Category Archives: Movies

Two Guns: No Country for Good Men

 

I watched a Netflix film called Two Guns, starring Denzel Washington as Robert “Bobby” Beans and Michael “Stig” Stigman played by Mark Wahlberg. Both are supposedly on the side of the law, but both assume the other is a criminal. Both were undercover agents unaware that the other is a lawman (of sort). Beans is undercover agent for DEA and Stig is an undercover intelligence agent for the Navy Seals. Stigs’ boss tells him to kill Beans so that the Navy can use the money to fund unauthorized undercover operations.

In other words, the line between criminals and cops has been rubbed so thin it is extremely porous.  The two cops/criminals decide to rob the bank where Mexican drug lord Manny “Papi” Greco stashed $3million, presumably to sting the other.  But the two get much more than $3 million. They get an extra $43, 125,00. That extra money, in cash, is obviously ill-gotten gains. In fact they quickly realize that criminals will be pursuing them for the cash and likely won’t ask politely for the return of their money.

The criminals whose money was stolen are actually black-ops CIA operatives led by Earl whose money was stolen and who make even the Mexican cartel look like Sunday School children. Earl says he is “the hidden hand of God.” Sort of like Adam Smiths free market and about as benign. He will do what it takes to get his money back.

In the ensuing action they  encounter a bevy of corrupt cops and corrupt criminals. In fact there are no good guys. None. Even the heroes Bobby and Stig are not that good either. I admit that he irreverent banter between the 2 is amusing, but we soon realize these guys aren’t really up to any good either. No one is.

Here is a conversation between Earl and the hapless bank manager who allowed the money to be stolen:

Earl:   The United States is the greatest country in the world because we accept a man at his call: greedy, selfish, and covetous.

Bank Manger: I had no choice

Earl: In America we line everybody up so you are on your own. Grab all you can grab.

Bank Manager: I’m innocent.

Earl: Nobody’s innocent. There’s just the guilty, ignorant, or unlucky.

Stig tries weakly to convince Beans they should do the right thing with the money.  After all there is a Code. Beans denies there is a Code. Like Earl you just do what it takes. The rest of the movie is designed to prove Beans was right. This is no country for good men.

There is no Code.

 

The Upside.

 

Chris and I went to see this film on a rainy day in Arizona last year. We both liked it a lot. It is a remake of 2012 French film. Dave Driedger, a friend,  told us he saw the original with English subtitles. That makes him a super intellectual. The movie tells the story of Phillip (played by Bryan Cranston) an extremely wealthy paraplegic and Dell (played by Kevin Hart) a black ex-con who applies for the job only because his Parole Officers demand that he get a job or come back with 3 signatures from possible employers saying they turned him down. Nicole Kidman plays Phillips crusty and protective assistant. Phillip hires Dell because he is the least qualified applicant and yet detects some ephemeral bond between him and Dell. The choice reveals for the first time his rebellious streak.

The black parolee ends up restoring life to Phillip beyond listening to opera which until then seems to be Phillips only pleasure and it seems a pretty thin one at that (even to one who enjoys opera like me). There is no doubt that there is some class stereotyping in relation particularly to Dell. Dell is a father to a young man who has about as much use for Dell as does his ex-wife.

The two main characters learn from each other. Dell learns that it is useful to have some money and job. Phillip learns to have some fun. Both exchange musical tips. In the meantime they have fun riding around in Phillip’s fancy car, yanking the legs of cops, eating ice cream, smoking joints, and trading insights. Little insights that are sometimes the best kind. Dell learns that Mozart is not half bad. Dell learns that Aretha Franklin has something to offer. Both learn that a little rebellion goes a long way.

There is some genuine unforced humour in the film that fills it with joy. It is not a bad thing to go to a movie theatre and get filled with joy. Sometimes that is all it takes. Today was one of those days. I liked it.

The joy allowed me to overlook some of the more unlikely aspects of the film such as Dell creating a work of “art” that Phillip persuades his fellow owner in the New York condominium in the ritzy building. I say ‘go and see it for yourself.’ Perfect for a rainy day or, come to think of it now, a self-isolating day.

Dark Water: A Much Bigger Question

 

I heard Mark Ruffalo who played Bilott, and Bilott himself on the PBS television show, Amanpour & Company and the real life Bilott. They made some important points.

