The Browns and the Obsession with Winning

While the world is consumed with more serious matters of war and international politics, football fans have still been paying attention to the NFL offseason, where their favorite teams try to bolster their rosters in preparation for next year.  The offseason is always fun for a football fan, even the casual fan.  Players whose production dropped off find a second life with another team and city.  Teams rid themselves malcontents who didn’t fit in with the city, the organization, or the other players.  

This week, the Cleveland Browns — the lovable losers of football — made a splash by trading Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson, who did not play last season due to considerable legal problems.  Watson faced allegations of sexual misconduct from 22 separate women.  Yes, 22 separate women.  Each one of the women claimed, in a similar pattern, that Watson attempted to pressure them into sexual acts, exhibited lewd behavior, and, in at least two instances, the incidents rose to the level of criminal complaints for sexual assault.  Watson maintained the stance that he never coerced any woman into sex, and the allegations are false.  

Earlier this month, a Harris County grand jury met to consider the criminal complaints against Watson and did not return an indictment, meaning Watson will not face criminal charges.  The news prompted NFL teams to reach out to the Houston Texans to broker a trade for Watson.  (Before the accusations against Watson, the relationship between the quarterback and the Texans’ management was on shaky ground.  The Texans understood they had to rid themselves of Watson.)

This week, the Cleveland Browns arranged a deal to acquire Watson in exchange for multiple future draft picks.  In addition, the Browns tendered a five year contract worth an astonishing $230 million.  Watson now becomes the highest paid player in NFL history and he hasn’t played a game in over a year.  

Why were teams so eager to trade for Watson?

Of course the comments were limited …

Several teams contacted the Texans to trade for Watson.  Along with the Browns, the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers, and New Orleans Saints were all contenders to make a deal for the beleaguered quarterback.  Why is this the case?  For the non-football fan, quarterback is undoubtedly the most important position in professional football.  NFL teams do not win Super Bowls without a top tier quarterback, and make no mistake, Deshaun Watson possesses the ability to lead a team to football glory.  In the 2020 season, he led the league in passing yards and finished second in overall quarterback rating at the age of 24.  Organizations build the rest of their team around this type of player.

In the case of the Cleveland Browns, the situation is a bit more dire.  The Browns are one of only four teams in the league who have yet to play in a Super Bowl (and two of the others are expansion teams who haven’t been in the league nearly as long).  Browns fans are notoriously difficult to please, and their previous quarterback, Baker Mayfield, has not lived up to their expectations.  

In 2018, the Browns used the number one overall draft pick on Mayfield, believing him to be the ‘franchise quarterback’ they had sought for so long.  He was supposed to lead them to the Super Bowl.  And he appeared on the verge of a breakthrough in 2020, when Mayfield and the Browns won their first playoff game in over two decades against divisional foe Pittsburgh.  The next week, they had defending champion Kansas City Chiefs on the ropes in a wild playoff loss.

This past season was supposed to be the year for the Browns.  Instead, they faced a massive letdown when all the pieces were in place for a great season.  Their 11-5 playoff season transformed into an 8-9 flop where they had to watch in-state rival Cincinnati reach the Super Bowl with the world preening over Joe Burrow.

The Browns made this move because they are desperate to win.  They haven’t won their division since 1989.  Playoff wins are scarce.  And let’s not start on their inability to reach, let alone win the Super Bowl.  The Browns have reached a level of desperation which caused them to spend a king’s ransom on a quarterback that still has 22 lawsuits pending.  

The NFL puts product over people every single time 

Americans enjoy the game.  It’s uniquely American and doesn’t exist in the minds of the rest of the world.  Football combines athleticism, strategy, and mental fortitude — parts of humanity America values (perhaps too much).  But the nation forgets the NFL is a business.  After all, Americans value capitalism too.

The NFL aims to turn a profit and ticket sales and television viewership represent key aspects of generating the money machine that is professional football.  The league will always do what’s in its best interest financially.

In the last two decades, a number of NFL players or coaches faced disciplinary actions from the league’s commissioner regarding their on and off field conduct.  Players such as Aaron Hernandez and Rae Carruth were convicted of murder, so obviously they weren’t going to play any longer. 

In other instances of high profile players, the NFL’s actions depended on the market.  The NFL seems to gauge which way the proverbial wind is blowing before rendering a decision. 

