Monthly Archives: March 2018

Korihor’s children, part one

My approach to the Book of Mormon is, I think, fairly idiosyncratic, and rather unorthodox. At least I haven’t seen this perspective articulated before.

I am not interested in the question of whether or not the Book is “true.” I don’t consider myself sufficiently expert in ancient texts, or genetics, or the Middle East in the 7th century BC or in any of the other arenas where apologists and debunkers do battle to have an informed opinion. The relevant question to me is not ‘is the Book of Mormon true?’ It is ‘is the Book of Mormon scripture?’ And the answer, for me, is yes.

When I say I don’t know if the Book of Mormon is true, that doesn’t mean I think it’s untrue. It just seems to me a baffling question. One might say that the Book of Mormon cannot be scripture if it’s not true. I can’t really address that, though, because the statement ‘the Book of Mormon is true’ is one I genuinely do not understand. I’ve heard that phrase my entire life, and I finally had to conclude that I’ve never understood it. But it is scripture; uniquely valuable and important.

Sometimes when I read the Book of Mormon, it feels to me like a nineteenth century text; sometimes, it feels genuinely ancient. I’m not qualified to judge either way. Nor do I care to. I read it, I study it, I admit it to my prayer life, I intend to continue doing all those things. To me, the Book of Mormon is a work of scripture, whenever or whoever actually wrote it. I define ‘scripture’ as any written work that significantly and meaningfully explores issues and ideas relating to the relationship between humanity and Deity. I do not read our Mormon scripture to increase my testimony, or looking for inspirational proof-texts. I read it to gain insight into how God wants me to act, what He wants me to do. I want to engage with scripture, wrestle with it, disagree, at times, with it. It also doesn’t matter to me if two different works of scripture contradict each other; I expect them to. Different times, different places, different authors, different intentions.

To illustrate what I mean, look at the Book of Joshua. Joshua describes a military campaign that can only be described as ethnic cleansing, a genocidal series of conquests which Joshua, in the text, genuinely seems to believe he has been commanded, by God, to carry out. I don’t know enough about Old Testament scholarship to know whether or not any of that actually happened; I strongly suspect that it did not, and that Joshua is a work of fiction, as Jesus’ parables are works of fiction, or the Book of Job probably is. But I don’t care: Joshua is spectacular scripture, precisely because it so challenges my beliefs about God’s universal love for all His children. To me, Joshua takes the idea that God might have a Chosen People to its most extreme logical conclusion. If God genuinely has a favored people, then less-favored people deserve less divine consideration. The result might well be divinely-sanctioned genocide. Joshua is horrifying, because its depiction of the resulting consequences of that mainstream idea is so graphic and so brutal. I can really only conclude that the idea of God having a chosen people is contrary to this scripture’s sense of God’s will. There are many many scriptures where the idea of God having a chosen people is articulated. Joshua provides a counter text, an argument. Do those scriptures contradict Joshua? Certainly, and productively. It makes me think; it expands my understanding. I believe that by using a deliberately extreme example, Joshua teaches the opposite of the message implied by a straightforward reading of the text.

I love the Book of Mormon, really genuinely love it. I love the Book of Mormon because it’s so bracingly, spectacularly progressive. I know what some of you are thinking: racially progressive? Yes, I think so. Problematic terms like ‘white and delightsome’ deconstruct themselves; I would suggest, in the Book itself. My close reading convinces me that ‘Nephite’ and ‘Lamanite’ are purely social constructions, that racial differences between them are little more than war-time propaganda, perpetuated by both sides.

I also believe that the Book of Mormon was written for our day. I believe that, of course, because I read it now, in the early years of the 21st century CE, and can’t read it any other way. If, when I say that, you want to dismiss me as an apologist, you’re more than welcome to. But I will take it a step further. I believe that my progressive reading of the Book of Mormon is a necessary one, and one that might help both the Book and the Church itself carve out a space in the years to come. The Book of Mormon is a book describing a destructively violent society, and one in which a handful of genuine progressives face destruction at the hands of brutal reactionaries. It’s a book in which an other-directed people are destroyed by a self-and-wealth-worshipping society. It describes a people that lose their humanity to violence, a formerly democratic society turned as lethal and toxic as Hitler’s Germany or Pol Pot’s Cambodia. It also prescribes a solution, found in selfless Christian service. In fact, I was reading in Alma 17 this morning, and reading about the sons of Mosiah, who gave up privileged lives to work as missionaries to their cultures’ traditional enemies. It’s not a great parallel, but I couldn’t help but think of those amazing kids from Parkland Florida, preaching their truth to power. Victims of violence, preaching peace.

All of this is by way of introduction. This is part one of a multi-part series about the Book of Mormon character Korihor, who appears in just one chapter, Alma Chapter 30. A self-styled reformer, whose campaign was exceedingly short-lived, and ended in disgrace and poverty and failure. And yet, his ideas built on those of earlier thinkers, and became astonishingly influential in years after he died, leading eventually to the complete destruction of the societies described in the Book of Mormon. And I see echoes and resonances of his ideas throughout our society and our day. I think they’ll destroy us too, if they’re not confronted, exposed, and combated.

I think the Book of Mormon was written for our day. I believe it is holy scripture, as much scripture as Paul to the Romans, the Gospel of Luke, or Dr. King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail, which functions as scripture for many Americans today. And, frankly, Korihor scares me to death.

Unsane: Movie Review

Have you ever had a nightmare in which you’re completely sane, just fine, in fact, but you’re confined to a mental institution, and you can’t convince anyone that you don’t belong there, don’t need to be there, and should be set free? I asked several friends and family members if they’d had that dream, and they said they hadn’t, but I sure have, and it’s a scary one. Well, that’s the premise of Stephen Soderburgh’s new film, Unsane. As you can imagine, it was a movie that I found more than usually compelling. Can’t wait for the filmmaker to make a movie about an actor who finds himself on-stage in a play, only he doesn’t know his lines or even what the play’s story is, plus he’s naked. I’ll pass.

