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Friday, January 26, 2018

"Phantom Thread" Hollow, Pretentious, Desperate

"Phantom Thread" is a pretentious, cynical, empty exercise in design and absurd plot detail. Paul Thomas Anderson is trying to say something profound about difficult people in relationships, but his film is one of the most hollow I have ever seen. I witnessed very little truth onscreen. All I saw was Paul Thomas Anderson laboring over his script, struggling so very, very hard, and ending by saying nothing at all.

Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) is a very successful fashion designer. He picks up Alma (Vicki Krieps), a much younger waitress. He brings her home to live with him and his sister, Cyril (Lesley Manville). When Alma butters her toast, the noise, Woodcock says, is like a horse galloping through the room. Woodcock is very sensitive and he insults and bullies those around him so that he can live an untouched life, devoted only to designing dresses.

There are many long scenes of poor women sewing dresses with the utmost care, and rich women wearing the dresses, sometimes getting drunk while wearing them.

Read no further if you don't want to know the absurd and desperate lengths this movie goes to before it ends.

Alma senses that Woodcock is losing interest in her, so she poisons him with mushrooms. The first time she poisons him, he does not realize what's going on, but the second time he sees Alma, in plain sight, consult a mushroom guide and put poison mushrooms into his omelet. Alma places the omelet before Woodcock and the two of them stare at each other for a long time, perhaps waiting for Paul Thomas Anderson to write a better, or at least more plausible, script. I suspect that Anderson had taken a break to consult a copy of "Masterplots."

Alma, in her vague German accent (such a cliché) finally says, "These mushrooms will make you sick, but they won't kill you. You may wish you would die, but you won't. And I'll take care of you." And Woodcock swallows down the poison mushrooms.

We later see a tender, erotic scene in a toilet where Woodcock is throwing up, and Alma is ministering to him. And that's the end of the movie.

This movie is criminal crap with a capital K. Daniel Day Lewis says it will be his last film. I understand. He should have gone out on "Lincoln."

"Call Me By Your Name" A Documentary on Falling in Love

"Call Me By Your Name" is a documentary record of two beautiful, privileged young people falling in love during an idyllic summer in a seventeenth-century villa in out-of-the-way Crema, Italy. There are lots of slow, quiet scenes of eyes peeking above a book, furtive attempts to make fingers touch flesh, kids playing volleyball, riding bikes and swimming, and an old man showing up with a freshly caught fish for dinner.

Burgeoning nature is omnipresent. The fish, though caught, is still alive. The air is full of the sounds of birdsong, songs that will be evocative to anyone who has spent a summer in Europe when young. The grass is lush. The water is clear and blue green. Clouds are puffy. Everyone, from the young to the old, is half naked. The men are bare chested much of the time. Days stretch forever and the highlight of a day might be pondering the meaning of a quote from a knight in a medieval poem.

I did start becoming a bit bored, but at the end of the movie I felt pressure in my chest, churning in my gut, and moisture in my eyes, and I was rethinking my own lost youth. Give this film the time and patience it demands. It will sneak up on you.

One of the two young, beautiful, privileged people who fall in love is Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old virgin, and the cosmopolitan and multilingual son of Professor Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) and his beautiful wife. The other half of the couple is Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old American graduate student who is rooming at the Perlman's villa.

When Oliver first arrives, he is arrogant and pedantic yet casual and Elio is snotty – Oliver is taking over his room for the summer. He, Elio, must sleep in a smaller, adjacent storage room. Elio is put off by Oliver's arrogance, and he continues to pursue his attempt to seduce a local, Mariza (Esther Garrel). Eventually Elio and Mariza do have sex.

Almost imperceptively, attraction builds between Elio and Oliver. Finally, one day, during a bike ride, Elio kisses Oliver. Oliver says, no, we shouldn't do this. Later, though, Oliver and Elio kiss and more. Read further only if you want to know how the movie ends.

Oliver and Elio become lovers. Before Oliver returns to America, they take a hike in the Alps. Oliver boards a train and Elio returns to Crema. There his father tells him that he is very lucky, and that few experience the kind of bond he has experienced with Oliver. The father also appears to come out to Elio, announcing either that he is gay or that he is unhappily married. "Does mom know?" Elio asks. No, dad replies.

Later, the villa is surrounded by snow. The Perlman family has returned to celebrate Chanukah. The phone rings. It is Oliver. He announces that he is engaged to be married. "I remember everything," he tells Elio. Elio goes and sits in front of the fire, his eyes brimming with tears, a fly crawling around on his shirt.

Both Elio and Oliver lead on girls whose feelings they could never reciprocate. The girls are tossed aside by the movie just as Elio and Oliver toss them aside in real life. After Elio has sex with Mariza, he shouts, "That felt so good." "That." She's a thing. Later, on the same mattress he used when having sex with Mariza, he has sex with a peach. A peach, a woman, both things to be tossed aside. Even Elio's mother, who is given very little to do in the movie, is made to be cluelessly living a lie.

More importantly, I resented the film trying to force me, in the father's speech scene and in the final seven minutes of Elio staring at the fire and crying while a fly crawled around on his shirt, to believe that the movie was about something other than what it was really about. I just don't believe, based on what I saw, that Elio and Oliver are a love affair for the ages. These are two gorgeous, horny young men in an idyllic setting, privileged enough that getting up and going to work every day is not an issue. Rather, they get up and loll in the grass while thinking erotic thoughts. Nice work if you can get it.

