“The Mule” takes its time telling a good story

Let’s say you’re a senior citizen – an old man, past 70 – with a meager income and not much hope for a viable future. The bank has foreclosed and your family will have nothing to do with you. It could happen. What would you do for money? To stay alive?

Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule” answers that question, sort of, in a way that is more satisfying than I expected. He does it in the way he usually makes movies – quietly, with a minimum of fuss and a straightforward approach to problems and solutions. After sitting through a couple of hyperactive movies loaded with quick cuts and trendy narrative loops, I was happy to see a well-crafted story that says what it means and means what it says. Sometimes less is a hell of a lot more.

Eastwood isn’t my favorite filmmaker; his unobtrusive, one-and-done style sometimes feels a little too subdued. His style is simply to start the film rolling and capture the scene. Some other people cut it together. He supplies a jazzy piano score. And that’s pretty much it. There, I have just described the style of “The Mule” for you.

But there is a lot to be said for this movie. It stars Eastwood – himself an octogenarian, or older – as an old man with strained family relations, who didn’t take care of his money when he had it, and now faces all manner of financial difficulty. He’s lost his home and business, he drives a shitty old clunker, and things are looking pretty bleak.

Then one day, a Mexican fellow hands him a phone number and recommends he call for work. This sends the old man straight into the clutches of a Mexican cartel, which needs innocent-seeming “mules” to transport cocaine, guns, etc., into the United States.

Eastwood plays this perfectly straight. No shit, the old guy starts driving contraband across the U.S. for a deadly foreign syndicate. We can understand why. (It doesn’t hurt that this is based on a true story.) What does he have to lose? He’s at the end of his life and things are going from bad to worse. His ex-wife hates him, his daughter hates him, and he’s losing his granddaughter. The cartel pays him big money just to do a little driving. All of a sudden, he’s in the black! He can buy a new truck! He can fix up the old VFW! He buys his house back from the bank! Isn’t it amazing what a little tax-free cash can do?

The old man isn’t a bad guy, just desperate. Yes, he realizes he’s technically doing the wrong thing, but hey, when you’re his age and people are leaving envelopes stuffed with cash in your glove box, what’s the harm? Thanks to some seriously un-flashy direction, and a genuinely sincere performance, Eastwood makes us sympathize.

Of course, there is a flip side to the coin. Bradley Cooper (fresh off “A Star is Born” – magnificent, by the way), turns up as a hungry DEA agent anxious to make a big bust. He spends most of his time nibbling around the edges of Eastwood’s story, but as expected, the two finally cross paths, then collide. Cooper doesn’t turn in his usual mega-watt performance here, but at least his quiet sincerity fits in with the rest of the movie. It is all of a piece.

I liked this movie very much. It is a different kind of crime story with a different kind of criminal at its center. No, we cannot condone working for the cartel, and yes, Eastwood does extend his sympathy a bit too generously to men who kill for a living. But you know what? This movie takes its time to make us care for the main character, and we feel for him and everyone in his family. We believe (almost) every moment of this film, because it never goes over the top or gives us a big action scene or shoot out. Things resolve unexpectedly, with Eastwood’s character realizing and admitting the error of his ways and owning up to them. He goes quietly into that good night, but not without first having done a little good for a few select people. The ones most important to him. There’s something to that.

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“Vice” misses the picture on Dick Cheney

I remember well the day George W. Bush and Dick Cheney left Washington. It was to the sound of booing and chanting, from a public that was more than happy to see them go, and excited to see Barack Obama replace them in the White House. It was a great moment. I had had my fill of Bush-Cheney over the course of eight bloody, frustrating, reason-defying years, and would have voted twice for Obama if I could have. Seeing the helicopter whisk Bush away to Texas and Cheney to whatever hole he hides in, was a life-affirming moment.

The movie “Vice,” which purports to examine the life of Dick Cheney as well as his political career and, I guess, his very soul, missed all that. In fact, it gets everything wrong. The facts might all be there, in some form or fashion, but the movie is a disaster in every respect. It even ignores – or just doesn’t remember – the final moments of the Bush-Cheney Administration. There was Cheney, dressed in black, confined to a wheelchair, looking grizzled and utterly defeated by a strong-willed and articulate young African-American man who represented a 180-degree turn from everything the Neo-cons tried to accomplish post-9/11. Cheney struck no less an image than Darth Vader as they wheeled him out, his eyes shaded by the brim of a black fedora. Good-bye and good fucking riddance to bad rubbish.

Director Adam McKay’s “Vice,” starring Christian Bale in the title role, is a jumbled, garish, badly-photographed, pretentious mess. It can’t make up its mind whether it is a comedy or a drama, a biopic like “Nixon” or “Darkest Hour,” or a spoof like “Anchorman.” There are scenes in this movie that are real head-scratchers, and not in the way the filmmakers intended.

