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Mascots: Movie review

It’s always a glorious day in the Samuelsen home when we learn that Christopher Guest has released a new mockumentary. Starting with This is Spinal Tap (1984), in which he acted but did not direct, and continuing with the films he both wrote, directed and starred in: Waiting For Guffman (1996), Best in Show (2000), A Mighty Wind (2003), For Your Consideration (2006), Guest has created a bitter-sweet comedic body of work that stands up to the test of time, as funny and human as anything done anywhere by anybody.  I mustn’t neglect the TV series Family Tree (2013), which I loved, but which wasn’t quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the movies have been. Now comes Mascots, just released on Netflix. I’d say it’s B+ Guest, funny and heartbreaking, but perhaps not quite as profound as the very best of his work: Guffman, Show, and Wind.

The Guest method has been refined to perfection. He starts off with a setting–a community musical, a dog show, a folk music revival concert. We meet dozens of brilliantly rendered and eccentric characters attached in some way to that event, drawn, usually, from the same extraordinary pool of actors. They improvise scenes and monologues while the camera rolls, and then Guest and his editors put it all together. In the case of Mascots, it’s an international sports mascot competition.

I missed Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean and Eugene Levy, Guest regulars. But Guest made up for it by reprising his role as Corky St. Clair, the sublimely inept director/playwright/actor from Waiting for Guffman. He’s back, mentoring Parker Posey’s Cindi Babineaux, a superbly avant-garde Alvin the Armadillo mascot, with tire tracks all over her costume, and a cheerleader-overcome-by-l’ennui affected cheering pose. She’s just a spectacular creation, exactly what we can imagine Libby Mae Brown (Posey’s character from Guffman) becoming under Corky’s tutelage. And she partners with her half-sister, Laci (Susan Yeagley), who chews gum incessantly, even when seducing fellow mascots in elevators.

I was also entranced by Zach Woods and Sarah Baker, playing Michael and Mindy Murray, Ollie the Octopus and Tammy the Turtle, baseball playing mascots, whose act, at times, reveals a deeply seated mutual hostility as their otherwise cheery marriage unravels. Both Woods and Baker were brilliant–an oh-so-happy couple, with, uh, issues. And it was thrilling to see Tom Bennett again, who was so wonderful as a dopey aristocrat in Love and Friendship. Here, he’s Owen Golly (pronounced Jolly), a soccer loving Hedgehog mascot, a role he inherited from his Dad and Granddad. Bennett gets less funny things to do and say than some of the other characters, and makes more of them–I fell in love with the whole Golly clan. There’s also Christopher Moynihan, as Phil, a Plumber mascot, who comes complete with a prop toilet, and a Turd sidekick. And finally Chris O’Dowd as Tommy, a massively aggressive mascot called The Fist. He’s just a big Fist. His sport is hockey, and he proudly declares he’s been banned from six different venues.

Also included are Jane Lynch and Ed Begley Jr. as judges–winners get a Fluffy; that’s what they call the main prize. And Jennifer Coolidge and Bob Balaban as the wealthy couple, the Lumpkins, who underwrite the event. And John Michael Higgins as a representative from the Gluten Free Network, TV producers who might be willing to broadcast future Fluffys. And finally, the immortal Fred Willard, who brings his astounding cluelessness to bear as a mascot coach fascinated by little people. (“Did they make you this size so you could fit in the worm costume?”)

Is it as good a movie as Waiting for Guffman? No. Is it better–certainly funnier–than any other movie playing in town right now? Absolutely. Netflix streaming, folks. Christopher Guest is back.

Sully: Movie Review

I was astounded by Sully, by how intense and exciting it was. We all know the story. We all know about the ‘miracle on the Hudson,’ when pilot Chesley Sullenberger brought his disabled airplane down for a water landing, and all 155 passengers were saved. ‘Sully,’ as Sullenberger was known to friends and family, became an American hero. He was on Letterman. He was on Leno. We all knew who he was–this tall, white haired guy with a prominent moustache. How do you tell a story that familiar and that recent?

Clint Eastwood directed, from a screenplay by Tom Komarnicki. And dramatically, the focus was on a hearing by the National Transportation Safety Board, determining if the plane’s destruction could be attributed to pilot error, an engineering or construction flaw, or just plain bad luck. That is a part of the story we don’t know much about, but we do know how it turned out; if Sully had lost his pilot’s wings, it would have been a national story and something of a scandal. We know what happened (in broad outline), and we know how it turned out. Where’s the dramatic tension?

Turns out, there’s plenty of drama; the movie is terrifically exciting and intense. There are two reasons, I think. For one, Tom Hanks plays Sully. And through Hanks, the movie ties the NTSB hearing to Sully’s own struggles with the emotional aftermath of his emergency landing. Not just that; the film ties Sully’s ordeal, and the trauma of PTSD, to our own American national nightmare; to 9/11. It does this quite explicitly; the film begins with a nightmare. Sully, piloting his plane, trying to make it to an airport, smashing it into a New York skyscraper. Then waking from his dream in a panic.

Those images haunt the movie, just as our own collective memory continues to haunt our nation. In fact, we see Sully’s plane hit a building three times in the movie. (Nightmares, and also in flight simulations). It brings home to us how desperate the situation was. US Airways flight 1549 took off from LaGuardia Airport on January 15, 2009. No more than a minute into the flight, the plane flew through a flock of geese, which destroyed both engines. Sully’s first impulse was to return to LaGuardia. He soon realized that he did not have the altitude or velocity to turn and make it back. But in the multiple times Eastwood shows us the incident, we see what we also know; that Sully’s plane was flying over one of the most populated areas on the planet. Any wrong choice would not only impact the flight 1549 passengers, but untold other victims. We see him narrowly avoid a bridge. And finally, with no other options available to him, he opted for a controlled water landing in the Hudson River. And everyone survived.

