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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
September 28, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Izzard, Kingsman, Brad's Status, Assassin

If only Trump would just shut up.

Theodore Roosevelt called the U.S. presidency "a bully pulpit," in an age when "bully" was the slang equivalent of "awesome."

The presidency is only a bully pulpit if the people don't think you're an idiot. In that case, the twittering presidency is like being in the stocks in the village square. The Secret Service keeps people from throwing fruit or, like, rocks. But lots of people want to, and the more you shout stupidities at them, the more their fingers itch.

Ultra-right Republicans have the delusion, shared by the ultra-left, that Trump was the actual consensus choice of the Republican Party. This is not true, was never true. Most Republicans in primary after primary kept voting for candidates other than Trump. The trouble was that for a long period Trump's most visible rival was Ted Cruz, who was only slightly less repugnant.

Trump was elected constitutionally, but with a minority of the popular vote. It is delusional and self-destructive for the far-right wing of the Republican Party to demand that the leadership of the Republican Party set aside their knowledge of how to govern, and instead adopt the ludicrous, mean-spirited, bigoted agenda of the far right and ram it down the throats of the American people.

There is some consensus in the Republican Party: a strong national defense, which will be hard to bring about after the neglectful, destructive Obama years. Obama also left a legacy of financial irresponsibility, as exemplified by the deliberately unsustainable Obamacare, whose main function is to force later Congresses to give up and enact single-payer medical care (i.e., socialized medicine).

There are no Republicans who don't want to fix both of these potentially cataclysmic problems -- and no Democrats who will stray from partisanship long enough to help.

So why hasn't the obvious need for Obamacare repeal and financial restructuring passed this Republican Congress?

Because of the far-right wing of the Republican Party. Defying all of political experience in every democratic country, they have adopted a slash-and-burn philosophy of governance: If they can't have everything their way, right now, then they will block any and every compromise that might accomplish some or most of their goals, while still leaving some sop for the opposition.

This is the antithesis of how deals are made, which, stupid as he is, even Donald Trump understands. If you want to make a deal that will last, you have to give the other side at least some of what they need, so that they can tolerate the result.

This is also good political sense, because if you allow your opponents to get some of what they wants, then even if you get most of what you want, they will find it much harder to incite the voters to throw you out of office, because, you know, it's not that bad.

But if the far-right Republicans -- the Hannity Republicans -- refuse to give one inch to their opponents, then anything they do accomplish (which will be nearly nothing anyway) will be undone, savagely, by the equally insane and partisan far left when they get back in power.

This tug-of-war between extremists is a direct result of campaign finance reform, by the way. When fat cats financed political campaigns, it was in their interest to have office holders who, regardless of party, didn't rock the boat. Boat-rocking is anathema to the economy, and fat cats got their money by predicting and then riding the economic tides.

But with funds coming mostly from ordinary citizens, it is the extremists who do the best job of inflaming their constituents enough to get those wallets and purses open. So unless you can attract extremist money -- from common people and from extremist fat cats -- you aren't going to get elected in America these days.

Thus the law of unintended consequences is played out yet again before our eyes. Whenever we perform massive experiments on ourselves, like campaign finance "reform," we rarely accomplish what we meant and instead have to live with and adapt to a whole new set of problems, usually worse than the problems we were trying to solve.

Fat cats gave us Warren Harding, but campaign finance reform gave us two ignorant extremists in a row -- Obama, the god of the Left, and Trump, the idol of the Right. Neither of them was suited to become President, and neither of them deserved to have a Congress that gave them everything -- or, frankly, anything -- they wanted.

But America now has exactly the President that we deserve. Which is actually not quite the worst possible thing, because we might have deserved the bribe-taking, blame-throwing scofflaw Hillary Clinton. She was able to fool most of the people, and the Republicans did their best to let her get away with it by nominating their worst possible candidate.

Now he twitters himself in the foot on a regular basis, guaranteeing the election in 2020 of whatever clown the Democrats nominate.

If there's one thing the first year of Trump's presidency has shown me, it's that if socialist Bernie Sanders had been the nominee of the Democratic Party, and if I had voted for him instead of Trump -- as I most certainly would have done, on the basis of moral character and personal stability alone -- Sanders would be President, Congress would steadily block his most destructive proposals (which is their main job), and America would be better off.

*

If you've ever seen and heard British comedian Eddie Izzard, probably best known for doing many of his shows wearing women's clothing, then you can already anticipate the experience of listening to the audio of his book, Believe Me: A Memoir of Love, Death, and Jazz Chickens.

