Monthly Archives: February 2018

The Parkland kids

We all know the drill. There’s a mass shooting, and everyone is horrified. Almost immediately, gun control advocates call for long-needed changes to American laws, and the NRA and its purchased politicians insist it’s ‘too soon.’ We get pro forma statements of condolence and faux compassion; the proverbial ‘thoughts and prayers.’ And nothing happens. Nothing ever happens.

After the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland Florida, in which seventeen students and teachers were killed, everyone pretty much anticipated more of the same. More meaningless commiseration from politicians, and no action, at all. Well, it hasn’t happened yet, and the reason is that amazing group of kids who survived. The first one I saw on television was Emma Gonzalez. A buzz-saw in a buzz-cut, passionate and angry and smart as hell.

Politicians who sit in their gilded House and Senate seats funded by the NRA telling us nothing could have been done to prevent this, we call BS. They say tougher guns laws do not decrease gun violence. We call BS. They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call BS.

She’s just gotten a big feature story in Harper’s Bazaar. Here’s the link. She wrote it herself. Boy, are they media savvy.

Here’s the thing about teenagers. This generation gets trashed a lot by older folks, because they’re so electronically connected. They grew up with computers and cell phones and they’re great at using both. But like all teenagers, they also have an astonishing ability to see through grown-up BS. They know when grown-ups are lying; they see right through it. You can’t snow ’em. In fact, their phones and devices, I think, are about connecting, hence their astonishing emotional intelligence. I think they see more clearly than we did when I was younger.

And seeing how savvy and worst of all, how effective the kids were, the NRA and other spineless gun advocates began striking back. The kids were “crisis actors” trained to stage “false flag” events. They were on the George Soros payroll. The kids were great then too. Their next great spokesperson is a kid named David Hogg.

The only time you’re ever [doing] anything that actually matters is when people try stopping you. And that’s what’s going on here. These people trying to stop us are actually helping us out at lot, because my Twitter following has tripled over the past, like, day, essentially, and I think that’s in part because of these trolls. So for that I’m honestly kind of thankful.

Think this kid’s ever been in a Twitter feud, or a Facebook battle? He’s used to it. It doesn’t faze him. He knows what he stands for, he knows what he wants, and he’s great with social media. With humor, with facts, with intelligence and wit and courage, Hogg just does not back down. And banks are cutting their ties to the NRA. There’s even an edge of desperation to their spokespeople, what with Dana Loesch saying recently that liberals ‘love school shootings,’ and Wayne LaPierre going all Joseph Goebbels at CPAC (to wild applause). I mean, he was subtle about it. The code word was ‘socialism.’ It’s ‘socialists’ who oppose gun freedoms, which flow directly from God to His chosen people. Americans. Opposed by a triumverate of socialist anti-freedom billionaires–George Soros, Michael Bloomberg, Tim Steyer. Why those three? Because they’re Jewish? Because, Bill Gates also funds progressive causes, right? But Gates is goyim.

And Emma Gonzalez responded to the LaPierre speech: “The disgust I feel for the lies you’re promoting? With no consequences? Unsurpassed.” Spot on.

And don’t think the kids didn’t notice. They know how to position, and they know how to drive wedges. Student Cameron Kasky: “To those following our message, please remember the difference between the NRA as an organization and the members of the NRA. The vast majority of NRA members are decent people. Patriots. Our issue is not with them individually.” And that’s worth saying. They’re not targeting ordinary gun owners. They’re targeting the NRA leadership, and the supine members of Congress the NRA has purchased.

Kasky’s the kid who met with the President, btw, the kid who faced down Marco Rubio to his face, asking him straight out if he would refuse, then and there, to accept campaign donations from the NRA. And Rubio refused to, covering his cowardice with pol-talk, which Kasky also called him on. Kasky’s been very active on Twitter as well, and is completely fearless, responding to death threats with a cheery “So fun!” Adding “My amazing team is hard at work today. We’re here to protect you and your children whether you’re with us or against us. #NEVERAGAIN

Neveragain is their hashtag, by the way. They’ve even come up with the best hashtag of the year.

Kasky met with the President: David Hogg’s sister, Lauren, called out the First Lady.

Hey @FLOTUS you say that your mission as First Lady is to stop cyber bullying, well then, don’t you think it would have been smart to have a convo with your step-son @DonaldJTrumpJr before he liked a post about a false conspiracy theory which in turn put a target on my back

Lauren Hogg, by the way, is fourteen.