This is one of those historical pieces in which a talented actor transforms himself (or herself) into a real-life figure thanks to an army of makeup artists. The strategy often results in an Oscar nomination, if not a win. (Ben Kingsley did it as Gandhi, but he didn’t require tons of latex to do the job – he simply played the character, brilliantly.) Bale kinda/sorta looks like Dick Cheney all on his own, but the filmmakers put him in a fat suit and apply all the usual prosthetics, etc., to make the transformation complete. The results are less than stellar. Bale performs with his usual intensity, and there’s no doubt he is a great actor, but his Cheney is more of a comedic impression than a performance. It is exactly like watching Will Ferrell play George W. Bush. We laugh, but we don’t really learn anything more about the guy than we already knew. Bale makes Cheney neither interesting nor relatable. The movie insists we hate the man, and we do.

The movie tries to encapsulate the entirety of Cheney’s life, from his youthful (alcoholic) years in the oilfield to his marriage to Lynne (Amy Adams, wasted) to his early political career (under Don Rumsfeld) to his ultimate ascent to Top Man in Washington. He is variously portrayed as a drunk, a schemer, a manipulator, an ass-kisser, a back-stabber, a Machiavellian operator, and, finally, as a cruel, vindictive, soulless bastard. But we already knew all that.

Bale is surrounded by a great cast that is frustratingly ineffective. Amy Adams, as I mentioned, makes little impact as Lynne Cheney, perhaps because the character herself is so damn bland and uninteresting. But there’s also Steve Carrell, a great comedic actor whose portrayal of Don Rumsfeld kept reminding me of Michael Scott in “The Office.” Was that what the filmmakers intended? I’ve been saying for years that “The Office” predicted the Trump Administration, but here Carrell’s bumbling, goofy performance distracts from the fact that Rumsfeld was every bit as conniving and untrustworthy as Dick Cheney. (Remember “known knowns” and “unknown unknowns”?) The movie turns him into a caricature, even giving Carrell some physical comedy to perform. What a waste.

I liked Sam Rockwell as W., but we’ve seen the former president portrayed so many times by so many actors – don’t forget Josh Brolin in “W.” – that I kept hoping he’d show us something new, and he doesn’t. Again, McKay gives us a caricature. Bush is, unfortunately, played for laughs in a movie that would like us to occasionally take it seriously. I was also dismayed by news footage of events that are still fresh in the public mind, like Bush landing on the aircraft carrier to announce “mission accomplished.” The filmmakers digitally superimpose Rockwell’s face on the real Bush’s head. It is a cheap, Forrest Gump-ish trick. Why not just use the actual fucking footage?

McKay, whose other films include the aforementioned “Anchorman” and its sequel, seems an odd choice for this assignment. He stuffs the movie with over-edited sequences that prevent the narrative from moving forward. Scenes of “old man Cheney” crop up in early scenes depicting “young man Cheney,” for no reason at all. There is a baffling scene in which Cheney and Lynne, alone in their bedroom, lapse into Shakespearean dialogue. And why, oh, why, does McKay give us a needless moment where the movie seems to end about an hour early, going so far as to roll the credits, before continuing uninterrupted? Is the joke on Dick Cheney or the audience? I dunno.

I love great political dramas, but “Vice” isn’t one of them. If it had stuck to the material that dealt strictly with 9/11 and its aftermath, it might have had a chance. These scenes are gripping, and the movie might have instructed us how Cheney arrived at certain era-defining decisions under enormous pressure. But it steamrolls through these bits to tell the story of an annoying voice-over narrator whose presence keeps pulling us out of the movie. I couldn’t believe the screenwriters had wasted our time with this character. (I should add that at no point can we believe the movie is being entirely truthful, given its frequent lapses into pure fiction and utter flights of fancy. Should I be appalled, since we are also treated to graphic wartime/9/11 footage, or merely offended?)

Then there’s the ending, where Bale turns directly to the camera and, as Cheney, delivers a final, unapologetic soliloquy. (The scene seems to exist solely to secure Bale an Oscar nomination.) I can think of a better one: Cheney in a wheelchair, dressed in black, watching in horror as Obama takes the White House. Jesus, they should pay me to write this stuff.

 

 

 

Another alien apocalypse, this one, pretty good

This first thing I want to know is, what are they? What are the aliens/creatures in John Krasinski’s horror hit A Quiet Place? Why do they exist? From where do they originate? Are they even from space? Were they engineered in a lab on Earth? Why is it that they look like organic scissors, or heads on stilts, with giant, exposed ear drums? What evolutionary purpose is served?

I ask these questions because I am interested to know more. Krasinski, the handsome actor from TV’s “The Office,” made his directorial debut with this film, which racked up big change at the box office and garnered glowing reviews. I was a little underwhelmed on first viewing, but have watched it two or three more times with a growing fascination. This movie is less effective as a horror movie than it is as a potential franchise starter. Krasinski somehow manages to end with us wanting more.

