The Hateful Eight

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The Hateful Eight

***1/2

 

Some people interpret “Thou shalt not bear false witness” to mean that God prohibits lying completely.

I’m not so sure. I think that it makes more sense that the 8th Commandment is intended to condemn those who have sworn to tell the truth in a specific circumstance and then lie. Perjury=breaking a commandment. Lying=not great, but what are you going to do?

Lies are like Dollar Stores. They’re everywhere. They’re bad. The world would be better without them, but there’s no sense in trying to stop them entirely. The best thing a wise person can do is learn to spot them and deal with them.

Someday you’ll get a pop up on your computer or a call from someone who says that your computer is infected with viruses.

If you don’t recognize that the “Microsoft” guy on the other end of the phone is lying, you will be giving him your credit card number and you’ll rightly feel like a fool.

The consequences of gullibility in that case is $200. In Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” the consequences of believing lies is swift violent death.

 

The story begins in a covered wagon plodding through the Wyoming snow circa 1875. All four passengers (Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Coggins, and Samuel L Jackson) are on their way to the town of Red Rock. But they may never get there.

Because of a blinding blizzard, the four hearty old westerners end up stopping for night at Minnie’s Haberdashery. But Minnie isn’t there, four unknown men are. Our eight anti-heroes need to be smart about who they trust or they won’t live through the night.

If you like Agatha Christie-style whodunnits and don’t mind hearing the n-word every three minutes, you’ll love “The Hateful Eight.”

Quentin Tarantino’s best film, “Pulp Fiction,” was about the supernatural power of faith. The two lead characters who follow their moral instincts – Bruce Willis and Samuel L Jackson – survive. Meanwhile, John Travolta ignores a miracle and dies ignominiously.

“The Hateful Eight” puts a dark spin on the same theme. In Tarantino’s post-Civil War America, God has turned the other way. There are no miracles and there are no moral people. There are only savvy men and gullible corpses.

In the film’s most memorable scene, Samuel L Jackson’s character tries to infuriate an old Confederate General with a vivid, lurid tall-tale. It’s fairly obvious to us that Jackson’s story is made up. The General partly understands it, too. All he needs to do is control his foolish instincts to believe what he is told and he will live…

“The Hateful Eight” isn’t Tarantino’s best. But even mediocre Tarantino films contain more memorable dialogue and outrageous comedy than anything else out there.

 

In this deception-filled world, learning to tell the difference between what’s real and what’s not is one of the greatest skills you can have. And that’s no lie.

 

 

 

 

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Cuba and the Cameraman

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Netflix Original Documentary

Cuba and the Cameraman

***1/2

 

In the 20th Century, leftists around the world were rooting for Revolutionary Cuba.

Cuba was the best chance of having a classless, Socialist Utopia in the Western Hemisphere. If Cubans could succeed while thumbing their noses at the decadent Americans at the same time, all the better.

Cuba became a political Rorschach Test. Conservative critics pointed to the thousands of political prisoners who never received a trial and the overcrowded boats filled with desperate refugees. Michael Moore, on the other hand, concluded that Cuba’s free healthcare system is more efficient and humane than our own.

Well, the debate is over. In his epic documentary “Cuba and the Cameraman,” journalist Jon Alpert has proven that Cuba is terrible. How do you know he’s right? Because he was trying desperately to prove the opposite.

Alpert began sneaking into Cuba by boat every few years in the 1970s. He would always meet up with the same locals to see how their lives were affected by the Castro regime.

He befriended Luis: a Havana slum-dweller. Young Luis was a happy dude in a free apartment with running water. All was well. Jon befriended the Borrego brothers: three 60-something farmers who joyfully worked the fields all day, did extra labor for the government in the late afternoon, and sipped rum at night.

Young Jon Alpert had a good reason for only wanting to see the best in Cuba. He knew Fidel Castro.

In addition to the intimate portraits of average Cubans, Jon introduces us to El Comandante. Fidel Castro comes off as eloquent, witty, kind, and even humble. Castro is so generous with Jon that it is only natural that Jon is unable to find anything bad to say about the dictator.

But history has a way of speaking for itself.

When Jon returns to Cuba in the 1990s, he finds that Castro’s Socialist Utopia has become a 3rd World nightmare.

Jon knocks on Luis’s door. Luis’s brother reports that he was dragged off and imprisoned. No one knows why.

Luis’s brother shows Jon the dilapidated state of the apartment building. There’s no more running water. The path leading to the outhouses has collapsed so now residents have to urinate in the street.