These kids are my new heroes. They’re astonishing. They’re not giving up. They’ve called for a March on Washington, which will happen. They called for a spring break boycott of Florida, which I think will likely happen. They’re smart, they’re angry, they’re motivated, and they’re right. Never. Again.



I, Tonya: Movie Review

The Winter Olympics are dominating television right now, which meant, I thought, it was a perfect time to see I, Tonya. I think pretty much everyone knows the basic contours of the Tonya Harding story. She was an ice skater, the first woman in the world to successfully land, in competition, a triple Axel. She was also a poor woman from a poor family. Her mother was trashy, and swore a lot; so was she. Nor was she an elegant skater. She was an athlete, a jumper, a concentrated ball of fierce energy. And, as such, she received lower scores than other skaters did. But then, just before the Lillehammer Olympics in ’94, when an assailant attacked her main rival for Olympic gold, Nancy Kerrigan. Harding’s ex-husband (and then-boyfriend) Jeff Gillooly was criminally charged with setting the whole thing up, and claimed Harding was complicit. Although she was able to compete in Lillehammer, the ‘incident’ ended her skating career.

That’s the broad outline; I, Tonya, rather unreliably, provides the details.  Harding (superbly played by Margot Robbie) claims that both her mother, LaVona Golden (Allison Janney) and Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) physically abused her. Both characters, in the movie, deny it. (The film is told as a lengthy flashback, intercut with scenes in which several of the characters directly address the camera). Gillooly claims that Tonya knew what was going on, but that he did not intend for Kerrigan to be assaulted; that the physical attack was entirely the doing of his friend, Shawn Eckhardt (Paul Walter Hauser), who used his money to hire a hit person, Shane Stant (Ricky Russert). The film doesn’t really resolve any of these disputes, and we’re never sure how much we should trust Gillooly. It generally depicts events from Tonya’s perspective, and because we can see the events taking place, we mostly believe her. I doubt anyone seeing the film would doubt, for example, that Gillooly beat her up, despite his denials, because we see him doing it. Those scenes are well-shot, well-acted, brutal, tough to watch. We believe them. So while the film purports to be agnostic about the truth or falsehood of those details, the director Craig Gillespie, stacks the deck. We believe what we see.

Ice skating is something of a hybrid, half sport, half art form, and some top skaters have the balletic grace of dancers. (I don’t, in any way, diminish what extraordinary athletes top skaters really are; just that athletic skill is only one judging criterion). This is a film about class and gender construction as much as it’s about skating, or history. Tonya Harding is depicted as white trash, as a poor, uneducated, foul-mouthed, abused woman from a white trash background. (I love the various crappy houses Harding and Gillooly live in, along with Eckhardt and Golden. At one point, visiting the home of her coach, Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), she remarks about a house ‘with a living room!’ Told by a skating judge that she needs to wear a fur coat to the rink like the other girls do, Harding shoots a bunch of rabbits, skins ’em, and sews herself a rabbit-skin coat. (Harding insists that that really happened).

She’s trashy, common, tacky, tawdry. Those are all words denoting social class, and the film makes a point of showing how class-conscious the skating world is. Tonya’s as welcome there as a fart in church. And it hurts her, of course, because skating is also a judged sport. She’s an astonishing athlete, and she thinks that should correlate with victory. And of course, to some degree it does. She did make two Olympic teams, she did win national championships. But she feels it, the way her accomplishments are diminished by her unconventional (for skating) unbringing. (I loved the early scenes in which we see eight-year old Tonya, dragged to practices and tournaments by her chain-smoking, foul-mouthed mother, and I loved young McKenna Grace’s performance as the young Tonya. What a fine child actress! She was great in Gifted too.) The movie’s music emphasizes class as well. It’s all hard-core classic rock, Heart and Bad Company and Laura Brannigan and Siouxie and the Banshees. It’s the kind of music Tonya grew up on, and loved. And it’s, sniff, not quite the thing for ever-so-classy figure skating.

It’s not just that Tonya is lower-class. That correlates directly to the way in which skating constructs gender. Skaters are princesses, demurely (whisper it) sexy, in an unthreatening way. Figure skating hides the amazing dexterity and skill of its performers. They have to dance, too, and just as we never are meant to comment on, or even notice, the extraordinary coordination it takes for a ballerina to dance en pointe. In both cases, pure beauty, is divorced from or at least distanced from sweaty, painful effort. (While also being as hard a thing, physically, it’s possible to imagine human beings doing). By the same token, Tonya’s calling card was her triple Axel. She did a tougher jump than anyone else even tried, and she landed it, and she threw in some triple flips and triple salchows while she was at it, and if you found the performance lacking in artistry, f-you.

