Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Armistice Day 11/11/17

(Click on the comic strip for a larger view.)

In 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.

You said it, brother.

Thanks to all who have served or are serving, on this Veterans Day, or Remembrance Day, or Armistice Day.

This post is mostly a repeat I run every year, since I find it hard to top Kelly.

My latest post on these themes is "The Battle of the Somme" (and also cites Kelly).

Back in 2009, I wrote a series of six related posts for Armistice Day (and as part of an ongoing series on war). The starred posts are the most important, but the list is:

"Élan in The Guns of August"

"Demonizing of the Enemy"

"The War Poetry of Wilfred Owen"

***"Giddy Minds and Foreign Quarrels"

"The Little Mother"

***"War and the Denial of Loss"

The most significant other entries in the series are:

"How to Hear a True War Story" (2007)

"Day of Shame" (2008)

"The Poetry of War" (2008)

"Armistice Day 2008" (featuring the war poetry of Siegfried Sassoon).

"They Could Not Look Me in the Eye Again" (2011)

"The Dogs of War" (2013)

"The Courage to Make Others Suffer" (2015)

I generally update these posts later with links to appropriate pieces for 11/11 by other folks as I find them. If you've written one, feel free to link it in a comment. Thanks.

The Battle of the Somme

The eleventh of November is primarily known as Veterans Day in the United States, but it's also known as Remembrance Day and Armistice Day. These holidays typically dovetail well, but Armistice Day, commemorating the end of the "Great War," is the part I've been pondering most. Veterans Day honors military veterans, which is only right, but Armistice Day seems to ask us to reflect on war and peace.

Americans tend to remember the Second World War much better that the First, and the Second is far more heavily featured in American feature films, TV shows, books and documentaries. The U.S. entered the First World War fairly late, we weren't directly involved in some of its most horrific events, plus the Second had more moral clarity; we can feel like the good guys. (Stud Terkel's great oral history of that war is called "The Good War" in quotation marks because although many of the interviewees justifiably feel proud of their service, no war is truly "good.") I do wish as a country we considered more aspects of the First World War, including the lessons of the Battle of the Somme, which started a little over one hundred and one years ago. As the BBC explains:

The Battle of the Somme, fought in northern France, was one of the bloodiest of World War One. For five months the British and French armies fought the Germans in a brutal battle of attrition on a 15-mile front. The aims of the battle were to relieve the French Army fighting at Verdun and to weaken the German Army. However, the Allies were unable to break through German lines. In total, there were over one million dead and wounded on all sides.


The battle is much more strongly etched into British memories because its start on July 1st, 1916, entailed the highest single-day death count of British soldiers in history. British decisions were criticized at the time (by Winston Churchill, among others) and are still discussed. The British had initiated a massive military recruitment effort, led by Secretary of State of War Lord Kitchener, but because of British losses, the "Kitchener divisions" were rushed to battle with relatively little training and often short on equipment. For the Battle of the Somme, the British plan was basically for artillery to destroy German barbed wire so that British soldiers could advance from their trenches to take over the German ones. British military historian John Keegan sets the scene in his 1976 book, The Face of Battle:

French small-unit tactics, perfected painfully over two years of warfare, laid emphasis on the advance of small groups by rushes, one meanwhile supporting another by fire – the sort of tactics which were to become commonplace in the Second World War. This sophistication of traditional 'fire and movement' was known to the British but was thought by the staff to be too difficult to be taught to the Kitchener divisions. They may well have been right. But the alternative tactical order they laid down for them was over-simplified: divisions were to attack on front of about a mile, generally with two brigades 'up' and one in reserve. What this meant, in terms of soldiers on the ground, was that two battalions each of a thousand men, forming the leading wave of the brigade, would leave their front trenches, using scaling-ladders to climb the parapet, extend their soldiers in four lines, a company to each, the men two to three yards apart, the lines about fifty to a hundred yards behind each other, and advance to the German wire. This they would expect to find flat, or at least widely gapped, and, passing through, they would then jump down into the German trenches, shoot, bomb or bayonet any who opposed them, and take possession. Later the reserve waves would pass through and advance to capture the German second position by similar methods.

The manoeuvre was to be done slowly and deliberately, for the men were to be laden with about sixty pounds of equipment, their re-supply with food and ammunition during the battle being one of the thing the staff could not guarantee. In the circumstances, it did indeed seem that success would depend upon what the artillery could do for the infantry, both before the advance and once it was under way.
p. 230 (1988 edition)


If there's an image associated with the First World War, it's trench warfare. If there's a specific weapon, it might be mustard gas, but more likely the machine gun, used on a greater scale than ever before. As Keegan explains:

The machine-gun was to be described by Major-General J.F.C. Fuller, one of the great enragés of military theory produced by the war, as 'concentrated essence of infantry,' by which he meant his readers to grasp that its invention put into the hands of one man the fire-power formerly wielded by forty. Given that a good rifleman could fire only fifteen shots a minute, to a machine-gunner's 600, the point is well made. But, as Fuller would have no doubt conceded if taxed, a machine-gun team did not simply represent the equivalent of so many infantrymen compressed into a small compass. Infantrymen, however well-trained and well-armed, however resolute, however ready to kill, remain erratic agents of death. Unless centrally directed, they will choose, perhaps badly, their own targets, will open and cease fire individually, will be put off their aim by the enemy's return of fire, will be distracted by wounding of those near them, will yield to excitement, will fire high, low or wide. It was to overcome influences and tendencies of this sort – as well as to avert the danger of accident in closely packed ranks – that seventeeth- and eighteenth-century armies had put such effort into perfecting volley by square, line and column. . . .

The machine-gunner is best thought of, in short, as a sort of machine-minder, whose principal task was to feed ammunition belt into the breech, something which could be done while the gun was in full operation, top up the fluid in the cooling jacket, and traverse the gun from left to right and back again within the limits set by its firing platform. Traversing was achieved by a technique known, in the British Army, as the 'two inch tap': by constant practice, the machine-gunner learned to hit the side of the breech with the palm of his hand just hard enough to move the muzzle exactly two inches against the resistance of the traversing screw. A succession of 'two-inch taps' first on one side of the breech until the stop was reached, then on the other, would keep in the air a stream of bullets so dense that no one could walk upright across the front of the machine-gunner's position without being hit – given, of course, that the gunner had set his machine to fire low and that the ground as devoid of cover. The appearance of the machine-gun, therefore, had not so much disciplined the act of killing – which was what seventeenth-century drill had done – as mechanized or industrialized it.
pp. 232–234


On the first day of battle, July 1st, 1916, the British artillery started its job, and the British soldiers, many of them relatively untrained, advanced:

Most soldiers were encountering heavy fire within seconds of leaving the trenches. The 10th West Yorks, attacking towards the ruined village of Fricourt in the little valley of the River Ancre, had its two follow-up companies caught in the open by German machine-gunners who emerged from their dug-outs after the leading waves has passed over the top and onward. They were 'practically annihilated and lay shot down in waves'. In the neighbouring 34th Division, the 5th and 16th Royal Scots, two Edinburgh Pals' Battalions contained a high proportion of Mancunians, were caught in flank by machine-gun firing from the ruins of La Boiselle and lost several hundred men in a few minutes, thought the survivors marched on to enter German lines. Their neighbouring battalions, the 10th Lincolns and 11th Suffolks (the Grimsby Chums and the Cambridge Battalion) were caught by the same flanking fire; of those who pressed on to the German trenches, some, to quote the official history 'were burnt to death by flame throwers as [they] reached the [German] parapet'; others were caught again by machine-gun fire as they entered the German position. An artillery officer who walked across later came on 'line after line of dead men lying where they had fallen'. Behind the Edinburghs, the four Tyneside Irish battalions of the 103rd Brigade underwent a bizarre and pointless massacre. The 34th Division's commander had decided to move all twelve of his battalions simultaneously towards the German front, the 101st and 102nd Brigades from the front trench, the 103rd from the support line (called the Tara-Usna Line, in a little re-entrant know to the brigade as the Avoca Valley – all three names allusions to Irish beauty spots celebrated by Yeats and the Irish literary nationalists). This decision gave the last brigade a mile of open ground to cover before it reached its own front line, a safe enough passage if the enemy's machine-guns had been extinguished, otherwise a funeral march. A sergeant of the 3rd Tyneside Irish (26th Northumberland Fusiliers) describes how it was: 'I could see, away to my left and right, long lines of men. Then I heard the "patter, patter" of machine-guns in the distance. By the time I'd gone another ten yards there seemed to be only a few men left around me; by the time I had gone twenty yards, I seemed to be on my own. Then I was hit myself.' Not all went down so soon. A few heroic souls pressed on to the British front line, crossed no-man's-land and entered the German trenches. But the brigade was destroyed; one of its battalions had lost over 600 men killed or wounded, another, 500; the brigadier and two battalions commanders had been hit, a third lay dead. Militarily, the advance had achieved nothing. Most of the bodies lay on the territory British before the battle had begun.
pp. 248–249


As for the overall results:

The first day of the Somme had not been a complete military failure. But it had been a human tragedy. The Germans, with about sixty battalions on the British Somme front, though about forty in the line, say about 35,000 soldiers, had had killed or wounded 6,000. Bad enough; but it was in the enormous disparity between their losses and the British that the weight of the tragedy lies: the German 180th Regiment lost 280 men on 1 July out of about 3,000; attacking it, the British had lost 5,121 out of 12,000. In all the British had lost about 60,000, of whom 21,000 had been killed, most in the first hour of the attack, perhaps the first minutes. 'The trenches,' wrote Robert Kee fifty years later, 'were the concentration camps of the First World War'; and though the analogy is what an academic reviewer would call unhistorical, there is something Treblinka-like about almost all accounts of 1 July, about those long docile lines of young men, shoddily uniformed, heavily burdened, numbered across their necks, plodding forward across a featureless landscape to their own extermination inside the barbed wire. Accounts of the Somme produce in readers and audiences much the same range of emotions as do descriptions of the running of Auschwitz – guilty fascination, incredulity, horror, disgust, pity and anger – and not just from the pacific and tender-hearted; not only from the military historian, on whom, as he recounts the extinction of this brave effort or that, falls an awful lethargy, his typewriter keys tapping leadenly on the paper to drive the lines of print, like the waves of a Kitchener battalion failing to take its objective, more and more slowly towards the foot of the page; but also from professional soldiers. Anger is the response which the story of the Somme most commonly evokes among professionals. Why did the commanders not do something about it? Why did they let the attack go on? Why did they not stop one battalion following in the wake of another to join it in death?
pp. 259–260


It's a striking account of senseless, unnecessary death. (It's stuck with me since I first read it ages ago.) The battle grew to be criticized, but it took a while for the public to get a fuller picture. The newpaper Times of London, published by Lord Northcliffe, consistently painted a rosy view of the British soldier's life. As Paul Fussell recounts in The Great War and Modern Memory:

It is no surprise to find Northcliffe's Times on July 3, 1916, reporting the first day's attack on the Somme with an airy confidence which could not help but deepen the division between those on the spot and those at home, "[Commander] Sir Douglas Haig telephoned last night," says the Times, "that the general situation was favorable," and the account goes on to speak of "effective progress," nay, "substantial progress." It soon ascends to the rhetoric of heroic romance: "There is a fair field and no favor, and [at the Somme] we have elected to fight out our quarrel with the Germans and to give them as much battle as they want." In short, "everything has gone well"; "we got our first thrust well home, and there is every reason to be sanguine as to the result." No wonder communication failed between the troops and those who could credit prose like that as factual testimony.
p. 106 (in the Illustrated Edition)


Fussell presents another familiar story – a government that doesn't want the public to know what happened in a war (and at least one media outlet happy to play along). Some Americans might be reminded of U.S. government efforts to suppress the news about the Vietnam War and Walter Cronkite's 1968 public commentary that the war was a stalemate and the U.S should negotiate an end. But similar dynamics play out with many wars.

It makes perfect sense that the Battle of the Somme remains a more powerful event for the British than for Americans, or even the French or Germans; it's one of many events that shape my personal thoughts on Armistice Day, but that mix will be different for everyone. But if contemplating Armistice Day entails any lessons, for me they're fairly straightforward: some wars may be necessary. Others definitely aren't. The same goes for battles; military history is full of disastrous decisions. If you must go to war, prepare well. Going to war should require a high threshold; it shouldn't be done capriciously. Distrust anyone who wants to go to war. Challenge anyone who tries bully others to go to war and attacks their patriotism or lies or offers frequently shifting rationales. Discuss matters of war and peace honestly and openly as a democracy. Obtain as much accurate information as possible and question suspect accounts (and certainly challenge outright propaganda). Treat veterans well, especially when it comes to physical and mental health. Listen to their stories. Remember that the best way to support current military personnel is to avoid sending them into an unnecessary war or sending them into a pointless battle or poorly preparing them. Challenge anyone who tries to pretend that either skepticism about going to war or questioning a specific war-related decision shows a lack of "support for the troops." Resist authoritarian bullying.

In our current day, it's worth remembering that although some veterans go on to become fine public servants, others become political hacks. Generals may serve as wise counsel for presidents, or may agitate for nuclear war, as Curtis LeMay did to President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As political figures, generals may act as a sobering influences, but they can also be authoritarian bullies who lie and slander for attempted political gain, and misunderstand or disdain democracy. They have a voice, but undue deference to them can be dangerous.

Thanks to all who has served on this Veterans Day. As for Remembrance Day and Armistice Day, in 1959, Pogo creator Walt Kelly wrote:

The eleventh day of the eleventh month has always seemed to me to be special. Even if the reason for it fell apart as the years went on, it was a symbol of something close to the high part of the heart. Perhaps a life that stretches through two or three wars takes its first war rather seriously, but I still think we should have kept the name "Armistice Day." Its implications were a little more profound, a little more hopeful.


Monday, September 04, 2017

Labor Day 2017

Happy Labor Day! It’s too easy to take for granted the important victories of the labor movement in the past, and also to overlook the attacks on workers’ right in the present. Some good pieces for the day:

The Nation, "The Rollback of Pro-Worker Policies Since Trump Took Office Is Staggering":

Last week, as most of us in the United States were riveted by Hurricane Harvey’s descent on Texas, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration removed from its Internet home page a list of workers who died as a result of workplace injuries, burying it deep within the website. At the same time, it changed how the list is compiled; it will now only include instances where the company was cited for safety violations leading to a worker’s death. Details such as the name of the deceased worker are also no longer considered worthy of inclusion. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution worked out that of the at least 32 Georgia workers it determined died as a result of work-related injuries since October 1 of last year, only two even get a mention on the new list.