Anyway, Claire Foy plays one Sawyer Valentini, a young single woman with what appears to be a responsible job in a big company. She’s really good at her job, though when her boss compliments her, it feels creepily #MeToo. Her social life seems to consist of one-night stands, but the only one we see her on ends so disastrously we’re not sure if it’s habitual or a one-off. She’s haunted by memories of a stalker ex-boyfriend, and we later learn that his stalking was so persistent and terrifying that she’s moved to a new city, gotten new phones and email, and cut off friends and family.

So she goes to a psychiatrist (Myra Lucretia Taylor), and thinks she’s really made a connection with her. But after her session–when the counselor seems peculiarly insistent that she sign various papers–a nurse takes her to an examining room, which she protests as unnecessary; she finished her session, and needs to get back to work. She’s told to strip, to put on a hospital gown, which she resists a bit, but what the heck; maybe this is procedure. And then she’s told that she’s self-committed to this facility, and will be reevaluated in a week. And there she is, stuck. A perfectly sane person, committed to a mental institution.

But how sane is she? (What do categories like ‘sane’ and ‘insane’ even mean?) Foy is a marvelous actress, and we’re never quite sure with her. She lashes out, hits fellow inmates and nursing staff, refuses her meds. I’d probably do all that. But she also recoils from one orderly (Joshua Leonard), insisting that his name is not George; it’s David and he’s her stalker. You do wonder. Sometimes she seems to have it together. And then, not so much. It’s the kind of thing Soderburgh is good at; paranoia, Kafkaesque bending of reality. It was shot entirely using a cell phone camera, which gave it just that tiny phenomenological edge.

An uncredited Matt Damon makes a brief appearance, as does Amy Irving, playing Sawyer’s Mom. But the movie really relies on Foy to carry things, and she’s spectacular. If you remember her from The Crown, it’ll take you about ten seconds to adjust to hearing her with an American accent, which is spot-on. And Leonard is just a little too aw shucks nice guy as David/George; you wonder about him too. Two excellent performances at the heart of the movie.

The movie doesn’t sustain that sense of unreality. I won’t give away the ending, but in the end, it became kind of disappointingly literal, explaining just a bit too much of its own plot cleverness. Much of the problem revolves around the character Nate (Jay Pharoah), a fellow inmate/patient who she befriends, who, it turns out, is an undercover reporter working on a story about for-profit mental institutions who commit sane people and keep them until their insurance stops paying. It’s not Pharoah; he’s terrific. But it feels almost like this movie about the shifting nature of reality suddenly turns into a journalistic expose of failures in our American mental health system. That subplot threw the movie off a bit for me; not the actors’ fault.

Still, it’s a disturbing and powerful suspense movie. If bad language bothers you, don’t bother; otherwise, it’s worth seeing.

A Wrinkle in Time: Movie Review

I read Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time aloud to my kids, which is what you do with beloved books. Honestly, is there a greater pleasure of parenting than sharing a great book with them? I went to see Ava DuVernay’s movie with some trepidation. With a movie adaptation of a favorite book, your approach is much more ‘I hope they didn’t screw this up’ than ‘I can’t wait to see this!’ And reviews had not been glowing. And Oprah’s in it. Fingers decidedly crossed.

I would say that a lot of it worked just fine. It’s an attractive film; some scenes were beautiful in fact. The child actress, Storm Reid, who played Meg, was superb, just the right blend of insecurity, courage and intelligence. All the kids in the movie, in fact, were terrific: Levi Miller as Calvin and Deric McCabe as Charles Wallace gave fine performances. I especially appreciated the way the movie downplayed the attraction between Meg and Calvin. They’re kids; too young for a full-blown romance, though she genuinely does like him, and should. I had always imagined Charles Wallace to have a bit more gravity to him, a brilliant, somewhat arrogant old man in a child’s body. This kid was directed to emphasize Charles’ youth and genuine affection for this family, which is also a legitimate choice. DuVernay did cut the twins, Sandy and Dennys, an excision I was fine with.

So the kids were fine, Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw were excellent as Meg’s parents. I believed them as a married couple, which isn’t always the case in movies with actors playing parents. And two of the three Mrs. characters were fine. Mindy Kaling did the best she could with Mrs. Who, though her walking-Bartlett’s-quotations schtick was a handicap any actress might struggle to overcome. And I really liked Reese Witherspoon’s Mrs. Whatsit, as she gave the Mrs. scenes some humor and energy.

Mrs. Which was Oprah. And my daughter pointed out, accurately, that the movie stops absolutely dead in its tracks every time the camera cut to Oprah Winfrey. Instead of, you know, acting, Oprah let her eye makeup do the heavy lifting so she could get to the reason she did the movie: repeated chances to preach to kids. There’s an underlying sadness to Mrs. Which in the novel–she is, after all, a destroyed star–and that’s way beyond Ms. Winfrey.

Zach Galifianakis was splendid as The Happy Medium, a woman in the book, but it didn’t matter. The scenes that needed to be scary mostly were, especially that awful moment in the novel when the kids meet a nice suburban neighborhood where all the children bounce balls in perfect rhythm. That scene was as scary in the movie as it is in the book.

But no Aunt Beast? Seriously, that was disappointing. (DuVernay could easily have cut six minutes of Oprah’s preaching at us and given us Aunt Beast). And one of the scariest things for me in the books was It, a pulsating ginormous brain. This movie’s It wasn’t nearly terrifying enough.

My overall assessment, though, is largely positive. In front of our seats in the theater were a group of children, and they seemed completely riveted by the movie. That counts for a lot. I thought the movie provided a better movie experience than movie. It wasn’t quite weird enough, not quite scary enough, and a bit too preachy, but that’s all a matter of degree: I enjoyed it just fine. It could have been better, but then, without Oprah’s involvement, it might not have gotten made. I’ll take it. And time to reread the book.

