Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Assessing Hearts and Minds

The old adage to avoid discussing politics and religion remains a wise social decision in plenty of situations. However, such discussions have to be held somewhere. (Alas, honest, intelligent discussion is fairly rare on the Sunday political shows – the good guests tend to be badly outnumbered by hacks and dolts.) The art of discussion, listening and persuasion isn't dead in politics, and blogs, discussion boards and activist groups provide some good venues. Unfortunately, the quality of political discussion on social media platforms – particularly if one has a wide set of friends and acquaintances, going back years – can be pretty dreadful. It can be alarming to see someone who's personally kind (and even fairly intelligent otherwise) uncritically blast the latest factually challenged, frothing bullshit from their political tribe as a self-evident truth.

In such situations, I find myself wondering how best to proceed or whether it's worth engaging at all. How well do I know this person? How reasonable is he? What’s her background? What's influenced his views? What frameworks is she using? How much energy should I (or do I possess to) expend? In my experience, some people simply aren't persuadable; some have little substance to their views even if you politely hear them out. Trying to identify points of agreement and contention can be a useful exercise (and sometimes can de-escalate an argument), but ultimately it's impossible to find common ground with someone on another planet. (Plus, trying to do so can be draining.)

In the interests of preserving sanity and lowering blood pressure, I've been playing with some categories to assess these dynamics and where someone falls. Maybe this piece isn't necessary for most people, who have worked out their own rules or handle such matters with instinctual grace. There's also a danger of condescension or ego preservation with these classifications. To guard against that, I think it's essential to practice curiosity, listening, compassion and a willingness to consider one's own potential blind spots. (I'm certainly not claiming that I personally achieve all that, but we gotta aspire to something, right?)

Solidly Reasonable: This is the ideal to aspire to – a group of people who are reasonably well-informed, try to stay that way, who base their opinions on facts and evidence, who will seek out new and better information, and will adjust their views accordingly. They believe in research and value curiosity. They have a decent sense of what they know and what they don't (like that adage from the Socrates guy) and what sources are credible and which are suspect. If someone else has better information, generally they're interested or eager to hear it and investigate further, rather than entrenching and trying to "win" an argument. (Knowledge and wisdom are cooperative paradigms, not combative ones – they'd rather have a true discussion than a "debate.") Although they realize that 'the plural of anecdote isn't data,' they do value relevant first-hand accounts and recognize the importance of lived experience and practicality over idle speculation or soulless ideology. (For instance, data do exist on racism and sexism, but it's valuable for people who haven't been on the receiving end to listen to folks who have. What's it's like to be racially profiled? To face sexism in the workplace? To be a religious minority? To be disabled? It's easy to be well-intentioned yet unaware of significant challenges others face.) People in the "solidly reasonable" group can and will disagree with each other, but they can give decent reasons for their positions, and can even… change their minds, whether on details or bigger issues. They will even (gasp) admit error. Similarly, they will correct others (in the name of accuracy), but try to avoid rubbing their faces in it. (…Especially if they're not dealing with jerks. Obviously not everyone who is smart or reasonable is amiable, but I'm defining this group as "not unnecessarily obnoxious.")

A few caveats: The popular and lazy "both sides" school of political punditry views "partisan" as a dirty word, but a world of difference exists between supporting a particular party because its positions are genuinely better ("partisan") and supporting positions primarily because one's party is righteous and definitionally better than the other guys (what I'd call "hyperpartisan" or tribal). Voting necessarily requires decision making, and it turns out research and reflection are indeed better guides than authoritarianism. (More on all this in this 2011 post.)

Likewise, I wouldn't put certain people in this group who definitely view themselves as reasonable (and tend to view themselves as much smarter than others, for that matter) – the "My ideology says [X], so facts and practical considerations be damned" crowd, for example. (More on that below.)

Mostly Reasonable, but with Blind Spots: This group is like the first group, but some issues exist where, for whatever cause, there's no reasoning with them. (Some of us who like to think we're in the first group are probably in this one instead.) This isn't merely a matter of strong opinions; on this issue or issues, their approach is fundamentally different from their normal mode. Perhaps some powerful personal experience or their upbringing or the influence of a pivotal figure significantly colors all discussion of some issue. Maybe their preferred remedy to some injustice suffered by themselves or someone close to them (often a legitimate grievance) would make very poor universal policy. Regardless, any discussion with them on certain contentious issues (for example, Israel and Palestine, or public policy on vaccines) won't merely feature strong and divergent views, but will inevitably shed far more heat than light. The key virtue of classifying people in this group is avoiding outright dismissal of them as "unreasonable," and instead allows for discussion on most topics while giving them a pass on a subject or two… as we might need ourselves. (Compassion, not condescension, should be the guide here.)

Crucial caveats: Some people have passionate views, but views nonetheless solidly based in fact, and I wouldn't put them in this category. As a practical matter, perhaps it's best to avoid certain subjects with them if you don't have 10 minutes to spare, but passion and reason are not opposites and can be highly complementary. Likewise, personal experience often fuels the best advocacy, especially when it involves listening and connecting with others. (The danger, perhaps, is in rigidly rewriting all other incidents through one's own views or experience instead of expanding to accommodate them.) There's also the question of venue – a survivors' support group is a place for sharing personal stories, not debating statistics, for instance (that would be callous and obnoxious). But these categories are meant for more public discussions.

Selectively Reasonable/Narrowly Reasonable: This group is a mixed bag based on subject matter. They're reasonable and perhaps genuinely knowledgeable and insightful on some subjects, but markedly (even surprisingly) bad in others. As with the previous category, the criterion isn't that 'they agree with me on some issues and not on others'; it's that their approach to some issues is significantly different from others. Perhaps they're generally bright but cloistered when it comes to some matters. Perhaps personal experience gives them insight on particular issues but clouds it on others. Perhaps they use a rational, fact-based approach on certain issues but get so focused on "winning" an argument in other situations that they turn into raving loons. I use this category more for pundits than other people, and for pundits in this group, I consider their track record on a given topic and will read them or avoid them accordingly. (I'll reconsider if someone strongly recommends a piece I'd usually avoid, but I try not to rush into classifying someone in this category to begin with.)

Your mileage definitely may vary, but I'll give some examples of folks I classify here. I'd rate Andrew Sullivan as not just correct on his stance on torture but at times genuinely thoughtful and eloquent. Occasionally, I've read other good pieces by Sullivan. But Sullivan not only supported the Iraq War, he supported it rabidly, accused war skeptics of being traitors, and years later offered a defensive, ludicrous semi-apology for his behavior. He played a key role in derailing health care reform in the 90s by promoting the lies of Betsy McCaughey and also championed the questionable racial claims of the book The Bell Curve. His positions on forgiving homophobic slurs and boycotts switch 180 degrees, apparently based on who he likes and dislikes in such conflicts. Born in England (but of Irish descent), Sullivan's lived in the U.S. since 1984, yet shows little understanding of American political history (particularly racism and its role in American conservatism) and maintains an antidemocratic streak and consistent scorn for the political left. His views seem pretty standard for a British Tory, except when he's personally affected, as with gay rights – thus, um, pretty typical for a British Tory. (For much more on Sullivan, I'd recommend the extensive driftglass archives.)

