Category Archives: film

La La Land

It’s not going to replace The Sound of Music in the pantheon of greatest musicals, but it’s a nice throwback to Old Hollywood with a modern sensibility.

La La Land is the kind of film that you thought was consigned to the scrap heap of Hollywood history.  In other words, it’s a boy-meets-girl love story with song and dance performed by two charismatic and attractive leads.  It’s colorful. It’s fun. It’s a film with a smile on its face that wants to entertain you. Ryan Gosling is the idealistic jazz musician, Sebastian, and Emma Stone is aspiring actress, Mia. Even with its bittersweet ending, the film is refreshing because of its unabashed old fashioned approach.

Besides the love story, La La Land deals with the question of what it means to be an artist and being true to your principles by finding your own voice. Sebastian is the quintessential jazz purist who wants to rescue jazz from cultural oblivion. He dreams of opening a club that features Honest Jazz, but bides his time playing lounges and 80’s cover bands. Mia is just another actress hunting for scraps in the Hollywood meat grinder until Sebastian encourages her to tell her own stories by developing her long abandoned writing.

More specifically, the film addresses the ideological divide in jazz between innovation and tradition, and which takes priority when it comes to attracting audiences. Is jazz a fixed tradition with specific, definable parameters or is it a blank slate which must incorporate modern technology and borrow from other idioms in order to innovate and attract audiences? In Sebastian’s case, his version of artistic radicalism was to return to jazz tradition despite being given an opportunity to play in John Legend’s globetrotting pop/R&B act.

In one scene, the film does an excellent job showing the chasm of misperception between the jazz aficionado and the casual consumer. Mia tries to explain that she finds Kenny G perfectly enjoyable and her parents would put on a smooth jazz station as background music. Instead of being an elitist snob, Sebastian draws her attention to the musical action happening on the combo performing in front of them.  The film clearly wants us to see the beauty in jazz that Sebastian sees and show what makes jazz such a dynamic and rich art form.

Where La La Land really shines is in the romance between Sebastian and Mia. How long has it been since Hollywood unironically presented the pursuit of love and companionship between a man and a woman as a virtue? Hollywood has been so far up its own ideological ass for so many years trying to fulfill every politically correct agenda that a scene with Sebastian and Mia holding hands in a theater while watching Rebel Without a Cause feels pretty radical. 

It’s multicultural, but it is blessedly free of hamfisted racial or identity politics. Sebastian’s sister marries a black man, but they didn’t insert some tortured narrative about racism. The jazz club scenes contained multiracial audiences and showed people getting along and having a great time enjoying an art form that has succeeded in building cultural bridges.  Since Hollywood seems so solidly intent on propping up politically divisive narratives by constantly emphasizing America’s sordid history in films like Race and Birth of a Nation, the absence of these tiresome themes in La La Land is noticeable and welcome.

The film is not just a candy coated sugar high though. The tradeoffs, compromises, self doubt and financial insecurities which come with the territory of being an artist create the emotional and dramatic tension between the characters. Artistic idealism is an admirable virtue, and one which resonates with me, but Damien Chazelle is correct to point out that absent clear communication, the pursuit of a stable family life and the artistic dream can easily become irreconcilable goals.  It’s great to see that the pursuit of artistic individualism is upheld as a heroic virtue, but it’s worth remembering that it is not an ironclad promise of financial remuneration or commercial recognition.

Needless to say, the SJW media factions and progressive Twitterati have predictably heaped condemnation on La La Land for the very reasons that it’s good.  Hopefully, studios will pay more attention to the positive acclaim and box office receipts, think twice about pushing ideological agendas, and remember that people enjoy being entertained and watching attractive people fall in love on screen.

Rogue One

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Before Rogue One, I had resigned myself to the reality that a new Star Wars film isn’t going to rock my world quite like it did in 1977.  How could any new entry possibly match that experience? Star Wars certainly wouldn’t have become the global phenomenon it is without having some thematic heft and adult appeal, but it has always aimed to pluck the heartstrings of youth.  To say that Star Wars transformed my youthful dreams and angst into a two hour symphony of pure cinematic magic which moved me to the core of my being at that time in my life is an understatement. Though my story is hardly unique in the vast universe of SW fandom, my love affair with the original series was indeed profound and deep.  When Luke stares into Tatooine’s twin sunset and the music swells to a crescendo, the yearning for something greater was palpable. When Luke tells Obi-Wan that he wants to go to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force, I felt that shit. Anyone who doesn’t understand that these scenes all by themselves formed the core of Star Wars’ primal and transcendent appeal doesn’t really get Star Wars in the first place. Sure, the lightsaber duels, battles and starships were awesome, but at a very basic level, Luke’s quest was my quest. This seemingly effortless fusion of the universal and the personal was the truly great feat of cinematic sorcery that George Lucas conjured.

I’m never going to be that kid again, but that kid in me simply hoped that the new gatekeepers of the SW legacy are going to remember that for all of the cinematic and visual effect innovations that have been the hallmarks of the series, what really made these films tick is that they gave you characters in which you wanted to believe. Star Wars gave you friendships and bonds in which you were deeply invested.  It gave you characters whose motivations and foibles were sufficiently fleshed out that when the chips were down, you knew that each character was putting himself to the test and that made the ultimate triumphs all the more satisfying.

While the prequels failed miserably in this task, The Force Awakens also suffered from similar deficiencies in character development. It was enjoyable enough, but every character was paper thin. There was no real backstory to the characters and subsequently, no dramatic arc. These problems were only compounded by the stink of SJW agenda fulfillment permeating every frameFrom the could-be-gay bromance of Finn and Poe to the cartoonish emotional instability (translation: toxic masculinity/male fragility) of Kylo Ren to the impossible Mary Sue-like competence of Rey, The Force Awakens had the unmistakable aura of a PC feminist/SJW checklist.

Despite this string of disappointments, I still came to Rogue One with genuine optimism.  I didn’t care that Jyn Erso was very likely going to be another outrageous female power fantasy designed to flatter the egos of feminists and bolster a now deeply clichéd Girl Power/inverted stereotype hero narrative. I didn’t care that writers Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta were pandering to the SJW, multi-culti, Fight The Power progressive mindset when they tweeted out some moronic nonsense about the Empire being a “white supremacist organization.” I didn’t care that Disney demanded reshoots after Gareth Edwards presented his first cut of the film. Just give me some characters in which to believe and cheer.  Give me a little bit of human drama to complement Gareth Edwards’ epic vision.  I wasn’t worried about the eye candy or the mayhem. I just wanted to care about the people involved.  I just wanted to have a small taste of that yearning to go to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force all over again, or in this case, root for the Rebel Alliance to dismantle the evil dominion of the Empire.  Surely, a new Star Wars film could deliver this modest goal to my adult self and I believed that Gareth Edwards was up to that task.

If this is also your new hope for Rogue One, I can firmly attest that this film is absolutely the droid you’re looking for. Rogue One is hands down the most successful Star Wars film since the Original Trilogy and the most genuinely satisfying Star Wars film I’ve seen since 1977. I still can’t believe how genuinely good this motherfucker is. It’s the Star Wars film you didn’t know you wanted, but now that it’s here, you can’t live without it. It also succeeds in achieving a goal that eluded The Force Awakens by referencing the original series and mythology while presenting something completely contemporary and fresh.

Rogue One is the story of a team of rebels who manage to abscond with the plans of the Death Star which find their way back into the hands of the Rebel Alliance and Princess Leia. What’s remarkable is how effectively the film builds a compelling story around what amounts to a couple sentences of opening crawl in Episode IV.  Since there’s no real Jedi quest, the film is able to be a full on war/espionage story set in the SW universe at the height of tensions between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. It comes across like a lighter version of The Dirty Dozen with a post-Battlestar Galactica grit to it and to my great astonishment, it’s a mix that works brilliantly.  I believe it marks a distinct tonal shift away from the pop space opera vibe of the other canonical films, but this choice has given the series the new lease on life that has eluded every other post-OT installment.  It is indeed a war film and it packs a visceral punch that is unmatched in the series.