Then on Tuesday, the day Trump visited hurricane-stricken Texas, the White House announced it had put a stop to a 2016 Obama-administration ruling requiring companies with 100 or more employees to report pay by gender, race, and ethnic background to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Advocates had hoped it would help combat the United States’ stubborn pay gap. But Ivanka Trump, a self-described advocate for women’s rights, was not disappointed. “The proposed policy would not yield the intended results,” she sniffed in a statement accompanying the White House decision. “We look forward to continuing to work with EEOC, OMB, Congress and all relevant stakeholders on robust policies aimed at eliminating the gender wage gap.”

Those “robust policies” won’t include the Obama era Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces order. That’s gone too. That 2014 executive order required prospective federal contractors to disclose workplace safety and discrimination violations. It also mandated pay transparency and forbade mandatory workplace arbitration in cases of discrimination and harassment at the covered businesses. Supporters proclaimed it a major advance in civil-rights regulation. Management-side law firms and business interests were less than impressed. Legal powerhouse Littler Mendelson, which says on its website that it’s the largest “global” employment and labor-law practice, claimed it “dramatically increases risks for government contractors.” Well, that wouldn’t do. “The rule simply made it too easy for trial lawyers to go after American companies and American workers who contract with the federal government,” then–Press Secretary Sean Spicer explained when asked. Maybe Ivanka Trump wasn’t available to offer cover that day.

Then there is worker pay. Last year, the Obama administration announced a major revamp of the nation’s overtime rules. Proponents expected the change to boost the pay of 4.2 million workers and ultimately add about $12 billion to American paychecks over the next decade. Opponents—including 21 state governments and the US Chamber of Commerce—took to the courts, and, almost week before it was set to take effect, a Texas judge issued a temporary stay.

The Atlantic covers regressive measures in "How St. Louis Workers Won and Then Lost a Minimum-Wage Hike", Robert Reich provides a useful summary on Facebook:

Republicans and their big business patrons have shafted workers in Missouri just in time for Labor Day. Last week, a new state law went into effect that slashed the minimum wage for workers in St. Louis and Kansas City from $10/hour to $7.70/hour. The measure also prohibits these cities from setting a higher minimum wage in the future.

It all began a few years ago when St. Louis passed an ordinance to gradually boost the city's minimum wage to $11/hour (A living-wage for an adult without children in the area is roughly $10.50). Business groups immediately challenged the increase in the courts. This year the courts sided with the city and wages increased to $10/hour, so businesses turned to their Republican allies in the legislature to pass a statewide cap. Now, more than 30,000 workers could see a pay cut. Business groups are trying to pass similar caps in over 20 states across the country.

This is ridiculous. No one who works full-time should be forced to raise a family in poverty. Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage of 1968 would be be well over $10/hour today. It's also good for the economy. When workers earn more, they spend more on local businesses, which in turn creates more jobs.

Los Angeles Times, Behind a $13 shirt, a $6-an-hour worker":

The U.S. Department of Labor investigated 77 Los Angeles garment factories from April through July of 2016 and found that workers were paid as little as $4 and an average of $7 an hour for 10-hour days spent sewing clothes for Forever 21, Ross Dress for Less and TJ Maxx. One worker in West Covina made as little as $3.42 per hour during three weeks of sewing TJ Maxx clothing, according to the Department of Labor.

Those sweatshop wages are the hidden cost of the bargains that make stores like Forever 21 impossible to resist for so many Americans.

A knee-length Forever 21 dress made in one of the Los Angeles factories investigated by the government came with a price tag of $24.90. But it would have cost $30.43 to make that dress with workers earning the $7.25 federal minimum wage and even more to pay the $12 Los Angeles minimum, according to previously unpublished investigative results from the Labor Department.

Forever 21 would have had to pay 50% more in order for sewing contractors to pay workers the federal minimum, the investigation found.

The Department of Labor discovered labor violations at 85% of the factories it visited during that four-month period and ordered the suppliers to pay $1.3 million in back wages, lost overtime and damages — but it couldn’t touch the brands.

Via Erik Loomis, who covers labor issues at Lawyers, Guns & Money, comes "How Labor Scholars Missed the Trump Revolt" by Jefferson Cowie at The Chronicle of Higher Education:

The new labor history splintered in dozens of fruitful directions, but the ceaseless decline of working-class power pushed those engaged in the central mission of the field from panic to despair. Labor scholars seemed to fall into an ideological trap: When workers managed to win, it was because of their drive and capacity. When they lost, which was more often the story, it was capital’s dark machinations at fault. Rarely did anyone want to probe the strange and heady brew of anti-statism, anti-elitism, fragile pride, and, often, individualism (a word all but banned from labor history) that are part of class consciousness in America.

Many of the most recent generation of kindred spirits to the new labor history have jumped on the train of studying conservatism. But in American historiography, conservatism still seems to smack of the other and the exotic and the conspiratorial — rather than part and parcel, central to the very DNA of American politics. The residue of our own politics, and the revelation of all of the real radicalism in U.S. history, prevents me and my colleagues from confronting something fearful: what we like to call "backlash" is deeply intertwined with everything, including some of the left-wing movements.

What’s interesting about Trump is that he won, not that his strain of politics is new. It’s always been around. Let’s not go wild trying to figure out what happened: The crazy train of American history happened. The lineage that winds from Andrew Jackson to Tom Watson to Joe McCarthy to George Wallace to Pat Buchanan to Trump is not just "conservative," nor is it just "working class" in any way an intellectually driven conservative or Marxist or liberal would recognize or celebrate. The conservative/liberal divide is a deeply tenuous construct. Looking for a populist savior, however, is bedrock Americana.

Historians need to reconcile their intellectual frameworks with a "real-world" America that is a messy stew of populist, communitarian, reactionary, progressive, racist, patriarchal, and nativist ingredients. Any historical era has its own mix of these elements, which play in different ways. We should embrace Thompson’s admonition to understand class as a continuing, sometimes volatile happening, and not be blinded by our love affair with dissent as a left-wing movement. Trump voters are dissenters, after all.

On a related note, there's the Rolling Stone piece, "Republicans Will Let America Burn While Holding Out for Tax Cuts," by Ed Burmila (of Gin and Tacos):

At the same time, though, Republicans are making it clear that talk is all we are going to get so long as there is any chance of pushing through tax cuts before Trump has a Chernobyl-level meltdown. If the breakdown of the rule of law and the institutions of government troubles them, it doesn't trouble them enough to give up the prospect of getting the wealthiest Americans their 100th tax break of the last four decades. The GOP claims its corporate tax cut from 35 percent to 15 percent will not raise the debt, an assertion that relies upon the repeatedly disproven claim that economic growth will skyrocket after tax cuts. Paul Ryan urges you not to notice that due to extensive loopholes, American corporations currently pay nowhere near the nominal 35 percent rate. Oh, and they're also sitting on $2 trillion in cash, which negates the argument that investment is being held back by the tax rate. . . .