Everyone looks fatter than before. At least Castro is feeding the people well, right? Not exactly. With no supply of meat or vegetables, citizens are stuck living on rations of sugar and rice.

Incredibly, the situation is even worse for the poor Borrego brothers. They are in their 80s now and as strong and eager to work as ever. But they can’t.

The country-wide meat shortage has taken an ugly turn. Machete-wielding bandits have been raiding the Borrego farm at night. Now all of their farm animals have been stolen and slaughtered, including their two oxen. They can’t even plow their own fields. It is a heart-wrenching scene. Even Castro-pal Jon Alpert can’t put a positive spin on it.

The conclusion is unavoidable: With a steady influx of foreign money pouring in, Cubans were able to live a tolerable 19th Century existence. Left to its own devices, Cuba became a hungry dystopian police state.

The debate about Cuba is over: President Kennedy was right. And Michael Moore is full of it.

Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond

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Netflix Original

Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond

****

 

When I watch something where an actor is playing an insane character, I wonder to myself: is the actor truly crazy? Did he start off sane and lose his mind for the role?

The craziest TV character I can think of is Claire Danes’s Carrie Mathison in “Homeland.” When she’s not completely devoted to her dangerous job, she goes home and becomes an immediate danger to herself with booze and pills.

It is possible that Claire Danes is simply a terrific actress who can turn it on and off at will. But I’ll bet no one who watched “Homeland” has ever taken a chance and allowed Ms. Danes to babysit their children.

When it comes to entertainers acting insane, Andy Kaufman is the all-time champion. Kaufman became a celebrity in the late 70s with his goofy appearances on Saturday Night Live and his lovable immigrant character on the sitcom “Taxi.”

For his own artistic vision and amusement, Andy Kaufman decided to take the love America had for him and turn it into hate.

When he would appear on a talk show, Kaufman would come out wearing a one-piece wresting unitard. He would stand in the middle of a makeshift wresting ring and go on a chauvinist rant. Finally, a woman in the audience would become so furious that she was eager to wrestle him.

Andy Kaufman would pin the woman, dance around proudly, hold a golden belt above his head, and gloat that he was the World Intergender Wrestling Champion.

Was he a brave performance artist or was he actually insane? No one knows. But I assure you no one ever allowed Mr. Kaufman to babysit their children.

Most people found Andy Kaufman’s antics weird and troubling. Jim Carrey thought he was amazing.
In 1999, at the height of his popularity, Carrey successfully lobbied to win the role of Andy Kaufman in the biopic “Man in the Moon.”

And Jim Carrey didn’t play Andy Kaufman, he became him. For four months, Carrey remained in character, day and night. Half of the documentary “Jim and Andy” shows us behind the scenes video of Jim Carrey – as Andy Kaufman – causing mischief and making life uncomfortable for everyone around him.

But the star of this film isn’t crazy 1999 Jim Carrey: it’s super crazy 2017 Jim Carrey.

Bearded, haggard, and soft-spoken, Jim Carrey looks and sounds like a homeless New Age poet.

Sometimes he’s smart, sometimes he’s wise, often he’s off in space. It’s as if he’s having a conversation at the psychiatrist’s office but he wrongly thinks he’s the doctor.

Carrey describes the liberating experience of getting to live outside himself and be a jerk for a whole summer. Then he describes the horror and confusion of leaving the character and not remembering who Jim Carrey is.

“Jim and Andy” powerfully underscores the message that becoming a celebrity is a terrible disaster for your identity, self-worth, and happiness.

 

There is no way of knowing whether becoming a Method Actor and being Andy Kaufman broke Jim Carrey’s brain or if he was messed up already.

All I know is, no one is hiring Jim Carrey to babysit their kids. Man, I wouldn’t even trust him to come over and feed my cats for a weekend.

Bush and Clinton: A New World Order

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Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States

Vol IX

Bush and Clinton: A New World Order

****

 

One of the lessons from the novel “1984” is that an oppressive government needs to have an enemy.

In the beginning of “1984,” Big Brother is at war with Eurasia. Suddenly, halfway through the book, the country is at war with Eastasia.

It doesn’t especially matter whether the threat is real. The point of having an enemy isn’t just perpetual warfare; it is total control over the minds of your own people.

Only in this context is it possible to understand American foreign policy from 1989 to 2001. On paper, the US acted with foolishness and needless bellicosity. When compared to the government in “1984,” it was a splendid success.