I was concerned about the character development in this film since this has been the great Achilles Heel of every new installment in the series up to this point. While you don’t necessarily know a whole lot about any one of them, you learn enough to be invested.  As Jyn Erso, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I believed in Felicity Jones’ transformation into a rebel leader and her bond with both her father Galen and the militant Rebel who raised her, Saw Gerrera. The scenes between her and Mads Mikkelsen’s Galen Erso are genuinely sweet and give the film the emotional core that made the original films sing. Once again, we’re presented with a SW protagonist who had been snatched away from her birth parents and raised by a surrogate who happened to be a radical extremist within the Rebel Alliance.  Subsequently, it’s not impossible to believe that she would be proficient with firearms and have the mental and physical fortitude necessary for combat.  The Strong Womyn archetype who’s smarter and stronger than her male counterparts has become very commonplace in action and SF films for many years, and I was concerned that we were going to be given another variation on Rey. Thankfully, everything about Jyn’s development and the proficiency she exhibits was consistent with what we were presented.  Although when it came to Jyn’s tepid attempt at channeling Henry V, I have to agree with CNET’s Ashlee Clark Thompson that it invoked “Girl, I guess so” more than it summoned the spine of steel one would need to face certain death at the hands of the Empire.

The remaining characters were surprisingly compelling despite how little we actually knew about them.  Diego Luna’s Cassian Andor draws you in through his confessions of the losses he faced at the hands of the Empire as well as the moral compromises he’s made in service of the Alliance. Nothing is really known about the origin of the friendship between Baze Malbus and Chirrut Îmwe, but their affection for one another is never in doubt and when they meet their tragic end, it has more emotional weight than expected. Bodhi Rook’s defection from the Empire roughly mirrors Finn’s from TFA, but is remarkably more interesting and believable because unlike Finn, he was merely a pilot for the Empire and one could imagine him being persuaded to the cause of the Alliance by Galen Erso.  The big standout of the film is actually Alan Tudyk’s voice characterization of Imperial droid, K-2SO. He brings some welcome comic counterpoint to the film’s grim tone and his lines are genuinely laugh out loud funny.

On the Imperial side, Ben Mendelsohn brings a sufficiently nasty sneering menace to his role as Director Orson Krennic.  And yes, Rogue One marks the welcome return of the greatest Sith of them all and one of the greatest cinematic villains of all time, Lord Vader. Vader’s appearance in the film is limited to two excellent scenes, and only serve to remind you that neither Kylo Ren or young, tortured Anakin has managed to scale the heights of sheer Dark Side terror that Vader can summon in one line of dialogue or just by entering a room.

Perhaps being unshackled by the weight of the Skywalker mythology really freed up some creative energies, but Gareth Edwards deserves a vigorous round of applause for the feat of world building he has pulled off here.  The film is filled with both new and old worlds that have that grimy, used future vibe of the OT as well as numerous classic vehicles and images.  Mostly, Gareth Edwards managed to convey a sense of scale that even surpasses Lucas’ original vision at certain times.  The Empire has never seemed more massive and imposing on screen as it does in Rogue One. The data storage facility at Scarif is what you’d imagine Qatar to be like had it been developed by the Empire.  Jedha and Jedha City are equally impressive with obvious connections to Arabic citadels and architecture. Edwards even gives us Vader’s palace at Mustafar as a dark monument to the disfigurement he suffered at the hands of his former Jedi mentor.

My biggest gripe with Rogue One is the facile message and the refusal to confront the inherently political content at its center in an honest and meaningful way. The entire message of the film can be summed up as Be Hopeful, Listen and Believe (especially if it’s a womyn), and Down with the Space Nazis. Sure, it’s a Disney property now, it’s unrealistic of me to expect them to make anyone think too hard and Lucas’ message was arguably just as superficial, but when Disney’s Bob Iger says there are “no political statements” in Rogue One, I’m calling bullshit.  Of course Star Wars is political!  It’s about fucking WAR fer chrissakes, people!  It’s about the struggle of liberty versus tyranny. There is nothing more inherently political than war or armed revolution. War is the business of the nation state. Revolutions organize themselves around a political philosophy. The Rebel Alliance were the just remnants of the Old Republic who want to preserve peace and justice by restoring “democracy”.  The films never spell out exactly what the Alliance’s political ideals or principles are beyond “democracy” or “hope”, but the Rebels do aspire to reclaim the seat of power in their own right.  Presumably, they’re just going to be better at it than the Empire.

The politics of Star Wars have long been a subject of debate throughout the geekosphere, but I suggest that’s because people want to be able to connect it more immediately into the world of the present and their own political worldview. Disney and Lucas undoubtedly tried to keep the political content as neutral as possible so that one could view the films though one’s own ideological lens, but it still leaves me wanting a bit more. The film presents a very easily digestible Manichean dichotomy: Rebels are Good and Imperials are Bad.  This simplistic dualism doesn’t allow you to wrap your mind around which mechanisms of political policy the Empire exploited or the propaganda they deployed in order to accumulate such massive centralized political power in the first place. Edwards’ world contained mountains of untapped thematic potential.  If there was an Imperial Labor Camp on Wobani, it stands to reason that this is where dissidents and thought criminals were sent, and subsequently, it was a missed opportunity to introduce the propagandists for the Alliance.  Furthermore, there had to be segments of the galaxy that were pro-Empire and totally pro-Death Star. It was fundamentally a government program and by extension, a boon for lots of industrial interests throughout the galaxy.

Unfortunately, the political content doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense when you inspect it closely, and more often than not, reaffirms a lot of dopey leftist clichés.  How did the Confederacy of Indepent Systems, essentially the UKIP of the Republic, get to be the bad guys simply for embracing secession and opposing the excessive taxation and bureaucratic palsy of the Republic? That sounds pretty American and like the real rebels to me. And why is the Galactic Empire called a fascist regime?  They weren’t promoting a racially pure ethno-state nor could they promote a unitary galactic identity.  If anything, they were Space Communists, not Nazis.

As good as it is, I can’t help but wonder what Gareth Edwards presented to Disney executives initially.  It’s a little ironic that a film franchise that cashes in on a sentiment of rebellion is ultimately subordinate to the aesthetic mandates of its corporate, Imperial overlords.

But don’t let any of this hyper-analysis deter you if you have even the slightest misgivings.  Rogue One is the best thing to happen to the franchise since Luke Skywalker first brandished a lightsaber.  Who knows if it is a harbinger of Episode VIII or if it remains a solitary bright light in a dying franchise?  Regardless, Gareth Edwards has given us something that all of us OT OG’s have long awaited: a Star Wars film that’s actually fucking good. Enjoy it while it’s here. 

Independence Day: Resurgence

If you garnered any enjoyment from the first Independence Day or if you’re in the mood for a state of the art alien invasion film with some really enjoyable performances, you could do a lot worse than Resurgence.  The film succeeds because it gives you exactly what it promises: a band of heroes who join together to save human civilization from another extraterrestrial threat of extermination. Of course, the threat is twice as bad as before.  

The story picks up 20 years after the events of the first film and rejoins us with most of the original characters. Several young characters are added to the mix in order to fill the void left by the absence of Will Smith. All of the countries have banded together to rebuild civilization after being nearly vaporized by aliens the first time around. Thanks to harvested alien technology, the United States have built a global super state with a futuristic, alien-grade military defense apparatus that extends from the earth to the moon.  

This film has been described in various reviews as an appeal to nationalism and patriotism, but it’s more than that. It’s really War of the Worlds repurposed as a multicultural, globalist fantasy and a Keynesian wet dream. This film is yet another variation on the gleaming, futuristic, techno-utopia fantasy that can be achieved through abject servitude to the State and by building a culture of cradle to grave militarism. The previous alien invasion may have nearly wiped out civilization, but it provided the ultimate opportunity to enact the biggest economic stimulus ever! It’s quite literally Paul Krugman’s prescription for economic prosperity writ large.  

