Somebody’s Favorite

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In the wake of last year’s militant #MeToo movement, when actresses haughtily proclaimed, “We will no longer be pressured into trading sex for jobs” (and bullied other actresses into wearing black at the event to show their solidarity), the Academy this year has bizarrely honored The Favourite with ten Oscar nominations, tying Roma for first place in number and confirming once and for all (as if there were any doubt) that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has zero credibility and doesn’t know what the hell it is doing.

Loosely based on the reign of Queen Anne and her relationships with Sarah Churchill,Duchess of Marlborough, and a servant named Abigail (eventually Lady Masham), the film suggests that the silly and childlike Anne made all of her decisions based on which woman’s tongue pleased her best — and I don’t mean by talking. The film fairly drips with transactional sex, from stagecoach wanking to arranged marriages to child trafficking to extortionate sex to withholding of affection for political positioning to ordinary prostitution. We even see ducks mating.

A young social climber, formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne.

Despite its praise from a supposedly “woke” Hollywood culture, the film’s theme is simply appalling. Yet Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Marlborough, called the film “a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve.” In that film, an established star (Margo Channing) befriends an aspiring actress (Eve Harrington), only to see her try to usurp her position in the theater. Similarly, in The Favourite, a young social climber, Abigail (Emma Stone), formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) by befriending and then pushing aside the queen’s long-standing confidante and advisor, Lady Churchill (Weisz), simultaneously finagling a financially and socially beneficial marriage to regain her aristocratic status.

Don’t misunderstand my objection — I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different. The Favourite doesn’t just joke about sex; it celebrates the use of sex to gain political power, and hypocritically undermines everything these same preening, moralizing Hollywood hotshots stood up for just last year.

It also seems to justify rape, as long as it’s funny and as long as the women are in charge. When Lord Masham enters Abigail’s servant quarters without being invited, she asks him, “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” He responds, “I’m a gentleman.” “To rape me, then,” she deadpans, and the audience chuckles.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought rape had ceased to be funny, even in the movies. And nary a trigger warning in the trailers. Tsk, tsk.

All I’m asking is that the Academy pick a side and stick with it. Or admit that it really has no backbone or underlying moral principles whatsoever, and quit pretending to have the upper hand on social morality.

I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different.

So why the accolades for The Favourite? It’s all in the technique (to mimic Lady Abigail to Lord Masham on their wedding night as she turns her back and offers him her hand — you get the idea). First are the obvious awards: all three women have been nominated, and all three deliver stellar performances. Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention. Colman’s Queen Anne is gouty, needy, dumpy, screechy, and even develops a convincing stroke midway through. She’s amazing. Nominations for the Big Three — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay — bring the tally to six.

Of course, any time you make a “costume drama,” you can expect to see a nomination for Best Costume Design, and in this case, it is well deserved. The early 18th century is not a common era for filmmaking, so costume designer Sandy Powell couldn’t just rent the costumes from a local supplier; most of them had to be made specifically for this film. And they are spectacular. The opulent textures and colors, and especially the tailoring details of the pockets, lace, and scarves are stunning, although the fabrics — including recycled denim and a chenille blanket — are far from authentic. The massive 18th-century wigs are impressive too, and even more impressive because, due to budget restraints, Powell often took the wigs apart after they were used in one scene and remade them for another. Interestingly, Lady Sarah is often dressed in men’s fashions. It prompts the question: can a woman only be powerful if she’s manly?

The opulent costumes fit perfectly within the opulent production design, also nominated for an Oscar, as it demonstrates the aristocratic decadence of the time. England is at war with France, and Queen Anne keeps threatening to double the taxes, but her courtiers are fiddling while the figurative fires burn. We see duck races inside the castle. Live pigeons, used for skeet shooting overlooking the sumptuous lawns. Exotic pineapples, imported from who knows where. A naked courtier being pummeled with blood oranges in one of the palace salons, just for fun.

Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention.

Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult) says, “A man’s dignity is the one thing that keeps him from running amok,” but we don’t see much that inspires dignity among these characters. In one scene, Queen Anne’s cheeks are painted with heart-shaped rouge, and in a later scene she murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

Adding to that looking-glass sensation is the bizarre use of fisheye lenses and dizzying panorama shots of interiors that create distorted scenes, almost as though we are looking through a giant peephole. And to a certain extent, we are. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara based their characterization on letters between Queen Anne and Lady Churchill that indicate an intimately affectionate friendship and chose to play up the lesbian angle as the driving force in their characters and in their politics. All three important women in this filmwere married, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate heterosexual preference, especially in court marriages.

Still, the sexual relationship between Anne and Sarah — if indeed it existed — was intended to be private and, I hope, loving and intimate and true. The fisheye lenses and peephole angles reinforce that sense of peeking in on something we aren’t supposed to see — and that we might have a distorted impression of what really happened. Although Abigail did eventually take Sarah’s place as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, there is no historicalindication that Abigail used sex to win the Queen’s affection. Sarah and Anne did indeed have a falling out, possibly over money for building Blenheim Palace, and the Marlboroughs were banished to the continent. Abigail then became the “queen’s favorite,” or personal lady-in-waiting. After Queen Anne’s death the Marlboroughs returned to England and finished building Blenheim. That’s what we know.

In a later scene the queen murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

The Favourite opened with a limited run in November to a dismal $442,000 box office its first weekend. Trailers had been somewhat misleading, suggesting that the story was a more audience-friendly knock-down, drag-out catfight between two ladies-in-waiting, not a fairly graphic lesbian love triangle. Either way, it didn’t do well at first. After its Oscar nominations, however, it returned to theaters and as of January 31 had grossed over $42 million worldwide, from an audience of mostly bewildered moviegoers. That’s the power of an Oscar nomination.

Liberty readers might well enjoy The Favourite, depending on where they stand on the situations I’ve described. It’s bizarre in many ways, but it’s also witty, opulent, and well-acted. It presents three powerful women controlling the throne and politics of England in their own womanly way, especially Lady Sarah, who evidently really did have the queen’s ear from their childhood and ruled from Anne’s shoulder until the war with France ended. All three women use their sex for trade, but they do it willingly and deliberately, from a position of power rather than victimhood. Is it possible —even probable — that women in Hollywood have been doing the same thing for over a century, and only cried “outrage!” (and somehow managed to blame Republicans) after they were caught?

The Favourite might even turn out to be your favorite, even though it isn’t mine.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Favourite," directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Element Pictures, 2018, 119 minutes.



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How Less Becomes More

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Roma is perhaps the most unusual and unexpected Oscar contender for Best Picture of 2018. It’s filmed in black and white, spoken in Spanish with English subtitles, and told with very little storyline, no musical soundtrack, and no well-known actors. It’s set in the 1970s but feels more like the 1940s or ’50s. And it moves as slowly as a sloth. The Cannes Film Festival rejected it because it was made for Netflix instead of theatrical release. Netflix! It was available for free on the Internet before it went into a few art theaters. Nevertheless, like Italy’s Life Is Beautiful (1997), it has been nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Picture.

Unlike Life Is Beautiful, Roma does not have a strong, charismatic protagonist or a compelling conflict. It simply presents a dreary year in the dreary life of a young Mexican working girl. It is the most personal film Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity, 2013) has ever made, told as a series of vignettes that come directly from Cuarón’s childhood memories and filmed by Cuarón himself. It is dedicated to Libo, a servant in his childhood home on whom the film is based. Cuarón said of the film, “It’s an intimate portrait of the women who raised me in recognition of love as a mystery that transcends space, memory and time.”

Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’”

The story centers on Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), one of two full-time domestic servants working in the home of a middle-class family in Roma, a neighborhood in Mexico City. Cleo and Sofia (Marina de Tavira) share a small room where they also do the ironing after the regular workday is done. They chatter together congenially throughout the day, and the children in the family seem to genuinely love Cleo; one of the boys (perhaps representing Cuarón himself) holds her hand affectionately when she kneels on the floor beside the couch to watch TV with the family after dinner (until the mother absently sends her away to fulfill another duty.)

But while Cleo is the subject of the movie, she is not our POV — we don’t see the story through her eyes. Instead, Cuarón uses wide angles so that we observe her only in her interactions with other people. This technique objectifies her to a large degree. Since we don’t see what she is seeing, we also don’t see any eye contact from others looking at her. Consequently, we can feel sympathy toward her, but it’s difficult to feel empathy. Cuarón uses this subtle method to tell his audience, “Don’t you dare say, ‘I know how she feels.’” We don’t. At best we can observe what she experiences, and think of how we might feel ourselves.

So why does this film merit ten Oscar nominations, and why does director Guillermo del Toro call it one of his top five favorite films of all time? The key is not in the two Best Picture nominations, but in the eight other categories. Most significant is the cinematography. Cuarón often uses award-winning Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to shoot his films, but this time he chose to handle the camera himself in order to keep the film as personal and true to his intent as possible. The result is often dreamy and reflective. Indeed, reflection is a recurring theme throughout the film. It begins with water washing repeatedly over a brick sidewalk, almost like waves, reflecting the sky, the trees, a building, and even an airplane flying across its reflected surface. Reflections are often seen in windows, cabinets, the table Cleo is polishing, the car fender as the man of the house parks in the narrow garage.

Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion; the devastatingly authentic hospital scene may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

Nominations for sound editing and sound mixing are equally impressive, especially considering the lack of music. Instead, the sounds are entirely natural — the wash of water against the bricks, the bickering of birds in the trees, the sounds of dogs barking and people conversing in the distance. And the acting! So natural, and so introspective. With very little dialogue, Avaricio and de Tavira, nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, portray the unspoken thoughts and desires of the two young servants. The hospital scene is devastatingly authentic; here Avaricio is brilliant in her outward restraint and inner passion. The moment was filmed in one take and may have earned her an Oscar by itself.

The lack of a traditional storyline and a traditional soundtrack makes the film seem slow, even plodding at first. We meet the servants, the family, the dog, but nothing much happens — until Cleo goes to the movies with a friend on her day off and ends up going off with a blind date instead — probably her first date ever. There we begin to see how her past, her class, and her future blend into a kind of inescapable destiny. The vignettes become compelling, and in the end, we can’t stop thinking about this young girl who has had so few choices in her life. We realize that she has had no control over the biggest factor determining her options — the circumstances of her birth — and thus no real control over any aspect of her life, beyond how dedicated she will be as a servant. It’s almost as though she were born dead — a metaphor that becomes significant at one point in the film.