It’s hard not to like her, honestly. It’s hard not to root for her. But the glory of Margot Robbie’s performance is that she’s completely unafraid to show us Tonya’s less likable features. (Best scene in the movie, best-acted, best lit, is a locker room scene where we see put on some blush. Totally amazing.) The Gillooly plan (according to the film) was to intimidate Nancy Kerrigan, to send her a death threat (like the ones Tonya received), to throw her off her game, but not to physically harm her. Tonya seems fine with psychological warfare, to the extent that she even thinks about it. She’s self-absorbed like any great athlete can be, entirely focused on the moment, on tonight’s performance. She can be whiny and she can be selfish and she can be massively insecure. And she doesn’t just drop F-bombs; she relishes them.

In Stan’s performance, Gillooly comes across as a nice guy, sincere, a good salesman, reasonably intelligent, devoted to the one great love of his life; a pretty good partner for her, really, when he’s not beating her up. (If he did.) (He totally did.) And that becomes part of the secret of Tonya. She was badly, physically, constantly, unremittingly abused. Her mother beat her, and then her husband took over the job. She responded by becoming one of the great athletes of her generation. It’s impossible not to admire that about her, while also being horrified and appalled on her behalf.

Incredibly, this horrific story is also, astonishingly, funny. It’s one of the darkest comedies I know, but it is a comedy; there are scenes that are laugh-out-loud funny, in a horrifying sort of way. A lot of the comedy comes from Hauser, who is absolutely terrific as Shawn Eckhardt, Jeff Gillooly’s incomparably stupid best friend. Eckhardt tells everyone (including a thoroughly unimpressed FBI) that he’s an international espionage expert. (All the while, he lives with his Mom). He knows people. He has ‘guys.’ He’s four steps ahead of everyone, don’t you know? All the while, seriously, there are smarter bricks in the walls of my house.

His astonishing dimness is, believe it or not, exceeded by his idiot friend, Shane Stant. And, again, we’re treated to a small but beautifully creepy and moronic characterization, by Ricky Russert, an actor I had never heard of before. The scene where he whacks Kerrigan is amazing, as he wanders cluelessly around the halls and dressing rooms of a skating rink, slack-jawed but determined. And then he finds her, smashes her leg. And Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) screams in agony. And a funny scene becomes horrifying.

It’s a funny film, in which women are abused, and it never takes their abuse less than completely seriously. That’s a tough balancing act; I cannot applaud Gillespie enough for walking that tightrope. It’s also a seriously intentioned film about unreliable narrators, about the difficulty in discerning truth from a welter of contradictory stories about subjective memories. I admire that too. You feel tremendous sympathy for Tonya Harding. You feel terrible for her, and you want her to overcome the difficulties posed by her class and upbringing and the damage done to her by those who loved her most. And yet, when she gets her just desserts, you can’t help but think, ‘yep, that seems fair.’

But let me do this as well, ask some annoying questions about the film’s depiction of social class in mid-nineties America. I think the film is largely sympathetic to Tonya, and largely unsympathetic to the hoity-toity skating establishment. (With the one exception of Diane Rawlinson. Quietly, Nicholson’s performance helps us see another side. She’s not as flashy as Robbie or Janney, but she’s terrific). Don’t we associate ‘lower class’ with ‘dim-witted?’ Don’t we assume that lower-class people are there because they’re not bright enough to rise? And doesn’t this film perpetuate that, to at least some degree, through its depictions of Eckhardt and Stant?

Maybe. And maybe not quite. As a counter argument, I would point to Eckhardt’s diction. The character speaks fairly intelligently. He uses better grammar than Gillooly, and he has a wider vocabulary. It’s not until the FBI are actually interrogating him that you realize how astoundingly dumb he really is. So, I don’t know.

It’s a lovely film, in its own violent, brutal, profane way. The director takes lots of chances–especially with tone–and they pretty much all pay off. And, Oscar night, I’m rooting for Margot Robbie and for Allison Janney. Disappointed in you, CJ. What a fine performance.

A week of movies: Reviews of The Commuter, Den of Thieves, 12 Strong

I had some time on my hands this week–big writing project done, and health improving–and decided to take full advantage of MoviePass, and see some flicks. I tend to love January movies anyway. I know, it’s Dump Month, when studios release a bunch of movies they don’t believe in and don’t know how to market. But I’m a movie nut. I’ll see pretty much anything, and generally find something to like in them all.

