Category Archives: Movies

The candidates as the cast of a WWII B movie

battleground

How did I get on this subject? Well, Bryan had said something about liking Scott Walker before he dropped out, and I said he failed to stand out and distinguish himself. All the other candidates have a shorthand character people can describe, for good or ill. For instance, Lindsey Graham, who did no better in the polls than Walker, was known as the hawkish guy with the wisecracks.

So I got to thinking about how we all think we know the candidates, even though we don’t really know them any deeper than we do the characters in a cliche-ridden B movie — as a group of familiar types.

So let’s treat them like old-style contract players and cast them in an imaginary flick about World War II, since most of us are familiar with the genre. The title of the film? I dunno. “Hell is for Sad Sacks,” or something like that.

Here we go:

LuzLindsey Graham‘s the wise-cracking guy who nevertheless can give a pretty good speech about why we fight, and though he’s obviously no John Wayne, he’ll likely be a passable soldier when the shooting starts. Think L.Q. Jones — the character, not the actor who played him and adopted the name (even though he was poorly cast) — in “Battle Cry.” Think the book version. Only Leon Uris fans will get that, so never mind. Instead, think George Luz in “Band of Brothers.”

HallScott Walker is the replacement who gets killed at the start of the first battle, and no one in the unit can remember his name. Or maybe he was a member of another company entirely who ended up fighting alongside the main characters because the drop zones were all messed up. Think Private Hall in “Band of Brothers,” the guy who is the first character killed on D-Day. Or, to switch genres, anyone in a red shirt on “Star Trek.”

FrankoTed Cruz is the blowhard who talks big about how many Krauts he’s gonna kill, and the first time he’s within hearing of the guns he’s found cowering, quivering, in his foxhole. Everybody hates him — he’s always figuring an angle for getting ahead, at the expense of the other guys in the platoon — so they’re inclined to leave him there in the hole, but someone calls the medic. In “The Dirty Dozen,” he’d be Victor Franko.

RicklesDonald Trump is the utterly corrupt quartermaster who runs the black market operations in the area. A real weasel, although a tremendous businessman (ya gotta give him that) he’s all about insulting the other guys in the battalion. He’s even trading with the enemy; anything for the deal. He gets along great with Starshina Putin, his counterpart in the Red Army unit just over the hill. Think Don Rickles in “Kelly’s Heroes.” (He’s not smooth enough to be Milo Minderbinder.)

earnest young officerJeb Bush is the well-meaning but largely ineffectual officer who lives under a huge shadow. His father was a general and even his ne’er-do-well big brother made a name for himself earlier in the war. He got great grades at West Point but thus far hasn’t distinguished himself. He’s not a bad guy, but he’s not the kind of guy the men are all that eager to follow into battle. Picture Tom Hanks’ kid in “Band of Brothers.” (I’m not going to be cruel and call him Lt. Dike.)

PopsBernie Sanders is “Pops,” the impossibly old guy who somehow got drafted anyway. The young guys all think he’s great and look out for him, even politely listening to his crackpot ideas about politics, the Army, etc. He likes to freak out the recruits by popping his teeth out without warning. For some reason I’m picturing James Whitmore in “Battleground,” but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Can anyone think of somebody better?

Savalas 2Chris Christie is the crusty sergeant who’s been there and done that and rides the younger guys pretty hard, calling them “craphead” and “boy in the bubble” and such. Maybe Telly Savalas, in either “Battle of the Bulge” or “Kelly’s Heroes;” take your pick. But not in “The Dirty Dozen” — totally different character. Was James Gandolfini ever in this kind of movie? That would be perfect, but I don’t think he ever was.

WebsterMarco Rubio is “College,” the guy who earned half a degree before deciding he’d better join up. He’s a slick talker and will probably get into politics when he gets back home. The guys respect him for his ability to talk his way out of KP and such, but he hasn’t proven himself to them yet, and some wonder how he’ll measure up in combat. Think of David Kenyon Webster, the Ivy Leaguer in “Band of Brothers.”