Roma ends mostly as it begins, because Cleo’s life will end mostly as it began. Many important events have occurred during the year, politically and historically as well as within the family, but these events really haven’t affected Cleo personally. She is loved and appreciated by the family members, but she still lives in the small room above the garage that she shares with Sofia. She will never truly belong to this family she serves. But in making this film about his beloved nanny Libo, Cuarón gives her a place at last.


Editor's Note: Review of "Roma," directed by Alfonso Cuarón. Netflix, 2018, 135 minutes.



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Glorious Beale Street

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“Every black person born in America was born on Beale Street, born in the black neighborhood of some American city,” James Baldwin wrote in the 1974 novel on which Barry Jenkins’ film If Beale Street Could Talk is based. It refers to an area of Memphis important to African-Americans, designated by an act of Congress as “the Home of the Blues.”

In the 1860s black traveling musicians began performing there; they eventually developed a genre known as Memphis Blues, led by such legends as B.B. King, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Rosco Gordon, Memphis Minnie, Albert King, and Rufus Thomas. B.B. King was once billed as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”

An astute real estate developer, Thomas Church, became the first black millionaire in the South after he bought land along Beale Street following a devastating yellow fever epidemic. The famous Church Park, a cultural and recreational center where blues musicians gathered, is named for him, not for a religious organization.

By the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings.

In 1869 a congregation of freed slaves began building the Beale Street Baptist Church. Besides the congregation, it housed the newspaper offices of civil rights journalist Ida B. Wells. Such notables as Ulysses S. Grant and Teddy Roosevelt spoke there, while Booker T. Washington, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR spoke at the 2,000-seat auditorium in Church Park.

However, by the 1960s Beale Street had fallen on hard times. Many businesses had closed, and a disastrous urban renewal program had torn down many of the historic buildings and the neighborhoods surrounding it instead of renewing them. In April 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated not far from Beale Street.

Eventually the neighborhood was restored by the racially diverse Beale Street Development Corporation, and the area is now a popular tourist destination featuring the Beale Street Music Festival in early May each year. Beale Street’s development is tightly controlled by the city of Memphis, the BSDC, and a management company.

In so many ways, the story of Beale Street is an apt metaphor for the African-American experience — artistically gifted, entrepreneurially astute, politically active, brought down by neglect and resentment, and then restored by a consortium of well-intentioned but often misguided do-gooders who have changed the essence of what it once was.

In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from Fonny's cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art.

Beale Street is also an apt metaphor for the characters in Jenkins’ movie If Beale Street Could Talk. A love story at heart, the film uses flashbacks to show how Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James) grew up as childhood friends, fell in love as teenagers, planned a future that included marriage and family, and saw their plans destroyed when Fonny was falsely accused of a heinous crime.

Although the movie takes place in Harlem, the characters represent different aspects of the Beale Street story. Fonny is an artist with big dreams. In one particularly beautiful scene, the smoke from his cigarette swirls around a sculpture and jazz music swirls around the scene as he coaxes the wood into submission to his art. Tish’s mother, Sharon (Regina King), works tirelessly against injustice, and Tish’s sister Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) is a rising activist who tells Tish at one point, “Unbow your head, sister, and do not be ashamed.”

Tish and Fonny’s fathers (Colman Domingo and Michael Beach) are both hardworking entrepreneurs. (Well, OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.” And in truth, Fonny is in jail because false witnesses have been suborned against him.) Fonny’s mother (Aunjanue Ellis) represents the church in the black community — moral and austere. And of course the urban renewal board is represented by the overzealous justice system that intends to clean up Harlem by putting the young black men in jail — whether they’re guilty or not.

Jazz and the blues also play central roles in this film. The soundtrack, mostly performed as string adagios, is bluesy, haunting, and full of despair, an emotion created by the close, discordant, unresolved harmonies and the deep, slow vibration of the bow across the bass strings. At the end, the credits roll to the sound of Billy Preston and Joseph Green’s slow, jazzy, plaintive “My Country ’tis of Thee.” If ever there was a time for singing the Beale Street blues, this is it.

OK, they aren’t entirely legal, but they justify their black-market business by saying, “I never met a white man who didn’t lie and steal.”

Although Baldwin describes the young lovers in his novel as plain and unattractive, Jenkins chose to cast his Tish and Fonny with two astonishingly beautiful young actors. KiKi Layne radiates wide-eyed innocence mingled with tough determination, and Stephan James is not only handsome but also blessed with kind eyes and a warm smile. Who wouldn’t be drawn to them? Studies show that we trust and like attractive people more readily than ugly people, and clearly Jenkins was not going to take any chance that the audience might not sympathize with his protagonists. Mind you, I’m not complaining about the casting; it was a pleasure watching these two fall in love on screen.

We don’t learn the nature of the crime with which Fonny has been charged until 45 minutes into the movie, although we learn in the first five minutes that he is in jail. Jenkins also softens the scene of the first sexual encounter between the two by having Fonny gently cover Tish’s naked breasts with a blanket in a gesture that is both protective and romantic. It subtly tells us that Fonny could not have done what he is charged with; he just isn’t that kind of guy.

Sadly, under our flawed, overcrowded, injustice system, it doesn’t much matter whether a person is guilty or innocent, especially if the person is poor or black. Most never go to trial. In fact, according to legal scholar William J. Stuntz, an astounding 94% of state felony convictions and 97% of federal convictions stem from plea bargains. If you can’t afford bail, you’ll sit in jail, waiting for your day in court, often for months and sometimes for years. So you take the deal and the record, just to get out of jail and back to your life. As Tish says to the audience in voiceover narration, “I hope that no one has to talk to anyone they love through a glass.”

Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal.

Moreover, plea bargains have now become the safer bet in a legal system where freedom hangs on how a jury interprets the evidence and the defendant. Faced with the prospect of 30-to-life for a trial conviction versus 8-to-10 for a plea deal, even an innocent person is likely to take the deal. The deadly “to life” tacked on to many sentences today is especially chilling for the innocent; how can you convince the parole board of your remorse for a crime you did not commit?

The routine indeterminate sentencing of “to life,” which is bad for many reasons, was created three generations ago by liberal reformers. Its heyday is long past and needs to be eliminated, along with mandatory sentencing and three-strikes rules, to allow judges to judge and prisoners to have hope.

If Beale Street Could Talk presents a powerful story of love, loss, and loyalty. Baldwin’s 1974 portrayal of the injustice of our court system is just as true today. Barry Jenkins’ film version is not completely true to the novel, nor should it be — film is a visual and aural genre and needs to be adapted accordingly. The film is beautiful to watch, even though it is heartbreaking to comprehend.


Editor's Note: Review of "If Beale Street Could Talk," directed by Barry Jenkins. Annapurna, 2018, 119 minutes.



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No White Saviors Need Apply

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Witty, ironic, meaningful, and delightfully entertaining, Green Book is quite possibly the best movie released in 2018.

It’s based on the true story of African-American pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the unlikely friendship he developed with Tony Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), a Copacabana bouncer and self-proclaimed bullshitter. In fall 1962 Shirley hired Tony to be his driver and bodyguard during a concert tour through the South of the Don Shirley Trio, consisting of Shirley and two white string musicians. What follows is a new twist on the old buddy genre as two opposites, one black, suave, educated, and sophisticated and the other white, uncouth, ill-spoken, and street smart, learn to like each other. The two could not be more different, or more written against stereotype.

Shirley is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The name of the movie comes from a guidebook published by the Negro Tourists Bureau from the 1930s to the mid-1960s called The Negro Motorist Green Book. As you can guess, it identified restaurants, hotels, and public buildings that travelers of African descent could patronize. It was demeaning, and the Don Shirley Trio could make three times as much money doing gigs in New York, where they were more accepted and could move more freely. But, like Jackie Robinson before him, Don Shirley was out to make a point and blaze trails. He chose the southern circuit on purpose. Oleg (Dimiter D. Marinov), the bass player, understands. “Genius is not enough,” he explains to Tony. “It takes courage to change people’s hearts.”

We also realize that genius is not enough to bring happiness, any more than money is. Shirley is educated, talented, and rich, but he drinks alone. He knows the white European masters of music, but he doesn’t recognize Little Richard, Aretha Franklin, or Sam Cooke. He is a gourmand, but has never tasted fried chicken. He isn’t welcome in the hotel where his companions are staying, but when some men staying at the Green Book hotel invite him to join them for a game of horseshoes, he doesn’t know what to do. “If I’m not black enough, or white enough, or man enough, then tell me — what am I?” he asks Tony in anguish. He is an isolated individualist — certainly not defined by his race, but confined by Jim Crow nonetheless.

The acting throughout the film is superb. Ali won a Golden Globe for his role as the regal, impeccable Shirley; his comedic timing for noncomic dialog is perfect, and wait till you see him play the piano! In fact, the music in this film is stunning. Mortensen packed on the pounds and embraced his inner slob to play the lovable, slovenly, totally unself-aware Tony Lip. Linda Cardellini as Tony’s wife Dolores is so perfect that Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s real-life son and the author of the book on which the screenplay is based, said that he was in tears whenever Cardellini was on camera, because she is so much like his mother. Cardellini is one of those quietly unsung actors who is marvelous in everything she chooses to do. In addition, many of the people in the family scenes are not actors but members of the Vallelonga extended family, and there is an authentic vibrancy as they interact with one another around the table.

Tony is an equal opportunity bigot; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.”

Unfortunately, following the film’s initial praise from critics when it opened and its three wins at the Golden Globes (for Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Picture) the reputation of this fine film was maligned. Critics recently charged that it’s “racist” and another “white savior story.” Either these people haven’t seen the film, or they don’t understand the “white savior" genre, or they’re terrified to speak out against the progressivist hegemony.

Well, I’m not afraid to speak out. The person who is saved in this film is not the cultured, wealthy, talented black pianist, who hires the bodyguard, pays the bills, and calls the shots. It’s the gauche, ignorant, uncouth, bigoted white restaurant bouncer who takes the job and the orders. And anyone who suggests that any film with a black star and a white star necessarily creates a hierarchy with the black man at the bottom is being, well, just plain racist.