First off was The Commuter. Liam Neeson continues to reinvent himself as a septuagenarian action movie star, and power to him. Of course, it’s a little disconcerting seeing Oskar Schindler beating up bad guys. What’s the great line from The Simpson’s? “Oskar Schindler muy bueno. Señor Burns es el diablo.” Still, he’s a compelling actor, and generally sympathetic. Why not play an old tough guy with, you know, a certain set of skills?

The Commuter was directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, a Spanish director with a knack for action and a real visual flair, and the movie begins with a terrific montage, showing insurance salesman Michael MacCauley dragging himself to catch his train and work in the Big City, day after endless day. It’s a fascinating sequence, engaging our sympathies for the guy, but also showing, uh, a certain drabness to his routine. And then, in the movie’s first scene, he’s fired from his job. He’s 60 years old, his son’s going off to college, and he just lost his job. Man, do we feel for him. Great beginning to a thriller.

The movie that follows is one of those movies, like Speed, that manages to be an exciting, well made thriller, extremely satisfying as long as you overlook the fact that the movie’s central premise is completely preposterous. Michael is on the train, heading home, like every day, when Joanna (Vera Fermiga), approaches him with a proposition. There’s someone on the train that doesn’t belong. This person needs to be identified, and a tracking device placed in his/her baggage. If Michael can do it, he’ll get $100,000. If he can’t, his wife and son will be murdered. Good luck.

And so we see Michael, who we learn is a former policeman, trying to chat oh so casually with his fellow commuters, to figure out who doesn’t belong. And he figures out some ways to narrow it down, and meanwhile, some of the people, as you might imagine, take exception. Violently, in one case. And Michael gets beat up, and still has to continue.

I found it quite compelling. It’s just a very exciting thriller. Of course, it’s also immensely stupid, but that’s not a drawback for certain kinds of movies. I thought it was a creatively conceived, satisfyingly executed, exceptionally enjoyable really dumb movie. I tell you, you could do a lot worse. The ending is particularly idiotic, but you know, I went with it. Willing suspension of disbelief. If you’re in the mood for pure escapism, I recommend it highly. Just don’t expect art.

Next up was Den Of Thieves, a cops v. robbers heist movie, starring Gerard Butler. Butler plays an LA cop, with the reliably American tough guy name of Nick O’Brian, with the LA County Sheriff’s department. Meanwhile, Pablo Schreiber (Liev Schreiber’s half-brother), is Ray Merriman, a former Special Forces soldier who has turned his skills to a life of highly profitable crime. So it’s Nick vs. Ray, the head of a bunch of renegade cops and the head of a bunch of renegade former soldiers. And the baddies are trying to pull of a particularly intricate bank job, and the cops are trying to stop ’em. Meanwhile, Curtis “Fifty Cent” Jackson played Enson, a member of the robbers’ gang who is also sort of helping the cops.

What a bad movie. Here’s my problem with it: the police are so unlikable, so violent and thuggish and mean, I couldn’t root for them. Basically, I was cheering for the robbers the whole way. This, despite the fact that in the first scene in the movie, we see this same gang of robbers gun down four cops for no particular reason. It doesn’t matter. Their plan is clever, and they’re disciplined and competent, and we’re on their side. And we never once see the police doing, you know, police work. Canvassing, talking to witnesses, examining a crime scene. Never happens. It was kind of like on the old Batman TV show: “who did this? It has to be the job of . . . the Joker.” They just decide they know who the bad guys are, kidnap one of them, and beat him up until he spills. And then engage in all kinds of supposedly intimidating macho posturing. They’re awful.

Plus, Nick is particularly awful. His wife is divorcing him (she apparently has some objection to him sleeping with his string of hookers/strippers/barmaids), and he decides it’s a great idea to to a party thrown by her New Guy and shove him around. After that scene, I only stayed in the theater so I could see Pablo Schreiber’s character shoot him. Which I also knew wasn’t ever going to happen.

Part of the problem is Gerard Butler, an actor, ahem, somewhat lacking in nuance. Fifty Cent is a lot better actor, as is Schreiber. Anyway, the bad guys pull off the big job, and the cops chase ’em down, and then–it’s LA–everyone gets stuck in a traffic jam. Now, the bad guys are former Special Forces–they have really big guns, with armor piercing shells that can cut through engine blocks like hot knives through butter. And the cops are really heavily armed too. And there are maybe thirty cars between the robbers’ getaway car and the main cop cars. So Nick and his guys run down the lane between all these cars, and the robbers open fire, and they all have this big firefight, right there on the street, with all these civilian cars everywhere. Final death toll: cops 2, robbers 4, innocent bystanders, 77, more or less. Probably. Yikes.