Familial bonds are largely non-existent for the younger characters, but when they are introduced, they exist mostly within the hierarchy of the State. Vivica Fox returns as Jasmine Hiller who is both mother of Jessie Usher’s Dylan Hiller and some kind of high ranking government official.  She lasts long enough to convey maternal pride in her top gun military progeny and die a tragic death amidst the alien devastation.

The technology is so advanced, that one can only imagine that the Platonist social engineers were finally given free reign to build a society of super soldiers whose only devotion is to the State. Naturally, it’s a multicultural paradise with total gender equality.  Every race and culture gets along harmoniously, the women are every bit as capable as the men in every pursuit, and when the chips are down, humanity joins hands to fend off extinction one more time. Even the African communist militants seem like really cool guys. 

But enough of all this analysis.  What about the UFOs and worldwide demolition? Independence Day made its mark by giving us massive alien ships with devastating weapons, and just as one would hope, Resurgence doubles down on the massiveness.  The film wants to overwhelm you with its scale, and it more than delivers. The alien mothership is so big, it plants itself on the surface of the earth like a giant hubcap.  

When it comes to defeating the aliens, the film settles for yet another variation on what has become a completely shopworn cliché: destroy the leader and the minions lose their agency.  Sadly, the human alliance doesn’t differ from the aliens in this respect.  All of the forces rally and are emboldened to fight upon hearing President Whitmore’s grizzled but rousing call to arms.  

Though I doubt it was the filmmakers’ intention, I propose that this film was also a stealth commentary on modern feminism. Everyone will undoubtedly find it so empowering and progressive that Sela Ward plays the current president and gives the command to initiate the attack on the alien vessel, but that’s a side show. The alien civilization is essentially a matriarchy that resembles a highly advanced insect colony with a queen who controls and directs the worker soldiers. Once the queen is killed, all the subordinate aliens lose their will to fight. If an advanced civilization capable of enormous and highly coordinated feats of starship construction, weapons systems development, and intergalactic invasion and occupation is ruled by a woman and all of the subordinate workers are so emasculated that they’re forced to dedicate the entirety of their existence to a never-ending pursuit of intergalactic conquest, that doesn’t speak too highly of life under matriarchy.  

Ultimately, the film is supremely entertaining. It knows that its first job is to be a rousing blockbuster alien invasion movie and it succeeds wildly at this task. But every major Hollywood film exists to transmit progressive editorial of one form or another, and Independence Day: Resurgence is certainly no exception. 

Hardcore Henry


Hardcore Henry is one of those films that will immediately polarize the filmgoing audience. You already know whether or not this film is for you. The filmmakers knew exactly who they were appealing to when they made it, and it delivers in spades. It is nothing short of a tour de force and will likely be viewed as a benchmark against which future efforts of its kind will be measured. Conversely, it’s also the kind of film that is reviled and pilloried by easily offended triggerkin.  It’s unrepentantly ultraviolent, it promotes gender dimorphism, has lots of sexy chicks, and it’s filmed in the style of the first person shooter video game. In other words, the very kind of game that has drawn the ire of PC scolds and Puritans like Jonathan McIntosh and Anita Sarkeesian.  

Hardcore Henry has a plot, but it mostly serves to set up the scenes of expertly choreographed mayhem and the requisite showdown between the hero and the villain. There’s nothing whatsoever wrong with this approach. The filmmakers know what they’re selling and the plot, however meager and arbitrary it seems, is more than sufficient. The characters with which we’re presented are so colorful, it more than makes up for the wild leaps of the story. This is especially true of Sharlto Copley’s masterful turn in his many different iterations of Jimmy. Mr. Copley even called this film the most challenging of his acting career.

In the beginning of the film, Henry is awakened by Estelle (Haley Bennett) in a laboratory to discover he’s lost his arm, leg and voice.  He’s asked to remain calm while his cybernetic arm and leg are attached. Henry has no memory of his past self, but Estelle tries to remind him that they were formerly married. While awaiting a download for his vocal software, the laboratory is infiltrated by mercs.  The main bad guy, Akan, shows up, wreaks havoc with his telekinetic power, kills the lab technician and threatens to make an army of cyborgs using the technology implanted in Henry’s body.  Estelle and Henry manage to escape from what is apparently a laboratory dirigible, but land on a freeway only to have to fight off another set of goons who attempt to apprehend them. From there, the film basically steps on the accelerator pedal and simply does not let up.  

The action scenes are relentless, but exhilarating because they are just so physical and dangerous. This is one of those movies where you realize that the individuals who shot these performances are just made of different stuff than the rest of us.  Perhaps slightly unhinged. There is an outrageous car/motorcycle chase (see link pasted above), a death defying parkour chase through the streets of Moscow, more gun fights than perhaps any other film I’ve ever seen, and some of the most insane hand to hand combat since The Raid.  

Another big plus is that it was made by Russians and filmed in Moscow. The individuals they hired to play some of mercs and goons looked every bit like they were straight out of the FSB and carried an above average aura of menace.  Perhaps I’m overstating, but the brothel full of scantily clad women is the kind of scene that rarely attempted by the increasingly PC mainstream Hollywood film. 

Hardcore Henry is a film that’s high on its own adrenaline rush.  The filmmakers know that you’re there to see next level action filmmaking and they’re more than happy to oblige.  Like The Green InfernoI was delighted that they simply did not give a single fuck about appeasing any PC sensibilities.  The film gleefully revels in its refusal to kowtow to the phony standards and diktats of would-be moralists, feminist killjoys, Bechdel testers, multiculturalists and racism cops. It’s not deep and has no redeeming social message, but it’s a fast, relentless shit ton of decadent fun. And sometimes, that can be a pretty bold statement all by itself. 

Escape from New York

Escape from New York is a longtime personal favorite and, in my opinion, one of the greatest movies ever. I’m both amazed and gratified by how durable the editorial remains.

For example: 

  1. The police state is indistinguishable from the military.
  2. The police kill with impunity.
  3. The president is a narcissistic figurehead who is relying on a pre-recorded speech on which world peace presumably depends.
  4. The hero is ex-military and now a convicted felon and is the person best suited to infiltrate a prison and mete out the brutality necessary to fulfill the rescue.
  5. The cops have all the best weapons. Everyone assumes automatically that Snake’s possession of firearms means that he’s working for the government.
  6. Snake is carrying out the rescue mission not voluntarily, but because his life is being threatened.  
  7. The hierarchy of violent goons in the prison is indistinguishable from the hierarchy of violent goons guarding the prison. 

And perhaps most importantly, when Snake asks the president how he feels about all the individuals who gave their lives to rescue his, he mutters some half-hearted bullshit about how the “nation appreciates their sacrifice”.

Absolutely essential.

The Green Inferno

When a film stirs controversy, you must first consider who’s pissed off by it or trying to manufacture the illusion that their film is stirring controversy. Broadly speaking, you can tell which films are truly subversive based on whether they affirm establishment narratives or defy them.  For example, in the case of the Ghostbusters remake, it was patently obvious that establishment media went out of its way to portray criticism of the film as irrational, hate filled backlash instead of reasonable people who saw it as another lazy, opportunistic exercise in social justice revisionism desperately trying to be edgy gender swapping. On the other hand, if the criticism is directed towards the film itself and includes accusations of “racism”, “sexism” or “misogyny”, chances are good that it’s pissing off the right people and is probably genuinely subversive in one way or another. The Green Inferno is most definitely in the latter category and is a giant middle finger held gleefully aloft at the current trend toward Hollywood social justice activism and political correctness. 

Most films made these days have a political editorial of one form or another, and anyone who thinks that horror is just pure exploitation isn’t giving the genre enough credit. Horror has the potential to deliver a biting commentary that other genres can’t touch, and The Green Inferno is one of the finest exemplars of this phenomenon. Needless to say, the entire film is a giant piss take on social justice activism and social justice warriors, but it succeeds so brilliantly because it attends to the twin mandates of good filmmaking: tell a good story and respect the tradition to which your film belongs. 