Hanks is terrific in this, though that’s hardly surprising. Tom Hanks has an astonishing ability to play command. I first saw it in Apollo Thirteen; he’s one of those rare actors who can play a leader and make it look effortless. I’ve known a few military officers in my day, and the best of them have that quality; a way of projecting authority. When we see the real-life Sully on talk shows and the like, he comes across as a pleasant, self-effacing sort of chap. But that’s not how Hanks plays him. At a crucial part of the NTSB hearings, it looks bad for him; it looks like he might really lose his pilot’s license. And then he just . . . takes charge. It’s a terrific moment, and I don’t know many other actors who could play it so convincingly. Hanks’ Sully is, yes, struggling with self-doubt and unable to stop reliving a terrible experience. But he’s also a leader, a pilot. His strength carries the movie.

All the actors are great in this, though. Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn play head investigators for the NTSB, and they’re both given the thankless challenge of making government bureaucrats (persecuting a guy we like), seem human and real and sympathetic. Laura Linney plays Sully’s wife, Lorraine, and she’s got an equally thankless task, playing the ‘loyal and supportive wife.’ But Linney gives us a sense of some genuine tensions in their marriage, and her scenes sparkled. I also loved Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully’s co-pilot. He’s exceptional in, again, a pretty underwritten role.

But it’s not just the leads. This is a movie with many smaller parts, from the passengers on the plane, to the flight attendants, to the air traffic controller, to the ferry boat captains and crew and the helicopter rescue divers and the medical personnel.

Flight 1549 went down on a freezing day in January. Even after its water landing, the passengers were at serious risk. They survived because a whole bunch of people did their jobs. They survived because Sully, faced with a myriad of impossible choices, made the least bad one available to him. They survived because Skiles did his job just as well. They survived because the plane’s flight attendants performed superbly, as the well-trained professionals they are. They survived because a whole bunch of ferry pilots hustled their ships out to the plane. The point is made explicitly by Sully; he tells Skiles ‘we did our jobs.’

For that matter, the plane also makes it clear that the NTSB investigators, who we initially think of as the film’s bad guys, were also competent professionals doing their jobs well.

It’s easy to see why Clint Eastwood, at 86, was attracted to this story. Eastwood is, above all, a craftsman. His films are meticulously assembled, exquisitely edited. He’s worked with the same crew for years, or when they retire, their offspring. He’s famous, of course, for being Hollywood’s most notorious political conservative. But I sense sometimes that he’s not conservative because he hates government, but because he’s fed up with big government’s incompetence and inefficiency and corruption. I get that. And I find his films a pleasure to watch.

Anyway, Sully is far more engaging than I ever suspected. It’s a wonderful combination; Clint Eastwood at his best, Tom Hanks at his best. And finally, it makes the case that Sully is miscast as a hero. He’s just a guy who did his job. That’s enough, and that’s plenty.

The Shallows: Movie review

In The Shallows, Blake Lively plays Nancy, an American med student on a surfing vacation to a remote beach in Mexico. While surfing, she is attacked by a shark, and injured. Somehow, she has to get back to shore in one already-munched-on piece. It’s a woman-in-peril movie, a movie about surviving a desperately hostile situation. It’s pretty well-done; kinda exciting. I know, tepid praise. And I’m not sure why I can’t recommend it with more enthusiasm. Lively’s a fine actress, she does good work here, and we do genuinely worry that she may not survive. It’s not that we’re indifferent to her plight.

This is going to sound weird, but the movie it really reminded me of was Gravity. That was in outer space, while this is a shark-infested lagoon, but otherwise, they’re basically the same movie. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock is stranded, and in danger, but she also has a series of steps she can take. She has to get from the space station to another space station to a satellite array to another facility; that’s what drove the plot. She has to get from damaged space haven A to damaged space facility B, to C and D and E and eventually back to Earth. Same thing here. Lively sees a dead whale in the lagoon–presumably, the whale is what attracted the shark. So Lively climbs up on the whale, and that keeps her safe for awhile. But not for long; sharks apparently can ram dead whales, to knock people off them. So Lively has to escape to a coral reef. And from there to another one. And from there to a buoy. It’s the same plot. “I’m safe for now, here, but that won’t last. I have to get to there. And from there to that other place.” And so on.

Of course, throughout the whole awful ordeal, Nancy’s resourcefulness, imagination, and courage pull her through. She doesn’t have much to work with, and she has a nasty, deep shark-bite wound on her thigh. But she’s a medical student; she does know how to suture a wound, for example. Of course, all she has to work with are her own earrings, but in a pinch, they hold up adequately. She turns her wetsuit jacket into a compression bandage, and uses what’s left of her surfboard for shade from the brutal tropical sun. All those scenes are fascinating, well acted; they’re the best things in the movie.

I compared The Shallows to Gravity, which it very closely resembles. But the biggest difference is that Gravity was tremendously exciting, absolutely riveting every second of the way. I found The Shallows kind of meh. I’m trying to figure out why. It’s not the star–Blake Lively is terrific in this, every bit as interesting as Sandra Bullock was in her movie.

I think there are two reasons. The first is just the setting. We don’t know much about space, but we do know it’s plenty dangerous. And we find Sandra Bullock’s resourcefulness convincing, because we don’t know better–we don’t know anything about outer-space survival. But we’ve all seen how many scary shark movies? And how many hours of Shark Week on TV? Ultimately, I think, the last third of The Shallows doesn’t work very well because we think we know how actual sharks actually behave, and it’s not the way this shark behaves. If real sharks can’t do what this shark does, then her duel of wits with it is substantially diminished.

I think there’s another reason too. In Gravity, George Clooney’s character dies pretty early on. That heightens the stakes; we think that Sandra Bullock’s character might actually die. Of course, she’s not going to die; Hollywood doesn’t do that to protagonists–only second leads. But in this movie, Blake Lively plays essentially the only character that matters. There are two Mexican dude surfers in it, and they do get shark-eaten, but they don’t matter as characters–we never even learn their names. So their deaths don’t have much resonance. And that means, we never really do believe that Nancy might not make it.