This is a completely terrible movie. And the only reason to see it is maybe if you’re a huge Fifty Cent fan. Even then, honestly, I wouldn’t bother. He’s gotta be in something better.

Final movie: 12 Strong. It’s a war movie, with lots of ‘splosions and gun battles and scenes in which Chris Hemsworth rides into combat against tanks on horseback. Hemsworth and Michael Shannon and Michael Peña play US soldiers, right after 9/11, tasked with meeting up and supporting a group of anti-Taliban Afghani soldiers, led by a General Dostum (Navid Negahban), in attacking a Taliban stronghold. It was a very entertaining and exciting movie, well acted and quite compelling, and six months from now I’ll have forgotten I ever saw it. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. A good popcorn movie is rare enough, they should be cherished when they come across our radar. I just think it’s a shame that something as tragic and awful and consequential as the war in Afghanistan got such insubstantial Hollywood attention. Chris Hemsworth is a fine actor, capable of a bigger challenge, I think. Instead, if I remember this movie at all, it’ll be ‘that movie where Thor won the war in Afghanistan.’ So why are we still there?

What’s my problem with it? It’s based on a real event, and the actual soldiers who fought there are worth our attention, obviously. They were genuinely heroic, and certainly did things, out of patriotism, that I wouldn’t be capable of doing. Why not make a movie about them?

Except, you know, it all felt . . . perfunctory. I’ve never fought in combat, but my understanding is that military assault rifles need to be reloaded periodically, that even American weapons don’t come with unlimited magazines. And while the Taliban are surely convincing bad guys, I’m not convinced that, whatever their failings, a complete inability to shoot accurately is among them. And while the soldiers in the actual battle did ride on horseback, I’m not sure I like the chances of horseback riding cavalry against tanks and armored personnel carriers. And Taliban rocket launchers might (I just say might) be better employed against enemy armies than against cliff faces. And so on. It’s a very well executed Hollywood action movie. Part of me believes that Afghanistan deserves a better treatment than that provided by a well-executed Hollywood action movie.

Still, the actors were all really good, and the movie was exciting. My wife and I enjoyed it. Recommended, with caveats.

I also saw Hostiles. Reviewed elsewhere here. That movie was genuinely terrific. Redeemed January all by itself. But it’s not always about good movies. And that’s okay too.

Winchester: Movie review

The Winchester Mystery House is a favorite tourist attraction in San Jose California, where my wife grew up. When we’d go visit her family, we sometimes took it in. It’s a very strange house, a mansion, one of those ‘eccentric millionaire’ extravaganza’s, like the Hearst Castle, or, in Orem, the Bastian home. The Winchester was constructed by Sarah Winchester, wife of firearms business mogul William Winchester. After his death, in 1884, she continued to build, until her death in 1924. She supervised the construction personally, did not employ an architect, and the result is a seven story mansion that can best be described as haphazard. The house was, in many respects, ahead of its time, with working indoor toilets, forced air heating, a unique communications system, and elevators.

Mrs. Winchester was said to have believed the house to be haunted by the ghosts of those killed by Winchester rifles. She was, in short, a strange but fascinating woman, and both she and the house seem well worth a movie treatment. Especially with the right actress playing Mrs. Winchester. Dame Helen Mirren strikes me as an ideal choice.

The film we saw last night, Winchester, was, in nearly every respect, a disappointment. Its Rotten Tomatoes score was 13%, a score I found unsurprising. The German twin brother directing team of Michael and Peter Spierig took the fascinating psychological drama of Mrs. Winchester, and turned it into a paint-by-numbers gothic horror flick, all jump cuts and spooky music. The cast, beginning with Dame Helen, were wasted, and included the marvelous character actor  Jason Clarke, Australian actress Sarah Snook, and a couple of superb actors in minor roles: Angus Sampson as Winchester’s construction foreman, and a wonderfully sepulchral young actor I’ve never heard of before, Eamon Farron, as a particularly malevolent ghost. The Spierigs had a wonderful story to tell, and the right cast to tell it, and apparently could think of nothing better to do with it than make a creepy schlock-fest.

