Bleakness In The Ozarks

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Title: Winter’s Bone

Rating: 5 Stars

For some reason, this film fell off my radar when it first came out. It was definitely my loss.

This is the story of a 17 year old woman named Ree. She is growing up very poor in the Ozarks. Her father, a meth cook, has run off, her mother is in a semi-catatonic state, and she is raising her younger brother and sister on her own.

The sheriff stops by and tells Ree that her father has disappeared. He’s due for a court date, and if he does not appear, his bail will be forfeited. Unbeknowst to Ree, he put up the house and their woods as collateral.  Therefore, if Ree doesn’t find her father in the next week or so, she and her family will be thrown out of their home. By this point, the home is the only thing keeping them together.

Not having anyone else to lean on, Ree sets out to find her father. She immediately runs into all kinds of problems. First of all, women have a strictly defined place in the social hierarchy. She grimly trudges on, even as men menace her and other women set themselves upon her.

Sorry for the spoiler, but the film is nearly ten years old. She eventually discovers that her father, despite being a long standing adherent to the local code of silence, had broken and was cooperating with the authorities. Once this fact became known to the locals, he was taken away and murdered.

She still needs to find evidence of his body or else his outstanding bail will still be revoked. After suffering beatings, ultimately some of the women take pity on her and take her out to a shallow lake where her father’s body was dumped. They take a chainsaw out and chop off his hands. With this evidence, she can now save the house and her family.

No one can say that this is a happy story. One of my favorite literary forms goes by various names, the most respectable of which is country noir. These are dark, violent books populated by tough, resolute characters following their own code. This is a prime example of this genre.

Ree, like many of the characters in the film, has a fierce pride about her as she unflinchingly faces her grim reality and does what she knows to be right. Even as she goes about trying to save her house, she still takes the time to tend to her mother and to raise her brother and sister, teaching them the same lessons that someone once taught her.

Another strong character is her father’s brother, named Tear Drop. He’s a drug addict and a lifelong criminal himself. At first, he refuses to help her. As her quest takes her deeper into the dark criminal world, he, like Ree, faces his grim choices and decides to the do the right thing and support his kin. By the end, once he finds out who has killed his brother, he heads out determined to try to mete out his society’s idea of justice, knowing that in all likelihood it will get him killed.

This, like Leave No Trace, which I just saw last week, is a reminder of the satisfaction of watching a quiet little film. There’s no Disney happy ending or Marvel explosive finale, but after the film is over, you find yourself thinking about and worrying about the characters, hoping that somehow they found a path out.

This is one of those rare cases where, having watched the film, I want to run out and buy the book.

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A Matinee Of Delight

mv5byjcyytk0n2ytmzc4zc00y2e0lwfkndgtnje1mzzmmge1yjy1xkeyxkfqcgdeqxvymtmxodk2otu-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Title: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Rating: 4 Stars

After having sat through the serious, adult film Leave No Trace, I was ready for some mindless fun. So, on a beautiful, sunny, Summer day, I went to a matinee showing of the latest Marvel movie.

It turns out that it was pretty much a perfect Summer matinee film. The characters were breezy, the villains were cartoonish, and the plot moved along swimmingly, as long as you didn’t hold it up to the light too close for examination.

This shows the genius of Marvel in the year 2018. They start off with the serious and dark Infinity War, segue on over to the darkly humorous and insanely violent Deadpool 2, and close out on the lightly humorous, very family friendly, Ant-Man and the Wasp. The fact that they can pull off all three of these very different movies, have them all to be (in their own way) well made, and make a shit ton of money on each is a strong statement on the stranglehold that they currently have on blockbuster film making right now. It’ll be really interesting if they can sustain it since it’s pretty clear that they’ve been building to this year for quite some time. Will they be able to pivot and start up new story lines? The next couple of years should be interesting.