That may be the biggest strength of this short, sweet, to-the-point little tone poem of a thriller. We get the impression that a lot has happened in this particular end-of-the-world scenario, and we are only being shown one teeny-tiny piece of it. We have seen DOZENS of apocalyptic movies, in which marauding aliens or arrogant humans are to blame for whatever horrific damage is visited on humanity, but Krasinski’s focus is so small and precise that I can see this film as a launching pad for at least a couple more. (Which, apparently, is happening – a sequel is already on the way.)

The overall picture is pretty familiar to us – civilization has been decimated by some overpowering force – but Krasinski’s focus is solely on one family that has found a way to cope in total isolation from whatever else might be out there. The family angle works best. Working on a miniscule budget in only one or two locations, Krasinski is able to maximize all his resources and create a small, tension-filled film that is never anything less than entertaining and kind of haunting, as well. It has a couple of reasonably scary “GOTCHA” moments, but it is clear that Krasinski is less interested in those than in telling his story of survival. This is one of those movies that’s OK on the surface, as just a genre picture, but there’s a whole lot more going on underneath that is vastly more interesting.

He gets a great performance out of his own wife, Emily Blunt, who plays the wife of the character he himself plays in the film. Together they have three children, one of whom is tragically killed by one of the man-eating beasts that stalks their rural farmstead. This death gets a riveting buildup as we see the family scrounging (quietly) for needed medicines in a scarily de-populated village. The little boy wants only to pay with a toy space shuttle, and pays horribly for being young and innocent.

The hook of the story is that these terrible star-beasts (or whatever they are) have no powers of vision, but hunt their prey based on sound alone. (To put it simply: If they can hear you, they hunt you.) This simple premise seems a bit daft at first, but the novelty of the situation makes us curious. Why is it that they can only hear rather than see (or, presumably, smell)? Were they designed that way? If so, by whom, or by what evolutionary requirement?

Humans managed to figure out the creatures’ one-and-only sensory feature – too late, I guess, for most everyone. (Why these things weren’t nuked into oblivion I have no idea … and maybe they were, or will be.) Krasinski and his family have reached their own solution: they tread barefoot, on dry land or at home, walking on a soft, sound-cushioning material that leads from their doorstep to wherever it is they need to travel. (I failed to notice this detail the first time around.) The slightest sudden noise, however, triggers an attack from one of three monsters haunting their home. By making the danger as localized as possible, and filling the screen with details, Krasinski makes the scenario infinitely more fascinating than, say, another Independence Day movie.

More intriguing is the need for communication among the characters, who have resorted to signing – an absolute necessity, as it turns out, because the oldest child, a daughter, is deaf. The irony is perfect: in a world where no one can make any noise, the film’s protagonist cannot hear. Krasinski uses the child’s handicap effectively for suspense purposes, but never exploits it. We experience the whole world from her point of view, because there is no sound for anyone else to hear. This is, in many ways, a silent movie. Krasinski uses subtitles when necessary for us to understand what isn’t conveyed by the physical performances of his actors. In a way, this is brilliant.

He also uses sound effects amazingly well. We jump when something crashes or knocks over. At times, the film goes completely silent, and we know we’ve switched over to the daughter’s point of view. There’s an amazing scene where Krasinski and his son visit a river to catch some fish, and because of the way “bigger” sounds mask “smaller” ones, the two can have an actual conversation. The film’s sound design creates an auditory camouflage.

Krasinski has said that he was attracted to the story as a metaphor for parenthood, and I can see that idea in the film. It’s also about communication and how people are endangered when they are unable to effectively reach out to each other. To be sure, it has several effective horror scenes. But the movie is more interesting for its ideas, which leads me to my biggest question.

If the family has just experienced the death of one child – why have another one so soon? Much of the story revolves around Krasinski and Blunt protecting their newborn child. It is clear that the baby is in imminent danger, and might be for the rest of his life. What sane person would bring a child into a world dominated by man-eating monsters? The answer, I guess, is that if humans don’t procreate, the species itself could face extinction. Yes, the little boy dies in the beginning, but the movie ends on a quasi-hopeful note, with two of the survivors discovering a heretofore unknown weakness of the creatures. Maybe humanity will get the upper hand, and maybe that starts with refusing to submit to annihilation. While it’s true that it makes no sense to have another child in the midst of such darkness, and that the child is likely to grow up in a violent, post-apocalyptic environment, the only way to give the species a chance is by perpetuating itself.

It is possible, of course, to raise so many logical questions that the movie simply falls apart, unable to bear the weight of scrutiny. But as it is, A Quiet Place works just fine as a simple story of people trying to survive in a hostile situation. I don’t think it raises more questions than it can answer because it doesn’t try to answer them all. We don’t know what lies beyond the horizon; we just know that, by the end of the movie, there might be a way to fight back against these things. And that’s enough.