The Opioid problem

My wife and I went to a department store this morning to buy a new bed. Our salesman, I’ll call him Brad, was both well-informed and helpful, and we had a most agreeable experience, and are very happy with our purchase. Brad, who was great, needed a cane to walk, and had a bad limp, so I politely asked about his health.  As I suspected, he has very serious health challenges, bad hips, knees, back, and is in considerable pain. Without the medications he gets from a pain clinic, he said, he would be unable to function. And that’s getting more difficult. Because of the opioid crisis, it’s increasingly difficult for him to get the prescription drugs he needs. But for now, he’s okay; he can work, and he can function.

More pain stories: last week, as it happens, my wife needed minor same-day surgery. The doctors gave her a prescription for some pain pills, and sent her home. The drugs didn’t even begin to help, and by 2 in the morning, she was in such agony, I drove her to the ER. They put in an IV, and gave her some stronger pain killers, and in minutes, she was doing so much better, loopy, but no more pain. They kept for a day, and then sent her home again, and this time, with the pills, she was able to keep on top of the pain. My wife is as tough as they come, but serious pain proved devastating.

Pain sucks. Chronic, serious pain, can be completely debilitating. Brad, our salesman, strikes me as a friendly, outgoing guy, and a superb salesman. With pain pills, he can do his job, take care of his family, enjoy at least some positive quality of life. Without them, he can’t. My wife is healthier than that, but for a day or two, her pain made her life all but unbearable. Pain management is a crucial part of health care. Some people literally can’t live without it. And I mean that literally; a recent article in Psychology Today suggests that as many as 20,000 suicides a year are related to chronic pain.

And so, now, the opioid crisis has become a major political issue, and politicians have been speaking out against it. Opioid addiction does seem to afflict white older men than any other group, and that’s a key demographic. And so, there’s been a crackdown. It’s way harder to get Vicodan or Oxycodone than it used to be. And that’s a problem, because people addicted to prescription pain killers tend to turn to heroin instead. Which is way more dangerous, and way more addictive. But cheaper. Affordable. And 33,000 Americans die annually.

And President Trump recently weighed in, with that delicacy and intelligence and nuance and attention to detail that so characterize his Presidency. He seemed to think that the answer to the opioid crisis is to murder brown people. Like, you know, Duarte does in the Philippines. He also seems to think that people go to the doctor with a broken arm and come out addicted to Lortab. And the way to solve it is to build a wall on the Mexican border. His speech was as terrifying as it was cretinous.

Americans freaking out over drugs is certainly nothing new, and freaking out over anything tends to result in moronic policy solutions. Right now, American drug policy is basically one of interdiction. Our efforts focus on preventing drugs from entering the US. In other words, we’re dealing with a popular-but-dangerous commodity by reducing supply, while doing almost nothing to reduce demand. Economics 101: when you artificially reduce supply, demand staying even, prices rise, and so do profits. So our federal drug policy regarding cocaine right now is to make drug cartels way richer. This strikes me as, uh, not helping.

There are sensible people, and even sensible politicians, working on the problem. Before I share their conclusions, though, let’s look at the problem rationally. With opioids, it seems to me that, first and foremost, the priority should be letting people who desperately need pain meds to get them, if it can be done safely. And it can. Brad The Salesman works with a pain clinic, and without that treatment, he would be completely incapable of doing anything, including working. That doesn’t seem to me to be remotely productive. Pain killers are incredibly important medications. First and foremost, people who need them, need access to them, working with their physicians, should be able to get them. Cutting off pain patients is idiotic.

Are some pain meds over-prescribed. Probably, sure. There needs to be some education efforts aimed at doctors. Which, honestly, I don’t think is quite so essential anymore. Any doctor who doesn’t know there’s an opioid crisis is probably too clueless to practice medicine.

But for people who do become addicted, the emphasis needs to be on treatment. There should be a requirement that insurance policies cover addiction treatment. (Well, there should be universal health care which would include that provision). And a public awareness program, letting people know about treatment options would also be helpful. Finally, my son works closely with the Salt Lake City drug court, a court in which the entire emphasis is not on punishment or incarceration (that does nothing positive for people) on treatment, on rehab, and on helping addicts function in the world. Expanding the drug court option seems like a good idea too.

And, as it happens, those are basically the proposals in the final report by the White House commission on the opioid crisis and drug addiction. It was a bi-partisan commission, chaired by Chris Christie, and they did a terrific job. Solid proposals and action items. Murdering drug dealers didn’t make their list. Trump presented it badly–he’s Trump–but the commission itself did good work. This is a problem that can be addressed. It just has to be done properly.

Here are the final recommendations of the White House opioid commission

The Hurricane Heist: Movie Review

I went to see The Hurricane Heist today. I assumed that it would be about a heist, and that it would take place during a hurricane. Both were true. And that was enough.

Apparently, from time to time, the US Treasury collects old currency, bundles it up, and takes to it a secure facility to be shredded. Until shredded, the currency is still legal tender. Hundreds of millions of old bills would seem to be a promising target for thieves in a heist movie, and so it has been. Robbing used treasury bills was the premise for Den of Thieves, which I saw last month, and now, for this, The Hurricane Heist. The robbery plan in Den of Thieves was exceptionally clever–everything else in the movie was execrable. The robbery plan in The Hurricane Heist was doltish, but the rest of the movie was actually quite good. I had always assumed that the actual planning of the heist, the skill and resourcefulness required, were essential for the success of a heist movie. Turns out, that’s not true.

The currency shredding facility in Hurricane Heist is apparently located in Gulfport Alabama, which I don’t think actually exists, but which apparently resembles Bulgaria, where the film was shot. As we learn about this robbery, we discover that the thieves have been preparing for it for months. Among other things, they needed to install a cell tower with a direct line into the shredding facility. Their plan also requires a hurricane. I’m not a meteorologist, but I don’t believe that hurricanes can be ordered on demand. They strike me as rather capricious phenomena, dangerously unpredictable. This problem is never explained in the movie. The bad guys made elaborate plans and preparations, and then waited for the annual or semiannual Gulfport hurricane. I love it when movies just sort of gloss over that sort of plot detail. (Like the fourteen federal soldier/guards who the baddies knock out, hold hostage, and which the movie promptly forgets exist). They don’t think we’ll notice, but we do. Oh, yes, we surely do.