It seems almost petty to talk about the plot. Scott, Pym, and Hope get a clue that maybe Hope’s mother (and Pym’s wife), long since given up for dead in the subatomic, might actually be alive. They decide to try to rescue her by building some kind of quantum tunnel. In the meantime, Scott’s under house arrest for some other Captain America caper and the FBI is dead set on catching him if he leaves his house. Also, there’s Sonny Burch, a black market dealer, trying to buy/steal the quantum tunnel so that he can profit from it himself. Also, there’s a woman that is quantumly unstable (?!) that is also trying to get to Hope’s mother in the subatomic, thinking that by doing so it will somehow stabilize her (?!).

Blah, blah, blah…

It doesn’t make sense, and it’s actually OK that it doesn’t make sense. This is comic book logic. What it does do is set up scenes of action and humor, which for a movie of this type is pretty much what the plot is supposed to do anyway.

Scott, Pym, and Hope have good chemistry. Scott and his co-workers (especially Luis) have good chemistry. Scott has an adorable relationship with his daughter. Good triumphs. People thought evil actually turned out not to be. The truly evil end up thwarted.

Do you get the idea? It’s just a fun movie. A great way to while away a Summer day in an air conditioned theater.

Go see it. Leave your brain at home. Have fun.

A Quiet Search For Peace

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Title: Leave No Trace

Rating: 3 Stars

I’m off to see Ant-Man and the Wasp in a bit, so I figured that I needed to have a little cinematic cleanse before re-entering the MCU.

Leave No Trace is almost precisely an antidote to a Marvel movie. It was quiet. It was character focused. There was no end of the world drama. There was no evil force. In fact, there was barely a plot.

Will and his daughter Tom are apparently living out in the woods somewhere. By necessity, they are living a simple life, but from the early scenes in the movie, it appears to be a comfortable and loving life. As the movie expands, it becomes obvious that this isn’t just the two of them on a camping trip. This is literally their lives. They hide out when they hear voices. They occasionally run drills where they practice hiding. It appears that Will is a war veteran (presumably of Iraq or Afghanistan) that is tormented by nightmares. Living out in the woods by himself and his daughter appears to bring him a measure of peace.

This peace is doomed to be shattered. Tom is accidentally spotted by a jogger. The jogger reports her sighting to authorities. The authorities come out with their dogs to investigate. Will and Tom are discovered. Will is taken away in handcuffs.

Both Will and Tom just want to be left alone. However, they are not allowed to live out on the public land. Ultimately, their story goes public and a Christmas tree farmer volunteers to give Will a job on his farm and a quiet house for the two of them.

Tom easily adjusts and grows to like living in the house. She makes friends and begins to realize what she was missing out living in the wild with her father. Will, on the other hand, feels the stifling influence of civilization even out on a rural farm. Finally, he can’t take it anymore and he and Tom pack up and search for another place to live in the wilderness.

Now that Tom has experienced a less solitary life, she is resistant. However, she loves her father and wants to be with him and to help him.

This conflict between Tom’s desire to live in a community and Will’s need to be away from society forms the heart of the narrative.

This film, by design, isn’t going to be one of those films where you leave thinking it’s the greatest film ever made. It is a quiet exploration of two characters, their obvious love for each other, and their attempts to resolve the conflict at the heart of the film. It stays true to this exploration.

I like the fact that this is an adult film. There are no villains. The social service workers, the psychologists, and the tree farmer are all trying to find a good resolution for Will and Tom. Will isn’t a stereotypical PTSD soldier acting out on violent impulses. He’s a quiet, determined man trying to do what is right. Tom is devoted to Will but also understands that she has to have a say in her life. There are no easy answers.

I also liked the fact that there is very little exposition. The story is told through the film. You watch the film to discover the relationship between Will and Tom. You never learn what happened to Will in Iraq, but as the film unfolds you can surmise.

In summary, it was a quiet, small film expertly executed.

Circus in Sochi

mv5bmtexmdc5njqymjjeqtjeqwpwz15bbwu4mdezmzkyodiy-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_Title: Icarus

Rating: 4 Stars

The film starts off somewhat benignly. Bryan Fogel, a pretty serious amateur cyclist, is disillusioned with the state of his professional sport. This is around the time that Lance Armstrong, after many years of fierce and angry denials, has admitted to long term doping. It appears that the entire sport of professional cycling is littered with cheats.