The Green Inferno is your basic take on the cannibal-horror genre which tells the story of social justice activists who set out to save a Peruvian tribe and things go horribly wrong. Horribly, terribly wrong. It undoubtedly draws inspiration from films like Cannibal Holocaust, but the fun of The Green Inferno is all in the setup and the ultimate payoff. 

The victims in horror films in the slasher genre meet their inevitable demise at the hands of the killer generally for exhibiting an excess of stupidity, hubris, or naïveté. This simple storytelling hook can give the filmmaker ample opportunity to comment on any social or political phenomenon he pleases. In this film, Eli Roth uses this device to maximum effect.  

When the film opens, we are introduced to college student protagonists, Justine and Kaycee.  After leaving a class where they are horrified to discover female genital mutilation practices in African and Middle Eastern countries, the roommates pass by a group of social justice warriors agitating for free health insurance. From the thrift store garments to the dumb slogans to the mindless fist pumping chants, Roth invokes the stereotypical AnCom/Bernie Sanders/OWS/Greenpeace leftist douchebag perfectly. Justine catches the eye of charismatic leader, Alejandro, but Kaycee snaps her out of her hypnosis and warns her not to get involved with guys like him.  They leave the scene of the protest with Kaycee contemptuously pronouncing the activists “gay”. 

Justine receives an invitation to join the activists from one of Alejandro’s amiable but vacant underlings who hands her a flyer which appropriately reads “ACT! Don’t think”.  Justine attends the meeting, but is immediately expelled for the insolent microaggression of speaking out of turn and triggering everyone in the group. She is eventually invited back because Alejandro is intent on working his faux-Che Guevara routine all the way into her pants. In the second meeting, Alejandro sets up the gambit. Go to Peru, prevent the evil corporation from destroying the habitat and indigenous tribe by strapping themselves to bulldozers, transmit the incident to social media, attract global sympathy and government support, and everyone goes down in #hxstory. Justine is sold. She ignores the warnings of her bigwig UN lawyer father after taking his money, and joins her merry band of SJWs on the flight to the rainforests of Peru to Change the World®. 

Roth smuggles in little pieces of editorial at unexpected moments. When discussing the details of their plans, Alejandro reminds them that the militia protecting the company assets will be armed.  One of the activists suggests that they get their own guns so they can protect themselves. In a typical leftist fashion, Alejandro torpedoes the idea and says that their cellphones will save them and if any one of them is greased, then they’ll just have to kill all of them. Ain’t collectivism grand, proles?  

The activists pull off their little stunt, but Justine barely escapes with her life after she’s threatened at gunpoint by one of the militia. Justine is appalled to learn that Alejandro was willing to allow her to die if it came down it. He confesses that he didn’t really give a shit about the cause or the tribe, and that they were just paid by a competing firm to give the company bad press. Hello, George Soros and MoveOn.org. The activists are basking in the glory of their social media fame when the plane’s engine sputters and begins plummeting into the jungle. The crash sequence is brilliantly executed and truly harrowing. The pilot is impaled in the skull, the cabin splits in half and dumps half of the passengers on to the jungle floor.  Once on the ground, they think things can’t get worse, but soon discover that their troubles have only just begun. The remaining activists are tranquilized by blow darts and imprisoned by the indigenous tribe they set out to save in the first place.  

This is where the film kicks into overdrive. Roth takes obvious pleasure in violating PC taboos and doesn’t pass up a single opportunity.  The biggest of which was the casting of the indigenous tribe themselves. You won’t have to search too hard to find some irritating Puritan bitching about “racism” or some other comparably idiotic whinging. This casting choice is a masterstroke and lends the film a feeling of authenticity that makes the film truly terrifying. The tribe wastes no time picking out their first victim, and they choose the poor bastard who brought Justine into the fold. It’s some brutal shit. I realize there’s plenty of gruesome stuff out there these days, but this is a pretty rough scene.  

And it doesn’t stop after the butchery is over. The tribe then prepares the human parts for a tribal feast!  It’s disgusting, but utterly outrageous all at once. 

Roth doesn’t limit himself to grand guignol; he pushes the boundaries of gender correctness, too. In another scene, the female leader of the tribe inserts a giant talon up the vagina of each of the female captives to test for virginity. He draws out the tension by allowing you to experience how terrified each of the women are.  That’s right. Women expressing actual fear. It’s exactly the kind of scene that’s drawn the ire of feminists and culture cops for years, but the thing the Puritans fail to grasp is that seeing a woman fear for her life is, in fact, horrifying. And it’s especially transgressive when the contemporary orthodoxy mandates that women be portrayed as physically stronger, smarter, and more capable than men.

The remainder of the film is a race for survival and ends with an unexpected twist which hints at the possible beginning of a franchise. 

The Green Inferno is a nasty little horror film that achieves exactly what it should by mixing a genuinely scary premise with black humor and attitude to spare. It’s not completely out of line to point out that there are echoes of Herzog here as well. The jungle itself is very much a character in the film and there’s little doubt that Roth and company were cribbing from Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo just as much as Cannibal Holocaust. Roth and company achieved their ambitions with this film.  He deserves credit for his ambition and for being unafraid to piss off people who deserve every bit of ridicule he dishes. 

Straight Outta Compton

Stories of musical pop culture icons are being adapted for the screen with increasing frequency in recent years, but Straight Outta Compton is one that’s definitely worth checking out if you’re interested in the story of one of hip-hop’s most controversial and influential groups.  SoC tells the story of the rise of seminal gangsta rap group NWA as well as the ascent of Ice Cube and Dr. Dre as solo artists. More broadly, it speaks to issues of police brutality, the challenges facing urban black families with the prevalence of inner city crime and gang culture, maintaining integrity within the music industry and free speech.  

The film opens with a drug deal between Eazy-E (aka Eric Wright) and some random gang bangers which escalates very quickly. Right away, the film is taking us into the Compton underworld of the mid-80’s. Everyone is packing heat, drug dealing is one of the few engines of economic mobility that’s easily attainable, every negotiation carries an implicit death threat, and “bitch” and “nigga” are freely deployed throughout normal conversation. It wasn’t called gangsta rap for nothing. The deal devolves into threats, but everyone scrambles for safety when the armored military-style battering ram vehicle rounds the corner, plows right through the front door and cops swarm the house. Welcome to Compton, bitches.

When we’re introduced to a young Dr. Dre (aka Andre Young), his Roy Ayers induced blissed out reverie is violently interrupted by his irate single mother. She castigates him for failing to attend a job interview while simultaneously reminding him how hard she worked to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table. Dre isn’t having a word of it, and packs his bags so he can pursue his music career free of persistent maternal nagging. The film is giving us a sense of the burden black single mothers carry imparting the importance of developing personal responsibility and meaningful job skills in the absence of strong, paternal role models.  

We meet a young Ice Cube (aka O’Shea Jackson) penning rhymes and staring out the school bus window at middle-class white teenagers idling away to pop music in fancy cars and clothes while he awaits being shipped back to the dreary impoverishment of Compton. The bus ride home is interrupted by armed gangsters who board the bus to intimidate the kids who taunted them during the route. Once again, we’re reminded that gangsters were a common phenomenon in South Central LA, and the thug life offered a sense of purpose, belonging and upward mobility for young blacks who faced a seemingly hopeless existence short on positive parental figures or examples. 

Upon his arrival home, he is treated to the prodigious turntable skills of Dre who had recently taken up residence on his couch. With the knockout combination of Dre’s instincts for production and Cube’s pugilistic street poetry, the two friends set their sights on carving out a new sound in rap that reflected the gritty reality of life in Compton. The bonds of friendship which created a new hip-hop dynasty were sealed.  