If these two had truly loved each other, they would not have tossed each other aside at the end of the summer. With the fly on Elio's shirt, and an infected cut Oliver sustained while bike riding, the film seems to be telling us that decay is the enemy of love. Some people love each other even as they age, sicken, and even after they die. *That's* love for the ages.

Some object to this film because it depicts a homosexual relationship. There's no talking to such people. Others object because Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24. The actors were 21 and 30 when the film was made. But Chalamet looks about 16 in the movie. He is very thin and pale with no chest hair. Armie Hammer is 6'5" with the body of an Aryan god. In their scenes, Hammer does look very much the older man. We know, though, that some of the folks who object to this relationship were entirely supportive of Judge Roy Moore, when he was a district attorney in his 30s, abusing young teen girls in powerless positions.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

January 2018 Big Freeze Grey Skies and Mood

The other day was very gray. My mood was gray as well. President Trump had made a disparaging comment about "s---hole countries." As a child of Polish and Slovak immigrants, as someone who once lived in Africa, and as a teacher of new immigrants, this comment troubled me a lot. 

We were in the grip of a record-breaking freeze. I went for a walk and saw gray skies and not much else. The Passaic River was frozen from bank to bank. 

Today is totally different. It's predicted to go up to fifty. Just stepping outside I hear red-tailed hawk, blue jays, crows, and tufted titmice, and the steady trickle and drip of melting snow and ice. It's a new day. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

"I, Tonya" Funny, Heartbreaking, Revelatory

Do you want to be shocked? Here goes: "I, Tonya" is a great movie. That's right. A film about a tabloid scandal in the world of women's figure skating is not just a good movie, it's a great one. I cannot think of any other film that made me laugh out loud and cry so hard, and to do both at once, in reaction to the same scene.

"I, Tonya" is as frightening and heartbreaking a depiction of child abuse as I have ever seen. It is as profound a meditation on class. Its depiction of "white trash, redneck, trailer trash" loves, lifestyles, dreams, delusions, smeared kitchens, underdone bedrooms, and dimly-lit living rooms ripped my heart right out of my chest. If you love movies and you care about social class in America, and how the 24/7 news cycle brainwashes gullible audiences and destroys lives, you owe it to yourself to see "I, Tonya."

Allison Janney just won the Golden Globe for her portrayal of LaVona Fay "Sandy" Golden, Tonya Harding's mother. Janney's performance is one of the most powerful performances I have ever seen in any movie. When Janney is onscreen, you can't take your eyes off her. There is something very compelling about a mother who abuses her own daughter. You want to understand. You want to find the mechanism that runs this monster. You search for some sign of humanity, of redemption, of love. Though "I, Tonya," is sometimes a campy movie, Janney is never campy. She is a force of nature, like a scorpion or Bubonic plague. There is a scene in "I, Tonya," where Tonya's mother performs an act of betrayal of her daughter so severe that it took my breath away. This betrayal, the real Tonya Harding says, took place in real life. What a lousy "mother."

There is a special hatred for white trash in America. This hatred has no easy name like "racism." We all know that racism is evil, but Americans are always eager to mock and denigrate working-class whites, especially poor white women. The 24/7 tabloid news cycle bashed Tonya Harding far harder, and for far longer, than Gillooly's goons bashed Nancy Kerrigan's knee.

Tabloids told gullible audiences too lazy to think for themselves that Tonya Harding herself planned the attack. The legal record, and the film "I, Tonya," tell a different story. Teenaged Tonya married the first man she dated. He beat her, as did her mom. It was he, and his delusional friend Shawn Eckhardt, court records say, who orchestrated the attack on Kerrigan. Tonya learned of this after the attack and did not turn him in. She was punished for that. Though she had no means of earning a livelihood outside of skating, she was forced out of skating for life.

In fact, the world of women's figure skating never much liked Tonya Harding. She was a superior athletic skater, but she wasn't pretty, patrician and ethereal as the judges preferred. Tonya Harding has been screwed over by many for a long time, and for all the wrong reasons. I'm glad she has this film to tell another side to her story.

"I, Tonya" does not whitewash or glamorize her. She is shown fighting and breaking up with Gillooly, and then going back to this man she knows is bad for her. Tonya is foul-mouthed and she gets angry at judges who cheat her on scores. She sabotages her own training by drinking, smoking, and partying. Margot Robbie is terrific. She does almost all of her own skating, after months of training. The had to CGI the triple axel, because only Tonya Harding, and a handful of other women, could do that.

"I, Tonya"'s depiction of Jeff Gillooly and his bizarre goons is both hysterically funny and dreadful. Sebastian Stan plays Gillooly. Though he is repeatedly shown beating Tonya, I never lost sympathy for him. I loathed him as a loser, but I could see his skewed humanity. He acknowledges, with regret, destroying his wife's exceptional skating career. The real Jeff Gillooly acknowledged the same thing, and also expressed regret.