StrayerJohn Kasich is the battalion executive officer, like Major Strayer in “Band of Brothers.” (Yeah, I keep citing “Band of Brothers,” which doesn’t fit the mold of the stereotype-ridden B movie. But there were just so many characters to choose from.) He’s regular Army and he knows his way around and the guys pretty much respect him and accept him in the No. 2 role, but people just aren’t sure how he’ll lead if the Old Man gets hit. This guy doesn’t usually have a lot of lines in the movie.

rooseveltI don’t know who Hillary Clinton is. It’s tough, since the Pentagon hadn’t yet rubber-stamped an OK on women in combat. I’m still working on it… She’s not a nurse (unless we’re talking Nurse Ratched, and that’s the wrong genre), and I don’t see her as the dame back home who wrote you a Dear John letter and broke your heart. Maybe she’s the long-suffering wife of the good-time company commander who chases all the nurses — Deborah Kerr in “From Here to Eternity.” But I don’t see her with Burt Lancaster. Maybe I’ll just say she’s Eleanor Roosevelt. She should like that…

Hey, Hollywood could use more imagination, period

Even when Morgan Freeman played God, it fit into one of the type categories...

Even when Morgan Freeman played God, it fit into one of the type categories…

The Guardian ran a piece earlier this week that I enjoyed. It addressed the phenomenon of Hollywood not writing good roles for nonwhite actors, which it portrayed as a problem that goes far beyond this year’s all-white Oscars.

But wait! you say. There are lots of great roles for minorities in the movies! Well, yes and no. The part of the piece I enjoyed was its list of Top 10 current stereotypes for “people of colour” (leave it to the Brits to take an already stilted-sounding phrase and make it more that way by adding a “U” to it).

Whether you think opportunities for minority actors are limited or not, you’ll have to smile in recognition at some of the categories, such as No. 1, the “Magical Negro:”

One of the most popular cliches for black characters, a wise, folksy black character with some connection to magical forces or spiritual insight. They only exist to enable a white character to grow as a person and/or reach their goal. Examples include Will Smith in Bagger Vance, Michael Clarke Duncan in The Green Mile, Whoopi Goldberg in Ghost, and most of the roles that Morgan Freeman has ever played.

Or No. 5, “Awkward desexualised Asian:”

A man who is unlucky in love, though often played by extraordinarily good-looking actors. The character can never get a girlfriend, and if they do, it’s down to the intervention of the white protagonist. Generally nerds for good measure. Examples: Kal Penn in Van Wilder, Steve Park in Fargo, and special mention to Jet Li in Romeo Must Die who is in no way awkward but still can’t get a kiss from Aaliyah.

They forgot to mention Raj on “Big Bang Theory.” He exemplifies that type perfectly. (Maybe they were deliberately avoiding TV.)

And let’s not leave out one of my personal faves, No. “7. Jaded older police officer:”

Acts as a counterpoint to a younger, more energetic white police officer. Provides advice based on his own wealth of experience but is often ignored in favour of the white police officer’s instincts. Danny Glover in Lethal Weapon, Reginald VelJohnson in Die Hard, Morgan Freeman in Se7en.

Or Wendell Pierce, Lance Reddick or Clarke Peters in “The Wire.” Especially Clarke Peters, shown here with the requisite younger, brasher white officer. But Danny Glover is definitely the much-lampooned archetype of the category. Now in a way, I’m thinking that role may originally have been conceived by writers as a way of going contrary to type — with the black character representing the Establishment for a change. But yeah, it’s become a type of its own.

So there’s reason to believe this stereotyping thing is real, right?

But you know, in the spirit of “All Lives Matter,” we must acknowledge that Hollywood could stand to have more imagination when it comes to creating characters of all pigments and nationalities.

Here are a couple of types we can see out there for white men:

Idiot father and husband: The opposite of “Father Knows Best,” this guy is always wrong, and thank God he’s got a wife and kids to keep him straight. Think Archie Bunker in “All in the Family,” Doug Heffernan in “The King of Queens” (see the video below for the perfect example of the type), Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin in “The Family Guy,” Ed O’Neill as a dad in almost anything.

Feckless man-child — This guy is lost in time, lost in the culture, lives in a confused fog and has only the vaguest notion of himself as a man — either according to traditional or modern standards. Jesse Pinkman in “Breaking Bad,” Edward Norton’s character before he and Tyler Durden started the “Fight Club,” almost any character portrayed by Breckin Meyer (I’m thinking particularly of “Clueless” and “Kate and Leopold”), Seth Rogen in almost anything (but especially “Knocked Up”), Wayne and Garth of “Wayne’s World,” Bill and Ted of “Excellent Adventure” fame.