Fogel decides to find out how easy it is to cheat the drug tests. He competes in a grueling amateur race and places fourteenth. For the next race, he decides that he’s going to dope himself and see if he can game the system to avoid detection. He first enlists an American expert in doping named Don Catlin. Catlin decides that helping Fogel cheat, even if it is to expose how easy it is to cheat, is an ethical boundary that he’s not willing to cross. Instead, he recommends Fogel contact the head of the Russian testing program, Grigory Rodchenkov. Surprisingly enough, Rodchenkov cheerfully agrees to help him, even at one point coming to visit Fogel in America to smuggle Fogel’s urine back to Russia.

The first half of the film is this journey as you see how intensive and invasive the doping regimen is. Over the span of several months, Fogel does get measurably stronger. He comes into the event poised to do much better.

However, it does not work out. He experiences equipment failure and other strokes of misfortune. He ends up finishing even worse than he did the previous year.

There the story appears to start petering out. However, at the same time that this is going on, Rodchenkov appears to be getting increasingly upset. International agencies are investigating his drug facility and how tests are performed there. He gets increasingly nervous.

He ultimately confesses to Fogel that, on behalf of Russia, he has led a large program of doping athletes. Rodchenkov begins to fear that he will be arrested. Fogel manages to secure him a plane ticket and Rodchenkov successfully manages to flee Russia, leaving behind his wife and daughter.

Rodchenkov also manages to steal a treasure trove of evidence explicitly linking the Russian government to a wholesale doping plan. It’s been going on for decades, but with the 2014 Winter Olympics held in Sochi, Putin made it clear that he expected the Russian athletes to dominate.

Rodchenkov set up a drug testing facility in Sochi. The FSB (former KGB) worked with Rodchenkov to figure out how to cheat the supposedly impregnable Swiss urine bottles for the purpose of switching the urine.

As a result of this action, Russia won a record 33 medals at Sochi, including 13 gold.

Once in America, afraid that the Russian authorities were going to try to assassinate Rodchenkov, Fogel hid him in an apartment. Ultimately Rodchenkov testified in front of the US Department of Justice and was interviewed by the New York Times. The resulting publicity resulted in an independent investigation that collaborated Rodchenkov’s testimony.

The film ends with Rodchenkov still in US protective custody due to fear of assassination by Russian agents. His wife and daughter are still in Russia.

Watching this film, I was struck by the affinity that authoritarian governments have with sports. I think back to the 1936 Olympics with Hitler praising the Aryan ideal. You can go even further back to the Roman poet, Juvenal, criticizing the Roman politicians’ attempt to appease the citizenry by offering them “bread and circuses”. Is there a bigger circus in the world than the Olympics? How much are the Russian people willing to tolerate Putin’s totalitarian behavior because he helps them feel good about themselves on a sporting worldwide stage?

And now, of course, the Russian soccer team, playing in Russia, is now in the World Cup quarterfinals (as of this writing). Life must be very good in Putin-Land right now.

And finally, of course, how much of Trump’s success is based on providing circuses? Every day there does seem to be a new act in town. The media is so focused on the circus acts (Harley Davidson, Michael Cohen, Melania’s jacket) that it loses sight of the fact that the town’s bank is actually being robbed in broad daylight (trillions of dollars are being added to the debt).

Invasion Of The Marvel Snatchers

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Title: Deadpool 2

Rating: 3 Stars

I bowed down to the inevitable and watched Deadpool 2. It met expectations. Not a great work of art, but fairly mindless entertainment that made me laugh out loud several times.