Their priority will not change no matter what Trump does and no matter how many vastly more pressing problems confront the nation. The core principle of the GOP is to make the rich richer, and that is more important to people like Ryan than any of our institutions. As reality dawns on the naively hopeful GOP members who believed they could "manage" Trump, their willingness to keep the nuclear codes in the hands of a giant toddler says a lot about their values.

Unfortunately, conservatism has always had a anti-labor, anti-worker, anti-employee strain, typically favoring management, owners and investors. That strain has completely taken over the Republican Party, which has become almost entirely plutocratic, with the goals of funneling more money and power to the already rich and powerful, slashing the social safety net, and impoverishing and immiserating the middle class and poor.

Finally, at Hullabaloo, Dennis Hartley provides "Lord I am so tired: Top 10 Labor Day films." It's a fine list.

If you have a post celebrating labor or Labor Day, feel free to link it in the comments.

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

Independence Day 2017

Happy Independence Day! As usual, here's a mix of videos, with several reruns.

First up, here's a clip from the excellent John Adams miniseries:



Next, here's the full Declaration of Independence, read by an interesting and somewhat odd collection of actors:



Marvin Gaye provides the sublime:



The Muppets provide some silliness and enthusiasm:



Finally, Pete Seeger provides an undeniable spark, singing his pal Woody Guthrie's most famous song:



Have a good Fourth! Feel free to link any appropriate pieces in the comments (and I may update the post as well).

Monday, May 29, 2017

Memorial Day 2017

Memorial Day is meant to remember those who died in military service. I watched the Memorial Day Concert from the U.S. Capitol on PBS, as I often do. I'm not a fan of schmaltzy stuff, and there's plenty of that, but I do appreciate that for the past several years the concert has told some not-rosy wartime stories and has covered subjects such as PTSD, suicide, and recovering from severe injuries and dealing with disabilities. This year was no exception – the concert told the dramatic tale of Colonel Richard Cole (101 years old, and the last surviving member of WWII's Doolittle Raid), paid tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen (with several surviving members attending), featured an announcement about a suicide hotline, and dramatized the story of a severely disabled serviceman and his grueling recovery (Luis Avila) before bringing him on stage. The presenters often said, "Please stand if you can, and stand for those who can't." The home page for the concert provides some familiar and useful resources, plus an intriguing page on musical therapy (last I featured The Telling Project, a theater project for veterans). Thanks to those who died in service, and let's also make sure we take care of those who make it home and need help.

Others' posts on Memorial Day:

Veteran Jim Wright at Stonekettle Station observes, "in reality, it’s not the soldiers we remember. It’s the endless war."

At Hullabaloo, Digby offers "Some words from that up and coming young man, Frederick Douglass" and Dennis Hartley provides "A Memorial Day Mixtape."

Balloon Juice hosted an open thread and also had two other posts for the day.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

National Poetry Month 2017

April is National Poetry Month, so I'd be remiss if I didn't feature at least one poem. This year, I'm going with one by Billy Collins, who I've featured before. I've attended one of his readings, and his knack for vivid imagery combined with wit makes him especially fun to hear live. Here's video of him reading "Litany" and giving some context for it:



The poem itself:

Litany
By Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine...
– Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general's head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman's tea cup.
But don't worry, I'm not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and – somehow – the wine.

The speaker of the poem comes off as a bit egotistical and harsh, and this upending of convention in a supposed love poem makes it funny, but there's also an affection to the piece, along with some lovely images. Collins, who's been the National Poet Laureate, is well worh checking out.

I'll also link the wonderful Favorite Poem Project once again. Funding for it may be tight this year, but they're accepting donations (I sent one).

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

St. Patrick's Day 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day! I've used these two before, but they wrok quite well as a pair.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

2016 Film Roundup, Part 1: The Oscars and the Year in Reviews

(The annual post-Oscar film roundup is a pre-blog tradition, but was greatly delayed this round. It comes in four parts. In addition to this section, there's The Top Four, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

2016 was a decent year for movies, with many of the best being fairly intimate, character-based dramas. If there were a unifying theme, it might have been the utter stupidity of bigotry and its pointless harm, whether based on race, sexuality or religion. Most of the films tackling this did so in an effectively understated way, by focusing on the humanity of their main characters (Loving, Moonlight, Silence). Hidden Figures opted for a more typical Hollywood approach with flashier scenes and crowd-pleasing moments, but succeeded nicely on its own terms.

The big news about the Oscars was of course the worst screw-up in the award show's history. Despite multiple safeguards, the wrong movie was announced for the winner of Best Picture (La La Land instead of Moonlight). The best account I've read to date comes from The Wrap; basically, accountant Brian Cullinan got distracted and star-struck taking photos backstage, flubbed the envelope handoff, and then panicked and cowered backstage rather than correcting the mistake as his job required (Martha Ruiz, his compatriot on the other wing, did the same). It's a shame, because both movies are good, but Moonlight's win was much more unexpected and a coup given its subject matter, cast and budget. The gaffe distracted from its moment. (Side note: I have a friend who often works the Oscars and has worked with the stage crew of this one, but did not work this particular show.)

As for the rest of the ceremony, it opened with an energetic musical opener. Host Jimmy Kimmel did a pretty good job overall. His edgiest material was probably his repeated jabs at Mel Gibson, supposedly rehabilitated after his misogynistic and anti-Semitic tirades back in 2006. The most original bit was surprising a Hollywood tour by bringing them through the Oscars, although the whole thing went on too long (the wildest subplot was about "Gary from Chicago").

On the speeches and awards, Best Supporting Actor winner Mahershala Ali gave a nice shout-out to his teachers. It was neat to see the real Katherine Johnson (who's 98!!!) come on stage with the lead actresses from Hidden Figures. I thought it was a bit unfair that the 467 minute documentary O.J.: Made in America was eligible for Best Documentary Feature – it played at a few festivals and had a brief theatrical run to secure eligibility, but it was made for to be seen on television in installments. On the other hand, I saw the first installment and it was excellent, and director Ezra Edelman (son of children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman) gave a nice speech recognizing the victims of domestic and police violence. Zootopia had a nice rehearsed speech split between the three winners. Honorary awards justifiably went to the irrepressible Jackie Chan and tireless documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Viola Davis finally won her well-deserved Oscar thanks to a searing performance in Fences. Although I like Kenneth Lonergan's script and film You Can Count on Me much more than Manchester by the Sea, I was happy to see him win for Best Original Screenplay. I was likewise happy to see Moonlight win for Best Adapted Screenplay. Best Cinematography is usually a stacked category, but I thought some of the nominees were underwhelming this time – winner La La Land has some great camerawork but some bad lighting in some scenes; Moonlight likewise has some strong camerawork and interesting use of color, but soft focus in several shots (not unusual for an indie). Although La La Land's songs weren't overwhelming, I was glad "City of Stars" won as a less typical pick over standard Disney ballad "How Far I'll Go" from Moana.

Kevin O'Connell finally won an Oscar after 21 nominations for Hacksaw Ridge and had a great speech highlighting the support of his mom. I didn't see (or hear) Hacksaw Ridge , but did hear a story about O'Connell's work on the film. I've written about this before, but the continuing problem is that Oscar voters tend not to understand sound and the differences between the categories. Even if worthy films win, it's often in the less deserving category. Even more than the other "technical" awards, the sound awards are subject to bandwagon voting, and great sound jobs on not-great movies tend not to win. If you look at O'Connell's credits, there's a dearth of prestige films. Anyway, at least some Academy voters voted for O'Connell because of all his previous snubs, and good for him.