  • Superstar quarterback Michael Vick was suspended for involvement in a dog fighting ring in 2007.  The NFL waited until Vick pled guilty to suspend him, but the outrage from the public, including the United States Congress, undoubtedly weighed on the NFL’s decision.
  • In 2014, Former Baltimore running back Ray Rice received a year long suspension for domestic abuse charges and was subsequently released by his team.  However, the NFL didn’t suspend Rice for a year initially.  NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell decided to suspend Rice only for two games along with mandating counseling.  It was only after significant public outrage did Goodell reverse course and admit he erred.  
  • Who could forget O.J. Simpson and his trial for the murder of his ex-wife?  Though Simpson was found not guilty, the NFL and all former business associates of the former running back dropped any connection with him because he was toxic.  The nation believed he was guilty.  The NFL couldn’t afford to associate with him.

The NFL doesn’t care whether or not these people were guilty.  They cared about public perception because that dictates the market.

There isn’t enough time or space here to chronicle the NFL’s response to each instance of player misbehavior. (However, if you are interested, a dedicated journalist did create a database of NFL arrests, charges, and other legal issues since the year 2000 and it’s … extensive.)

If this isn’t convincing, consider the NFL’s repeated dismissals of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a condition incurred through repeated blows to the head.  Typically associated with boxers, CTE began to appear in many former football players who experienced symptoms associated with an early onset of dementia.  Some of these players felt had headaches so severe, they eventually killed themselves.  Roger Goodell and previous NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue dismissed the concessions in the game, ignoring medical reports and research from doctors.  Why?  It was bad for the game, and the financial bottom line.  (Check out this chilling timeline of events in the NFL’s dismissal of a serious problem.)  To mitigate potential fallout from liability, the NFL not only changed its rules and equipment, but settled a lawsuit with retired players for $765 million.  The league admitted no wrongdoing as part of the settlement.  

Revenues trend up for the NFL

Professional football is a multibillion dollar industry.  That’s right — it’s an industry.  The games, the television contracts, fantasy football, merchandise, stadium food and other paraphernalia.  In the 2019 season, the NFL generated a record high $15.26 billion in revenue.  That number increases every year (2020 excepted due to the pandemic).  For context, the NFL generates more revenue than the film industry, pornography, the music business, or any other professional sport.  

From 1942 until 2015, the NFL registered as a tax exempt, non-profit organization.  Commissioner Goodell ended the NFL’s registration as a non-profit, sending a memo to all team owners, noting in it:

As you know, the effects of the tax exempt status of the league office have been mischaracterized repeatedly in recent years. The fact is that the business of the NFL has never been tax exempt. Every dollar of income generated through television rights fees, licensing agreements, sponsorships, ticket sales, and other means is earned by the 32 clubs and is taxable there. This will remain the case even when the league office and Management Council file returns as taxable entities, and the change in filing status will make no material difference to our business. As a result, the Committees decided to eliminate this distraction. [Emphasis added]

Goodell dropped the tax exempt status because it’s about the public perception.  The NFL cares about the money.

The NFL is a symptom of a bigger issue 

Maybe football began as a pure thing, a better part of American values.  Now, though, it reflects the ugly nature of the United States.  Somewhere, the Cleveland Browns, and the entire NFL, sacrificed any semblance of corporate responsibility so they could win — whether that occurs on the field or in the bank.  Cleveland wants to win a Super Bowl so badly and it doesn’t matter that their new quarterback possibly sexually assaulted women.  Houston only wanted rid of a nightmare scenario for its team.  The NFL likely won’t take any further action because Watson won’t have a criminal conviction and generally speaking, fans won’t have a problem moving forward.  

Fans didn’t have a problem when former Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger continuing a stellar football career after he encountered a similar situation.  He was accused of sexual assault in 2010 and no criminal charges were filed, however he did settle a lawsuit out of court for an undisclosed amount of money.

Ray Lewis, former Baltimore linebacker, faced a potential murder trial over the deaths of two individuals in Atlanta in 2000.  Lewis pled guilty to the lesser charge of obstruction of justice in exchange for testimony against suspects arrested for the crime.  There has long been suspicion Lewis knows more about the crime than he admitted, particularly considering he lied to police about his whereabouts of the time of the murder initially.  Lewis’ career rebounded and now he’s in the NFL Hall of Fame.  Baltimore even placed a statue of Lewis outside their stadium.  

