Movie Review: Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Neither as light nor as outrageous as it looks or might have been, the New Zealand-based Hunt for the Wilderpeople, which I watched on Apple TV over the weekend, thoroughly entertains. Recommended by writer and director Fawaz Al-Matrouk, this small film is the perfect pick-me-up. The movie’s directed by actor and Wellington, New Zealander Taika Waititi and based upon the book Wild Pork and Watercress by Barry Crump.

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The setting is an older couple’s farm in New Zealand on the edge of the bush country. Seasoned Bella (Rima Te Wiata) has certain ideas about fostering a child, but the tough old farmer’s getting on and wants to get down to business, so she takes in an obese, troubled boy named Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison). She’s a no-nonsense guardian and caregiver, which the criminally inclined and intelligent child figures out and takes kindly to, so Ricky stays put without much fuss. For the first time in his life, he feels wanted, nourished and loved.

The story’s told with a literary flair, which suits the material neatly, because a sudden change in circumstances puts Ricky in barely plausible cahoots with Bella’s husband Hector (the always excellent Sam Neill, who is superb in these types of roles), an illiterate curmudgeon. Both husband and wife have a crusty old dog and know how to hunt with their bare hands, which shocks the portly pre-teen into a sudden alertness that both feeds the movie’s winking charm and gently, pleasantly plays against stereotypes.

As husband and foster child team against a power-lusting child welfare bureaucrat on their tails, with half the island’s police pursuing them across bush country, Ricky and Hector become fugitives by default and good humor ensues. The kid’s physicality and a quietly assimilationist subtext combine with stunning nature photography and storybook structuring to make Hunt for the Wilderpeople an enjoyably warm, man-boy adventure tale. To say more would spoil its charm, twists and innocence. But there’s enough wit and knowing brightness without sugaring the fairy tale sensibility too much to dramatize its theme that the wild and damaged soul can be tamed and soothed with knowledge, poetry and self-healing choices. Happily, color, cheerfulness and danger abounds.

Movie Review: Battle of the Sexes

Battle of the Sexes is a simple and romanticized tale of athletics, man and woman.

For all the bluster surrounding 1973’s sensationalist sporting event billed as the title’s battle of the sexes, which was a running media theme in the 1970s, before feminism dominated the culture, this small, character-driven film dramatizes at its best that the pursuit of excellence is liberating. Beyond that, with blurred images and the sound of a tennis racquet hitting a tennis ball to serve as the start of Fox Searchlight’s best movie since 12 Years a Slave, it’s a cultural snapshot, too, signalling substitution of personality cult for hero worship. No need to tell you how that part ended up.

All of it’s well done, except for a few bad choices. As ex-Wimbledon champ Bobby Riggs, heavily sideburned Steve Carell (Little Miss Sunshine, Hope Springs, Dan in Real Life, Foxcatcher, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone) shines. And, as tennis champ Billie Jean King, minus the mullet, Emma Stone (La La Land, Aloha, The Amazing Spider-Man) does, too. Though Stone’s excellent depiction of King dominates at the expense of Carell’s excellent depiction of Riggs, and the imbalance minimizes Battle of the Sexes, the full measure of man and woman as athlete emerges.

The upshot is that Riggs, a 55-year-old former tennis champ, the world’s top men’s tennis player in the 1940s, is a gambling addict who’s more or less relegated to drudgery at his wife’s (Elisabeth Shue) discretion. So, he decides to cash in his winnings and trade on the trending women’s tennis. Riggs is seen as a hustler, though he is also father to a young son with whom he plays and to an older son who’s grown weary of his schemes. The showdown, made possible when Riggs cajoles, challenges and defeats a conservative women’s tennis player (Jessica McNamee as Margaret Court), is a chance at redemption. Battle of the Sexes would have been stronger with more scenes with Riggs, especially in close-up during the title’s match in Houston’s Astrodome. Carell does what he can with unequal screen time as a sexist challenger old enough to be King’s father, a fact which is downplayed.

Instead, with Alan Cumming in a great performance as an effeminate fashion designer who knows Billie Jean’s gay before she admits it to herself, Battle of the Sexes plays up King’s lesbianism. Peppered with clips of Mary Tyler Moore as Mary Richards in her popular, self-named situation comedy and lounging with Southern California’s easygoing ethos tuned to early Seventies’ Elton John, in comes a groupie-like hairdresser named Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). As single-minded Marilyn closes in on the single-minded athlete, she teases and tells her to “just drive”.

King’s emerging sexuality is central to the plot’s 1970s’ liberation theme.