For another example, consider Jonathan Chait. In the positive column, he's excellent on economic issues, especially when it comes to debunking conservative claims about the virtues of tax cuts for the rich and cutting the social safety net. He's written incisively about the Laffer curve and Ayn Rand, and wrote an excellent debunking of Paul Ryan. In the negative column, Chait supported the Iraq War, but more problematically branded anti-war activists (opposing Joe Lieberman's re-election in 2006) as "left-wing" and "fanatics." While discussing propaganda, he made a grotesquely inaccurate and telling analogy about anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and the dishonest Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. (He's also whitewashed his Iraq positions somewhat.) In 2011, he made an odd, pedantic and dodgy argument that military intervention in Libya should be considered essentially in a vacuum from other obvious considerations. His attacks against "political correctness" were embarrassing, as were some of his exchanges on race with Ta-Nehisi Coates. His arguments about neoliberalism were similarly problematic. Meanwhile, he's shown persistent disdain for netroots activists.

My impression is that Sullivan and Chait make significantly shoddier arguments against people they don't like (and I believe the links above bear me out). Presumably, they dislike some of their targets on a professional level (conservative con men for Chait), but perhaps their dislike for those darn hippies to their political left is more personal, visceral and overpowering? I find the contrast in the quality of their work striking. (Again, your mileage may vary, and anyone's free to find my own work suspect. In my better moments, I want everyone in this category to be more admirable than I rate them. But because of the dynamics described, I view them as cautionary tales urging humility and self-honesty.)

Selective Sourcing Reinforcing Existing Views/Tribal Confirmation Bias: People in this group initially present as reasonable and steadfastly view themselves as such, but in-depth discussion does not bear this out. For instance, perhaps you're discussing voting rights and voter suppression. Someone in this category might say something like, 'I have to show an ID to board an airplane and do other things, therefore everyone should have to show an ID to vote.' That's not a horrible starting position, but the problem is that people in this category won't budge from it, even if you listen to their concerns and try to address them. Show them data on voter fraud being virtually nonexistent, demonstrate why obtaining an ID can be a burden, provide evidence of bad faith from the voter suppression movement, and suggest actual voting improvements that might create some common ground… and they won't read any of it (except cursorily) and won't change their minds.

Dig deeper, and you'll find this pattern is the norm, not an aberration. People in this group tend to keep up with the news, and can cite sources during arguments, but those sources tend to be biased or otherwise unreliable. For instance, conservatives in this group may view Fox News and other conservative outlets as unbiased and all more neutral sources as liberally biased (even though a few studies have shown Fox News is less accurate on factual matters). Folks in the category might cite sources shown to be deceptive, such as conservative think tanks The Heritage Foundation and American Enterprise Institute, and they show little to no interest in pieces that directly fact-check those sources or otherwise provide reliable, corrective data.

Unfortunately, for people in this group, their chief, domineering goal is to win an argument for themselves and their tribe. Consequently, if they're provided evidence that contradicts their claims, they'll double-down in some fashion, not examining the evidence, or insisting that the source is biased, or changing the subject or moving to one of their favorite arguments, the tu quoque fallacy ("you also"), claiming that 'the other side,' their political opponents, does the same thing and is just as bad. (If they're really flailing, they'll claim their political opponents would do the same thing if they had the chance, or will the next time they have a chance, never mind that they haven't.)

The problem with tu quoque and other "both sides do it" arguments are many. (I'll cite a few examples I've actually seen.) First, one thing often is not as bad as another. For instance, it's perfectly fine to criticize Obama for casting a symbolic vote against raising the debt ceiling when he was a senator that would not have possibly prevented the necessary step of raising the debt ceiling (and was a vote that Obama later said he regretted). However, it's ludicrous to pretend that Obama's individual action was exactly the same as the majority of congressional Republicans in 2011 seriously threatening not to raise the debt ceiling in an extraordinary move not supported by most of their own constituents in an attempt to extract political concessions they couldn't earn otherwise. (I consider the term "hostage situation" apt.) It's really, really easy to criticize both stances yet not childishly pretend they're equally bad.

Second, tu quoque arguments tend to be extremely selective with their history and timeline. For instance, claims that Obama is primarily to blame for Washington gridlock and slighted Republicans ignore that Republican leaders met the night of Obama's inauguration to vow to oppose everything he proposed, regardless of merit. They rejected bipartisan offers and, by objective measures, offered unprecedented obstructionism. Perhaps those political moves could be justified, but claims that they were only done in retaliation and congressional Republicans were eager to work with Obama earlier don't withstand scrutiny (even if other criticisms of Obama remain legitimate). More to the point, "retaliation" is a bad, petulant justification regardless.

Third, even if both actions or actors are equally bad (or admittedly bad, if not equally), it doesn't mean that we should do nothing. What's so hard about criticizing multiple parties, but also doing so proportionally and soberly? For example, both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party contain corrupt, corporatist elements beholden to Wall Street. Yet on this issue, the Republican Party is demonstratively worse, opposing and trying to water down the Dodd-Frank Act (rather than seeing it as not going far enough), trying to block the creation and staffing of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (and then trying to weaken or eliminate it) and generally supporting plutocracy. Liberal activists aren't shy about criticizing the Democrats on this issue. The point is to make things better. I'd argue it's hard if not impossible to achieve progress without an accurate diagnosis. In this case, it's important to acknowledge both dynamics – Democratic Party corruption and much worse Republican Party corruption. (For instance, which members of Congress would be more likely to sponsor a reform measure?) Tribal hyperpartisans aren't really interested in this type of diagnosis or activism – it's really hard to get them on board for reform efforts. Their focus is on defending the tribe, on public relations, on talking points (sometimes shouting points). Whether intentionally or not, their shallow "both sides" claims shut down any deeper discussion and positive activism. No matter how well-supported by facts the conclusion is, they will fight to the death over any assertion that their side is worse than their perceived opponents. Consequently, political conversations with them typically can only go so far.

(It's not as prevalent, but hyperpartisans for the less-bad side – in the case of Wall Street reform, diehard Democratic Party loyalists – will shut down criticism and reform efforts by correctly pointing out the other side is worse but then insisting that nothing more should be demanded of their leadership.)

The cautionary tale from this group is, 'Am I so invested in defending my "side" that I'll ignore legitimate criticism and derail attempts to improve things?'

Lazy Experts Outside Their Field: The defining feature of this group is their unshakeable belief in their own superiority. They may indeed be experts in one or several fields – but pedigreed dolts with little expertise and less sense (but plenty of smugness) are quite common in political punditry. (Substitute the name "Condescending Dolts" for this category as needed.) Members of this group feel that they can blunder into any discussion without adequately researching the subject (or without updating their ossified and inaccurate views), yet still feel certain they are right, and those other silly people squabbling about this issue should defer to them. Some of them aren't experts in any field, but none of them are when comes to political analysis. Nonetheless, they expect to be treated as political sages. (More charitably, they may understand a few political issues, but remain largely clueless.) They're especially prone to overgeneralizations and wild extrapolations – anything that saves them the trouble of actual thinking or research. Some may cite outdated or debunked statistics they haven't bothered to confirm, but they prefer to work from a predetermined, shallow conclusion backward. The heart of their style often amounts to offering an opinion, an attitude, a personality, a persona – not true, solid analysis. Some of them may know that they're bullshitters, but most of them seem to believe their own hype.

The best single example is probably Ben Carson. By most accounts, he was a gifted neurosurgeon, which takes a fair amount of intelligence, hard work and skill, but he has demonstratively batshit crazy ideas about politics and history. Numerous roundups exist of his nuttiest beliefs, including a list of 13 from ThinkProgress, 13 from the Campaign for America's Future, 7 from Alternet, 15 from Politico, 10 from Forward Progressives, 11 from Inquistr and an unnumbered recounting from Rolling Stone. (As you'd imagine, these lists overlap somewhat.) My favorite is probably Carson's claim that the pyramids were not tombs, but designed to store grain, which is an "unusual theory" to say the least. What fascinates me most is how Carson simply doesn't care if experts say he's wrong and can provide proof; he still finds his personal beliefs more convincing. Merely being wrong might be forgivable, but with his characteristic somnambulant nonchalance, Carson shows absolutely no interest in discovering the truth and amending his views – and doesn't seem to understand why anyone would object to this.