In some heist movies–the Oceans Eleven/Twelve/Thirteen ones, for example–the thieves are charming and clever and the people they’re ripping off are thuggish and mean, so we root for the crooks. In some, though, the thieves are awful people, and the people trying to catch them are the ones we root for. That’s Hurricane Heist: we’re rooting for the people trying to stop the robbery. (This is an improvement over Den of Thieves, where we didn’t root for anyone, except for all of them to fall off a building or something.) Casey (Maggie Grace) and Perkins (Carl Ineson) are partners, drivers and leaders of the truck convoy bringing soiled bills to the shredding facility. Casey knows the vault codes, though, and seems to be Perkins’ boss. But Perkins is the man with the plan. He’s the guy who put the whole thing together. Only she’s not there when the bad stuff goes down. She escapes into the town of Gulfport, but can’t contact law enforcement; no cell reception because, you know, hurricane.

Meanwhile, Will (Toby Kebbell), is a meteorologist, raised in Gulfport, back in town with his massive Hummer, studying this particular hurricane with his drones. While there, he decides to look in on his older brother, Breeze (Ryan Kwanten), a semi-alcoholic womanizer electrician. Figures he’ll get Breeze to safety. But Breeze isn’t interested, though the two do board up the electricians’ shop windows. And then the bad guys do various bad guy things, and they get caught up in it.

Anyway, the rest of the plot involves Casey, Will and Breeze rescuing hostages taken by Perkins and his gang, and otherwise foiling their plot, while Will and Casey fall for each other and Breeze gets his act together. All in the midst of a Category Four hurricane. Through much of the film, Casey and Will come up with elaborate plans to defeat some part of the bad guys’ machinations. All these plans are completely preposterous, and all of them work splendidly, of course. Except one, in which the hurricane wins, but they both survive it.

It’s a nonsensical movie, but the action sequences are well-staged, the stunt work is beyond awesome, and the whole thing kind of works despite itself. There’s one longish sequence, for example, that reminded me of the truck-hijacking scene in the first Indiana Jones movie, which I found genuinely exciting. The director is Rob Cohen, of the Fast and the Furious series, and this movie reminds me a lot those things; idiotic plot, but lots of fun and with at times genuinely exciting action scenes. Plus, it has these nice little humanizing touches. There’s one scene where Casey and Will, having just completed some ridiculous/thrilling exploit, look for a safe underground garage so they both take a moment and pee. I love that. Didn’t you ever wonder when Jack Bauer or James Bond ever found time to, you know, relieve themselves? (Later, they taken another break and eat peanut butter sandwiches).

Plus, remember how, in the Indiana Jones movies, a lot of the fun was that this action hero wasn’t a secret agent or cop or anything, but an archeologist? With a Ph.D.? Well, this movie gives us our first action hero/meteorologist. He fights! He climbs onto moving semi-trucks! He warns you of cold fronts coming over the Rockies! It’s a nice conceit, and Kebbell proved up to it; he was a genuinely engaging star of the movie.

Maggie Grace had the thankless role of rescued daughter in all the Taken movies, so you know she knows her way around silly plot points. She was great in this, though, appropriately badass, plus she handled the action convincingly. You did root for her and Kebbell to get together. And I liked Kwanten, an Aussie who I had never seen before. He’s got a nice laid-back charm to him, he’s good-looking–almost Hemsworthian–and I totally bought him as an American good ‘ol boy.

So they hired three capable but non-movie-star actors, saved some money that way, and shot in Bulgaria, and spent the rest of their money on stunt men, CGI hurricane effects, and maybe five or six ginormous wind machines. And made a fun movie. Power to ’em.

The story is absurd, and the bad guys are uniformly evil, but overall, I found the movie quite engaging. It passed two hours pleasantly enough, and had some moments that really were exciting. It’s a movie that promises fun, trashy entertainment, and which delivered exactly that.

Red Sparrow: Movie Review

Jennifer Lawrence needs a new agent. Actually, Jennifer Lawrence needs to star in a good movie again. Red Sparrow is not it.

She affects a Russian accent in this one, playing Domenika Egorova, apparently the prima ballerina for the Bolshoi company, who becomes a spy. I don’t particularly like ballet, and I don’t really follow it at all, but I happen to know the current Bolshoi prima is Anastasia Goryacheva; it’s a high-profile job. Seems to me a rather unlikely career path. Anyway, Domenika is clobbered in a clumsy fall by her dance partner, in a scene that was honestly sickening, like watching Gordon Hayward’s injury early this NBA season. She’s lying there on the theater floor and her leg is jutting off in a direction legs aren’t supposed to go, and then she wakes up in a hospital bed, and she realizes, and we realize, she will never dance again.

Ah, but, her uncle Vanya (no kidding, she has an uncle Vanya, played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) is a top Russian government security spy chief type guy, and he knows things. Like the dance partner who injured her did it on purpose, so his girlfriend could become the new prima. And so she takes her crutch and beats the crap out of both dancer and girlfriend, leaves  them bleeding and unconscious, then has a crisis of conscience and calls the Russian version of 9-1-1, to get them medical attention.

And that, right there, is the key to Domenika as a dramatic character. She’s capable of absorbing and overcoming massive amounts of physical pain and terrible injuries. She’s nice; she wants to be a good person. But maybe not all that good. Cross her, and she will mess you up. Plus her uncle Vanya (snort) has her back, and knows things, but is also kind of a horrible person.

And that’s the entire movie. Trailers have focused on her training as a Sparrow, a kind of spy-seductress, carefully trained in the art of sexual ingratiation. Run by a splendidly cold-blooded Matron (Charlotte Rampling). But in fact, the training scenes don’t take up much of the movie. Uncle Vanya has a job for her. He wants her to seduce an American spy, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), who is the minder for a Russian double-agent, and who messed up badly enough to be pulled out of Russia by the CIA. But the double-agent won’t work with anyone else, and so Nate’s been reinstated. She’s to ‘get close to him,’ and see if she can find out who the double-agent is. Meanwhile, she has an agenda of her own. She wants out–doesn’t find the job of Sparrow congenial, apparently, on account of the prostitution part of it–but has to protect her dear old crippled Mum, who relies on the good offices of Uncle Vanya for her flat and medical treatments. So Nate thinks she’s recruitable, and offers her asylum in America in exchange for some spying, and she’s playing angles of her own.