This is the franchise that Ryan Reynolds was created for. It is snark in all of its dimensions. Examples include:

  • Homage to those silly Bond intros
  • Deadpool forms X-Force, which is apparently a real thing in the X-Men universe; but here, it’s a motley collection of people with odd superpowers (or no superpowers) that almost all die immediately
  • Plenty of inside jokes about Marvel and DC
  • Several jokes about Ryan Reynolds and his lamented film Green Lantern
  • There is a death scene that is quite humorous; the person dies with touching last words, and then comes back to life, and then dies with more touching last words, and so on

I enjoyed the introduction of the new character Domino, a woman of color that kicks ass and whose super power is, amusingly enough, being lucky. That might sound strange, but it really does work out for her.

So, it lived up to its potential. Why the three stars?

Well, first of all, it really is just more of the same from the first Deadpool. This was clearly the case of Marvel running out a sequel since the first one was so successful. There was no other point to the movie besides making more money. Since we live in a capitalist society, this is certainly no crime, but I still have to ding it a bit for just comfortably staying in its swim lane.

Without going into too many details, this film has sparked a conversation regarding the concept of Fridging. This is a comic book reference to, of all superheroes, Green Lantern, where he gets motivation when he finds his girlfriend dead in the refrigerator. It turns out that this is a major thing in the comics. Obviously, this is not just limited to comics. This theme up all of the time in movies. Think about such movies as The Bourne Supremacy, Superman (Christopher Reeves version), Casino Royale, Gladiator, and of course the ultimate, Death Wish.

This really does seem to be pretty lazy screen writing because it solves two problems in the most simple, trite way possible. First of all, it gives the male character motivation for vengeance. Secondly, no longer having a female character attached to the male hero frees up movement for the protagonist. He no longer has to check in for dinner or get eggs at the store or whatever it is that the screenwriters think that having a romantic partner holds the protagonist back from fulfilling his mission.

It’s been done so much that this is a trope that needs to be retired. But then again, expecting creativity like that from a film called Deadpool 2, is almost without a doubt an unreasonable expectation.

My second issue with it is time travel. Now, I know that this is a Marvel universe where crazy nonsense happens. I’m OK with suspending belief in superpowers and the protagonist evading certain death over and over and over again.

Why introduce time travel? Especially a time traveler traveling from the future to the present to alter events now to change the future? Do people not get that that’s not the way that it works? Especially the idea of carrying some talisman from the future and then watching it change state in the present as some kind of signal that the future has changed. You cannot travel from the future to change the past to change the future because if the future has changed then you no longer have a need to travel from the future, which caused the change in the future. It’s a paradox!

Whew…sorry, kind of a pet peeve of mine. Again, it’s a sign of lazy screen writing.

Anyway, even though I enjoyed it, but a film that includes both fridging and time travel will probably never warrant more than three stars from me.

Several new X-Men were introduced, including Domino, Juggernaut, Firefist, and Yukio. This is in addition to the aforementioned X-Force. In the previous Deadpool, we met Negasonic Teenage Warhead and Colossus. Of course, there’s an entire whole series of X-Men movies with their own characters.

These characters are all authentic X-Men characters culled from the original comics. I checked, and holy crap, there are a lot of X-Men characters. Literally hundreds. For the fanboys, this is not news, but to me it was kind of amazing. I checked the Marvel character list. Same deal. The question is: are we going to end up in some movie dystopia where all movies are either going to be Marvel or X-Men? And yes, I know that Marvel comics produce the X-Men comics as well. I’m just making the point that, if we’re not careful, we’re going to end up with films like Driving Ms Marvel.

What is the saturation point?

 

A Different Kind Of Gavel Of Justice

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Title: You Were Never Really Here

Rating: 4 Stars

This will be a tough one for me to review. It’s based upon a story by Jonathan Ames. It’s not a full novel. I bought it as an Amazon Single. Therefore, one of my usual objections that I have when translating a novel to a movie does not hold. For instance, just a couple of weeks ago, I watched Red Sparrow. IIRC, it’s about 500 pages. Translating a 500 page novel into a two hour film means that a lot of nuance, plot, and characters are left on the cutting room floor. In this case, the Ames book is maybe 100 pages. The entire story can be told, and it is.