My all-time favorite shark movie, Open Water, a wonderfully terrifying small indie movie works precisely because we don’t really have any reassurance that the characters are going to survive. As we watch, we think that they’re as likely to die as to live; it generated terrific suspense throughout for that very reason. I wonder how much of the difference is due to casting. Open Water starred Who? and Whosat? (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, actually). While this is clearly a Blake Lively vehicle. She’s probably going to survive it.

Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a pretty well made, moderately suspenseful, fairly exciting woman-in-peril movie, The Shallows does deliver. There’s a lot to like here; I can’t point to any part of the filmmaking that didn’t work. It’s just a little too easy to compare it to other really similar movies that are just that much better.


Free State of Jones: Movie Review

Free State of Jones is kind of a mess of a movie, the kind of film that never seems to have quite decided what it wanted to be. At times, it felt like a docu-drama. At times it was more like a melodrama; at times it felt like classical tragedy. It employs a framing story set 80 years after the main story it tells, but it uses that frame very oddly, and starts it much too late for it to be terribly effective. I saw it with my wife, my daughter, and a sister-in-law, and afterwards, we went to lunch, and spent an enjoyable half hour tearing the movie apart. While also agreeing that, with all its flaws, it had affected us deeply. We found the history the film described completely fascinating. But we also weren’t sure how much of the movie’s version of that history could be trusted.

Newton Knight was certainly a real guy, and as played by Matthew McConaughey, a charismatic and fascinating character. He was a farmer from Jones County Mississippi, conscripted to fight in the American Civil War. He served as a nurse, apparently because he was strong enough to carry wounded soldiers from the battlefield to those horrific civil war surgical tents. The movie begins with a line of southern soldiers marching stolidly to their deaths. A union skirmish line cuts them down. The bloody battle scenes are graphic and ferocious, and set up the rest of the movie; we wouldn’t want to fight back then either, and would do whatever we could to get out of it. And so does Newton, especially after a young family member dies in his arms. He deserts. And helps neighbors fight off Confederate teams who go from farm to farm, stealing crops for the war effort.

Eventually, Newton is sufficiently notorious an outlaw that he has to go into hiding, in the swampland of the Mississippi delta. Also on the lam, a number of escaped slaves. And Newton, already disposed to treat his black neighbors with courtesy and respect, makes friends, especially with an educated slave, Moses (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his close friend. He also becomes ever closer to a black woman healer, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who he eventually marries, his first (white) wife, Serena (Keri Russell), having left him.

We also cut back and forth to a modern (1940s) Mississippi trial, in which a Knight descendant, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is tried for having entered into an illegal marriage to a white girl. Davis is accused of being one eighth black, and thus a Negro ineligible to marry anyone white. We cut back to the incidents of that trial on, perhaps, three other occasions.

Back to the civil war past, however, Knight eventually organizes his neighbors (many of whom have also deserted), and escaped slaves into an army. And they secede from the secession; declare themselves the Free State of Jones, with by-laws prohibiting rich men from profiting from the labor of the poor, and also outlawing slavery. (This is, ultimately, a film about the history of Southern race relations, but almost as much, it’s a film about social class. Knight was more a class warrior than a racial provocateur). Knight proves himself an effective guerilla leader, until finally he raises enough fuss that the Mississippi and Confederate authorities have to send a full regiment to deal with him. At which point, he and his men melt back into the swamp, where cavalry can’t follow them and infantry won’t. A few of his men are caught and hanged; most get away scott-free.

Those incidents make up perhaps the first two thirds of the movie; maybe a little less. The rest of the movie covers the end of the war, Reconstruction, the fight for voting rights, and the return of Knight’s first wife. (He welcomes her home, and builds her a cabin on his property, while his beloved Rachel remains with him in the main house). All this is handled episodically, with the story continuity provided in titles.

In short, we have essentially three movies. One is an exciting action movie, about Knight and his rebellion against the confederacy. The second is a story closer to our age, about a trial, in which a Knight descendent has to prove he has the mettle of his grandpappy. The third is a docudrama, in which we dramatize a few random incidents after the civil war; interesting incidents, to be sure, and tragic ones, as the history of the state of Mississippi is inherently tragic and dreadful.

I liked all three movies a lot. I found them all fascinating. They don’t mesh together very effectively, but that didn’t matter much to me. But it might to other viewers. It’s a terrific history lesson, even if the history can’t be entirely trusted. Who was Newton Knight actually?

The first thing I did when I got home from the movie was look up the Wikipedia article for Newton Knight. If that source can be trusted, then yes, the movie took some liberties with the story. It made his army bigger than it probably already was, and showed them as being more militarily successful. And, of course, Newton Knight is a contested figure in American history and Confederate history. Apparently, there’s a good, scholarly book about Knight by historian Victoria Bynum. I’ve ordered it on Amazon, and intend to read it when it arrives.

And I think that captures the impact of this movie more than anything. The story is fascinating. The acting is beyond superb. The filmmaking is stylistically inconsistent, but I also didn’t much care. But the history! My goodness! It’s a very interesting movie, and one I’m very glad to have seen. It’s also not a cinematic masterpiece. Let that be my recommendation.

Orlando, and guns.

It was completely horrifying. It was also terribly, horribly familiar. Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, specializes in nightly themed performances. Saturday night was ‘Latin night.’ Estimates suggest there were a bit more than 300 people there. Omar Mateen, an American-born citizen of Afghani-American heritage, opened fire in the club. He was carrying a handgun, and an AR-15 assault rifle. Mateen killed forty nine people, and wounded fifty three.

Mateen had been under investigation by the FBI for possible ties to terrorist groups. He had a history of domestic violence, and of anti-gay sentiments publicly expressed. He was also a concealed weapon permit holder. He was, in short, a dangerous man, with a history of violence, an adherent to a radical ideology, and known to be homophobic. He does not appear to have violated federal gun laws or the risibly lenient Florida statutes.

Of course, our initial response to this kind of violence is emotional, and personal. We hug our kids close. We weep. We call friends, and we post on social media. We want to do something. Perhaps we give blood. We feel impotent and helpless, and we’re angry about not being able to act. And we gravitate to those voices that seem particularly eloquent and compassionate–Lin-Manuel Miranda, Frank Langella, at the Tonys, for example.