 

‘Us’

Jordan Peele’s new horror film “Us” is more than a slasher movie, it’s a sociological statement about the haves and have-not’s, visualized in terms of above-ground Americans and below-ground, or the halves and have-not’s, if you will. It is shocking well made but raises more questions than it answers.

It’s those questions that keep bothering me about the movie, which is entertaining but kind of frustrating. Peele is a good filmmaker; I enjoyed his controversial debut, “Get Out,” which won him an Oscar in 2017. I think he does all kinds of good and interesting things with a genre that is as worn-out and trope-filled as horror. But “Us” makes us think perhaps a little too deeply about all that it symbolizes.

Here is the best example I can give about how “Us” works – in the car on the way home, my family spent most of their conversation talking about what the movie symbolized instead of what it was about. This is a movie that will inspire many people to turn to Google to make sense of it. Indeed, my wife had her phone out and was looking up Jeremiah 11:11 before we could even make it to the bathrooms. It’s the kind of movie that seems to leave a bunch of writing in the margins; you want to study the footnotes in the screenplay. We’re more interested in what it all represents than in what actually happens, which works both for and against Peele.

No one in our car, for example, talked much about the events in the film, which is about an ordinary (African-American) family terrorized by home invaders who turn out to be the twisted doubles of the family  members themselves. (Just to be clear, there is an Evil Dad, an Evil Mom, an Evil Son, and an Evil Daughter.) It’s a brutal and sometimes gory thriller that doesn’t lack for suspense. I was engrossed the entire time. Unfortunately, for me, the movie’s larger themes and ambitions don’t all add up. Maybe I need to see it again.

The film opens niftily, in 1986, with a young girl wandering away from her mom and dad at an oceanside amusement park. She ends up in a creepy House of Mirrors, where she encounters something truly uncanny. Cut to Present Day, with the little girl all grown up and played by Lupita Nyong’o (in a performance that should at least earn her a Best Actress nomination). She’s married now with two kids of her own. In a turn of events that is either coincidental or pre-planned, she and her family are vacationing by the same amusement park, where she is overwhelmed with a sense of dread – that past events will come back and haunt her.

Peele does a great job of setting up all that will follow, giving us one creepy sequence after another, directing with great calm and precision. Ordinary events take on extraordinary significance. The number 11 keeps reappearing, usually paired with another 11. Street people seem ominous, crazed, violent. There are recurring symbols representing tunnels (which are extremely important to the story). All these portents add up to something big for Nyong’o, but her husband, played by Winston Duke, simply laughs them off – he is oblivious to the encroaching danger.

Eventually, the family will encounter its exact opposite, the doppelgangers who emerge from underground to take revenge and wreak havoc. These characters – played by the same actors in double roles – seem incapable of normal communication, are violent, hateful, supernaturally athletic, and bent on making life hell for their above-ground counterparts.

Much of the movie plays like a Jason-style slasher flick, only Peele is far too talented, and has far too much on his mind, to keep things on that level. There’s always something else going on. As with “Get Out,” you can feel the director messing with your head. The first 20 minutes or so of the movie are pure set up; you know there’s going to be a satisfying payoff later. There’s also a refreshing amount of humor; Peele somehow cranks up the dread factor by injecting one-liners into the drama.

“Us” is very clearly about the racial and socioeconomic divide in America. When Red – Nyong’o’s doppelganger – answers the question, “Who are you,” she says, “We’re Americans.” That’s a pretty on-the-nose explanation. It brings a ton of baggage to the proceedings; rather than letting the Great Divide serve as subtext, Peele wants to drag it into the foreground, where it gets kind of confused and messed up with all the horrific violence. The doppelgangers are “tethered” to the people above ground, and have decided to emerge into the sunlight and literally cut those ties (violently – with matching red scissors). While this is a very good idea for a film, Peele both takes it too literally and fails to develop it sufficiently.

Maybe “fails” is too strong a word. He obviously wants to give us something to think about on our way to the parking lot. Trouble is, there’s a little too much to think about. I tend to get bogged down in mechanics, when Peele wants me to ask metaphorical questions, tying the events in “Us” to what is going on in America today. My biggest question is, where are all the people with all the guns? Where are the police? How do the doppelgangers plan to overthrow America, merely using scissors? Where’s the National Guard? I would think that an uprising of essentially primitive people who lack basic communication skills would be pretty easily tamped down. The movie’s over-arching theme has trouble matching up with a real-world scenario.

There are two enormous twists in the film. The first has to do with Hands Across America, the failed 1986 “fundraising” stunt for the homeless. The second has to do with the essential nature of a major character. Both left me with far more questions than answers, and I’m not sure that the big twist at the end was completely necessary – in fact, it seems to add confusion to a story that already has some clarity issues.