Yes, you can buy it in print, but don't you do it, because this is the most remarkable audiobook I've ever listened to. Izzard doesn't just read the text of his book. Instead he interpolates a huge amount of material that really does seem to be ad-libbed, calling them "footnotes."

If you read the text of the autobiography, you will not see any of these spontaneous footnotes and thus you will lose about half the value of the book.

And by value, I don't just mean "entertainment value" -- though that's certainly true, too. Izzard's book is more than mere entertainment, however. Even though his comedy style is surreal, he tells the story of his life with coherency and sincerity -- and his is a fascinating and valuable story.

When you realize that his experience and preparation led him to become a comedian who depends entirely on ad-libbing -- he develops all his comedy routines by ad-libbing in front of a paying audience, without any joke-writing step in advance -- then this ad-lib marathon is no surprise.

Izzard lost his mother at an early age, and though he has clear memories of her, it was her absence that seems to have had the greatest impact on his childhood. Because she was gone and Eddie's father had to continue to earn a living working in a high-demand job at British Petroleum, Eddie and his older brother were sent off to boarding schools.

There is a long tradition of this in England, but not every child thrives with such isolation from parents and siblings; reading Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, and Winston Churchill's pathetic pleading letters for his parents to visit him at boarding school gives a pretty good idea of how children who would grow up to be writers regarded boarding school.

Most biographers find that information about their subject's childhood is quite scarce, but Izzard's autobiography is thick with exactly the stuff that is missing from such third-party bios. We get a pretty good picture of Izzard as a kid, and then we watch step by step as his natural ambition leads him to do things that couldn't be done.

Like starting with no money, no experience, and no knowledge of what he was doing, Izzard decided that he had to do comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. So he assembled a group of fellow university students, went to the Fringe, and, in one of the worst possible time slots and venues, put on one of the worst possible shows.

But he made it happen, even if it was awful, and in the years to come he did it again and again. This was a constant pattern in his career. There were things he hoped for, but what brought him success were the things he decided simply to do, regardless of how impossible other people said they were.

It's quite an inspiring story, and since I had similar experiences early in my career -- while still in college, I started a theatrical repertory company at a venue where no play had ever been put on -- Izzard's tale resonated with me. Even the fact that he has been phenomenally successful as a performer while I left any kind of performing behind does not change my admiration for his accomplishments.

Now, in this wonderful, funny, self-revelatory memoire, Eddie Izzard has two not-at-all-hidden agendas.

One is to improve the readers' (and listeners') understanding and acceptance of his transvestite, transgender status. His need to dress in women's apparel is not "drag," because for him, women's clothes are not a costume, they're part of who he is. He is also attracted to women, not men. All of this I have seen him explain on stage, so I came into the book already knowing it.

Here's the remarkable thing. While Eddie Izzard is transvestite, he is not a "transvestite comedian." That is, even when performing in women's clothes, Izzard's comedy is not about his gender identity. His shows, and this book, are about everything human, and he is not about hating or punishing anyone who may not approve of this aspect of his character. He is what he is, and now he's going to talk about something else that he hopes will make you laugh.

Alas, his other agenda is his atheism. Like many atheists, he seems to feel an urgent need to proselytize for his faith in the non-existence of God -- a faith that, as per the definition of "faith," cannot be proven or demonstrated.

Indeed, when, near the end of the book, he tries to explain his credo, it turns out to be the standard set of complaints about God. Basically, it all boils down to this: Because God doesn't run the world the way I think he should, it stands to reason that he doesn't exist.

Well, that makes a tiny amount of sense, unless you prefer to think that God has more information, experience, and wisdom than the humans who fancy themselves qualified to judge his job performance.

It doesn't matter. Even as he sermonizes about his closed-minded faith in egalitarian atheism, he's amusing, and since my own belief system has already passed through tests far more rigorous than his naive theologizing, his atheism did not disturb my enjoyment of his wonderful, wonderful book.

Sure, buy the book as letters on pages, and I think you'll enjoy it greatly -- his life really was unusual and fascinating. But if you have any way to listen to it, get the audiobook of Believe Me, by Eddie Izzard, because this is how autobiographies and memoirs ought to be done.

How I wish we had Winston Churchill's or Mark Twain's or Jane Austen's or J.R.R. Tolkien's oral memoirs, recorded in exactly this free-associative style, though of course in their own voices rather than Eddie Izzard's.

And if, somehow, you've managed not to see any of Izzard's recorded performances, it's easy enough to rectify that by buying DVDs or streaming his shows. There is no other performing Izzard, so Google, Amazon, or iTunes will lead you right to him.