Sarah Silverman is slightly less grating than usual as a tennis hustler, too. Though her hustler is supposed to be arch, intentionally or not, Silverman’s Gladys is as exploitative of women’s players as the clubby men, if not more so because Gladys acts like she’s a women’s advocate. As Silverman’s character tells one female athlete: “I own you.”

Bill Pullman plays the villain, a league official who rejects King’s demand for equal pay and, though Riggs is underdeveloped, Stone’s studied, natural portrayal of trailblazing Billie Jean King, whose athletic achievements if not ability are also somewhat understated, gives the oncoming contest more of a matter-of-factness that works to the story’s advantage. As Riggs faces the reality of his overhyped challenge, and King glows in her newfound sexuality, feeling both contrite about cheating on her husband (Austin Stowell) and herself with an air of Elvis, the ’73 match watched by millions plays as one man’s self-delusion and one woman’s pivotal assertion of her own power as producer.

With Silverman’s gray-streaked Gladys, Riseborough’s ingratiating Marilyn, Stone’s hardcore athlete and Riggs basking in one final spotlight, with Howard Cosell foreshadowing an unfortunate age of captive TV masses hypnotized by Simpson, Kardashian and Trump, the audience is left to ponder who’s hustling whom and to what end. End titles omit certain facts, including King’s denial of her long affair with Marilyn, who sued for palimony when she was turned out, lost her case and may have in some sense been wronged. Battle of the Sexes depicts the pressure, release and glory of what it means — and what it costs — to be the best.

In this sense, Battle of the Sexes, written by Simon Beaufoy (127 Hours, Slumdog Millionaire, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen) and directed by Valerie Faris and Jonathan Dayton (Little Miss Sunshine), evokes 2015’s best picture, Steve Jobs. Though not as thoughtful, rounded and rich, it also revels in being about ambition, ability and competing to be the best.

Buyer Beware of the News

How do you know what you know? This is the question studied in the field of epistemology. If you go by reason, it’s important to apply the question to today’s media, too. The freedom of speech implies freedom of the press and, as censorship and so-called soft censorship or suppressed speech worsens, trusting the facts you read, watch and hear becomes more challenging.

CNN’s recent report linking Russians to fake Twitter and Facebook accounts constantly posting about racism, police brutality and Black Lives Matter (BLM) — one fake Facebook account for “Blacktivist” had thousands more ‘like’s than BLM’s official account — underscores the potential power of foreign and domestic enemies and adversaries to affect the course of American news, events and laws. The whole police-are-racist position may have been impacted by such false posts, claims of outrage and expressions of disgust. CNN’s report (read it here) shows that the Russian state-sponsored smear campaign against police, whites and American law enforcement was conducted with specific targets including Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, where controversial police shootings were being protested by BLM, leftists and others — and feverishly covered by the press.

CNN’s report raises disturbing questions about reporting, gathering, aggregating, disseminating and consuming facts, assertions and conclusions regarded as “the news”. Does Russia, which reportedly tried to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump, consider black outrage over police brutality and institutional racism to be distinctly pro-Trump in political terms? If so, what other steps if any has Russia taken to foster leftist and BLM outrage? Are riots and attacks by anarchists who show up whenever Nazis exercise free speech — or vice versa or both — funded by Russia? Amid a national sports controversy purportedly instigated by opposition to police racism, it’s legitimate to question the origins, sourcing and funding.

This is especially true because, increasingly, journalism in all forms is unduly influenced by unseen, anonymous and secondary sources such as posts on Twitter and Facebook. Today’s news assignment and segment producers and editors are as whim-worshipping as the president. The coverage of purported trends is often highly charged with emotionalism, sensationalism and hyperbole. News often comes in spurts to match short attention spans. Suddenly, the news is dominated by events in Houston — Florida — Puerto Rico — depending on a variety of factors, including ratings, advertising, favoritism, related crony-controlled entities and political bias.

In today’s perceptual-based media, news aggregators and prodcuers tend to pounce on whatever third-hand (or, sometimes, non-existent, as happened in Mexico) reports emanating from some batch of real, premeditated, purchased or automated posts that, in turn, feed pre-programmed algorithms calculated to determine what’s trending. This estimate then regurgitates the same false, distorted or misleading claims. This invariably feeds your small or large screen or page as what’s news.

Earlier this month, I cautioned against deciding which movie to see based on what a band of programmers decides by consensus (read my post on Rotten Tomatoes here). This week, as Saudi Arabia prepares to let women obtain permission to drive, someone using a word commonly and quite distinctly associated with Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) followers (the flipside of the left’s social justice warriors or SJWs) threatened to kill anyone supporting women drivers (read the article here). This makes me doubt whether the threat is credible.

