to be rescued.
   I can’t help but contrast the Dunkirk evacuation with the defense of the Soviet Union.
   In direct contrast with the UK, the USSR had no interest in going to war with Nazi Germany. Stalin was in horrified disbelief when he heard that Hitler had reneged on their non-aggression pact.
   Even though the Soviet Union wasn’t planning a war, it was darn well willing to fight one.
    “Quantity is its own quality,” Joseph Stalin said. The Red Army was inferior to the German war machine in every possible way. Inferior weapons, inferior training, inferior leaders, inferior medical supplies (the Soviets had no morphine). But the USSR was able to draft 30 million men…30 million men who knew that they would be shot if they retreated and that their parents might be shot if they deserted.
     There was no Dunkirk for the Soviets. Just sacrifice, cold, and death. Approximately ten million Soviet soldiers died in World War II. The United States and the United Kingdom lost fewer than a million combined.
     “Dunkirk” takes us to the beaches of Northern France to show how the British rescued their army from certain defeat.
     Although Dunkirk is less than 40 miles from England, the evacuation seemed impossible. The water is so shallow near the beach that no large vessel could come ashore. So the only solution was to have many, many small boats ferry small numbers of men across the Strait of Dover, with German bombers and U-Boats trying to sink as many as possible.
     In some ways, this is a straightforward war movie: loud, violent, and harrowing. But director Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight,” “The Prestige,” “Inception”) isn’t afraid to put his own artsy signature on the film at times. “Dunkirk” is the only war movie I’ve ever seen that is told out of sequence.
     If you blink you’ll miss it, but Nolan uses this Pulp Fiction-esque storytelling technique to show us characters who have been emotionally ravaged by war and then show us glimpses of the guys they were before they witnessed death.
     For some characters, seeing people die around them gives them bravery and resolve. For some characters, the trauma turns them into desperate animals. Nolan doesn’t want us to judge the cowards; he wants us to feel empathy for everyone on screen.
     For those who love war movies, “Dunkirk” is a must see. For those who are upset and stressed out by war movies (like me), I do not recommend it.
     In “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan asks a deep moral question.
     Was the UK less heroic than the USSR because the British retreated when faced with long odds while the Soviets sacrificed a generation of men in order to stop the Nazis? Or was the UK more civilized and humane because it refused to accept the premise of total war where human life means nothing?
     Nolan never answers this question. I vote for the British.

silence

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Silence

***1/2

 

The history of religion during the past 1000 years is the story of Islam and Christianity.

Muslim and Christian missionaries have tirelessly spread their faiths to all corners of the earth. Indonesia is 87% Muslim. There are more ethnic Indians who are Muslim than there are total people in North America. 30% of South Koreans are Christians. There are even 50 million Christians in Red China.

There is exactly one civilized country on the planet that has not been touched by the cross or the crescent: Japan.

From business suits to central banking to baseball, Japan has often been eager to adopt Western customs. But when it comes to Western Gods, Japan has always said “no” harder than a three year old listening to Amy Winehouse.

The question is why.

My theory is that the Japanese commitment to Family Unity is not consistent with religious conversion.

In America, if your brother has a religious conversion and is happy with his new faith, you are probably going to be happy for him. In Japan, if your brother has a personal religious conversion unrelated to the family, he is a traitor who has betrayed his father and his ancestors.

In Japan, the social necessity to get along with your group is more important than religion, faith, and truth.

Anyway, that’s just my theory as to why Japan never became Christian. Martin Scorsese has a different theory.

“Silence” tells the story of two Jesuit Priests – Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver) – who make a perilous journey to 17th Century Japan. They know full well that Christianity is punishable by death in Japan. But there is a rumor that their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced the faith, and the young priests are driven by the need to save him.

In Japan, the Priests meet two types of people: Desperate Christian peasants who are brave but ignorant. And the Japanese authorities, who are smart, civilized, philosophical, and focused on their task of ridding their homeland of outside influences.

“Silence” is a long, harrowing movie. It’s a personal story of faith that is clearly meaningful to writer/director Scorsese. As a young man, Martin Scorsese almost became a Priest. And you can feel his love of Christ mixed with anguish and doubt as expressed through poor Rodrigues.

