Category Archives: Movies

Review of Michael Moore’s: Where To Invade Next

Last night I watched, Where to Invade Next, a 2015 American documentary film written and directed by Michael Moore.[3][4] The film can be watched free with an amazon prime account, or rented for a few dollars here: Where to Invade Next; or purchased for a few more dollars here: Where To Invade Next.

The film received positive reviews from critics. Review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reports that 78% of 169 reviews are positive, with an average rating of 6.7/10. The site’s consensus states: “Where to Invade Next finds documentarian Michael Moore approaching progressive politics with renewed — albeit unabashedly one-sided — vigor”.[15] On Metacritic, the film holds a 63/100 rating, based on 33 critics, indicating “generally favorable reviews”.[16]

I think it is Moore’s best film, managing to be solemn and humorous at the same time. My reaction was more somber. For me the film reveals, without explicitly saying it, how the toxic masculinity of American society, especially our propensity for violence and domination, leaves us bereft of community, compassion, and respect for human dignity. Social harmony and caring, juxtaposed with social dysfunction and aggressive competition, make the USA look horrific by comparison. Our cruelty and brutality are on full display and, compared with more civilized countries, American social policies are revealed for what they are—sheer madness.

In the film Moore visits (invades) various countries and claims some of their most successful ideas for the US. The idea is that rather than invade to destroy, we invade to learn how we could have a better and more just society.

Here are the countries he visits, and topics he considers, in order of appearance:

No one could watch the film objectively, assuming they realized that everything Moore is saying is true, and restate that stale line “America is the greatest country.” In fact, one should draw nearly the opposite conclusion. I highly recommend the film.

Command and Control: Damascus Titan Missile Explosion

Last night I viewed the new documentary film, Command and Control from director Robert Kenner. It was released January 10, 2017, and broadcast by PBS as part of its American Experience series. [11] The documentary is based on Eric Schlosser’s book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. The book focused on the explosion, as well as other Broken Arrow incidents during the Cold War.[6][7] It was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for History.[10]

The Damascus Titan missile explosion refers to an incident where the liquid fuel in a LGM-25C Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile exploded at missile launch facility Launch Complex 374-7 in Van Buren County farmland just north of Damascus, Arkansas, on September 18–19, 1980. The initial explosion catapulted the 740-ton silo door away from the silo and ejected the second stage and warhead. Once clear of the silo, the second stage exploded. The W53 warhead landed about 100 feet (30 m) from the launch complex’s entry gate; its safety features operated correctly and prevented any loss of radioactive material.

However, we came frighteningly close to a nuclear catastrophe that night. Had the warhead detonated, millions of people would have either been killed outright or died shortly thereafter from the effects of the radioactive fallout.

The documentary is riveting, especially when your realize how many times we’ve had nuclear close calls, incidents that could start an unintended nuclear war, and nuclear accidents, incidents involving nuclear material that led to, or could have led to, events significant consequences to people, the environment or the facility. Examples include lethal effects to individuals, large radioactivity release to the environment, or reactor core melt.”[4] The Chernobyl nuclear accident would be a quintessential example.

The simple fact is that we have so far avoided more costly failures primarily because we’ve been lucky. It is also ironic how the having these weapons poses as much threat to those who have them as to those at whom they are aimed. It’s reminiscent of the idea that the more personal guns we have the safer we’ll be—which is self-evidently absurd and contradicted by all available evidence from societies around the world.

Of course superpowers with thousands of nuclear weapons find themselves in a version of the prisoner’s dilemma. Russia and the USA, who possess more than 90% of the world’s largest nuclear arsenals, find themselves in the following situation: If they both disarm they both do better, they can spend that money on their societies; if they both arm they both do worse, they must spend that money on nuclear weapons and face mutually assured destruction. But both fear that they will disarm and the other side won’t, which would allow the other side to dominate them.

In matrix form, where B = best; S = second best; T = third best; and W = worst; and the first outcome in each parenthesis is the USA outcome, and the second is Russia’s outcome, the situation looks like this:

Russia

Arm                 Disarm

Arm             (T, T)                  (B, W)

USA

Disarm        (W, B)                 (S, S)

It is easy to see here that both do better and neither does worse if they both disarm, but disarming without assurance that the other disarms risks being made a sucker. Still, if each can be assured that the other will comply with an agreement to disarm, both sides should. The alternative is the inevitable nuclear wars and accidents that will result.