Roethlisberger and Lewis have recovered their image and found themselves in the good graces of the NFL and fans.  There’s a decent chance Watson will also.  What’s the difference between these guys and the likes of Ray Rice or Michael Vick?  The only difference is we can’t be sure about Roethlisberger or Lewis.  With Rice, we had video evidence of him hitting his fiancée.  Vick pled guilty.  There’s no football redemption for them.  The NFL knows it can’t sell that to people.

With respect to Roethlisberger and Lewis, or now Watson, fans cannot say whether they are definitively guilty.  So choose to ignore under the auspices of ‘innocent until proven guilty.’  This is what we tell ourselves because we want to win too.  But it didn’t start with football.

The political world has long operated under this paradigm.  Numerous allegations surfaced against former President Bill Clinton since the 1970s.  When he first ran for president, this was not a new issue.  When the House of Representatives impeached Clinton, Republicans decried the loss of morality and principles in the nation.  Democrats defended the president and claimed Clinton’s affair with a White House intern and his lie about it under oath were not a serious crime.   

In 2016, Republicans quickly abandoned their own principles in nominating Donald Trump and supporting him despite some of the more unbecoming moral failures of any occupant of the White House.  President Trump’s now infamous comments about women in footage from Access Hollywood led to fierce criticism about his own morality and treatment of women.  That sentiment was fueled by the discovery that President Trump once paid to have sex with an adult film star. 

Both parties managed to flip their stances on what defined morality and their love of ‘winning,’ or in this case, embarrassing the other tribe, was more important than doing the right thing.  In the cases of both Clinton and Trump, there was plenty of evidence suggesting they were both morally flawed, but the parties didn’t care.  All they could think about was how to spin the news and not lose elections.  To think this begins and ends with Clinton or Trump is bonkers.  Politicians fail to live up to society’s moral expectations and their party defends them.  They just provide the best examples of the indiscretions and hypocrisy.

It’s difficult to say where the fundamental failure in principled belief started but the ‘win at all costs’ mentality harms the nation as a whole, and the personal growth of individuals.  

We see it in small places, like when parents excuse the poor behavior of their children that that would seethe at if it came from another child. 

‘Climbing the corporate ladder’ means stealing ideas or credit from others to become a somebody in the work environment.  Stepping on someone else’s head to arrive at the top is part of the game.  

The television show Survivor might be one of the best displays of the win at all costs mentality. It encourages individual treachery and base tribalism.  There’s a reason the show has aired for a staggering 42 seasons.  Contestants will literally do anything to win and millions of viewers tune in to watch.

Remember when ESPN aired The Last Dance documentary? Fans of basketball marveled at Michael Jordan recount his cutthroat nature in leading the Chicago Bulls to six NBA titles. However, in the process of winning, Jordan seems to have alienated friends and family. He oozes arrogance, and normally society shuns that. But Jordan gets a pass because he dominated his sport.

Humans want to win because we want to show superiority.  We want to stand out and distinguish ourselves.  The thought of being ordinary terrifies Americans even though we mostly understand we are ordinary.  If we can live vicariously through our sports team, president, child, or any other facet of the world, then that’s good enough.  As long as we won.  Hypocrisy is the price for victory.

For the Browns organization, it’s a price they’re willing to pay.  I don’t know how they find their soul after selling out on a level like this.  The team’s ownership already started the public relations work by issuing a statement about the extensive research they placed into this process, including serious conversations with Watson, who they described as “humble, sincere, and candid.”  Did that extensive research include talking to Watson’s 22 accusers?  Doubt it.

The Dawg Pound isn’t too keen on the Watson deal

Apparently, the front office did not take into consideration the thoughts of their fans, who were not all pleased with the trade.  Numerous fans took to social media to skewer the owners, but the best roast came from Marla Ridenour, who covers the Browns for the Akron Beacon Journal.  She wrote a blistering piece about the trade, and point blank said the Browns wanted a Super Bowl and the financial windfall that comes with it.  

Browns fans strongly disapproved of the Watson trade.  For them, a Super Bowl isn’t worth that much.  Ironically, hope for America to reject the win at all costs mantra comes from one of the rowdiest fan bases in all of sports.  Who knew they would set the example?  Not me.