Still, Peele is a terrific filmmaker who brings a lot of interesting stuff to the table. He knows how to reference other horror movies, and there are two that get a lot of attention here. The first is a little-seen independent film called “The Invitation,” about a cult takeover of America that begins small but gets big by the end. Peele, I think, has seen that film a lot. The other is “The Shining,” which Peele quotes liberally, at length.

There is a lot of good stuff here, but I didn’t feel that the movie really hit its groove until the second series of attacks, on a different family, in Act Two. Here Peele opens up the blood-letting and sets the violence to NWA’s “F*** the Police” and “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys. It’s spectacular stuff.

I haven’t even addressed the rabbits and what they mean, but perhaps not even the Internet has enough space.

 

 

The media needs to STOP

This is what the media needs to stop doing – NOW.
The media needs to STOP regurgitating each and every stupid thing that Donald Trump says.
We all know it; even his supporters will admit it. Trump thrives on media attention. His incessant tweeting proves it. He loves seeing his name in print. He loves seeing his orange face on television. He loves the sound of his own voice.
The media needs to stop feeding his fixation, satiating his hunger.
We all know that Trump stays up late, watching cable news (re: Fox News) and then vomiting up “talking points” next morning on Twitter. He uses Twitter to verbally abuse – intimidate, really – anyone he deems the opposition, or, in his mind, the Enemy.
His worst autocratic impulses are being fed by the very media machine that helped create him in the first place. He uses that non-stop coverage as a means of pummeling Democrats, or anyone, really, whose name doesn’t start with Vladimir and end with Putin.
The media is well aware of his tactics. He holds a rally, says horrible, abusive, anti-democratic things, whips his moronic followers into a frenzy, and then sits back to let the media do its work.
If the media would only stop reporting on every unhinged, moronic, anti-American word that issues from his big mouth, things would be a lot better. Trump would find his biggest, strongest weapon take away from him – the power of the pulpit.
By not repeating all the sick, stupid, undemocratic words that tumble from his pie hole, the media could focus, instead, on the thing matters most: TRUMP’S ACTIONS.
Actions, after all, speak louder than words, even in Trump’s case. Rather than pummel us all about the neck and shoulders with “the President’s” ridiculous tirades, the media ought to be reporting on his policies (or lack thereof), his irresponsibility (hundreds of vital government positions left unfilled), his profiteering, his undisclosed taxes, his various interests in Russia, his coddling of dictators, his attacks on free speech, and his other deeds and misdeeds.
I don’t care what Trump says. The only thing that matters is what he does. What he says merely amounts to hot air. If his lips are moving, he is lying. The media knows this and perpetuates his lie with every story about the circuses known as his “rallies.” Every word of Trump’s that makes it into circulation has the effect of a dictator attempting to cow the populace into submission. The media should rise above.
I realize that none of what I ask for will actually take place. Trump, the born self-promoter, will take advantage of every opportunity to bend democracy to his will, and that the media will allow him to do so.
But this is what needs to happen. Like, yesterday.

It’s the end of the world as we know it …

I have never been a fan of the “post-apocalypse” genre, though I have seen quite a few of the more prominent examples. For the most part, these genre entries are too effective for their own good and cannot, in any way, shape or form, be considered entertainment. (Yes – I categorically rule them out!)

That’s not to say the best ones don’t have some value in terms of study of the worst-case scenario. Who doesn’t idly wonder what would happen if the world came to an end? Who doesn’t contemplate how they themselves would respond if there were only minutes left on the clock? (As it happens, there ARE only minutes left on the Doomsday Clock – I think just a couple.) What would you do? How would you react? Would you reach out to loved ones for a last goodbye, implode, or simply eat the barrel of the nearest gun?

Who the fuck can say for sure?

Let’s face it, it isn’t the most pleasant thing to contemplate, and as long as it isn’t happening to you, right now, then thinking about it isn’t the best use of what life we have remaining on this side of midnight. You can worry about how you would respond in the face of imminent nuclear destruction, or you can enjoy the sunshine, love your kids and play with your dogs while you still have them. In the interest of staying sane, it’s not much of a decision.

Hollywood, however, has invested tons of energy and effort into exploring the Worst Case Scenario, and most films I have seen that deal with the apocalypse have been chilling beyond comprehension. Yes, I’ve seen “Dr. Strangelove,” but for some reason, I don’t consider it as strongly as, say, television’s “The Day After,” or the even more terrifying “Threads.” The Kubrick film is a great black comedy, and it does have some horrific nuclear moments, but for the most part, it isn’t a post-apocalyptic story. It is about what might happen if a madman got his hands on the nukes, and — but that’s too scary to contemplate! We already have one!