Meanwhile, the Oscars put together a great montage of international film lovers, and several winners spoke about the importance of funding the arts, which is always welcome. I always appreciate the Montage of Death, and on a personal note was happy to see that a teacher of mine made the cut.

As for other films in 2016, although I didn't see God's Not Dead 2 (the first film is supposedly awful), I think the filmmakers missed an opportunity by not naming it God's Still Not Dead.

On to the reviews. I'm including spoiler coding as I have for a few years, but my usual rule also applies: if it appears in the trailer, it's not a spoiler.

2016 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 The Oscars and the Year in Review, Noteworthy Films and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

Lion: Based on a true story, Lion has a fairly simple plot, but it tells it extremely well, with strong performances by all the leads, lovely cinematography and a overall lyricism and intimacy to the storytelling. Young Saroo (Sunny Pawar), growing up in extreme poverty in India, manages to get spectacularly lost and cannot find his way home to his mother, older brother and sister. He's street-smart enough to dodge some people who don't have his best wishes at heart, even if they pretend otherwise. Eventually he winds up in an orphanage, where he's adopted by a kind Tasmanian couple, Sue (Nicole Kidman) and John Breirly (David Wenham). As a young adult, Saroo (Dev Patel) has eagerly assimilated as a Tasmanian and largely abandoned his Indian heritage, perhaps sharpened by shame over his brother by adoption, Mantosh (played by Divian Ladwa), who has some behavioral and perhaps developmental issues. Saroo is outgoing and likable, and joins a hotel hospitality training program, where he meets and hits it off with an American, Lucy (Rooney Mara), who becomes his girlfriend. Saroo gradually reveals more about his life and the circumstances surrounding his adoption. Lucy urges him to search for his birth family, but this causes significant strife between them and within Saroo; he's buried some deep pain about his birth family; he's given up hope of finding them; he feels that searching for them would be a betrayal of his adoptive parents, whom he loves dearly.

Dev Patel gives a strong performance as a conflicted Saroo, and if you've last seen him as the gangly hero of Slumdog Millionaire, it's striking to see how he's physically filled out and his considerable charisma. Saroo is quite likable and sympathetic overall, but he also deals with his angst poorly on occasion, providing some welcome complexity to the character. It's not so much that he's denying his origins; it's that he fought that battle for a long time and failed, and was trying to move on… but discovers his yearning is undeniable. Lion is some of the best work of Kidman's career, and a long, quiet monologue late in the film explaining her decision to adopt is particularly impressive for its subtlety and intimacy. Mara and Wenham are solid in supporting roles. The film might drag a bit in the second half, but Lion deserves credit for making us care about the characters and delivering some moving moments. Director Garth Davis had directed some commercials and television before, but this was his first feature, and it's a promising one.

Loving: This real-life story about the couple at the center of a landmark Supreme Court case is grounded by natural performances by the whole cast, most of all Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving. They’re an interracial couple who marry in DC in 1958 but return to their home in Virginia where their marriage is illegal. They live in a rural, racially integrated area, and none of their neighbors seem to mind the marriage, but law enforcement feels otherwise, and the couple's home is raided, with them jailed and continually threatened. After a few encounters with the law for the couple, Mildred eventually writes to Attorney General Robert Kennedy, who suggested they contact the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which agrees to take their case. The problem, though, is that although the ACLU lawyers think they can win, challenging the law could mean that Richard and possibly Mildred as well could wind up in jail in the meantime, and they have several young children. Likewise, they're a private couple, and even though it would help their cause, it takes some doing to get them to agree to open their house to a Life photographer (played well by the reliable Michael Shannon). They want to win the case, but they're not eager to be martyrs and not always convinced publicity will help – it might just cause further backlash from Virginia authorities.

The greatest strength of Loving is the quiet decency and dignity of Richard and Mildred; they just want to live their lives unbothered. Although the film has a political subject, it's not a polemic; it tries and succeeds in telling a human story. Arkansas-born director Jeff Nichols, who also directed Mud, once again shows he has a good feel for the rhythms of Southern rural life. The Lovings prefer country life to the city, and film scoring tends to be light in the rural scenes, with Nichols opting for nature sounds instead. Ruth Negga was born in Ethiopia and raised in Ireland; Joel Edgerton is an Aussie; nonetheless, they're convincing both as Americans and a couple. Edgerton's a good fit for the taciturn, reserved but devoted Richard; Negga brings a natural grace to Mildred, who's the more optimistic of the two. Their scenes alone feel authentic and intimate, and we feel the violation when the outside world comes crashing in. It's hard not to sympathize with the couple and wonder why people can't just leave them the hell alone. Loving might be a bit slow for some people, but it's well-acted and quietly moving. (I thought it should have garnered more Oscar nominations.)

Moonlight: It's hard not to feel for scrawny elementary school kid Chiron (pronounced SHY-rohn), known as "Little," as he tries to evade a gang of school bullies in the film's opening. By chance, he's rescued by Juan (Mahershala Ali), who along with his girlfriend Teresa (singer Janelle Monáe) show the reticent Little (Alex Hibbert) some kindness; he's not getting much at home from his often-abusive, addict mother, Paula (Naomie Harris). Although Moonlight chronicles growing up poor, black and gay in Miami, it never really feels like an "issue" film; it just concentrates on telling Chiron's story. (An early scene when Little asks Juan what "faggot" means is striking, all the more so for Juan's thoughtful response.) Director Barry Jenkins wrote the screenplay based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's unpublished play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue; the film has many autobiographical details from them both, and the storytelling feels personal and intimate. The film's broken into three parts – part I is "Little," part II is "Chiron," the teen years (with Chiron played by Ashton Sanders), and part III is "Black," the name Chiron (played by Trevante Rhodes) picks for himself as a young adult. Chiron's best friend Kevin is likewise played by three actors (Jaden Piner, Jharrel Jerome and André Holland).

This is very much an indie film, with only a few known actors, but many strong performances from an almost all-black cast. As Chiron, both Hibbert and Sanders have big, expressive eyes, which work well given how quiet and even mournful the character is. (Teen Chiron has to deal with more pointed bullying; he does not live in a gay-friendly world.) As Juan, Mahershala Ali makes a compelling, complex father figure – he's genuinely kind to Chiron, but he's also a drug dealer – and thus morally somewhat responsible for the condition of Paula, Chiron's mom, even if Juan and his crew don't deal directly to her. As Paula, the British Naomie Harris delivers some primal, desperate and memorable scenes; her dialect feels a bit forced at first but settles down (she shot her scenes in just a few days due to foreigner-work laws). Janelle Monáe isn't asked to do that much as Teresa, but she's got a nice, natural feel, especially in the scenes with young Chiron/Little. Finally, André Holland is a standout as adult Kevin, giving a nuanced, subtle performance, and part III simply would not work without him. Moonlight has its flaws (more below), but it’s nonetheless easily one of the best films of the year and well worth seeking out.