The other main objection I have to movies from novels is that, if I’ve read the novel first, I already have pictures in my mind of the characters. No matter how well crafted, there’s some cognitive dissonance when the character on the screen doesn’t match the characters in my mind.

This objection holds here. In the novel, Joe is a spare, self contained man with a military haircut. In the film, Joaquin Phoenix is a bear, all hair. He doesn’t physically resemble the image in my head.

Similarly, in the novel, the relationship between Joe and his mother is loving but effectively is non-verbal. In the film, Joe and his mom have a loving relationship, but it is  complicated by the fact that it appears that his mom is suffering from something like Alzheimers.

One more objection to the film is that they’ve completely changed the ending. Since it just came out, I won’t spoil it. Let’s just say in the novel that Joe is completely bent on what can only be described as a Carthaginian revenge.

Having said all of that, I really enjoyed the film.

Joe is a fascinating protagonist. In many ways, he’s a monster. He had an horribly abusive background and then equally horrible careers in the military and then in the FBI. Tormented by his memories, he just longs for death (visualizing creative ways that he could kill himself), lives completely off the grid, and tries to assuage his tortured thoughts by taking occasional off the book jobs to rescue abused children. His tool of choice when taking on the children’s captors is to sprint at them with a hammer. He believes (quite rightly, I suppose) that there is something very intimidating about a large guy coming at you wielding a hammer. That gives him that extra second that he needs to prevail.

All of this is explained in more detail in the novel, but it is also effectively conveyed here.

The plot is that a teenage girl of a state senator has been kidnapped. The state senator has received some evidence that she is being held captive in a brothel. The state senator asks him to rescue his daughter.

Joe does, and in the process, things go downhill very fast. He’s immediately in a fight for his life and the girl is taken from him.  There are large powerful forces arrayed against him. He relentlessly tries to get the girl back, but in so doing has to face the fact that whatever small life that he had allotted himself will be taken from him before it’s over.

Although Joaquin was not how I visualized Joe, he did a pretty awesome job showing all of his pain, despair, determination, and madness.

Although the ending is different, it’s still effective. I can imagine why they had to change the ending. In the novel, this was just the first opening moves of what was going to be a terrible, brutal, and long running operation. In the film, there is something approaching closure.

 

Post-Apocalyptic Silent Movie

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Title: A Quiet Place

Rating: 4 Stars

The film starts in total silence. We are 90 days into some post-apocalyptic world in a deserted town. A family quietly resupplies itself. The family’s youngest son, being just a boy and wanting to play, takes a rocket ship toy from the store. He turns it on, it makes a racket, the father desperately runs to him, but some alien life comes out of nowhere, snatches the boy up, and eats him.

The film’s next scene is a year later. They are still under a state of siege, living in total silence. The family is still grieving over the loss of the boy, but trying to find a path forward. The mother is very pregnant.

How will she be able to quietly give birth? How will they keep the new born quiet? How long can they continue to live in absolute silence? That is the essence of the film.

There is very little dialog. What little there is is in subtitled ASL, but even the ASL is pretty sparse.

No dialog is an interesting choice. This is certainly one of the quietest films that I’ve ever watched. I watched it in the theater and you could hear a pin drop. I didn’t hear anyone loudly munching popcorn. I heard few coughs. The film sucks you in and you feel yourself vicariously being quiet with the family on the screen. At various points in the film, you could sense a release of relief in the audience. From that perspective it was an engrossing horror film.

The father is pretty typical of such post apocalyptic films. He is a master of everything, ever ready to MacGyver his way out of anything. He kind of reminded me of The Professor from Gilligan’s Island. I always watch these films with a feeling of inadequacy. I live in an apartment and I submit maintenance requests for even the slightest of problems. I would not last five minutes in this world.

The film is about the centrality of family and how parents and their children willingly sacrifice for each other, even in the face of death. Although I understand the beauty of that message, a thought that I often have while watching a film like this is…would I even want to live in such a world? It seems to be a pretty terrifying and limiting existence where living to fight another day is a victory. Is that a life worth living?