But of course, the roles for white guys don’t always belittle them, not by a long shot. At the opposite end of the spectrum, we have:

Secular Messiah — Ordinary young man discovers, to his wonder and often his delight, that he is not ordinary at all, but The One — a completely unique and necessary hero with special, mystical qualities who is destined to deliver his people from evil. This is an old role dating back in our literature quite a ways, but the movies have enthusiastically embraced it. Think: Arthur in every story from Le Morte d’Arthur to Disney’s “The Sword in the Stone,” Paul Atreides in “Dune,” Neo in “The Matrix,” Harry Potter in all the books and films of that universe, Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars.”

The One doesn’t have to be a white guy, you understand, but somehow, in the movies, he always is.

Of course, Morgan Freeman got to play God… but that’s covered in the “Magical Negro” category…

I’ve already made GREAT STRIDES on New Year’s resolutions

Or one of them, anyway…

Lately, I’ve become all-too-accustomed to weighing in at over 180 (sometimes well over) on the rare occasions when I do weigh myself — at doctor’s offices, or when I’m at someone else’s home and they happen to have a scale in the bathroom.

That is not my fighting weight, not by a long shot. In fact, when last I was weighed for any sort of ritual combat — when I was on the wrestling team in high school — I was about 132. The year before that, I was in the 115 class — and just as tall as I am now. I was a scrawny kid.

But that was more than 40 years ago, and now that my uncommon genteel figgar has matured, I see my fighting weight as more in the neighborhood of the 160s. In fact, I recently decided — once again — to set my sights on being eligible to wrestle Shute. That, as I’ve mentioned before, is a “Vision Quest” reference. Awesome movie. Anyway, it means weighing in at less than 168.

So I resolved to go back on my paleo diet in the new year, and to keep myself honest, I asked for and received one of those spiffy digital bathroom scales for Christmas.

And this morning, I discovered a wonderful thing: My clothes, which I am always wearing when I step on other people’s scales, weigh a lot.

I weighed myself after showering, shaving and getting dressed — everything, including blazer, sweater, mobile phone, keys, shoes — and as is too often the case, the tally was 180.7.

But just moments before, having stripped to take my shower, I was only 172.4. Which really made those 20 minutes or so I’d just finished on the elliptical seem worthwhile.

Look how far I’ve come already! Just 4.4 more pounds, and Shute is in serious trouble! And I’ve got the whole year to do it in!

Yeah, I know. But allow me to savor this little victory…

This is Shute, the guy who is in such imminent danger.

This is Shute, the guy who is in such imminent danger.

Let us speak frankly and openly of ‘The Force Awakens’

Look, Chewie! It turns out Thomas Wolfe was completely wrong!

Look, Chewie! It turns out Thomas Wolfe was completely wrong!

SPOILER ALERT!!!

SPOILER ALERT!!!

SPOILER ALERT!!!

OK, I’ve seen the new “Star Wars” now (I deliberately waited until a quiet Monday night more than a week after the opening, and was rewarded by not having to put up with a boisterous crowd), and if you’re much of a fan you’ve probably seen it now, too.

So let’s speak openly of what we’ve seen, which means we will speak almost entirely in SPOILERS.

Well, what did you think?

I’ll start…

First, it was great. I was not disappointed. No, not as great as seeing the first one 38 years ago, when Han Solo and I were both young and roguish and I wasn’t expecting to see anything that much fun; it was a miraculous surprise. That time, I drove away from the theater — the Park in Memphis — filled with the excitement of the Death Star battle scene, and could not shake the feeling that my sad little orange Chevy Vega was an X-wing fighter. The sensory stimulation was with me for some time.

This time I was more grounded as I left. I knew I was driving a Buick. But I did catch myself humming the theme music — rather loudly, so it was hard to miss.

No, I’m not kidding: Spoilers are coming right NOW

And it gave me goosebumps at all the right places — when the newbie heroes find the Millennium Falcon. When Han and Chewie come aboard (and Chewie was more fun than ever in this one; he’s obviously been working on the timing of his comically expressive shrugs and Wookie noises), when Leia steps off that ship and sees Han — even when C3PO and R2 show up.