At the beginning of the movie Tony is comfortable in his bigotry. He’s a product of his environment, and his environment has been racist. He’s an equal opportunity bigot, however; he warns Shirley to “watch out for them Krauts and Cuban bastards.” Tony agrees to be Shirley’s driver and manage his itinerary, but he flatly refuses to launder his employer’s clothes or shine his shoes. He needs the money the job will provide, but he’s a little embarrassed by the relationship; when someone questions him about it he responds, “He ain’t my boss — I work for the record company!” At his home, when two black repairmen finish a heavy job, Dolores gives them each a glass of water. Seeing this, Tony fishes the glasses out of the sink and drops them into the trash. He will not be putting his lips where black lips have been. Does this sound like someone with a “white savior complex” to you? I think it’s no coincidence that during his concerts Shirley often plays a jazzy medley of songs from South Pacific, one of which bears the lyric, “You've got to be taught to be afraid / Of people whose eyes are oddly made, / And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade. / You've got to be carefully taught.” This film shows that you can be untaught as well.

Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail.

The reversal of stereotypes continues when the well-spoken Dr. Shirley offers to correct Tony’s diction and make him more presentable in fine society, an ironic (and witty) race reversal. He even tries to change Tony’s last name to Valley, “something more pronounceable,” in an ironic nod to the emasculating and insidious practice of renaming slaves for the convenience of the owner when they were purchased. While Tony is the star of the movie, Shirley is the power of the relationship. He even owns a throne.

In every way, Dr. Don Shirley is superior to Tony. He is wealthier, more educated, more refined. He lives in a beautifully appointed apartment above Carnegie Hall and wears immaculately tailored suits, while Tony lives in a small apartment in the Bronx and wears ill-fitting bowling shirts. Although Tony does rescue Shirley from a couple of beatings, which he is paid to do, Shirley rescues Tony from jail. Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life. Not willing to share a glass with a black man? By the end of the film he is walking around in his undershorts and sleeping in the same room.

No, the real concern about this film — the true progressivist fear that’s whitewashed by accusations of white saviorism — is that it does not fit the current narrative of blacks as victims who need saving. (Ironically, at the behest of our mostly white legislators.) The hypocrisy is so blatant it’s maddening. Don Shirley’s “sin” is that he achieved success through hard work and talent — yes, by his bootstraps — and that he espoused a philosophy of peaceful resistance. "You don’t win with violence,” he tells Tony. “You only win with dignity.” Try touting that philosophy with activists today.

Tony is the protagonist on this journey, the one who changes, the one who is saved from his own bigotry to discover a friendship that would last until the end of his life.

In one particularly poignant scene, Shirley and Tony happen to stop near a field of black laborers to check something in the car. Camera filters intensify the lighting of the scene, mimicking the muted colors of a mid-century painting. No words are spoken, and none are necessary. The laborers stand in the fields picking cotton, dressed in headscarves and calico, while Shirley sits in the backseat of a Cadillac DeVille picking lint from his tailored suit with his soft manicured hands — for one reason: Shirley was given not only a talent for music but also a mother who could recognize it, nurture it and sell it. The key to his success is hinted at in the unsung lyrics of “Happy Talk,” also from the South Pacific medley: “You got to have a dream. / If you don’t have a dream / How you gonna have a dream come true?” Yes, Shirley, as well as the fieldworkers, faced racism and Jim Crow laws. Shirley had to live by the Green Book when he traveled, and he hated it. But he wasn’t victimized by it. He had a dream, and he made it happen.

In sum, Don Shirley’s story does not fit the political narrative of black suppression and victimhood that can only be righted through in-your-face activism and hatred toward whites. We are allowed to admire Black Panther as a strong leader and role model without disturbing the political narrative because he comes from Africa and has not been “tainted” by American sins. But we mustn’t tolerate the example of strong African-American characters without the backdrop of white racism. Thus a central theme of Hidden Figures — a film about the remarkable black women mathematicians who worked in NASA’s space program — deals with the women having to leave the building where they worked to use the colored bathrooms in a distant building, despite the fact that NASA already provided integrated bathrooms at that time. Talk about “demeaning.” Hollywood put them in the colored stalls, not NASA.

Similarly, the story of Don Shirley’s remarkable achievement must be sullied through unfair and untrue criticism of the powerful, witty, uplifting movie based on his life, simply because it doesn’t fit the acceptable stereotype. Indeed, I was soundly criticized for praising this film. But I won’t be cowed. And don’t you be fooled: Green Book is quite possibly the best movie you’ll see this year.


Editor's Note: "Green Book," directed by Peter Farrelly. Participant Media, 2018, 130 minutes.



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A Train to Nowhere

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The other day I watched Snowpiercer. I have a taste for post-apocalyptic science fiction, and also for stories that illustrate political ideas, and Snowpiercer is both of those. Co-written and directed by South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho, the 2013 movie also has a strong flavor of anti-capitalism. Wondering who had picked up on that, I googled “Snowpiercer, Socialism,” then “Snowpiercer, anti-capitalism.”

The socialists had picked up on it. On a web page called Socialist Action (“In Solidarity with Workers and the Oppressed Everywhere”) writer Gaetana Caldwell-Smith calls Snowpiercer “an original, inventive, futuristic work” that pictures “what might happen in the future if the outmoded and anarchistic capitalist system goes on unchecked for much longer.”

On another socialist web page, Jacobin writer Peter Frase calls Snowpiercer an “action-movie spectacle” with “a message of class struggle” that “evokes some of the thorniest dilemmas of socialism and revolution, in the twentieth century and today.”

In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet.

Your Film Professor, the highbrow lefty, praises Snowpiercer’s “incredible capacity to cuttingly capture — or ‘cognitively map’ — how our current and future dystopian milieu is informed by our (globalized) capitalism system. . . . The reason this film is just SO important is because it cuts through the fog of ideological distractions (e.g., consumerism, status quo/reformist [capitalistic] rhetoric, patriotism, nationalism, etc.) and didactically spells out the REAL of ruling class ideologies in a way that is to my mind almost miraculous.”

I don’t know about all that. It does tell you how some on the Left think (and write).

Snowpiercer is a science fiction story set on a frozen earth. In an attempt to reverse global warming, humanity overdid it and froze the planet. But a capitalist named Wilford, who was fascinated with model trains as a kid, had put his corporate fortune into a high-speed train with an enclosed ecosystem: tanks of fish, hooches of chickens, an engine to propel the train and keep the contents warm. For 17 years, Wilford’s shinkansen has been rushing over the world’s continents, one full loop each year, pushing through the wasteland of snow and frozen machines around it. Every human alive is a passenger on this train.

After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end.

It doesn’t make a lot of sense — but cut some slack for surrealism. The story of Snowpiercer is from a graphic novel, in other words, a comic book. A French socialist comic book. The film is quite well made, and on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) is rated 7.1. That’s not quite up to the 8.2 rating of V for Vendetta, another political tale based on a comic book, but well above the 6.2 for Waterworld (1995).

Snowpiercer’s train comes with a recognizably Marxist class structure. Wilford, the egoistic owner played by Ed Harris, is the deity at the train’s head. Next in line are train cars of sybarites with their club music, dancing, and drug-fueled orgies, then the genteel with their classical music and handmade sushi, then the obedient workers tending the orange groves, tanks of fish, and hooches of chickens, and the smiling teacher (Allison Pill) in the grade-school car of fresh-looking kids. After the police-state cars with hooded goons wielding truncheons and automatic pistols come the lumpenproletariat at the tail end. In Marxist terms, you might think of them as “workers,” but they mostly just suffer. They live in rags and squalor and are terrorized by goons. For food they are issued “protein bars” made from pulverized cockroaches.

And they are the folks the movie is about.

Wilford’s mouthpiece to them is an unctuous woman played by Tilda Swinton, who was the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). Early in Snowpiercer she instructs the rabble in a style that parodies Margaret Thatcher. “Order is the barrier that holds back the frozen death,” she declares. “We must all of us, in this train of life, remain in our allotted station. We must each of us occupy our preordained particular position.”

The society around us has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time.

She holds a man’s shoe and puts it on the head of one of the proles. “A hat belongs to your head,” she bellows. “A shoe belongs to your foot. I am a hat. You are a shoe. I belong on the head. You belong on the foot.”

And again: “I belong to the front. You belong to the tail. When the foot seeks the place of the head, a sacred line is crossed. Know your place.”

Here is the message of the movie. Society — capitalist society — is a hierarchy of assigned privilege.

Well, the society around us is surely a hierarchy, just as its Canadian defender, Jordan Peterson, allows, though he calls it a hierarchy of competence. And it is mostly that, else today’s world would not work. It has a “one percent,” but its membership is not fixed. People go in and out of the “one percent” all the time. Margaret Thatcher was part of the political one percent, but she famously started out as a shopkeeper’s daughter, in what the Marxists call the petit bourgeoisie.

Capitalism is an economic system of private workers and owners who buy and sell in a market, making their own decisions. In Snowpiercer there is no market. Wilfred’s chickens produce eggs, and one of his men wheels them in a cart and gives them away. He doesn’t sell them. There is no buying or selling in Snowpiercer and no money. There is no property other than Wilford’s. The supposed “Wilford Industries” cannot buy or sell anything, because there is no other entity to sell to or buy from.

As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist "Anthem" or "Animal Farm," "Snowpiercer" does seem to be part of something.

Watching Snowpiercer, you can’t help but identify with the lumpen heroes (especially the characters played by John Hurt and Octavia Spencer) who disobey the faux Margaret Thatcher and refuse to remain “shoes” on the godhead’s foot.

But why care about a five-year-old movie that had only a limited release in the United States? Worldwide it did better; in its first year, Snowpiercer brought in $87 million, more than half of what V for Vendetta did. As a business venture Snowpiercer did all right. As an ideological venture, a kind of leftist Anthem or Animal Farm, it does seem to be part of something.

There has been a small upsurge of socialism in the United States. So far it is a pale image of the leftist tide of the 1930s, when private investment had collapsed and millions were out of work. Then it looked to many as if capitalism was finished. In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

Now my hometown, Seattle, has a socialist on its city council. Her supporters are raucous and young, full of resentment of the billionaire rich. Maybe they believe because they read Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty, but more likely because they have imbibed their history and politics from left-wing teachers, or maybe from graphic novels and movies like Snowpiercer.

In the 1930s socialism was a relatively new thing, and intellectuals might be excused for not knowing what a defective product it was.