Thomas Friedman provides another good example. Putting aside for the moment some of his worst arguments, Friedman has a nasty habit of chastising Democrats for not advocating positions they actually support. (See examples from 2011, 2012 and 2016 parts one and two.) My best guess is that Friedman likes to scold people, and scolding Democrats and liberals lets him traffic in false equivalencies and look more independent and superior, so facts be damned. (I'd put Camille Paglia and Megan McArdle in this group as well, not because I consider them experts in well, anything, but because selling an "expert" persona is central to their shtick.)

Many of the pundits in "both sides" cult fall into this category – they steadfastly ignore actual policy positions, their likely consequences and any matter of substance, and also tend to ignore the actual negotiation stances of the parties involved. Whereas tribal hyperpartisans and professional hacks will invoke "both sides" as damage control, this group uses "both sides" to try to assert superiority and position themselves outside the fray. In both cases, though, the effect is to shut down serious, accurate discussion. (For more on "both siderism," see Jay Rosen, digby, driftglass, Balloon Juice or my archives.)

Stopped Clocks: As the saying goes, "Even a stopped clock is right twice per day." People in the group have almost uniformly horrible positions and generally bad (if occasionally comprehensible) reasons for them. But by accident, the law of averages or an isolated incident of sound reasoning, they hold a few good positions. It may be possible to work with them politically, but only on those issues. Likewise, it might be best to stick those subjects in political discussions among polite company.

Personally Nice but Politically Crazy: This group can be quite nice and even generous on a personal, social level, especially with their friends, but when it comes to politics, they become completely different people – rabid nutjobs. They share some similarities with the Selective Sourcing group, but their tribalism is much more charged, their sourcing is even less credible and they tend to get much nastier. For instance, as soon as Obama was inaugurated, the national debt and deficit became huge issues for them, even though they weren't under Bush. (They tend to revise their history on such things, too.) They'll denounce Obama, who's fairly centrist and establishmentarian, as a raging socialist. (The much rarer lefty version of this is to denounce Obama as uniquely awful as an imperialist rather than viewing him, as most lefty critics do, as continuing and building on a long, bipartisan tradition of American imperialism.)

When people in this group are angry (as they often are when it comes to politics), they feel they must have good cause, never that they lost a fair fight. No matter how well-supported by facts a conclusion is, if it shows them they're wrong, they'll reject it. They're fond of denouncing any source that proves them incorrect as biased, and try to change the subject after being called out (no matter how politely it's done). Conservatives in the Selective Sourcing group try to appear reasonable (and often think of themselves as so), and will cite sources that likewise try to appear credible, such as National Review and Wall Street Journal. Conservatives in the Personally Nice but Politically Crazy group are more likely to engage in outright culture war, and cite Breitbart.com, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck or Alex Jones. Neither group's claims may stand up to scrutiny, but the Selective Sourcing group at least pretends to be arguing in good faith and attempting persuasion some of the time, whereas the Politically Crazy group is preaching to the converted and yelling at their perceived foes. (Someone can easily slip from the first group to the second, though.)

One way of looking at this group is that they're good people, but just have different political views (essentially, some mix of small or large blind spots). If you like each other personally, a friendship or acquaitance or conversation is workable (if you largely avoid politics). Many of us have at least a few relationships like this, with family members, old friends, coworkers or acquaintances. (It can be a fragile peace, but we deem it worthwhile because of other, positive qualities in the relationship.)

Unfortunately, such allowances break down past a certain point – "She's a good person, apart from being a bigot" isn't very convincing. Some political views aren't mere foibles. Nor is it particularly impressive is someone is nice to their family, friends and others they identify are part of their tribe and nasty to almost everyone else. In such cases, it might be accurate (if harsh) to shift the caveat and say that they're good people in some narrow contexts, but not overall. Or simply say they're not good citizens. For instance, Matt Taibbi's excellent piece on that notable conservative rebranding effort, the Tea Party, observes that the angry, older, white folks driving it are "full of shit" – they don't oppose government spending as they claim, only spending on other American citizens they look down on. People of this sort might have other redeeming qualities, but their political views are comprehensible at best, crazy at worst – far from "reasonable." Whether a friendship or other relationship with them is sustainable or desirable is a personal call.

Personally Obnoxious and Politically Crazy: People in this category are normally easy to identify and it's best to stay as far away as professional or social courtesy permits.

Professional Hacks: This group is paid to advocate positions and will only make concessions for damage control and to pivot, perhaps to a "both sides do it" argument. If you must discuss things with them (or if you want to), make sure to do your homework first and be prepared to combat bullshit.

That's it for now. I might revisit these categories later, and your mileage may vary with how useful they prove to be. But here's to honesty, curiosity, research, humility, sanity and reasonableness.

Monday, July 04, 2016

Independence Day 2016

Happy Independence Day! Normally, I post some songs and other pieces (such as a reading of the Declaration of Independence). This year, given Donald Trump's dogwhistle call to "Take America Back" and his mix of cloaked and overt appeals to bigotry, misogyny, hatred, fear and ignorance – and that he's the presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States – I thought another vision of America might be welcome.

Here's Reverend Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina NAACP, speaking to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 2014. Barber's a fine orator and a master of that Southern declamatory style. This speech is roughly 40 minutes long, but it's stirring and well worth a listen:

Bigots and right-wing reactionaries typically think of themselves as the only true Americans. However, although America certainly has a long history of bigotry, it also has a extensive tradition of activism. When it comes to Trump versus Barber, I know which vision I find more thought-provoking and moving.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Memorial Day 2016

Memorial Day is meant for remembering those who died in military service (a worthy commemoration). It's also a holiday that naturally spurs thoughts of civilians killed in war, of living veterans and how they're treated, and how war is discussed in our country. It's only right to pause and remember the dead. And perhaps the best way to honor them the other days of the year is by challenging the belligerati who believe that casually and aggressively endorsing war or torture somehow makes them tough or makes the nation safer. Requiring a high threshold for war shouldn't be a political calculation; it's the position of basic sanity. Unfortunately, saber-rattling insanity is both fashionable and profitable in some circles, and rarely seems to draw the same condemnations that wiser, less bellicose positions do.

This weekend, PBS broadcast a short documentary about The Telling Project, which uses theater to help military veterans talk through their experiences, from losing a limb, to being raped, to PTSD, to contemplating suicide. One of the veterans remarked that 'there's no bigger pacifist than a deployed serviceman.' Rather than letting our national discussions of war be hijacked by the braggadocio of the insecure, the cruel, the calculating and the delusional, we'd benefit from considering the harsh realities of war instead. Rather than letting tough guy (and tough gal) fantasies reign, we should seek out true stories. Rather than letting another bombastic speech from an irresponsible ignoramus dictate the terms of discourse, we should give time to veterans and civilians affected by war, and quietly listen.