And when, at the very end, The One is found. Which was a special delight for me because my son, who had seen it before, had tried to prepare me for disappointment by telling me he wasn’t in it. What he had meant was that he wasn’t really in it in the sense of participating in any sort of action or engaging with the rest of the characters. But that turned out to be a wonderful UNspoiler for me: There he was after all, and he was in it exactly as much as I would have hoped, since I was told from the start that the movie was about a quest to find him — it was in the trademark screen crawl at the start (which was the first occasion for goosebumps, I now recall). And there he was at the end! So the movie has that going for it, which, as Carl Spackler would say, is nice.

I had read that J.J. Abrams didn’t try to get fancy: He knew what the fans liked and he gave it to them. He was like Paul McCartney. You know how most rock stars hate doing their hits for their fans, and despise the multitude for not appreciating their new stuff? Not Paul. He’s always loved being a Beatle, and he’ll give you “All My Loving” ’til the cows come home.

And he delivered. No fanboy would have done it better. But at this point I will share a few quibbles:

  1. Was it absolutely necessary to follow the plot of the original quite that closely? Let’s see… Desperate character plants a software file in a droid because the bad guys are bearing down. Evil empire searches for the droid. Humble character (who is unknowingly chock full o’ the Force) rescues droid from creepy little scavenger creature. Heroes, including one who wants nothing to do with heroism, are borne to the rebel base by the Millennium Falcon, which offers mechanical trouble on the way. Then it turns out that the main threat to the rebellion comes from — a Death Star. OK, so it’s way bigger than a Death Star, but as Han says, yeah, so it’s big; so what? It turns out to have — you guessed it — an enormous, obvious vulnerability on its surface. Hit it and the whole thing blows. (Apparently.  the engineering standards in this galaxy far, far away were not very exacting.) And — a bonus — this vulnerable spot is WAY bigger than a womp rat. So you know this evil base is going to go kablooey. The only question is whether our heroes can get clear of it in time.
  2. Were those really quibbles, or were all those elements precisely what made it so much fun? I remain unsure.
  3. What a wuss of a bad guy! The first time he takes off his helmet, one can’t help thinking, What, they couldn’t get David Schwimmer? They had to go with this poor substitute nebbish? In the climactic fight, he gets beaten not just by a girl half his size, but by a girl half his size with no Jedi training whatsoever. There he is looming over her, wrestling for the light sabers, and she evidently has much greater upper body strength. My older son pointed out after the movie that he had been shot by Chewbacca’s crossbow weapon, which they had demonstrated several times during the film had quite a kick to it, so there’s that. He wasn’t at his best. But still, I’ll say it again: What a wuss of a villain.
  4. Speaking of which… We’re all looking for Luke because we need him, right? And we need him why? Because the Force was always so strong with him. But he was a slouch compared to this girl. She’s able to use Jedi Mind Control as effectively as Obi Wan himself, when she’d probably never even heard of it? I half expected it to backfire, and have the trooper slap himself in the forehead and say, “Those were the droids we were looking for!” But no. It worked. Worked so beautifully that they had a little fun with it. So what does she need Luke for? She’s got all the chops now. She’s got the mind control thing. She can already take out the baddest guy the Dark Side can whistle up. Why bother? Let him stay on his craggy little island…
  5. Oh, and the low point of the movie — when the beloved character is killed? Some people behind me gasped and cried out in shock. Really? They didn’t see that coming? I knew it was over when he walked out on that catwalk thing. I’m sad about it and all, but he was awesome to the end.

OK, that’s all — and I’m stretching to come up with those, just to get a conversation started.

Really, truly, quibbles aside, I loved it. Just as I was supposed to…

A film almost, but not quite, entirely unlike anything that appeals to me

When I saw the email from Netflix headlined “Brad, we just added a movie you might like,” I braced myself. Netflix chirpily announcing it has something I will like gives me the same creeping feeling that Arthur Dent got when the Syrius Cybernetics Corporation’s Nutrimatic drinks dispenser offered him another cup of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

And sure enough, here’s what it was offering me:

netflix

Don’t know about you, but I consider that to be one of the silliest, most ridiculously hyped films of the past decade. It easily qualifies as my least favorite Ron Howard film, and I suppose my least favorite featuring Tom Hanks as well.

