Category Archives: Movies

Planned Parenthood chief is already wearing her Halloween costume: Claire Underwood


One of the frustrating things about these danged Interwebs is that it’s now impossible to fool yourself into thinking you’re having an original insight. Especially insights of the more superficial kind.Claire

For instance, lately I’ve been on a roll with seeing people on TV and realizing that they look just like some other person, and thinking I want to do a blog post to share this recognition, and when I check I find that everybody else has noticed the same thing.

For instance… I recently saw Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes,” and for most of the movie I tried to think who it was that Michael Redgrave looked exactly like. I knew it was another actor, but not a marquee idol by any means. Yet it was someone I had seen a lot of recently. I refused to let myself Google, “Michael Redgrave looks like…,” forcing my brain to work a little, if only on a silly pop culture problem.

Finally, I came up with it: It’s that guy who plays “Littlefinger” on “Game of Thrones,” and Councilman Tommy Carcetti on “The Wire!” That is to say, Irish actor Aiden Gillen. Congratulating myself, I went ahead and did the internet search, and… every other sentient being on the planet had already noticed it.


So it was that when I saw a picture of Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood on my Washington Post app this morning, and thought, “Claire Underwood!,” I thought I was just being perceptive as all get-out. Of course, the vast majority of people, who saw her on TV yesterday, had beaten me all hollow.

Dang yet again. I was all ready to say it looks like somebody already has her Halloween costume on, and other facile manifestations of a feeble wit, and I was too late.


Michael Redgrave

Michael Redgrave

Aiden Gillen

Aiden Gillen


In defense of “The Great Escape”

About a decade or so ago, I persuaded one of my daughters to sit and watch “The Great Escape” with me. My motivation was that I wanted to share something that had been, without a doubt, my favorite movie when I was a kid.

Early on — I think it might have been the scene in which Steve McQueen’s character, Hilts, and his new Scottish friend Ives, are sent to the “cooler” for the first time — my daughter raised an objection: What’s with the light, sprightly music in the background? This is about men at war being held prisoner of the Nazis and risking their lives to escape. They’re being put in solitary confinement, a harsh punishment that can cause lasting psychological damage (and as we soon find out, has pushed Ives to the edge of cracking up). Why the cute music? Why does it seem the actors are playing it for laughs?

She knew that her grandfather had spent the rest of the war in such a camp after being captured in the Ardennes, and it was a sufficiently horrible experience that he never, ever wanted to visit Europe again.

I had never noticed that incongruity, because, well, I had first seen the film at the age of 10, and I thought it was awesome in every way, and had never questioned the out-of-place comical touches that, after all, made watching the film all that much more fun.

I tried to explain that films were different in the ’50s and ’60s — Hollywood tended to sugarcoat everything — and war films especially. The country had this hugely positive feeling about the Second World War, and over the past couple of decades had sanitized it to the point that, to kids of my generation, it looked at times like one great lark. I knew at least in theory of the cost of war — I used to look at those pictures of American bodies in the surf at Normandy and Saipan in the big Time-Life picture books about the war. Still, the fact that the war was something we all felt good about was something I didn’t question. For instance, I watched the film starring Audie Murphy in which he re-enacted the deeds that made him a hero, and nothing that I saw in the film prepared me for what I learned years later — that Murphy had a terrible time with PTSD after the war.

And I knew, by the time my daughter pointed out that problem, that the true story of The Great Escape had definitely received the Hollywood treatment. To begin with, Hilts was complete fiction, and although there were some Americans in the camp, their roles in this escape were fairly marginal. (I think. I’m finding some contradictory info about American David M. Jones.)

Still, even though I know all that, and even though the film doesn’t hold the exalted position that it did in my personal list of favorites, I got a little defensive this morning when I read about the death at 101 of the next-to-last survivor of the escape, Australian Paul Royle. This was the part that got me:

Paul Royle revealed last year on the 70th anniversary of the tunnel escape in March 1944 that he was no fan of the Hollywood interpretation of the story.

“The movie I disliked intensely because there were no motorbikes … and the Americans weren’t there,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp., referring to McQueen’s dramatic bid to outrun the Germans on a motorbike.

Gordon Royle said his father was angry that Hollywood would create an adventure out of soldiers doing their often tedious and dangerous duty of attempting to escape.

“He felt the movie was a glamorization of the tedium and the drabness of the actuality,” Gordon Royle said.

“The idea that they got on a motorbike and soared over a barbed wire fence is far from the reality, which was darkness and cold and terror,” he said….

First, Mr. Royle had a million times greater entitlement to an opinion on the film than I ever will have. That said, allow me to raise some objections to his criticism:

  • True, no Americans were involved in the escape, as they were moved to another part of the camp before the tunnel was ready. However, one author who wrote about the escape notes that earlier, “US airmen watched out for patrolling Germans during the tunnel’s construction.” Marginal, but participation nonetheless.
  • I accept service completely on the fact that Hilts was entirely a fabrication, from his cowboy insouciance to his baseball and glove. But I should point out that if you paid close attention to the film, you’d see that the three Americans depicted as being in the camp were not central to the escape effort, except for Hendley — and he had the fig leaf of technically being in the Canadian air force and therefore not officially an “American.” The fictional Hilts was a complete outsider, playing no part in the X organization. The essentially true story of the escape planned and executed by British officers with a few allied pilots thrown in was clearly told.
  • While the entire story was fictionalized, there was at least some verisimilitude between the central character, Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, and his real-life counterpart, Squadron Leader Roger Bushell. Their stories are a fairly close match. Bushell had been captured and tortured by the Gestapo after a previous escape, and had developed an intense hatred of the Nazis by the time he became Big X in Stalag Luft III.
  • The central facts of the plan — the simultaneous digging of three tunnels, named Tom, Dick and Harry, and the discovery of Tom by the Germans — are accurately depicted.
  • The grimness of the experience was there, despite the veneer of jazzed-up adventure. There was Danny’s terror in the tunnel, Ives’ eventually suicidal despair, and the central fact of the murder of the 50 — the men to whom the film is dedicated — by the Gestapo. No reasonable person watching this would conclude that being a POW was fun.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they'll get rid of the dirt.