Sunday, May 08, 2016

Chain of Title

David Dayen, an excellent blogger based in Los Angeles, has a book out, Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud. His Tumblr blog links his articles and appearances (Salon, The Intercept, The Fiscal Times, The New Republic), but if you've read his work over the years, you're aware of the time and effort he's spent covering this subject. A summary:

In the depths of the Great Recession, a cancer nurse, a car dealership worker, and an insurance fraud specialist helped uncover the largest consumer crime in American history—a scandal that implicated dozens of major executives on Wall Street. They called it foreclosure fraud: millions of families were kicked out of their homes based on false evidence by mortgage companies that had no legal right to foreclose.

Lisa Epstein, Michael Redman, and Lynn Szymoniak did not work in government or law enforcement. They had no history of anticorporate activism. Instead they were all foreclosure victims, and while struggling with their shame and isolation they committed a revolutionary act: closely reading their mortgage documents, discovering the deceit behind them, and building a movement to expose it.

The book's website features blurbs from Matt Taibbi, Rick Perlstein and others and links reviews by Publishers Weekly and Kirkus Reviews. (The book also won the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize.)

As a first-time author, David Dayen depends on getting the word out and generating early sales. I've ordered the book but haven't read it yet, although I've read plenty of Dayen's other work, and you can check it out yourself through the Tumblr link above. I'm admittedly biased because I know the guy, but if you have the money to spare, ordering a copy is a great way to support a liberal writer and get a good book to boot. (Here are the links for Amazon, Powell's and Barnes & Noble.) He'll be doing book signings in Los Angeles, the Bay Area, New York, Washington, St. Louis, and Philadelphia. If you're on that Facebook thing all the kids are doing, you can get more details from the book's FB page. Thanks.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

National Poetry Month 2016

April is National Poetry Month. I'll link the wonderful Favorite Poem Project, as usual.

This year, I thought I'd post one of my favorites:

Poetry
By Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician--
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books"; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination"--above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, "imaginary gardens with real toads in them,"
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

(Some of the formatting is lost here; you can see Moore's indents here.)

The line that always sticks with me is "imaginary gardens with real toads in them." For me, it nicely expresses the goal of much art – trying to capure some piece of real life in an invented piece.

Feel free to link or post a favorite poem in the comments.

Friday, April 01, 2016

Fool's Day 2016

Happy Fool's Day! This year, I thought I'd link Vulture's feature, "The 100 Jokes That Shaped Modern Comedy." It's got many classics, but the list is more impressive for its breadth and less obvious choices. Some supplemental pieces delve further into some of the gags, including Airplane's "Don't call me Shirley."

Thursday, March 17, 2016

St. Patrick's Day 2016

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Glen Hansard likes to end his concerts with this, and have other musicians and guests (not all of them singers) sing a verse. It's a neat, rousing and inclusive way to end the evening. (Here's some background on the song. The lyrics can vary considerably, and it's not unusual for performers to write new verses.)



I've featured some of my favorite Irish tunes in previous years. Feel free to link any of yours in the comments.

Saturday, March 05, 2016

2015 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 2: The Top Four, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

2015 was a decent year for film, with several less conventional movies winning both acclaim and some box office success. The blockbusters were less impressive this round.

The Oscars this year faced some controversy because, for the second year in a row, no black actors were nominated (after racking up multiple awards for the previous 15 years). Chris Rock's opening monologue was edgy and memorable as he chose to take this head-on:

Now the thing is, why we protesting? That's the big question. Why this Oscars? Why this Oscars, you know? It's the 88th Academy Awards. It's the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times.

OK? You've got to figure that it happened in the '50s, in the '60s, you know? In the '60s, one of those years Sidney [Poitier] didn't put out a movie. I'm sure there wasn't no black nominees some of those years, say '62 or '63. And black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time.

We had real things to protest! Too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. You know, when your grandmother is swinging from the tree, it's really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.

Some of Rock's other bits fell flat, including a cameo by conservative black actress Stacey Dash as a "minority outreach" ambassador (too much of an inside joke for most of the audience) and Asian kids posing as accountants. Rock's decision to have his daughter and her Girl Scout Troop sell cookies to the audience was, well, an abuse of position, but kind of funny.

The best speechof the night was easily that from Inside Out's duo, producer Jonas Rivera and director Pete Docter, who endorsed the power of the arts:

Anyone out there who’s in junior high, high school, working it out, suffering – there are days you’re going to feel sad. You’re going to feel angry. You’re going to feel scared. That’s nothing you can choose. But you can make stuff. Make films. Draw. Write. It will make a world of difference.

It was somewhat refreshing that no one film dominated. Mad Max: Fury Road rightly picked up most of the technical awards, but Spotlight, The Big Short and The Revenant all won big awards as well. I would have been pleased with any of them winning Best Picture (Spotlight was a slight upset over The Revenant in that category). Spotlight and The Big Short deservedly won their best writing Oscars (original and adapted, respectively), although I also would have been happy if Inside Out had won for "original." The cinematography category was even richer than usual, and although I'd have been delighted to see badass 73-year-old John Seale win again, this time for Mad Max: Fury Road, or see Roger Deakins (Sicario) finally win after 13 nominations, I thought the award deservedly went to Emmanuel Lubezki for the third time in a row, this time for his alternately vertiginous and lyrical work on The Revenant.

The Revenant received a surprising amount of backlash, including the notion that it was unfortunate that Leonardo DiCaprio would likely finally win an acting Oscar for his work in it (as he did). I have my criticisms of the film (reviewed below), and a lengthy, occasionally gruesome revenge tale isn't to everyone's tastes, but it features some superb craftsmanship and was one of the best films of the year. In contrast, I'm flabbergasted that the worst Bond theme song ever, "The Writing's on the Wall," not only was nominated but somehow won, perhaps because of vote-splitting otherwise. At least Ennio Morricone winning for Best Original Score, and being lauded by John Williams and the entire audience, restored some karmic balance.

The Academy really should explain the sound categories better – I've seen Academy voters admit they don't understand the difference. I thought Mad Max: Fury Road deserved its win for Best Sound Editing (the effects and foley) but I'd have given The Revenant the award for Best Sound Mixing (the overall soundscape).

I didn't see all of the Oscar-nominated performances, but Brie Larson was excellent in Room. Mark Rylance delivered subtle, meticulous work in Bridge of Spies, and his win was a pleasant surprise. It was a banner year for Swedish actress Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl, winning her the Oscar, but also Ex Machina and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) and for Irish actor Domhnall Gleeson (Ex Machina, The Revenant, Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens). Kid actors Jacob Tremblay (Room) and Abraham Attah (Beasts of No Nation) gave impressive performances. (It was fun to see them make the awards circuit.)

On to the reviews. As usual, I wouldn't put too much stock in their relative category rankings. I've hidden spoilers with toggle buttons. (As always, my guideline is that, if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler). The other sections are Part 2: The Top Four, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).

2015 Film Roundup, Part 2: The Top Four

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review, Part 3: Noteworthy Films and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

The Revenant: Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki team up again, this time for a wilderness revenge tale set in the American West in 1823. The film's very loosely based on the novel of the same name, itself based on real historical incidents, as scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is savagely mauled by a grizzly bear, left for dead by some of his comrades, and fights to survive and seek revenge against harrowing odds. "Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves," goes the saying, and The Revenant delivers one of cinema's best explorations of this concept. The wilderness locations are stunning, and the camerawork is frequently extraordinary (but unobtrusive), with Iñárritu and Lubezki opting for lengthy takes that range from the vertiginous to the lyrical. DiCaprio's gotten flack for the grunting and grimacing the role requires (versus the lengthy, eloquent speeches of some of his other parts), but honestly, he's quite good here – he's grounded and present in the moment, as he needs to be to carry the film. As Glass' chief nemesis, John Fitzgerald, Brit Tom Hardy is earthy and believable as well – Hardy manages to make Fitzgerald despicable but also occasionally sympathetic, or at least comprehensible. (Hardy based his accent on Tom Berenger in Platoon.)