 

The story begins with the fall of Communism and the election of George H. W. Bush.

With visionary leader Mikhail Gorbachev, Oliver Stone asserts, we had a golden opportunity to change history and make Russia our lasting ally. Our leaders didn’t want that at all, though.

To make sure we stayed arch-enemies with the Russians, we shamelessly betrayed them. In 1990, the Kremlin agreed to let East Germany reunite with NATO country West Germany. In exchange, Washington agreed to halt the expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe.

We what we should have done was disband NATO entirely. Its stated purpose was to guard Western Europe against the aggressive onslaught of Stalinist Communism. What the US did, however, was actively betray Moscow’s trust during its hour of weakness.

During the 90s, NATO began a belligerent advance right up to Russia’s doorstep. Today, the US is officially obligated to come to the defense of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania if Russia attacks them. Do our leaders genuinely care about the Estonians? Nah, they just want to antagonize Moscow.

Our leaders successfully ensured that the Russians continue to fear and hate us. Bravo. For their next trick, they found a way to have endless war in the Middle East.

 

In 1990, a US envoy told our old friend Saddam Hussein that he could take over Kuwait without inference. When Iraq invaded its neighbor, however, the Bush Administration changed its mind.

Operation Desert Storm was a splendid military success. But it had severe long-term consequences.

Osama Bin Laden had formerly viewed Communist Russia and the decadent Saudi monarchy as the ultimate enemies of Islam. After seeing thousands of US soldiers stationed in the Holy Land, Al-Qaeda had a new #1 target: America.

To Oliver Stone, Bill Clinton was a neo-con wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Under Clinton, our military became the ever-present policemen wherever there were Muslims misbehaving or in danger. US boots and bombs were active in Bosnia, Kosovo, Somalia, and Iraq – often without the American people’s knowledge.

Stone argues that when 9/11 sparked the War on Terror, it wasn’t a real change; it was just a continuation of the Clinton policy of multi-theater warfare in the Muslim World.

After the Cold War, the United States could have chosen peace. Instead, it mapped out a path of perpetual conflict with Russia and Islam.

 

Essentially, we are at War with Eurasia and Eastasia. And the only winner is Big Brother.

 

 

Kedi (cat)

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Kedi

(Cat)

***

 

Everybody knows about the love that parents have for their children. Everybody knows about the loyalty that dogs and their owners have for each other.

America’s love affair with our cats is less well-known. That is because cats are mostly hidden behind closed-doors. You only see a cat-lovers’ beloved baby if you go into her house. And, even if you are in her house, the cat may have run away and hidden from you.

For nearly 40 years, cats weren’t even on my radar. I didn’t know anything about them. And I certainly had never loved one.

My feelings have changed in a big way since I’ve been living with my wife’s cats Lucy and Felicia. Now they are my cats, too. They are my children. The cats make our apartment a home.

During our toughest times as a couple, our cats have been there to comfort us and to remind us that we are a family.

In my few years of being a cat daddy, I’ve learned that cats are not as smart as dogs. They don’t understand the concepts of gratitude or guilt or the dignity of labor.

But what they lack in sophistication, they more than make up for in love. A large portion of their tiny little brains are devoted to love – the love they feel for you.

In America, only us lucky cat people fully understand the magic of felines. In Istanbul, everybody does.

 

In Istanbul, there are no housecats. There are just cats.

During the Ottoman Empire, Istanbul was one of the busiest international trading ports in the world. Back then, it was common for trading vessels to have a cat on board to kill mice. Often, those cats would get off the boat and make their home on the streets of the city.

When Istanbul built its sewer system, large rats became a dreaded problem. Neighborhoods eagerly welcomed feral cats to help clean up their communities.

Organically, a unique system was created. The city has tens of thousands of cats on its streets, and millions of owners in its houses. The local cat is no one’s property. It is everyone’s pride and joy.

All the locals interviewed for “Kedi” have different stories about how cats impacted their lives. But they all have the same philosophy: it is wrong to keep a cat locked up; they belong to the city and they belong being free.

They are free, but doesn’t mean they are unloved. Some cats crave human affection even more than they crave Fancy Feast.

For the people in Istanbul who are lucky enough to be chosen by a cat as their primary human friend, there is a special pride and gratitude.

Several Turks interviewed explain how they used to be overwhelmed by the city and close to depression and madness. But their relationship with a neighborhood cat grounded them and gave them positivity, perspective, and purpose.