But our response is ineffectual. We know that too. As my wife put it this morning, if the Sandy Hook shooting couldn’t lead to effective gun control measures, nothing will. Newtown involved kindergartners. If that doesn’t galvanize the public, nothing will. And in fact, after each major US shooting event, the public does become galvanized, or at least outraged. Our first reaction is straightforward: ‘we need to do something about this.’ But even the worst school shootings don’t tend to lead to meaningful reform. The gun lobby is incredibly adept at fighting off impulse-prompted legislation. The NRA recognizes that the emotional attachment to gun control is transitory. Those emotions fade in time. And in the meantime, little of substance has happened legislatively.

What we have to do is, simply put, to work harder. We have to decide what we want our society to become, and fight for it. And we have to agree that we’re in for the long game. I do not want to live in a society where military weaponry is readily available for private purchase. I do not want to live in a society where essentially everyone is armed. I also don’t want to live in a society with radical income inequality, where public education is underfunded, or where people suffering from mental health issues cannot get adequate treatment. But today, it’s time to talk about guns.

Here’s what we want. A federal assault weapon ban. Mandatory waiting periods for firearms purchases, and a federal registry of people who really shouldn’t be allowed to buy or own guns. I would love to see major restrictions on ammunition; if we can’t ban guns, let’s ban bullets. And I would love a national gun buy-back program. But really, any measure that would limit the numbers of guns in private ownership, I would favor.

Second Amendment? I’m completely in favor of well-regulated militias.

How do we accomplish any of this? First of all, let’s stop railing at the NRA. Many of the milder measures I’m describing are in fact supported by rank-and-file NRA members. In any event, the NRA is a lobbying organization, and an effective one. Fine; learn from them, beat them at their own game.

Here’s where we start, though. Vote. Vote in every election. Vote for state legislators, county commissioners, judges. Vote in every off-year election, vote in every primary. We’re in a Presidential year, and those elections are highly publicized. But there will be another national election in 2018, and it’s just as essential that you vote then. As Samantha Bee reminded us, the most consequential election in your lifetime was the election of 2010. The one you may not have voted in. The one where the progressive gains of Obama’s first two years vanished. Vow now: that will never happen again.

Don’t just vote, but nag your friends into voting. Be a pest about it. Bug them about it. The NRA has blood on its hands right now. The NRA leadership is partly to blame for this horrible shooting. But, I don’t mean to be rude, but if you didn’t vote, if you didn’t do that minimal civic act to oppose NRA-approved candidates, then blood is on your hands as well. Vote. Always vote. And make sure your friends and family understand how important their vote is too.

And that’s just the start. Volunteer. Donate. Make phone calls; drive shut-in voters to the polls. Your vote does count. Your contribution does matter.

Elections are won by the people who show up to vote in them. What we cannot afford is apathy. What we cannot afford is indifference. What we absolutely cannot afford is the luxury of easy cynicism.

We can change our society. But we have to work harder than we have, up to now. After Orlando, I’m fed up with excuses. We can turn this around. But we all of us have to work together. Vow now. Orlando is the turning point. Orlando is where we decided to change.

Searching for the meaning of life, Donald Trump edition

I feel for anyone trying to write political satire these days. Reality, man. Add me to the list of former Trump skeptics forced to eat crow; I’ll have mine with a side of snark, garnished with whatever the opposite of relish might be. Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. This is really happening.

For me, this simplifies everything. I’m a liberal. I probably wasn’t going to vote for the Republican this year anyway. The Democrats are almost certainly going to run Hillary Clinton, an outstandingly well-credentialed candidate, and someone I’ve liked for years. Is she untrustworthy? According to Politifact, she is, in fact, the most honest candidate running. I am going to support, with time and money, the candidate I’ve favored all long. Easy-peasy.

But Republicans are in disarray. Trump’s going to be the nominee. And so Republican pols have to decide if they can support him, or whether they should find some poor schmuck to run as a third-party conservative alternative. Or, they might decide to blow this year off, and vote for Hillary. Amazing.

The stark choices top Republicans face came into clear focus the day after Cruz’s withdrawal, in the person of Paul Ryan. Right now, Ryan is, as Speaker of the House, the most powerful Republican around. Except that, normally, the presumptive nominee becomes the notional ‘head of the party.’ If the two men were in lock-step ideologically, this wouldn’t be a problem; they’d just work together. Hah. covered the resulting spat nicely. In an interview with Jake Tapper, Ryan said  “I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?” That’s fair enough; Ryan does need to know the answer to those questions. The difficulty is that Trump’s been running against the Republican agenda the whole time.

Let’s unpack that a little. That core–a belief in limited government and adherence to the Constitution–seems like something that would be easy enough for Trump to agree to, because it doesn’t mean anything. (Or, at least, it means different things to different conservatives). All Republicans call themselves conservatives, and say they believe in limited government and Constitutional principles. The problem is, conducting your affairs based on empty, meaningless rhetoric is essentially what Trump seems to mean by ‘political correctness.’ It’s the main thing his entire campaign has been about opposing. Trump’s attacks on political correctness are sometimes portrayed on the left as simply him declaring a license to insult people. But it’s more than that. Ask any Trump fan, and they’ll say ‘he tells it like it is.’ That’s what they like about him.

Let’s get specific, show how this works in relation to a single issue; the development of a single aircraft: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Building that jet is part of the Republican legislative agenda. It’s something Paul Ryan supports. Trump opposes it.

The F-35 is a little faster than the F-15 or A-10, which it would supplant, and it has a little bigger gun. Plus, it would keep defense contractors happy. It’s very expensive–building and deploying it will cost over $1.5 trillion dollars. Seems to me that spending huge amounts of money on an aircraft that’s not needed expands the size and reach of government. It’s difficult for me to see how building a very expensive new plane just because it’s a little cooler than the perfectly adequate planes we already deploy is consistent with principles of ‘limited government.’ But, Paul Ryan’s version of conservativism is sufficiently flexible to allow him to support that plane, and to not worry overmuch about how it’s going to be paid for.