Hugh Glass is the scout for a fur-trapping expedition, responsible for guiding the men through the territory and hunting game. Although some of the native tribes are friendly, some are decidedly not, namely the Arikara, often referred to as the "Ree" by the expedition. Glass has a son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), by a Pawnee woman, who was killed in a U.S. cavalry raid. A grizzly attack leaves Glass badly wounded, with little hope of recovery, and transporting him over rough terrain proves impossible. Expedition leader Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) offers a hefty bonus to anyone who stays with Glass and sees that he gets a proper burial, which turns out to be Glass' son Hawk, young and idealistic Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and Fitzgerald, a selfish but highly capable outdoorsman. But Glass isn't dying quickly and the Arikara may be closing in, making Fitzgerald twitchy. (It's hard to discuss much more without giving away huge chunks of the plot.)

The Revenant's biggest faults are its length and pacing. It's 156 minutes long and episodic, and some of the flashbacks, visions and incidents begin to feel repetitive. If you're not in the mood for its immersive filmmaking aesthetic – man against nature, with breathtaking camerawork and stunning landscapes – you might not like this one. (It's got a much stronger plot than Terence Malick's films, but at times, The Revenant similarly feels more interested in mood than story.)

As in the novel, none of the characters or groups are depicted as entirely good or evil, although the film makes some significant changes. The Arikara aren't merely territorial (although that's arguably justified); they're given a more noble motive. Meanwhile, Glass having a son alters the shape of his desire for revenge, and he's presented as essentially the most enlightened of the white guys in terms of attitudes toward Native Americans. French-Canadian trappers aren't depicted well, and that's been criticized as ahistorical (they typically treated native tribes better than their American counterparts). Glass' physical challenges are more numerous and arguably more interesting in the book, and an invented incident of survival feels jarringly derivative (think tauntaun). On the other hand, the book's ending is historically accurate but rather anticlimactic; the film jettisons this to delivers a far stronger climax, including sinuous, long takes of a savage, desperate, scrambling fight. Fitzgerald's words and Glass' looks prove haunting, and their emotional effect lingers long after The Revenant's final shot.

The Big Short: It's fitting that a director best known for comedies (Adam McKay) takes on the absurdities and corruption that drove the global financial crash of 2008. Based on Michael Lewis' nonfiction book, the film adaptation The Big Short assembles a fine cast (if male-heavy), keeps a brisk pace and manages to explain complex ideas and deliberately confusing financial skullduggery in a lucid and entertaining fashion. That's much harder to do than the filmmakers make it look. The Big Short focuses on the few people who figured out that there was a housing bubble based on bad loans and suspect financial instruments who then decided to "short" the market – betting on the seemingly unlikely event that the market would indeed crash. Most of the characters don't meet, and the film flits between them. Quirky, socially awkward Michael Burry (Christian Bale) has a medical degree but manages a hedge fund. He's been extraordinarily successful, but his clients start freaking out when he locks them into a long-time, expensive bet against the housing market. Mark Baum (Steve Carrell), head of a small hedge fund, has a driving sense of justice and hates seeing ordinary people get screwed, yet he comes off as a prick (often justifiably) due to his blunt and insensitive style. Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) works for a big bank but has few qualms about betting against it. (He narrates most of the film.) Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) are young up and comers who want to make a name for themselves who solicit the help of their former neighbor, the reclusive and retired bank trader, Ben Rickart (Brad Pitt). (Most of the characters have different names from the people they're based on; a couple are composites.) Director (and cowriter) Adam McKay mostly casts actors with comic chops and it pays off well. In addition to the leads, Marisa Tomei, Karen Gillan and Max Greenfield are memorable in small roles. The best decision is to break the fourth wall; a few characters do so, and explain how something we just watched didn't happen exactly that way, or confirm that a specific incident did, in fact, actually occur. Three "celebrity explainer" segments do a great job of demonstrating tricky concepts in a clear and engaging way. There's a darker edge to this story, of course, in that so many people suffered and still are, as a result of the crash and what was (or should be) criminal activity that largely went unpunished. The film at times creates a bizarre dynamic – we're kinda rooting for these characters to win, but on the other hand, them winning means the global economy, and many other people… lose. (And we know this is going to happen.) To their credit, the filmmakers do delve into this. The Big Short is well worth watching, and makes a nice set with 2010 best documentary feature winner Inside Job (the ninth film reviewed here) and 2011's Margin Call (the first film reviewed here).

Spotlight:
"I really shouldn't be talking about this."
"I really think you should, actually."

Spotlight is a welcome film for adults, recounting the true story of The Boston Globe's "spotlight" unit, which exposed the Catholic Church's cover-up of widespread sexual abuse of young parishioners by priests. It's disturbing subject matter, but tastefully handled. Most of the film consists of people talking, but the reporters face moral as well as logistical challenges in pursuing this story, giving the film an energy and urgency. The majority of residents in the Boston area are Catholic, and the Catholic Church possesses considerable political influence and massive financial resources for lawsuits. Many of the reporter's subjects are reluctant to speak; some are outwardly defiant, some are stoic and close-lipped, others are frank and confessional, still others are conflicted and self-loathing. Writer-director (and former actor) Tom McCarthy assembles a fine cast, including Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou, and Jamey Sheridan. McCarthy does a nice job of gradually revealing the story – we're right there with the reporters as they discover a new lead, hit an obstacle, come up with a clever solution, and discover more than they bargained for. Spotlight also captures the dynamics of a really good team (of journalists, in this case) – they drive themselves, help each other out, and occasionally squabble, but not about trivial matters. (Among other things, Spotlight serves as a love letter to great reporting and newspapers, which have been severely hurt by budget cuts, an issue addressed in the movie.) The film isn't critical of the Catholic faith itself or its regular adherents, only the church leadership and its institutions. Several of the reporters are practicing Catholics or were raised as such, and as the extent of the scandal unfolds, it causes considerable soul-searching. (How could this happen? How many people knew, and when? What could I have done to stop it earlier?) Unless you know the subject matter is not for you, Spotlight is well worth seeing.

(NPR's interview about the investigation and the film with Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, is excellent.)

Inside Out: After a few lackluster entries, it's nice to see Pixar regain its stride with a tale of a young girl on the edge of puberty and the mix of emotions inside her. Riley Anderson (voiced by Kaitlyn Dias) moves with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan) from Minnesota to San Francisco. She tries to put on a brave face, but it's a massive adjustment – she leaves all her friends behind, plus plenty of space to skate and play hockey, and a nice, big house, all for a new city and a dreary, uninviting condo. Inside a control room in her head, her emotions are personified by the perfectly cast Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling) and Fear (Bill Hader). Joy is the ringleader, and tries to keep everything upbeat, which occasionally leads to her banishing Sadness to the small circle in the room. Riley has some tough days, though, and Joy's normal chipper approach starts to prove inadequate. A series of control room mishaps leads to one of Riley's "core memories" changing from happy to sad, and the "islands of Riley's personality" (Family, Friendship, Honesty, Sports, Creativity, Goofball) start to erode. Joy and Sadness accidentally get punted to "long-term memory," and need to find their way back to the control room before Riley's psyche is shattered (she's considering what was once unthinkable – running away).