Commenting on the legal fight that took almost 20 years of relentless endurance on the part of Bilott, Ruffalo had this to say:

“The system is rigged—against the people. They want us to think that it will protect us, but that is a lie. We protect us. Nobody else. Not the companies, not the scientists, not the government. Us We protect us. Nobody else.”

This is the fundamental idea behind the film. The system is rigged. Against us.

Of course, this was just one case. But is in any different in the pharmaceutical sector? Or oil and gas? Or tobacco? Or anywhere else? Not according to Ruffalo.

Ruffalo put it this way in his interview by Amanpour:

“We have a system where the government is not responsive to the needs of the people and where it is slavish to the corporate system. We have a democracy that is in service to an economic capitalist system, instead of that system being in service to our democracy. Yes that system is rigged. It has been rigged because there is so much money in politics. If you wanted to fix the problem, really quickly, you would have the state have a stake in health care. Then this stuff would get cleaned out really fast because right now we’re getting poisoned. We have to pay to get ourselves healthy and the state just keeps taking money from both sides, to keep the vicious circle going.”

In the American legal system the people have to prove the chemical harms them. The corporations can sit back and do nothing other than, of course, block the science of the opponents. This is a fundamental flaw.

According to the film there is still no regulation of PFOSA in America. And PFOA’s are ubiquitous. As Nathanial Rich who wrote the article on which the movie was based, explains,

“But if you are a sentient being reading this article in 2016, you already have PFOA in your blood. It is in your parents’ blood, your children’s blood, your lover’s blood. How did it get there? Through the air, through your diet, through your use of nonstick cookware, through your umbilical cord. Or you might have drunk tainted water…

Where scientists have tested for the presence of PFOA in the world, they have found it. PFOA is in the blood or vital organs of Atlantic salmon, swordfish, striped mullet, gray seals, common cormorants, Alaskan polar bears, brown pelicans, sea turtles, sea eagles, Midwestern bald eagles, California sea lions and Laysan albatrosses on Sand Island, a wildlife refuge on Midway Atoll, in the middle of the North Pacific Ocean, about halfway between North America and Asia.”

As Manohla Dargis said in a New York Times review of the film:

“But at its strongest, the movie makes you see that the poison that is killing Wilbur’s cows and so many other living things isn’t simply a question of toxic chemicals. There is, Haynes suggests, a deeper malignancy that has spread across a country that allows some to kill and others simply to die.”

 This is the bigger issue. The exploration of this issue is what makes this film, and the article on which it is based, so important and so interesting. Ultimately it comes down to these two closely related questions: is our modern political system democratic and is modern capitalism anti-life? Those are two very big questions. Worth thinking about.

Dark Water: Real Monsters

 

 

Dark Water is a really good film. It is a monster/horror film, but not but not the kind you might expect. This is a real life horror show with real life monsters,.

The opening scene is dramatic, spooky and menacing. The scene is idyllic at the outset, like so many scenes in so many horror films. In 1975 a group of cavorting teenagers trespass onto property for a classic midnight swim. It’s obviously loads of fun. I have done exactly that type of thing. But just as in any self-respecting horror film you know from the menacing music that something is wrong. Danger lurks and teenagers dressed only in skimpy swimsuits are defenceless before the danger. There must be a monster lurking in that dark water. And there is. But it is not the typical horror film. It is much worse than that.

The water is oily—slimy. This can’t be good. Suddenly the strong deep male voice of authority rousts them up. The kids are forced to leave. And they do. After they leave a small boat softly glides across the pond spraying something over the slick and shiny surface of the water. The boat is marked “containment.”

In time we learn the monster is not supernatural. It is real. It is indeed profoundly menacing and dangerous. It is a chemical monster the result of corporate malfeasance of a high order.

The film was based on an article in the New York Times Magazine by Nathaniel Rich in 2016 titled, The Lawyer who Became DuPont’s Worst Nightmare.” That lawyer was Rob Bilott (Mark Ruffalo). He was a lawyer that typically acted for chemical corporations. He was an environmental lawyer—for the wrong side!