They are not the last people on the planet, but clearly the human race is pretty close to extinction. There’s a very small number of people in the family’s area (you can see their nightly signal fires) but the father gets no response when he tries to call up frequencies from all over the world on his shortwave radio.

The film does end on a ray of hope. Just like in The War of the Worlds, it turns out that the aliens have a weakness. As the film closes, the family has a new determination to now take the offensive.

It does make me wonder about why we find movies like these entertaining. Could it be because it stirs up some long lost subconscious memory of when we weren’t the apex predator? Does this give us a shiver to think about what it might have been once to worry about the saber-toothed tiger that might be prowling around outside our cave?

 

Regardless, I found it to be an entertaining and well constructed horror film. It’s certainly no Get Out, but still a great movie night out.

Where’s My Controller?

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Title: Ready Player One

Rating: 3 Stars

I had at best moderate hopes for this film. Being directed by Steven Spielberg implied that it was probably going to be a well executed film. Being basically about a video game played in a virtual reality would probably mean that it wouldn’t exactly sing to me.

And that’s pretty much exactly how it played out.

The year is 2045. Cities have descended into a dystopian mass slum. To escape that reality, people log into a virtual reality world.

The founder of the game has recently died. Since he was slightly odd loner that never married, he has no heir to his massive empire. He made an announcement that the first person that finds three hidden keys in his virtual universe will inherit his wealth and the management of his virtual world.

Of course, there is the plucky group of misfits that is trying to gain the keys for the love of the virtual reality world. Of course, there is the faceless mass of corporate drones slaving away to get the keys so that the head of the corporation can take over the world, monetize it, and make himself even richer.

Gee, I wonder who’s going to win?

The plot is fairly mindless. It literally is the plot of a video game. Seek out treasure! Fight bosses! Fight the Big Boss! Win the game! The characters barely rise above the level of caricature. I’m sure that I would feel much warmer about it if I was a gamer myself.

I did see flashes where it might have been a contender. I would have liked to have spent more time in the real world. Sure, the plucky gang got to take over the virtual world, but that still doesn’t change the fact that the real world sucks. Are they going to do anything to solve the problems that are actually occurring in the real world? Isn’t that possibly the more pressing problem here?

I kind of think back to the film The Surrogate, where the people of some not that far off future never leave their homes but live through their surrogates. Is that effectively the future here? Will it reach the point where people plug in and never plug out? Is this the permanent escape? No clue.

There is an interesting philosophical question regarding the deceased inventor, James Halliday. He appears in the virtual world, but he is clearly not an avatar. What is he? It’s left unexplained. This touches upon the character, Dixie, in Neuromancer. Dix is a legendary hacker who has died but still lives on in ROM. By the end, tired of this existence, he asks to be deleted.  Is Halliday in the same predicament where he exists in some level of artificial consciousness? And like Dix, will there reach a point where he will tire of it, that a fake existence lacks some necessary spark that makes it not worth living? No clue.

As has been noted everywhere, the film is chock full of cultural references. Many of them flew over my head. Our hero drives a Delorean. The Iron Giant, Chucky the Doll, Freddie Krueger, King Kong, and so many others make appearances. It has already turned into a geek parlor game to try to find them all.

The one cultural reference that I legitimately found entertaining was The Shining. It was so much more than the quick glance of the other references. It played off many key scenes and actually integrated itself quite well with The Shining plot.

It was hilarious and was the part of the film that kicked it up from two stars to three.

Sycophants Gone Wild

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Title: The Death of Stalin

Rating: 4 Stars

Every now and then I see a movie that I swear was custom designed for me. For instance, about twenty years ago, there was a movie called Dick. It was a juvenile comedy about Watergate. There were inside references to such things as the taping over of locks at the Watergate complex, Deep Throat, and the 18 1/2 minute gap. At the same time, it was the story of a giggly teenage young woman that had developed a crush on Richard Nixon, writing his name repeatedly on her pee chee, and blurting out, in moments of complete silence, how much she loved dick.

