Monthly Archives: March 2020

Every American should watch “Guardians, Inc.” (Dirty Money s2e5)

For the past few years, the Netflix series Dirty Money has profiled numerous cases of global, national, and localized financial fraud and abuse. Some of the one-hour episodes touch very emotional nerves because the cases involve rightly emotionally-charged topics such as housing, government, and personal banking. I usually don’t write about television, let alone specific episodes of television, but very few pieces of media have shocked and angered me like “Guardians, Inc.”

The fifth episode in the series’ newly released second season exposes a cottage industry of abuse of America’s legal guardianship system. It seems that almost anyone can apply to become a legal guardian of anyone, regardless of their relationship or lack thereof with the elderly citizen assessed to be a ‘ward of the state.’ Abusive guardianship has become a network with many moving parts that all point to the same place – milking money out of the nation’s older adults. 

Basically, people are referred to legal counsel who ‘specialize’ in this area. They are often convinced to sign documents they have little to no understanding of, which in turn gives the ‘guardians’ power of attorney. In one of the two cases the episode is built around, an attorney ends up selling a man’s childhood home without his consent. It is eventually demolished and the man has never received a penny of the sale. 

In the second case, an estranged family member is put in place as a second guardian. This family member then transfers this guardianship to a politically-connected woman with close to 40 wards already who lies about the man’s safety in the care of his common-law wife in order to arrest him. Charlie Thrash’s location is still unknown. Even the aforementioned estranged family member who is interviewed declines to disclose his whereabouts.

In both of these cases, anti-psychotic drugs were recommended at several points. As one legal expert points out in the episode, there are very few older Americans under guardianship who have not been prescribed these medications. It’s a lot easier, then, to get folks to agree to things when they’re less aware of what’s going on.

These cases and many others reveal a serious problem in our court system. Many of the experts interviewed in the episode affirm that court-appointed guardians are often chummy with judges. The longest hearings on individual citizens becoming wards of the state last only ten minutes. Some take just thirty seconds. Once you are declared legally incapacitated, it seems there’s very little you can do. There are often phony medical reports written in the first place. It’s often said that a fish rots from the head down, but in this case, the fish is already rotten on both ends. 

And that’s all before saying this is all for profit. The legal fees alone are astronomical, especially to fight these kinds of court orders. It isn’t just about getting something in the will or an equivalent document; it’s a new kind of old boy’s club which threatens the civil rights, health, and economic security of old boys and girls. It’s all for short-term gain. 

In this new, completely uncertain era of COVID-19, “Guardians, Inc.” is the most important thing Americans can watch. We are hurdling towards a new kind of vulnerability for older Americans. It behooves us to understand what our friends and loved ones may be facing in addition to likely worse health outcomes. We also must realize that we will all be part of the eldest age bracket one day, and it’s important to know what to watch out for. This is not just exploitation. This is nothing less than economic terrorism. It may often be on a local and family level, but it is a national crisis that may only get worse with time. Whatever you work for all your life, you deserve to have at the end of your life. That is part of the American dream. Abusive guardianship robs our most vulnerable fellow citizens of the American dream.

-George Napper

“Guardians, Inc.” is now available to stream on Netflix as part of their original series Dirty Money

‘First Cow’: Kelly Reichardt’s foodie masterpiece


Kelly Reichardt is the most gifted American filmmaker working today. Her films explore the human condition in gentle, compassionate, and ultimately surprising ways. But that’s why her films are also an acquired taste. If you’re not a fan of films that move slowly, then hers just aren’t for you. But if you’re a more patient filmgoer, the rewards of her work stretch far beyond the screen. Reichardt’s films always give me so much to chew on, and how appropriate for her latest, First Cow, to be so focused on food and how it impacts history and daily life. 

Traveling with a band of fur trappers in the pioneer days of Oregon, Cookie Figowitz (John Magaro) is a skilled cook in a place and time where those are scarce. While searching for wild game and mushrooms, Cookie happens upon King Lu (Orion Lee), a Chinese immigrant who needs his help getting out of a scrape. Later, after that deed is done and Cookie’s group is disbanded, the two find each other again at a pub. King Lu offers the shy and wandering Cookie shelter in his home, a cozy little shack on the outskirts of a larger settlement. For context, nearly every building in this film is ramshackle and held together with a bit of elbow grease, given the setting and time period.

With King Lu’s modest savings and Cookie’s culinary skills and pay from the expedition, the two friends pool their resources to sell baked goods at market. But there’s just one more ingredient they need: milk! That’s where the cow of the title comes in.