So we have the makings of a good John Le Carrè-type spy thriller. But without Le Carrè’s careful plotting and deeply abiding cynicism. I felt like I was always four steps ahead of the movie, and essentially nothing that happened surprised me, except for the ending, which didn’t surprise me at all, but was also surpassingly dumb. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but Nate went from a plausibly effective spy to a really foolish one. But that’s not the real problem.

The other characters in the movie regard Domenika with some admiration for her intelligence and insight into other people (well, men). I have no idea where they’re coming from. She never seems particularly brilliant or insightful. She turns the tables on the Russkis, not by outsmarting them, but through her sheer capacity to withstand physical pain. She’s brutally tortured, again and again she’s tortured, and she’s able to withstand it. This enables her to persuade them that she’s on the up-and-up.  She suffers, and because of her suffering, she’s redeemed, sort of.

It made for a movie that I found actively unpleasant to watch. I’m not opposed to violent imagery in films, and I’m not opposed to torture scenes per se, though I don’t much like them. But sometimes they can work effectively in advancing the story. But this is a movie about a young woman who is just battered, again and again, and wins by taking it. Maybe that happens, and, my gosh, I suppose a ballerina would have an amazing capacity for pain, but there is a point at which movies need to, you know, entertain, at least at some level. By the end, I managed a grudging admiration for Lawrence’s performance; there’s never been any doubt about her skill as an actress. But I found the movie profoundly dispiriting.

I think I know what they’re trying to do. I think they’re trying to approximate the extraordinary nihilism and violence and misogyny of Putin’s Russia. We Americans want to normalize Putin, want to see him as a legitimate world leader, somewhat unsavory perhaps but someone we need to work with. He’s not. He’s a thug, and his so-called government is a conspiracy of thieves and thugs and kleptocrats, leavened, if at all, by the great Russian talent for stultifying bureaucracy. What this movie leaves out is the absurdity of it all, the despairing surrealism. And so we’re left with a star vehicle movie, featuring a fine performance by its star, but a movie that doesn’t illuminate anything, doesn’t provide new insight into anything, a cold war thriller for a post-cold-war world. It’s a movie about beating up women. I had as unenjoyable a two hours as i have ever spent in a movie theater. Seriously, J-Law, get a new agent.

Donald Trump’s Excellent North Korea Adventure

Chung Yeu-yong, an experienced South Korean diplomat, got an assignment last week; visit the White House, and pass on the latest developments in Moon Jae-In’s peace overture towards North Korea. Chung met with Trump, and, of course, began with flattery–every foreign government in the world has figured that one out. He offered some insincere blather about how Trump’s “show of strength” had been helpful in opening the door to North/South Korean talks, then said that Kim Jung Un was open to a meeting. And Trump jumped on it. And the next thing you know, poor Chung was telling the American press all about this summit between Trump and Kim. And Trump completely blindsided his Secretaries of State and Defense.

Every week, I watch the Sunday news shows, not because they’re terribly illuminating, but because of the window they offer into Beltway conventional wisdom. And on This Week, George Karl was saying something I’ve since seen echoed in the mainstream press. Trump may be unorthodox and his approach may be chaotic, and certainly he’s not like any previous President, and lots of Asian experts and Korea experts have been trying to bring peace to the Korean peninsula for a long time, but maybe this time, the experts were wrong, and Trump, bombastic and impulsive Trump, could maybe possibly pull this off. Get Korea to disarm. Open North Korea’s economy. Welcome North Korea to the world of civilized nations. Disarmament, reduced tensions, commerce. Expertise may be less important that bravado. Maybe this seat-of-the-pants thing could work.

Let’s get real: There is not the tiniest chance of any of that happening. Trump’s bluster and insults have not helped, and won’t. If something happens, it will be because of Moon Jae-In, not Donald John Trump.  But peace with North Korea? There’s zero chance Trump makes that happen. Less than zero.

How can I say that with such confidence? Let’s look at the world of nuclear disarmament.

What would be the defining qualities of a nation that probably shouldn’t have nukes? I would say, first and foremost, political instability. A country without a stable, functioning government would not be a good candidate for nuclear arms. A country with a history of providing safe haven for terrorists shouldn’t have a nuclear capacity. A country with ferocious internal and religious tensions probably shouldn’t have nukes. And a country with massive poverty and a deeply unstable economy wouldn’t be a good place for nuclear missiles. In short, the very definition of a country that shouldn’t have a nuclear capacity is probably Pakistan. Pakistan has just enough wealth to support a nuclear program, but is also essentially a corrupt military dictatorship, deeply unstable and torn by sectarian conflict. Plus Osama Bin Laden lived in a nice neighborhood a short walk from the Pakistani version of West Point. Bad county for nukes.

But Pakistan is a nuclear power.

President Trump loves to talk about the failed diplomatic strategies of every US President except him since the end of the Korean War. Every President has shared the same policy on North Korea; that they shouldn’t have nuclear weapons. And yet, here they are, testing missiles, and testing nukes. Was it because all those Presidents were weak? Or stupid? Or because all the diplomats and area-experts have been wrong and foolish and ineffectual.

Not really. That’s the lesson of Pakistan; if a nation wants a nuclear capacity, and is willing to commit sufficient resources to achieving it, and doesn’t care about international opinion or sanctions or anything else, there’s not a lot the international community can do to prevent it. There’s not much the US can do about it, certainly. The UN could invade, presumably. That’s never been a viable option. If Pakistan has nuclear weapons, despite all the excellent reasons why Pakistan absolutely shouldn’t have them, we have very little recourse. Same with North Korea. Kim put a higher priority on building missiles than on feeding his people. That’s a stupid, evil priority. But we can’t do much about it.