Cat-lovers will adore “Kedi.” The film explores the fundamental truth about cats that we have discovered: with their quiet, mysterious companionship, they help us more than we could ever help them.

Sour Grapes

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Sour Grapes

***1/2

 

Most people agree that wealth inequality is a serious problem. The large and growing wealth gap isn’t just unfair, it is a danger to the stability of our regime.

Politicians like Elizabeth Warren and especially Bernie Sanders are popular, above all, because they are seen as advocates for the people against the rapacious rich.

The problem is that politicians seem to think there is only one way to redistribute wealth: raise taxes. It is a little fishy that the one idea they have is the one that specifically enriches and empowers them.

If we were serious about taking from the rich, we’d come up with a more imaginative gameplan.

How about encouraging corporations to give their employees shares of stock in every paycheck? This would ensure that Wall Street rallies would benefit workers and not just the wealthy.

That’s just one idea to get some money out of the hands of super rich people. Rudy Kurniawan came up with a way better one.

With the rise of the dot.com millionaire came the rise of the high-priced wine auction. At these auctions, super rich nitwits blew thousands of dollars on individual bottles of over-hyped old French vino.

Out of nowhere, a young Indonesian immigrant named Rudy Kurniawan burst onto the scene. No one knew where he was getting his money or what his angle was, but Rudy began cornering the market on elite fine wine and driving up the price.

You would have thought that American wine snobs would hate Rudy. But the directors of “Sour Grapes” can’t find anyone who has a bad word to say about him.

Rudy was as generous and gregarious as he was mysterious. He threw parties and shared his best wine with friends. Rudy impressed wine snobs with his exquisite taste and unique ability to recognize different vintages.

But Rudy made one powerful enemy: billionaire wine collector jerk Bill Koch. While his brothers like politics, Bill likes to go out of his way to ruin people’s fun.

Killjoy Bill wants to make sure that all of his vast, overpriced wine collection is legit, so he has a professional investigator on staff. The investigator and his ex-CIA colleagues discovered some inconsistencies with Rudy Kurniawan’s wine labels.

Apparently, the FBI has nothing better to do than investigate wine fraud, so they got in on the case, too. It all ended in 2012, when the feds busted down Rudy’s door and uncovered the counterfeit wine-making operation in his kitchen.

Rudy had been bilking the superrich for years: selling $20 bottles of wine for $thousands.

The question is, though, did Rudy do anything wrong? No one complained about the wine. Rudy was such an extraordinary connoisseur that he always fooled buyers by filling the bottles with cheap wine that had the same taste as the original.   “Sour Grapes” interviews outraged Burgundy vineyard owner Laurent Ponsot. Monsieur Ponsot came all the way to America to make sure that Rudy was punished for defaming his family’s wines. I find Ponsot’s position obnoxious and absurd. If Rudy was able to fool elite wine buyers with his California counterfeits, it seems clear that Ponsot’s fancy snooty French wines aren’t that special.

 

Let me recap the score of the wealth distribution game: Senators Sanders and Warren are folk heroes for threatening to soak the rich. Meanwhile, Rudy Kurniawan is serving hard time in federal prison for selling overpriced bottles of tasty wine to rich people.

If I didn’t know better, I’d say that the government is working to protect the interests of the 1% rather than redistribute wealth.

1945: The Savage Peace

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1945: The Savage Peace

***

“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

-Jesus, about the people killing him

 

The way we treated the Japanese during World War II is unfathomably heartless. We all apparently agreed that it would be great if every Japanese person was shot, burned, or blown up.

Yes, a few hundred Japanese soldiers attacked Pearl Harbor. But Pearl Harbor isn’t exactly Putney; it was a military base located 2500 miles away from the US.

On paper, that doesn’t feel like a reasonable justification for the relentless mass murder of Japanese civilians; but that’s exactly what we did.

We claim to be a Christian country. Theoretically, we follow the teachings of the man who told us to “turn the other cheek.” In practice, we are no more moral or mature than a seven-year-old boy shouting “he started it” after we beat up a kid we don’t like.

Vengeance is not a moral justification for violence. Wrath is a deadly sin; it’s the most terrible and destructive deadly sin of all.

 

“1945: The Savage Peace” is not your father’s World War II program.

It exposes – in unflinching detail – the mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Germans.

At the war’s end, it was decided that all 12 million ethnic Germans in Eastern Europe would be removed as quickly as possible. Coming up with a humane way to make this happen was not high on the list of priorities for the victors. “These are Germans, after all,” they thought. “The very people who started all of this.”