But Trump doesn’t care. It’s expensive and we don’t need it. Get rid of it.

The spat continues, and on some issues, Ryan seems right, and Trump wrong. Paul Ryan’s version of conservatism also includes “a message that would appeal to all Americans in every walk of life, every background. . . .” It’s not hard to decode that: he’s asking Trump to tone down the anti-immigrant demagoguery. This isn’t just political calculation. I mean, sure, Republicans know they have to broaden their appeal to minority voters. Trump’s anti-Hispanic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Chinese nastiness is genuinely troubling to us all. Ryan’s right on that point. But I don’t think it’s likely that Trump’s going to back away from any of that. His line about how Mexico is going to pay for ‘that wall,’ (the one he wants to build on the Mexican border) is the biggest hit of his stump speech. From Trump’s perspective, Ryan is asking him, Donald Trump, to give in to political correctness. Ain’t gonna happen.

The differences between Ryan and Trump are more than stylistic, in other words. They’re substantive. Paul Ryan is an ideological conservative. Conservatism is core, even when it doesn’t make sense. As an outsider, I think conservatism’s weird. I understand conservatism as a tendency, but not as a movement. In other words, saying ‘I want to carefully vet any piece of legislation, to make sure it’s fully funded’ makes sense to me. Saying ‘in general, I’d rather not raise taxes, though of course there are times you have to’ makes sense. To say ‘as a matter of constitutional principle, the government shouldn’t do much, should never raise taxes, and above all, shouldn’t do anything that might make the lives of citizens better, because it would expand government and that’s always bad’ seems very weird to me. (I also don’t mean to misrepresent conservatism. Please let me know if I just did.)

Conservatives don’t think Trump is a conservative. They don’t count his paleo-conservative nativism as, you know, actually conservative. They believe that conservatism is a set of principles, the first of which is a small, limited government. Trump isn’t that kind of conservative. His policy proposals tend to be poorly thought-through, and he changes his mind every ten minutes, while ferociously denying he’s doing anything of the kind (has there ever been a candidate for high office this thin-skinned?). But there doesn’t seem to be much ideology behind them.

But if what drives him isn’t ideology, what is it? It’s essentially his life-experience as a businessman. He sees foreign policy as essentially deal-making. He can’t see how destabilizing his proposals are, because in the business world, you can always renegotiate any deal. It’s not that Trump opposes multi-national trade agreements out of principle, the way Bernie Sanders seems to. Nor does he embrace them the way Paul Ryan might; free trade as an extension of conservatism. No, Trump looks at any trade deal in isolation; did we get a good deal here? Does it massively favor the United States? If not, we’ll renegotiate. Don’t worry, Europe. It’ll be great. It’ll be huge.

And so, this week, as part of his spat with Ryan, Trump actually said something remarkable, not that anyone noticed. He changed his mind about supporting a big tax cut. Said ‘I’m not necessarily a big fan of that.’

Tax cuts for the top 1% is as close to Republican orthodoxy as any issue could be. Every Republican candidate in this race favored tax cuts. When Republicans talk about a ‘pro-growth economic program,’ that’s what they mean; tax cuts, and trickle-down economics. Kasich favored a tax cut. So did Jeb!, so did Rubio, so did Cruz. Tax cuts transfer money from the public sector (bad!) to the private sector (good!). Tax cuts automatically make government smaller (yay!). There’s not a single issue that unites conservatives like tax cuts. Trump proposed one too–the biggest tax cut of any of them. (The fact that tax cuts don’t trickle-down, that they’re fiscally ruinous, and fraudulent and terrible public policy, we’re not supposed to notice. Hillary Clinton, by the way, is the one fiscally responsible candidate in this race).

Now, having just won the nomination, Trump is backing off from them. He’s saying “I’m not necessarily a big fan” of tax cuts. And nobody noticed. Really, it blows my mind how little attention mainstream media pays to policy.

If Trump actually runs on this issue? If he actually make opposing tax cuts a centerpiece of his campaign? I think it’s the one thing he might do that gives him a chance against Hillary Clinton. And it destroys the Republican party. Wow, do we live in wacky times.




Keanu: Movie Review

Keanu, the new Key and Peele movie, is, I think, the funniest comedy about racial code switching in the history of film. It also stars an adorable kitten. So you probably now have enough information to decide whether or not to see it. My work here is done.

What’s that? Oh, code-switching. You know, the way a bi-lingual speaker alternates between two language variants over the course of a single conversation. Or between two linguistic modes, or cultural referents. We’re all multi-lingual, and we do this all the time, suggesting class and ethnicity in how we speak. And nobody has built their comedy on this notion more than the smart, savvy comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

On their Comedy Central show, they repeatedly built sketches around the various social roles African-Americans assume. In fact, Key and Peele are educated, middle-class fantasy nerds. But they can, and often do, play urban gangbangers, hilariously.

As they do in Keanu. Peele plays Rell, and Key plays Clarence, best friends, upscale and affluent. When Rell’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he’s initially distraught, but is comforted when a kitten shows up at his door. Before long, he’s photographing the kitty wearing costumes in a variety of movie set recreations. He’s making a calendar, he says. Then, on a weekend when Clarence’s wife and children have to be out of town, the cat, named Keanu, is abducted. Clarence and Rell go on a search. And discover that Keanu has been taken by a street gang led by a guy named Cheddar (Method Man). And so Clarence and Rell code switch; begin talking and acting like gangbangers. And its really very funny.

Cheddar finds their act convincing, and sends them out with a few of his gang members. They’re to show these guys the ropes, in exchange for the kitten. And before you know it, Clarence is introducing these thugs to corporate team-building exercises. (“The key, guys, is communication.”) Then, while Rell is making a big drug sale to Anna Faris (playing herself as a cokehead) with a female gangsta named Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), Clarence introduces the other gang members to his favorite musician; George Michael. (“But what happened to Andrew Ridgeley” “He was never seen again” “They offed him?!?!” “He was never. Seen. Again.” Anyone familiar with the history of Wham! will get that joke.)