We had, in fact, more leverage over Pakistan than we have over North Korea. Pakistan is much less isolated, far more open, much more free. I suppose it’s true that all those Presidents and all those diplomats failed. But what leverage did they have? What actual leverage do we actually have now? We’ve imposed sanctions. We’ve gotten China to do the same. There’s only so much those sanctions can accomplish.

It’s true that the Obama administration was able to negotiate a deal with Iran. There are major differences, though between the Iran situation and the North Korean one. For one thing, it’s wasn’t the US negotiating the treaty, many nations were involved, and many nations were willing to impose sanctions. We think of Iran as a theocracy, but it’s really a much freer society than North Korea has. And its government is much more complicated than the word ‘theocracy’ implies. And with Iran, the diplomatic effort took years, thousands of hours of painstaking negotiations by experts in Iran, and in nuclear disarmament. Trump thinks the Iran deal is a bad deal. He’s wrong, of course; it’s an exceptional diplomatic triumph, and it’s holding; it works.

And now Donald Trump thinks he can get a better deal than that with North Korea? An agreement on inspections, and on the specifics of uranium refinement (subjects about which he knows absolutely nothing?)  He thinks that by the sheer force of his personality and deal-making acumen, he can open up North Korea, get rid of their nukes, and build a hotel/resort/casino/golf course in Pyongyang? There’s not the tiniest chance of it happening.

Why did North Korea want nuclear weapons in the first place? Leverage, I imagine, but mostly because that’s why other screwed up countries want nukes: legitimacy. If you own nukes, people look at you differently, respect you, cater to you. Having nuclear weapons is an entree into the big boy club. And that’s what Kim Jung-un wants; international respect, earned legitimacy. He can’t feed his people, but he’s got missiles with nuclear warheads. He’s got the President of the United States tweeting at him now. He’s a Very Big Deal now.

Well, Trump is just handing Kim something he wants; a summit with the President. (That carrot’s been dangled for years; previous Presidents were too smart to fall for it). He has no intention of actually, you know, disarming. He’s going to flatter Trump and suck up to him; Kim’s evil, but he’s not stupid, and he’s seen what works elsewhere. If the summit happens–and it might not, because the foreign policy and military establishments here are pushing back–Trump will likely hand over other unearned, unnegotiated concessions. What he’ll want in return is something Kim could easily, blandly, smilingly, promise, with no intention of ever actually giving up much of anything.

Washington conventional wisdom is treating this like a positive step, because the Beltway is desperate to have a normal Presidency. There’s zero evidence they’ll ever get one until 2020. If this summit happens, Trump will give away the store. His own self-flattery aside, he’s an awful deal-maker, a wholly incompetent negotiator, because he doesn’t know enough to know what a good deal even looks like. He doesn’t even know what he doesn’t know. If we’re all really really lucky, this won’t lead to a nuclear exchange, or just as bad, a horrific border war between the two Koreans. I have some faith in Moon’s ability to keep this all reigned in. But Trump’s ability to broker peace with North Korea? Non-existent.




Game Night: Movie Review

Game Night is not going to win any Oscars, and it’s not going to change the world. The plot would not hold up under any scrutiny at all. It really isn’t anything except funny. But, my gosh, is it funny. My wife, my daughter and I laughed early, often, and out loud. It’s a convoluted action thriller comedy, and all of it works. Except, you know, for the story making sense part. But who cares when a movie is this entertaining?

Here’s what I loved about it. A lot of Hollywood comedies nowadays rely on charming performers reading clever one-liners, in a preposterous situation. Set up, set up, payoff, then repeat. Very few modern comedies can manage an extended comedy sequence, physical comedy with each set up setting up another set up, payoffs through out. Scenes with a beginning, middle and end, all building off a single premise. To do that requires preparation and rehearsal. You establish a situation, and then complicate it. Think, for example, of the extended chocolate factory sequence from I Love Lucy. It builds and builds for three whole minutes, an eternity in a TV show. (It’s on YouTube; sorry, I tried to link, but couldn’t get it to work.)  Anyway, there are several such sequences in Game Night, and they all work splendidly.

The plot: Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel MacAdams) are a loving married couple, perhaps because they’re both hyper competitive. They don’t like losing at anything, and they love playing games. Board games, card games, trivia games. They’re also hoping to have a baby, but Annie has been unable to conceive, perhaps, their doctor  (a hilarious Camille Chen) suggests, because of Max’s unresolved sibling rivalry issues with his even more competitive brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler). (Max thinks this suggestion is preposterous; Annie thinks there’s maybe something to it. That’s their relationship; loving, committed, but maybe not always unified. Except, always, having each other’s backs). Max and Annie also host a weekly game night, with their friends, Kevin (LaMorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and Ryan (Billy Magnussen), and whatever girl Ryan happens to bring. (His tastes run to very attractive, and deeply dumb). In the past, another couple was involved, next-door neighbor Gary (Jesse Plemons) and his wife (who never appears). They’re now divorced, and gloomy Gary hasn’t recovered. Plus, you know, she was the one they liked; he was the one you put up with. So Gary, a cop, interrogates them relentlessly about their plans. He wants to be invited, and is hilariously pushy about it. Plemons is one of the best young character actors working right now, and he’s marvelous in this.

Anyway, Brooks decides to on-up game night; he invites them over for what he calls a fake kidnapping scheme, with actors playing the kidnappers; the winning couple–which is to say, the couple who finds the kidnap victim) gets his classic Corvette. Of course, Brooks is the kidnappee, and it’s not a game; like in The Man Who Knew Too Little, the players are inadvertently caught up in actual crimes and actual bad guy plots.

Jason Bateman is one of the great straight men working in comedy, and, as in Arrested Development, he excels at underplaying, portraying the one sane guy in a world gone mad. But it’s MacAdams who carries the movie. Her Annie clearly finds this faux kidnapping scheme liberating, and when, in a bar, she reenacts Amanda Plummer’s classic robbery speech from Pulp Fiction, you know this is something she’s always wanted to do. She’s at her best in a long set piece after Max is shot (by her, accidentally), as she uses on-line instructions to remove the bullet from his arm. It’s a scene that builds and builds, and it gets the longest extended laugh of the movie. When a particularly menacing bad guy is dispatched by being sucked into a jet engine, her entirely hypocritical line reading ‘oh, he died!’ absolutely lands.