But socialism — really? Like Peterson, I want to yell at them: Did you miss the 20th century? And a lot of them did. They are that young.

I lived through the last third of that century as an adult. I saw socialism collapse in Europe, abandoned in China, and decaying in Cuba. Now it is collapsing again in Venezuela. It’s time for the socialists to give up.

All the Left’s bellowing about hierarchies and social classes makes me think of the guys I grew up with. The son of a small-town optometrist became an airline pilot. The son of an aerospace engineer became a sheet-metal worker, then lost it all when he married a crackhead. We are all of retirement age now, though some of us are still working and one, a teacher, has been retired on a fat pension for more than ten years. I have a grade-school friend who lived for years in a ruined trailer and a former colleague who lived for seven years in his truck. Both have now been put in decent housing, courtesy of the welfare state.

The kids I grew up with did not achieve equality, at least not as the Left defines it. They weren’t promised it, didn’t aim at it, and didn’t get it. They went in all different directions. None was assigned his position in life, and most of them, over time, changed what that position was. No doubt some of their paths were shaped by “power relations” under capitalism, and I know some were touched by luck. But where each one ended up depended mostly on the decisions he made, the sort of work he did and how diligently it was done, how much present satisfaction was sacrificed for the future, and, crucially, on whom he married.

Why would anyone think his world is like Snowpiercer?

A software man of the new generation predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I think back to when I was 20, and a student at the university. I used to go on long walks through a city neighborhood with big houses, many of them brick, built in the early 20th century. I was bunking in a rental house shared with other students, eating meals of hot dogs and ramen and working a part-time job for $1.75 an hour. That neighborhood of big homes was a foreign country to me. It would have been easy to think I was looking at the brick walls of an impenetrable class, and that I was doomed to a life of instant noodles. But I wasn’t.

There is another thought, which I heard recently from a software man of the new generation. Noting the divide in his fellows between those with brain work and those living in parents’ basements, he predicted that robotics will extinguish so many jobs that the government will have to offer a universal guaranteed income.

I do see the loss of jobs. My health clinic, which used to have a row of clerks checking in patients, has replaced them with touchscreens. The local superstore (which would have been called a department store, years ago) has replaced half of its checkers with touch screens. Several downtown parking garages that used to employ Ethiopians to collect the money have replaced them with card scanners.

Then again, three blocks from my house is a shop that concocts such fluffy desserts as Mexican chocolate pie. A pie from that shop costs $36; a slice, $6. That sort of pie was not available here two decades ago. Nor was nitrogen-infused ale. Or black sesame ice cream. My neighborhood now has artisan bread, artisan ice cream, artisan chocolate, artisan beer and, more recently, artisan spirits. Within a few miles are stores offering artisan cannabis.

A young man I know, the son of a bank vice president, has chosen to be an organic farmer. He shares in an old house on a muddy farm and produces organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef. He sells his artisan hamburger for $6 a pound.

Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

A century ago, a middle-class family here might have a Swedish girl to cook, clean, tend the children, and mend the holes in socks. Now we have au pairs, housecleaning services, gardening services, and (I can hardly believe this) dog-walking services. I even know of a poop-removal service for people who keep dogs in backyards. In my neighborhood the environmentally sensitive no longer put in concrete walkways. They hire Mexican immigrants to put in brick walkways, carefully laying each brick by hand, using no mortar, so that rainwater can soak sustainably into the earth.

Back in the 1970s, my university professor of marketing predicted that the future of consumer products was Miller and Bud, two brands distinguishable only by labels and the ads on network television. All consumer markets were going to go that way, he said. I suppose it would have been the most efficient outcome. But look at the beer shelf at your grocery today. And what has happened to television? Capitalism can be about much more than efficiency.

The young man selling $6-a-pound hamburger makes far less money than a programmer at Amazon. Probably he officially qualifies as poor. But he is no serf. To him, the programmers working 60-hour weeks are the serfs.

Snowpiercer is, as the socialists say, “an original, inventive, futuristic work,” totally unlike the black-and-white TV westerns and World War II shows I grew up with. I enjoyed it. I cheered for the rebels at the back of the train along with everybody else. I just hope that most of those who saw the film took it as an artisan product of an affluent culture and not as any sort of wisdom on the world around them.




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No Escape from Human Nature

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Are humans instinctively brutal? Do we attend hockey games, boxing matches, and race car events hoping see blood? Do we rubberneck at car accidents hoping to see death? Have we really made no moral progress since gladiator games were used as public executions?

The producers of Escape Room want us to think so. From The Most Dangerous Game (1932) to The Naked Prey (1965) to The Hunger Games trilogy (2012–2015), movies have explored the concept of humans hunting humans and have tapped into the idea of execution as entertainment. And that’s what happens in this movie.

Inspired by the escape-the-room genre of video games, real-life escape room adventures have become popular over the past decade in cities all over the world. Contestants are locked inside a room decorated to resemble a haunted house, prison cell, space station, or other isolated location and are given a time limit during which to discover clues, solve riddles, and find the escape hatch. It’s a fun, socially interactive, real-life alternative to sitting in front of a computer screen discovering clues, solving riddles, and finding the escape hatch.

They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you?

The premise of Escape Room is simple. Six strangers are invited to compete for a high-stakes prize by solving a series of puzzles in order to escape from a series of rooms. Danny (Nik Dodani) is a videogame nerd who has played in nearly a hundred escape rooms before. Zooey (Taylor Russell) is a shy math prodigy with a talent for solving puzzles. Jason (Jay Ellis) is an investment banker with expensive tastes. Ben (Logan Miller) is a stock clerk for a grocery store. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is an army veteran, and Mike (Tyler Labine) is a blue-collar worker. What has brought these six together? And how will they interact under pressure?

The six soon realize, of course, that this is no game. If they fail, they die.

With its PG-13 rating, Escape Room is high on suspense and low on blood and guts, making it an entertaining film as the audience members work along with the characters to solve the riddles and unlock the doors.

What makes the film interesting are the gradual reveal of the characters’ backgrounds and their interaction with one another as they do what it takes to survive. They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you? They’re all strangers, after all. They only just met, and they have no personal connection with one another. Will self-interest lead to treachery? Or will goodness win out?

You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must.

Despite being driven by self-interest, we still seem to want our heroes to be self-sacrificing — at least in Hollywood. We cheered when Han Solo, that maverick businessman of the cosmos, returned to help the resistance in Star Wars. We took heart when Katniss Everdeen refused to kill her youthful opponents in The Hunger Games. We even approved when Hombre (Paul Newman), the ultimate libertarian hero, reluctantly risked his life to rescue the wife of the thieving, racist Bureau of Indian Affairs agent from the stagecoach robbers.

But in reality, when push comes to shove and our own lives are on the line, what would we do to survive?

I recently listened to The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck, a fictionalized account of the widows of Jewish resistance leaders and their experiences during and after World War II. It’s a sappy, sentimental novel full of 21st-century morality and clichés. For example, Shattuck refers to “racial profiling” when her characters are asked to show their papers, a term that did not exist in World War II. Moreover, her protagonist is cloyingly egalitarian. She comes from an aristocratic background and thus has special access to food and protection. Yet she refuses to accept those special favors, or at least expresses consternation about accepting them. To hell with accuracy; Shattuck seems compelled to imbue her 20th-century protagonist with 21st-century values, no matter what. Such egalitarianism is a fine principle in times of plenty, but when your children are truly starving or threatened by death, you will accept any special opportunity offered to feed and protect them.

Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation.

Actual Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl belies Shattuck’s politically correct fantasy about genteel survival morality in his concentration camp memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl reveals a particularly troubling source of survivor’s guilt — he admits that in order to live through the kind of brutal starvation they experienced in the camps, those who survived had to be ruthlessly selfish at times. There might be one piece of potato in the soup pot, and that one piece of potato would determine who had enough sustenance to survive the march to work the next day, and who would collapse in the snow. You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must to scavenge that bite of potato, reach the warm spot at the center of the mass of prisoners, avoid the front of the line when the camp guards were looking for someone to shoot. You might feel guilty. You might be furtive. But you did it anyway.

In such films as Escape Room, Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation. The hero manages to be self-sacrificing and self interested, to fall on the grenade and make it out alive. And that’s OK. After all, we’re looking for escapism, not realism, in entertaining movies like this one.


Editor's Note: Review of "Escape Room," directed by Adam Robitel. Original Film Production, 2019, 100 minutes.



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Three Smart, Suspenseful Movies

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The leaves are settling, the goblins are gone, and you have a bowlful of leftover candy that you convinced yourself you would need for all the trick-or-treaters. Why not sneak those treats into a movie theater and enjoy an evening of intense suspense? I’ve reviewed three gripping new films that will send shivers down your spine. All three contain characters who face demons — of the psychological kind. All three examine the concept of choice and accountability, and all three offer unusual definitions of freedom.

Drew Goddard and Jason Blum are the new masters of suspense, lifting the genre above the slasher model of the ’80s and ’90s and the bloodfests of Quentin Tarantino to return to the psychological suspense dramas that were made in the ’50s and ’60s. Their films are characterized by sophisticated scripts, top quality cinematography and music, and lavish, almost garish, set dressing. After writing and directing 2012’s remarkable The Cabin in the Woods (see our review), Goddard explained, “The horror genre gets you in touch with our primal instincts as a people more than any other genre I can think of. It gives you this chance to sort of reflect on who we are and look at the sort of uglier side that we don't always look at, and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.” His latest film, Bad Times at the El Royale, is an ensemble piece that does just that, taking us on a dark and stormy night to a hotel as eerie and secretive as Hitchcock’s Bates Motel.

The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us.

The movie begins almost like a stage play; the scene, an oversized hotel room with an unnaturally wide expanse of floorspace in the middle where actors could mingle and emote, fills the screen and is as wide as a stage. A bed sits far stage right and a desk far stage left, with a small couch under the window next to the foot of the bed. A man enters, backlit through the hotel room door. He crosses stage right to the window and looks outside uneasily, then crosses downstage left to deposit his bag and crosses back to the window, where he closes the curtains furtively and finally turns on the light so he can get to work. The motions feel staged and unrealistic. That is their purpose. Nothing is going to be realistic in this movie.