I remember when “The Day After” premiered in 1983. It was a big deal. My parents made sure to watch it, and I did, too. The movie scared me badly. It was the first film to realistically depict what might happen when the bombs go off. Its footage of missile silos spouting flame and people anxiously watching the skies as war breaks out between the U.S. and the (then) Soviet Union … scary, scary stuff. I remember going to bed after it was over and staring at my window as if something terrible lurked just outside. (There was – it was called the USSR.)

Nothing, however, prepared us for the grim nightmare of the BBC production called “Threads.” It, too, depicted a nuclear holocaust, but in Britain, and was set in one tiny English village ravaged by the bombs. Let’s put it this way – I won’t watch it again. The movie not only has terrifying footage of nukes exploding, but goes into FAR TOO MUCH detail about life after the bombs. I’ll just say it, you would rather be dead, vaporized, than endure the post-apocalyptic hell. Thank you, “Threads”!

Those two movies set the bar for realistic, disturbing, nightmarish, stomach-churning nuclear fear. I realize there is some intrinsic value in these films, in having an understanding of JUST WHAT WOULD HAPPEN if the bombs were to be launched, especially when you consider how many world leaders (hopefully) viewed them. The hope is that a horror movie like “Threads” would give those in charge of the launch codes a moment of pause. I admit, it might be a slender “thread” of hope.

Other post-apocalypse movies run the gamut. There is the truly horrific scene of nuclear destruction in the fantasy film, “Terminator 2.” And there’s the punk-rock, post-apocalyptic world depicted in the “Mad Max” movies, which are far more fun than is healthy to contemplate. (Who wouldn’t want to play bumper cars in real, souped-up tanker trucks?) There’s nothing nuclear about it, but Kevin Costner’s “Waterworld” envisions a world awash in melted glaciers and polar ice caps, a scenario that seems just as likely 100 years from now as any nuclear winter. (It’s still a ridiculous movie.)

This brings us to “The Road,” based on the Cormac McCarthy novel, and another Kevin Costner post-nuclear thriller, “The Postman.” The former is a grisly, grim, violent, all-but unwatchable vision of a future where is literally no hope, just a blasted, ashen, depopulated environment, through a which a man and his son must wander aimlessly. It’s too effective for its own good and not worth a repeat viewing. “The Postman,” on the other hand, is hands down one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, a Western that pays lip service to the post-nuclear world it claims to explore. At three hours in length, the movie is an utter joke that kinda sorta makes the post-apocalypse look desirable. (Back to the Pony Express! No cars! No gasoline!)

So – not my favorite genre by any means. I can understand why it might be useful to see one or two of these, but not to immerse yourself in them.

A book is technology

Today I walked across our campus with a book in my hands.

Not a cell phone. Not a digital camera. Not a laptop computer, but a book.

(For the record, it was Katharine the Great, a biography of the late Washington Post publisher, Katharine Graham.)

I reflected on how few people in my family read books. How it seems that kids today (those darn kids!) are not being encouraged to read. How I heard recently that it’s possible libraries, with their vast stores of antiquated books, are in danger of losing what little funding they already receive, that libraries are, in fact, nothing more than “quiet space” filled with uninteresting, dead-tree inventory. How books are pretty much already a thing of the past. How there are few people in my life anymore who get worked about going to a really good book store.

Twenty years ago, I used my interest in book stores as a means of finding my way around the Dallas Metroplex. I was a small-town Arkansas boy who knew nothing about Dallas, but I wanted to find all the Half-Price Books locations in Big D, and so once I’d found them, I could find lots of other places, too. Restaurants. Liquor stores. Movie theaters. Clothing stores. Et cetera. Book stores have always been my excuse for learning my way around.

Today, no one gives a damn.

So – I’m walking across campus holding this book in my hands, and I realize that, even though this object contains no microchips, it is, nonetheless, a piece of technology.

Primitive, yes, and brushed off as dead-tree media, but 20 years ago, books were still the primary means of capturing and conveying information. That makes them essential pieces of technology. They are made by specialists; contain and transmit information; are mass-produced, and sold on the open market. They represent the flow and exchange of ideas. A person with a large library could be said to be rich. Technology, of course, is one measure of a person’s wealth. Therefore, by every metric, books are technology.

We think today in terms of computers. We think of a smartphone’s ability to take better pictures, to store larger amounts of data, to bring us smaller and smaller soundbites of increasingly trivial information. Smartphones are nothing more than palm-sized computers – there’s nothing “phone-like” about them. Computers are making us more isolated. Despite what the commercials try to sell us, computers put each person in his or her own little world, obsessing over his or her own, specialized areas of interest. Kids today, for example, don’t “watch TV,” they watch tiny, square-shaped videos on YouTube. They don’t listen to the radio. They don’t really watch movies. They certainly don’t read. I hate to say it, but I have never seen any of our kids voluntarily pick up a book. They would rather do anything than read, and I don’t mean that as an exaggeration. I repeat: they would rather do anything than read.