Eventually, Cheddar’s gang runs into another gang, this one run by Bacon (Luis Guzman). Both gangs, it turns out, want Keanu, mostly because he’s a very cute little kitty. And violence ensues, with Key and Peele scared witless and Keanu busily dodging bullets. It turns out that there is something inexpressibly funny about long, slow-mo, gangbanger shootout scenes when you add a kitten to the mix.

I kept wondering what I was missing. Key and Peele are exceptionally bright guys. Is this just a comic action movie with a kitten, intended as their breakthrough out of sketch comedy and into mainstream movie-making? Possibly that’s all that’s going on. But I do think there’s more to it than that. The male African-American experience is not, after all, just about drug gangs and violence. In fact, somewhat nerdy middle-class dudes like Clarence and Rell are closer to the norm than the likes of Cheddar and Hi-C. But because of the movies, we know all about urban violence, and gang warfare. Surely this movie is as much satire as it is parody. Surely there’s at least one level of protest built into its structure. Which is why one of their most famous and successful sketches involves not just the preternatural cool of Barack Obama, but the seething rage that (we imagine), may underlie it. (Careful; there’s some language)

Miss Julie: Movie Review

Liv Ullmann’s 2014 film version of August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, is finally out on DVD, making it available to those of us who live in the hinterlands without an art house in town. (For those of you pointing out that there are two art film theaters in Salt Lake, and that this did play there, where I could have seen it, I can only say, yes, I could have, but I didn’t. It’s an hour away, and I’m old. So there).

I love Miss Julie. It’s a brilliant play, possibly Strindberg’s masterpiece (though I’m also partial to Dance of Death and A Dream Play), a play many years ahead of its day, and also deeply anchored in the late 19th century. Dramaturgically, that is, the play feels like it could be written today–all that non sequitar dialogue, every interaction between its three characters subtextual and interior. And it’s ugly. It’s a play about sex and violence and lust and the lies men and women tell each other. But it’s also a play about the class and gender expectations of the late nineteenth century. Julie has, in part, internalized her father’s preposterous notions about educating young women, just as Jean’s ability to act disappears, and he is completely paralyzed when his master rings for him. That doesn’t mean it’s dated. It’s a play about how cultural norms warp and twist and damage us. It’s a play about how false and deadly class and gender and society falseness can be. The film feels old-fashioned and dated, a bit, because it’s a film based on a play–dialogue-heavy, with long, talky scenes. But it rewards our patience.

Ullmann has shifted the action from Sweden to Ireland, a brilliant choice. In a play where the characters are defined by social class, it helps to contrast the Irish servants, Jean and Christine (who become John and Kathleen) with their British aristocrat oft-absentee overlords, Julie and her father, the Baron (who never appears on-screen).  Class becomes front and center in these relationships every time the characters speak. And the cast is magnificent: Jessica Chastain as Julie, Colin Farrell as John, Samantha Morton as Kathleen.

Of course, any production of Miss Julie requires a Julie who can meet the demands of that part. As Strindberg conceives her, Julie is a upper-class woman used to being obeyed, who, on a whim, at times, plays childishly at social leveling, then feigns shock when her servants resent it. Under that, is a budding sexuality, with its demands, and under that, a terrible, crippling insecurity and vulnerability. And under that, deadly, killing depression. Jean (or John, in this version), imagines himself to be undaunted by class, and free to play dangerous sexual games with someone in a position to destroy his life. In fact, he’s a weakling and a coward, which the sensible Christine (Kathleen here), knows in her bones, and is willing to be content with. He’s a valet; she’s a cook. Marrying him (which he seems to have hinted at, if not actually promised), is a step up for her, socially. So she waits on him, cooks special meals for him, sleeps with him. She’s the only character who sees right through John and Julie’s dangerous flirtations, and the only one interested in, though not capable of, pulling them back.

It can be a frustrating film to watch, I’ll grant that. The dialogue is opaque; they only rarely say what they’re actually thinking, and emotion drowns out clarity with alarming frequency. And it’s not an attractive film. Filmed at Castle Coole in County Fermanagh in Ireland, we don’t see much of the countryside, and almost nothing of the fancier areas of the castle. Mostly, the action takes place in Kathleen’s drab, functional kitchen. The focus is on the actors, on their physicality in that space. And Chastain is remarkable, with her angular face, her broken, stiff posture, her dress falling off her shoulder. The character ranges from imperious and commanding to suicidal, and Chastain makes it all work. Farrell is not a whit behind her, conveying both his self-delusion, his frankly open lust, and his dangerous and deadly weakness.

If I have one complaint about the film, it’s in its depiction of the Midsummer’s Eve celebration of the other servants. That night, full of drunken revelry and open sexuality, is actively dangerous for Julie and John, a night when only the most rigid compliance with the rules of class distinctions can prevent class resentment turning violent. In the play, Julie and Jean take refuge in his bedroom out of desperate self-defense. In the movie, John’s offer of safe haven seems to have just a hint of a sexual agenda. Does Julie seduce him, does he seduce her, do they willfully seduce each other? It’s a point Strindberg leaves unanswered. But in his play, we do see the other servants, as their party destroys Christine’s domain, the kitchen. I think we need that violence; the best productions I have seen don’t shy away from it, as Ullmann’s does. Ullmann’s filmmaking has a restraint and delicacy that work beautifully for most of the film. But when the film seems to require a harsher tone, she backs away from it a little.

Still, it’s quite wonderful. Liv Ullmann worked with Ingmar Bergman in ten films. She knows where to put the camera, and like Bergman, she also knows when the camera should linger, not on the speaker, but the hearer. Plus, it’s a superbly acted version of Miss Julie. What’s not to love?