Because, lurking beneath all the creaking doors and grotesque imagery, is a fascinating meditation on America’s obsession with firearms. Mrs. Winchester kept detailed records of every person killed by a Winchester rifle. By her own admission (and to her shame), her records were inevitably incomplete, but they haunted her. The scenes where Mirren shows Clarke (playing a psychologist sent to evaluate her for the company’s board), her detailed ledgers, every gun death obsessed over, were completely compelling. She believed that by continuously building and rebuilding her mansion, she was welcoming the ghosts of gun victims. She would invite them into her rooms, then nail the doors shut (with 13 nails, exactly, every time), allow them room and space to find peace and transition to the spirit world. In the meantime, she would express her remorse and heartbreak over their deaths. What an astonishing continuing act of penance and contrition! Would that the makers of AR-17s felt a tiny fraction of that measure of repentance.

Snook plays Mrs. Winchester’s niece, Marion, who lives at the mansion as a particularly fierce defender of her aunt’s eccentricities. But her son, Henry (Finn Scicluna-O’Prey), is badly affected by the ghosts, and most especially by the mansion’s latest apparition, Ben (Farren), a mass shooter gunned down by police. Ben’s a particularly powerful and evil ghost, with, we’re given to understand, the spectral power to bring about the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Except, of course, Clarke’s psychologist (Dr. Price, if it matters), has kept the bullet that his wife used to shoot him, resulting in a near-death experience, and giving him, see, the ability to both see and banish ghosts. By shooting it. With a Winchester rifle. And the very bullet his wife used. None of that makes a lick of sense, and was frankly more risible than spooky.

But imagine a psychological thriller, again starring that mansion, Helen Mirren, Jason Clarke, Sarah Snook, in which we never actually saw any ghosts? In which the existence of ghosts was implied, but not made overt? In which we’re never sure just what’s going on, but in which Mrs. Winchester really does believe, and continues her manic building project as a kind of expiation? And a movie that really did plumb the depths of her feelings of guilt? And, of course, our shared guilt as Americans? Because nobody else does this, right? Just lets whoever have whatever guns they want? And proclaims its unique Christian heritage, while arming the world?

It’s a shame. Winchester is just another scary movie.  We’ll all have forgotten it existed three months from now.  But, my goodness, there’s a wonderful movie lurking beneath it. Wrong directors, perhaps, wrong studio heads, wrong production company? Who knows. It’s just a shame. Sarah Winchester deserves better.

The Nunes memo

It’s out. The famous Devin Nunes memo, memorialized by the #releasethememo hashtag popular on the Right, is now out, over the vehement objections by the Justice Department and the FBI. It’s been declassified by President Trump, and has been publicly released. I’ve read it; everyone’s read it. It’s not very long, so reading it takes maybe five minutes. I’m not going to link to it, though, because it’s not remotely hard to find, and I’m not driving traffic there.

Okay. Conspiracy theories involve forming tiny scraps of evidence into a single narrative, while ignoring mountains of evidence inconvenient to that narrative. Fact is, we humans do that, take this insight and that observation and form a gestalt. I hear a rustling sound and smell something musty, and conclude ‘there’s a sabre-tooth tiger in them woods over yonder.’ And we all grab our spears. Human evolution selected for gestalt-creation, is what I’m saying.

But it lets us down. And sometimes we make fools of ourselves. That wasn’t a tiger, it was a squirrel, and no, President Bush did not blow up the Twin Towers, and Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Conspiracy theories make even very bright people seem stupider than they in fact are, because the piles of evidence conspiracy theories ignore are so massive.

The Devin Nunes memo, in other words, is the central document in a particularly idiotic conspiracy theory.

During the last Presidential election, a research organization called Fusion GPS was hired by political opponents of Donald Trump’s to do opposition research on him. They hired a former British spy named Christopher Steele to do those parts of the research involving ties between Trump and Russian. Steele was a good choice. He had lots of anti-Putin Russian contacts, and was well-regarded as an intelligence agent. He sent over several preliminary findings, some of which were fairly salacious, many of which were, by his own admission, not well corroborated. Those findings form the document that has become known as the Steele dossier. Steele became so alarmed by what he was finding–specifically that the Russians were trying to influence the US Presidential election in favor of Donald Trump–that he took his information to the FBI. And US intelligence services accepted the dossier, though it wasn’t a particularly important source for their own investigation. They had already gotten most of it from other sources. Anyway, once the Republicans who initiated this oppo project went down in flames, the Democrats took it over, and paid Fusion GPS for it.

The Nunes memo alleges that the Steele dossier was the only source used by the FBI when they renewed a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant for Carter Page, who was named by Trump’s campaign as a foreign policy advisor. This is, apparently, a horrible violation of Page’s civil liberties. And the FISA warrant was only renewed because the Justice Department and FBI are unified in opposition to President Trump. So they’ve invented a phony Russia scandal to attack his Presidency. See, an FBI agent named Peter Strzok triggered the entire counterintelligence investigation because of his personal bias against Trump, as suggested by his inappropriate text messages saying so to his mistress, fellow FBI employee Lisa Page (no relation to Carter).