Like many an indie film, Moonlight suffers from soft focus in several shots, luckily, these are the exception and mostly occur early on. Some of camerawork is strong, as and is the use of color in certain scenes. Director Jenkins lets source sound drop away and music take over during a Paula screaming scene; it's a great choice, and several other scenes demonstrate similar poetry. The biggest problem with the film is the leap from part II to part III, because major, glaring questions are left unanswered and aspects of Chiron/Black's life seem implausible without explanation. Meanwhile, in contrast to the other two younger actors playing Chiron, Trevante Rhodes has narrow eyes and a relatively stony, unexpressive face; this seems like an intentional casting choice by Jenkins, but means that André Holland essentially has to carry part III despite not being the main character. In a few moments we can see Chiron/Black churn, though, and these are quite effective. The film's final scenes also pay off with understated power, and you will remember them. Give Moonlight credit for making you feel something genuine. More below in the…
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Fences: Denzel Washington directs and stars in this fine adaptation of one of the great 20th century plays, August Wilson's Fences. It's Pittsburgh in 1950s, and Troy Maxson (Washington) is a trash collector in his early 50s. He's a great raconteur who enjoys telling exaggerated tales with his coworker and good friend, Jim Bono (Stephen Henderson). He also loves to flirt with his long-time wife, Rose (Viola Davis), who can get slightly embarrassed but mostly appreciates it. Troy was a star in the Negro baseball leagues but major league integration came too late for him; consequently, he wants his son Cory (Jovan Adepo) to stick to his job after school and not football, thinking that pursuing a sports career will only lead to disappointment. Lyons (Russell Hornsby), Troy's adult son from a previous relationship, is a jazz musician who will stop by to borrow money. Troy's brother Gideon (Mykelti Williamson) recently moved out of the Maxson house; he has brain damage from a World War II injury, and is mostly gentle, but occasionally acts out and gets locked up. The play chronicles Troy's conflicts, some of his own making; Rose generally gives him sound counsel, but he doesn't always heed it.

Fences shares a number of similarities with Death of a Salesman, and although it's not as tight a play as Arthur Miller's classic, that's a high bar to reach. The work of late playwright August Wilson (who also wrote the screenplay) tends to feature vivid characters who spout great, long monologues actors would kill for, fantastic individual scenes, and a sprawling structure and long run time. Fences is one of his best works, and Wilson's adaptation and Washington's direction trim down the play at bit while keeping its essence. Washington opens up the locale a bit to let things breathe – rather than action taking place entirely on the front stoop of the house, it happens all over the house and in the back yard, plus around a little bit of the neighborhood. Location-wise, it might still feel a bit stagey, but the performances are well worth checking out. Washington has played Troy on stage before, and he delivers a superb performance – charismatic, charming, but also stubborn, unyielding and self-pitying. Henderson is solid as Bono, good-natured but willing to challenge Troy's more foolish moves; Williamson captures Gabe's gentleness in what can be a tough part – Gabe believes he's a fallen angel and the horn he carries will open the gates to heaven. (The very end of Wilson's plays can be melodramatic or otherwise over-the-top and problematic; Wilson and Washington handle things pretty nicely here.) The most impressive performance, though, comes from Viola Davis as Rose. Troy does right by her and also does her wrong; as a black woman in the 50s, her options are limited, and her fortunes are married to those of her husband. Wilson provides a juicy part, and Davis takes full advantage of it, demonstrating humor and small kindnesses, but also delivering a searing performance as a middle-aged woman facing bitterness with practicality and resolve. (Davis is always good, but this is probably her best work to date.) The scenes between Washington and Davis are dynamite, from their most tender, playful moments to their most contentious. Fans of Wilson or great acting should seek this one out.

2016 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 The Oscars and the Year in Review, The Top Four and The Rest (The Good, the Bad and the Godawful).)

Arrival: Arrival is surprisingly good sci-fi, thanks to strong source material (the Nebula-winning novella "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang), a cool aesthetic for the aliens and their language, solid direction from Denis Villeneuve, and a superb, affecting performance by Amy Adams. Aliens have arrived in 12 monolith-like craft distributed around the Earth. Communication hasn't gone well, and successful waves of experts in a variety of fields have been recruited and later fired. Colonel G.T. Weber (Forest Whitaker), a distrustful man wary of sharing information with the other 11 sites (especially the Chinese one), nonetheless recruits linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Adams) and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner). Before she heads off to meet the aliens, we see Banks living a life of joy but eventual heartbreak and isolation, spending time with a young daughter who succumbs to a rare and fatal disease. Banks and Donnelly are eventually allowed contact with the aliens in their ship; the aliens have seven limbs and thus are dubbed "heptapods"; Donnelly dubs the two they interact with Abbott and Costello. Banks, who is razor-sharp, eventually determines that the aliens do not perceive existence (especially time) as humans do, and slowly starts to develop a method of communication. As she starts to understand the heptapods more and more, Banks' own sense of time and reality becomes less fixed and more fluid. But the U.S. and Chinese militaries are treating the research more as an arms race than a cultural opportunity, and interpret an ambiguous message as a threat.

The heptapods look like giant squid, but the sparse, black stone spaceship with illuminated mist makes for an interesting aesthetic. The alien's ink writings are most reminiscent visually of Zen circles drawn with a brush in ink or paint; given the heptapods approach to existence, it's an inspired choice thematically as well as aesthetically. The script is often sharp – not only will Banks tell an old story about the origin of the word "kangaroo" to make a point, she'll also comment later (correctly) that it isn't true. Renner's quite good as Donnelly – he seems to enjoy playing a non-action role for a change – and has nice chemistry with Adams as Banks, which proves crucial. The military folks seem overly belligerent and stupid, which is disappointing if plausible in the current day. The film hinges on Adams and her performance, though. She's convincing in her dedication, courage and sense of wonder as Dr. Banks, but also in her joy and devastation as a human being; she grounds the entire film emotionally. Much of the best sci-fi uses some unusual situation to explore an aspect of the human condition; Arrival does that powerfully and somewhat unexpectedly in a way that respects its audience. (I'd say it achieves what Interstellar tried and failed to do.)
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Manchester by the Sea: This is a well-crafted film with great performances, and it has its moments of humor, but be warned it's a grim one – it's a story about coping with extreme tragedy. Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck), who works as a handyman in the greater Boston area, is shocked to learn that his brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler), has died relatively young in Manchester by the Sea, where he ran a fishing boat. Lee is furthermore stunned that Joe has named Lee the guardian of Joe's teenaged son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is taciturn at best, but often surly and withdrawn; he tries to live his life with some kind of honor, but is impatient and blunt when dealing with tenants and has a habit of picking fights in bars. Patrick can't understand why Lee is so averse to spending time in Manchester by the Sea, where Lee used to live. Patrick's also not keen on moving to Boston as Lee wishes, because Patrick has strong ties in Manchester. For a while, it looks like Patrick living with his mom, Elise (Gretchen Mol), who’s getting remarried to the straight-laced Jeffrey (Matthew Broderick) might be an option, but nothing goes easily for Patrick nor Lee. Gradually, we learn more about Lee's past life in flashbacks and through interactions in the present day, mostly focusing on his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams). One of the film's most potent scenes stems from a chance encounter they have (that unfortunately was revealed too much in late ads for the film).