Is someone really trying to stop any attempt to bring Saudi Arabia into the modern, civilized age? Who stands to gain from the press and public assuming that Saudi Arabia is encountering, facing and defeating opposition to women drivers? False claims of horrific threats have in some cases been found to have been self-generated by members of intended victim groups. Arsonists, in certain cases, are the firemen whose job is to put out fires. America’s history of enemy agents who infiltrate the highest levels of American government, movements, industry and institutions, from Soviet Russia’s Communist spies to Islamic terrorists’ agents in place, must also be kept in mind. The nation is deeply and severely fractured and divided over a range of complicated and serious issues. It stands to reason that America’s enemies will exploit the divisions.

So, CNN’s report is more evidence that outsider and insider forces have every reason to divide Americans, which makes one’s need to read, think and judge with ruthless rationality more urgent. Anyone opposed to statism is well warranted to conclude that failed statist schemes such as ObamaCare might be intended to fail — to lead to total statism. Or that terrorist threats feed the total surveillance state. And it is reasonable to suspect that fake news propagates the media, including social media — to achieve total government control of the media. Congress is now considering legislation to regulate social media, a threat that reeks of censorship which authoritarian Trump seems seriously predisposed to enact.

What can stop it is you, or, more broadly, each American reading, thinking and judging for himself or herself what’s real, what makes sense, whether a claim has a credible source, makes a credible assertion, fits a particular agenda, context or policy goal, who’s making the claim (and who influences, owns or controls who’s making the claim), what’s at stake, where reports are coming from, how it’s being delivered, i.e., with breathless emotionalism, and why it’s coming out now.

I first warned about the emergent need to better discern how media’s consumed in a February 13, 2015, blog post on “New Media and You” (read the post, in which I first used the term ‘fake news’, here). I addressed the issue again later that year after Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly engaged in a televised spat, which I saw not as a real conflict but as two sides of the same mangled and defective coin (read “The Circus Cycle” here).

More than ever, the reader, thinker and trader — anyone who thinks for himself — must beware of what’s news and, as a corollary, assert his absolute right to judge what’s news for himself.

Hugh Hefner, 1926-2017

The best this longtime Playboy subscriber and reader can say about Playboy founder Hugh Hefner, who died this week at the age of 91, is that he was a passionate advocate for sex. I think his early years were his best, really, as he introduced the Playboy brand, which began with journalism and women’s nudity in a magazine described as “entertainment for men”, across multiple platforms.

Lacking an explicit philosophy, however, I think his reach, influence and legacy is limited and he had mixed results. How he went from a young entrepreneur from Chicago‘s northwest side to worldwide icon of a hedonistic men’s lifestyle in Southern California parallels in essence how he went from publishing nude but not explicitly pornographic pictures of women, the centerfolds, and serious, thoughtful articles, such as Alvin Toffler’s 1964 interview with Ayn Rand, erotic fiction and the outstanding Playboy Advisor advice column to supporting the re-election of President Obama in 2012.

RIP, Hugh Hefner

Hefner’s work and record speak for themselves and he has some grand and amazing achievements, especially in providing fact-based articles about sex, news and the culture, even some of his activism against religionism, which he regarded as Puritanism, and the absolute right to free speech. Hedonism as an alternative to Puritanism, however, has a similarly constrictive effect and I think this, too, showed in Hefner’s work and life (and, possibly, in his face; Hefner rarely looks happy, especially in his later years). Accordingly, Playboy began in the 1950s as a bold voice of sexual liberationism, featuring nude photographs of Marilyn Monroe in its first edition, and faded in popularity and influence in the 1980s, culminating in a recent low point with the numerous accusations of rape and sexual assault against Bill Cosby, which included an alleged attack at the Playboy Mansion in LA’s Holmby Hills. Based on what I’ve seen, heard and read, I think the tales of anything-goes depravity at Playboy parties are probably true.

In her book, The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight From Commitment, according to an article by Rick Kogan in the Chicago Tribune, author Barbara Ehrenreich asserts that the conventional wisdom about Hugh Hefner and his sexual-themed empire is 100 percent wrong. Playboy, she writes, offers “not eroticism, but escape — literal escape from the bondage of breadwinning.” The posed Playmates, she wrote, “were necessary not just to sell the magazine, but to protect it. When, in the first issue, Hefner talked about staying in his apartment listening to music and discussing Picasso, there was the Marilyn Monroe centerfold to let you know that there was nothing queer about these urbane and indoor pleasures.”

On this point, I think Barbara Ehrenreich has Playboy exactly right. It was an airtight digest packed with pictures of beautiful women, outstanding journalism and tips, tools and advice for man at his best, on everything from sports, wine, travel, grooming and art to contraception, foreplay, lubrication, masturbation and the joy of sex.