Scene 2 occurs ten years later at the same hotel, circa 1968 (assuming that a particular news item on a black and white TV is meant to be a live broadcast). Several characters are gathering in the once-glamorous lobby of the rundown El Royale Hotel to check in for the night; we assume that at least one of them is related to the action in the opening scene. Laramie Sullivan (Jon Hamm), who introduces himself as a vacuum cleaner salesman on a junket, displays stereotypically sleazy gaucherie, especially toward Darlene (Cynthia Ervio) a young black woman carrying a bundle of bedrolls. By contrast, Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges) treats Darlene with genteel manners that may or may not be sincere, offering to carry her luggage to her room for her. The fourth guest (Dakota Johnson) is cool, glamorous, and haughtily aloof to them all as she selects a room far from the rest of the guests.

The El Royale is loosely based on the old Cal-Neva Hotel in Lake Tahoe, whose claim to fame (besides having once been owned by Frank Sinatra) was that the state line ran directly through the lobby. “Would you prefer the warmth and sunshine of the West, or the hope and opportunity of the East?” Miles Miller (Lewis Pullman), the El Royale’s desk clerk, asks expansively as customers arrive. “California rooms are a dollar extra,” he adds matter-of-factly. Well, of course.

Yes, a National Geographic documentary is the scariest movie I have seen in ages.

It’s a significant decision, because choice and chance are important themes in this film, where nothing is as it seems and choosing wisely can be a matter of life and death. Who are the good guys? Who are the bad guys? Whom should we trust? What deep secrets are kept at the El Royale, and can the truth set them free? The plot backtracks and restarts numerous times as it is retold through the perspective of the various characters, insisting that our perspectives change too.

Occasional allusions to events that took place in the ’60s become important later in the film. The vintage clothing, automobiles, music, and mid-century furnishings also contribute to the rich Hitchcockean atmosphere. The women are stylish, the men are masculine, the young desk clerk is troubled, and Goddard even kills off a key character just a third of the way into the story, à la Hitch’s main character in Psycho. The suspense is delicious, and the changing perspectives don’t just throw us off balance gratuitously; in some ways they recalibrate us. Horror might not be your genre, but this film is just about perfect.

Another film in which being off balance can lead to instant death is Free Solo, a National Geographic documentary about Alex Honnold’s breathtaking attempt, last year, to become the first person to solo climb the 3,000-foot granite face of El Capitan in Yosemite. Yes, a NatGeo doc is the scariest movie I have seen in ages. My heart was pounding and I had to look away from the screen several times as Alex fought to balance on a tiny toehold here, a half-inch protrusion there, making his way up the nearly perpendicular giant — without a rope or parachute. One slip, and he would be dead. In terms of Goddard’s definition of the horror genre, Free Solo reveals the psychological need to “get . . . in touch with . . . primal instincts, . . . [offers a] chance to sort of reflect on who we are . . . and have fun with that very thing. . . . It lends itself well to a sort of freedom.”

What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death?

Alex Honnold is, by his own admission, an odd duck. Raised by an emotionally distant father and a mother for whom no accomplishment was ever enough, he notes that he had to teach himself how to hug when he was in college after noticing that hugging was something other people did. He never heard the words “I love you” from his parents. He earns “about as much as a moderately successful dentist,” through sponsorships, books, and speaking engagements, yet he lives in his car, a minivan that he modified to include a small stove, a refrigerator, and a platform bed. He eats his car-cooked meals from the skillet with a spatula.

This background is offered as a kind of psychological answer to the obvious question: What in the world would possess someone to pursue a sport in which one false move can plunge an athlete to his death? Alex is possessed by personal demons that only seem to leave him when he is enjoying the freedom of the climb. As head cinematographer and co-director Jimmy Chin observes, “You have to be perfect in this sport. It’s like being in the Olympics where you either win the gold medal, or you die.” Dozens of extreme climbers have indeed fallen to their deaths, adding to the suspense of Alex’s pursuit.

In order to successfully ascend the mountain without a rope, soloists must practice repeatedly with ropes and a belaying partner until they know every inch, every crook, every cranny of the face. As Alex trains for the climb, he slips off the face and dangles over the canyon floor — a lot. This adds to our suspense as he finally starts the main adventure. Chin wisely decided to widen the angle of the documentary and include the filmmakers as part of the story, and we see how carefully they, too, prepare to document the feat. They must select the best vantage points along the way, roping into the face with their heavy cameras while remaining out of sight and making sure they don’t interfere, physically or psychologically. Jimmy’s greatest fear isn’t not getting the shot; it’s causing a distraction that might lead to his friend’s death.

The cameramen become our vicarious eyes and hearts. One repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death. I found myself looking away too, willing him to get to the top and end the agony of watching him glide impossibly up the sheer expanse of the mountain.

Despite the agony of suspense, the film is breathtakingly beautiful. The camera work is exquisite, capturing the magnificence of the mountain. It’s matched by the grandeur of the music and the precise choreography of the climb. Alex knows exactly what he is doing; he has memorized all 3,000 feet of the granite precipice. It’s the scariest and most awe-inspiring film I have seen in ages. The look of joy on Alex’s face as he turns to the camera after a particularly grueling section says it all. To quote Drew Goddard again, this kind of horror “lends itself to a sort of freedom” that few of us will ever know.

One crewman repeatedly sets his camera and then turns his back to the cliff, unable to watch what might be his friend’s death.

Our third film is horrifying in that it isn’t fantasy — it’s fiction, yes, but it’s based on true-life experiences of gang life, drug culture, and trigger-happy police officers. The Hate U Give, based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Angie Thomas, tells the story of a family determined to escape by staying put. They reside in a rundown, longstanding black neighborhood, but they send their children to a private school where they have a better chance of getting a good education and, let’s face it, living to adulthood without being sent to prison. Passing by the public high school, the main character, Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg) tells us in voiceover narration, “That’s where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list. And that’s one of the horrors presented by this film.

Starr must learn to navigate two worlds as she moves between her mostly white school and her mostly black neighborhood. Her school friends play at being cool by listening to rap music, dancing with a cool R&B vibe, and using black slang. But because she is truly black, Starr studiously avoids the vernacular of her black world. She fits in by not joining in. Meanwhile, at home she hangs out with her childhood friends (those who are still alive) while trying to remain safely aloof from the fights and drama that break out between them. She has a complicated relationship with many of the neighborhood kids; “Kenya’s mama had Seven with my daddy, but she’s no relation to me,” she explains to someone at a party.

When a fight breaks out at the party, Starr’s childhood friend and somehow-relation, Khalil (Algee Smith), grabs her hand and drives her to safety — almost. When he is pulled over by a cop (for the egregious crime of changing lanes without signaling) Starr quickly puts both hands on the dashboard as her daddy (Russell Hornsby) has taught his family to do, and frantically urges Khalil to do the same. But Khalil isn’t about to be submissive; with the swagger that comes from knowing you’ve done no wrong, he challenges the police officer. As the confrontation escalates, Khalil is shot and killed. Even though you know it’s going to happen, the moment is shocking, brutal, horrifying.

The public high school is “where you go to get jumped, high, pregnant, or killed.” “Get educated” isn’t on the list.

What follows is a fair and complex assessment of all the things that have led to this moment. Starr’s uncle Carlos (Common), a black police officer, explains to Starr that cops have to make split-second decisions based on what they see and what they expect. He tells her that he probably would have ordered Khalil out of the car too, in order to keep an eye on him while running his license. Starr listens but then asks, “Would you have told a white business man in a Mercedes to get out of the car?” “Probably not,” he admits.

The message is clear: like Alex Honnold in Free Solo, those who challenge the granite face of the law need to respect the power of the opponent, even when they have a right to be where they are. Keep your hands where they belong and focus on potential risks. The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

Meanwhile, the police try to smear Khalil by painting him as a common drug dealer. “Good riddance,” is the message, even if he wasn’t doing anything wrong at the moment he was shot. They want Starr to testify against the local drug lord, King (Anthony Mackie), who controls the neighborhood and oversees the violent turf wars (and happens to be her half-brother Seven’s father). While protestors chanting “What do we want? Justice!” at City Hall are being pummeled by tear gas, King is tossing fire bombs at local black businesses that are standing up to his authority. This message is clear too: the problems in the ’hood aren’t black and white, in the racial or the metaphorical sense.

The foe doesn’t care who you are, what you’re doing, or how innocent you might be; it has all the power, and foolish grandstanding can result in instant death.

According to rap artist Tupac Shakur, “Thuglife” is an anagram for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everything.” One of the common threads in these three films is that children who are traumatized or neglected often grow up to commit traumatic or traumatizing acts. The Hate U Give offers much to think about as we figure out how to solve the problems in our urban neighborhoods, beginning with the public school system that acts as a racial boundary and the drug laws that act as a direct pathway to easy money followed by death or prison. That is true horror, in ways beyond anything we ever see on Halloween.

Bad Times at the El Royale, directed by Drew Goddard. Twentieth Century Fox, 2018, 141 minutes.

Free Solo, directed by Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi. National Geographic, 2018, 100 minutes.

The Hate U Give directed by George Tillman Jr. Fox 2000 Pictures, 2018, 133 minutes.




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Beauty’s in the Eye of the State

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For propaganda scholars, Nazi propaganda is especially fascinating. This is because of its intensity, its virulence (i.e., its emotional manipulative power), and its coordinated use of all the media of persuasion. That is, while most regimes use propaganda, and many regimes build formidable propaganda machines — the Soviet Union, England and America in the world wars, and contemporary communist cum fascist China come to mind — few have created the concentrated, coordinated machine that the Nazis did. Only the Soviet Union and Communist China approached this level. All German media — radio, books, newspapers and magazines, movies, painting and sculpture, theater, and so on — were controlled by the regime, and employed to spread its ideology and create support for its power and its policies.

The films I want to briefly review here are two recent documentaries about an interesting Nazi propaganda film. The original propaganda film — at about 30 minutes, really a “short” — introduced the German public to a new youth organization meant to inculcate Nazi values in young women. It was made in 1938 and intended for release in 1939. This original propaganda short was about the Belief (in the sense of “Faith”) and Beauty Society. It is the subject of these two recent documentaries, both conveniently available on one disk, and both with English voiceovers. (The original 1938 film is not on the disk in its entirety, perhaps because no good prints of it remain).

While most regimes use propaganda, and many regimes build formidable propaganda machines, few have created the concentrated, coordinated machine that the Nazis did.