This is fine work by writer-director Kenneth Lonergan (who has a cameo as usual), but I much prefer his earlier film, the superb You Can Count on Me. He definitely captures the whole repressed, New England, Irish Catholic milieu, but that doesn’t always make for pleasant company. Manchester by the Sea is essentially a character study of a man forced to deal with tragedy far beyond his capacity to handle. He picks fights to bury his grief and rejects intimacy because it'll only bring pain. What makes Lee somewhat admirable is his growing realization of his own inadequacies or wounds and his desire to do what's best for his nephew, Patrick. Manchester by the Sea is one of the best films of the year, at times moving and memorable, but not easy viewing.

La La Land: This is a fun movie that became overhyped and then received undue backlash. (It's an unfortunate pattern that recurs during awards season.) La La Landis a musical set in Los Angeles centered on a young couple struggling to make it – Mia Dolan (Emma Stone) as an actress, and Sebastian Wilder (Ryan Gosling) as a jazz pianist. Stone and Gosling showed they had great chemistry in 2011's Crazy Stupid Love (it's the sixth film reviewed here), and they're entertaining again in this outing. As "Seb," Gosling gets some funny lines, which he delivers well: "I'm letting life hit me until it gets tired. Then I'll hit back. It's a classic rope-a-dope." Stone is always a charming firecracker – most of all in the early courtship stages when the two supposedly hate each other and she's taunting Seb. Neither Stone or Gosling is great at singing nor dancing (although they trained intensively), which is meant to be part of the film's charm. I found La La Land most interesting as a relationship film – Mia and Seb are good for each other in many ways, but making it in show biz is hard, and they don't always navigate the rough spots as a couple well. Writer-director Damien Chazelle offers some memorable scenes and makes good use of L.A. locales, including a flying, fantasy dance at Griffith Observatory and an extended musical fantasy sequence reminiscent of Singin' in the Rain or An American in Paris. The music doesn't stack up to the best musicals, but the featured songs fit the characters well ("City of Stars" and "The Fools Who Dream"). La La Land has its problems, though. The opening scene is a song and dance number set during a traffic jam (and filmed mostly with a single long take), which is a great and funny concept, but the opening actress' lip-synching to playback is off and other performers are likewise shaky. I found it quite off-putting and a bad sign, and it took me a while to warm to the film (your mileage may vary). La La Land won an Oscar for cinematography, and some of the camerawork is great, but the lighting is noticeably subpar in several scenes (Mia's apartment with other young women, for example). La La Land is quite enjoyable taken for what it is – a off-beat musical about a young, struggling, show biz couple – and less compelling if taken for something more – a definitive portrait of Los Angeles or show business.

Silence: Martin Scorsese's films are always worth a look, and this adaptation of Shūsaku Endō's 1966 novel had been a long-time passion project for him. It's the 17th century, and Jesuit priests have entered Japan, making converts but also receiving harsh treatment including torture and death from the Japanese authorities. Word has arrived in the West that Portuguese missionary Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has renounced his faith under torture. Two of his pupils, Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver), refuse to believe it, and volunteer to look for him, despite the considerable risks. Their guide is a drunken exile they meet in China, Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), who winds up being a complex character, full of contradictions. The priests are sheltered by a village of convert Christians, where they lead religious services and hear confessions, but they must stay hidden. The occasional inspections and trials by Japanese authorities searching for secret Christians are harsh and sometimes fatal. The faith of the Japanese Christians – and certainly Rodrigues and Garupe – is severely tested, physically and mentally.

Silence probably holds added resonance for the religiously devout, especially Catholics, but it works for all viewers as a depiction of faith and intolerance. This isn't easy viewing, though; the story involves significant cruelty. Rodrigues, our main character, is kind and sincere; he's the type of priest who preaches salvation, not damnation, and truly believes he can convince someone else given time, even his most hostile questioners. He's definitely somewhat naïve, but his resolve and generosity are admirable. It's a difficult role, especially given the torture scenes, and Andrew Garfield gives an excellent performance. It's hard not to think that the suffering imposed on him is unnecessary; some of the Japanese authorities don't just want obedience, they want utter and absolute mental submission. Scorsese largely avoids flashy filmmaking in Silence, only really using a single bravura camera move; he opts for a restrained, dignified approach, which seems to work well. This is Scorsese's third explicitly spiritual film – I would rate The Last Temptation of Christ his best, but I've only seen Kundun once, and Silence is a solid entry. (Side note: It took me a few minutes to place Yoshi Oida, who does a fine job playing Ichizo – he's also a stage actor, and I've seen perform Beckett.)

The Salesman: Writer-director Asgar Farhadi's latest film centers on a young Iranian couple, Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti), starring in a production of Arthur Miller's play, Death of Salesman. When their apartment building starts to crumble, they're forced to find other lodgings, and their friend and fellow actor Babak (Babak Karimi) tells them about a good apartment available relatively cheap. The catch is that the last tenant, a woman, was a bit wild and has left a locked closet of her stuff behind. One night, Emad returns home late and discovers blood; he finds Rana at the hospital; she's been assaulted. Rana's understandably traumatized and Emad tries to help, to little avail. He seeks revenge, but he's stymied trying to find information. Although a popular teacher at school, Emad's work and his performance in the play both begin to suffer, as does his relationship with Rana. Emad eventually starts to make some progress tracking down Rana's assailant, but the film offers a number of surprising developments. Rana initially supports justice, but increasingly has reservations about what revenge is doing to Emad and their relationship.

Farhadi previously made the excellent, Oscar-winning film, A Separation (2011; the second film reviewed here), as well as The Past (2013; reviewed here). In all his films, he has a knack for plunging his characters into morally complex situations and slowly revealing new information that makes us reassess what we think we know. Of those three films, I'd still rate A Separation as the best and The Salesman last. I also didn't think including Death of a Salesman added that much to the film, although scenes dealing with the state censors are culturally interesting and Farhadi points to shared themes of humiliation and crumbing relationships. Nonetheless, The Salesman offers good performances, complexity and some surprising – and genuinely interesting – plot developments (whereas lesser writers offer mere gimmicks).

HiddenFigures: Hollywood tells a great untold story, that of the black female mathematicians, "computers," who were crucial to NASA's efforts during the early years of the space program in the 50s and 60s. We focus on a trio: Katherine G. Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Johnson is the main character, but all of them get good scenes, and the three support each other and are often inseparable as they battle both sexism and racism. Although they face deliberate prejudice, especially Johnson, one of the film's strengths is how it depicts unconscious, reflexive discrimination (embodied by characters played by Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst). This is dramatized by poor Johnson running (in heels) back and forth to the only "colored" women's bathroom in a building a good ten minutes from her work office, until her boss, Al Harris (a composite character player Kevin Costner) finally asks why she's missing for long stretches of time. Hidden Figures takes some liberties with accuracy to deliver some crowd-pleasing moments, and some scenes are hokey, predictable or unlikely (one public outburst in particular). Nevertheless, the core story is true and fascinating, Taraji P. Henson is always good, and she and the filmmakers make the many scenes with her doing complicated math on the fly captivating cinema. Mahershala Ali has a small role (he and Janelle Monáe were also in Moonlight), and Glenn Powell is memorable as astronaut John Glenn. Smithsonian, History vs. Hollywood and Wikipedia have more on the accuracy of the film (including the truth of those bathroom scenes and John Glenn's words), but you'll want to catch this movie.