Five Contradictions of West Virginia

“Pleasing, tho’ dreadful.” 

— An early explorer of West Virginia, noting in his journal about the geography of the region

If you live, work, or have roots in West Virginia, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to presume that you possess an understanding of the culture. There are so many aspects of the state to love and appreciate.  However, I want to point out five contradictions about West Virginia which hold the state back.

West Virginians are largely pro-life, but don’t seem to support children

A sizable portion of West Virginians believe abortion should not be legally permissible, and I would contend that this, by itself, is a defensible position.  But the contradiction here lies in the refusal to support a number of policies which benefit children.  One of West Virginia’s most significant problems is its inability, or unwillingness, to care for its children.  

In a previous post, I referenced the critical issues of student homelessness, grandparents raising grandchildren, and an inadequate foster care system.  These amount to a crisis situation and I cannot reconcile how its citizens take a hard pro-life position when they see such a dire need for the care of children.

This is a terrifying graph to think about for West Virginians

The most recent data demonstrates that more than 10,000 students in West Virginia are classified as homeless (about 4% of the entire student population).  As of this month’s figures, foster parents house approximately 6,500 children, including almost 2,000 labeled as in ‘therapeutic foster care.’ 

Social scientists have created a metric to better assess the well-being of children, a test to gauge adverse childhood experiences, or ‘ACE.’  It consists of 10 yes or no questions which help researchers understand the impact of traumas on a child as they become adults.  Anyone with a score of ‘4’ or more on the ACE test is:

  • 12 times more likely to attempt suicide 
  • 10 times more likely to use illegal drugs which are injected
  • 7 times more likely to become an alcoholic 
  • 2 times more likely to become a smoker 

The effects of childhood trauma increase the risk for a myriad of other poor behavioral choices, backed by peer reviewed studies.

In West Virginia, 13.8% of adults reported they had a childhood with four or more ACEs. Additionally, West Virginia ranks 7th in the nation for percentage of people with an ACE score of 2 or greater (a staggering 25%).  Though speculation, I don’t find it too difficult to believe that the children of today are any better off than previous generations.

West Virginians seem to despise the government in Washington, D.C., but benefit from the federal government as much as anyone in the nation

West Virginians believe that policies from the nation’s capital should always be met with the most stringent skepticism.  Citizens always imagine a far away government official as the cause of their problems.  

A portion of the disdain towards Washington is rooted in the never ending political drama between Democrats and Republicans.  The GOP has consistently presented a message that Democrats, particularly at the federal level, have waged a ‘war on coal,’ will deprive people of religious freedoms, and want to rob citizens of their Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.  The truthfulness of the message doesn’t matter because perception is reality here.

Somewhat related is the fascination people in this state have for the Confederacy and its rebellion during the Civil War.  Any small town has its share of Confederate battle flags.  

When the West Side community of Charleston moved to change the name of Stonewall Jackson Middle School, it met a bizarre level of resistance.  Even if I wanted to overlook the fact that black children make up the overwhelming majority of students attending the school, a school in West Virginia named for a Confederate general is ridiculous.  The birth of West Virginia occurred during the Civil War — on the side of the Union.  (Start a conversation about removing the statue of Stonewall Jackson from the Capitol grounds and watch citizens lose their minds.)  

Strangely, this hatred of the federal government is made in conjunction with the fact that our state benefits more from federal tax dollars than almost every other state in the union.  If you see the late Senator Robert Byrd’s name on a bridge, school, institution, or any other building, there’s a good chance he secured the federal funds for it.  No one objected, and for good reason.  

West Virginia ranks 9th in federal grant beneficiaries among the states, and this doesn’t include the entire gamut individualized programs.  In regard to those programs:

Per capita, West Virginia ranks 2nd in the nation in recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as ‘food stamps’), receiving almost $400,000,000 annually for recipients.

Currently, 28% of West Virginia’s citizens receive Medicaid or Children’s Heath Insurance (CHIPs).

For West Virginians receiving Medicare, the annual expenditure per beneficiary is an average of slightly above $10,000.  If someone would point out that Medicare is a program which we all pay into, consider that most recipients will draw out more in benefits than they ever pay into the program. 

It’s ironic that so many West Virginians are more than happy to reap the benefits of federal tax dollars while constantly degrading the government officials who enacted these policies and the bureaucratic employees who make sure those checks find their way to the mailboxes of West Virginians (and millions of Americans also).