The first (shorter) recent documentary, is entitled The BDM Movement — Belief and Beauty: The Education of 17 to 21 Year Old Girls in the Third Reich. It runs 50 minutes, and appears to have been made in 2006. The second — included in the disk’s “Bonus Materials” — is entitled Zest for Life and Physical Joy. It runs 30 minutes, and is labeled as having been produced in 2008. Both are brought to us by the filmmaking company ZeitReisen Verlag, credited to Marc Meyer zu Hartum, and edited by Ralf Oltersdorf. They were translated into English by Chris Crawford, with an English narration by Elisa Moolecherry.

I want, first, to give a short historical introduction to the general background of this realm of Nazi propaganda. I will then present a brief review of the shorter documentary (Zest for Life and Physical Joy), and explain how it differs from the longer one. I will finish by raising two questions about these documentaries.

Let’s start with the regime’s use of youth groups as a powerful mechanism of propaganda.

Hitler’s propaganda machine was mindful of the crucial role of society’s “mediating structures” — family, schools, churches, sports clubs, unions, and so on — in molding people’s minds. But the regime put a special focus on youth organizations. It realized that by intervening early and heavily, it could make young people true believers, who would be the fodder of the regime itself. This was nothing new in world history; recall the Jesuit propagandist and missionary St. Francis Xavier, who allegedly said: "Give me the child until he is seven and I'll give you the man."

The regime realized that by intervening early and heavily, it could make young people true believers, who would be the fodder of the regime itself.

In particular, the Nazi Party from its founding understood the importance of youth organizations. The Boy Scouts were established in Britain in 1909 and spread rapidly around the world — including Germany. As early as 1922 the nascent National Socialists had an ancillary youth arm, which grew as the party grew. By early 1933, the main regime youth organization, the Hitler Youth, had 100,000 members. And by the end of the year it had two million members.

Besides building their own enormous youth groups, the Party worked to eliminate other such groups. It first banned youth organizations allied with other political parties, such as the Communists. By the end of 1936, the regime banned the International Boy Scouts and all other youth organizations, and made joining the Hitler Youth mandatory (except for Jewish children, who were of course banned). That year it grew to four million members. By 1939, over 90% of all German youth belonged to regime youth groups, and attendance was mandatory.

The Hitler Youth enrolled children from 10 to 18 years and had separate divisions for boys and girls. For boys aged 6 to 10, there was the Little Fellows organization. They mainly just hiked and camped. For boys aged 10 to 12, there was the German Young People (Deutsches Jungvolk). Here the boys moved from just camping to marching in unison and map reading. Finally, boys aged 13 to 18 went into the Hitler Youth (Hitler-Jugend) proper. Here the emphasis was on military preparedness.

By 1939, over 90% of all German youth belonged to regime youth groups, and attendance was mandatory.

Girls at age 10 joined the League of Young Girls (Jungmädelbund), and at age 14 transferred to the League of German Girls (Bund Deutscher Mädel, or BDM). Its focus was on physical fitness and personal hygiene. Specific goals included being able to run 60 meters in 14 seconds, march for two hours, swim 100 meters, and be able to make a bed. From ages 17 to 21, the girls could volunteer to join the BDM Belief and Beauty Society (BDM-Werk ‘Glaube und Schönheit’). As adults, the women could then join the National Socialist Women’s League.

The youth organizations shared several general goals. Their first general goal — indeed, the main one — was of instilling support for the regime. This included developing a cultish adoration for the Fuehrer. This was the Fuehrer-Prinzip, or Leader Principle, under which Hitler was seen not just as the leader but as the nation incarnate and the paragon of all Aryan virtue. Moreover, the Hitler Youth children had explicit lessons in German racial theory. For example, as I have noted elsewhere (“Selling Genocide II: The Later Films,” Reason Papers 39.1 (2017) 97-123)., Hitler Youth had to watch the vicious anti-Semitic screed The Eternal Jew at their meetings.

It was not uncommon for Hitler Youth to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo for exhibiting dissent.

But another general purpose was to create a kind of para-familial mechanism to counterbalance and police the family itself. Just as the Waffen SS was a paramilitary organization that fought alongside the regular Wehrmacht (traditional military) and also monitored and balanced it, so the Hitler Youth organization worked alongside the family to raise the children, while also monitoring it. It was not uncommon for Hitler Youth to turn in their own parents to the Gestapo for exhibiting dissent.

The third general purpose was to push physical fitness, preparing the children physically for being proper Nazi citizens. For the boys, this started out as rigorous physical play and exercise, military drill. But with the outbreak of war in 1939, the amount of military training the older boys underwent increased dramatically. It included grenade-throwing, digging trenches and foxholes, gas defense, handling barbed wire, and gaining proficiency in small arms. By 1943, all boys 17 and older were conscripted into the military. By 1945, even younger boys were drafted. Boys who refused or hid from the draft were executed if caught. Boys were moving directly from the Hitler Youth to the battlefield, and were in essence suicide squadrons. Ill-prepared for actual combat, they were often easy kills. (An excellent film exploring the use of Hitler Youth as cannon-fodder is Die Brucke [The Bridge], a 1959 West German movie based upon a real event, in which a group of conscripted 16-year-old schoolboys dies defending an unimportant bridge.)

For the girls, the focus was on physical health (fitness and hygiene), to prepare them not for combat but for their ideologically ideal role as Aryan wives and mothers. Truth be told, the ideal roles were in reverse order: mothers, preferably married, but in any case mothers . . . mothers of more Aryans, which is to say, more fighters to advance the great Aryan will to power. As Dr. Jutta Ruediger, leader of the League of German Girls (starting in 1937) put it, “The task of our girl’s league is to raise our girls as torch bearers of the nationalist socialist world. We need girls who are at harmony between their bodies, souls and spirits. And we need girls who, through healthy bodies and balanced minds, embody the beauty of divine creation. We want to raise girls who believe in Germany and our leader, and who will pass these beliefs on to their future children.”

By 1945, even younger boys were drafted. Boys who refused or hid from the draft were executed if caught.

It was to propagandize this ideal that the Belief and Beauty Society was created. It was set up in 1938 by the National Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach. The society’s education was built around a school of gymnastics, created by Hinrich Medau — the Medau Gymnastics School. The Medau school — to put it in simplistic terms — more or less melded gymnastic workout with organized dance moves. For those of you old enough to know about two legendary gentlemen, the first an early advocate of gym workouts and the latter an early movie choreographer: imagine Jack LaLanne combined with Busby Berkeley. The Belief and Beauty Society focused on women’s obligations, fashion, and motherhood. It developed feminine sports and dancing, home economics, and education in the arts, music, and of course politics.

Let’s now briefly summarize A Zest for Life and Physical Joy. The introduction explains the history of the Belief and Beauty Society. The narrator notes that the society originally had eleven “work groups,” each designed to appeal to the interests of girls, with the idea that each girl joining the society could pick one that interested her particularly.

The narrator notes that the 1938 film was produced to show young women the various things the society had to offer. She also tells us that the head of the society, Clementine zu Castell, got Leni Riefenstahl’s main cameraman Hans Ertl to make the movie, which was filmed around in and around Munich, in areas familiar to Ertl from his earlier work filming Riefenstahl’s documentary of the 1936 Olympics.

We see the young women making dresses, while the narrator tells us they are learning how to design and make “functional, healthy, and lovely clothing” and “develop good taste.”

We then see footage from the original film. It opens with the symbol of the society, and we listen of the score by Hans-Joachim Sobanski. Then appears a group of girls running down steps dressed in shorts and T-shirts. Carrying large gym balls, they quickly form a line and dance in a circle, where they work out in unison, tossing the balls. We see some of them doing Olympic-style events: such as javelin and discus throwing, sprinting, and so on.

The original film cuts to footage of a young woman preparing food, while a narrator notes that the BDM helps girls acquire such skills through home economics courses. We watch them practice setting tables and weaving. We see them making dresses, while the narrator tells us they are learning how to design and make “functional, healthy, and lovely clothing” and “develop good taste.” We watch as some of the girls model what they made, to the applause of the other BDM members (in their uniforms).

Next up are girls sculpting figures, as the narrator tells us that the society advances the girls’ knowledge of culture and the arts. We move to interior design, where the announcer tells us, “The modern girl should be educated about tidy living early on. She will have to know this prior to getting married.”

We cut to girls in their uniforms marching and singing along a lakeshore. As chickens scatter, the girls march into a farming village. The narrator tells us that girls from the city work closely with the country girls and celebrate the end of the day with a nice swim.

The narrator discusses the main elements of this type of gymnastics: “Charm, grace, and rhythm combine to form a joyful affirmation of life.”

Then there are girls who are into equestrian activities. The announcer tells us that no longer is riding just for the privileged; girls of all backgrounds can now “enjoy this wonderful sport.” We watch the young women engaged in competitive rowing, after which the film turns to the “health service group,” wherein young women are taught how to help those who are sick or injured. The instructors are doctors, we are told. Olympic swimming is another group the girls can join, along with diving and fencing. Also there are synchronized gymnastics for “happy girls of our great time.” We watch as young women twirl hoops, work with Indian clubs, and march in unison wearing white dresses.

There the original film seems to end, but the documentary continues, showing footage of the Medau School of rhythm gymnastics, which we learn was made popular by Hinrich Medau in Germany in the 1920s. The narrator discusses the main elements of this type of gymnastics: “Charm, grace, and rhythm combine to form a joyful affirmation of life.” While we watch girls in very short white frocks with bikini briefs dance in unison, we are told about Medau’s life.

The narrator adds that while putting together this documentary, footage was discovered that was not in the original propaganda film. We see the women “moving organically” — hopping, skipping and prancing in unison, and then using the gym balls. The film notes that performances of the Medau routines were given during the 1936 Olympics. We discover also that National Youth Leader Baldur von Schirach saw an exhibition while visiting England in 1937. When he returned to Germany, he was able to enlist Medau’s support for the BDM society. But then the war expanded to become a world war. The Medau School continued in Berlin despite the bombings, but had to move to Breslau in 1945 when its headquarters were bombed. Shortly thereafter it closed. In 1948, however, it reappeared, and in 1952, moved to its permanent new home in Coburg, where it continues to this day. The film ends with footage of various dance routines.

The women discuss the movement and the girls’ exhibitions with evident pride, and Ruediger recounts with sadness that the original Nazi film was cancelled by Goebbels shortly before release.