It was like a cheesy retelling of Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum, and I didn’t like that, either. There are people who just eat up a tale involving a conspiracy stretching over thousands of years, especially when it involves the Knights Templar (as both tales do). I’m not one of them. I’m not a huge fan of the whole paranoia thriller genre to begin with, and when you stretch it to such extremes, you totally lose me.

And don’t even bother feeding me a tale about brilliant algorithms duplicating the human mind and taking over the world. When Netflix gets a clue as to what I like, then I’ll worry…

The merchandising is strong with this one…

merch

I hereby launch this blog’s official Most Absurd “Star Wars” Tie-In contest.

See if you can top this one — “Star Wars” bottled water. Near as I could tell without ripping the shrinkwrap, there was nothing about Star Wars on the actual bottles. So if you gave it to a kid in a vain attempt to get him to drink water instead of soda, it probably wouldn’t work. You’d get one of those “What are you trying to foist off on me, pops?” looks.

I’m pretty sure the only branding was on the plastic wrap holding the case together. Although if you’re sucker enough to buy one, and rip it open and prove me wrong, I will stand corrected.

The last couple of weekends I’ve been out toy-shopping for grandchildren, and seen just how far the Star Wars mania has gone. And of course I’ve noted the everyday, ordinary version of a toy, and next to it the version with a Star Wars theme and a price about 76 percent higher.

But I’ve not yet seen anything as ridiculous as the bottled water.

A few thoughts on ‘Spotlight’

One thing they definitely got right: The disaster area that is the typical reporter's workspace...

One thing they definitely got right: The grubby disaster area that is the typical reporter’s workspace…

I’ve had an extremely busy day and haven’t been able to keep up with the news. In any case, I was tired because I didn’t get home from the theater until about 10:30 last night, and then couldn’t resist popping my DVD of “All the President’s Men” into the player. I didn’t watch all of it, mind you, but… I was tired this morning.

I doubt that many of you have seen “Spotlight” yet, but you should. And against the day when you do see it, I thought I’d go ahead and share some of the things that struck me about it, most of which I shared with the audience last night during our panel discussion after the show.

First, a plug: That was my first time attending a show in the new Nickelodeon, and it was great. You should give it your custom if you don’t already. Andy Smith and the gang are doing a good job.

Now, my impressions…

I had said I was eager to see whether it really was the best newspaper film since the aforementioned Redford-Hoffman vehicle, and I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, given that the cinematic art has improved over the last four decades (or is it me?), it was better in a number of ways, although there were one or two things ATPM did that this did not (I loved the awkward, naturalistic, disconnected conversations Woodstein had with their sources — very much like real interviews). I was particularly impressed by how thoughtful and nuanced “Spotlight” was. If you watched the trailer, you could be forgiven for thinking it would be a cartoonish, black-and-white depiction of courageous, hard-driving journos relentlessly bringing down wicked Cardinal Law and his army of perverts. It was way more intelligent than that.

The few, the intensely interested: About a third of the audience stayed for the panel discussion.

The few, the intensely interested: About a third of the audience stayed for the panel discussion.

For instance, while the film did show how a newspaper with the right resources and good leadership can peel away the layers hiding a dark secret eating away at its community, it did the opposite very well. By that I mean, it showed how a newspaper can fail to get that story, year after year. In a different context during our panel discussion, Charles Bierbauer mentioned the old saw that journalists live by, “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” That very skepticism caused this team and the newsroom in general to fail to grasp the enormity of what they were facing. Yeah, they had a story about a pedophile priest on their hands, similar to a case they’d thoroughly covered years ago. But as indications emerged that maybe there were as many as 12 or 13 such priests in the archdiocese, then maybe as many as 90 (which would represent 6 percent, which a researcher told them they should expect — after all, that’s roughly the proportion of pedophiles in the adult male population), they just could not believe it. It was too outlandish; it didn’t fit their expectations in any way. John Slattery (of “Mad Men” fame) as Ben Bradlee Jr. spoke for all when he cried “b___s___!” to what the team had found at one point.