But though Scorsese’s heart is with the Christians, his mind is with the Japanese. When the Inquisitor engages Rodrigues, he tries to gently help the Priest understand how unwise it would be for him to let Westerners have too much influence over his subjects. Rodrigues sounds like a selfish simpleton, speaking only in theological dogmas and ignoring the Inquisitor’s concerns.

Perhaps my theory that Christianity is inconsistent with Japanese culture is nonsense. “Silence” makes a stronger argument about why Western religion never took hold in Japan.

In the end: the Japanese aren’t Christian because their leaders didn’t want them to be. And they had the organization and strength of will to stomp out Western influences in a way that no one else could.

The Wizard of Lies

 

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The Wizard of Lies

***1/2

 

I have discovered the most suspicious sentence in the English language:

“I am a Money Manager; give me your money.”

Money Managers are charlatans.

“I am an expert at investing,” he says. Of course he isn’t, though.

You already know for certain that the Money Manager isn’t actually great at investing. If he was, he would be wealthy already and wouldn’t need to be wasting his time conning you.

“The stock market is complicated,” he says. “You can’t do it yourself!” Of course you can, though.

I have a brief project for you: Go to www.cnbc.com and search for three companies. Any three…I’ll give you a few minutes…

Welcome back. Did you notice how those random companies have gone up during the past year? And during the past 5 years. And 10 years.

Stocks go up. People in the market make money. It’s pretty sweet. You don’t need a snake oil salesman in a suit to make your money grow. You can do it yourself.

 

In the end, a person who is thinking of giving her life savings to a Money Manager needs to ask herself one question: who does she trust more: herself? Or the Money Manager?

“The Wizard of Lies” answers that question emphatically.

 

The HBO film chronicles one gut-wrenching year in the life America’s most famous Money Manager: Bernie Madoff.

Thousands of people trusted Madoff (Robert DeNiro) with their life savings. These people thought they were wealthy and smart. It turns out they were only wealthy. Soon they were neither.

Bernie Madoff conned chumps into giving him $65 billion. They thought that Madoff was a master investor who had figured out how make double digit gains even during Bear Markets.

Madoff was a master of the Ponzi scheme. He made rich dupes eager to fork over their fortune. And instead of investing the money, he just kept it. He sent his clients statements showing how much profit Madoff had made them. But the financial statements were lies. They really had nothing.

Director Barry Levinson argues that Bernie Madoff had nothing, too. Sure, he had piles of other people’s money. But the cost of his wealth was a gigantic secret that he had to keep from his family.

Lying was Bernie Madoff’s greatest skill. By systemically lying to his wife and children to keep them from being accessories to his crimes, lying became Madoff’s greatest virtue. Ultimately, he succeeded.

It can be argued that Bernie Madoff was a good father. He provided for his family. His sons weren’t arrested after the Ponzi scheme was uncovered, even though they had been working in Madoff’s firm for decades.

Bernie Madoff saved his sons from prison. He couldn’t protect them from the Media, however. The horror of “The Wizard of Lies” isn’t the many super wealthy people who messed up and became less wealthy; it is the one American family that got torn apart by scandal.

De Niro’s Bernie Madoff says that it is no coincidence that he was arrested just as the 2008 financial meltdown hit. He claims that he is just a scapegoat for a broken system.

And he has a point. In the end, what did Madoff really accomplish? He took wealth from millionaires and billionaires and redistributed it – not unlike that other old guy named Bernie wants to do.

Meanwhile, what were Madoff’s clients expecting? They were looking for him to pick stocks in a rigged market where the investor always wins and the American worker always loses.

“The Wizard of Lies” dares to ask the question. Was Bernie Madoff a thieving sociopath? Or was he a Money Manager?

The Most Hated Woman in America

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Netflix Original Movie

The Most Hated Woman in America

***1/2

 

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

-The Bill of Rights

 

That phrase. That phrase you keep using. I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means.

Somewhere in our history, the meaning of the First Amendment got flipped around.

The Founding Fathers were looking to differentiate their new country from Great Britain. In the United States, there would be no state religion. Back in Britain, the state religion was the Church of England the King was its leader. The founders wanted to make it clear that there would be no Church of America with the President as the national holy man.

That was a darn good idea. Can you imagine if the religious leader of our country was the President? Head of Church Calvin Coolidge? Okay, I’ll buy that. Head of Church Bill Clinton? Uh oh.

The Founders were trying to keep the State’s grubby paws out of religion. They were not trying to completely remove God from public life.