*

My wife and I quite enjoyed Kingsman when it came out a couple of years ago. Now, with the sequel in theatres, the original is being reaired on various channels. We watched part of it as a refresher course.

I was surprised at how much of the best stuff I had forgotten -- the underwater room, the puppy, basically the entire training and education of wannabe Kingsmen.

Meanwhile, my memory of how stupid and unbelievable the villain's plot was. Because Samuel L. Jackson's charisma and enthusiasm are nearly irresistible, we bought the premise while we were watching. But really, has there ever been a criminal plot as stupid as that one?

And, of course, there was the "punch line" ending, which seemed to rely on the idea that anal intercourse is a universally appreciated "reward" for males who do heroic deeds. I found this so offensive that, of course, it was the main thing that I did remember about the movie.

The sequel ends with an equally offensive punch line. Apparently this is going to be a singular feature of the series, which depresses me, because in other ways the sequel is better than the original.

In Kingsman: The Golden Circle, the main villain (played by Julianne Moore) is the boss of a worldwide drug cartel that has eliminated all its rivals. Her evil plot is a virus that has been embedded in all the "recreational" drugs she sells, from weed to heroin to amphetamines. It is highly visible and fast-acting, so when the disease is launched, the governments of the world have to comply with her demands immediately or a significant percentage of their populations will die.

The President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) pretends publicly that he is going to comply, but actually he thinks it's a good idea to let the disease kill all the "scum" who use recreational drugs, thus purifying the population.

One of Julianne Moore's first actions is to acquire the locations of all of Kingsman's installations and then blow them all to smithereens. Our hero, Eggsy (Taron Egerton; what Leonardo diCaprio would be if he had charisma and better directors), happened not to be at home when the missile came calling.

Now he and the majordomo of Kingsman (Mark Strong) have to follow the doomsday protocol -- and get in touch with their American counterparts, Statesman. Where Kingsman is fronted by a tailoring business, Statesman is a brewery in Kentucky.

At Statesman, Eggsy finds that his mentor (Colin Firth), whom we saw killed in the first movie, is alive after all -- saved by some of Statesman's high technology.

From there on, it's all a continuation of the superviolent romp that is the signature of the Kingsman franchise. There's a lot of wire work here, with everyone doing impossible acrobatic feats, along with the standard action-movie magic of our heroes absorbing blows that would kill an ordinary mortal, while still continuing to fight.

My wife does not like movie violence. But the violence in these films is ancillary to the wit and character, so that she was perhaps more eager to see this sequel than I was. We both enjoyed it immensely. We didn't expect it to be more than it was meant to be, so the places where we get a bit of emotion are a happy bonus.

So sure, if you liked Kingsman, then this sequel will scratch that itch again, very nicely. It's slightly better than the original. In fact, the gadgetry is such a delight that I realized halfway through that the movie has the same sense of wonder and humor that we got from the tv series Wild, Wild West -- and which that movie, sadly, had none of.

One drawback to Kingsman: The Golden Circle, though, is the oppressive overuse of the f-word and its kin from the Tourette's glossary of appalling words. Is that really the only thing that these writers can have their characters say?

In times of extreme stress, I can understand a character saying it, though good writing never needs it; but when it is used as a constant replacement for the words "very" and "oops," one has to marvel at the tone-deafness of the writers.

*

On Tuesday night we went to see the Ben Stiller movie Brad's Status. Here's the premise: Stiller is a middle-aged man who realizes that many of his college classmates have made phenomenal amounts of money, while he is stuck with his perfectly respectable earnings as head of a non-profit.

His wife (Jenna Fischer) points out that they have a good life, and it's the one they chose, so shut up. This is such excellent advice that I quickly realized that this was really the writer (Mike White) talking to himself, telling himself, "The only way you can spin Brad's 'dilemma' into a feature length movie is to make him completely false. The man who would make the choices he made might wish he were rich or had any hope of becoming so, but he would also be mature enough to realize that this is the life he and his wife chose.

The moment he reaches that conclusion, the movie's over.

So while it seems that the character, Brad, in an endless voiceover, is talking himself into brooding about and resenting the powerlessness of his life, in fact it is really the writer trying to talk us into continuing to care about a character who is going to spend an entire movie making stupid choices based on stupid resentfulness and irresponsibility.

To my wife and me, it felt like the beginning of Alien, where, ten minutes in, seeing the cat, I said aloud, "At the end, somebody's going to go out alone chasing the cat even though there's a monster on the ship."