Shawn Eckhardt, who was happy to identify himself as the attack mastermind, may have been mentally ill. In an interview with Diane Sawyer, he claimed to be a terrorism expert. In fact, he was a loser who lived at home with his parents. He died young. Both Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckhardt changed their names after the attack. Gillooly, now Jeff Stone, has had repeated run-ins with the law. His second wife committed suicide.

Tonya Harding has worked hard to keep her head above water. That, after all she'd been through, she did not become a criminal, is testimony to her inner strength. That so many people gave in to bread-and-circuses demonization of her, without knowing all the facts of the case, says nothing good about people's eagerness to hate, and the tabloid press' eagerness to profit from hate. 

"The Post" 2017: Excellent in Every Respect

"The Post" is so darn good I cried tears of joy and applauded as the film ended. I didn't much want to go to "The Post." I knew how The Post's publishing of the Pentagon Papers played out and I assumed the film would create no suspense. Post editor Katherine Graham, played in the film by Meryl Streep, lived in a different world from my own. She was a wealthy heiress who, until her mentally ill and unfaithful husband committed suicide, had never had to work a day in her life. When I used to see Graham on TV, her silk-and-pearls, hoity toity airs and la-dee-da accent, along with her flat affect, repelled me.

Post editor Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, always struck me as an arrogant, swaggering newspaperman, and I didn't want to sit through a movie with him as the lead. Bradlee, like Graham, was also born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He was a Boston Brahmin and descendent of royalty. Bradlee's middle name was "Crowninshield."

I thought "The Post" would be one of those fluffy Hollywood exercises in self-congratulation. Aren't we so politically correct. But I loved this movie. My eyes were glued to the screen from the first second to the last. I came to care about and invest in each character. Testimony to the power of Steven Spielberg's filmmaking.

"The Post" is a rich recreation of 1971 America – the cars, the clothes, the music, the speeches. Each character, no matter how minor, is created as three-dimensional. Each significant action, no matter how small, receives focus. One example: The Pentagon Papers were 7000 pages long. How did Daniel Ellsberg, in 1971, manage to smuggle 7000 pages to the press? The film shows the workings of a 1971-era photocopy machine. Copying all the pages took Ellsberg and two friends all night. Later, Post reporters must struggle to piece together these thousands of pages that are not numbered and are not in order.

Personnel at the New York Times have criticized "The Post" as focusing too much on the role of the Washington Post in releasing the Pentagon Papers. The Times was the more important paper, they say. The criticism is unfounded. "The Post" acknowledges that the New York Times was the first to carry the story. It was only after the government stopped the Times' publication of the Papers that the Post picked up the baton.

Rather, "The Post" is Katherine Graham's story. She was a shy and insecure woman who was faced with a decision that rocked her world. She was personal friends with Robert McNamara, mastermind of the Vietnam War. Similarly, Ben Bradlee was friendly with John F. Kennedy, a president who escalated the war. Katherine Graham's son Donald served in Vietnam. Streep's intimate and fully realized performance and Spielberg's virtuosic filmmaking made me feel Graham's turmoil as she contemplated whether or not to publish papers that would change her life in several ways.

The Washington Post had just had an IPO. How would investors react? Given that the court had already shut down the NYT, would she be a felon, and would she be sent to prison? Would she lose the company she had inherited from her father and hoped to pass on to her children? How could she publish such damning material about her personal friend, Robert McNamara? How could her personal friend, McNamara, allow her son to risk his life serving in a war that McNamara knew was unwinnable? Streep's performance allowed me to feel as Graham probably felt, and to care about her.

Every role is excellently cast. Bob Odenkirk as Ben Bagdikian, a Post editor and survivor of the Armenian Holocaust, is every bit as compelling as the major stars. Sarah Paulson is onscreen only briefly as Bradlee's wife Toni, but she is given a key speech where she articulates for Bradlee – and the viewer – exactly how heroic Graham is being.

I love smart movies and "The Post" bristles with intelligence. I love movies that focus, not on fast cars, explosions, or superheroes, but on people, and "The Post" is one of the most human-centric movies I've seen in a while. "The Post" focuses on people, primarily Katherine Graham, but also Ellsberg, Bradlee, Bagdikian and others. It depicts those people not as plaster saints but warts-and-all. It allows the viewer to get close to those people and to see what they see and to care about what they care about.

It goes without saying that a film that celebrates the search for truth and the freedom of the press, and the heroism of a woman who had been told that she wasn't as good as a man for the job she held, is very timely. 

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Bassem Youssef and the Self-Imposed Limitations of the Nice Muslim

Bassem Youssef and the Self-Imposed Limitations of the Nice Muslim

Review of Tickling Giants and Revolution for Dummies

Tickling Giants is a 111-minute, 2017 documentary that tells the story of "Egypt's Jon Stewart." Tickling Giants is produced, written and directed by Sara Taksler. She's a relative unknown who does a technically excellent job, earning her 100% fresh rating at RottenTomatoes.

Bassem Youssef is a cardiothoracic surgeon with movie-star looks and charisma. In 2011, when he was 37, he began broadcasting satirical commentary on the Arab Spring. He produced videos in the laundry room of his apartment and posted them on YouTube. He hoped for a few thousand hits. He reached millions of viewers.