The members of the Spotlight team — three reporters and “player coach” Walter Robinson, played by Michael Keaton — were time and again dismayed to learn how they had missed the story over the years. After Robinson and a reporter ambush and harass a lawyer who has been dodging them, demanding that he provide the names of priests his clients had made claims against (leading to settlements that were sealed by the court), the lawyer finally explodes at them and says he had given the paper the names of 20 such priests several years ago, and the paper had essentially done nothing with it. Look at your own damn’ clips, he told them as he walked away. They look, and find a story buried inside. (This isn’t made clear, but I’m assuming they didn’t actually publish the names of the priests in that story — it would have been amazing if they had, without the kind of exhaustive investigation they were finally conducting at the time when the film is set, 2001-2002. You don’t run something like that on one lawyer’s say-so.)

The paper had also in the past brushed off a victim turned victims’ advocate, Phil Saviano, and an experienced editor can easily see why. When Saviano meets with the team and presents them with what he has, he starts out patient and then keeps slipping back into deep resentment that he had been ignored by others at the paper in the past, which causes him to lash out angrily. As he excuses himself to go to the bathroom, the reporters exchange a look behind his back. Yeahhh… one of those. We all have experience with sources like that. Full of passion, and full of stuff you can’t prove, and they come across as a bit unbalanced. Maybe he was abused, and it sent him over the edge. Or maybe the thing that sends him there is his frustration that no one believes the truth. At this point, the team is determined to find out if he’s right.

That the paper had missed opportunities in the past doesn’t mean the Globe is a bad paper; it’s far from that. This was just a particularly difficult story to a) believe, and b) nail down. Why, you wonder? Couldn’t they just go look at the court cases? No, they couldn’t. Lawyers for the victims who made claims — a small minority of the number of actual victims — generally didn’t file lawsuits in court. They went straight to the archdiocese, settlements were mediated, and the records were sealed. There would be a case over here that came to light, then one over there — and the paper covered those extensively, and everyone felt like they were on top of it. That there were so many priests, so many victims, that Cardinal Law was aware of the scope of it, that guilty priests would be shunted from one parish to another after useless “treatment,” all came as a shock as the resources of the Spotlight investigative team were devoted to the case.

And how did that happen? How was the decision made to have Spotlight drop what it was working on and bring to bear the kind of resources necessary to get the story at long last? That was interesting. It was the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron, from The Miami Herald. He was an outsider in a newsroom full of people with deep Boston roots. He was Jewish in a Catholic town (all the members of the Spotlight team were raised Catholic, although apparently none were attending Mass any more). He wasn’t even interested in the Red Sox. He comes in feeling pressure to cut expenses, and focuses on Robinson’s team — four extremely talented, experienced reporters who only turn out a story about once a year (not because they were lazy, but because they put that much into their stories — making the team a very expensive luxury). And then he raises the question, if we’re going to have this team, why not have it look further into these sex abuse cases? He suggests they drop what they’re working on (some sort of police story) and turn to this. They do.

But it’s easy, if you’re not a journalist, to focus on the superficialities in the situation. A member of the audience asked me about that aspect of the story — the Jewish outsider being the only one who could make this bunch of hometown mackerel snappers take on the church in the most Catholic city in the country. I pointed out that he was missing the most salient aspect of Baron’s outsider perspective. It wasn’t that he was Jewish, or that he didn’t care about baseball. It was that he was from Florida — born in Tampa, coming up through the Herald‘s newsroom.

I could identify with his perspective. When I arrived at The State after having spent most of my career to that point in Tennessee, I was shocked to find out how much of public life in South Carolina could remain hidden — closed records, closed meetings. In Tennessee, we had had a Sunshine Law based on Florida’s groundbreaking open-government law. We’d had it when my career started. It spoiled me. I would hear stories of the bad old days before the law, when government bodies could go into something called “executive session” and shut out the press and the public, and I would shudder at the idea of such a thing. Then I came to South Carolina, where government bodies regularly go into executive session. It was like I’d been transported to the Dark Ages. Shortly after I arrived here, Jay Bender came to brief editors on improvements to FOI law that he and the Press Association had managed to push through the recent legislative session. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I kept saying things like, “That’s an improvement? You’re kidding me! You couldn’t do better than that?” I don’t think I made a good first impression on Jay.