Stupidity in bad movie characters may be so common that it's a cliche, but it's not inevitable. The audience still has choices. So my wife pointed out that American Assassin, which we had wanted to see the week before, was about to start in another theater at the Red Cinema.

We got up and walked out of Brad's Status. Because we didn't care about Brad or his status. And we didn't trust the filmmaker, after this tedious opening, to deliver an entertaining movie.

This is why writers usually shouldn't direct their own scripts. There's no director separate from the writer to say, "This isn't working. Try again." And so some obviously confessional bad writing ends up on the screen because the writer had no reality check from the director, who was just as blind to the flaws as the writer.

Thus I end my review of a movie that I walked out on, and begin my review of the movie we substituted for it.

*

American Assassin is even more of a killfest than Kingsman: The Golden Circle, and because it isn't quite as unrealistic -- it purports to take place in the real world of global terrorism and clandestine spy operations -- the scenes of torture and gore can be disturbing.

What redeems this elaborate revenge movie is the acting. Because I haven't seen the Maze Runner movies, I didn't know Dylan O'Brien, the actor who plays Mitch Rapp, the hero of the film.

This is actually a drawback, because, after his fiancee is murdered in a terrorist attack on a bunch of civilians on a beach, Rapp grows a beard and does serious research and self-training in order to pass for a Muslim, infiltrate a terrorist cell, and assassinate the mastermind of the attack that killed the love of his life.

During that phase in the movie, I did not recognize that this young Muslim who is trying to get into a terrorist cell was the same young man we saw, beardless, on the beach.

That's why beards make a good disguise. So ... even though I assumed that there was some continuity between the opening scene and what we watched immediately after, the young Muslim's actions -- his fluency in Arabic, his deep familiarity with the Quran and Muslim traditions -- made it less and less plausible that the bereft young Mitch Rapp would have become a Muslim and a would-be terrorist.

Only after a longish confusing scene of confrontation do we realize, No, Rapp was only pretending to be a Muslim in order to get revenge.

Rapp is then recruited for training in a secret CIA program in which an amazingly effective former soldier, Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton), trains Americans to kill whomever they're ordered to kill.

Rapp is not good at taking orders -- a trait that plays well in American movies but which would not be tolerated in a functional military organization. However, we're used to this film cliche and it doesn't stop us from enjoying what amounts to a bildungsroman superimposed on a revenge plot -- Hamlet thinly overlaid with Great Expectations.

I give the writers credit for some excellent dialogue, some good plot twists, and a real effort to make the ending, which involves a nuclear explosion near Rome, somewhat believable.

Maybe all that surprising plausibility is the result of the movie's being based on a novel by Vince Flynn, a novelist who is known for doing his homework.

Anyway, when the movie ends with (not a spoiler, really, because we know instantly that things will happen this way as soon as the bad guy gets in a boat with the bomb) an underwater nuclear explosion, all the special effects are superb ... and, to this layperson at least, believable.

In fact, because the explosion happens near, and causes damage to, the U.S. Sixth Fleet, the aftermath was emotionally painful to my wife and me, not because we cared much about the characters, but because we care about the Sixth Fleet and those American sailors who were in jeopardy. Yes, yes, it's fiction -- but we live in a world where our military are in constant danger from murderous plots scarcely more far-fetched and insane than the one in this movie.

Michael Keaton and Dylan O'Brien are both superb in this movie -- as are all the other actors. The movie was gripping from beginning to end, and once I sorted out my ability to see past O'Brien's temporary beard, the storytelling was clear. This is a well-made thriller with some excellent creative touches.

So even as I wait for Tom Cruise's American Made next weekend, I have to say that it was a pleasure to watch American Assassin, a well-thought-out terrorism-paranoia movie that stirred my patriotic blood more than a little.

*

If you've ever wanted to know what Mormons are about, this weekend will be the LDS Church's semi-annual General Conference, in which the church's leaders speak directly to the members through television.

Chances are your cable or satellite provider carries BYUtv, a channel operated by Brigham Young University. On Saturday and Sunday, starting at noon and four both days, you can tune in for as much of each two-hour broadcast as you wish.

The Tabernacle Choir will sing many times in each session, and the speakers will give life advice, Christian affirmations, and tell many inspiring stories that teach useful lessons. I can't promise that you'll be thrilled -- it is a bunch of talking heads, after all -- but it's more entertaining than network news and you're likelier to hear useful truth than you are when watching any talk show.

The main thing is that, without having to go to an LDS meetinghouse, you can hear what Mormons say to each other and get some idea of who and what we really are.


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