The longer recent documentary about the original 1938 film includes most or all of the footage of the shorter one just discussed, with the same score. The longer version discusses more of the whole youth movement. It also includes extended 20th-century interviews with key players. We hear from Dr. Jutta Ruediger and Clementine zu Castell, about how they were recruited to run this movement, and from Hanna Lincke and Hannelou Canzler (Koenigsberg leaders of the BDM). Ruediger describes how Medau worked to stage the girls for Ertl, and the narrator gives us more information about the groups within the society. These women discuss the movement and the girls’ exhibitions with evident pride, and Ruediger recounts with sadness that the original Nazi film was cancelled by Goebbels shortly before release as scheduled in October 1939. But this film too ends abruptly, with a note that the society was disbanded at the end of the war in 1945.

Despite their abrupt and somewhat inconsequential endings, these documentaries about an obscure but interesting propaganda short raise two important issues.

First, in neither of them are any of the architects of the young women’s society asked about the role their work played in what was undoubtedly one of the most evil regimes that ever existed. Why? We are told how wonderful the Medau school of synchronized gymnastics was, and how wonderfully poised and attractive the girls in it became. But what about the wider role their work played in instilling Nazi ideology in the girls, i.e., as enablers and supporters of it?

Second, why was the polished and visually interesting short documentary, filmed by Riefenstahl’s cinematographer and in her style, never released in October 1939 — never in fact released at all?

It’s an interesting puzzle. This was a film which presented “Aryan” young women are poised, fit, slim, and sexy — in a somewhat distantly anatomical way — and the presentation seems reasonably successful. It conveys what seems to have been the regime’s paragon of German womanhood. Yet the regime refused to release it. Warum?

At no point are any of the architects of the young women’s society asked about the role their work played in what was undoubtedly one of the most evil regimes that ever existed. Why?

Every reader is invited to speculate. For what it’s worth, my speculation is this. The movie was made in 1938, for release in 1939. But in 1939, war broke out — actual war, not warlike but costless conquests (of Alsace-Lorraine, Austria, and the 1938 capitulation by Britain and France of Czechoslovakia) that Hitler enjoyed from 1933 to 1938. It apparently surprised Hitler that England and France, who had been so compliant with his prior demands, declared war upon his invasion of Poland.

At this point, Hitler’s nation had about 87 million inhabitants, counting those of its possessions, and was facing Poland, France, Britain, and Britain’s English-speaking colonies, with a total of about 160 million inhabitants. My suspicion is that the regime realized in 1939 it would be dramatically undermanned. It probably drew the reasonable conclusion that German women would have to assume more active roles (as doctors, nurses, construction workers, industrial workers, and so on) than those of subservient mothers. Goebbels canceled the movie.

But you can see it analyzed now, and enjoy (if that is the right word) the insight it offers into an all-encompassing propaganda state. Ultimately, it shows how a police state such as the Nazi regime put great effort into controlling reproduction itself for state goals. In the case of the Nazis, the clear aim was to get girls prepared to reproduce rapidly, so that the “non-Aryans” — especially in the East — could be rapidly replaced by Aryans.


Editor's Note: Review of "Belief & Beauty — The History of the Nazi BDM Movement (Glaube & Schonheit)." 50 mins + 30 Mins, 2006, International Historic Films.



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Hits and Misses

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A Simple Favor isn’t a libertarian film. It doesn’t make any political commentary, it doesn’t cover timely issues, and it has little to say about economics beyond an offhand remark about the relative value of stay-at-home moms and “working moms.” I suppose I could stretch it to consider what Ayn Rand might have said about the concept of doing simple favors, but I won’t.

So why am I reviewing this movie for Liberty? Because it’s surprisingly good, one of the most entertaining films in months, and worth seeing for the quality of the acting, the twists and turns of the plot, and the subtle, unaffected comedic delivery of Anna Kendrick.

These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

Stephanie (Kendrick) is a stay-at-home mom with a compulsive penchant for volunteerism, a chirpy vlog called “Hi Moms!” where she talks about cooking and crafts, and a dark secret that drives her compulsiveness. When Emily (Blake Lively), a glamorous, high-powered working mom whose son attends the same preschool as Stephanie’s, befriends her, Stephanie becomes as giddy and malleable as a middle-school wallflower who suddenly finds herself walking home with the head cheerleader. Sean (Henry Golding), an award-winning novelist who hasn’t written anything publishable since marrying Emily ten years earlier, is suave, sexy, and hot for his wife. These three form a twisted romantic triangle with a twisted plot that takes us on a twisted romp through a dark side of suburbia.

When Emily goes missing, Stephanie volunteers to help Sean take care of their son, Nicky, and begins playing house in Emily’s mansion. Soon she starts her own investigation into Emily’s disappearance, discovering secrets in Emily’s past. Sean has his share of secrets too, and the result is a satisfying mystery thriller that is not only scary and suspenseful but often laugh-out-loud funny, especially when Stephanie tries to remain cool and nonchalant during an interview with the police about Emily’s disappearance — while wearing one of Emily’s dresses. With its bright colors, upbeat music track, and delightfully awkward leading lady, A Simple Favor is not your typical mystery thriller, but it is a simple delight.

Henry Golding, the handsome British-Malaysian whose previous screen credit was hosting a travel show, is having quite a season on the big screen. He’s also starring this month in the hit romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians, based on the book of the same name by Singaporean-American Kevin Kwan. Its greenlight follows the success of ABC’s TV series “Fresh off the Boat” and stars some of the same actors.

Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since.

CRA is trying very hard to be socially relevant by marketing itself as the supposedly first mainstream film that focuses entirely on Asian culture with an extensively Asian cast and crew. But it’s really just a light, fluffy romantic comedy that happens to be set in Singapore. Rich Singapore boy Nick Young (Golding) meets poor immigrant girl Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) while studying in the United States. Rich boy’s mother Eleanor Young (Michelle Yeoh, who was stunning in 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) tries to break up rich boy’s romance when they come to Singapore for Nick’s best friend’s wedding. Poor girl’s family has more integrity than rich boy’s family, leading to rich boy losing poor girl. Care to guess where they end up? Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur inhabited this plot perfectly in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You in 1938, and the formula has been working ever since. CRA is cute and fun, but it isn’t groundbreaking, despite its marketing plan.

In fact, its IMDb page reveals just how muddled the claim to “first” is:

Excluding movies and animation extensively featuring Pacific Islanders and East Indians produced in America such as Life of Pi, Slumdog Millionaire, and Moana, and excluding The Last Samurai (2003), which featured a majority East Asian cast but with a white lead, this is the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016). Other movies with extensively East Asian casts include Revenge of the Green Dragons (2014), A Very Harold and Kumar 3D Christmas (2011), Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), Better Luck Tomorrow (2002), Rumble in the Bronx (1995) and Joy Luck Club (1993).

And that doesn’t even acknowledge the above-mentioned “Fresh Off the Boat,” now in its fourth season. With all those caveats, the idea that they would even attempt to call themselves “the first Western-produced major studio film with an extensive East Asian cast” is pretty laughable.

If an American crew instead of an Asian crew had made CRA, Asian audiences would likely be howling “foul play.” First, its leading actor, whose character is supposed to represent old-world Chinese family and customs, isn’t even fully Asian! Golding’s mother is Malaysian, but his father is British. And yes, those rounder eyes and British accent probably make him more attractive to western audiences. (In fact, some are recommending Golding as the next James Bond.) Moreover, stereotypes are stereotypes. The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer. And the unmarried rich boys are sex-crazed and pathetic. Not a pretty portrayal, even if the author, director, and cast are all Asian.

The crazy rich Asian women in the movie care only about shopping for designer clothing and designer plastic surgeries in order to catch a rich husband. Those rich husbands care only about getting richer.

The one exception to the designer hive in Singapore is Rachel’s quirky, yellow-haired friend from college, Peik Lin Goh (Awkwafina), who rejects the fashion stereotype and is true to her own sense of style and identity. But she is accepted in Singapore society largely because her daddy’s rich and her family is old. And she, too, wears designer clothes, just quirkier ones. To be fair, in A Simple Favor Emily also has a closet full of designer clothes, shoes and bags, but at least she paid for them herself with her high-powered job, and she is anything but a follower. If any message is clear in modern movie making, it’s this: where women are concerned, the devil does indeed wear Prada.

Crazy Rich Asians is a fun movie if you’re in the mood for a predictable romantic comedy set in an exotic locale. The sumptuous wedding scene at Singapore’s Raffles hotel (where Nick is serving as best man, not groom — this isn’t a spoiler) is breathtakingly gorgeous. But if you’re looking for a serious film about serious issues, or even a lighthearted comedy with a little depth, this isn’t it.


Editor's Note: Review of "A Simple Favor," directed by Paul Feig. BRON Studios/Feigco Entertainment, 2018, 117 minutes; and "Crazy Rich Asians," directed by Jon M. Chu. Warner Bros., 2018, 120 minutes.



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A FreedomFest Report

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FreedomFest, LasVegas, July 2018: Fewer breakout sessions. Shorter hours. Only one special-event luncheon. What’s going on at FreedomFest? Are we losing it?

Actually, it’s quite the opposite. Too much choice can be daunting. As first timer Walter Block of the Mises Institute and Loyola University told us, “I attended FreedomFest for the first time in 2018. It was a magnificent experience. Rarely have so many lovers of liberty gathered under one roof. The only ‘problem’ I had with the event was the concurrent sessions. I wanted to attend ALL of them!”

We wanted this year’s event to involve our attendees more directly — not just sitting in chairs listening to speakers, but participating actively in the discussion.

History professor Barry Strauss of Cornell University concurred, saying, “FreedomFest was one of the few conferences that I’ve attended in my professional career of which I could say, ‘I only wish that I could have attended more sessions.’ From start to finish, it was an inspiration.”Imagine the frustration of previous years, when we offered 30% more sessions from which to choose!

Sometimes “less” really is “more.” When presentations are tightened, only the best remain. That’s what we decided to do at FreedomFest this year, reducing the number of concurrent breakout session from 13 to ten and ending each day at 6:30 instead of 8.