John Grisham, Rogue Lawyer: book review

I have a confession to make; I really like John Grisham novels. I’ve read them all, I think, even the YA Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer books, which are actually great fun. I fully agree that Grisham’s not a great prose stylist. He writes legal thrillers–so does Scott Turow, who is a better writer by far, a point Grisham has conceded. (In fact, Turow and Grisham are friends, and have worked together politically in opposition to the death penalty). But Grisham tells a great story, creates memorable (if a trifle flat) characters, and gets the legal details of his fictional cases right. And his heart’s in the right place. Grisham gives a lot of money for shelters for victims of domestic violence, and many of his novels seem to be as much about publicizing problems in the American legal system as they are about being entertaining potboilers.

I just re-read the last paragraph, and it occurs to me that my praise is pretty grudging. This is, after all, a writer who I really enjoy, and who has provided me with untold hours of reading pleasure. It’s quite possible that, as a fancy-pants intellectual type, I’m possibly a trifle embarrassed about liking a best-selling author of genre novels. Yikes. So let me start over; I really like John Grisham’s novels. And I just read the most recent of them, and it’s a corker. Get it; read it. Enjoy.

Most Grisham novels are about young idealistic lawyer protagonists. Often, Grisham’s heroes work in big soulless, horrible, New York law firms, hate everything about their lives, and quit when given a chance to Make A Difference (but for a lot less money). Grisham’s novels posit the law as a fundamentally neutral force in society. It can do a lot of good, in the right hands, and can shield and protect the worst elements in American society in the wrong hands. Grisham’s sympathies (and therefore, our sympathies) are with underdogs, but underdogs don’t really win all that often, which is why, in his more recent books, Grisham’s heroes have often ended up disillusioned. There’s also usually an issue Grisham’s books deal with; the plight of black-lung-suffering miners, for example, in Gray Mountain. Anyway, that’s Grisham; a popular story-teller, and a good guy, a man with a soul and a conscience, who uses his unique place in popular culture to try to do some good in the world.

His newest, Rogue Lawyer is a terrific read, but it’s really a departure. The hero, Sebastian Rudd, is a mean, tough, son-of-a-bitch, the ultimate bottom-feeding lawyer. He defends murderers and drug lords–he’ll defend anyone. (He couldn’t care less if the guy he’s defending is guilty or not–he’s going to try to get him off). He trawls for personal injury cases. He’s also a tremendous lawyer, though pretty thoroughly unethical; he’s constantly skating right on the edge of disbarment. He figures that prosecutors cheat and lie, so he needs to as well. His office is a van, and his best friend is also his bodyguard. His favorite recreation is MMA–his hobby is managing kick boxers. He’s divorced, and pretty well despises his ex-wife, but they manage to keep things (barely) civil for the sake of their son, a nice kid who Sebastian genuinely does love, though he nearly loses custody when he takes the kid to an MMA cage match.

Rudd is, in short, one of the most memorable and compelling lead characters Grisham has ever created. And the way Grisham uses him is equally fascinating. Usually, a legal thriller focuses on one case; Rogue Lawyer gives us four, each of them terrific. And each case illustrates beautifully a serious problem in the American legal system.

In the first case, for example, Rudd is defending a drug-addicted, brain damaged eighteen-year old accused of murder, a murder he did not commit. Not that Rudd cares if he committed it or not, but as it happens, Gardy, the defendant, is actually innocent. He’s also a loser, a semi-homeless petty thief, with multiple tattoos and piercings and a perpetual smirk to further endear him to a middle-class jury. The murder victim is young, attractive, female and middle-class. The prosecution wants the death penalty. It’s a highly publicized case. And Rudd’s client didn’t do it.

And that’s exactly the kind of defendant most likely to be found guilty despite the lack of any forensic evidence, and exactly the kind of defendant likely to be given the death penalty. And, frankly, Gardy is the kind of defendant likely to be assigned a public defender. He gets lucky; Rudd takes the case, not for the money, but precisely because it’s a highly publicized case; he loves notoriety. And, of course, Rudd’s defense is riveting; the description of the trial’s a real page turner. But the entire case, and Grisham’s discussion of it, is clearly an indictment of our entire criminal justice system relating to capital cases. I loved it on both levels.

The whole book’s like that. Rudd becomes a kind of symbol of both the worst and the best aspects of the American legal system. He’s a tremendous lawyer; he’s also a cynical, scabrous, mean, foul-mouthed jerk. And Grisham uses him superbly, to shed light on where our legal system has gone wrong, where, in particular, our lawmakers have failed. We see the consequences of the over-the-top militarization of the police. We see how far cops will go to protect their own. We see a venal and corrupt governor, who Rudd is able to manipulate to get some rough justice for a client.

The book’s going to be a movie, and I found myself wondering who would play Rudd. Who has that edge; who can play mean? Leonardo DiCaprio, maybe.

The entire book’s a thrill ride, thoroughly enjoyable, and pleasantly thought-provoking. It’s a fast and easy read, but it’s also trying to do some good in the world. I loved the time I spent with Sebastian Rudd, and can say that Rogue Lawyer is easily my favorite John Grisham novel. And I really like his work.


American fraud: University Assessment

I used to teach at a major University. I don’t anymore. I was once tenured faculty; I’m not anymore, for health reasons. I miss teaching, I miss interacting with sharp kids. And I miss good colleagues who became good friends. And I find that old habits die hard. Nothing I do now is governed by the academic calendar, but I am still aware of that calendar, and I do think ‘today, I would be meeting new students, yesterday would have been filled with department meetings.’ And that’s the part of university life that I don’t miss at all. Meetings, and especially meetings about university assessment.