    Ashley-Pitt demonstrates how they’ll get rid of the dirt.

  • The film showed only three men making it all the way to freedom, and that’s how many did — even though in the film one of them was Australian, like Mr. Royle, and that was not accurate. (Two were Norwegian and one was Dutch, although all three had flown for the RAF.)
  • The role that Mr. Royle played — distributing dirt from the tunnels by releasing it from bags within his trousers and mixing it into the compound dirt with his feet — was clearly depicted. Although in the film that is most closely associated with naval officer Ashley-Pitt, played by David McCallum (whom our generation would later know as Illya Kuryakin), you see that a large number of men participated in that part of the operation. (And frankly, that’s always been one of the most amazing aspects of the escape to me. It’s astounding that they got away with it. How did the guards not notice something on that scale?)
As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

As a kid, I had this poster on the wall in my room.

In the end, it’s hard to defend the role Steve McQueen played in the film — except in this convoluted way: His jump over that fence at the Swiss border on that German motorcycle was the most exciting thing I had ever seen in a film to that point in my life, and the one thing that solidified it as my favorite. Yes, it was a complete lie. But it engaged my lifelong interest in the escape, and caused me to read books about the true story later in life.

So in that regard it served a purpose. Although I can easily see how a man who suffered through the actual experience would find it irritating in the extreme, and I’m sorry for that. He certainly has the facts, and all the moral weight, on his side. I just thought I’d speak up for something that meant a lot to me as a kid.

Your humble malchick hath become a grumpy starry veck, munching our zoobies together, o my brothers


When I went to YouTube to seek a link to “A Day in the Life,” I ran across the above ad, showing this grumpy old man in a cardigan and his top shirt buttoned, and when you moved the pointer across his face, he grimaced in a way that looked like his dentures weren’t seated right.

About the second time I made him grimace, I realized — that’s Malcolm McDowell!

Yes, the very figure of uncontrollable, raging, violent youth, turned into the sort that Alex and his droogs would single out in the night, smeck at, tolchock a bit, then leave moaning in his red, red krovvy.

What’s this cal? What grazhny bratchny is responsible for this, o my brothers? Our former malchick, ever dressed in the heighth of fashion in his platties of the night, reduced to this starry, drooling veck?

It’s made worse by this video in which he is shown amongst the young, failing to pony the latest version of Nadsat.

This is not horrorshow. This is baddiwad. This is making my gulliver hurt. It’s like a kick in the yarbles. O, that I should have lived to viddy this with my very own glazzies, my brothers!



Way late, over-the-weekend, DVD movie review

Colin Firth crosses the bridge over the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi.

Colin Firth crosses the bridge over the River Kwai at Kanchanaburi.

Yeah, I know, y’all give me a hard time for going on and on about The West Wing a decade late, but hey, I’m not anachronistic — watching stuff when I feel like it puts me perfectly in synch with my times. I’m now bingeing on the third season of “Game of Thrones,” and that’s perfectly cool, so get outta my face.

And here’s my review of movies I watched over the weekend. You will kindly ignore the fact that both were released in 2013…

The big news is, I lost my status as the last parent or grandparent in America to see the cartoon blockbuster “Frozen.” I had watched the hilarious video of the snowbound Mom who wants to throttle every character in the movie a number of times and enjoyed it. I had not, however, seen the source material. But Saturday night, the Twins were spending the night with us, and I took the plunge.

And it was… OK. I can see why the little girls in the family like it. And I can see why feminists, who’ve been complaining about the fact that little girls love princess movies, and in the past all movie princesses have needed a prince to save them, like it. But it was flawed.

And the biggest flaw had to do with that very same plot twist that kept this from being the standard Prince Charming plot. We are told that Anna can only be saved by an act of True Love (the second-best thing in the world, right behind a good MLT, where the mutton is nice and lean), which the audience (and the other characters) are programmed to believe would be a kiss from the appropriate prince.

I think it’s fine that that turned out not to be the case (because if it had been, it would have been boring). I think it’s fine that the act of true love was actually the princess deliberately sacrificing herself for her sister. Greater love hath no princess, etc.

But what didn’t work was the device of having the would-be savior prince turn out to be a villain at the critical moment — thereby necessitating the self-sacrifice scenario.

The Twins had warned me of this. They had told me that he was really a bad guy, from the moment he was introduced, and even sketched out exactly how he was a bad guy, but it just didn’t sound plausible. I decided they weren’t remembering it exactly right, because what they were saying didn’t add up.

Oh, they were remembering it right.

I was willing to believe that he wasn’t the guy Anna should marry. I agreed with all the other characters who were appalled that she tried to get engaged to the guy the day she met him. I could see an outcome in which the commoner Kristoff would turn out to be more suitable. The thing with the prince could easily be an ill-founded infatuation.