There’s no doubt in my mind we are in a post-literate society. I don’t care how tech-savvy a person is, we are moving into a post-human-intelligence world. People are getting dumber as their attention spans dwindle. Once I was excited about living in a future where widescreen movies were the predominant form of entertainment. Today, we’re back down to tiny, TV-screen-sized boxes. Computers have shrunk the future.

 

The Evening News

In considering today’s news, I reflected for a moment on the sort of household I grew up in

My parents were highly conversant in current events. I grew up to the sounds of the NBC Nightly News, with either Tom Brokaw or John Chancellor, and CNN’s Crossfire, the prototypical left wing/right wing rant forum that was usually dominated by Nixon’s former press secretary, Pat Buchanan. This was primarily in the 1980s.

Dinnertime (promptly at 5:30) was always accompanied by a trifecta of news: two airings of the Little Rock local broadcast, and the aforementioned national nightly news. By 7:00 p.m. (prime time), Mom and Dad were caught up on the events of the day, and I had heard what bits of it interested me. What I am saying is that, almost by osmosis, I grew up as a stakeholder in news. The goings on in the country and world (and, to a lesser extent, our state) carried weight in our house.

Mom and Dad debated the news. I recall Dad being slightly more to the right of issues, while Mom expressed a more liberal point of view. (She hated Reagan; Dad thought he could do no wrong.) Things could get pretty heated. In fact, I hated it when debates – or, rather, arguments – flared up between them. (They usually pointed to some deeper issue Mom and Dad were having.) As he grew older, Dad embraced the right-wing political movement (he once chastised me for watching CNN), while Mom became ever more liberal in her outlook. Toward the end of her life, she was very much a “left-winger,” having had more than she could stomach of Bush-Cheney and their various illegal/immoral wars. (It was the morality of it, more than anything, that disgusted her.) She used to call and gripe at me over the phone about George W. When Obama got elected, she calmed down considerably. She seemed relieved that our electorate had been sufficiently reasonable (and rational) to install a man who spoke fluent English, who seemed to have the best interests of the middle class at heart.

There’s no doubt that Donald Trump would have irritated her to new heights. She frequently railed against the stupidity of the common voter and the injustice of American politics (as played out in the real world). Trump and his steadfast 30 percent would have flummoxed her, left her speechless, especially after having just survived eight years of Bush. In a way, I miss having those conversations. She would have been preaching to the choir.

All of this is to say that, even in a world without access to the Internet, to instant notifications via smartphone, to 24/7 right wing theatrics on Fox News — in a world where most people still got their news and information via the printed word — my parents were literate, savvy, interested, engaged, informed, and opinionated, and they based their opinions on objective fact, not the echo chambers of Fox (or even some of the more liberal-leaning cable outlets like MSNBC). This was in the age of more or less straight reporting. Watergate was still fresh in the memory; my parents had experienced the Nixon years personally, could still recall what it felt like to go through the horror of the Vietnam era. Reporters back then were skeptical, not biased, and people debated facts, not journalistic intentions. If my father, for example, felt there was a “liberal tinge” to John Chancellor’s broadcast, he never mentioned it. Not until years later, when Fox began pushing its own brand of news-flavored entertainment, would he pick up on the “fair and balanced” line.

I entered the newspaper world in my late teens and learned quickly that the media is concerned with nothing so much as the bottom line. (If Fox News thought it could mine as much revenue from the left-hand side of the street as it can the right, it would quickly change its tune.) Newspapers, television, radio, are all in the business of making money. Look at what’s happening to newspapers today. Without profits, the corporations that have gradually overtaken them are shutting them down. Politics is nothing but piss in the wind. Money talks. This is why I don’t take the hardcore political line seriously. The assholes at Fox News are interested in only one thing: filthy lucre. The more they push their party line, the more money they make.

I’m glad I grew up with real news on the air in my house.

 

 

Oliver Stone’s “JFK”

Oliver Stone’s “JFK” (1991) is both ridiculous and kind of awesome, one of the most over-the-top movies I’ve seen, yet also one of the most solemn and intense. You want to laugh out loud during parts of it, but the overall effect is one of sheer admiration: Stone made an incredible movie, even if you don’t believe a word of it.

The movie kicked off the conspiracy theory craze of the 1990s, in part because Stone legitimized the genre with box office returns, Oscar nominations, and its star, Kevin Costner. Even the craziest of arguments – the most useless debates, over whether something did or did not occur the way the official story says it did – got a sheen of authenticity thanks to the success of this film. “The X-Files” and a slew of other government-paranoia thrillers followed, and didn’t really let up until 9/11, after which consumers of entertainment were concerned with the scientific aftermath of crime, a’la “Crime Scene Investigation.”