‘Assessment’ essentially describes the way professors determine whether or not students are learning anything in their classes. At least, that’s the idea; to describe it so reasonably essentially involves slathering huge quantities of lipstick on some fabulously ugly pigs. We’re supposed to decide what ‘learning outcomes’ we expect from our students. We then devise ‘assessment instruments (or ‘rubrics’), and measure outcomes. And then adjust our teaching in response to those findings. Numbers are good. If you can prove that ‘learning outcomes’ are being achieved, and can prove it statistically, that’s the holy grail. The powers that be want evidence based educational improvement.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a terrific article by Erik Gilbert. In case you don’t want to bother with the link, he says that his kids are heading off to college, and as they prepared to make that important decision, he realized that he didn’t care about their assessment programs:

My lack of curiosity about assessment when making an important choice about my children’s education probably surprises no one, but it should. It’s unsurprising in that no one, higher-ed insider or not, ever seems to worry about this when choosing a college. No admissions officer ever touted his institution’s assessment results. No parent ever exclaimed, “Suzy just got into Prestigious College X. I hear they are just nailing their student learning outcomes!”

Gilbert then continues to describe his experience with assessment:

Every year on my annual productivity report I write a mandatory and usually somewhat contrived narrative describing the ways in which I have changed my courses and teaching in response to the assessment data from the previous year. As an administrator, I sit on the Learning Outcomes Assessment Committee. . . .

So, what does it say that I looked at climbing walls, not assessments, when making a significant and expensive decision about my sons’ educations? It says that I, like virtually everyone else, don’t think that good assessment makes good universities and well-educated students or that bad assessment makes bad universities and poorly educated students. In fact, I am starting to wonder if assessment may actually do more harm than good.


The dirty little secret of higher education is that assessment–which involves a huge expenditure of time and resources–is essentially worthless, if not actually harmful. The key, in fact, is the line ‘mandatory and somewhat contrived narrative.’ Because he’s trying to be fair and balanced and reasonable, he understates: the narrative of assessment is essentially fraudulent.

I admit that my views on this subject are extreme. When assessment was presented to us in various department and college faculty meetings, I made an obnoxious pest of myself by asking, repeatedly, why we were wasting time with this ridiculous nonsense. That phrase, ‘ridiculous nonsense,’ led to a meeting with a Higher Administrator. Who admitted that, of course assessment was worthless. But we had to do it, so stop rocking the boat. Which I did. To the dismay of many many colleagues, who privately told me that my anti-assessment tirades were both entertaining and spot-on, so please don’t stop.

What never happened, though, not once, not ever, was any attempt to sell the program on its merits. If, for example, some trusted senior colleagues had spoken, talked about how valuable assessment had been to them, how much their teaching had improved; if any respected figure in higher education had ever once offered a testimonial, I think we might have been better disposed towards it. Never happened. Instead it was the worst kind of top-down management; you are doing this, period, so shut up.

Anyway. I taught playwriting. Here’s how you teach playwriting. You have students write plays. They read them aloud in class, and you lead a discussion, offering feedback. The students are asked to re-write their plays. A couple of weeks later, we read the re-write, offer more feedback. Repeat as necessary. Then, if possible, produce the play.

“But how can you know, how can you demonstrate, that the plays have actually improved, that the feedback really did help?” This from a senior assessment administrator. “What rubric can you devise to assess your method?” And this is what she suggested. Contact all the other college playwriting teachers in the state. Send them my students’ plays; get them to send me their students’ plays in response. Come up with a form, breaking plays down into different categories: characters, structure, dialogue, stagecraft/theatricality. Assign points to each play in each category. Everyone reads everyone’s students’ plays, and all assess them according to these criteria. If a play’s first draft scores a 30, and the rewrite scores a 45, then the feedback you offered was helpful.

I came out of that meeting greatly discouraged. Essentially, I would need to read four times as many student plays as I was already reading, and so would my friends at other schools. We were talking about a prodigious amount of work, all to prove what? That plays improve when they’re re-written?

Then, it occurred to me, that I had two alternatives. I could do all that, send bundles of plays off to colleagues at four other universities, do all that reading and assign all those numbers. Or I could just take ten minutes some afternoon and make up a bunch of numbers.

Guess which one I did.

Everyone did. I had another colleague who taught a beginning theory class. The students had various units in which they learned about various kinds of critical theory, and how to apply those theories to play texts: feminist theory, post-colonialism, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on. It was a terrific class, wonderfully taught by an energetic and imaginative colleague. The main assessment tool was a series of critical essays the students were expected to write at the end of each unit, applying the theory to the assigned play. Anyway, I was asked to be one of the assessors for that class, reading a ton of essays and assigning points in various categories: clear thesis, strong use of evidence, coherent argument, etc.

Here’s what we learned, and could prove (with numbers!). Some students were really into theory, and others much less so. Some students wrote really well, other students didn’t particularly. If a student didn’t like theory very much, and didn’t write very well, she could still work hard and do well in the class; this professor gave great feedback on the written work, with room for students to redraft.

So that’s what we learned. Obvious stuff that we already knew. Also, we learned, that the colleague teaching the class was really good at it. We knew that too. The next semester, I’ll admit, we kind of blew off all that reading. Making up numbers was way easier.

To be fair, the Chronicle also allowed someone to rebut Gilbert’s article, and Joan Hawthorne’s response is passionate and well written. It’s an administrator’s response, and describes the heady early years of assessment, a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, insisting that what professors professed was more important than what students learned. I don’t buy it. The straw man she sets ablaze is certainly flammable, but no, there never was a time when professors didn’t care if students learned the material in their classes. I can say that with some confidence; my father, grandmother and aunt were all university professors.

At this point, I think the burden of proof is on assessment, not on its detractors. If assessment is so terrific, why have no faculty, anywhere, defended it? Why isn’t the literature replete with anecdotal evidence, with ‘I thought I was a good teacher, but assessment opened my eyes’ testimonials? Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that administrators and compliance officers are keeping assessment’s dessicated remains breathing because doing so justifies their bloated salaries and ever-expanding numbers? Why do I see this as analogous to primary education, with its preposterous proliferation of standardized tests for second-graders?

I will say this: many faculty fake the numbers. We learn the assessment jargon, and we pretend that assessment matters and that we’re doing it properly. I did, and so did every colleague with whom I interacted across campus. Assessment is just the latest edu-babble fad, super-attenuated but essentially worthless. It does no good, and never has, because it doesn’t actually serve the students. It is–here’s that phrase again–ridiculous nonsense. Time for it to go bye-bye.