All of this reminds me of reading Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth years ago, when he warned of the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons. Then, in today’s New York Times we read that ” Thanks to Trump, the Doomsday Clock Advances Toward Midnight.”

It is now two and one-half minutes to midnight. Our organization, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, is marking the 70th anniversary of its Doomsday Clock on Thursday by moving it 30 seconds closer to midnight. In 2016, the global security landscape darkened as the international community failed to come to grips with humanity’s most pressing threats: nuclear weapons and climate change.

There can be little doubt that humankind threatens their own existence. How things will turn out or whether there will be anyone left to read these or any other words is unknown. The chances for using these weapons, either on purpose or accidentally, is almost certain given sufficient time. And when you consider even more deadly technologies in the future, the situation is truly dire. As for me, I’m not optimistic.

The Movie “Spotlight”: Philosophical Reflections

(This article was reprinted in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, August 14, 2016.)

Last night I watched “Spotlight,” one of the finest films I’ve seen in years.

The film follows The Boston Globes “Spotlight” team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist unit in the United States,[6] and its investigation into cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. It is based on a series of stories by the “Spotlight” team that earned The Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.[7] … The film … was named one of the finest films of 2015 by various publications. Spotlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture along with Best Original Screenplay … (from Wikipedia)

I am no expert on pedophilia and there is no consensus about its causes even among experts. However, pedophilia does not appear more prevalent among Catholic clergy than among other professions. The best estimates are that about 4% of the general population are pedophiles and between 90 and 99% of these are men. This is consistent with “the best available data … [that] 4% of Catholic priests in the USA sexually victimized minors during the past half century.”

Still, we recoil when abuse is perpetrated by those who claim to be moral exemplars. Many expect the mafia or military to be violent and corrupt, but not the clergy. But it doesn’t take much life experience to learn that hypocrisy is a defining trait of human beings. If someone boasts about his moral character, it’s a good bet that he is a scoundrel. As for the subsequent cover up, churches, governments, businesses, political parties and individuals usually try to hide their misdeeds, even if others are hurt in the process. This is a  near truism of human life. 

Another thing that struck me was how costly and difficult it is to do investigative reporting. It really takes a lot of work to uncover corruption, and the supposed purveyors of decency do their best to keep their hypocrisy hidden. Thus it is easy to understand attacks on the media by the rich and powerful, inasmuch as they know that a really free press is one of the only constraints on their power.

In response, a few of the most powerful have simply bought the media. Most people don’t realize that 90% of all the media  in the United States is owned by one of 6 corporations. “With the country’s widest disseminators of news, commentary, and ideas firmly entrenched among a small number of the world’s wealthiest corporations, it may not be surprising that their news and commentary is limited to an unrepresentative narrow spectrum of politics.” – (Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the School of Journalism at UC-Berkeley)

Given this state of affairs the spotlight investigative team deserves our unending praise for uncovering just a small bit of the corruption that surrounds us. I also thank them for reminding me once again that a defining trait of many human beings is hypocrisy.

Review of “Philomena”

Philomena is a 2013 drama directed by Stephen Frears, based on the book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee: A Mother, Her Son and a Fifty Year Search by journalist Martin Sixsmith.

It stars Judi Dench and Steve Coogan, and tells the true story of Philomena Lee‘s 50-year-long search for her forcibly-adopted son, and Sixsmith’s efforts to help her find him. I thought it was one of the most moving and profound film I have seen in years. 

It garnered a number of awards including: Coogan and Jeff Pope won Best Screenplay at the 70th Venice International Film Festival.[3][4][5] It was awarded the People’s Choice Award Runner-Up prize at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.[6] The film was nominated in four categories at the 86th Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay for Coogan and Pope,Best Actress for Dench, and Best Original Score for Desplat. It was also nominated for four BAFTA Awards and three Golden Globe Awards.