Czechoslovakia was probably the least ravaged of any Eastern European country. Nevertheless, the proud Czech people did not care for the fact that they had been ruled by Germans. Soon after the Nazi regime fell, new Czech president Edward Benes called for “the Final Solution to the German question.”

This was as bad as it sounds. Armed bands of semi-sanctioned vigilantes rounded up German citizens and harassed, beat, or killed them. The Sudetenland had been largely German for generations. The millions of residents were kicked out of their homes and forced to march to Germany.

As with everything in WWII, things in Poland were worse. The least fortunate Germans were shipped to the USSR as “reparations labor” and never seen again.

The hundreds of thousands sent to Concentration Camps didn’t fare so well, either. It’s a little known fact that soon after Nazi Concentration Camps were liberated, they were repopulated with ethnic Germans.

East Prussia had been German for all of modern history. Suddenly, the region was part of western Poland. Millions of Germans were uprooted and forced to move west with nothing but the clothes on their backs. No one knows how many died of starvation and disease along the way. And nobody cared.

 

We are quick to separate groups of people into Us and Them. And once someone from the Them group hurts one of Us, it is disturbingly easy to start thinking ourselves as the good guys and them as the bad guys. Then all bets are off.

That’s why Czechs and Poles were comfortable slaughtering Germans. That’s why our grandparents were comfortable fire-bombing Japanese cities. That’s why no one seems to care that our government is blowing an Arab’s limbs off with a drone this very afternoon.

Vengeance is never noble and never morally defensible. It’s just another type of murder.

Until we all agree to forgive our enemies instead of hate them, humanity is doomed to perpetual violence.

Suburbicon

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Suburbicon

1/2*

 

Once upon a time, George Clooney was great director.

Three out of his first four films were outstanding. (“Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” “Good Night and Good Luck,” and “Ides of March”).

Those days are gone. Clooney’s latest bomb, “Suburbicon,” is terrible. Epically terrible. It’s the kind of film that only a great star filmmaker can make. If a new director presented “Suburbicon” to the studio executives, they’d fire him and scrap the film.

 

The year is 1959. The place is a fictional town called Suburbicon. Matt Damon and Julianne Moore star as Gardner and Rose: two bland, normal-looking suburbanites. They decide to commit a string of shocking crimes.

“Suburbicon” explores the secretiveness, desperation, and evil that hid behind the white picket fences of Eisenhower’s America.

The story was written by the Coen Brothers. And, on paper, “Suburbicon” is just like “Fargo.” But Clooney doesn’t understand that “Fargo” was a great film because of its comedy and its humanity, not just because of the violence and blood.

William H. Macy’s character in “Fargo” is one of cinema’s great villains. He commits one damnable act after another, but you never stop feeling for him because you see that he is suffering even more than his victims.

Matt Damon’s Gardner is a blank slate in a grey-flannel suit. I never understood him, I never empathized with him, and I never quite hated him. This is an embarrassing career low for Mr. Damon. Fortunately for him, no one is seeing this movie.

 

Hey, there are plenty of bad thrillers out there. No big deal. What makes “Suburbicon” special in its atrociousness is George Clooney’s tone-deaf take on race relations.

Gardner and Rose’s new next-door neighbors are the Myers family. They are the first black people in Suburbicon.

The Myers family doesn’t do anything wrong to offend their neighbors. In fact, they almost literally do nothing the entire film. The mother and father have, at most, five total lines. They aren’t so much black people as stoic saints played by black actors.

Nevertheless, their very presence causes the townspeople to go crazy. As Gardner and Rose go on their perverse crime spree, a mob of whacked-out whities gather around the Myers house to force them out.

George Clooney’s point – if you can call it that – is that white America is overacting so hard to what black people are doing that we are ignoring the hideous crimes of white people. The allegory is as simplistic as it is uninteresting.

Does Mr. Clooney think that all black people want is to move into white communities and act just like white people? Does he think that segregation in the suburbs was one of the worst crimes white America committed against the black community?

“Wow. 1950s white people were monsters,” Clooney proclaims, self-righteously. “Not like heroic Hollywood white people in the progressive 21st Century. Not like me and my activist wife!”

Meanwhile, just last year, Mr. Clooney actively supported candidates who take money from privately run prisons.

 

Clooney says that he is anti-segregation. But he has segregated himself so long in his Hollywood millionaire bubble that he has lost touch with the real world.

George Clooney was once a great director. Now he has seemingly lost his mind.