West Virginians love coal, though it has plagued the people

The state has been one of the leading producers of coal, yet the individuals who benefitted the most from this important natural resource are not West Virginians.  Coal mining in the mid-20th century until now offered West Virginians a high paying salary they could earn as straight out of high school.  But the state as a whole forgot the bloody road that coal miners walked to secure those high paying jobs in the first place.  How many West Virginians toiled in mines for little pay or were the victims of violence from the mine owners?  Moreover, even after the coal miners secured better wages and working conditions, the balance of power still leaned heavily towards the mine owners.  Those mine owners reaped disproportionate financial benefits while the men who labored in coal mines literally worked themselves into an early grave.

How many men died from mining disasters which could have been prevented?  If that wasn’t enough of an issue, how many men suffered from physical injuries which dramatically reduced the quality of their lives?  This doesn’t account for the incidences of black lung, a particularly dreadful disease miners develop from years of working in close contact with coal dust.  Black lung dramatically reduces quality of life, has no cure, and is fatal.  

I respect the people who work in coal mines.  That job requires significant physical strength and mental fortitude, to go into the mines day after day for years.  But what I see as the great contradiction is the love affair the state has with coal when these miners have never received what they deserve.

You don’t need nearly as many employees to get that coal out of the ground

The mine owners do not reinvest in the communities, they fight any attempted increases on the coal severance tax, and most importantly, the bulk of them are absentee landlords.  For over a century, we have allowed corporate interests outside of the state to treat West Virginia like a third world country, using our natural resources and labor in exchange for scraps.

Historically, mine owners have little regard for the well being of their employees.  The mechanization of coal mines have taken more jobs from the hands of our people than any politician could dare to dream. They also have cannibalized bankrupted other coal corporations of their assets, while taking on none of their liabilities, notably the pensions of retired coal miners.

The nation’s trend towards natural gas and renewable energy will diminish the demand for coal.  The world will still need coal in short term and long term for the United States, but not nearly as much as it once did. 

Why does the state love coal when it has taken so much from the people and given so little in return?

West Virginians want economic development, but they do not wish to change

Politicians have long touted diversification of West Virginia’s economy as a priority in light of the decline of coal.  Yes, the state has done tremendous work in developing an amazing tourism industry.  However, there are other ways in which West Virginia can develop a more progressive attitude towards economic development.

West Virginia’s agricultural production has long been a strong component of the economy.  Adding marijuana to the agricultural output is projected to add nearly $190 million in revenue, increasing agricultural revenue by 25%.  Of course, the state’s tax coffers will benefit also, which can be used in a variety of ways to benefit the state.  The dangers of alcohol outweigh those of marijuana and the state has no problem allowing its sale. 

In addition to changes in agricultural, West Virginians do not value higher education, though studies demonstrate that a college education translates to increased lifetime earnings.  Only 20.3% of West Virginians hold a bachelor’s degree, the lowest percentage of any state in the nation. Bringing economic development includes valuing the education, which West Virginia does not.

Many West Virginians shun colleges as ‘elitist’ and they don’t respect the value of higher education.  State government continues to decrease funding of  institutions of higher education, including the Promise Scholarship. This demonstrates the priorities of West Virginia.  (Despite a skepticism of higher education, West Virginians have little problem turning out in large numbers for football and basketball games in Morgantown and Huntington.)

We care about moral values, but continually elect poor examples of those values

Often, our moral values are connected to our religious beliefs, and few states are as religious as West Virginia.  Christianity, specifically an evangelical brand of the faith, advocates that definitive right and wrong standards exist in the world.  A majority of West Virginians also believe this to be true.  Yet, the citizens here continue to elect individuals who flagrantly violate these standards.  West Virginia’s government currently contains some odd characters with significant failings —  including John Mandt, Mike Maroney, and Joe Jeffries — but they are only recent iterations of the political problems here. 

For those old enough to remember, former Governor Arch Moore’s third term in office led to guilty pleas for five felonies in federal court, including tax fraud, extortion, and obstruction of justice. Moore’s first two terms were no easier, with an indictment for extortion and constant rumors about misuse of campaign funds.  The allegations and guilty pleas never seemed to put a dent in Moore’s popularity with West Virginians.