Note that this movie came out twenty-five years after Watergate. I believe that the Venn diagram of people that would have simultaneously enjoyed the subtle and inside nods to the Watergate conspiracy and have a deep appreciation for sophomoric humor didn’t extend that far beyond me.

Now, I see that another movie has come out. It’s about the death of Stalin and the immediate chaotic fallout after his death. As with Dick, this is a comedy right smack dab in history geek’s wheelhouse.

I’ve read Montefiore’s The Red Tzar a couple of times now. Stalin’s reign holds an almost obsessive fascination to me. How does a country let this happen? Stalin ordered several purges during his time. He purged anyone that was even remotely a threat to him. He purged the original so-called Old Bolsheviks. He purged the small landowners (the Kulaks) that wanted to keep farming their own lands. He purged the army of its officers (which turned out not to be such a great move right before the start of WWII).

It was so simple. He’d pressure / torture someone to confess and name names. He’d then have those who were named arrested and repeat the process. Desperate to avoid torture, a person arrested would quickly confess to the most absurd crimes and then name as many names as they could come up with. Following this process, tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and ultimately millions would ultimately be executed.

And then, of course, the torturers themselves would then be arrested and executed.

The movie starts at this point. Lists of people are sent out to be arrested. In his dacha, Stalin and his small cadre drink and make jokes. This cadre, Stalin’s inner circle (Beria, Krushschev, Malentov, Kaganovich, and a couple of others), possess enormous power but are aware that at any moment Stalin can yank that power away from any one of them and send him to his death. In fact, one of them, Molotov, unknowingly is on a list soon to be arrested. So, although they drink and laugh and shout joyously, they all do it while nervously eyeing Stalin. It’s much like the Twilight Zone episode of the six year old kid that has absolute power over all of the adults.

Later that night, Stalin has a stroke. He is not dead but he is incapacitated.

At first, they are all paralyzed. They are so used to living under Stalin’s thumb that they are at a loss of what to do. They’re afraid at first to even touch him (think of medieval times where it was a crime for a commoner to even touch a king). Even though he’s lying on the floor, comatose and incontinent, they debate the merits of bringing in a doctor. This situation is even more complicated by the fact that just recently many Moscow doctors have been arrested or executed as a result of a purge (the doctors’ plot).

Eventually, Stalin dies. Beria sees his chance. He makes his move to seize power. Will Krushschev be able to block him? The weak Malentov is technically the next in succession. Who will he support? Who will get the legendary General Zhukov’s, the leader of the army, support?

That forms the plot.

It is an entertaining and funny movie. The machinations of these previously toady sycophants trying to become the next supreme ruler of the USSR is absurd to watch. The actors (especially Jeffrey Tambor as Malenkov, Steve Buscemi as Krushschev, and Simon Russell Beale as Beria) all do exceptional comedic work.

It kind of gets the fact right but clearly this is a comedy, not a documentary.

It is a timely movie for many reasons. First of all, think of the situation in Russia. Putin is, as I write this, about to win a landslide election. He has no significant opposition. Within the Russian government itself, there is nothing that appears to be a succession plan. In fact, it appears that not much happens without his approval. If he were to drop dead tomorrow, what would the Russian government do?

And it’s not like the US is in much better shape. Especially with the recent firings, Trump’s cabinet is a chorus of yes-men (and women) who occasionally make appearances together to compete in fulsome praise of the vision and talent of our great leader. Mike Pence goes to great lengths to be as subservient to Trump as the most pliable lapdog.

Let’s face facts. Our president is an obese man in his 70’s who does not eat well and counts golf as exercise. Would any of us be really all that surprised if he stroked out?

And what if he did? Imagine him prone on the floor and surrounded by Mike Pence, Jeff Sessions, Betsy DeVos, Ben Carson, and Steve Mnuchin. Who from that sorry mess would you want to take the reigns and start issuing orders?

So, yes, it was a funny movie that I enjoyed watching. However, the fact that a comedy about an autocrat that died sixty years ago caused me to reflect upon our current political situation was, to say the least, unsettling.