I also loved Billy Magnussen as the perpetually dim Ryan. On the kidnapping game night, he’s actually brought an appropriate date, a co-worker, Sarah (Sharon Horgan), who is the complete opposite of his usual dates. She’s smart, for one thing–a hundred miles smarter than he is–and good at games. Awestruck by her, he can’t help trying to compliment her, only to have it backfire consistently in the most insulting possible ways.

I also loved Kevin and Michelle. They’ve been together since junior high school, but during an early game of Never Have I Ever, she admits to having slept with a celebrity. And it drives him insane, trying to figure out which one. And so, at the most inappropriate possible times, when the stakes are high and they really need to be, you know, concentrating on what they’re doing, he tosses out the names of possible famous amours. It was a nice running gag, and Morris and Bunbury make it work.

I’m recommending this movie very highly, but I know that some of you who read it are put off by harsh language in movies. If that describes you, don’t bother with it. F-bombs abound, though never gratuitously; it’s there for verbal punctuation. But if you’re untroubled by profanity, this is a funny funny movie. Movies don’t have to be profound to be good.

A more lethal angle on the Russia scandal

I am completely obsessed by the Russia story. Can’t get enough of it; watch way too much cable news and read way too many on-line sources, trying to put it all together. The Robert Mueller investigation strikes me as working with ruthless deliberation, flipping witnesses and issuing subpoenas and indictments, and the net is inexorably closing around the President. John Oliver calls the story ‘stupid Watergate,’ and that seems apt; so many of the players have seemed like dolts, not the least of them Sam Nunberg, whose meltdown on cable news show after cable news show earlier this week will be the comic highlight of the movie, when it gets made.

But there’s an angle on the whole thing that I haven’t seen explored much, and it might provide an answer to a question that I keep going back to. Here’s the question that kept pestering me: why hasn’t Paul Manafort flipped? Why does this guy sit there, under house arrest, day after day, and not just cooperate? He’s going to jail; if they charged his assistant, Rick Gates with bank fraud and money laundering, what do they have on Manafort? It might because Manafort is a die-hard Trump loyalist, a True Believer, the most committed pro-Trump partisan in this whole saga. But in every other context, Manafort comes across as the ultimate pragmatist, a survivor, an opportunist. Wouldn’t cooperation with the Special Counsel be his best strategy?

Yes, if reducing his criminal liability and lessening his jail time is his objective. I don’t think that’s what’s going on, though. I think he’s afraid for his life.

I recently read a terrific book, highly recommended; Peter Pomerantsev’s Nothing is True, and Everything is Possible. Pomerantsev is a Brit, but with Russian ancestry and Russian language fluency. He left a producer’s job with the BBC, and moved to Russia for ten years, to work in the Russian TV industry, producing documentaries and reality shows. The Russians learned a very important lesson from the Soviet years. They learned how to use television. The problem, they deduced, with Soviet-era TV was that it was boring. In Putin’s age, that can’t be allowed. No endless televised lectures on Leninist Marxism; Russian TV borrows from the world of Western entertainment. Reality shows, quiz shows, crime dramas, sitcoms. A Russian version of Married With Children is very popular. Pomerantsev learned about a school for young Russian women; lessons in how to seduce powerful men. How to Become An Oligarch’s Girlfriend. His reality show followed one ambitious young woman in particular; you saw the classes in which she learns the art of pleasing older guys, grooming, body language, subservience. Popular show; the school’s applicant pool grew after it aired. That’s Russia today, where high-end prostitution is lauded as a career.

I thought about Pomerantsev’s book when I read the story recently about Anastasia Vashukevich, who also goes by Nastya Rybka, a Belurusan escort girl, now incarcerated in Thailand, who claims to have secretly taped conversations between a Russian oligarch and a top Russian government official while she was with them on a yacht. She says they talked about the US election, and may have been joined by three Americans. She says she recorded 16 hours of their conversations, and she’ll trade them for extradition to the US. Vashukevich was arrested while teaching a sex seminar in Thailand, which she says was just about seduction techniques and how to be a good girlfriend. (!) She says she does not want to be extradited to Belarus or Russia, because she’s afraid she’ll be killed.

The Russian oligarch she was with on her yachting adventure was aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska.  The government official was Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko. Deripaska is a billionaire, close to Putin. He’s also a former employer of Paul Manafort. And, in the fall of 2015, Manafort was desperate. He owed Deripaska millions of dollars. So he volunteered to serve the Trump campaign as an unpaid consultant. Eventually, of course, he was named Campaign CEO. When he got the gig, he apparently told Rick Gates, he was relieved. It might ‘make him whole’ with Deripaska.

The glossy surface of Russian TV and the other high profile events that Putin has appropriated–the Olympics, the World Cup this summer, the Miss Universe pageant–serve to hide this reality. Russia is a kleptocracy. It’s hopelessly corrupt; corruption defines the modern Russian reality. Everyone knows it. It manifests itself in a million ways. Pomerantsev talks about the time he decided he needed to get a drivers’ license. He was a Londoner, where you don’t need to drive; in Moscow, public transit isn’t as good (though their subways remain amazing). He went to a driving school, where he was told ‘the bribe for a drivers’ license is 100 dollars, American.’ He told the guy he didn’t want to pay a bribe; he genuinely needed to learn how to operate a motor vehicle. The driving school guy was puzzled. ‘The bribe is 100 dollars,’ he repeated. The idea of someone taking a class and then passing a licensing test was completely foreign.

Law and order is maintained by the Russian mob. The role of police (and they do have police), is to arrest young guys, so they can go to prison and learn how to become mobsters. Any interaction with any government official might (and probably will) involve a bribe. The prevailing ideology is nihilism. They tried Marxism, and they tried Democracy. Neither worked; what does work is force and money. Russia’s vast natural resources, especially oil, gas, steel, aluminum, have created vast fortunes. If ever you see any news stories involving the Russian economy, like Russia’s GDP for example, understand any and all statistical evidence from the Russian government are exercises in fiction.