This general concept has been done before (the last, funny segment of Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) and the short-lived, underrated sitcom Herman's Head, among others). However, this is one the best treatments to date, and it manages to be surprisingly sophisticated while also being entertaining for both kids and adults. That's a tough feat to pull off, and Pixar makes it look easy. Individual episodes are funny taken on their own terms – the abstract thought chamber, the dream factory, the cloud village, the moody, devoted, idealized boyfriend, the internal control rooms of other characters – but they also progress the core story. This is a wonderful script. Joy is likable, but her cheerleading can become oppressive at times and an act of denial. I particularly appreciated that the story recognizes that sadness is not necessarily a negative emotion and honestly acknowledging it can be crucial. Richard Kind has a memorable turn as Bing Bong, and the voice cameo list is fun. Check this one out.

2015 Film Roundup, Part 3: Noteworthy Films

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Review, Part 2: The Top Four and Part 4: The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

Mad Max: Fury Road: The best action film in many years becomes all the more impressive when one realizes that the director (George Miller) and cinematographer (John Seale) were both over 70 while making it. There's really no explanation of the world or how this film relates to the three earlier Mad Max films, but it starts with a bang as Max (Tom Hardy) is pursued in his car off-road by the pale and fanatical war boys. They capture him and return him to the Citadel, an oasis in the desert ruled by fearsome war lord Immortan Joe, who's stingy about sharing water and keeps a harem. Joe sends Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) to go raiding for more gasoline; she drives a "war rig," a souped-up tanker with spikes and turrets, and is accompanied by plenty of war boys in smaller vehicles. But Joe discovers that Furiosa is making a run for it, taking his harem with her. He empties the Citadel in pursuit, and Max, who's an universal blood donor, is hooked up as a "blood bag" for the sickly war boy, Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Apart from a few necessary breathers, the film's almost nonstop action, with vehicular mayhem, amazing stunts and classic, great shot selection. (No shaky camerawork and fast cutting to cover up crappily staged action here.) Both Hardy and Theron are excellent as tough and practical survivors, and their relationship plausibly, naturally evolves. The same goes for Nux's own gradual transformation. A Hell's Grannies biker gang also provides a great deal of fun.

Mad Max: Fury Road does have some issues. It's not surprising that, in a post-nuclear-apocalyptic world of mutations, deformities and sickness, the harem women would be better-looking than the average populace, but their make-up and wardrobe is so meticulous they look like they've stepped off a fashion show runway even in a swirling. suffocating world of dust. A moment of despair for a character is presented in painfully over-the-top fashion, with hollering, sinking to the knees, and a deafening score. Max's final decision doesn't make that much sense. Most of all, we never really get to know either Max and Furiosa. On the one hand, it's nice that the film gets down to the action, and it’s cool that some things, such as Furiosa's disability, are taken as matter-of-fact (she has a congenital stump and a prosthetic arm). We know Max is haunted by the loss (death) of a little girl, but we never learn the details. (His daughter? Someone else?) This lack of character depth and development is the only reason I wouldn't rank Mad Max: Fury Road as one of the absolute best films of 2015, even if it still ranks in my top 10. It may be unfair to compare it to a masterpiece of the genre (that's also much longer), Seven Samural, in terms of character depth, but surely there's some middle ground. That said, this movie wasn't hyped much until right before it came out, it was a very welcome surprise, and it's hard to dislike a movie with a character named "the Doof Warrior," who plays a guitar that shoots real flames. Unless you hate the genre, you'll want to see this one.

Room: Director Lenny Abrahamson does a stellar, sensitive job handling delicate subject matter that easily could have felt exploitative. It's not always an easy film to watch, but it's a very good one. Joy "Ma" Newsome was kidnapped seven years ago and is imprisoned in "Room," a furnished and heavily fortified tool shed, with only a skylight providing a glimpse of the outside world. Joy cares for Jack, a five-year old boy with long, uncut hair, her child from her kidnapper-rapist, who Joy and Jack refer to as "Old Nick." Compliant behavior earns a special, slight "treat" each Sunday. As viewers, we might wonder why Joy hasn't escaped, but we discover why with small details she drops over time – although the biggest factor is Jack. If you've seen the trailer, you know that eventually they escape, although it's not easy and success seems precarious even with that foreknowledge. Room is less about an escape than survival, though, and that story continues long after the actual physical release. What does someone have to do mentally to survive such a situation? The coping mechanisms Joy develops, so essential for making it that far, don't all translate well to outside life. Likewise, not everyone treats Jack warmly or approves of Joy's choices. Room has several laudable aspects. One, it focuses on the victims and not the criminal, refusing to glamorize his actions or position. Two, it doesn't present a happy-ever-after story post-escape –Joy has PTSD, and readjusting to a more regular life is a seriously tough slog. Three, the performances are fantastic. Brie Larson gives a fantastic, multilayered, grounded performance as Joy, an abused, justifiably depressed woman who grits out a horrible situation for the sake of her son. If she reacts ferociously to any perceived threat – sometimes disproportionately – it's hard to blame her. Meanwhile, Jacob Tremblay is astounding as Jack, delivering one of the best child performances in recent memory. (Warning: do not confuse this film with The Room, the infamously bad cult movie by Tommy Wiseau, as did the person who announced the film at my screening, to laughter from the audience.)

The Martian: Director Ridley Scott returns to fine form with this adaptation of the bestselling hard sci-fi novel of the same name by first-time author Andy Weir. A series of freak occurrences leaves astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) left for dead on Mars by his crew. Besides the immediate challenges of survival, neither Watney's crew nor NASA back on Earth even know he's alive. Even if that problem's solved, there's the challenge of how the hell to get Watney off planet, because Mars is drifting further away from Earth, a rescue trip would take a long time, and Watney is going to starve first. Damon's well-cast as Watney, a likeable, smart and resourceful guy with a good sense of humor. (In the book, it's one of the reasons Watney was picked – you want to like the people you'll be cooped up with for a few years.) All the astronauts picked for the mission were dual experts, and luckily Watney is a biologist and mechanical engineer, so his first tasks are growing tons of potatoes to live longer and modifying one of the rovers for longer expeditions than was originally intended. After that, it's a steady stream of more challenges, setbacks, clever solutions, and complications. (It'd be wrong to spoil much more.) The supporting cast is solid, including Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kristen Wiig, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover, among others. The film's a pretty faithful adaptation, simplifying the number and extent of the challenges, making certain characters (Chastain's) play a bigger role than they would in real life, but getting the essence right. The film improves on the book in jettisoning some egregious machismo and posturing that ill fits the rest of the story. (Jeff Daniel's character is the greatest beneficiary.) That said, if you like the movie and the general "puzzle-survival" storyline, it's worth reading the book, which features the same challenges in more detail, plus several additional ones. (Funny meta-moment: as occurs in the book, some characters call their secret project "the Council of Elrond" from The Lord of the Rings, and one of the actors in that scene is… Sean Bean, who appears prominently in the Council of Elrond scene in the film adaptation The Lord of the Rings.)

Brooklyn: Saorsie Ronan gives yet another impressive performance, this time as Eilis Lacey, a young Irish woman emigrating to Brooklyn, New York in the 1950s. She's intelligent and industrious, but good jobs are simply too scarce, so she leaves her beloved older sister and widowed mother behind in hopes of better prospects in America. Although some folks are cruel to Eilis (pronounced AY-lish), it's refreshing to see how many people support her through her initial, profoundly homesick months, including some unlikely sources. Eilis comes from a small town where everyone knows each other's business and some people wield shame viciously, as a weapon. The comparative freedom of America proves refreshing. Her housemates at the boarding house may be conventionally prettier and also more flirtatious, doing well at the dances they attend, but Eilis is smart and kind, and before too long, she's been courted by Tony Fiorello (Emory Cohen). He's not as learned as Eilis, but he's handsome, nice and genuinely sweet to her. (They're both Catholic, but his expressive Italian family is quite different from her taciturn Irish one.) Eilis and Tony's relationship grows closer, but then unfortunate events force her to return to Ireland, where suddenly she's treated as stylish, and new opportunities open for her – including a new, rich and thoughtful suitor, Jim Farrell (Domhnall Gleeson). What shall Eilis do?