Oaths in courtrooms have invoked God from the beginning. Several Chaplains were on the very first Federal payroll. George Washington mentioned God in his Inaugural Address. So has every President since.

Thomas Jefferson was the most religiously progressive of our Founding Fathers. But even Jefferson, a Deist, cited God four times in the Declaration of Independence. The notion that the Founders wanted to protect Americans from ever hearing a prayer in public is comically absurd.

Where the heck did people get the idea that church and state must be completely separate?

Apparently, it was Baltimore, 1963. And Madalyn Murray O’Hair was to thank. Or blame.

Madalyn Murray O’Hair is a great hero and a great villain of atheist history.

On one hand, she bravely went on talk shows and wrote articles in the 60s that educated people about what atheism is and demonstrated that atheists are regular Americans as opposed to Communist infiltrators.

On the other hand, O’Hair made atheists look like jerks with her obnoxious crusades to try to remove “Under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” from the currency.

In my ideal world, atheists would be seen as normal folks who just happen to know that there is nothing supernatural in the universe. Due to O’Hair, atheists have an unfortunate reputation as malcontents who want to be a thorn in the side of Christians.

O’Hair founded an activist organization called American Atheists in 1963. The Netflix original film “The Most Hated Woman in America” shows how O’Hair (played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo) quietly transformed American Atheists into her own personal cash machine, taking the donated estates of like-minded atheists and squirreling away the money in overseas accounts.

In the 60s, O’Hair ticked off a whole lot of Christians. But her real mistake was that she trusted one shady co-worker with her financial secrets. The film’s drama comes from the 1995 incident where a former office manager of American Atheists kidnapped O’Hair and held the feisty old lady hostage until she paid him $1 million.

“The Most Hated Woman in America” is educational, gripping, and sad.

In the end, Madalyn Murray O’Hair learned the truth the hard way. The truth is that people who believe in God are mistaken – nothing more, nothing less. Christians aren’t robbing anyone of their civil rights. And they aren’t defying the Constitution when they worship in public.

It is telling that Ms. O’Hair was done in not by the worship of God, but by the worship of money.

Fences

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Fences

***1/2

 

It seems like the polite thing to say to a young man is: “you’d make a great father.”

I don’t think anyone has ever said that to me.

And they are right. I can definitely see myself being a horrible father. Some men just aren’t built to be great parents.

I could see myself resenting my child because I am wasting my money and the last decent years of my life on him without getting enough gratitude in return.

I could see myself resenting my child because my years of opportunity have come and gone while his have just begun.

Worst of all, I could see myself not liking my child. I don’t like everyone I’m related to. What happens if I stop liking my kid? Do I ruin his life and my own?

I would never walk out on my child. No chance. I am above that. But I am not above being miserable and angry. And I am not above drinking myself to death.

Am I a bad person? Yeah, maybe. Am I alone? Heck no. “Fences” is a raw, honest drama that explores what happens when a guy like me has some children. Spoiler alert: it’s bad for everybody involved.

Denzel Washington plays Troy Maxson: former Negro League baseball slugger and current jerk.

On paper, Troy has a sweet life. He has a solid career, a loyal wife, and two healthy sons who yearn for his approval. But Troy can’t stop obsessing over what he used to be, what he should have been, and what he wants but can’t have.

Denzel Washington has a special talent for playing foolish, self-destructive alpha-males. Troy is one of Denzel’s most memorable characters. Troy passionately rages against time, fate, reality, and sobriety even though we all know he is destined to lose.

The tragedy of Troy is that all he ever needed to do was learn to be content with his humble life.

The film contrasts Troy with his brother Gabriel. On paper, Gabriel has a terrible life. He was severely wounded in WWII and has a metal plate in his head. Gabriel will never be able to land a job or a wife, and he has the mental capacity of a seven year old.

But Gabriel is happy. He is obsessed with the afterlife and he believes that he will play a part in convincing St. Peter to open the gates of heaven to himself and the people he loves.

If only Troy had been able to learn something from his little brother. Or if only Troy had had the good sense to understand how selfish he is and just never have any children.

Don’t worry, World readers: I do understand how selfish I am. I don’t have any kids.

Get Out

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Get Out

****

 

I was watching Spike Lee’s “Malcom X” for the first time in many years. And I kept thinking to myself: “Malcom X might have been right!”