In 2004, the FBI rooted out several corrupt long-time officials in Logan County through a sting operation which yielded nine convictions in vote buying schemes.  The practice of vote buying or knowledge of corruption was not regarded as a secret in this area.

Former Governor Bob Wise was involved in a sex scandal in 2003.  In 2016, the mayor of Clay liked a Facebook post referring to then First Lady Michelle Obama as an ‘ape in heels.’  Oh, and the public official in Clay County who made the Facebook post?  A year later she pleaded guilty to embezzling $18,000 from FEMA devoted to flood relief in the area. 

I know every state has its dullards and buffoons who somehow win elections, but if we care about the integrity of our state and moral values, shouldn’t we make morality the ‘floor’ for government officials?  The people in West Virginia have fallen into the trap of placing their preferred political party before values.

If West Virginia is going to talk about these things, it’s time to be about them.  We should take care of our children, and teach them that valuing certain moral traits means living them out to the best of our ability.  We don’t have to love coal or see it as the economic basis for the future.  The federal government isn’t the enemy,  and there are times when change isn’t such a bad thing.

Great Cinema: Four Films Worth Watching

Films are one of my favorite parts of modern culture.  They tell us so much about our society, people, and ourselves.  Good films, like any piece of art, should make the audience feel something.  And if a two hour film can somehow draw out emotion, that’s an accomplishment.  

In this post, I want to provide you with five films I have very much appreciated for making me consider my own humanity and feelings.  In no particular order … 

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) 

This is a unique film for the list for a number of reasons, but notably that it’s in Chinese (subtitles did not bother American moviegoers in the least).  Adapted from a novel, Crouching Tiger stars Chow Yun-fat as master swordsman Li Mu Bai.  Co-star Michelle Yeoh plays Yu Shu Lien, the partner of Li and long time friend.  

The story opens with Li explaining his decision to retire from his life as a swordsman, giving his famed sword (known as ‘the Green Destiny’) to a nobleman and benefactor.  Shortly after the nobleman takes possession of the sword, we quickly learn the culprit is Jen (a very adept Zhang Ziyi), the daughter of the nobleman and secret student of Jade Fox, a known assassin.  

Li, the famed warrior, wrestles with significant conflict in terms of his complex feelings towards his long time partner Yu (who was once engaged to his best friend before his untimely death), tracking down the assassin Jade Fox, and his desire to take on Jen as a student.

The film also dives into the backstory of Jen, and how the daughter of a wealthy noble becomes a warrior.  We are treated to a number of flashback scenes where Jen had once been held hostage by bandit named Lo, whom she comes to better understand and eventually fall in love with.  

Despite the martial arts, this film explores two love stories and juxtaposes two would-be couples.  Li and Yu are older, more reserved, and hesitant to act based on custom and tradition.  Jen and Lo find themselves swept away by passion and have little use for the opinions of the world.  Moreover, the romantic scenes between the couples don’t feel at all forced or gratuitous.  

This film also provokes other elements of our human nature.  Li seeks to kill Jade Fox because she killed his former teacher.  The assassin herself struggles when she realizes her disciple’s skills exceed her own.  Jen feels smothered by her life as a noble and the expectations that come with it (which do not include running off with a bandit or fighting).  There’s a great deal of internal conflict brewing throughout the film and by the end of it, Li has wondered if he has wasted some important opportunities.  

Of course the human emotion matters profoundly, but the other key elements of the film all click.  The actors, many with significant prior Hollywood experience, play the roles well.  Few of the main actors knew Mandarin coming into the film, which makes it more impressive .

The action scenes are phenomenal and the film didn’t shy away from the ‘wuxia’ genre of the novel (a Chinese form of fantasy literature).  We see characters make superhuman moves, but not so much that it takes away from the movie.  In fact, it feels believable.  The music paces well with a number of the action scenes, and famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed solos.  The visuals from the movie are buoyed by great sets. The Gobi Desert and other provinces in China, showing a variety of climates and regions.

Since its release in 2000, other films in the genre have tried to recreate the magic of Crouching Tiger, but it just hasn’t happened.  Story, action, romance, music, and dynamic characters.  Makes for a fantastic movie.  

Jojo Rabbit (2019) 

When a friend initially recommended this film, my knee-jerk reaction was “I dunno.”  But Scarlett Johansson and Sam Rockwell provided all the credibility I needed go give this a chance.  It did not disappoint and Jojo Rabbit easily makes my list of films people should see. 