Cash Machine With A Social Conscience

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Title: Black Panther

Rating: 4 Stars

I finally got around to seeing Black Panther. Was the hype worth it? Except for an annoying amount of over the top CGI, definitely yes. It was one of the best Marvel movies that I’ve seen.

It successfully blended action sequences and typical comic book superhero struggles with interesting social / philosophical questions.

The premise is that there is an African nation named Wakanda. A meteorite lands there some time ago that contains a material called vibranium. This semi-magical material is incredibly strong and has many other valuable properties.

A series of Wakanda kings decided to keep vibranium secret for themselves. Using the material, they have become technologically advanced and fabulously wealthy while appearing to be a poor third world country.

The latest king has died and the new one, T’Challa, has been installed. Meanwhile, the previous king had a brother that was undercover in the US. The king discovers that his brother is actually working to share vibranium with impoverished blacks around the world to allow them to rise to power. The king forbids it and ultimately ends up killing his brother, leaving his brother’s young son to grow up radicalized in the US. Ultimately, his brother’s son (nicknamed Killmonger) grows up to be a highly trained fighter with a single minded purpose to avenge his father’s death and to continue his father’s mission of sharing vibranium with oppressed black people.

The main plot is the conflict between T’Challa and Killmonger. Who will rule Wakanda? What will Wakanda’s role be in the world community?

It does bring up interesting questions. Wakanda definitely is painted as a utopia of peace and progress. It appears that vibranium landed possibly hundreds of years ago. That would seem to imply that while Europeans were carting off their fellow Africans and forcing them into slavery, this technologically advanced nation was just letting it happen without even trying to help. Is that the actions of a beneficial nation?

What would be the responsibilities of an incredibly advanced and rich black nation when there are at least hundreds of millions of blacks and billions of people of color that are oppressed? Would they / should they have a higher responsibility than a rich white nation due to some shared sense of ethnicity?

Let’s leave aside the issue of race. What are the responsibilities of any rich nation when there over a billion people that live in extreme poverty? As we sit in our technologically advanced cities with easy access to the conveniences of life, do we have an obligation to people on the other side of the planet that don’t have ready access to clean water?

There’s also the issue of vibranium. It truly appears to be a wonder material. Wakanda has built up a super civilization and apparently they’ve barely even scratched the surface of the amount of vibranium that they have. Is it fair that they have exclusive / easy access to the material? No matter how benevolent a nation is, it would seem problematic if it has exclusive access to a material that, if used, they could apparently conquer and control the world. This seems reminiscent of that very short period of time after WWII when the US was the sole atomic power. It was shocking when the USSR exploded its atomic weapon, but in an alternate universe where that didn’t happen, how would US / world history have unfolded if the US had the sole power to destroy any nation that defied it over a period of decades?

The movie itself was entertaining. I particularly liked T’Challa’s sister Shuri. She’s sixteen years old and is the technical genius behind much of Wakanda’s technology. In the film, she was funny and brilliant, reminiscent of the quirky genius Q from the Bond movies. Especially given the dearth of females of color in the technology field, including her in the film was pretty awesome.

As far as I can tell, there were two white characters in the film. One was an evil soldier of fortune arms seller kind of guy. The other was a CIA agent that was used to a significant extent as a comic foil. Amazingly enough, the film still worked and is making a shitload of money. Maybe white guys are OK with movies where they’re not always the center of attention?

Besides the blatant overuse of CGI, the only discordant note for me during the film was the Jabari Tribe. They worship gorillas. They dress in gear that resembles gorilla. They go into battle with a war cry that sound like gorilla grunts. Maybe I’m being an overly sensitive liberal snowflake, but large men kind of acting like gorillas seemed kind of problematic to me

That’s basically a nit. I kind of have a habit of hating on Marvel movies since they are such an obvious cash machine that sucks oxygen out of the market for other types of films. In this case, Marvel really hit the mark on character, action, and social commentary.