One of the great strengths of the film is the absence of phony PC propriety and artificial attempts at racial correctness. The unvarnished portrait of urban black speech and gender relations all by itself is a glorious kick in the teeth to social justice warriors who are constantly bitching about “harmful representations in the media of Marginalized Group (fill in the blank)”. Admittedly, the portraits are not the most flattering towards this particular segment of the African-American population, but when contrasted with the modern Hollywood PC orthodoxy which mandates that blacks always be portrayed in a positive light, this film feels like it’s making an above average attempt at honesty instead of trying to pander to phony leftist piety. In an early scene where Dre and Cube are given a slot to perform at a popular nightclub, the owner sternly reminds the young MCs that he wants the people focused on “pussy, not pistols”.  They ignore his admonitions and perform the track to overwhelming enthusiasm.  The track contained many of the lyrical themes which became commonplace within the gangsta rap genre: gritty, profanity laced realism, unrepentant portraits of guns and criminal activity, and raunchy sex.  

In many ways, the film is the story of Eazy- E’s role in creating NWA’s success. Emboldened by the positive reception to their track, Dre and Cube convince Eazy-E to bankroll their first recorded effort. When the crew they hire unceremoniously quit, Dre persuades E to sing the lead vocal. Here, the film gives an interesting insight into Dre’s gift for producing as well as E’s unsteady flow at this early stage in their career.  The result of this effort was “Boyz In Da Hood” and this initial success laid the groundwork for NWA.  

A big theme in the film is the challenge of maintaining integrity, professionalism and independence in the music industry. Especially when the money, drugs and women are readily accessible and the behavior and habits they acquired in the streets of Compton informed their business interactions as adults. The dubious business relationship between Eazy-E and Jerry Heller as well as the volatile partnership between Suge Knight and Dre drove a lot of the interpersonal drama between the characters.  Heller discovers E when “Boyz In Da Hood” was climbing the charts and helped steer the Ruthless crew to global success, but the absence of transparency in the contracts eventually drives a wedge between the friends. It’s insinuated that Heller took advantage of NWA, but it’s not entirely clear that he was completely unscrupulous, either.  Not only does Heller exhibit courage and loyalty throughout NWA’s ascent, but he talks E down from exacting vengeance on Suge Knight after a business meeting turns violent.  Suge Knight, on the other hand, is portrayed as a sociopathic thug with few scruples, a hot temper and a propensity towards arbitrary violence.  Clearly, the relationship between him and Dre wasn’t completely fruitless since Dre’s career went stratospheric during the Death Row era, but it brought with it a great deal of dysfunction and more than a few hangers on.

The relationship towards law enforcement plays prominently throughout the film and gives it an urgency that speaks directly to currently escalating tensions between police and the black community.  The film portrays the incident which inspired “Fuck Tha Police”, and not only is it an example of the indignities to which inner city blacks are routinely subjected, it brings the vitriol of the song to life even more vividly.  While recording Straight Outta Compton in upscale Torrance, California, the members of NWA were minding their own business outside the studio when cops descended on the scene and demanded that each of the members drop face down on to the sidewalk. Heller arrives shortly thereafter, demands that they be released and chastises the officers for assuming criminal intent based on their appearance. Heller instructs the band members to rise, but the cops refuse to allow them rise until they give the instruction. They forced the men to eat concrete and their dignity for several minutes before issuing a command to stand up.  Heller indignantly reminds the cops they’re rap artists, but the black police chief responds with a disparaging and contemptuous retort that “rap isn’t art” and tells them never to be seen in Torrance again.

NWA get their sweet revenge when the song explodes in popularity, but it draws the attention of the FBI while they’re on their first tour. Prior to their now infamous concert in Detroit, the police threaten to arrest NWA if they perform “Fuck Tha Police” during the show. Heller is rattled and advises that they abstain from performing the song to avoid any entanglements with the federal government, but NWA aren’t willing to back down on free speech grounds.  In one of the film’s finest scenes, the band members pause after finishing a song and give one another a knowing look.  The crowd is roaring with applause while Cube tells the audience about how they were threatened and the cops stationed throughout the venue grimace in anticipation of their defiance. They milk the drama of the moment just right, and when Cube instructs the crowd to hoist their middle fingers aloft and finally cues the song with, “Yo, Dre. I got something to say”, it’s positively explosive. The crowd goes mental, but shots are fired and mayhem ensues ending in the apprehension of the members of the group.

When it comes to the message of NWA and the success of the gangsta rap phenomenon, I’m divided. As a full throated advocate for free speech and free markets, I believe that NWA were fully within their rights to write and rap about whatever they damn well pleased and that the government had no business attempting to censor or silence them.  On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to cultural and religious conservatives (and even secular progressives) who find the lyrics distasteful and don’t want their children exposed to that lifestyle. I can appreciate that a parent who is attempting to impart an appreciation for monogamy, education, conventional employment and a respect for the law might feel a bit of frustration towards the success of gangsta rap. I’m also sympathetic to black community leaders and parents who also may be galled by their success because their lifestyles and message run counter to their efforts to turn their own communities around. Regardless, NWA’s message burns with intensity and relevance mostly because they were the first and arguably the best at this particular style of hip-hop. Like every innovator, scores of imitators have sprung up in their wake, but they’ll never match the originality of the pioneers themselves.

Straight Outta Compton is ultimately a story of five African-American men who achieved success by simply raising their voices and never backing down.  But like many other stories of its kind, the success came with a price.  Eazy-E’s fall from relevance, financial woes and his untimely death from AIDS was just one of the consequences of a man who was arguably ill prepared to deal with either the temptations all around him or the responsibility he took upon himself.  Though neither story was a focus of the film, the death of Tupac Shakur and the imprisonment of Suge Knight also serve as a reminder that the gangster lifestyle eventually catches up with you.  Both Dr. Dre and Ice Cube may have had the talent and maturity to both persevere and thrive, but neither of them was without flaw in their interpersonal or business dealings. There are articles complaining about the ways the film glossed over some of the ugly and inconvenient truths, but I doubt there’s a biopic out there that gets everything completely right. The film makes it sufficiently clear that none of these men were saints.  If you are someone who feels strongly that the omission of certain facts supersedes and delegitimizes the broader story the film is telling, then you should probably skip the film.

The filmmakers clearly wanted to connect the message and story of NWA to the current tensions over race and police brutality.  The Rodney King beating and and the riots which erupted in the wake of the trial verdict were weaved into the film as a vivid reminder that the Ferguson and Baltimore incidents are not new.  While many will likely shoehorn the narrative of the film into the now omnipresent and shopworn narrative of intractable, systemic racism embedded in the American psyche and institutions, the film very subtly reveals the true origins of these problems for anyone who’s actually paying attention. Like many other urban black neighborhoods, crime rates in Compton outpace the national averages.  Single motherhood rates are disproportionate to other ethnic populations. Taken together, you’re going to have a community which naturally requires more aggressive policing. The police are certainly not above reproach or criticism, but the persistent effort to paint every instance of police brutality and harassment as evidence of “systemic racism” serves no one.

The performances from all the young leads are first rate and the soundtrack is filled with nuggets of classic funk, R&B, 80’s pop and hip-hop. This is a film that captures the voices of rage, defiance and alienation which changed the course of hip-hop and reverberate to this day. Like NWA themselves, the film is brash and unapologetic. Highly recommended. 

Trumbo

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To say that Hollywood is inhabited by self-congratulatory, self-important, narcissistic egomaniacs is perhaps an understatement and self-evident. However, that’s not to say that the Hollywood creative class is without talent, skill or principle. If anything, a great, contemporary Hollywood film exhibits both of these qualities at once. Hollywood films are also very good at promoting Hollywood’s own self-righteous mythology of being inhabited by collection of pious crusaders who are On the Right Side of History and Trumbo is unequivocally one of these films. Trumbo is of course a biopic which dramatizes the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, but it also touches on issues of free speech and the First Amendment, free markets, the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 50’s and the Hollywood Blacklist. This film is roughly analogous to Reds in that it dramatizes a figure of the American Left who had Communist sympathies and was persecuted for his convictions, but it is far inferior to Reds in the sense that it utterly fails to pinpoint the failure of leftist and Marxist ideology and the reversal of roles that has taken place between the Right and the Left in contemporary society. In the latter respect, Trumbo is dismal bit of partisan hackery which seeks only to reinforce the mythology of the American Right as corrupt, vacuous authoritarians who are Wrong About Everything and the Left as the principled, virtuous rebels On the Right Side of History whose voices and spotless moral rectitude are under perpetual assault by those dirty ReTHUGliKKKans. Though it’s refreshing to get a Hollywood film that wears its political stripes on its sleeve, the solid philosophical points that it does make are completely undermined by its partisanship.