The story revolves a 10 year old boy named Jojo (portrayed by Roman Griffin Davis), who must face harsh truths about growing up in Nazi Germany.  Living in a Germany heavily laden with propaganda, Jojo believes in Nazi cause, the greatness of Hitler, and stereotypes about Jews.    Though Jojo has the patriotic fervor you might expect in a young boy, his mother Rosie (played by Johansson) recognizes her son is still a sweet child who only parrots what he’s been told.  (Older boys in the Hitler Youth give Jojo the nickname Jojo Rabbit because of his inability to kill a rabbit to show his worth.)

Jojo doesn’t have many friends and a short, ill-fated stint in the Hitler Youth proves maybe he isn’t cut out for serving the Reich like most other German boys.  To compensate for a lack of friends, Jojo creates an imaginary goofball version of Adolf Hitler (director Taika Waititi becomes a very believable Hitler).  Throughout the film, we see the imaginary Hitler as an incarnation of the propaganda which has bombarded Jojo for his life.

The film slowly alludes to Rosie’s involvement in an anti-Nazi resistance group and low-key efforts to correct the misperceptions of her son.  Jojo must confront his own perceptions about Jews when he finds out that his mother has secretly harbored a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).  The banter between Jojo and Elsa provides interesting exchanges that vacillate between the serious and comedic.

In fact, one of the unique aspects of Jojo Rabbit is the fact that find yourself laughing one minute, cheering for the small victories of each character, and feeling the weightiness of Nazi persecution.

Like any good film, the strength lies in the story-driven approach to the film and the perfectly attuned cast that brings the story to life. Even the minor characters produce a memorable effect, and Jojo’s best friend Yorki (the scene-stealing Archie Yates) is a hidden gem.  Also, Rockwell’s character, Captain Klenzendorf, has a small story arc with a path to redemption, thanks to our young hero Jojo.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Ralph Fiennes leads a literal all-star cast in the story of a run-down hotel in the fictional nation of Zubrowka, under communist control but filled with wild stories from a bygone era.  

The film opens with the nation’s most wealthy man, Zero Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham) providing a tale about how he came into possession of the The Grand Budapest Hotel.  Zero’s story focuses on the long-serving and renowned concierge Monsieur Gustave (Fiennes), who often seduced many of the older women who frequented the hotel.  While not above womanizing, Gustave is incredibly dedicated to his craft and gentlemanly conduct.

When we learn that one of the hotel’s well known patrons, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) dies, Gustave takes his new protégé, a young Zero (Tony Revolori) to the reading of the will.  Gustave’s long time lover Madame D. has left him a priceless painting that prompts outrage from her jealous son, Dmitri (Adrien Brody) and other family members.  

What follows is a bizarre yet fun sequence of events where the family tries to frame Gustave, who escapes custody with the help of Zero, his baker-apprentice girlfriend, and a secret cadre of concierges (think skull and bones society, only for concierges).

So, what makes this film so great?  What’s the buy-in?  The deeper rooted issue that drives the story is the evolution of society and the loss of a more civilized world.  How do we cope with changes which destroy a sense of decorum which had long governed our conduct?  

In the beginning of the story, one has to wonder why the older version of Zero holds on to a drab hotel which no one visits any longer.  He struggles to let go of the last remnant of a world which does not exist.  Humans love to hang on to symbols which bring about nostalgic feelings, and we often find objects which remind of us a time in our lives when everything was right with the world.  

There’s also a sense of appreciation for Gustave.  He’s something of a Renaissance man who has a wealth of knowledge and connections.  He says all the right things and knows all the right customs.  While on the run from authorities, he manages to stay one step ahead at all times. Gustave also takes in Zero, a refugee, as a lobby boy and shows him the ropes, providing him not only with a job but a place to stay.  He also makes Zero earn his keep.  Gustave is the mentor we all either had or wanted when we were young.

A number of cameos and bit roles ramp up the star power:  Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Willem DaFoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Tom Wilkinson, Matheiu Amalric, and Bill Murray (yes, Bill Murray) do their part in the film and no one tries to be bigger than the story itself.  