Youssef graduated to TV. An estimated forty million viewers watched his show – the largest ratings in Egyptian TV history. Jon Stewart had around two million viewers per show. Tickling Giants' account of Youssef's career is captivating and inspirational, occasionally funny and often quite sad. It was shot mostly in Cairo. Unless I blinked and missed it, you never see a pyramid, but, rather, street scenes, traffic, the Nile, and protests in Tahrir Square. Tickling Giants depicts appreciative Egyptian audiences gathering in outdoor cafes to laugh at Youssef's show on big-screen TVs.

Youssef satirized Islamists, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hosni Mubarak, Mohamed Morsi, the Egyptian army and Egypt's current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Youssef faced tighter and tighter restrictions on what he could say. He and his staff faced greater and greater personal threats. Thugs, possibly paid by the government, chanted "Death to Youssef" outside his studio. An imam discussed whether it would be permissible to kill Youssef. The imam counseled, "Not yet." Youssef's collaborator, Tarek, had to abandon Egypt. Tarek's father and brother were arrested and held for months without any reason. Youssef himself eventually was forced out of Egypt. Tickling Giants ends with Youssef in exile, giving talks in support of free speech at prestigious awards ceremonies in Western nations. He now lives in the US with his wife and children.  

Youssef's show had a large staff of creative, young, dynamos. The scenes of these idealists gazing out the window of their offices at the thugs calling for their deaths, and the arrival of armed troops to form a cordon in front of their studio, reminded me of life in Poland in 1989. The year that Soviet-imposed Polish communism breathed its last, I participated in demonstrations organized by the Orange Alternative, a group that undermined the authorities through humor. We held a rally celebrating the Red Army. Young Polish rebels gave elaborate, satirical speeches expressing "gratitude" for being "liberated" by the Russians.

As fine as Tickling Giants is, and as much as I could identify with its revolutionary spirit, I kept seeing the empty spaces where the censor's X-Acto knife had sliced out key elements of the Arab Spring story.

In 2011, the year Youssef's show launched, journalist Lara Logan was beaten and sexually assaulted by hundreds of men in Tahrir Square. They called her a Jew. She is not Jewish. The assailants used their cellphones to record their assault.

That same year, the otherwise anonymous "Girl in the Blue Bra" was dragged across pavement, beaten with batons, and kicked by Egyptian military. After they stripped off her abaya, one soldier stepped directly on her breasts, clothed only in a blue bra. Her abused image traveled round the world. Hillary Clinton decried "the systematic degradation of Egyptian women."

Tahrir Square is inextricably linked with taharrush. Men encircle women, sexually assault them, and video-record the assaults. Al Akhbar describes taharrush as a "prominent feature" of life in Egypt, and reports that Egyptian women as well as men tend to blame the victim. President Sisi visited a taharrush victim in the hospital. The Guardian, a liberal newspaper, ran an article entitled, "80 Sexual Assaults in One Day – The Other Story Of Tahrir Square." During New Year's celebrations in 2015-16, Muslim men committed mass sexual assaults in Europe. Maajid Nawaz and others pointed to Tahrir Square as the possible petri dish of this contagion.

In Tickling Giants, the protestors are all right-thinking idealists, engaged in a communal effort as wholesome as an Amish barn-raising. Women are prominent as onscreen spokespersons.

The Arab Spring included notorious attacks by Muslims on Christians in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. "Arab Spring, Christian Fall?" asked many observers. Numerous deadly attacks occurred in Egypt alone. "In post-Arab-Spring Egypt, Muslim attacks on Christians are rising," The Washington Post reported. Youssef lived in a city, Cairo, where the army killed dozens, and injured hundreds of Christians in the October, 2011, Maspero Massacre. Asianews reported that on August 16, 2013, a Christian cab driver was dragged from his vehicle by a Muslim mob and beaten to death. His body was later beheaded. In 2015, by which time Youssef was a resident fellow at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, ISIS decapitated twenty-one Copts. There is an archive of similar attacks of Muslims on Christians here. This incomplete list includes 129 attacks on Christians in Egypt since 2004. Tickling Giants makes no significant reference to the Arab Spring's deadly persecution of Christians.

It's possible that Sara Taksler left out some of the darker aspects of the Arab Spring because of time constraints. In a June, 2017, "Talks at Google" interview, though, Taksler may have provided a clue as to another reason. "Oprah was the first black friend many white Americans ever had," Taksler said. "In a time of Muslim bans I want viewers to feel close to a Muslim." Perhaps Taksler concluded that her viewers, to feel close to a Muslim, required a whitewashed version of the Arab Spring.

Two more things the X-Acto knife left out of Tickling Giants. What, exactly, was Bassem Youssef risking his life to resist? And what, exactly, was Bassem Youssef risking his life to support? In Poland in '89 we knew what we were against and what we were for. "Sowieci do domu," "My chcemy boga," and "Niech zyje Polska niepodlegla," we chanted: "Soviets go home," "We want God," and "Long live independent Poland." In the documentary, the closest Youssef comes to a manifesto is in pro-humor statements like "If people can laugh at their differences maybe they can laugh at each other rather than hate each other."