But until the moment when his bland, concerned face took on a wicked leer just as he was being asked to save the day, we had had no indication that he could be not merely unsuitable, but downright evil. I mean, the guy we had come to know up to that point might not be husband material, but he would at worst be a good friend to Anna. How about that song in which they were finishing each other’s sentences? They had a lot in common. And there he was seemingly doing his best to run the kingdom in the absence of the princesses, if somewhat ineffectually. (OK, another thing that didn’t work was Anna letting him run the kingdom in their absence when she had just met him that day. But hey, he was the only nobleman handy.)

You just don’t do that. It’s bad writing. You at least give an audience a hint of a guy’s character flaws before he becomes Cruella De Vil.

It didn’t work. It was like the thing that makes “24” so cheesy, with people the protagonists utterly trusted turning evil in one hour, then turning back into allies in the next, just to keep the plotline moving.


Then, after the Twins had gone to bed, I put in the other DVD I had from Netflix — “The Railway Man.” I had heard about this one from a Brit I met on a bus to Kanchanaburi. The film was partly set in the town I was headed to, which piqued my interest even more than it might usually have done.

It’s based on the true story of Eric Lomax, a man who at the outset of the film is a mild but slightly dotty Englishman of middle age, circa 1980. He is played by Colin Firth. All we know at first about him is that he obsesses about train schedules. He knows everything about every train in Britain, where it goes and when it goes there. He also has a delightfully encyclopedic knowledge of the towns where the trains stop. This, among other things, helps charm Patti (Nicole Kidman) into falling in love with him, and they marry.

But then, along with Patti, we learn that Eric is a deeply troubled man. Even dangerously so. And eventually, we learn why: As an officer in the British Army during the war, he was captured at Singapore by the Japanese and became one of the slaves forced to work on the Death Railway. He was already what he terms “a railway enthusiast” in his youth, and he was able to explain to his fellow prisoners what was in store for them. After noting that building railroads was such harsh work that most were built by oppressed outsiders who had no other option (Irish navvies fleeing famine in Britain, Chinese coolies in America), he said that the reason no rail line had ever been laid from Bangkok to Rangoon was that everyone knew it would be an unprecedented act of incredible human brutality to build it through jungle and mountains that lay in the way. It would take “an Army of slaves” to do it. And they were that Army.

Lomax ended up suffering more than most. When he is caught with a contraband radio, he is tortured at length by the Kempeitai. And when they see the map he had drawn to explain the project to his comrades, they absolutely do not believe his explanation that he is merely “a railway enthusiast.”

Things come to a head when Lomax learns that not only is the Kempeitai man who had interrogated him during the torture still alive, but he’s in Kanchanaburi as curator of a museum about the building of the railroad, which killed thousands of Lomax’s comrades.

So Lomax takes a knife and travels to Thailand, determined to bring an end to his torment. (A dramatic moment involving that knife takes place on the very bridge over the River Kwai that is behind me in this picture.)

I had an exchange with M. Prince the end of last week about the horrors of war, and about the question of whether anything honorable can be found in war. I thought about that while watching “The Railway Man,” because I have never seen a more profound examination of that question — showing the worst man can do to man, and how honor can be twisted into its opposite — than this film.

Nor have I ever seen — major SPOILER ALERT here — a more beautiful evocation of the power of forgiveness and reconciliation between deeply wounded, hurting human beings.

I highly recommend this film. Five stars. It may not have the epic sweep of “Bridge on the River Kwai.” It’s a quieter, less assuming film. But I actually think it’s better.

The sheltered Anna exhibited poor judgment in choosing a fiance.

The sheltered Anna exhibited poor judgment in choosing a fiance.

Long, long before they were stars


I love the Internet Movie Database, in part because it allows me to make connections in much-loved films that would never, ever have occurred to me otherwise.

I discovered this one a year or two back, but was reminded of it today and thought I’d share it.

Remember the skinny kid leaning up against the bars of the jail cell in “Trading Places” when Billy Ray Valentine was bragging to his cellmates about beating up on “nine, ten cops?” You know, because he’s a “chain-belt kung fu” master?

Here’s the scene.

He was the kid who said, “But you told me last night you cut the dude…”

No? Well, he was forgettable in that role.

But Giancarlo Esposito was hard to forget as Gus Fring in “Breaking Bad.”

Talk about an actor taking on gravitas, and menace, as he aged… Wow.


Disney is going to make a sequel to “Frozen”

This is Olaf. He’s kind of a big deal around my house.

This is big news for anyone with children under 12.

“Frozen” made nearly $1.3 billion at the box office and inspired masses of toys, clothing and other merchandise as well as a devoted following of young girls.

Even boys are kind of into Frozen. My son is three, and he really likes singing the songs. Mostly he likes the snowman, Olaf.

To paraphrase some litigators enjoy who ending their letters with a certain line: If you have young children, govern yourselves accordingly.

‘The Interview,’ ‘American Sniper,’ and ‘Selma’

I’ve recently written about three movies — ‘The Interview,’ ‘American Sniper‘ and ‘Selma‘ — that I had not seen (which kind of limited what I had to say about them). This past week, I had planned to see them all and write about them further. Which would have been quite the hat trick for a guy who is accustomed to waiting until films show up on Netflix.

I managed to see two of them. I still hope to see the other soon.

My report follows:


The Interview

This one took the least trouble to see, which was good, because I wouldn’t have crossed the street to see it. I rented it from iTunes on my Apple TV, and it didn’t cost me anything because I had a gift certificate I hadn’t used up.