Trumbo starts off on very shaky ground and only devolves from there. We’re presented with an extravagant poolside party with Bryan Cranston’s Trumbo arguing passionately in favor of the beleaguered proles whose labor creates so much surplus value for the greedy Hollywood capitalists. The soulless and indifferent Hollywood executive with whom he was arguing haughtily dismisses him as a Dirty Red and walks away leaving a cloud of contempt in his wake. This incident portends the ostracism to come. Principled, Compassionate Leftist is just trying to speak his mind and stick up for the Little Guy and he’s just shut down by an Evil, Heartless Conservative. In a subsequent scene on the plush ranch he purchased from the earnings he made from the dirty capitalist system, Trumbo is taking his daughter Niki on a horseback ride. Niki nervously asks him if he’s a Communist to which he answers clearly and unequivocally, “Yes.” She asks him if she’s also a Communist. Instead of educating his child with history, economics, and sound reasoning and asking her to reach her own conclusion, he lays out a half-baked, simplistic analogy which offers no sound foundation upon which to make an informed choice. Rather than expounding on why he was sympathetic to Marxist politics, he likens Communism as being exactly equivalent to sharing a sandwich with a student at school. This is the level of vile sophistry and perversion of economics and history to which Hollywood has descended. Socialism is just charity and caring for your fellow man, proles. That’s all. Utterly contemptible and loathsome.

Anti-communist sentiment was on the rise, and Trumbo and his screenwriter colleagues banded together to oppose the ascendant persecution as well as affirm the freedom to assert their political convictions on First Amendment grounds. In another gathering of Hollywood elites, David James Elliott does a great job channeling John Wayne’s cartoonish patriotism and his anti-Communist bloviations. The roomful of executives and actors express their agreement with cheers, applause and laughter at every sentence spoken. Once again, we see the Dirty, Evil Conservatives in the thrall of patriotic groupthink and the Fearless, Intrepid Leftists who just want to assert basic American Constitutional principles. The gathering ends with a confrontation between Trumbo and Wayne in which Wayne is taken down a peg when Trumbo reminds him that his patriotism was only tested in the comfort of a Hollywood studio and not in the trenches of the battlefront. Playing failed actress, gossip columnist, Anita Sarkeesian progenitor, and all around contemptible bitch, Hedda Hopper, Helen Mirren giddily informs him that he will be ruined in the court of public opinion in her column.

Despite making waves for his political sensibilities, Trumbo’s star was on the rise and he signs a lucrative contract with MGM. As he’s about to sign on the dotted line, Louis Mayer holds up Hopper’s column and warns him not to make these kinds of headlines. He signs and simply advises him not to read the papers. He’s subsequently served a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and is subject to an interrogation that most have come to associate with the term McCarthyism. He refuses on the grounds that he’s not being charged with an actual crime, but is ultimately charged with contempt of Congress. He is sentenced to time in the federal penitentiary along with nine others, and the infamous Hollywood Ten are born.

Hopper exerts her influence even further in a private meeting with Mayer. She pressures him into refusing employment to those on the Blacklist by threatening to tar him in her column and manipulating him with appeals to patriotism. Mayer tries to push back, but caves in when he realizes he’s cornered. She plunges the knife in further with a few choice anti-Semitic digs at him and other Jewish studio heads. Here, we see the filmmakers peddling the mythology of racism, Nazism, authoritarianism and fascism being the sole province of the Political Right. Never mind the Nazi’s application of Keynesian economic policy in the run up to World War II which mirrored FDR’s applications. Never mind FDR’s internment of the Japanese. The filmmakers clearly want the viewer to associate Nazism and fascism with the Political Right.

While in prison, he befriends a gruff and surly inmate, Virgil Brooks, who is in charge of prison supplies and happens to be black. Naturally, since Trumbo is a Leftist and Friend of the Dispossessed and Unjustly Persecuted, he is able to ingratiate himself to him sufficiently in order to obtain work typing up requisitions. Brooks offers him the gig, but reminds him that he will “fuck him” if he violates his trust at any point. During his period of incarceration, a former Trumbo actor colleague, Edward G. Robinson, is called to HUAC to testify and the inmates are able to watch the hearing on the communal television. Robinson confesses to being a liberal Democrat, but distances himself and outs his own former colleagues as Communists just to avoid the ostracism that Trumbo and the remaining Hollywood Ten received. After the testimony, Brooks says that if anyone in prison snitched like that, they’d be killed. That’s right, proles. Truly ethical behavior and real human virtue can be found in the prison population of America. The American criminal justice system is surely guilty of being overzealous in prosecuting an ever expanding sphere of illegality, but this persistent effort to invert reality and attribute virtue to all things Leftist is positively odious. This phenomenon is due in no small part to activism from both the black community and liberals alike, but you’re more likely to hear idiotic lectures about white privilege than you are admissions of their respective roles legislating these outcomes.

In another bit of blatant partisanship, Trumbo encounters fellow inmate and former HUAC committee member and interrogator, J. Parnell Thomas. Thomas was sentenced for corruption charges, and Trumbo takes a shot at him by reminding him that he’s the only real criminal between the two of them. Apparently, only conservatives are corrupt and abuse political power.

After serving his year long sentence, Trumbo returns to his family and attempts to revive his flagging career prospects. He’s forced to sell his plush ranch and the Trumbo family take up residence in the Los Angeles suburbs. His neighbors are aware of him and the persecution continues with threatening anonymous notes and vandalistic messages on their property. Desperate for work, Trumbo makes a deal with B-movie kingpin, Frank King, and agrees to write scripts under a pseudonym. During this time, he secures work for his blacklisted colleagues and enters into a period of relentless output and near perpetual solitude. In a family meeting in which Trumbo conscripts his family into his semi-clandestine script writing factory, Niki wonders how she will fit in time for her studies and her Civil Rights activism. Got that, proles? Leftists are smart, studious, industrious and of course, care deeply about Social Justice. Trumbo’s star is also quietly rising as he wins Oscars for penning Roman Holiday and The Brave One, but cannot claim credit due to his blacklist status. His relationship with his family is increasingly strained as a result of his punishing work schedule, and things come to head during Niki’s sixteenth birthday. She cannot believe that her own father cannot spare even a minute to share a piece of birthday cake on this momentous occasion, and she storms off in a fit of frustration. Trumbo seeks her out in order to attempt a reconciliation and finds her fighting patriarchy and racism at the racially integrated café. For once, the Hollywood film portrays the father as a positive influence on his daughter. Apparently, even Leftists have to affirm family values and the virtues of fatherhood every now and then.

Trumbo’s fortunes finally turn when Kirk Douglas asks him to work on the script for Spartacus. Douglas is able to win Trumbo over by telling him that Spartacus is the story of a man who stood his ground when the world was against him. Trumbo’s script catches the attention of filmmaker Otto Preminger and he’s offered another big opportunity to write the script for Exodus. Hopper’s defamation campaign is relentless and she attempts to manipulate and threaten Douglas for employing Trumbo, but ultimately caves in to Douglas’ resolve. “When did you become such a bastard?” asks Hopper. “I’ve always been a bastard,” retorts Douglas. What appears to be Spartacus’ Randian message of individualism against the tyranny of the collective is transformed into the facile collectivism of #JeSuisCharlie. The reign of repression is finally broken when Preminger goes to the press with an open admission that Trumbo is the writer of Exodus.