The choices for the sets, filmed mostly in Germany prove for some fantastic scenery and the costumes for Gustave, Zero, and their accomplices have an interesting vibe that meshes with the scenery and provides a nice color scheme.  The hotel’s scenery and Gustave have us wishing for a more refined time.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

This is probably not the Quentin Tarantino film you expected to see on this list (if you were expecting one at all).  Everyone lauds Pulp Fiction and it deserves the praise.  Casual moviegoers might not even be aware of this film, and if they are, may not realize it predates Pulp Fiction.  But this film merits a lot of consideration for a number of reasons beyond the great story.

The story revolves around a Los Angeles heist, organized by arch-criminal Joe Cabot (Lawrence Tierney) and his son, “Nice Guy” Eddie (Chris Penn).  Cabot recruits six individuals for the heist (we later learn they’re stealing diamonds) and compartmentalizes the group by not allowing any of them to use their real names.  Each man is assigned a color:  Mr. White, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blue, Mr. Brown, Mr. Blonde, and Mr. Pink.  The heist is complicated by the fact that Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is an undercover police officer who is intent on bringing down the group and Cabot.  Of course, complications arise in the heist, and a sizable portion of the film transpires in a warehouse the group uses as a rallying point.  

While the plot creates a film worth watching, Tarantino’s style of story telling elevates this film to a different level.  One of the trademarks of Tarantino’s film-making is his non-linear sequencing of events.  Scenes are out of order, and yet the film makes perfect sense.  The opening scene reveals the criminals having breakfast, already acquainted with one another, preparing for the heist that day.  We quickly move to a car chase and a gun-shot victim, post-robbery.  Tarantino neatly unpacks the before, after, and in-between events as if this was the way filmmaking should have always been done.

Tarantino’s dialogue in this and his subsequent films also make this movie memorable.  He doesn’t waste words.  Almost every sentence counts and every scene reveals something about the characters.  Tarantino movies are incredibly quotable.  For instance, the opening breakfast scene has the gang of criminals, about to commit a robbery, giving Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) grief over the fact that he did not tip the waitress.  White tells the others he doesn’t “believe in” tipping.  It leads to a discussion about minimum wage and how hard the waitress works and if she should find another job.  Of course, this transpires after a drawn out discussion about the deeper meaning of Madonna’s music.

Later, we’re treated to a hilarious scene where Cabot gives each man his color alias and Mr. Pink objects.  Cabot goes into an explanation about how he tried to let guys pick their own names in the past and it just doesn’t work because everyone would argue over who gets to be Mr. Black.

Tarantino films also tend to have a solid soundtrack, and while this is not a phenomenon unique to his work, he does have a tendency to ruin a song.  And in this regard, no one who has seen this film will ever be able to listen to “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel in the same way without thinking about Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) brutally beating and torturing a captured police officer. 

Sometimes, it’s also what you don’t see that can make a movie.  Tarantino bombards us with a lot of gritty violence, interesting dialogue, and great music.  But we never actually see the heist go down.  And this fuels a lot of speculation amongst the audience (he would further use this device in Pulp Fiction because we still want to know what’s in that briefcase).  He leaves us without a piece of the story we would love to have.

This film also hits home with a number of people for demonstrating an interesting dichotomy in violent criminals.  There are traits of the criminal element which appear almost universal.  Each member of the squad wouldn’t hesitate to use lethal violence, and when the heist goes horribly wrong, they hate the idea of a ‘rat’ in their midst.  They’re all paranoid about figuring out what went wrong, and deeply suspicious of anything that doesn’t make sense.  We also see the criminals all wearing the same stand black suit, white shirts, black tie, and sunglasses for their mission.  

Yet, there is a gradation of these criminals despite having a code.  Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is clearly the most complex of the gang.  He developed a friendship with Mr. Orange prior to the heist and is deeply concerned when Orange may die from a gunshot wound.  Mr. White is also more irritated at the lack of control from Mr. Blonde (no doubt a psychopath), who killed a number of individuals during the heist that didn’t need to die.   

The fact that some of these hardened men have a sense of friendship and loyalty with members of the group provides dimensions to criminals we wouldn’t expect to see.  The other members of the gang fall somewhere between the controlled and thought Mr. White and the stone cold killer Mr. Blonde, but it’s clear that not all criminals value the same things.  The themes of loyalty, trust, betrayal, paranoia —  they apply no less to individuals merely because they break the law.