Bilott was persuaded to go to the other side by a friend of the family, a West Virginia dairy farmer Wilbur Tennant (Bill Camp), who was profoundly angered by what happened to his cows. His cows were strangely dying in horrible ways on land he farmed. He was suspicious. Something was wrong. It was a mystery and Bilott was intrigued. Like a relentless detective  on the trail of truth. And the truth is ugly and leads to an astonishingly long drawn out legal battle against a corporate giant and weak government regulators.

Tennant was unable to get help from anyone before Bilott. No veterinary or lawyer would talk to him. DuPont owned the town and the town was grateful for the ownership. People did not want to rock the boat. It got good paying jobs and security. But did it get something else too? Something less benign?

The corporate giant at the heart of the case, DuPont, never admitted liability or wrongdoing, but it did pay hundreds of millions of dollars for harm caused to animals, property, and people as a result of their chemicals ending up in a local stream and drinking water. The chemical central to the case is called PFOA short for perfluorooctanoic acid. It is a chemical that was entirely unregulated.

In the lawsuit Bilott asked for and got an order requiring DuPont to provide all relevant documents to Bilott. But he got more than he bargained for—110,00 pages of documents! He was literally swamped with paper. It took him months to just sift through the papers. Information in those papers did not come out easily.

It took 16 years for the case to wind through the courts, but of course all the resulting lawsuits have not been completed. Far from it in fact. Many of the parties involved died before judgment of the court was delivered, including Wilbur Tennant.

Yet with enormous—no heroic—work Bilott found a story. Sometimes, I am proud to say, lawyers are heroes. This was one of those times. According to Rich’s articles this was the story:

‘‘I started seeing a story,’’ Bilott said. ‘‘I may have been the first one to actually go through them all. It became apparent what was going on: They had known for a long time that this stuff was bad.’’

DuPont used TFOA in its wonder product Teflon. According to Rich, it was the source of about $1 billion in annual profits for DuPont. Worth defending with vigour. And that is what DuPont with the aid of their team of expensive lawyers did. They defended in the American style—with overwhelming force as the Powell doctrine demands.

PFOA, although unregulated at the time had some very interesting properties. According to Rich,

“PFOA’s peculiar chemical structure made it uncannily resistant to degradation. It also bound to plasma proteins in the blood, circulating through each organ in the body.”

 For decades DuPont had been dumping it into their own landfill near Tennant’s property and that in turn drained into a local creek. As Rich explained:

 “By 1990, DuPont had dumped 7,100 tons of PFOA sludge into Dry Run Landfill. DuPont’s scientists understood that the landfill drained into the Tennants’ remaining property, and they tested the water in Dry Run Creek. It contained an extraordinarily high concentration of PFOA.”

The court ordered an independent scientific analysis of Tennant’s claims that the harm was caused by DuPont’s chemicals and that report blamed poor animal husbandry on the part of Tennant instead of the chemicals. But DuPont had not been entirely forthcoming in disclosing information for the scientific panel to make its determination. The fight should have been over here. But Bilott was as relentless as a bulldog with its teeth in a human leg.

Bilott kept digging and as he kept digging he kept finding interesting stuff. Watch the movie or read the article to find the details and they are fascinating. Well worth the read or view. And he discovered a lot of people that were harmed. Horrendous birth defects and worse. An interesting little scene showed an adult person with horrible birth defects who had been shown in a photograph as a young baby in the film. The actual adult man, played himself as a happy-go-lucky gas jockey.

Here is Bilott’s side of the story according to Rich:

‘‘I was irritated,’’ he says.

DuPont was nothing like the corporations he had represented at Taft in the Superfund cases. ‘‘This was a completely different scenario. DuPont had for decades been actively trying to conceal their actions. They knew this stuff was harmful, and they put it in the water anyway. These were bad facts.’’ He had seen what the PFOA-tainted drinking water had done to cattle. What was it doing to the tens of thousands of people in the areas around Parkersburg who drank it daily from their taps? What did the insides of their heads look like? Were their internal organs green?

Tennant’s suit was eventually finalized after 16 years, but this film actually raises a much bigger question. Or even two. I will talk about that in my next blog.