It received a rating of 92% based on reviews from 170 critics on Rotten Tomatoes, while at Metacritic it received a score of 76 based on 41 reviews, indicating  near”universal acclaim.” Stephen Holden  of the New York times described the film as “so quietly moving that it feels lit from within.” He also wrote:

Philomena has many facets. It is a comedic road movie, a detective story, an infuriated anticlerical screed, and an inquiry into faith and the limitations of reason, all rolled together. Fairly sophisticated about spiritual matters, it takes pains to distinguish faith from institutionalized piety. It also has a surprising political subtext in its comparison of the church’s oppression and punishment of unmarried sex … with homophobia and the United States government’s reluctance to deal with the AIDS crisis in the 1980s.

One of the negative reviews of the film came from, not surprisingly, the New York Post‍ ’​s film critic Kyle Smith, who has accused several other films that were produced by Weinstein of anti-Catholicism, including The Magdalene Sisters (2002), The Butcher Boy (1998), and Priest (1995), all critically acclaimed movies.[19] Smith who has been dubbed “America’s most cantankerous film critic” by The Atlantic magazine,[4]  wrote that Philomena is “another hateful and boring attack on Catholics.”[16] He called it “90 minutes of organized hate.”

However the real Philomena Lee, herself a practicing Catholic, responded to Smith in an open letter that began:[17]

Your review of the movie paints its story as being a condemnation of Catholicism and conservative views. It states that the relationship depicted between Mr. Martin Sixsmith and myself comes across as contrived and trite, and funny for all the wrong reasons. Forgive me for saying so, Kyle, but you are incorrect … The story it tells has resonated with people not because it’s some mockery of ideas or institutions that they’re in disagreement with. This is not a rally cry against the church or politics. In fact, despite some of the troubles that befell me as a young girl, I have always maintained a very strong hold on my faith.

And speaking directly to the critic, this deeply spiritual woman says:

Kyle, Stephen’s movie about my story is meant to be a testament to good things, not an attack. It is a testament to the undying bond that’s exists between mothers and their children, something that I’ve found time and distance have no bearing on. It is a testament to the willingness to never give up on keeping that bond alive, even if all odds are pointing you against it. It is also a testament to the fact that no matter how old we grow, there is always a chance we will meet someone, however different from us, that might impact our views on humanity and help guide us on a new, if perhaps unforeseen, path.

And she concludes:

Once again, let me state that all in all, Stephen, Martin and I have been incredibly fortunate in receiving such a warm response to the movie. Not everyone has to love it, or take much away from it, but I speak on behalf of all of us in saying that what we don’t want is its message to be misinterpreted. You are entitled to an opinion of course, as we all are. Just as I forgave the church for what happened with my son, I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story. I do hope though that the families heading to the movie theatre to see the film decide for themselves—and disagree with you. Sincerely, Philomena Lee

Lee’s response to Smith exemplifies truth and love standing up to lies and hate. The film didn’t take a black and white approach to religion. In fact, Dench’s character remains religious despite the injustices heaped upon her by Catholicism—and these injustices are just a matter of historical record. She also has sophisticated, although from my perspective inadequate, responses to Coogan’s character’s attack on her religious belief. From my perspective the film goes much to easy on religion, but that’s because the film is not a simple a good guys vs. bad guys film, and the people in the film or not simply good or bad people.

I reiterate it is one of the move profoundly moving films I’ve ever seen.

No Place on Earth

I saw the moving and profound documentary “No Place on Earth.” It tells the story of caving enthusiast Chris Nicola 1993 visit to the Ukraine to explore the Verteba and Priest’s Grotto caves. There he found evidence that they had recently been inhabited by Jews escaping The Holocaust. He then embarked on a decade-long quest to find survivors. The film features interviews with survivors and their descendants, now living mainly in New York City and Montreal. At the end of the film Tobias brings some of the survivors, now in their 80s and 90s back to the caves.

It is an incredible story of human survival which really makes your typical first-world troubles trivial in comparison. But it also reminds us how terrible life is, how filled it is with suffering, and how we are all obligated to make a heaven of our universe—the only real place such a heaven could ever exist.