Brooklyn, adapted by Nick Hornby from Colm Tóibín's award-winning novel, is mostly a coming-of-age story. It doesn't break tremendous new ground, but it's a tale well-told and well-acted. It does feature some striking, memorable scenes, though, most of all a reunion with her cruel, former employer, Miss Kelly (Bríd Brennan). The acting's excellent, led by Ronan, but Gleeson's good as always, and Brennan, Jim Broadbent and Jessica Paré are standouts. Irish-Americans will likely enjoy this one more than most, but it's an immigration tale that resonates further out.

The Lady in the Van: The Lady in the Van chronicles the real-life story of a mentally ill homeless woman who lives out of a decrepit, squalid van, which playwright and actor Alan Bennett invites her to park in his driveway (to bypass vagrancy law time limits). This doesn't mean that the "lady," who goes by the name Mary Shepherd, is grateful – she's pretty demanding and abrasive. It's hard to stay on her good side because that side keeps hopping around, to the degree it exists at all. (Any sort of music sets her off, for instance.) Naturally, we sympathize with Bennett, who's trying to do the right thing, but whose patience is understandably strained. Meanwhile, a mysterious stranger comes around occasionally to harass Mary, and we gradually get glimpses of her past.

As Mary, Maggie Smith is of course wonderful, and although Mary can't honestly be called charming, she does possess a certain charisma due her singular (if roving) focus and dedication. Alex Jennings is likewise splendid as Bennett. (The real Bennett wrote the screenplay, based on his book about the situation.) The script's best invention is that Jennings plays both Bennett as writer's persona and Bennett as person, so the film shows him having conversations with himself, or more often interrogating himself – Bennett the person will point out that an incident didn't really happen that way, most often to accuse Bennett the writer of trying to make himself look better than reality. The film is mostly a comedy, but The Lady in the Van provides some truly poignant, moving moments near the end centering on the power of the arts and the evils of suppressing them. If you like the actors or quirky British films, check this onr out. (The real Alan Bennett has a cameo at the end. Director Nicholas Hytner also directed the excellent film, The Madness of King George, also with a screenplay by Bennett, based on Bennett's play. Personal note: when I was studying in London, I saw Bennett reprise Talking Heads, one of the plays he's shown performing for the first time in the film. He's not as well known in the States, but I like his work.)

Bridge of Spies: This isn't a flashy film, but it's extremely well-acted, and director Steven Spielberg wrings all the suspense he can out of this true-life Cold War tale. It's 1957, and lawyer James Donovon (Tom Hanks), who mainly deals in insurance but served during the Nuremburg trials right after World War II, is appointed to represent Soviet spy Rodolph Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is extremely quiet and polite, and Donovon is the type of man who firmly believes in due process and a zealous defense of his client. It's not a popular gig, and Donovon faces the scorn of the public for representing someone charged with treason. After Donovon manages to save Abel from the death penalty and plans to file an appeal, even his bosses at his firm, who persuaded him to take the case in the first place, grow angry with him. But then an American Air Force pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), is shot down and captured by the Soviets. The U.S. Government recruits Donovon to arrange a prison swap in Berlin, Abel for Powers – Donovon will take all the risks, but has to pose as a private citizen and can be disowned and abandoned. Plenty of complications ensue – the Berlin Wall is starting to go up, an American graduate student, Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers) is arrested by the East German police, the East Germans resent their Soviet masters and the two groups tell Donovon different things, plus Donovon's CIA handlers often argue with him. Donovon would like to get Pryor out, too, but the CIA cares only about Powers.

Hanks excels at portraying Donovon as fundamentally decent without ever slipping into sanctimony. (It's also fun to watch Donovon work his negotiating skills – he can be a very smooth operator.) Donovon makes a wonderful argument for due process early in the film, and although he's practical and far from naïve about how the world works, he also quietly holds to his moral compass. This makes him develop an unlikely kinship with Abel, who truthfully is an enemy of the United States, but serves his cause honorably. Rylance is an extremely subtle actor, and he does extraordinary work here (which won an Oscar). Spielberg can always recruit superb actors, and the supporting cast is strong, including Alan Alda, Mikhail Gorevoy, and Sebastian Koch (who starred in The Lives of Others, the fourth film reviewed here). Because of the era, this is a male-heavy film. The excellent Amy Ryan isn't given much to do except fret or look adoringly at her husband. Spielberg can't resist some sentimentality, but a late shot of Donovon watching children from the subway is nicely set up to capture the multiple layers at play in this film. (Likewise, at several other points, a simple gesture is set up to be significant beforehand.) Joel and Ethan Coen helped write the screenplay with Matt Charman, Thomas Newman provides the score, and Spielberg uses his usual stalwarts, cinematographer Janusz Kaminski and editor Michael Kahn.

Spy: Melissa McCarthy is hilarious, but often doesn't get a good vehicle for her talents. Spy provides a welcome change from that pattern. In Spy, she plays Susan Cooper, the high-tech handler and all-around Girl Friday for suave CIA agent, Bradley Fine (Jude Law). She's a computer whiz who provides Fine intel in real time (heat signatures of bad guys detected by satellite and so on) to help him complete his missions. They're a great team, and she's hopelessly smitten with him. But then he's shot on camera by a target, the diabolical Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who claims she knows the identities of all CIA field agents. This means the normal top agents will be in danger if they pursue Rayna, which doesn't make the super-macho Rick Ford (Jason Statham) or sophisticated Karen Walker (Morena Baccarin) happy. As a desk agent, though, Susan's unknown, so she goes into the field for this first time. She's not happy with the frumpy cover identities created for her, and also clashes with her boss, the germophobic, disdainful Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney), as well as Ford, who's officially quit but is pursuing Rayna on his own. Every scene playing off McCarthy against Byrne as the catty Rayna or Statham as the stoic, insane Ford is golden. There's a fair amount of action (some of it surprisingly if comedically violent), but the humor takes precedence in this comedy-action spy spoof flick. If only every straight spy movie was as entertaining.

Trainwreck: Comedienne Amy Schumer writes and stars in this ribald and entertaining comedy directed by Judd Apatow. Amy (Amy Schumer) has commitment issues due to her parents' divorce, as we see in flashback (her father explains to Amy and her sister about the impossibilities of monogamy, which they can't pronounce). Amy works for a laddish men's magazine, and early on, we see her try to please her demanding and seemingly soulless boss, Dianna (Tilda Swinton), and have a series of amusing one-night stands. Thankfully, Trainwreck doesn't go in for slut-shaming, but it also doesn't pretend that Amy has her life together, either. Amy hates sports, which leads the quirky Dianna to assign Amy to interview a successful sports surgeon, Aaron Conners (Bill Hader). They go on a date, but then Aaron asks Amy out again – which completely freaks her out. Their dating is tentative, awkward, and funny. One of Trainwreck's better aspects is that Amy and Aaron are both flawed, but neither is inclined to see it – this makes for a more realistic film, and a nice change from less balanced films in the romantic comedy genre (man-child grows up for mature, together woman, for example – even if some of those are still entertaining). As usual for Apatow films, it's a little longer than it should be (124 minutes) and it meanders a bit, but it remains a great vehicle for Schumer's considerable comedic talents. Colin Quinn proves memorable as Amy's cantankerous and candid father (in poor health). Brie Larson is good as Amy's seemingly well-adjusted sister, Kim (married and with kids); she tries to be supportive, but can be a bit judgmental (although Amy may be too quick to accuse her of this as well). The film's full of celebrity cameos, mostly from athletes. (It also features a movie with a movie with some notable stars.) Both John Cena (as one of Amy's more steady lovers) and LeBron James (playing himself) are surprisingly, legitimately funny. Trainwreck has its more serious moments, but also plenty of raunchy comedy, so if that's not your thing, you'll want to pass, but fans of that style or Schumer will enjoy this one.