London has Fallen: the logic of terrorism

 

This film starts with news that there has been a horrific terrorist attack by Pakistani terrorists. The Americans promptly retaliate in the inexorable logic of terrorists and states—it launches a drone attack a wedding of the daughter of the presumed arms supplier of terrorists. He sternly asserts to his son, “vengeance must always be profound and absolute.” No one questions that logic. The young Americans in Nevada controlling the drone act exactly like young boys with video games and congratulate themselves when the attack is over. The guests of the wedding have been slaughtered.

It matters not that the victims of the American attack are ordinary people, young old, men, women, and children. In fact, this is never questioned through the balance of the film, except of course by the Pakistani’s who vow revenge, extending again the dubious logic of reprisal. Of course it is also presumed that the Pakistanis are evil for attacking the leaders of the free world, including most importantly the bravely heroic young American President. Why is that evil and America revenge “natural”? This is the unanswered question behind this movie.

The Pakistani arms dealer is evil because he supplies arms to terrorists. The leaders of the free world, who supply many times more arms to terrorists around the world, are somehow good and innocent. That’s because they are on “our” side.  We are always the good guys. One side has heroes; the other has villains. What distinguishes them?

The entire film displays one group of killers killing another such group. No one questions this. The film is technically good, and morally bankrupt. A perfect film for a post-ethical world. Watch it if you like.

 

Knives Out

 

Knives Out was a gorgeous film. I enjoyed it immensely even if for me it failed to deliver the truth. So what? What films do that? But detective stories are supposed to do that. Aren’t they?

The film is a fine replica of an Agatha Christies’ whodunit. The setting is in and around a modern gothic New England manor home where the family of a wealthy author, Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer), have gathered for his 85th birthday. And, of course, the patriarch dies. At first it seems to be a suicide, but we all know better without knowing anything.

Around a reading of the will, the family is unsurprisingly a bunch of predatory rats. They are called “self-made over-achievers.” None is as appealing as last week’s laundry. As was said, “a will reading is like community theatre production of a tax return.” But in this case that is an underestimate as we get to watch the family teeth come out.

There is one sympathetic character Marta (Ana de Armas) the nurse of the writer. She has a surprising characteristic. She has a “regurgitative reaction to mistruths.” In other words she vomits whenever she hears a lie. Blanc says, “Cruel or comforting this machine unerringly arrives at the truth. That’s what it does.” What Detective would not pay a handsome fee for that? What philosopher would not like such a machine? Or theologian. Or maybe  they might not want it.

The detective is Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig), smirking, smoking cigars flipping coins and bumbling towards the truth. He has an unlikely southern accent. One of the sons, Ransom (Chris Evans) calls him the “CSI-KFC.” Blanc assures the family “my being here is purely ornamental, I am a quiet passive observer of the truth.” Just like us in the audience. Isn’t that what we all want to be?

There is a second peculiar mystery. Why is he there? There are police in charge of the investigation but they lean on Blanc even though he does not seem to be the sharpest pencil in the case. Who hired him and why?

The detective story is of course a classic genre if there ever was one. A search for the holy grail of truth. The detective has the task of leading us to it. That’s his job. As Benoit says, “this is a twisted world and we’re not finished untangling it yet.” He also said something like: ‘we must be patient until the truth slides off Gravity’s rainbow to subdue the sodden earth.’ I hope I got that line right. That line puzzled me. The rainbow of the book, I have been told, was the shape of the Nazi V2 rockets of World War II that everyone feared but  ultimately failed to deliver their cargo of deaths because the allies captured the facilities before they were ever used. Most think the shape of the rockets is the basis for the name of the book–Gravity’s Rainbow.

As Thomas Pynchon said in that book,

“But it is a curve each of them feels, unmistakably. It is the parabola. They must have guessed, once or twice—guessed and refused to believe—that everything, always, collectively, had been moving toward that purified shape latent in the sky, that shape of no surprise, no second chances, no return. Yet they do move forever under it, reserved for its own black-and-white bad news certainly as if it were the Rainbow, and they its children. . . ”

The rainbow then was the shape of death. Or perhaps, near death, something not as a fierce. Or maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.