Youssef's 285-page, 2017 Harper Collins memoir, Revolution for Dummies: Laughing through the Arab Spring offers a bit more of a manifesto than does the film. Youssef writes that the revolution's liberals wanted something like the American Bill of Rights. "Islamists were fighting for a divine cause but we liberals were viewed as wusses who had nothing left in us to fight for our cause … maybe because other than not wanting to be ruled by religious dogma or a military dictatorship and seeking equality for all and other hippie principles, we hadn't really settled on a clearly defined cause." His "hippie principles" included "human rights and freedom."

Youssef, in his book, is much more aware of Muslim anti-Christian violence and hate, and much more open in his contempt for religious demagogues than is the Youssef of Tickling Giants. The beating of The Girl in the Blue Bra caused him to break down in tears. "I can't remember if what I was writing was funny or not, but I remember that I wanted to go after all those assholes with a vengeance." He procured a video of "one of the most watched religious channels that showed the scumbags making fun of her." On his own TV show, Youssef was depicted watching clerics denigrating The Girl in the Blue Bra. While he watched this, he spat. "It gave the message that I was literally spitting on the 'holy sheikhs.' … In the Arab world, this is a major insult at religious authority. I didn't care. I was proud of my defiance."

Youssef is insightful and frank about his fellow Muslims' hypocrisy. While vilifying the West, Muslims yearn to enjoy everything the West has accomplished. "We hate your guts, but we would kill to get your visa," he writes. "Outside the American embassy, you can find lines for visas longer than the ones outside of best Buy on Black Friday." "If Muslims were given a choice to vote for either a secular or a religious state they would vote for the religious state and flee to live in the secular one." A Salafi who publicly justified an attack on the American embassy, was, three years later, finishing up a Harvard degree. The mother and sister of another Salafi, Hazem Salah Abu Ismail, are American citizens.

The book makes clear that Youssef's idealistic colleagues were not representatives of an organized, politically viable demographic in Egypt. Youssef's own mother criticized his show. This caused a rift so severe that he did not speak to her for a long time; after he did so, she died in her sleep. Tarek's father and brother were Muslim Brotherhood supporters. Show staff were pressured by their own families. When "even some of your extended family members share posts on Facebook accusing you of treason," you lose enthusiasm to continue the revolution.

In his memoir, with thudding repetitiveness, Youssef voices cultural relativism. I can list only a few examples.

* "If the Muslim Brotherhood were the Southern Baptists, the Salafis were the Westboro Baptist Church."

* Tahrir Square protesters are comparable to Occupy Wall Street protesters.

* "Salafis who cover women in black potato sacks are no different from what the extreme Hasidic Jews do to their women."

* Muslim men want to have sex with "four teenage brides" while Catholics want to have sex with "An altar boy in a Catholic church … then it's God's will."

* On meeting Jon Stewart: "When we compared the politics of hate and xenophobia in both of our countries we found things to be sadly similar."

* Salafist politician Hazem Salah Abu Ismail insists that Pepsi stands for "pay every penny to save Israel." He wants an Egyptian morality police comparable to Saudi Arabia's, that enforces the mandatory veiling of women. Abu Ismail also recommends hand amputation for thieves. According to Youssef, Abu Ismail is comparable to Mike Huckabee, Ted Cruz, Michelle Bachman, and Sarah Palin.

* Salafis, "with their stupidity and bigotry," are "our Muslim rednecks" or "Muslim hillbillies."

* Islam is "just going through puberty. Christianity and Judaism have already gone through their rebellious phases. Judaism with its ancient weird rules and destructive wars and Christianity with the Inquisition and the Crusades."

* Youssef worries about his daughter. "I wondered if her beautiful brown skin and her curly black hair will cause her any trouble" in America.

* Youssef suggests that American media invented the problematic side of Islam. "Exhausted stereotypes of women wearing black potato sacks from foreheads to pinkie toes depicted in Indiana Jones movies." There were no "scary terrorists" in the "1940s, 50s, and 60s," he says. Only after "the real Soviet Union collapsed and the American media needed a scarecrow" did Muslims "step in to fill the gap."

* Youssef blames America for supporting Israel "every time they bombed the shit out of the Palestinians." Youssef never mentions Palestinian-on-Israeli violence. Youssef reports that Israel "has fought four wars with Egypt." Youssef does not report that Egypt invaded Israel and threatened Israel's very right to exist.

Youssef sought asylum in the US. Since arrival, he has used American freedom to criticize America and Christians as hateful, xenophobic, and Islamophobic, and responsible for the problems in the Muslim world. See for example here, here, and here.

Bassem Youssef really did risk his life to criticize, not just Middle Eastern strongmen like Mubarak, Morsi, and Sisi, but he risked his life to criticize Muslims and Islam. And this Muslim, this heroic, chance-taking Muslim, this brilliant, multilingual heart surgeon and TV star, is still wrong about Islam, Christianity, and even what he himself is fighting for. Youssef's failings give us a clue about the hope for reform from within the Muslim world. If a courageous, celebrated risk-taker and iconoclast like Bassem Youssef can't bring himself directly to critique what Islam has done to his own people, who will?

I wish I could address Bassem Youssef directly. I wish I could grab his impeccably tailored lapels and say to him, "Let's get real. No, the Crusades are not comparable to Jihad. No, the Spanish Inquisition is not comparable to Islamic repression. Read these articles, here and here. They both take on the Inquisitions and Crusades logical fallacies. When you are done, come back, because, Bassem, I want to talk to you about what you were fighting for, and what you were fighting against.