She’s owned by Chief Factor (Toby Jones), a wealthy Londoner with a near-monopoly on the little village. Cookie and King Lu milk the cow in the dead of night and then sell the ‘oily-cakes’ (basically little doughnut holes with honey and cinnamon) the next morning. It’s a charming scheme they have going, and while the quiet, patient Cookie makes the pastries, King Lu, the better salesman, is the face of the operation. In the evenings, he validates Cookie’s dreams of starting a hotel in already-developed San Francisco. Although the film doesn’t illustrate it through conventionally dramatic means, you understand just how unique their friendship is in this unforgiving landscape and society.

As their business grows and more and more people taste Cookie’s creations, the film becomes absolutely ebullient. I have never felt so much emotion watching people eat on screen in my entire life. What’s immediately impressive about that is that this ebullience is so much a part of Reichardt’s filmmaking DNA that even if you’re familiar with her work, it sneaks up on you. I think back to the horseback ride in Certain Women. Whereas that film used the language of budding romance, this film uses the language of budding friendship and community.


It also shows what a softening of heart food can provide. In our modern world of convenience, we almost always take for granted the love and care that can be put into food or any other essential craft. Good food speaks to us on a human frequency, blocking out all the noise and taking us to the most pure place possible: joy. 

Of course First Cow is about more than doughnut holes. It’s a historical film which even in its softness reflects the hardships of the time. It’s a film about the legacy of Native Americans and other people of color in the pioneer days. Again and finally, it’s a film about friendship. There is no more noble human interaction than to make a true friend. First Cow shows us why. 

-George Napper

2 hr, 1 min; rated PG-13 for brief strong language

‘First Cow’ is now playing in limited release in the US

Pixar’s ‘Onward’: a deeply resonant fantasy story


I am halfway through the audiobook version of Jia Tolentino’s excellent Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-delusion. It’s a book which chronicles and critiques the rise of social media and its subsequent neural pathways. Tolentino posits that we live in world where not only is our personal information being sold to the highest bidder, but where we’ve also been conditioned to love the functionality and efficiency of that system and believe that it truly helps us define and create our best selves. 

Deep down, most of us know we don’t love that system. Social media and its new form of faux-democratic delusion ultimately sucks a lot of genuine feeling out of life, sometimes in ways we don’t even consciously process. There is something to be said for lying in a hammock on a summer day or playing with the dog without the constant dull roar of likes, mentions and follows in the background. 

Those genuine, unfettered moments are truly magical. They make you sit up and take notice of what wonders life is capable of showing you. Enter Pixar’s Onward, a film whose central culture clash gets at the heart of what makes those magical moments so… well, magical.


Writer-director Dan Scanlon (Monsters University) creates a new fantastical world here, one where magic and mythos used to exist, but currently seems antiquated. Sure, this world is populated by elves, trolls, and centaurs, but modern convenience has stripped away 99% of its wonder. Save for toadstool houses and castle turrets on skyscrapers, this environment looks very much like our own.

For true believers like elf Barley (voice of Chris Pratt), this world can seem very oppressive. He’d be an outsider in any world, but his love of magic, wizards, and quests is comparable to folks in our world who prefer books to TV (not that there’s anything at all wrong with that). He’s a rebel of a bygone era, whereas his little brother Ian (voice of Tom Holland) is just trying to fit in in high school. When they find a magical gift from their deceased father whom Ian never met, they discover they have the power to summon him back for a day — well, at least his bottom half, anyway. To finish what they started, they go on a road trip which turns into one of the coolest adventure stories I’ve ever seen Pixar pull off. 

The reason I mention Tolentino’s book here (please read or listen to it if it sounds at all interesting to you) is because it’s commenting on a similar sort of culture clash in the real world that we don’t fully acknowledge anymore because we’re so used to it. Online engagement and self-preservation is almost the new way of being a human being. In Onward, living without magic or adventure is the new way of being a mythical creature. The relative stillness and ease of the toadstool suburbs is reward enough. The quests are over, there are no more new frontiers.


But Barley is a genuine explorer, and he brings Ian around to a sense of personhood and courage that can’t come from technology. Admittedly, the film starts slow, but it builds to a thematic crescendo that genuinely warmed my heart. The promise of meeting his father for the first time compels Ian to step out of his comfort zone to make sacrifices for his brother, and vice-versa, although Barley is sacrificing in order to give Ian that catharsis. The two brothers aren’t fighting like we typically see in films made for families and children, but their world-views do clash rather consistently. What I very much appreciated was that the film had the courage of its convictions; it doesn’t conclude in some wishy-washy ‘both sides are right’ way — Barley’s world is one where righteous bravery and valor win the day. The ultimate takeaway is, do the right thing for the people you love and don’t let them settle for complacency. Be encouraging, be positive, be a friend.

I adore Onward because it feels like a call to love in a time where ‘Love’ is a Facebook button.

-George Napper 

1 hr, 42 min; rated PG for action/peril and some mild thematic elements

‘Onward’ is now playing in theaters worldwide