Spenser Confidential

 

 

It’s difficult for me to decide what to think about the  new Netflix  film, Spenser Confidential, starring Mark Wahlberg. The reason is that I have been fan—not a rabid fan—but a modest fan of the Spenser series of Detective novels written by Robert Parker. The problem is that this film is loosely—very loosely—based on the characters in that series namely Spenser and his buddy Hawk. In truth the only resemblance to that series of novels is the fact that Spenser is a detective, or at least is investigating a murder, and he likes boxing. The only resemblance between Hawk in the novel series and the film is that they are both black and big and tough. I don’t know why the film makers bothered using the same names. They must have paid for the rights to do that, but there is very little connection. There is also very little connection between this film and a TV series starring Robert Ulrich as Spenser either. That series did have a strong resemblance to the novel series. This weird fact mystified me.

Now getting down to the film. I liked it. I like it a lot. It had great humour particularly involving Spenser and his rough foul-mouthed wife. I also liked the humour between Spenser and his new pal Hawk. The mystery Spenser tried to solve was hardly worth our attention.

All in all, the film was amusing and funny. Not a bad combination actually. I recommend you see it. Just don’t expect anything like the previous Spenser series.

2 Popes

 

 

This is a movie about something that could never happen in American politics–2 leaders with deep disagreements finding something elusive–common ground.

In 2005 Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and was summoned to Vatican City in Rome after the death of Pope John Paul II so that the new Pope could be selected. The process of picking a new Pope is arcane.  The people have no say. The decision is made by a group of old men, Cardinals of the Catholic Church. No women vote nor ordinary people. One would think such a system could never work. What could be more undemocratic than that? Yet the Roman Catholic Church has survived for 2 thousand years. Any institution that can last that long deserves some respect. In any event, the Cardinals selected German Cardinal Josephy Ratzinger, and he become Pope Benedict. Cardinal Bergoglio, who later became Pope Francis  came second in the vote. The two priests could hardly be more dissimilar.

7 years later Bergoglio has submitted his resignation, but the Vatican has not responded. The resignation cannot be completed unless Pope Benedict approve its. And he hesitates?The Pope and perhaps his biggest critic from inside the Church meet at the Popes grand Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the summer residence of Popes.

Like American politicians the two churchmen quickly find things to disagree about. But unlike the politicians they debate severely without corrosive rancor. When they are unable to find a way out, they gently agree to disagree.

Bergoglio comments that the churches of Europe are beautiful but empty. Pope Benedict, a traditionalist, opines that “change is compromise.”  It is attitudes like that which make the Church so rigid. How can you improve on perfection? At the end of their first discussion, Pope Benedict says, “I disagree with everything you say.”

Yet, again, unlike so many politicians, they have more respectful discussions. For example, Bergoglio also complains, when seeing refugees on television that we are seeing the “globalization of indifference.” He also says, “Mercy is the dynamite that breaks down walls.”  If only more of our political leaders had such wisdom.

How can you make a good movie out of respectful discussions? It seems impossible, but I would suggest that is what people actually crave and get so rarely. I must admit I found it a great pleasure. I must admit I also enjoyed watching 2 Popes watch a soccer game on television while Pope Benedict drank Fanta.

They even argue about truth. If these were politicians neither would admit any truth in the other’s position.  Pope Francis takes a different approach. He says, “Truth may be vital, but without love it is unbearable.”

Eventually despite a deep chasm between these 2 men, common ground is found. Pope Benedict says to  Bergoglio, that although he was waiting for the voice of God, he heard that voice through him. These 2 men may have been selected by a process that makes about as much sense as the election of American Presidents through the Electoral College , but yet they managed to see more than a devil in the other. I wish more of our leaders could do that. I also wish more of us could learn from these 2 elders.

1917

 

This film tells the story of 2 fictionalBritish lance corporals in World War I on the western front, assigned to stop a battalion of 1,600 men from walking into a German ambush.  One of the men has extra incentive. His brother is part of the forces about to walk into that trap. The general warns the young corporal, “If you fail, it will be a massacre.” Apparently the film is based on true events told by the director’s father.

 

The film astonishes with its brilliant cinematography and unusual points of view. This is a war movie like I have never seen before. I am not sure this is what I wanted, but I really got the feeling that this is what war is like. And it doesn’t feel good. It an outstanding film. While not for the squeamish, I recommend it highly.