The Kennedy assassination is, of course, the ripest ground for conspiracy theories, having been the subject of debate since the 1960s. Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone in pulling the trigger? Or were there other shooters on Dealy Plaza that November day in 1963? Does the Zapruder film show irrefutably that someone other than Oswald fatally shot Kennedy in his motorcade? Or does it merely prove that people see what they want to see? Such questions cannot be answered here.

Stone passionately believes that Oswald was a mere patsy, that the CIA – acting in concert with other forces at the time, mainly the Mafia, the Russians, and the Military-Industrial Complex (which is still humming along today, thank you very much) – had its own reasons for offing Kennedy, the biggest of which was the cash cow that was the war in Vietnam.

He constructed a film that moves insanely fast despite its three-hour run time, that is built out of flashbacks, flash-forwards, archival footage, re-enactments, fevered imaginings, and that old Hollywood standby, the Climactic Courtroom Trial. His main character is New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison, a joke in legal circles, played with conviction (ha ha) and zeal by Costner in a performance that evokes none other than Gregory Peck, or maybe Jimmy Stewart. His bad guy is ostensibly a man named Clay Shaw (played by an almost unrecognizable Tommy Lee Jones), but is really the U.S. Government, or certain factions operating within it. His purpose: to make audiences think about the Official Line, to look past the Warren Commission Report on the Kennedy assassination and ferret out the truth for ourselves.

That’s ambitious stuff, and “JFK” is nothing if not ambitious – in fact, it’s probably the most ambitious movie of its time. It goes for broke, laying it all on the line – Stone’s beliefs funneled through Garrison’s stubborn pursuit of “the truth.” The movie feels like a thriller and a docudrama at the same time, which I suppose it is. We are borne aloft on a wave of information – some of it fact-based, some of it massaged into creation by Stone – and find ourselves recoiling in horror about as much as we are hypnotized by the power of the film itself. There is no separating Stone’s directorial feat from the fever pitch of the conspiracy theories thrown at us; the movie is the message, and the message is the movie.

Am I convinced by the sheer force of Stone’s argument that a vast conspiracy was responsible for Kennedy’s murder? Well, I would respond only that it is hard to refute some of Garrison’s more credible-sounding arguments. The magic bullet theory – satirized to hilarious effect on “Seinfeld” just a few months after the movie came out – is still hard to swallow. But there’s no guarantee that Garrison wasn’t just a crackpot swinging for the fences. Throw enough shit at the wall and something’s bound to stick, or, to put it another way, even a stopped clock is right twice a day. Garrison insisted on his conspiracy theories until, sure enough, at least some of them started sounding plausible.

The movie has a huge, entertaining cast, including such minor comedic players as Wayne Knight and Laurie Metcalf, and a few recognizable dramatic actors, like Michael Rooker and Ed Asner. There are even roles for none other than Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau! It’s fun just watching the movie to see who’ll show up next. (We can’t overlook John Candy in a brief role and Kevin Bacon in an even smaller one.) I haven’t even mentioned Joe Pesci as the terrifyingly violent, sexually confused, motor-mouthed David Ferrie, whose murder looks like a governmental cover-up. Pesci is good but mostly buried under the sheer weight of the material he must cover.

Donald Sutherland turns up as the film’s most frightening and compelling character, Mr. X, whose very existence presaged everything that would follow in TV’s “The X-Files.” He gets one of the film’s Big Speeches, detailing the entire shadow government conspiracy to Garrison in a hush-hush meeting. It’s the best reason to film, as Sutherland races breathlessly through one horrifying conspiracy scenario after another. Stone goes after his federal bogeymen with teeth bared here, using archival footage as well as a mix of dramatizations and voice-overs to show how the Military-Industrial Complex took over Washington, ordered Kennedy’s assassination, and perpetuated Vietnam. It’s such a rush of information, that at one point, Garrison stops taking dictation and hangs his head in defeat. The Mr. X scene proves to be a turning point, as after this, Garrison becomes more dedicated than ever to uncovering the conspiracy.

Larger parts are assigned to Sissy Spacek, Jones, and Gary Oldman, as Oswald. They’re all superb if under-used. The star is, of course, Costner, who is both effective and a trifle incompetent as Garrison. He is charismatic enough to occupy such a big, dramatic film, but his N’Awlins accent leaves much, much to be desired. The performance threatens to lapse into parody at times, though it somehow remains this side of respectable. One can’t help but think that playing Garrison was the beginning of Costner’s popularity slide; in a few scenes, such as the one where he argues vehemently with his terrified wife and seems oblivious to the danger his investigation poses to his own family, he comes off as a self-righteous jerk – never a good look for a movie star. Stone should have toned down this side of the character, as we are sometimes adrift without anyone to root for.

But make no mistake, “JFK” is not about a movie star, or even any particular character. It is about no less than the death of Camelot and the murder of American innocence. It is an angry film that is unafraid to show the emotions of its maker. It hopes to provoke the same type of emotion in its audience. Not many other movies can claim that.

 

 

 

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