It was about what you would expect, if you’ve seen enough Seth Rogen movies. On that spectrum, it was nowhere near as good as “Knocked Up” or “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” and a good bit better than “Pineapple Express” or “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” I’m not saying it was more elevated or worthwhile than those latter two, but the bathroom humor was funnier. The dirty talk wasn’t nearly as funny or relevant as the dirty talk in “SuperBad,” so you are forewarned.

One of the more interesting things about this film was that North Korea was so ticked off about it, seeing that the guy who played Kim Jong Un was handsomer, more engaging — certainly more manly looking (both in terms of masculinity and maturity) — and more engaging on a human level than any of us have ever seen the Dear Leader be. I mean, even though the flick was making gross fun of him and making a joke out of killing him (which, one has to grant North Korea, is pretty offensive), it was actually kind of flattering to him.

If you can see it for free at any point and you want to know what all the fuss is about, it’s not completely unwatchable. But otherwise, don’t bother.



American Sniper

I had wanted to see this anyway, even more so after The Guardian (being The Guardian) practically painted Chris Kyle as a war criminal, but I sort of reckoned without the fact that everyone else in South Carolina wanted to see it this past weekend as well.

Bryan Caskey joined my younger son and me (neither Mamanem nor Bryan’s wife wanted to see it) at the 5:10 show at Dutch Square. Bryan got his ticket and went inside ahead of us. While waiting for my son to get through the queue, I spoke across the ticket-taker to Bryan, saying, “Don’t worry; there’ll be plenty of previews.”

The ticket guy said, “Yeah, but there won’t be plenty of seats.” He said this was their 11th show of the weekend, and several of them had been sold out.

Boy, was he right. With stadium seating, I normally sit about halfway up, so that the center of the screen is at eye level. But this time, we had to sit with the groundlings on the third row, way off to the side. So Bryan, my son and I all had to slide down in our seats with our knees propped against the seats in front and our heads resting back onto the tops of our seatbacks, looking almost straight up, at a weird, distorting angle. But I got used to it by about the 75th preview (OK; honestly, I didn’t count).

But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?

Good. But you knew it was going to be good. When’s the last time Clint Eastwood made a bad one? And the older he gets, he seems to get better. I’m thinking “Gran Torino” here.

And the portrayal of Chris Kyle was — matter-of-fact and respectful. It was the story of a guy who is definitely a sheepdog in the sheep/wolf/sheepdog model of killologist Dave Grossman — one of those who is neither a sheep nor a wolf, but one of those rare types who sees himself as a protector of sheep from wolves. And one of those rarer men (like, 2 percent of the male population) who doesn’t have nightmares after killing other people, if he has good reason to see the killings as morally justifiable.

Eastwood helps the viewer to understand a man like Kyle, without either condemning or overly glorifying him — although many will see him as a monster or as a red-white-and-blue excuse to wave the flag, according to their own proclivities. As I say, the depiction is respectful.

I could have used a little more examination of the psychology of a sniper. While many will feel like there was too much footage of Kyle taking careful aim on enemy combatants (and, in more than one case, “combatants” who are women and young boys, which is the thing that will make you want to walk out if anything does), I felt like not enough was done to show how most people would be torn up by that — say, with a side story about a fellow sniper who was not as unconflicted about his job. You know that the cost to Kyle is not nil, as you see the stress he undergoes after his fourth deployment. But I could have used more explication in that department.

Anyway, it’s worth seeing, whatever your attitudes on the subject matter. It’s well-done, and examines unflinchingly the moral ambiguity that accompanies any combat role, regardless of the conflict in question.




Still haven’t seen this one. I passed up, with some misgivings, the Urban League’s annual breakfast, justifying it by saying that I was going to go with some friends to see ‘Selma’ at the Nickelodeon as my way of observing the day.

But even though we were there half an hour ahead, we couldn’t get into the 2:30 show. Sold out.

Has going to the actual movie theater experienced some huge resurgence when I wasn’t looking? I haven’t been to a show as crowded as “American Sniper” in decades, partly because I try not to go on the opening weekend at the most popular times. (Wouldn’t you think a 5:10 show would be an awkward time — neither matinee nor evening-out time? I did.)

And then, to not get into the show at all, when the film’s been out a couple of weeks?

OK, yeah, I realize it was MLK Day, and it looked like there were some school groups there. But still.

Have any of y’all seen it? Can you give us a review?


Guess I’ll have to go see ‘American Sniper’


Has anyone seen “The Master,” one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s last films? I saw it last night on Netflix (still fighting a cold, I’ve been vegging out in front of the tube a lot in my off hours) and was impressed. Not that it seemed to have much meaning, but it was interesting and well done, and had a couple of roles in it that actors would understandably kill for. Anyway, I was curious as to whether any of y’all had any thoughts about it.

I got up this morning thinking about that, but now, I think I may have to make one of my rare trips to the actual cinema to check out the subject of this Tweet from this morning:

Yes, that’s the kind of post that makes you give a second glance to see whose feed this is, and then you say, “The Guardian, of course.”

This particular writer was bending over backward to defend Clint Eastwood, saying that however much “we diverge politically… he is not a black-and-white ideologue.”

No, the problem that the writer decries is that “much of the US right wing” has failed to appreciate that this is a “morally ambiguous, emotionally complex film,” and regard it “with the same unconsidered, rah-rah reverence that they would the national anthem or the flag itself.”

This is supported with examples from some extreme trolls who wish that critics of the film would eat s__t, be raped and die. The usual sick puppies who, I guess we are supposed to assume, represent “much of the US right wing.” Trolls. Really nasty ones.