Captain America: Civil War: The previous Captain America film, The Winter Soldier (reviewed here), is one of the best superhero films ever made. Civil War understandably falls short of that high mark, but not by much; it was easily the best serious superhero movie of the year. The Avengers do-gooding inadvertently leads to disaster, leading the United Nations to debate putting a council in charge of the superhero team. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) supports the move, remembering his role in creating supervillain Ultron; Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is not keen on the idea. The other Avengers are split. Meanwhile, Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) has resurfaced, and there's evidence implicating him in the assassination of King T'Chaka of Wakanda. The king's son, T'Challa/the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), seeks justice. Rogers isn't buying that Bucky is still evil, though, and digs further, uncovering more about a mysterious figure who turns out to be Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl). The main selling point of the movie is seeing two teams of superheroes fight, and those scenes are well-staged, with plenty of inventive tactics from the characters and good character moments created by the filmmakers. Adding Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to all the Avengers heroes (I won't name them all) feels a bit forced, but the actors do a nice job. Introducing T'Challa/the Black Panther begins by feeling similarly contrived (he has a solo movie coming out later), but the script allows T'Challa much more complexity than a standard revenge plot, and the versatile Boseman is impressive as usual. The key relationship is between Captain America and Iron Man, though, and Evans and Downey deliver, selling us on both their friendship and its strain, and all the shifts between. This is a superhero flick with good action but also more depth and complexity than usual; we're reminded multiple times of how violence has consequences, even when wielded by supposed good guys for supposedly good causes.

Rogue One: The first Star Wars movie not to be a numbered episode winds up being pretty good, as it tells the tale of how the plans for the Death Star were obtained and why the fully operational battle station had a fatal, exploitable flaw. Anchoring a strong cast is the dependable Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. She's the daughter of Galen (Mads Mikkelsen), a brilliant scientist forced to work on the Death Star by high-ranking science officer, Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who seems to care somewhat for his former colleague Galen but much more for the Empire and his own ambitions. Galen's built in a vulnerability, however, and arranges to smuggle out the news to the Rebels via an Empire pilot, Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). The problem is, Bodhi's being held by Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), a veteran fighter for the Rebels, but also an extremist who's at the very least paranoid and possibly completely crazy. Saw Gerrera raised Jyn after Galen was essentially kidnapped by the Empire, though, so the Rebel Alliance thinks she can get through to him. Jyn is reluctant, but the Rebels sprung her from jail and can offer her freedom, so she sets out with morally dubious Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and reprogrammed imperial droid K-2SO, who's a master of unintentional dark comedy by being blunt (he's wonderfully voiced by Alan Tudyk). The trio travel to Gerrara's hideout near Jedha, a holy city that houses the kyber crystals used in lightsabers and that the Empire needs for the Death Star. Along the way they pick up Force-sensitive blind martial artist monk Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and his heavily armed partner, Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen). Grand Moff Tarkin is played by Guy Henry, with visual effects making him look like the late Peter Cushing, who played the character in Stars Wars: A New Hope. (It was done with the blessing of Cushing's family, and it works pretty well, fooling some audience members, although the filmmakers were wise to keep Tarkin in darkly lit scenes).

Rogue One is a much darker story overall than the most recent episode, VII, The Force Awakens (although that features a notable death; it's reviewed here). I liked that many of the Rogue One characters were weary, desperate and more morally grey than many other supposed good guys in the franchise. They undertake a tough, important mission and know they may not succeed and may not all survive – if any of them do. The film has its flaws, though. Some lines sound hokey, given the grimness otherwise ("Rebellions are built on hope" in particular). Character names aren't well-established – blink and you can miss Chirrut and Baze's names. The Empire apparently has never considered that a droid could be reprogrammed and has very lax computer security. Darth Vader gets a bravura scene near the end, but strangely, even though he's still voiced by James Earl Jones, he doesn't carry as much screen presence as in the earlier films when played by David Prowse and others. (Some of this is due to camera angles, but not all.) Overall, Rogue One is one of the most successful retcons in memory, although not flawless – the very end makes Leia's interactions with Vader at the start of A New Hope ludicrous. Still, I enjoyed this more than The Force Awakens. (Personal note: I saw the film the day after Carrie Fisher died. Her simulated appearance had an extra punch.)

Deadpool: The conceit for comic book character Deadpool is that, like DC's Ambush Bug, he's aware he's in a comic book and can break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience (or the comic book/movie creators). The same holds true for the movie version of Deadpool, which is a tremendous lot of fun, especially the hilarious opening credit sequence, which is both self-referential and brutally self-skewering. Accomplished smartass Ryan Reynolds is perfectly cast as Wade Wilson/Deadpool, a mercenary who falls for an unusually understanding woman, Vaneesa (Morena Baccarin). Unfortunately, he's struck down with a rare and fatal disease, and seeks out an experimental and dangerous treatment from a mysterious recruiter and his tough guy colleague, Ajax (Ed Skrein). The treatment succeeds after a fashion – Wilson heals and even regenerates from almost any injury – but delivers some nasty side effects, including disfigurement. Deadpool sets out to find a cure and reconnect with Vanessa, who believes him dead. This is definitely an "R" film and not for kids. It's quite entertaining, but the violence tends to be intentionally over-the-top and the film's sense of humor is often raunchy and boundary-pushing. What makes the movie have some more depth, though, is that for all his wisecracks, the disfigured Wade/Deadpool genuinely loves Vanessa and longs to reunite, but fears her reaction. The supporting cast is fun, most of all Leslie Uggams as Deadpool's blind, semi-recovering junkie roommate. (Reynolds was cast as Deadpool before in a pretty bad film, Wolverine: Origins, the 13th film reviewed here. Reynolds hasn't been shy about knocking it, and this outing provides significant redemption.)

Hail, Caesar!:
"Squint! Squint at the grandeur! It's blinding!"

This isn't the best Coen brothers movie by a long shot, but it's an awful lot of fun, especially for film buffs. Studio executive and fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is confronted by a crazy host of problems and wades in with a consummate mix of diplomacy, practicality and bravado. The biggest headache is a missing leading man, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), star of a Jesus-and-the-Romans epic. But Mannix must also contend with DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), an Ester-Williams-type star with a squeaky-clean image who's anything but in real life. Prestige director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) isn't happy that singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has been horribly miscast in his high society film. The screenwriters are trouble as usual. And competitive Hedda-Hopper-like gossip columnists Thora Thacker and Thessaly Thacker (identical twins both played by Tilda Swinton) are pressuring Mannix for scoops and threatening to print an old scandal.

The actors are obviously having a blast, and several scenes are gems on their own. A scene with an increasingly pained Laurentz trying to get the earnest-but-hopeless Hobie Doyle to deliver a line correctly is hilarious and was used as a standalone trailer. Ehrenreich is charismatic and extremely likable, because as Hobie Doyle, he's in way over his head but humble, kind and sincere. (He'll probably do well cast as Han Solo.) Frances McDormand, Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum also have memorable roles, and Michael Gambon provides some narration. For added fun, costume designer Mary Zophres tracked down the exact shade of orangish-red from Spartacus for the Roman soldier costumes and also used Ben Hur as inspiration. Some of the visual effects intentionally mimic those of the depicted era, including rear-screen projection. Hail, Caesar! may ultimately be a trifle, but it's an entertaining one.