Where to start?

To begin with, Carter Page is exactly, precisely the person Congress had in mind when they passed FISA. He is exactly the person on whom US intelligence agencies should be conducting surveillance. In 2013, the FBI was investigating a Russian spy ring run by a guy named Victor Podobnyy. Podobnyy recruited Page. He was captured in a wiretap saying this about Page:

He writes to me in Russian [to] practice the language. He flies to Moscow more often than I do. He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could be rise up. Maybe he can. I don’t know, but it’s obvious that he wants to learn lots of money. …… I will feed him empty promises. … You promise a favor for a favor. You get the documents from him and tell him to go fuck himself.

It’s more fun if you say it in a Russian accent.

Podobnyy also was quoted as saying he thought Page was an idiot. That’s not really relevant. Point is, a Russian spy recruited Page three years before Trump made him a foreign policy advisor.

Then, during the campaign, Page flew to Moscow to talk to top Russian officials about, what? Lifting sanctions. Which is what the Russians wanted from Trump to begin with. I thought Rachel Maddow summed it all up beautifully last night:

That memo is a House Republican effort to try to make you believe that either the third or fourth renewal of that surveillance warrant against Carter Page is a terrible scandal. How could anybody approve that? There are multiple reports that President Trump fervently believes this memo is what he needs to end the Robert Mueller investigation, because this memo will make America believe that only terrible, what, Clinton stooges would support the third or fourth renewal of a foreign agent surveillance warrant on the guy who’s been on the FBI’s counter-intelligence radar since at least 2013 when he played a starring role as the enthusiastic idiot in a convicted Russian spy ring in New York who then later turned up multiple times in Moscow denouncing the United States, praising Vladimir Putin, and trying to get Russian business deals for himself. With Russian state run companies. While meeting with Russian government officials.

If it’s a scandal that that guy, Carter Page, recruited by Russian spies, an enthusiastic endorser of Vladimir Putin, a guy who flew off in the middle of the campaign to talk to Russian government officials about relaxing US sanctions on Russia, if it’s a scandal that that guy got a FISA warrant renewed, then I’m a sword-swallower.

But the memo puts the FBI in a tough position. Of course they had lots of reasons to want to surveill Carter Page. But many of those came from foreign intelligence sources, who nobody wants to compromise. The Steele dossier isn’t particularly important, but it’s also not wrong; Steele had sources for all of it, and while it should certainly be viewed skeptically, its existence is also not any kind of scandal. So Steele was one of the sources used to apply for a FISA warrant. Big deal.

And the Peter Strzok/Lisa Page stuff is just ridiculous. Strzok and Page didn’t like Donald Trump and didn’t want him to become President. They also didn’t like Bernie Sanders or Hillary Clinton, and didn’t want them to become President either. Strzok and Page were having an affair, and much of their relationship apparently involved snarky political texts back and forth. They were all-purpose mockers, deeply cynical about the entire American political system. That’s not an unreasonable position.

There is no deep state anti-Trump conspiracy. There are, however, lots of people who think Donald Trump is a sick, sad joke of a President. FISA powers were certainly not abused in relation to Carter Page–he’s exactly the guy who should have been surveilled. But FISA is questionable law, and I wish it included more civil liberty safeguards.  I’m also pretty sure Oswald shot JFK. And Bin Laden’s guys flew the planes. And Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. When the history of Russia-gate is written, the Nunes memo will be a footnote. Because it’s nuts.

Hostiles: Movie review

A cast, a crew, a director all work unfathomable hours on a film project. They believe in it, or come to believe in it; they think the story and the script are first-rate, and that the film they’re making is going to be excellent. Post-production finishes, and the cast and crew gather in a theater and see it for the first time. And it’s great; austere, deeply tragic, haunting, powerful. And then the studio looks at it, has no idea how to market it, and it gets dumped into theaters in January, when everyone in the world is watching the Oscar films that were released in two theaters in late December. No buzz, no hype, and the terrific film you were working on gets no buzz, and little audience.

That’s the story of Hostiles. It’s a wonderful film. It’s sad and haunting and beautiful, and features absolutely stunning acting performances in all the major roles. Based on seeing it, I would vote for Rosamund Pike for Best Actress and Christian Bale for Best Actor and Wes Studi for Best Supporting Actor in a heartbeat. And when I saw it, the theater was all but empty, and when I told my son about it, his response was “that Western? That was good?”