And of course, you have to be a pretty sick puppy, or challenged in the reading-comprehension department, if you can read the movie’s subtitle — “The Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. History” — and not pick up on the idea that there’s a pickup truckload of moral ambiguity churning about here.

I know y’all all think I’m an incorrigible warmonger and all, but I’m someone who does not blink at the dark thicket of morally impossible choices and ethical quicksand into which war leads us. And I’ve always marveled that anyone can live with himself after having killed as a sniper. Yeah, I know; a sniper can save a lot of his comrades’ lives and perform a useful function in a just cause. But a sniper isn’t running and firing at people firing at him, with his blood pounding in his ears and adrenaline drowning his senses. He calmly, analytically, scientifically, artistically, with great care, observes his magnified victim close-up through his scope for much, much longer than any other soldier ever has an enemy in his sights. And the target is unsuspecting. He has no idea that his death is coolly studying him for long minutes, and then choosing the instant to calmly blow his head apart.

A sniper can be a hero. Everyone he knows may praise him for his skill and devotion to duty. But how do you live with yourself after that?

I wonder at such things. So I wanted to see the movie anyway. But I wanted to see it twice as much after reading this actual review of it, also in The Guardian. This writer doesn’t bother making excuses for Mr. Eastwood, basically lumping him in with the rest of those thoughtless rah-rah American nutters. “American Sniper is so conditioned by its first-person shooter aesthetic that it never widens its focus or pans left or right… while the war on Iraq is a just, noble cause.”

Did you catch that? War on Iraq? This, apparently, is what passes as cool, analytical rhetoric in The Guardian, distinguishing right-thinking people from the “black-and-white ideologues,” all of whom, evidently, are neoconservatives.

Anyway, I was grabbed by this passage from the review:

In one early scene, Kyle’s father tells him that the world is divided into three types: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. Kyle sees himself as a sheepdog, a noble protector of the weak and the innocent, and it is clear that Eastwood does too. But is the world that simple? A different film (a better film) might have asked the wolves what they think, or at least wondered why the sheep behave as they do….

This grabbed me because that sheep/wolf/sheepdog model is central to Dave Grossman’s study of what he terms “killology,” a field of inquiry he has invented and generally has to himself. Lt. Col. Grossman is the author of that book I’m always going on about, On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. It demonstrates, through statistical analyses of battles and other means, that through most of human history, most soldiers have not fired their weapons in combat, and most who did fired over their enemies’ heads, for the simple fact that however they may have been trained, the training failed to overcome their profound aversion to killing fellow human beings. (Actually, in the past generation, U.S. and other advanced armies have overcome that reluctance through conditioning, which has led to more PTSD, which is a reason why Grossman wrote the book.)

That vast majority that doesn’t want to kill, and which suffers tremendous psychological damage when forced to do so, makes up the “sheep” category — not meant as a pejorative, but simply denoting normal, peaceful men.

I’m sometimes unclear as to who, exactly, makes up the “sheepdog” category. Sometimes, Grossman indicates it’s anyone who willingly dons the uniform — of the cop, the soldier, the sailor — and defends his or her society. Other times, though, he seems to be referring to a much rarer breed — the 2 percent of combat soldiers (according to a study from World War II, when there was such a vast cross-section of the male population to study) who “if pushed or given a legitimate reason, will kill without regret or remorse.”

The WWII study found these men to have a tendency to be “aggressive psychopaths.” But Grossman defends them from that damning term, explaining that they are just natural-born soldiers who “apparently do not experience the normal resistance to killing and the resultant psychiatric casualties associated with extended periods of combat.”

In that set of competing definitions, you’ve got enough ambiguity to employ an army of moral philosophers for a century.

Their the sort whose comrades might see as heroes, while those who have no military experience and look askance at those who do view as, well, psychopaths, in keeping with the time-honored tradition:

For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of ‘is country” when the guns begin to shoot…

This 2 percent cadre of men tends to gravitate toward the special forces — toward jobs such as that of the subject of “American Sniper,” who was a SEAL.

Anyway, I need to see the movie, and see what I can learn from it. As should anyone who wants to take some responsibility for what we send other men to do for us.

‘Selma’ controversy brings ‘inspiration vs. results’ debate back into focus. But it’s not either/or; it’s both/and

The new film “Selma” opens in theaters in Columbia Friday. So I haven’t seen it, any more than you have. But I’d like to comment on the controversy regarding the movie’s portrayal of LBJ.

Go read Richard Cohen‘s latest column, headlined “‘Selma’ distorts the truth about LBJ.” A couple of excerpts:

In its need for some dramatic tension, “Selma” asserts that King had to persuade and pressure a recalcitrant Johnson to introduce the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The movie also depicts Johnson authorizing FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover to smear King and — as King himself suspected — try to drive him to suicide. It is a profoundly ugly moment.

But a bevy of historians say it never happened. It was Robert F. Kennedy, the former attorney general, whoauthorized the FBI’s bugging of King’s hotel rooms. Yet, for understandable reasons, Kennedy appears nowhere in the film. By 1965, he was no longer the AG and, anyway, he remains a liberal icon. But LBJ — Southern, obscene and, especially when compared to the lithe Kennedy, gross of speech and physique — was made the heavy. He should get a posthumous SAG card….

[Those defending LBJ] include the historian Mark K. Updegrove, director of the LBJ Presidential Library; Diane McWhorter, author of “Carry Me Home”; David J. Garrow, author of “Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference”; and, when it comes to the atmospherics of the Johnson-King relationship, Andrew Young, once King’s deputy. He told The Post that the contentious meeting between King and LBJ depicted in the film was, in fact, cordial. “He and Martin never had that kind of confrontation.” Young was there.