(As governmental affairs editor, I was determined to break through the culture of closed doors. This led to an embarrassing situation one day. I left the newsroom to go check on my reporters and see what was happening at the State House. There was an important meeting going on somewhere that I was concerned we were missing. I spied a closed door, to one of the rooms off of the lobby near the exterior doors that open to the sweeping outdoor steps, and I strode over and put my hand on it. One of the loungers in the lobby called out that I shouldn’t barge in; there was a meeting going on. Aha! I thought. I self-righteously (I mean, I really made an ass of myself) replied, in a dramatic tone, “I know. That’s why I’m going in!” and pushed the door open with a flourish. It wasn’t my meeting. It was a couple of guys having a private chat, and they looked at me like I was crazy. I muttered something, backed out sheepishly, closed the door and endured the laughter of the lobby as I resumed my search.)

So, when Baron expressed surprise that it was so hard to get access to records in the sex-abuse cases, I felt his pain. And it made all the sense in the world that he would decide to overcome the barriers whatever it took, and suggested Spotlight drop what it was doing and get all over it. Which, as I said, they did. And they got the job done, against the odds.

I spoke of nuances. I loved a couple of the touches that undermined popular prejudices about the church, even as the film told in detail of the exposure of the church’s darkest secret. Sure, Law was the villain of the piece, but he was no Snidely Whiplash curling the ends of his mustache. Early on, when he meets Baron — one of those meetings that a new editor routinely has with key people in a community — he speaks of when he, too, had been an outsider, standing up for civil rights in Mississippi.

As for the old saw about a celibate priesthood being the culprit — hey, you don’t let ’em get married, so they take it out on the kids — there was a very interesting touch in the film. Stanley Tucci, wearing an impressive hairpiece, appears as attorney Mitchell Garabedian — as an Armenian, another outsider — who has decided he will try to make the abuse problem more public by actually suing on behalf of his victim clients in open court. He’s an irascible guy, and it takes some time for reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) to build a relationship of trust with him. At one point as they’re getting to know each other, Garabedian asks Rezendes whether he’s married. Rezendes says he is (although apparently, it’s complicated). Garabedian asks whether his demanding job causes problems in the marriage. Rezendes admits it does. Garebedian says yeah, that’s why he never married: His work is too important, and he just doesn’t have the time. Which, you know, is the rationale behind priests being celibate — that they’re supposed to devote themselves entirely to being shepherds.

All in all, a rich feast of a film, that never falls back on easy answers. You should see it.

Come see ‘Spotlight’ tonight at the Nickelodeon

Look! Journalists walking through a newsroom -- and it's not empty!

Look! Journalists walking through a newsroom — and it’s not deserted!

I was interested in seeing “Spotlight” because I’d heard it was the best newspaper movie since “All the President’s Men.”

That’s a high bar. I recently watched it again and was surprised how well it held up. I went to see it at the time because it was topical, and because Woodward and Bernstein were heroes to my generation of journalists. I was really startled at how good it was, independent of all that, going on 40 years later.

And I’ve seen Michael Keaton in a good newspaper movie before. I really identified with his character in “The Paper.” Of course, that was largely played for laughs, making it nothing like this film, which I’m anticipating being rather grim.

So, wanting to see it anyway, I was pleased to get an invitation to come watch it at the Nickelodeon tonight, and then participate in a panel discussion with Charles Bierbauer and Sammy Fretwell.

Y’all should come. The movie starts at 6:30 p.m., and the discussion follows.

The folks at the Nick asked me how I wanted to be billed on the website. I said, “Given the subject, I guess you could call me a 35-year veteran newspaper editor who is also a Catholic.” Which they did.

Even Darth Stewie was more fiscally responsible than Richland County Council

OK, follow me here; I’m going to bounce around a little…

Remember how we were talking about the new Star Wars movie earlier this week? Well, Alexandra Petri was riffing on that a bit, or rather on the stupid campaign by some racists to get a boycott of the new film going (yeah, good luck with that, Jim Bob), and she noted facetiously that there were far more defensible reasons to object to the franchise, including this:

Death Stars are the ultimate wasteful government spending project. At best, the constant construction of Death Stars is Keynesian economics at its very worst, trying to keep people employed by pouring money into giant holes in space. Does the Imperial military even want these? Given their obvious defects, it seems unlikely. Probably what it wants are helmets you can see out of or armor that works, and the Empire has not given it that yet.