As a kid, you’re taught that Martin Luther King’s dream of integration is a utopia while Malcom X’s vision of a separate and superior black society is fanatical and wrong.

But Dr. King won, and it’s not entirely clear whether or not black America won as a result.

Integration into our schools has led to lower quality education. Integration into our society has led to the dissolution of the black family. Integration into our economy has made black workers the primary victims of globalization.

It hardly seems farfetched to theorize that Malcom X was right when he urged his brothers to stay away from the white man’s world and the white man’s poisons. It hardly seems like bad advice to heed Malcom X’s warning that all white people are devils.

But we aren’t all actually devils. Are we?

 

“Get Out” is a black culture class that people actually want to take. It’s an exploration of how it feels to be a black man integrated into white America but never really part of it.

“Get Out” is 2/3 horror, 1/3 comedy, and 100% amazing.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is our victim. He’s a moderately successful New York City artist who wrongly thinks that his girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams) is not a white devil. He is mistaken.

Chris agrees to go with Rose to visit her parents’ house in a quiet town upstate. “Come on, Chris,” Rose purrs. “I’d tell you if my parents were racist.”

No she wouldn’t.

Rose’s parents are rich, friendly, and progressive. “I would’ve voted for Obama for a third term,” Rose’s father proclaims. That proves nothing, Chris; get out!

Those who have watched the Comedy Central sketch show “Key and Peele” already knew that Jordan Peele is ridiculously talented. With “Get Out,” Peele has outdone himself. “Get Out” is a blockbuster thriller with the brains of an arthouse drama.

Peele’s most obvious point is that the United States is still an uncomfortable place for a black man. And the only thing more frightening than a racist redneck is a friendly guy who won’t admit that he is racist. Because that guy is a racist AND he is delusional.

Peele’s more subtle point is that integration into the white man’s world is not a goal that you want to achieve. If you successfully integrate, you’ll always be a second class citizen, anyway. And you will lose an important part of yourself in the process.

The White Devil’s greatest trick was convincing us that he doesn’t exist. “Get Out” calls him out in an unforgettable way. Malcom X would approve.

 

 

 

Arrival

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Arrival

****

 

600 years ago, everyone agreed that earth is at the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies revolve around us. That was a fact.

If some dreamer had stood up and said: “hey, maybe the earth is just one of a billion planets in our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of a billion in the universe,” that guy would have been laughed at or burnt at the stake.

Yesterday’s facts are today’s jokes and today’s jokes and tomorrow’s facts. Anyone who asserts that she is completely certain about anything is either a religious person expressing her faith or a fool who has learned nothing from history.

“Arrival” is a cinematic love letter to people who value contemplation over action, and discovery over certainty. It is a relentlessly brave and nerdy film. There’s a good reason why it is the first sci-fi movie this decade to be nominated for Best Picture.

 

“Arrival” begins with a bang. Twelve gigantic spaceships land at different spots around the earth. Suddenly, there is no longer a question about whether there is intelligent life in the universe. The question is: what do they want?

If they came here to phone home, it is going to take a serious crash course in Alien language to find out. And linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is just the one to do it.

This sets the stage for an hour of language class with Dr. Banks and the aliens. There are no action scenes and there are no laser guns. This is a 20th Century science fiction film for grown-ups only.

 

Quebecois filmmaker Denis Villeneuve deserved his nomination for Best Director. “Arrival” is instantly entertaining. And his ideas stay with you for days.

His most obvious point is that written language is the pinnacle of intelligence. Any idiot can yack to you for five minutes about how he doesn’t like his boss. And any cat can tell you that her food bowl is empty. But only using the written word can we ever have a shot at being fully understood by the people around us.

Villeneuve’s more sophisticated point is that each language is a double-edged sword. It is a window that allows you access to the outside world. But it is also a box that keeps you from fully exploring it.

The limits of our language are like what the limits of our eyesight were in 1500. Just as Galileo’s telescope opened up a new understanding of the universe, learning a new language has the power to unlock a completely different perspective of reality.

Anyone who teaches you a new language is expanding your mind. Anyone who scolds you for saying something inappropriate is shackling you to a limited set of beliefs.

The lesson of “Arrival” is the same lesson of 600 years ago: There is no concrete set of facts. There are only new worlds to discover.