As for Garrow, he told the New York Times that “if the movie suggests LBJ had anything to do with” Hoover’s attempt to destroy King, “that’s truly vile and a real historical crime against LBJ.” The movie depicts exactly that….

As I say, I haven’t seen the movie, but I’ve seen the above trailer, which hamhandedly drives home the same falsehood that LBJ, and every other authority figure in the country, stood as a barrier that only MLK’s witness, courage, and eloquence could knock down. (If the filmmakers were not trying to make that point in the trailer, they should go back and try again).

We’ve been here before. Back during the 2008 presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton enraged some when she said that the eloquence of an MLK or a JFK — or, by implication, a Barack Obama — only gets you so far. You need an LBJ to effect real change. She, of course, was casting herself as the savvy insider, the latter-day LBJ. Here’s my column at the time on that subject, to refresh you.

But there’s more here than whether you prefer fine words or practical action. There’s also the constant tension between people who believe sincere passion, emotional purity expressed through public demonstrations by ordinary folk is better, more legitimate, and ultimately more effective than working through a system of laws, through elected representatives, to bring about needed reform.

I don’t have to tell you that I believe in the rule of law, in effecting change through the mechanisms of a republic, as opposed to marching in the streets. I had little patience with Occupy Wall Street, as you’ll recall. And as for the protests following the Ferguson fiasco, I think Dave Barry hit the nail on the head with this passage from his satirical look at the year just past:

Domestically, the big story is in Ferguson, Mo., which is rocked by a wave of sometimes-violent protests following the fatal shooting of Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. The shooting ignites a passionate national debate whose participants have basically as much solid information about what actually happened as they do about Malaysia Airlines Flight 370….

So am I discounting the importance of all those civil rights marches, at Selma and elsewhere? Absolutely not. In fact, I believe they represent the one time in my life that such demonstrations were needed, were essential, and made a positive difference in the country. The moral, peaceful witness that Dr. King and the other marchers placed before the eyes of the country led to the development of a political consensus that made LBJ’s efforts possible. They prepared the ground.

But those protests did NOT force concessions from a hostile country, or hostile leadership in Washington. What they did was force the country to face the reality of Jim Crow. They made it impossible to look away. And the country, the great mass of public opinion, white as well as black, decided that we needed the change that the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act represented. And master legislator-turned-president Johnson was the one who led us through that essential process.

It’s not either/or. It’s not black vs. white, or The People vs. The Man. It’s not passion vs. reason.

It’s both/and. We needed MLK and LBJ.

Cohen calls attention to an earlier piece by Joe Califano, vehemently defending his old boss LBJ from the film’s slander. I like this passage from a recording of the conversation:

On Jan. 15, 1965, LBJ talked to King by telephone about his intention to send a voting rights act to Congress: “There is not going to be anything as effective, though, Doctor, as all [blacks] voting.”

Johnson then articulated a strategy for drawing attention to the injustice of using literacy tests and other barriers to stop black Southerners from voting. “We take the position,” he said, “that every person born in this country, when he reaches a certain age, that he have a right to vote . . .whether it’s a Negro, whether it’s a Mexican, or who it is. . . . I think you can contribute a great deal by getting your leaders and you, yourself, taking very simple examples of discrimination; where a [black] man’s got . . . to quote the first 10 Amendments, . . . and some people don’t have to do that, but when a Negro comes in he’s got to do it, and if we can, just repeat and repeat and repeat.

“And if you can find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina . . . and if you just take that one illustration and get it on radio, get it on television, get it in the pulpits, get it in the meetings, get it everyplace you can. Pretty soon the fellow that didn’t do anything but drive a tractor will say, ‘Well, that’s not right, that’s not fair,’ and then that will help us on what we’re going to shove through [Congress] in the end.”…

You have a couple of key points there:

  • First, the president is stating clearly that he not only appreciates what Dr. King is doing, but sees it as essential to educating the public so that it will embrace change. Change will come when that average guy says “that’s not right; that’s not fair.” After that, and not before, you can “shove” reform through Congress.
  • Then, you have his assertion that in the end, however, true change will be effected through the system — by black Americans voting, as well as by raised consciousness among whites. Marching in the streets only gets you so far.

Which is why he pushed so hard for his signature achievement, the Voting Rights Act.

The trailer flits past this image so quickly that I had trouble freezing it on this frame to grab this image. But the reason what happened in Selma was effective was because it caused THIS reaction in mainstream America.

The trailer flits past this image so quickly that I had trouble freezing it on this frame to grab it. But the reason what happened in Selma was effective was because it caused THIS reaction in mainstream America.

How much longer must we shoulder the White Man’s Burden?

Being under the weather yesterday (NOT the flu, and I’m on an antibiotic, so should be myself again soon), I finally got around to watching a couple of DVDs from Netflix that had been collecting dust in front of the tube for months now.

The first was “12 Years a Slave,” which told us of a fortunately long-ago time when we white men — or at least our great-great granddaddies — ran everything. (The other was “Dom Hemingway,” but I have no editorial point to make about that.)

Based on what I saw, it’s a really good thing those days are way, way behind us, gone with the wind, etc. Right? Right?

So today, I read this on The Fix:

The new Congress is 80 percent white, 80 percent male and 92 percent Christian

The 114th Congress, which gets to “work” on Tuesday, is one of the most diverse in American history, comprised of nearly 20 percent women and just over 17 percent of which is non-white. Which means, of course, that four out of five members of Congress are white and four out of five are men. Ergo, given the name of a member of Congress (at random: Oregon GOP Rep. Greg Walden), you can probably guess his or her gender and race. (In case you want to see if you were right about Walden: here.)…

The trend is slow, but it’s clear: Congress is getting a bit less white and a bit less male….