Ah, but Ms. Petri missed the one most wasteful thing about the Death Star, which was that it was designed to be doomed, as “Family Guy” pointed out so effectively:

You’ll note that in this version, the Death Star didn’t get the glaring flaw addressed in a timely fashion because Darth Stewie insisted on getting some cost estimates.

Well, good for him. Even though he’s supposed to be an embodiment of evil, he’s more fiscally responsible than Richland County Council:

Richland County Council voted this week to hold its annual retreat in downtown Charleston early next year, despite having multiple local options presented to them and without having cost estimates to judge their decision by.

The retreat, at which council members and staff discuss plans for major policy items for the coming year, will be held Jan. 27-29, 2016, at Embassy Suites on Meeting Street. Council voted 8-3 to hold the retreat in Charleston, with council members Julie-Ann Dixon, Bill Malinowski and Seth Rose dissenting.

Dixon, Malinowski and Rose voted to hold the retreat at the Richland County Administration Building in Columbia.

Embassy Suites in Columbia and the YMCA in Lexington were both offered as options for Jan. 27-29.

Malinowski said his rationale for holding the retreat locally was threefold: to save money, to spend the money within the community and to give citizens an easy opportunity to attend the meeting if they wish.

“I think the people should have easy access to the government, and we’re not doing that,” Malinowski said….

I told you I was going to jump around a bit. But I got there in the end, didn’t I?

Will the new ‘Star Wars’ offer anything beyond the brief delight of seeing old friends again?

OK, I’ve seen the new trailer, and I’ve been delighted, again, to see Harrison Ford appear as Han Solo. And I’ve been disappointed to see no sign at all of Luke Skywalker. (But hey, Han was always more fun, right?) Which makes me wonder, is it that they’re saving him, or is it that his part is no more than a cameo?

And then, it occurs to me to reflect for a moment on the rest of what we see on the trailer…. storm troopers… the Millennium Falcon!… an apparent Darth Vader impersonator… various familiar small flying craft, X-wings and tie fighters… good guys distinguished by the fact that their uniforms are more casual and earth-toned than the bad guys’… a young woman, more conventionally pretty than Carrie Fisher but not as hot… a young black guy, proving that Lando Calrissian was not alone in that galaxy, who may, given the context and the voiceover and his various facial expressions of deep concern, be our protagonist…

And it dawns on me that I’m almost certainly going to be subjected to a bait-and-switch when I go to see this film, which I inevitably will do. I’m being teased with Han Solo and Princess Leia, and made to wonder about Luke Skywalker, but will the film really be about them at all?

Probably not. At most, at most, they will play a role like that of Obi Wan Kenobi — if we’re lucky. Sure, Obi Wan was hugely important, but was the film about him? No. He was important as a guide to the main characters, cluing them in to what had been and could be again. (And, as is the case in this situation, he was the only “name” actor in the production.)

No, the filmmakers’ likely goal is to use Han and Leia and Luke to get me interested in people I’ve never heard of, so that I’ll care enough about them to buy tickets to the two films to follow. The central conflicts and action and development will likely center around these young strangers.

Which makes me a little sad, and even sadder when I think how likely all this effort is to fail.

“Star Wars” — the original one, the true phenomenon, seems to me a one-time, magical thing. It had enough magic to keep us interested in the next two films, and even to, many years later, dupe people into going to see the decidedly unmagical “prequels.” The amazingly, stunningly unmagical prequels.

But no matter how much money is spent, no matter how dazzling the new technology may be, how can you duplicate the experience that we felt when we went into theaters in 1977 completely unaware of what we would see and hear and feel, and then were so delighted? There had been no way to predict it. If someone had told you the premise — essentially a cornball evocation of old movie serials from the 1930s brought to a new generation — it would have sounded no more promising than the completely bogus “Argo.” (I refer, of course, to the fake sci-fi film within the film, not to the Ben Affleck vehicle itself.)

But it worked. Lightning struck. And now, people are laboring to make it strike again, in the same way.

Is that possible? I don’t know, but I’m afraid it’s unlikely…

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

Richards

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.

Dang.

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.

Frustrating…

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

malcolm

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!

alex

 

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.

Harrumph.

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

jail

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.

breaking-bad-spin-off-saul-gus

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:

la_ca_1215_the_interview

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

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.

 

10

Selma

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’

american_sniper_still

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.