And they kill people. Over 200 journalists have been murdered in Russia since 1991. Former Russian Press Secretary, Mikhail Lesin, was bludgeoned to death in Washington in 2015. Alexander Litvinenko, an outspoken Putin critic, was poisoned in 2016. Anna Politikovskaya, a journalist who published a book critical of Putin, was murdered outside her apartment by a contract killer in 2006. Her colleague, Natalia Estemirova, was shot to death in the woods outside her home in 2009. Stanislav Markilov, a human rights attorney, was murdered later in 2009. Boris Nemtsov, former deputy prime minister, was shot to death outside his home in 2015. Boris Berezovsky, an oligarch who had a falling out with Putin, was murdered in his flat in London in 2013. Paul Klebnikov, editor of the Russian version of Forbes, was murdered, another contract killing, in 2004. Sergei Yushenkov, a liberal politician, was murdered in 2003. And, of course, Sergei Magnitsky, a human rights lawyer, was arrested and murdered in jail in 2009. His murder led to the US passing the Magnitsky act, barring a number of Russian officials from traveling to the US or purchasing American assets. Other EU countries followed.

Has Oleg Deripaska been linked to murder? Yes. He’s accused of arranging the murder of Felix Lvov, a Russian/American stock trader.  Deripaska is known to have connections to the Russian crime syndicate Izmaylovskaya. More significantly, Deripaska was a key figure in what become known as the Russian aluminum wars, in which over a hundred aluminum industry executives were murdered in the 1990s.

In short, Oleg Deripaska is not a guy you want to cross. And Vladimir Putin is not a man you want to criticize. These guys are murderers, many times over. They’re close associates, and they protect each other.

We know now, from reporting in a variety of news outlets, that the Russians wanted Donald Trump to be President, and put enormous resources into making that happen. We also know that the specific Russians involved are deeply corrupt, and completely unafraid of lethality. That threat, the threat of violence and death, lie beneath the whole web of intrigue and collusion that Mueller is investigating. They have their guy in the White House. I suspect they’ll go to some lengths to keep him there. No wonder Paul Manafort has decided not to cooperate.

Annihilation: Movie Review

Annihilation is a beautiful movie, terrifying and powerful and deeply contemplative. Directed by Alex Garland, adapting the first novel in a trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer (which I have not read, but will now), it’s one of those movies that gets much creepier the more you think about it, but which I also found completely compelling while I was watching it. It’s also a big budget Hollywood action movie in which the five main characters are all interesting, dimensional, well-written and well-acted women. That shouldn’t be as much a rarity as it is. A feminist sci-fi horror film? That works.

It’s a basic alien-invasion movie, like Arrival; like, for that matter, ET. Something has appeared on earth. It shimmers. It’s even called that; the Shimmer. You can see through it, but light is refracted; you can’t see in very far, though what you can see doesn’t look all that abnormal. A person can also pass through it. Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist with military training, is married to a Sergeant in the US army, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who has been gone on assignment for a very very long time. He returns. He’s very ill. On her way to the hospital with him, the ambulance is stopped by mysterious security forces.

Turns out, he’s been inside The Shimmer. And project leader, Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a psychologist, is planning to take another expedition inside. And Lena volunteers to join them.

The rest of the expedition consists of women with combat training and helpfully correlated skills. Anya (Gina Rodriguez) is a paramedic. Cass (Tuva Novotny) is a surveyor and anthropologist, and Josie (Tessa Thompson) is a physicist. They’re good with automatic weapons, and they’re all fit. Turns out that all matters less than you might think, given the actual threat posed by the Shimmer.

That’s what’s so marvelous about the movie; the world inside the Shimmer. Everything’s just off. And then Josie offers a hypothesis. What if this entire world was a prism. But instead of refracting light, it refracted, well, everything. Including DNA. What if the basic building block of life can do, in the Shimmer, things it can’t do in our reality? What if Time itself was refracted? What if reality . . . changed?

And what if these particular alien invaders aren’t malevolent, aren’t ill-disposed towards us, aren’t benevolent either? What if they are just . . . alive? I mean, we think of nature as threatening, but it really isn’t. I mean, it might kill us, and that would be bad for us, but bad for Life? Certainly not.

I think that’s one of the things that most bothered people about Darwin. We wanted to believe, and still want to believe, that God ordered everything, that mankind evolved as we did due to some larger directing intelligence. Darwin’s blasphemy was in positing an indifferent universe. Our life is just . . . what happened. Nobody arranged for it, and nobody’s particularly interested in the outcome. Life has its own imperatives–reproduction and survival–and while pursuing them it remains entirely impersonal and indifferent.

So within Shimmer-world, the two scariest creatures our heroines meet are a ginormous alligator (with shark’s teeth), and a monstrous brown bear-like creature. And so we come to think of the Shimmer as ill-disposed towards Lena and her companions. But there’s no reason to think so. Those two creatures are dangerous to humans, because they’re doing what they do; eat, survive. But the Shimmer itself doesn’t seem to have created them as sentries or soldiers or anything. The Shimmer refracts normal DNA processes. Weird biological phenomena result. That’s all that’s going on.

I think. I think that’s the point of the film. The Shimmer is an invading alien force. But it’s not like the creatures in, you know, the Independence Day films or something. Or so many other bug-eyed monster films. The Shimmer is just seeking food, shelter, survival, like any other living thing. It arrives someplace, alters the DNA of whatever life forms that exist there, and survives. It’s not Trying to Get Us; it doesn’t recognize an Us it could be trying to Get. It’s way scarier than most alien invasion movies, and way more plausible.

Portman is great in it, but the performance I loved most was Leigh’s. She’s emotionless, pitiless, determined, and single-minded, but we also sense the deep personal trauma that has made her that way. A terrific characterization by one of our great actresses.

Anyway, a strange and beautiful and terrifying movie.