Trumbo is canonized with an award in the final scene, and here, the film commits its final atrocity of intellectual dishonesty and smug, self-congratulatory partisanship. In a speech, Trumbo asserts a hypocritical and contemptible moral relativism by claiming that there were “no heroes and no villains” during the anti-Communist purges. After two hours of demagoguery and demonization of the Political Right, the filmmakers just want you to believe that this was just a non-partisan slice of history without an agenda from which you can draw your own conclusions. It’s not as though the politicization of Hollywood began under FDR and has continued to push government propaganda ever since then. It’s not as though leftists have triumphed overwhelmingly in their legislative pursuits over the past century and those policies have contributed to any of the negative outcomes in America. It’s not as though leftists have overwhelmingly colonized academia and Hollywood and nearly all of the messaging reflects a solidly leftist ideological bent. It’s not as though leftist social justice activism has taken on the exact same characteristics as the McCarthyist witch hunts and people now lose their jobs and fortunes in the Star Chamber of social media. There are no failed leftist policies and there is no reckoning to be made with the historical connections to failed socialist states and contemporary leftist policy. Nope. It’s just those dirty conservatives and their nationalism, authoritarianism, racism, and dumb, selfish devotion to capitalism.

Trumbo is a an interesting story which touches on an earlier and highly politicized atmosphere in America from which important lessons can be drawn. Unfortunately, it’s just peddling the same lesson that Hollywood is almost always selling. As long as you’re a Leftist, you’re a Good Person. If not, you’re evil, racist and stupid and on the Wrong Side of History. Setting aside his socialist politics, Trumbo’s life stands as a testimony to the importance of free speech, the inextricable link between individual freedom and economic freedom that can only flourish under capitalism, and against the pernicious influence of the state in carrying out a political agenda regardless of its partisan origins. Everyone regardless of political affiliation can learn from these examples. It’s just too bad they’ve been papered over with the facile talking points of the Left.

Reds

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I admit it.  It’s not the Marxist lovefest I expected.  

I went into Warren Beatty’s 1981 opus expecting it to be another Hollywood love letter to socialism.  Instead, what I witnessed was a remarkably honest portrait of a doomed love affair between two seminal American communist radicals whose ideals pitted them against one another and drove them apart despite their deep devotion to one another. 

Reds is a sweeping historical political drama which encompasses the roots of the American socialist Left, World War 1, and the Bolshevik Revolution.  The film is built around the tempestuous love affair between John Reed and Louise Bryant played by Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton respectively.   Its major achievement is how it manages to expose the limitations of Marxism and socialism by showing how the central characters’ allegedly revolutionary ideals undermined their ability to simply be with one another. 

As expected, the film spells out some of the facile appeal of socialism at the outset.  Beatty takes a very classical approach to filmmaking and the themes of the film are embedded in the characters. Louise Bryant is the aspiring writer and avowed feminist with libertine sexual mores who scandalizes Portland’s high society by posing nude for an artist sketch.  John Reed leaves jaws agape at the Liberal Society when he openly opines that the motivation behind the war is the capitalistic profit motive.  Louise is enthralled by Reed and after asking him for an interview, they spend an evening together in which Reed bores the shit out of her regales her with his passionate desire to foment a socialist revolution.   Socialist feminist and Marxist revolutionary meet and the seeds of a deep love affair at a momentous time in history are sown. 

All of the touchstones of leftist bohemian ideals and political activism are present; sexual promiscuity, polyamory, disdain for capitalism, anti-war sentiment, high artistic idealism, an initial refusal to submit to traditional bourgeois values, and a naïve hope in the promise of a worker’s revolution.  

Reed and Bryant eventually travel to Greenwich Village and we’re introduced to the seminal figures of America’s socialist Left including Emma Goldman and Max Eastman.  The atmosphere is ripe with revolutionary spirit, but Reed’s attempts to cover labor organizing efforts for his socialist magazine take him away from Bryant and drive an emotional wedge between them.   Meanwhile, Bryant tries to peddle her writing, but fails because her writing sucks.   Bryant tries to assert her independence, but can’t confront how much she ultimately wants and needs Reed.  The couple resolve to remain together and set out to Provincetown, MA with Eugene O’Neill and others to live as artists in a quasi-communistic manner. 

Reed’s activism leads him away from the idyll of Provincetown, and on to the campaign trail to canvass for Woodrow Wilson.  Bryant has an affair with O’Neill, and here, Beatty shows how the bohemian spirit of free love clashes with monogamous impulses.   

Bryant and Reed separate again, but are reunited when Reed follows her to France and asks her to join him on his journey to Petrograd to cover the imminent Bolshevik Revolution.   Though their love is rekindled in the fires of the Revolution, their activity is not viewed favorably by US federal authorities.   Reed is given a platform at a Bolshevik rally and stirs up the proles with some good old fashioned demagoguery.  It’s impeccably staged and plays like an Occupy Wall Street protest if it weren’t run by a bunch of pussies. 

They return to the US with a renewed hope in revolution, but with the Feds hot on their tail.  Adding to their travails is their renewed tensions with the American Socialist Party.  Reed is a member of the Industrial Workers of World and tries to persuade them toward a Bolshevik spirit, but his views are at odds with the leadership of the party.  Reed breaks with the main party and forms his own more “pure” Socialist Party and is voted as the leader to seek the sanction of the Bolsheviks in Moscow. Here, the film turns a corner and starts to show how the revolution and Marxist dogma ultimately implodes and pits socialists against one another.  The bickering and tests of purity which the party members apply to one another translates perfectly to modern day squabbles and purges carried out by social justice progressives today.  

Reed travels back to Moscow, and after enduring imprisonment for improper paperwork, is ultimately conscripted by the party elites to be a propagandist.   The consequences of his choice hit hard as he is denied return to the United States, finds his appeals to the Party squashed by crushing authoritarianism, and is unable to get a simple communication to his wife due to the palsied bureaucratization, incompetence and backwardness of life in Soviet Russia.

He is ultimately reunited with the recently deported Emma Goldman and he ponders his fate in her squalid apartment.  In a devastating monologue, Goldman tries to appeal to his sense of reason by pointing out the tragic failure of the revolution.  Instead of emancipating the proletariat, the Bolshevik regime has metastasized into a brutal and repressive police state intolerant of dissent and driven the economy into deep contraction and dysfunction.  Blinded by his idealism, Reed brushes it off and says that you just can’t have a revolution without cracking a few skulls.  

Reed is sent on a fateful mission to Azerbaijan to bring the gospel of Bolshevist Socialism to the Muslims.  To his dismay, he discovers that his propaganda speech was mistranslated by Party kommissar, Zinoviev.  Drawing an excellent and accurate parallel between Marxism and Islam, Zinoviev replaced “class war” with “Holy war”.  Reed gets upset that his voice and intent was subordinated by the will of the Party and launches into a screed against the tyranny of the collective.  It’s good stuff. 

The train is sacked by counter-revolutionaries and a stunning battle scene involving cavalry, muskets and cannons ensues.  

Meanwhile, Bryant travels to Russia to try and find Reed.  They are ultimately reunited, but Reed contracts typhus and he spends his last days in a Soviet hospital.   

Despite the patina of revolutionary politics, Reds is a traditional romance which ultimately affirms monogamous bourgeois values.  Reed and Bryant were variously portrayed as marginal talents and busybodies who were trying to reconcile their artistic ambitions with their political sensibilities and libertine sexual desires. These values worked at cross purposes more often than not and each paid an emotional price.  

Reds is an impeccably produced film which tackles a lot of pithy material while succeeding at being a solid dramatic romance.  It reveals the roots of socialism’s enduring appeal while also showing where it went off the rails.  Socialist ideals still hold a lot of appeal with the Hollywood set, but Beatty deserves a little credit for tackling it head on and with a higher than expected level of intellectual honesty.  