 

The scenes of war are unparalleled in their grizzly realism. The landscape is strewn with mud, dead horses, dead humans stuck inside mud, often with only parts revealed. Rats and birds consume the corpses. There are cows in the country-side doing their best to ignore the carnage. Buildings are horribly ravished. Violence is sudden, shocking, and explosive. All of this makes for a great film created by artists at the height of their powers. If this film does not win the Best Picture award, the film that does will have to be outstanding.

 

When the message to stand down is delivered, the officers who receive it safely ensconced in their bunkers, don’t want to believe. They are ready for war. The last thing they want to do is stand down. That idea is entirely contrary to their aggressive training. You’ll have to see the film to see what happens.

But I want to comment on a side bar. The film does not glorify the “heroes.” It does not glorify war. And that is good.

But why do so many war movies focus on the soldiers? For example, I would love to see a war movie that concentrates on a real life hero–like Bertrand Russell for example. I read his autobiography about 50 years ago after my first year of university. Russell was one of my intellectual heroes, but he was more than that.

I will never forget his description of going to Trafalgar Square in London when England declared war on the Germans in 1914. What surprised Russell, and me, was the immense joy experienced by the people. They were excited to go to war. The young men and women, aided and abetted by the old warmongers, were absolutely joyous at the prospects of the war. Of course it helped that most of them thought the war would be over soon. They fully expected to be, as they said, “home or homo by Christmas.”

Bertrand Russell could not believe it. It was his first experience of people braying for war. They screamed for war. They demanded war. And only a few voices dissented from this madness. People like Russell who were conscientious objectors to the war urged caution. They were the only ones who were sceptical about the objects of the war. They were the only ones who thought the war might not end soon. They were the only ones who exercised any humility or modesty. They were not consumed by the lust for war.

Of course, the people in England scorned Russell and his kind as cowards, traitors, Communists, and Huns. Many of them, like Russell were imprisoned for refusing to serve in the war. That took real courage.

Yet that war served absolutely no good purpose. It was fought mainly by young men and women from the working classes, to defend the dubious colonial businesses of the ruling classes. Why would they do that? Those hapless young people were pushed into a meat grinder for the sake of the higher classes. Millions lost their lives for no good reason at all. The war, like so many,  was a monstrous disaster. Old men called; young men and women died fro it.

When will we see a movie that glorifies the dissidents who told the truth about war, urging caution and humility while renouncing aggressive violence? That is a movie that I would like to see.

Parasite: Start the Revolution Without Me

 

 

We watched an electrifying film–Parasite. The grand finale is exactly that.  Grand and final. The film is unabashedly Korean. Be prepared for English subtitles. Together with Roma, from last year, Hollywood is going international all out.

The film involved a family of con artists that gradually take over a modern mansion when the owners take a camping trip. The family is extremely poor. 4 people living in a tiny basement apartment sharing minimal food. All are unemployed.  When the city fumigator comes by blowing awful chemical we assume they will be choking. No they want the assistance to kill stink bugs in their apartment   Clearly, these are the wretched of the earth. Regularly a drunken passer-by urinates on the sidewalk just outside their apartment window. The con artists gleefully get drunk and make a horrible mess of the lavish home. Soon the occupiers find another man who has been secretly camping in the basement and from there, all hell breaks lose. I mean that literally.

The film is sort of an allegory of revolution. The tinder is provided by 2 groups of common people who end up attacking each other and the elites who own the house. When resentments explode they do not do so in an orderly way. You don’t want to be there when it happens.  When the revolution comes, no matter what side of the Great Economic divide you occupy, you will deeply wish the revolution had started without you.

Spectacular explosions are triggered by innocuous micro-insults–like smell. But the results are hardly predictable. Forces are unleashed with astonishing power and speed.  Modern technology, no matter how sophisticated, won’t help you. It will just pour fuel on the conflagration and the combustion will decimate all of the virtues. You will be done.

The massive walls around the house are insufficient to contain the bedlam. As almost everyone, except the current President of the United States, Donald Trump knows, even the most beautiful walls are inadequate.  It does not matter how solid they appear. They won’t do the trick when the pot boils over. Even the most obsequious minors can be the instruments of uncontrollable rage when it is driven by an “idiot wind.” When the revolution comes it may not make any sense, but it will be real and dangerous nonetheless. It will be time to get out of there; if you can.