As the film begins, a frontier woman, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), is teaching grammar to her young daughters. Her husband is outside their home, doing chores. A rampaging Comanche war party attacks, kills her husband and daughters. Holding her baby to her chest, she runs into a nearby woods, as the Comanche shoot at her. She barely makes it, finds a hiding place, tries to stay quiet. They miss her; she’s alive. Then she looks down at the infant, and realizes that a spare bullet has killed it. And she falls apart.

Cut to US cavalry Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), on patrol. He’s rounded up an Apache, and takes him back to the fort, mistreating him all the way. While there, his commanding officer, Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) give him new orders. A Cheyenne chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been imprisoned in New Mexico for seven years. He’s dying of cancer, and wants to go home to Montana, and the President of the United States has granted him clemency for that purpose. Blocker is to take a small company of men and escort Yellow Hawk home.

Blocker doesn’t want to do it. He is a seasoned Indian fighter, close to retirement, and loathes those he calls, indiscriminately, ‘savages.’ He’s lost too many friends, fought too many battles, taken too many lives. No. But Biggs is adament, and tells him that refusing this order will cost him his pension. And so Blocker reluctantly obeys his orders, and agrees to go.

Bale’s performance as Blocker is just riveting. He’s a complex, troubled, haunted man. He despises the Cheyenne, yet speaks their language fluently. He reads by the campfire every night; Caesar on the conquest of Gaul, in Latin. He is a brilliant cavalry commander, and a man of faith, however battered. And so he puts together a small team of soldiers, a mix of men he respects and has fought with–Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane), even more damaged and war-weary than Blocker, and Cpl. Henry Woodson (Jonathan Majors), an African-American with whom Blocker has fought and who he respects immensely. They’re joined by Lt. Rudy Kidder (Jesse Plemons), a newby straight from West Point, and Phillipe DeJardin (Timothee Chalamet), not only new to the service, but a Frenchman new to America entirely. Along with Yellow Hawk, they’re accompanied by Black Hawk (Adam Beach), his son, Elk Woman (Q’Orianka Kilcher), Black Hawk”s wife, and two younger female family members.

And so they set off, and quickly discover the burned out Quaid farm, and in the charred interior of the house, Rosalie, driven half-mad from grief. She has somehow retrieved her dead children, and dressed them, but she insists that they’re alive, that the soldiers keep quiet so as not to wake them. When the soldiers attempt to dig graves, she fights them, insisting that she will dig all the graves for her family, and tries to until her strength gives out entirely. And Blocker is able to treat her respectfully, kindly and solicitously. Pike’s performance is completely convincing and completely heart-breaking. She brought me to tears more than once. And so the soldiers take her with them on their journey.

One of the many things I loved about this movie is that this group of disparate characters were all superbly rendered, completely realized individuals. Rory Cochrane’s depiction of a brave man ravaged by untreated PTSD was stunning, as was Majors as a man determined to maintain absolute professionalism despite the weight of his own loaded history.

The Comanche return, and casualties are suffered, and Blocker comes to respect Yellow Hawk and Black Hawk, and their insight and expertise. And Elk Woman befriends Rosalie. Alliances are formed, friendships tentatively embarked upon. But Sgt. Metz’s problems run too deep for any of them to cope with, and we sense how precarious is his hold on his sanity. Plemons is excellent too, as a man in over his head, but trying desperately to cling to some humanity.

And I can’t say enough about Wes Studi. He’s honestly one of the great American actors, one of those actors who the camera loves. I first fell in love with him as Magua, in Michael Mann’s Last of the Mohicans, and have followed his career ever since. His performance as Yellow Hawk is utterly compelling; you can’t take your eyes off him. He’s dying, but he retains his dignity and authority. He’s imprisoned, but still a wily tactician. And he’s capable of tremendous empathy. It’s a special performance by a marvelous actor.

And that story, the marvelous cinematography and haunting music and superb performances are all in the service of a history lesson of the first order. This is a film that helps us feel, not just witness but deeply and powerfully feel the savagery and violence and tragedy and deeply distressing brutality of the history of the American West, and the ill-treatment to which our forebearing Americans subjected those native to these shores. It’s a film about the cost of colonialism, about the cruel inhumanity of the American pursuit and acquisition of the wealth of our beautiful continent. Blocker, as created by Bale, represents the American propensity for viciousness required for the kind of conquest we felt entitled to pursue. It’s not just a marvelous film, it’s an essential one. And I, for one, was grateful to have seen it.