Bassem, you can't yet bring yourself to come out and say it, but what you were fighting against is what Islam has done to your beloved country. What you were fighting for were not, as you put it, "Hippie principles," but, rather, Judeo-Christian, Western values.

Back in 2002, the Arab Human Development Report shocked readers. In spite of being awash in petro-dollars, the Arab world, the heart of Islam, is rotting. Non-Muslim nations, including formerly poor nations like South Korea, surpass it. Hindu India, once part of the same land as Muslim Pakistan, has been able to create and sustain democracy. In the Arab World, the New York Times wrote, "Per capita income growth has shrunk in the last 20 years to a level just above that of sub-Saharan Africa. Productivity is declining. Research and development are weak or nonexistent. Science and technology are dormant. Intellectuals flee a stultifying – if not repressive – political and social environment."

Why does Islam affect countries this way? Bassem, you say you hate authoritarianism. In Islam, half of the human race is placed inextricably beneath the other half. It's as if, 1400 years ago, a building collapsed on half of all humanity in the Muslim world, and those crushed humans have had to function as best they can with unbearable compression on their lungs, brains, and hearts. Men are advised to beat women. Women are unworthy to testify as men do. Women inherit a fraction of what men inherit. In the diya, or blood money, system, human inequality is enshrined. Blood money for a Muslim man is magnitudes higher than blood money for a non-Muslim female.

Bassem, you fret about your daughter's fate in America. Please. Muslim countries, including Egypt, consistently monopolize lists of the worst places on earth to be a woman. Ten of the worst ten countries for women in the World Economic Forum list are Muslim-majority countries. Eight of the ten countries on The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security's list are Muslim-majority countries. Bassem you know darn well, but don't want to admit, that your daughter's horizon in the US is much brighter than it would have been in her Muslim homeland.

A third of Egyptian women are illiterate. Egypt's abysmal gap between male literacy rates and female literacy rates is echoed throughout the Muslim world. Approximately 90% of females in Egypt have undergone some form of FGM. Your fellow Egyptian physician, Nawal el-Saadawi, describes her FGM as an act of misogynist terrorism. You can read Dr. el-Saadawi's first person account here. Egypt is a "high sex ratio" country, where there are more males than females. Women and girls are simply less likely to survive in Egypt than in Judeo-Christian cultures.

Bassem you say you support freedom of conscience. Muslims have told me that verses like Koran 49:15 inform them that even a second's doubt in Allah will result in their going to Hell. The only assurance any Muslim has of avoiding Hell is dying in jihad.

Bassem, you want an Egypt where power can be criticized. Islam dictates that whoever insults Mohammed, the Koran, or Islam must be killed. Whoever loses his Islamic faith must be killed. Even merely stating that the Koran was created is a capital crime. Bassem, show me a Muslim-majority nation with freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and political satire. Turkey is often held up as a Muslim democracy. Turkey jails more journalists than any other nation, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Turkish Nobel Prize Winner Orhan Pamuk was put on trial for mentioning the Armenian Genocide. Booker Prize Winner Salman Rushdie lives with a death threat hanging over his head. Egyptian Nobel Prize Winner Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck for writing a novel that an imam didn't like.

Andrew Bostom quoted Bernard Lewis in his piece on "Totalitarian Islam." "The political history of Islam is one of almost unrelieved autocracy … authoritarian, often arbitrary, sometimes tyrannical. There are no parliaments or representative assemblies of any kind, no councils or communes, no chambers of nobility or estates, no municipalities in the history of Islam; nothing but the sovereign power, to which the subject owed complete and unwavering obedience as a religious duty imposed by the Holy Law." Bassem, you blame US interference for the Middle East's totalitarian regimes. Please address Lewis' points, above, and tell me how free the Muslim World was during the millennium before the US came onto the world stage.

Bassem, you say you want a world without hate. You write, "It was normal for Christians to hear hateful speeches against them during Friday prayer sermons blasted through the microphones from mosques near their homes" but this is "not necessarily a religious thing. It is more of an authority thing."

Bassem, Muslims pray five times a day not to be like Jews, who anger God, or Christians, who have gone astray. Tell me how you can eliminate hate in Egypt when the Koran tells Muslims not to take Jews or Christians as friends, that non-Muslims are "vile," and to be harsh to non-Muslims. Tell me, Bassem, how you will bring about your cherished hate-free, equality and human-rights-respecting Egypt under the Pact of Umar, which commands the complete subjugation of non-Muslims, a subjugation that is detailed in multiple Islamic canonical sources.

Bassem, you used your star power to mock and humiliate Andy Hallinan, who responded to jihadi murder of innocent Americans by declaring his Florida gun store a "Muslim-free zone." Bassem, rather than humiliating Hallinan, you could talk to him as an equal. You could say, "I'm sorry that Muslims murder innocents. Let's work on solving this problem together." You say that "The overwhelming majority of Muslims deplore" terrorist acts, "just as much as the rest of you." Bassem, the 2013 Pew Poll revealed that millions of Muslims endorse suicide bombing, including almost one in three Egyptians. Seventy-five percent of Egyptians don't believe that Arabs carried out the 9-11 terror attacks. Seventy-four percent of Egyptians want Sharia as the national law. Eighty-seven percent of Muslims in your region say that a woman must obey her husband. Only about half of Egyptians say they have a positive view of Christians – more Americans have a positive view of Muslims. And yet you insist that Americans "hate Muslims." And you trot poor Andy Hallinan out on your American TV show and insist that American "rednecks" are the real problem.