Beasts of No Nation: This film played the festival circuit but then was released on Netflix with only a limited theatrical release. Director Cary Joji Fukunaga (perhaps best known for directing the first season of True Detective) adapts the novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, about a young boy in an unnamed African country forced to become a child soldier in the middle of a civil war. Agu (Abraham Attah) and his family try to escape the approaching conflict, but that doesn't work out for all of them. The "army" impressing Agu into service is led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba), who fosters a cult of personality and can occasionally be generous, but only within a framework of absolute control and subtle (or overt) abuse. Agu becomes friends with Strika, a mute boy roughly his own age, and they look out for each other through a series of harrowing situations. The life of a child soldier is progressively dehumanizing, and Agu and Strika don't always successfully resist the pressure they're subjected to. Young Attah delivers a strong performance as Agu. The film has its moments of hope, but be warned it depicts brutal situations, from casual murder to child rape. It's not an exploitative movie – our focus and sympathies are always with Agu and Strika – but this is not light fare.

Embrace of the Serpent: This unusual, memorable Colombian movie shot in black and white was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. Set in the Amazon rainforest, it cuts back and forth between 1909 and 1940. In both time periods, Karamakate, a indigenous shaman who may be the last of his tribe, guides a white man along the river in search of yakruna, a sacred plant with supposedly remarkable healing properties. (Karamakate is played by Nilbio Torres in 1909 and Antonio Bolívar in 1940, both giving notable performances.) In 1940, Theo (Jan Bijvoet), a German explorer, is dying, and only the yakruna will save him. In 1940, Evan (Brionne Davis), another explorer, believes that pharmaceutical companies might be very interested in yakruna. Karamakate insists on treating Evan as if he's the same person as Theo, and helps him because he feels he's lost something spiritually and this new trip might restore it. During the journey in both eras, we witness the harmful effects of colonization, from corporate pillaging of the forest to the influence of modern technology to forced religion to a bizarre, disturbing cult. The choice of black and white is interesting; the rainforest would likely be stunning in color; perhaps black and white helps keep the focus on the characters versus the scenery? Regardless, Embrace of the Serpent is an original, striking piece that creates a distinct mood and its own reality. It's definitely a change of pace from the usual Hollywood fare.

Anomalisa: This stop-motion animated feature is one of the most original and memorable films of the year (but be warned it's rated R and not for kids). Michael Stone (voiced by David Thewlis, a British actor with a Lancashire accent) flies to Cincinnati for a conference. He's clearly an introvert (or just wants to be left alone), which doesn't dissuade his chatty seatmate, or his cabbie, or the bellhop. Oddly, every other person he meets has the same face and same voice (supplied by Tom Noonan, a baritone) – men, women, and even children. (A soprano aria recording is even warbled by Noonan.) This means when Michael calls his wife in Los Angeles (they have marital problems and a kid) or phones Bella, a local ex-girlfriend (she wrote an scathing letter when he left her), he's playing out emotional, personal scenes with women voiced by a man with a fairly deep voice. It produces a jarring and interesting dynamic. (I thought of Brecht's distancing effect, although apparently the Fregoli delusion was the genesis – Michael stays at the Fregoli hotel.) The one exception is Lisa, who has a unique face and female voice (Jennifer Jason Leigh), which excites Michael. It turns out that Lisa and her female friend (Noonan again) are there for the conference, that Michael is the key speaker, and that (ironically) this reserved man wrote a well-regarded book on customer service. Michael maneuvers to spend more time with Lisa, and they wind up spending an intimate evening – surprisingly, one of the most intimate and tender scenes of the year, despite the use of stop-motion animation puppets. (Using puppets also allows for some striking nightmare sequences.)

As always, Charlie Kaufman comes up with some fascinating ideas, but regrettably (as is often the case), can't quite stick the landing. A climatic public scene feels comparatively predictable and conventional if still somewhat implausible, and doesn't add much to our understanding of the characters. The same goes for some political commentary that will only date the film in the future. Unfortunately, the choices in Anomalisa late in the story make it less interesting than it was before (more below in the spoilers). That said, it remains more innovative and thought-provoking than most other films.

(SPOILERS)

Sicario: There's a great deal to like about Sicaro(a Spanish word for "hitman"), an intelligent thriller with a dark, worldly perspective, although its final act will likely divide viewers. Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is an FBI agent based in Arizona fighting drug runners, who are heavily armed and ruthless. After some of her buddies are killed in a raid, she's approached by her boss, Dave Jennings (Victor Garber), about being the FBI liaison for a special operation directed by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who says he's working for the Department of Defense, but may be with the CIA. The pitch is that she'll finally be able to take down the drug lords, and frustrated and eager for payback, Kate accepts. She and her partner, Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), wind up puzzled sometimes, though, by both what Matt Graver does and some of the other people working for him – most of all shadowy operative Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro), who's vague about his background. A raid into Mexico to extradite a drug lord is supposedly in coordination with the Mexican government, but there seems to be a tipoff and things turn violent. Kate and Reggie are hardly naïve, but still hold some ideals about how the system should work. As they encounter more and more corruption, they also increasingly question the legality of Graver's operation, his ultimate goals and his methods for achieving them.

Emily Blunt continues to impress with her role choices – she'll play the lovely leading lady in romantic comedies, but is also convincing in grittier parts such as Sicario or 2014's Edge of Tomorrow (reviewed here). Brolin's work is quite interesting – despite his position, Matt Graver dresses casually, for instance, wearing loafers without socks and kicking them off in a conference room. He swaggers with the laidback informality of someone used to calling the shots and knowing he can get his way. As Alejandro, Benicio del Toro is good as always, in this case as a cool cat but also haunted man, capable of ruthless action, but also protective of Kate. (Supposedly, Alejandro will appear in a sequel or prequel, and indeed, an entire other movie could be made based on the eventual backstory we learn.)

Unfortunately, some late storytelling choice significantly alter the film – the filmmakers change our point-of-view character, which makes the final half-hour or so interesting but also unmoored narratively and morally. (Sicario also somewhat chickens out from fully committing to this move – the camera doesn't show the full impact of certain evil acts.) These narrative choices are deliberate and unconventional, but I also found them problematic – the story itself doesn't need to be satisfying, but the storytelling should. (It feels as if the filmmakers thought this direction would be cool but didn't fully consider all the ramifications.) Some of Sicario's characters aren't merely dealing with grey, moral ambiguity or working in the shadows; they've gone completely over to the dark side. It's potentially fascinating subject matter, but especially if there's at least one more film in the works, I'm left wondering about the narrative point of entry and perspective choices. (French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve also directed 2011's Incendies, the 16th film reviewed here.)
(SPOILERS)