The Big Short: Film Review

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Despite its own blatant obsession with profits and artifice disguised as substance, Hollywood has been deeply unkind to Wall Street in its films. It’s unsurprising given the fact that liberals have colonized Hollywood and an overwhelming majority of films and television shows have varying quantities of leftist editorial.  You’d assume they’d be nicer given that plenty of Wall Street hedge fund money flows into Hollywood. Perhaps the tone of reproach and recrimination that forms the backdrop of The Big Short can be attributed to Wall Street’s increasing reticence to fund Hollywood ventures. Regardless, The Big Short is filled to the brim with contempt for banking and partisan agitprop.

I went into the cinematic adaptation of The Big Short expecting it to have the same editorial flaws as the book and these expectations were confirmed. Unfortunately, the film exceeds the dishonesty of the book and makes additional errors which alternate between rehashing thinly veiled leftist talking points and acts of blatant deception. And the book is plenty dishonest all by itself.

Why grouse about it?  Because the film, like the book, wants to have its cake and eat it too. It wants to be big Hollywood entertainment while simultaneously convincing you that it’s being honest with you and giving a definitive, fact-based account of the housing crisis. It’s a movie that wants you to believe that it is a Smart, Hollywood Movie made by Smart, Educated People Who Get It and it’s exposing that stuff you always assumed was a bunch of shit, but it’s really here to confirm your bias! See? The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal agree, too!

The film deploys a number of techniques to insinuate its truthfulness. Just like House of Cards, The Big Short makes generous usage of the dramatic aside. The actors deliver little monologues directly to the audience which refer to the actual historical events to let you know that you’re being admitted into a circle of confidence and being given the straight dope.

In the book, Michael Lewis offers little explanatory passages throughout the book to help the reader understand the actual instruments and transactions being discussed. In the film, they use celebrity cameos and snarky text blocks. They’re lifting the veil of secrecy and demystifying all that Wall Street technobabble! Margot Robbie explains CDO tranches while luxuriating in a bubble bath! Anthony Bourdain makes an analogy between CDO’s and fish stew made with aged ingredients!  Selena Gomez breaks down synthetic CDO’s while playing blackjack! How droll!

Bear in mind that the film isn’t without entertainment value. Director Adam McKay has a track record in comedy and he wisely sought to emphasize the book’s bleak humor. As a piece of entertainment, The Big Short is a Wall Street movie that at least has a little fun with an admittedly gloomy topic.  I just wish it was as substantive, informative and morally righteous as its cheerleaders claim. 

The film’s partisan bias surfaces right away.  In a voiceover delivered by Jared Vennett (Deutsche Bank trader Gregg Lippman IRL), Ryan Gosling takes us back to the heady days of Salomon Brothers in the late 70’s and early 80’s where the mortgage-backed security had its humble origins.  We’re introduced to Lewis Ranieri, the presumed father of the MBS as recounted by Michael Lewis in Liar’s Poker.  Before mortgage securitization, Vennett says, banking was a boring profession. It was inhabited by losers. It was devoid of this absurd speculation with Byzantine instruments and impenetrable jargon.  It was boring. You got that, proles? Banking used to be boring.  Let’s make banking boring again, Comrades!  If only there was a politician with those aspirations.

The film also shamelessly deploys some blatantly partisan semantic dogwhistles. In Vennett’s initial pitch to FrontPoint Partners (the hedge fund run by Mark Baum who was played by Steve Carrell), he uses a jenga tower to explain the CDO. In his explanation, he says old fashioned mortgage-backed securities were backed by the government and were safe. But then along comes private market subprime bond securitization which introduces all these risky instruments into the system! Got that, proles? Government = safe and boring. Private market = unregulated, risky, unbridled, rapacious greed

If only it was actually true.  Let’s take a look at what Cameron Cowan of the American Securitization Forum had to say to the House of Representatives Subcommittee about the role of legislation and GSE’s on the expansion of the subprime mortgage securitization market back in 2003:

As part of the Tax Reform Act of 1986, Congress created the Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduit (REMIC) to facilitate the issuance of CMOs. Today almost all CMOs are issued in the form of REMICs. In addition to varying maturities, REMICs can be issued with different risk characteristics. REMIC investors—in exchange for a higher coupon payment—can choose to take on greater credit risk. Along with a simplified tax treatment, these changes made the REMIC structure an indispensable feature of the MBS market. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are the largest issuers of this security.

Add to this home ownership mandates from HUD, the FHA and pieces of legislation like the Community Reinvestment Act, and you’ve got a pretty clear set of government mandates and incentives which provided more than enough fuel for a housing bubble.

The film is playing a very simple game of misdirection. Just because subprime mortgage bonds were underwritten by private institutions does not mean that private institutions created the conditions for the housing bubble.  Both the film and the book make no effort to distinguish between mortgage loan origination and securitization and the moral hazard that accompanies this separation. 

Just like the book, the film turns a completely blind eye to the role that monetary policy played in inflating the bubble. In a particularly revealing scene, a Goldman Sachs employee informs the “garage band hedge fund”, Cornwall Capital that they can buy credit default swaps because “If you give us free money, we’ll take it.” 

Of course, the filmmakers wanted to portray the dirty, evil greedy bankers as unscrupulous thieves.  But if you just reorient that statement and apply it to the relationship between the Federal Reserve and the banks, it’s actually remarkably accurate.  The Fed dispenses “free” money, and the banks take it

The film’s biggest partisan offense is McKay’s decision to swap Cornwall’s visit to the SEC with a visit to the Wall Street Journal. Cornwall wanted to expose the imminent housing collapse and they made their initial pitch to the press. In the film, their pleas are met with indifference by a Wall Street Journal reporter who’s so deep in the tank with the bigwigs, he can’t jeopardize his position to do the right thing.  Of course! Those bootlickers at the Journal aren’t going to have any courage. They’re toadies for the bankers! They were completely oblivious to the possibility of a housing bubble!

In the book [1] however, the WSJ connected them directly with the enforcement division of the SEC. And guess what?  Their case was treated with total indifference. 

They tried to make up for it in a scene involving a female college friend recently departed from the SEC.  In a poolside conversation at an extravagant industry conference in Las Vegas, the former SEC employee is basking in the sun in a sexy bathing suit listening to the impassioned pleas of Jamie Shipley and Charlie Geller. She confides that the SEC wasn’t pursuing enforcement actions because the funding dried up. 

Come on, guys. This is a bald-faced lie. Not only did SEC enforcement actions escalate during the Bush administration with nothing to show for it, but SEC agents were busy watching porn when the economy cratered. The SEC are not exactly the indispensable watchdogs that many politicians would lead you to believe.

They even sneaked in a line of incredulity when their friend flirts with a shirtless hunk from Goldman. “You mean there isn’t a law which prohibits you from seeking employment in the private sector?!”

Yes, we get it, McKay. You’re doing your best to include all the requisite talking points.  

Topping off this turd pile of talking points is the parting speech Mark Baum gives as he’s persuaded into selling FrontPoint’s position in credit default swaps just as the economy grinds to a halt. He anguishes over the decision because he knows that the crisis will be blamed on “immigrants and minorities.”  That’s right, you dirty conservative bastards.  Not only do you sanction unscrupulous Wall Street thievery, but you’re xenophobes and racists and you’ve screwed everything up for people who are just trying to get a modest piece of the American Dream.  Now shut up and get in line. 

The book and the film are remarkably unwilling to assign any real criticism towards the government. Both Lewis and the filmmakers seem intent on having you believe that the government played no role in encouraging mortgage securitization, home ownership, leveraged finance or excessive household debt.

In the last scene, Mike Burry as played by Christian Bale is typing up his final letter to his clients after banking $720 million from credit derivatives. In a voiceover, he inveighs against fraud and following authority.  On the surface, it’s a powerful screed, but like the remainder of the film, it’s shallow and slightly misleading.

Surely, we should repudiate fraud in business dealings, but if you aren’t going to discuss government fraud or how it contributes to a culture of fraud, the moral lesson seems unnecessarily selective and intellectually dishonest.  Unquestioned deference to authority is something that each person should challenge, but if your story about the 2008 financial collapse doesn’t question any government authority and heaps all of the blame at the feet of Wall Street, you might just be a partisan hack. 

[1] p. 166, The Big Short