Bassem, in your book, you wrote, "Secularism is a fair playground. … When I disagree with a liberal or a socialist, I can knock his theories and politics out the window. I can simply tell him that they are wrong by logically arguing my position. But how can … I tell you that you are wrong when you claim to be speaking in the name of God? I can't compete with God and I can't tell you that God is wrong … If you are labeled as someone who disrespects Islam it is like having an opponent with a royal flush in a game of poker. Nothing beats it; there is no trump card." The Salafist Abu Ismail, you report, defended his "ISIS-like thoughts" with "I didn't make this up; they are only God's words."

Bassem, you understood what you were up against when you wrote the above lines. Why, then, when you came to the US, did you attack Christians? Why not take your critique of Islam to its logical conclusions, as did you fellow Egyptian Nonie Darwish?

Bassem, you insist that Islamism is merely a product of American media. You say it didn't exist before the 1940s. You chastise "extremists" who called for the destruction of the pyramids, just as the Taliban vandals, in 2001, destroyed Afghanistan's 1,500-year-old Bamiyan Buddhas, once the largest standing Buddha sculptures in the world, just as ISIS destroyed ancient treasures. You say that any Muslim targeting the pyramids "could be viewed as a crazy man who had no weight and no real merit in the Islamist community." Bassem, would-be pyramid destroyers represent canonical Islam. And Islam was like this well before the 1940s. There is a gash in the Menkaure pyramid. It was put there by Saladin's son, hardly a fringe figure. On the basis of Islamic values, al-Malek al-Aziz Othman ben Yusuf tried to destroy the pyramids. The only reason he stopped was because destruction was too much work.

Bassem, you make excuses for Islam. "It's young," you insist. Mormonism, at about two-hundred-years-old, is much younger. Mormons are not destroying pyramids, murdering apostates, and sexually mutilating the genitals of defenseless little girls. Some argue that regional cultures and poverty are the problem. Let's look at Africa, your natal continent. African Christians, living side-by-side with Muslims, are more than twice as likely to be educated than Muslims. I lived in an African village, in the C.A.R. The village had no electricity, running water, or paved roads. Christians attended a Western-style school, where they learned math, science, and foreign languages, and Muslim males attended a madrassa. They squatted, day after day, memorizing the Koran – the alpha and omega of their education.

In your beloved Egypt, Bassem, the story goes that the books of the great library of Alexandria were used to heat the bath water of a Muslim conqueror's troops. "If these books contain material already in the Koran, they are redundant," he said. "If they contain material that is not in the Koran, they are heretical." No one knows if this story is true, but an astute observer commented that people believed it to be true, because of Islamic hostility to formal education.

Want current statistics rather than ancient anecdotes? Again, from the UN Arab Development Report, "The total number of books translated into Arabic in the last 1,000 years is fewer than those translated into Spanish in one year. Greece – with a population of fewer than 11 million – translates five times as many books from abroad into Greek annually as the 22 Arab countries combined, with a total population of more than 300 million, translate into Arabic … only two Egyptians per million people were granted patents, compared to 30 in Greece and 35 in Israel (for Syria, the figure was zero)."

Bassem, you recently said that "Religious fundamentalists and military fundamentalists are basically the same. They both want to ignore the truth and replace it with propaganda." You reject hate, you embrace equality, human rights and women's rights, and you want a world safe for political satire. Bassem, you aren't at the point where you can admit it yet, but you reject Islam, and you have embraced Western Values. I look forward to the day when you can say so openly. You'll be joining a great bunch of people, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Mosab Hassan Yousef, Nabeel Qureshi, Wafa Sultan, and Nonie Darwish.

Danusha Goska is the author of Save Send Delete, Bieganski, and the upcoming God through Binoculars

 This first appeared in Front Page Magazine here

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

"The Last Jedi" I Liked it, And I Don't Like Star Wars Movies

I am not a "Star Wars" fan. In fact, I didn't even know the name of this episode when I bought the ticket. Apparently it's "The Last Jedi," but I'm guessing that that is a misleading title – no doubt there will be a "Last Jedi Part Two." Though I'm not a fan, I enjoyed this movie. I don't really know what fans get out of "Star Wars" that causes them to become fanatical, but I can tell you why I enjoyed this one.

I like high production values. I like to see a lot of money on the screen. "The Last Jedi" is a feast for the eyes. I did become fixated on things that fans probably never think about. For example, the evil villain, Snoke, occupies a ultra-campy, red-and-black throne room straight out of a 1950s Vincent Minelli, MGM fantasy sequence. Star Wars fans – that's a compliment. I'm guessing you have probably never heard of Vincent Minelli.

Snoke's throne room's floor is so glossy you could floss your teeth using it as a mirror. During Snoke's scenes, I kept thinking, Gee, Snoke has one heck of a housekeeping crew. It's these implausible aspects of sci-fi and fantasy that distract me from the plot.