Yeah, uh-huh. Given that this is where things stand a couple of centuries after the time depicted in “12 Years a Slave,” check back with us in another 175 years or so hence and… well, actually, at this rate we white guys are still gonna be running things. Or rather, our great-great grandsons will.

Come on, people! Step it up! How much longer must we bear this, the White Man’s Burden (domestic version)? Help us out!

It’s not like the job is hard. To serve in Congress, all you have to do is pick up on the talking points of the day each morning, recite them loudly, demonizing the other side (which is also made up mostly of white guys), and raising money. (OK, admittedly it’s historically been easier for white guys to raise money, although you couldn’t tell by me.)

Or, you could do it differently if you like. You could actually study issues and think about them, if you want to be such a radical.

But come on, my multicultural friends. Somebody different — and I mean, really different — needs to step in and take over. Soon…

The only really decent white man in the movie was Brad Pitt, which stands to reason, because everyone knows that all really decent white men are named "Brad."

The only really decent white man in the movie was Brad Pitt, which stands to reason, because everyone knows that all really decent white men are named “Brad.”

The New Yorker: ‘Ayn Rand reviews children’s movies’

I really got a kick out of this feature in The New Yorker headlined, “Ayn Rand Reviews Children’s Movies.” Excerpt:

“Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”

An industrious young woman neglects to charge for her housekeeping services and is rightly exploited for her naïveté. She dies without ever having sought her own happiness as the highest moral aim. I did not finish watching this movie, finding it impossible to sympathize with the main character. — No stars.


The biggest and the strongest are the fittest to rule. This is the way things have always been. — Four stars.

“Old Yeller”

A farm animal ceases to be useful and is disposed of humanely. A valuable lesson for children. — Four stars.

Obama: Sony ‘made a mistake,’ and N. Korea better watch out


Two things are being reported out of the president’s last scheduled presser of the year this afternoon:

  1. Sony “made a mistake” in canceling “The Interview.”
  2. We’re gonna get even with North Korea.

The first point raises interesting questions, but I find myself focusing on the second one.

So… exactly how do we retaliate against North Korea for throwing a snit fit over a silly movie, and then creating cyber havoc with a large corporation’s virtual existence?

POTUS promises our response will be “proportional.” What’s proportional in this instance? Do we somehow sabotage Dear Leader’s favorite TV show? His country has no large, successful corporations that we can mess with, so what else is there?

It’s like the opposite of “What do you give the man who has everything?” In this case, it’s what do you do to a country where the people all starve, they lack electric lighting and the absolute ruler is so paranoid he wipes out his own relatives to hold on to power?

The president is headed for vacation in Hawaii, leaving the West Wing to ponder how to get back at the North Koreans. Why do I picture the guys in Animal House planning their big revenge at the homecoming parade?

Previous White Houses had to decide how to respond to Pearl Harbor, or the Berlin Wall. We have this….


Why must our international free speech crises be over such stupid things?

REALLY? These are our free speech heroes?

REALLY? These are our free speech heroes?

When I saw this news this morning

“The Interview’s” premiere, which was to take place at Sunshine Cinema in New York on Thursday, has been canceled, a Landmark Theatres spokesman told the Hollywood Reporter. The news came after a group calling itself Guardians of Peace, or GOP, issued a threat to movie theaters warning of Sept. 11-style attacks against those that show “The Interview,” scheduled to premiere Christmas Day. Now there’s a serious question of whether anyone will screen the movie at all. Guardians of Peace is the same group that claimed responsibility for the Sony Pictures Entertainment hacks. Some investigators believe North Korea is behind the attack.

The Los Angeles Times reported Sony executives attended a meeting of the National Association of Theatre Owners on Thursday, where they told the trade group Sony would be supportive if owners elected not to screen the movie.

The Georgia-headquartered Carmike Cinemas, which operates 276 theaters and 2,904 screens in 41 states, has already taken Sony up on the offer and announced it would not be showing the movie….

… My first reaction was, If you cancel the premiere and hold off from showing the movie, the cyberterrorists win!

So my next thought is that instead of cancelling, Sony and the theaters should…

… should what? Stand up for noble principle by showing a stupid movie about a couple of doofuses trying to kill a real-life foreign leader, played for laughs?

Dang. You know, I wish that when people in the West want to go toe-to-toe with repressive regimes around the world and stand up for freedom of speech, they wouldn’t always do it with such stupid things as this, or that idiotic, offensive cartoon contest deliberately intended to mock the Prophet.

Can’t we step up our game a little bit, fellow Westerners? Let’s try going to the mat for the Magna Carta, or the Declaration of Independence, or something that doesn’t make us feel queasy to defend. This is no way to get people in benighted countries to embrace pluralism or liberal democracy.

Come on, folks. I want to advocate for our way of life. Give me something to work with…

The REAL Star Wars teaser trailer, and the fake one

In these days of digital magic, fans don’t necessarily have to wait for the real thing:

Earlier this week, director J.J. Abrams announced via Twitter that there would be a teeny tiny sneak peek of the next “Star Wars” installment this weekend. A teaser trailer was set to screen at about 30 theaters nationwide….

But then the trailer was leaked on Thursday. Or rather a trailer was leaked. And then another popped up. And then another. None of them were the official trailer, mind you. They were made by people with fairly decent video editing software, but a lot of people didn’t realize that. And whoever is in charge of the Star Wars Twitter page ultimately had to spend Thanksgiving setting people straight.