The worst article I’ve read about Hefner is published in the Los Angeles Times. It’s a commentary by Robin Abcarian and she starts by complaining that he cultured women to be subservient pieces of flesh for men’s indiscriminate approval, an argument that might have been more persuasive had she provided evidence and not ended her column with her seeking a man’s opinion — to validate her own? the reader wonders — especially because the man is her father and, in Abcarian’s telling, he agrees with his daughter’s low estimate of Hugh Hefner as a sexist. The best Hefner obituary I’ve read appears, appropriately I think, in the Chicago Tribune. It’s an extensive piece by Rick Kogan who, like Hugh Hefner, was born and raised in Chicago. It’s longer and more thoughtful than the usual fluff. Kogan writes like he’s thought about Hugh Hefner, not like he’s spinning an agenda to malign someone’s character, and he offers a broad range and wide scope view of the life of one of the 20th century’s only voices of reason on the topic of sex. I learned nothing in the former article. I learned a lot (such as Ehrenreich’s thoughts) about Playboy‘s founder in the latter, just like when I read an edition of Playboy. So, I think, will you. Read Kogan’s article here.

TV: Jack on ‘This Is Us’

This is a post about the first episode of Dan Fogelman’s drama This Is Us, the season opener, which aired this week on NBC. I bought the show’s second season on iTunes, as I did the first season (and I’m glad I did; it’s the best new show on television as far as I’m concerned, as I explained in my review). I did what I usually do with visual media. Avoiding detailed analyses and commentary, which is nearly impossible, I first watched the episode.

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Then and only then did I read some of the feedback and reviews (I typically don’t read or listen to reviews in advance of writing my own because I want to remain objective, but I made an exception in this case and this isn’t a straight episode review). The New York Times published a commentary, which is not a review, totally focused on one aspect of the episode: a plot conflict resolution or mystery solved involving the show’s guiding force: the family’s father character-in-flashback, Jack Pearson (played by Milo Ventimiglia). The Hollywood Reporter did, too, though it was rambling, unfocused and barely readable. Both writers complained about the show’s first episode for the same reason: they asserted that it needlessly or gratuitously prolongs the puzzle of Jack Pearson’s death, a plot point revealed in the first season which remains unresolved.

Fans, too, in certain instances, focus on this aspect of the show. It’s easy to see why. Jack is an integral part of the show. He’s the head of the family. He’s the moral center, driving the This Is Us theme that the good is possible to achieve here on earth. Jack, a Pittsburgh husband and father who drinks too much and almost committed armed robbery before being diverted by love at first sight of his future wife (Mandy Moore), is an optimist. Having been the son of an abusive alcoholic, he seeks in layered, selective flashback to sort through the mess of life to forge a family with love, excellence and joy. He leads by example, admits mistakes and fathers with warmth, intelligence and love. He knows that life is like a banquet. He goes for the best for his wife and three kids — if not for himself.

This is what moves the opening episode of the second season. The ways that altruism — the moral code that living for the sake of others at the expense of your self-interest is highest — sinks into man’s soul, festers and becomes like an infectious disease. How insidious is this rotten moral ideal, altruism; how it contaminates the best within us — the part that dreams of being one’s best and showcasing it for the wonderful world. Each of Jack’s children, and certainly his wife, strives to be the best. Does Jack, the hero?

This is what the new episode of This Is Us implicitly asks and consequently dramatizes.

Though the first episode of the second season of this exceptional TV drama about ordinary people in pursuit of extraordinary goals, perfection and happiness arced through the triplets’ 37th birthday milestones of progress in love, career and family, the somber theme emerges when the wife comes to her estranged husband at a doorstep.

This is the part that took my breath away. This is the show’s dramatic pivot point; the hinge that creator Dan Fogelman, who recently spoke about the violent, sudden death of his parent in an interview with a trade publication, named when discussing how the reveal of Jack’s death is a gateway to a season of discovery, alignment and joy. This is what the episode’s critics, pseudo-fans and naysayers evade or ignore — that Jack’s admission of alcoholism is part of reality, too. That the final frame’s portrait of the wreckage of their home is not intended as an ongoing tease to melodrama but as a snapshot of the harsh, horrible facts of life which sometimes rudely intrude. That it’s whether and how you respond that shapes your character and life.

Jack is not defined by how he died. Suffering is not the point of life. Healing, fixing and remedial action — so you can be happy — is.

This is what This Is Us dramatized this week: life is finite and each life is a work in progress. That life is everything. That living means being rational, which starts with going by facts, not feelings, especially when facts are harsh. Life can be rich, rewarding and exalted — if you can earn and keep it. This is what This Is Us is about. So far, as the bright spot of a darker new season, This Is Us is showing the way.