Two comedies about meals gone seriously wrong

I recently watched two comedies that have as their premise a fairly familiar plot line but each takes it in unexpected directions. In both a group of people who know each other well get together for a meal and then something triggers increasingly heated exchanges during which secrets and long-suppressed resentments are revealed in anger as people strike back at those whom they secretly dislike or think have hurt them.
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The real Abbie Hoffman

The release of the film The Trial of The Chicago 7 that I reviewed here has renewed interest in the life of Abbie Hoffman. Nathan J. Robinson writes that while this is to be welcomed because there is much to be admired about Hoffman, the film also downplays some of the more radical of Hoffman’s ideas because writer-director Aaron Sorkin is someone who feels that the US institutions are fundamentally sound and that it is the people who run it that are the problem, while Hoffman felt that the system was rotten through and through and needed fundamental restructuring.
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Film review: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020)

Last Friday, Netflix released the film The Trial of the Chicago 7 and I immediately watched it. For those who are not familiar with the true events that it depicts, this was the infamous trial held in Chicago in 1969 in which eight people (yes, eight initially but it got reduced to seven midway) were accused of conspiracy and inciting riots during the 1968 Democratic Party convention in that city in August 1968. (You can read about the event here.)

That convention was a shambles. Due to the intense opposition to the Vietnam war, president Lyndon Johnson had decided not to seek re-election and the party establishment had decided to force through vice-president Hubert Humphrey as the nominee although he was widely seen as complicit in prosecuting the unpopular war. It was also the year in which Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert K. Kennedy had been murdered, the latter just three days after he had won the California Democratic primary, dashing the hopes that Humphrey would not get the nomination. There were riots all over the country.
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Hilarious episode of This American Life

I have written many times before about my admiration for the way that this radio program tells stories, whether they are dealing with serious political issues or whimsical ones. This show really must be listened to to get the full effect, because these people are terrific storytellers, expertly blending in pauses, inflections, and music to great effect that gets lost with just the written word. Reading the transcript is nowhere near as good. Last week they had a particularly good episode that at times had me laughing out loud. It mostly dealt with watching films and TV.
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Film preview: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2020)

I am a huge fan of Charles Dickens’s works and have read most of them. I am also a huge fan of the cinematic output of writer and director Armando Iannucci whose sharp and witty screenplays and fast-paced direction of biting satires are a treat to watch. Among his credits are the films In the Loop and The Death of Stalin and TV series Veep and The Thick of It. (The links are to my reviews.)
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Tropic Thunder and the problem of actors in blackface

Having white people put on blackface makeup to perform is now viewed as highly offensive and many people who have done so have apologized for it. In a post on the problem of cultural appropriation, I discussed the other factors in the problem of white actors darkening their skin to play roles that could have been played by actors of color.

But the problem can get meta, as in the case of the 2008 action comedy Tropic Thunder. That film is about a a group of actors making a Vietnam war film on location in a jungle in Asia. Robert Downey, Jr. plays a white actor who is so committed to the ‘method’ school of acting, where one completely immerses oneself in the character 24/7 before and during the entire shooting of the film, that he puts on blackface and never removes it until after the film is completed. Since the role was that of a white actor playing a black man, did that make it appropriate to cast Downey in blackface? Or, since he is always seen on screen as black, should that role have been played by a black actor, which would have resulted in a black actor playing a white actor who is playing a black character? Some of the jokes in the film involve other actors who are black reacting to Downey knowing he is a white actor playing a black man. Would the jokes have landed as well, if we (the audience) did not know that Downey was white?
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Hasan Minhaj opens up conversations on race among South Asians

Two months ago, I linked to an excellent special episode of Hasan Minhaj’s show Patriot Act following the murder of George Floyd where he discussed racism. In particular he discussed the racism and colorism that is found in South Asian communities. He spoke about the derogatory term ‘kalu’ used in India for not only black people but fellow Asians who happened to have darker skin. That clip has prompted some discussions about this problem.

It turns out that former West Indian cricket captain Darren Sammy had heard the term used for him by some of his Indian teammates when was playing in the Indian Premier League. He had assumed that it was an affectionate nickname that had been coined just for him and it was only after he saw Minhaj’s clip that he realized that people he had viewed as teammates and even friends had been using a slur right to his face.
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Another case of life imitating art

I have recently been watching the British TV series The Indian Doctor. It is a fish-out-of-water story similar to the other British show Doc Martin. The latter featured a brilliant but irascible surgeon with zero social skills and no tolerance for stupidity or even small talk who becomes a general practitioner in a small fishing village in the southwest of England where he has to deal with nosy and gossipy villagers. The Indian Doctor deals with another skilled doctor Prem Sharma who arrives in a small Welsh coal mining town in 1963 as its sole doctor after being recruited from India by the British government to staff its expanding National Health Service.

Whereas Martin is rude and impatient with everyone, Sharma is genial and polite. Sharma’s wife Kamini, however, comes from a very wealthy upper-class family in India and had hoped that her husband would be a Harley Street specialist so that they could live in London and enjoy its cultural life. She is dismayed at being stuck in a backwater, living in a grungy apartment over the equally grungy doctor’s office and where she has to do all the chores that servants did for her back home. She also has to deal with the suspicions and prejudices that small tightly knit communities have about any outsider. The town’s people even think of the English as foreigners, so people from as exotic a place as India are viewed as almost an alien species.
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Film review: Starship Troopers (1997)

I watched this film, based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein, a few months ago but did not bother to write a review about it because I thought it was a gore-filled silly film with lousy acting that I could not recommend or thought was even worth writing about. But then I came across this article that describes it as some kind of powerful satire of militarism.
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TV review: The United States of Conspiracy (2020)

The US is awash with conspiracy theories. That itself is not surprising since conspiracy theories have long had an appeal for those who think that big events must have big causes and seek to find them by creating elaborate narratives that purportedly tie together many seemingly unrelated facts into a single narrative structure.

What is surprising and disturbing is that so many people seem to be willing to believe them and hucksters are willing to exploit that gullibility to enrich themselves. The PBS investigative news program Frontline has just released the above gripping 55-minute documentary that looks at this question, focusing mainly on one of the biggest creators and propagators of conspiracy theories, Alex Jones. He is so cruel that he unleashed his mobs on the parents of the children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School by claiming that it was all a hoax, staged by the government. He and his followers made life hell for them. Jones not only feeds the dark fantasies of many people, he also has the ear of Donald Trump who often says in public the things that Jones said a few days earlier.

Since Trump has long believed the crackpot ideas of someone like Jones, it hardly surprising that he would promote the crackpot ideas of others as well.

These are the people now in control of the Republican party and the US government.