But "The Last Jedi" has another thing going for it – good-looking and charismatic star power. It was oh-so-poignant to see Carrie Fisher in one of her final films.

Adam Driver is good looking and his character is thoroughly despicable, an excellent combination. In one scene, he is shown bare-chested, in high-waisted pants. Driver has certainly recovered from the starvation diet he adopted to appear in Martin Scorcese Japanese-torture-Jesuit-priests snuff film, "Silence." Driver, bare-chested in high-waisted pants, has apparently become an internet meme. Anything that encourages well-built men to take off their shirts is A-OK with me.

Daisy Ridley as Rey, perhaps the eponymous last Jedi of the film's title – or maybe not; what do I know? – is perfection. She's gorgeous, earnest, and a real actress. She conveys strength and purpose.

Ridley's costume distracted me no end. She spends much of the film in cold and foggy Ireland, and she's dressed in ace bandages and torn gauze. These textiles are porous and could contribute to hypothermia in such a climate. She really should be wearing Gore-Tex. These people can travel in space ships but they don't have Gore-Tex? These implausibilities are SO distracting.

There is much disturbance in the Force about how "The Last Jedi" treats Luke Skywalker. Me, I love plot and motivation and inner conflict, not static "action" figurines. For me, Mark Hamill became the worthy inheritor of Alec Guinness. Hamill was much more appealing to me in this film than in the previous ones.

Oscar Isaac is gorgeous and I love looking at his face. The movie seemed to be trying to make him another Han Solo, and Isaac is not Harrison Ford. Isaac has too much gravitas and he is more deadpan than eye-popping Ford – Eye-popping both in that he was really good looking, and Ford's eyes pop when he is capital-A acting. But I enjoyed Isaac's scenes. Isaac makes a joke early on and it's funny and smart. I understand that "Star Wars" diehards hate this scene. They don't want funny and smart scenes in their movies. Nuff said.

Domhall Gleeson as General Hux twirled his Snidely Whiplash mustache a bit overmuch for me. This is a metaphor. Gleeson is clean shaven. I'm saying he chews up too much scenery – another metaphor.

In addition to the fantasy's inherent implausibilities distracting me, I was distracted by this film's heavy-handed political correctness. Since Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford are all white, the new films must do penance by having an exactingly calibrated, multicultural cast.

A black guy is in something of a love triangle with a white girl and an Asian girl. Okay, woman. This took me out of the movie. What about Chewbaca? Where's his species-appropriate wookie nookie?

The film works hard to make women warriors, and for women to put men in their place. This is all well and good, but I like it that women are less eager to crush, kill, and destroy life, and more eager to nurture it. Oh, wait. There's a scene where a woman warrior lectures a man, "We're going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!" That was just sooooo didactic. And you wonder what the roots of male rage are.

Anyway, I've come to the end of everything I can say about a "Star Wars" movie. 

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

"Darkest Hour" 2017. Good But Not Great

"Darkest Hour" 2017 is a good movie. I enjoyed it and I'm glad I saw it. I don't understand, though, the rapturous reviews it has received. For me it never transcended from "good" to "great." "Darkest Hour" is about noble Brits behaving heroically during World War II. It's the third movie in 2017 to feature the Dunkirk evacuation. It's one of a few films in which major stars have donned prostheses to depict Winston Churchill. In other words, there's nothing new here.

Gary Oldman does a good job, but I was never able to overcome my fixation on his superb prostheses and focus on the person beneath the makeup. I think he should have done it without all that makeup so we could focus on the person, not the cosmetician's skill.

The folksy, comic, and tear-jerking scenes between Churchill and his typist, played by Lily James, struck me as manipulative and a tad maudlin. James does nothing for me as an actress and for me she brought nothing but her young and pretty face to the film.

Interspersed with quirky Winston, close-up-and-personal, are the politics, and the horrors, of war. Neville Chamberlin and Viscount Halifax push Churchill to reach a truce with Hitler, rather than enter into an unwinnable war.

Churchill, pathetically and unsuccessfully, phones Roosevelt to beg for help. Roosevelt turns Churchill down. There were reasons Americans were slow to go to war in WW II. Main reason: the recent, pointless carnage of WW I, which was, of course, Europe's, not America's, war. Americans had been told just twenty years earlier, that they were fighting "the war to end all wars." Roosevelt, behind the scenes, was quietly preparing the US for inevitable war, and helping his future Allies as best he could. The phone call scene struck me as petty America-bashing.

In a couple of scenes, Director Joe Wright brings the cost of war home to the viewer. In one scene, the camera is inside a field hospital with soldiers injured during the controversial Siege of Calais. The camera pans upward to plane height. A bomb is dropped. All those soldiers we had come to care about, we assume, were just killed. In another scene, a battlefield is shown from high above. It looks almost like a map. As the camera pans, we see the face of a victim of war. It's very powerful. 

Monday, January 1, 2018

December 31, 13 Degrees, Garret Mountain

First photo of the sun was taken at two p.m. 

Can you tell if those are fox or dog prints? There is an easy way to tell. 

Even deer slide on ice. 

By four the sun had come out but it was still 13 degrees.