We wanted this year’s event to involve our attendees more directly — not just sitting in chairs listening to speakers, but participating actively in the discussion. So we lengthened our Q&A times, reduced the number of breakout sessions, created a scavenger hunt that brought attendees more actively into the exhibit hall, and added “conversation circles” in the evenings where attendees and speakers could discuss thematic topics. We expanded our “FreedomFest after Dark” activities with Karaoke led by “Lady of Liberty” Avens O’Brien and clubbing at a local night spot. The result was a more vibrant, engaged experience for everyone.

The Mock Trial was back too, this year charging the Public School System with fraud. We even had a hint of scandal in the jury box.

Of course, not everything was brand new. Perennial favorite Judge Napolitano was back, reporting on the Constitution and the significance of President Trump’s choice of Brett Kavanaugh to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. And we followed his speech with a special-event luncheon moderated by Steve Forbes. But most attendees enjoyed the break time by visiting the exhibit hall, viewing one of our lunchtime movies, or buying a sandwich and visiting with other attendees in our lounge areas.

The Mock Trial was back too, this year charging the Public School System with fraud. We even had a hint of scandal in the jury box, when the foreman announced a tie of 6–6, even though the collected ballots were clearly marked 7 to convict, 4 to acquit, and one with both options marked. Was this an example of the New Math? Or the “everybody wins a trophy” mindset? We promise Price Waterhouse wasn’t tabulating the results!

Of course, FreedomFest is never without controversy. Our panel on “The Rise and Triumph of the Angry Voter” led to some testy anger among the panelists, and the debate between Newsmax contributor Wayne Allyn Root and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat over whether Trump is more like Reagan or Mussolini became predictably (for Root) loud. The debate between Douthat and Hugh Hefner biographer Steve Watts on whether FreedomFest should dedicate a room to the late Hugh Hefner was controversial as well — was Hefner a hero who liberated women from Victorian sexual mores, or a lecher who objectified women by turning them into sexual playthings? Interestingly, the debate on “Faith and Reason” between Dan Peterson and Michael Shermer was more popular than the Playboy debate, with standing room only.

Eli Whitney, John Deere, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Ray Kroc drastically changed the face and future of America, “and it did not begin at the ballot box."

First-timer George Will was another keynote speaker, delivering an inspiring speech about the power of entrepreneurship and innovation. Referencing Ted Kennedy’s declaration that “change begins at the ballot box,“ Will offered several examples refuting the claim; he reminded the audience that Eli Whitney, John Deere, Alexander Graham Bell, and even Ray Kroc drastically changed the face and future of America, “and it did not begin at the ballot box. It began with the spark of entrepreneurial genius. . . . It began in individualism, which is important to everyone in this audience.”

Financial speakers have always been part of our faculty, and this year attendees enjoyed the new “Fast Money Summit” sponsored by Eagle Publishing, with its shortened 25-minute breakout sessions featuring top financial experts such as Steve Forbes, Mark Skousen, Doug Casey, Jim Rogers, Gena Lofton, Alex Green, Peter Schiff, Keith Fitz-Gerald, Marin Katusa, Jim Woods, and many more. At FreedomFest we believe that financial freedom is just as important as political freedom; money makes it possible to support causes and live a fuller personal life. “One good tip is worth the price of your admission,” was Eagle’s promise.

Others found their way to the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival — and some never left. “I can buy the recordings of the speeches,” one woman told me. “Where else can I watch these great films and meet the directors afterward?” In all modesty, as the director of the world’s only fully juried libertarian film festival — I couldn’t agree more. We had the best films and the best attendance in our eight-year history, with four world premiere films, five SRO screenings, 11 hard-hitting panels, and films that inspired us even as they told stories that outraged us. Libertarian films can be depressing when they’re set in dystopian futures or focus entirely on the hopelessness of big government; what I loved about this year’s lineup is that they offered hope for a brighter future through greater freedom, greater courage, greater understanding, and greater technology. And the production values of our films this year were top notch.

Storytelling can be more powerful than a lecture because of the emotional connection it creates with the audience.

Our films focused on themes such as immigration, escape from communism, criminal justice reform, and technology. Their messages were often indirect and compelling. One of my favorites was the Best Comedy winner The Inconsiderate Houseguest (Rob and Letitia Capili), which offers a subtle (Rob claims “unintended”) and unexpected theme about immigration beneath its quirky story about an uptight, rule-oriented roommate. “Subtle” is the key here; messages don’t need to shout if they are presented well. Storytelling can be more powerful than a lecture because of the emotional connection it creates with the audience. In fact, at our Thursday night Master Class for filmmakers, one of the panelists credited the television show Modern Family with changing public opinion, and thus public law, regarding gay marriage because of its likeable gay couple and its reluctantly tolerant and loving family patriarch. “Everyone knows the message of a Michael Moore movie, but almost no one watches his documentaries. They just hear about it on the news,” another panelist observed. Engaging stories with nuanced messages have the power to move hearts and change minds. That’s the main reason we started the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival.

The $2,500 Anthem Grand Prize went to Skid Row Marathon (Mark Hayes, director), an inspiring documentary about L.A. Judge Craig Mitchell who, troubled by the outrageous mandatory sentencing he was forced to impose, started a running club to help former felons regain their self-confidence and restart their lives. Mitchell has taken the club to marathon competitions throughout the world. The club is financed through private donations and teaches the principles of choice and accountability. Club member Rafael Cabrera was on hand for the Q&A following the screening. The film also won the $500 AnthemVault Prize for Best Original Score, featuring music composed by club member Ben Shirley. I defy you to watch this film with a dry eye.

Saber Rock (Matt and Thomas Locastro, directors), about a young Afghan interpreter for the American military who was targeted for assassination by the Taliban when he began teaching children about the principles of freedom, won the Anthem award for Best Short Documentary. The real Saber Rock attended the festival and gave an impassioned opening night speech to the FreedomFest crowd. Rock was a festival favorite, taking selfies with numerous fans throughout the week. He was awarded Anthem’s Special Jury Prize for heroism and received a standing ovation from the audience.

The room was so packed that we had to bring in 50 more chairs, while many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor and at least 20 more brought chairs to sit five-deep in the doorway.

Festival judge Gary Alexander argued at the judges’ meeting that America Under Siege: Antifa was one of the most important films at the festival because it reveals the truth behind the rising violence against free speech. Meanwhile, the gentle tone of Off the Grid with Thomas Massie won the hearts of festival attendees, who awarded it the Audience Choice trophy. Director Matt Battaglia follows the brilliant MIT graduate and inventor around the Kentucky farm that he built and maintains with his own hands as he talks about the priorities in his life and why he went to Congress. In one memorable segment he describes his congressional lapel pin, which garners him deferential treatment wherever he goes in Washington, as “Precious” and describes how difficult it can be to keep “Precious” from corrupting one’s focus and integrity.

A second Audience Choice trophy was awarded to Jimmy Morrison for his film The Housing Bubble, which features interviews with FreedomFest regulars Doug Casey, Peter Schiff, Jim Rogers, Gene Epstein, Tom Palmer, and others. It offers a cogent history of money, interest rates, inflation, and how they affect each one of us. The room was so packed that we had to bring in 50 more chairs, while many leaned against the walls or sat on the floor and at least 20 more brought chairs to sit five-deep in the doorway. The post-screening panel included all of the speakers who were featured in the film. Said director Morrison of the experience, “After all the delays with my movie, I really needed to make a statement with my premiere. I can't thank you enough for all that you did to make last week so successful!” That’s why we do what we do. These libertarian films need a venue. We provide it.

The Anthem Libertarian Film Festival is one of the fastest-growing features of FreedomFest, and also the best kept secret. Film aficionados can purchase a FilmLovers Pass for all four days for just $149, less than a third of the FreedomFest retail price. It includes all the films, plus film panels featuring top FreedomFest speakers and entrance to the exhibit hall. You can’t attend the FreedomFest general sessions or breakout sessions with it, but come on — with films and panels like these, who needs FreedomFest?

Members of the Reason crew presented the libertarian position on drug policy, gun control, biotechnology, pensions, prison reform, Bitcoin, transportation, and more. It was a libertarian feast.

My husband, Mark Skousen, who produces FreedomFest, completely disagrees with me on this, of course! “Why would anyone go to a movie when they can hear these great speakers in person?” he often asks me. And he has a point. With nearly 250 speakers and over 200 sessions, it’s hard to choose. A good point, but only one point.

This year, in honor of the 50th anniversary of Reason magazine, FreedomFest hosted six Reason Day breakout sessions, plus the Reason Media Awards at our Saturday night banquet. Reason notables Katherine Mangu-Ward, Nick Gillespie, Matt Welch, Bob Poole, Ronald Bailey, Jacob Sullum, Lisa Snell and others presented the libertarian position on drug policy, gun control, biotechnology, pensions, prison reform, Bitcoin, transportation, and more. It was a libertarian feast, culminating in presenting the Friedlander Prize to Steve Forbes at the Saturday night banquet.

But don’t just take me word for the success of FreedomFest 2018; here’s what Marc Beauchamp, former west coast bureau chief for Forbes Magazine, foreign correspondent in Tokyo, and trade association executive director in Washington DC, said about FreedomFest this year:

“For me . . . FreedomFest is where you hear things you don’t hear anywhere else.

“Like the foreign policy panel where it was pointed out that Russia’s economy is smaller than that of Italy or South Korea and Doug Casey said, ‘Russia is a gas station in a wheat field attached to a gun store.’

“You can get pretty glum watching talking heads on cable TV. The antidote is David Boaz’s optimism — that there’s never been a better time to be alive in the United States, and in almost any other country on the planet.

FreedomFest is an individualist’s dream (though admittedly, for those who arrange it, it can have its nightmare moments).

“FreedomFest is a movable feast. You never know what’s on the menu. I enjoyed Skeptic magazine’s Michael Shermer’s breakout session on the scientific search for evidence of an afterlife, and his conclusion that we should focus on living a full meaningful life rather than worrying about what might or might not happen in the afterlife.”

In sum, FreedomFest is an individualist’s dream (though admittedly, for those who arrange it, it can have its nightmare moments). As in those old “Choose Your Own Adventure” novels of the ’70s and ’80s, you can create your own conference as you circle your favorite sessions and decide what you’re going to hear and do.

We can’t wait to see all of our friends at FreedomFest 2019 where our theme is “The Wild West.” Escape the Deep State to Live Free! Come choose your own adventure in Las Vegas July 17–20. Hats and boots optional. Leave your horse at home.




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