Some of the fan-made teasers looked pretty legit. This one, for example, has gotten more than 4.3 million page views:

Pretty impressive fake trailer, huh? Personally, I enjoyed them both.

You know what would have made the real one 10 times more exciting, and enable it to crush the fakes with its authenticity? A glimpse of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill or Carrie Fisher. Maybe that was impossible (as in, they haven’t shot any scenes yet), or maybe they’re being saved for the really exciting trailers later.

In any case, I look forward to seeing them…


The Way They Were

What Mike Nichols achieved with ‘The Graduate’ was unique


Upon the passing of director Mike Nichols, I find myself marveling yet again at “The Graduate,” and how there’s just nothing else like it in the history of film.

How do you describe it? A farce, a drama, social commentary? If so, it was like no other farce or drama or social commentary I’ve seen. I like this description from the AP:

Mixing farce and Oedipal drama, Nichols managed to capture a generation’s discontent without ever mentioning Vietnam, civil rights or any other issues of the time. But young people laughed hard when a family friend advised Benjamin that the road to success was paved with “plastics” or at Benjamin’s lament that he felt like life was “some kind of game, but the rules don’t make any sense to me. They’re being made up by all the wrong people. I mean no one makes them up. They seem to make themselves up.”

At the time, Nichols was “just trying to make a nice little movie,” he recalled in 2005 at a retrospective screening of “The Graduate.” ”It wasn’t until when I saw it all put together that I realized this was something remarkable.”…

Yeah, well… they thought they were just cranking out something routine with “Casablanca” and “It’s a Wonderful Life,” too… Maybe you can only achieve greatness when you have humble intentions.

How does something work as comedy — as heartwarming comedy… when it’s about a guy who falls in love with the daughter of the woman he’s having sex with? More than that… How do you come to love a movie like that, to want to see it again and again, because it strikes a chord in you, even though God forbid you should ever be in a similar situation?

And that is what makes it unique: That it is such a universal cultural touchstone for members of my generation. It’s not that it was topical — as the quote from AP mentions above, it doesn’t mention any burning issues of the day. That’s one of the many things that separate it from self-consciously “topical” films that end up being eminently forgettable — such as, say, “Getting Straight.” Oh, you don’t remember that one? Then you’re making my point.

What makes that connection? What makes the film essential to our sense of that time? Is it Simon and Garfunkel? Aside from it being my favorite soundtrack ever, is the music essential to the film’s appeal? Would it be “The Graduate” without “The Sounds of Silence” or “Mrs. Robinson?”

No, it wouldn’t. But it wouldn’t be “The Graduate” without Anne Bancroft, or Dustin Hoffman, or even Buck Henry’s hotel clerk (of course, Henry’s main contribution is as screenwriter). Or the “plastics” guy. Or that wonderful long camera shot of the Berkeley campus.

SPOILER ALERT (In case there’s someone left who hasn’t seen it): The closest thing to social commentary on the ’60s that I can think of is the film’s enigmatic, excruciatingly ambivalent ending. The young lovers have triumphed! They’ve dramatically left behind the corrupt older generation and its agents and all it stands for (even to the extent of using a cross as sword, then as a lock to keep them in their church)! They’re together! They’re free! So they laugh uproariously; Ben claps his hands in glee. Then, you can see the thought enter their minds — what’s next? When you’ve rejected all that went before, and must now make your own life, your own way of living, your own morality — what then? And they stare straight ahead, with a smile still occasionally flitting across their faces, alternating with the stare of people who are overwhelmed at the enormity of what lies ahead. What now, indeed?

It comments on the sexual revolution and on the delegitimization of institutions, and the consequences those developments entail, without words. Just with looks.

The only film I can think of that does anything like it, or does it as well, is “Carnal Knowledge” — also directed by Nichols. Of course, that’s much darker, and hence not as beloved — although nearly as admired. And that one beats you over the head with the point, not least in the title — although it does so magnificently.

Carnal Knowledge” is a great film. I’m also really fond of the way Nichols brought Catch-22 to the screen. (And it just hit me — Art Garfunkel plays a key role in each of the three.)

But if he had never done anything but “The Graduate,” Mike Nichols would still be one of the great filmmakers…


Bus passengers in an alternative universe

on the bus

Today, I got one of those emails trying to get me to engage more with Pinterest, and one of the pins it offered me was this one, which I thought was cool, because it’s one of my fave flicks of all time.

So I repinned it.

But then I noticed something… you ever take a good look at the passengers on the bus who turn back to stare at Benjamin and Elaine.

It’s like Mike Nichols deliberately filled the bus with People Who Will Never Be Seen Riding a Bus. At least, that would be the case in Columbia in 2014. And I’m even thinking it would be the case in California in 1967.

Dig the guys in suits. Especially the guy wearing cufflinks.

This is such a glaring anomaly that I find myself wondering whether it’s intentional, and it means something. Like maybe Nichols wanted a painfully bourgeois set of people to be staring at our lovebirds, or something.

Anyway, I’d never noticed it before, and I found it interesting…

It’s International Talk like Robert Newton Day

Some call it “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” but I’ve often wondered where we get the silly notion that pirates went around saying “ARRRH!” and growling in a West Country burr.

I assumed it came from the movies.

Apparently, it came primarily from character actor Robert Newton, who played Long John Silver in the ’50s. This was brought to my attention by the Slatest.

So, if you didn’t know before, now you know…

Robert Newton