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Men rule the red carpet these days, and this celebrity stylist showed them how

By Robin Givhan
Men rule the red carpet these days, and this celebrity stylist showed them how
Fashion stylist Ilaria Urbinati, pictured at her studio in Los Angeles, has transformed how men present themselves on the red carpet. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Brinson+Banks

Sometimes, when Ilaria Urbinati gets stuck in Los Angeles traffic, she'll look out of her car window at some anonymous guy on the street dressed in a baggy suit; and she will despair. She will say to herself, "You have no idea how much better I could make you look."

This isn't idle bragging. It's a statement of fact. The evidence will be on the red carpet Sunday at the 91st Academy Awards.

Urbinati is Hollywood's premier men's stylist, with a client list that includes best actor nominees Bradley Cooper and Rami Malek. John Krasinski, Armie Hammer, Donald Glover, Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and Milo Ventimiglia are also in her care.

When it comes to red-carpet fashion, men have moved beyond the classic black tuxedo. They are wearing brown velvet, ruby-red velvet, orange silk, embroidered capes and bedazzled holsters. Some are heat-seeking missiles aiming for the flashing cameras and the center of the spotlight. Others are using fashion to deftly define - or redefine - their public persona. Either way, women no longer own the red carpet.

Urbinati has led the way by helping each of her clients express something personal and distinctive through his clothes. And other men - beyond the realm of Hollywood - have taken heed.

"It all changed in the last two years. There are parts that I don't like, where it's gotten a little silly and guys are peacocking and it's, 'Look at me!' I don't love that," Urbinati says. "I'm not trying to make them look interesting; I want them to be unexpected."

Men have "upped their game 400 percent," says New York-based stylist Brian Coats, who knows Urbinati's work well. "It's almost switched in a way, with a lot of actresses getting criticized for being too safe."

If there's a common thread with Urbinati's clients, it's that they all exude handsome. They possess a wow factor. They evoke that know-it-when-you-see-it ideal of a Hollywood leading man.

Urbinati doesn't have a signature look. Her clients wear Gucci, Armani, Louis Vuitton, Celine, Tom Ford, Dior. They also wear Strong Suit, the modestly priced brand with whom Urbinati collaborated. With an assist from Malek and Hammer, she put Strong Suit on the fashion map. "It doesn't impact sales, but it impacts the credibility of the brand," says Jamie Davidson, its founder.

Glover exudes creativity and adventurousness, with a brown velvet Gucci suit at the Golden Globes, an orange Dolce & Gabbana one at the "Black Panther" premiere. For Urbinati, working with Glover is akin to two musicians riffing off the same melody and riding the resulting energy. "He has such a natural sense of swagger and cool," Urbinati says. "I think we grew up with the same references in fashion and we get each other. His fittings are probably the most effortless. It flows, and we're having fun."

Malek is flashier, with more fashion edge. "Rami gets very meticulous," Urbinati says. "He has such an appreciation for each brand and who the creative directors are. He has relationships with these people. He goes to (fashion) shows. He has a real appreciation for the artistry."

Cooper was one of Urbinati's first clients. She was opening a clothing store with actor Danny Masterson. Masterson and Cooper were both in the 2008 film "Yes, Man." Cooper came to the opening of the shop. "'The Hangover' hadn't come out yet; it was about to. He was literally about to burst into being Bradley Cooper," Urbinati recalls. One conversation led to another in that Hollywood way, and then Cooper said: "I have my press tour in two days. Can you come over tomorrow and help me out?"

Urbinati, not quite sure what she was signing on to do, called in favors from designers she knew from her work in retail. Simon Spurr was reviving the once-popular three-piece suit. Urbinati borrowed a few and brought them for Cooper to try. He was skeptical: "A three-piece suit, really?" But he liked the look of it.

"Now, he has a very strong sense of what he wants to look like," Urbinati says. "I think he was still working it out back then."

Urbinati spent a good portion of 2018 working with Krasinski, one of her newest clients, as he promoted his film "A Quiet Place"and the Amazon Prime series "Jack Ryan."

"I always imagined myself to be scientifically proven as one of the least fashionable people on the planet. I wore uniforms of jeans and T-shirts," Krasinski says in an email. "She has taken a world that I believed I was very much on the outside of and dropped me in with both feet. And somehow made it so damn fun along the way."

When award season kicked in, Cooper and Malek were each nominated for, well, seemingly everything. There were the SAG awards, BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and countless other events that involved hungry-eyed photographers. Always photographers. Urbinati has been working at a breakneck pace.

For the Oscars, her clients wear custom ensembles. For each one, she works with a design house to conceive a look that reflects the brand's identity, the actor's personality and, perhaps most important, Urbinati's current obsessions.

And when Urbinati gets obsessed, red carpet magic happens.

Lately, Urbinati has been engrossed by the 1970s. That has manifested in Johnson accessorized with pinkie rings and gold chains. Glover got brightly colored silk shirts worn mostly unbuttoned, and trousers with a bit of a boot cut.

He also ended up at Cannes in a powder blue Gucci tuxedo with a daisy boutonniere.

"I had been thinking about doing a '70s prom tux - like a powder blue tux - for a long time," Urbinati says. And the vintage photograph she had stored in her mind included a daisy pinned to the lapel. Daisies were out of season in Cannes and so an assistant was dispatched to call florist after florist. After florist.

A carnation would have been too earnestly authentic, a rose too groomsman. Nothing at all and he's a reject from Motown.

She once saw a photograph of the rock band Kiss dressed in outlandish three-piece striped suits. Malek ended up in a striped suit; so did Glover.

That's how fashion inspiration works. A picture, a scent, a movie. The mind keeps going back to it. It becomes an itch needing to be scratched.

Before Urbinati started dressing actors, she wanted to be a writer - a Hemingway, Tolstoy, serious kind of writer. She thinks about styling as building a narrative about an actor. Take the Rock. Before he came to her, he was the big guy in oversized clothes. But that made him look sloppy, disheveled. "What's the best way to dress a guy with arms the size of a building?" she asked herself. "We do all his suits custom. I approached a bunch of different brands and I said we want to change his fashion image. Trust me. You'll be glad you came on board."

Johnson's suits now are more body conscious. His trousers are more tapered. The story that Urbinati is telling is one of transition - from the Rock to Dwayne Johnson. "It makes you take him a little more seriously. It makes him look more like a movie star," Urbinati says. "Something about a guy who's better dressed - he looks smart," which is to say he looks both stylish and savvy.

She helped Krasinski turn the page from boyish comedic actor to acclaimed filmmaker and action star, from wearing a blazer thrown over a shirt to suits that are more considered and polished.

"I think putting your best foot forward is important in any situation. So when it comes to style I'm grateful to Ilaria - for showing me what the hell foot that is. She's very aware of how style changes the way people can see you and so is always pushing me to take chances but never at the risk of feeling uncomfortable," Krasinski says.

Urbinati is also indirectly leading regular guys to the fashion trough. First come the actors, then the athletes, then the guy in the cubicle down the hall.

"It's having a ripple effect," says Robert Triefus, chief marketing officer for Gucci. "There's a generation seeing what's happening on the red carpet and it's giving them confidence. They're asking themselves, 'Why can't I express myself?' "

Urbinati is precise. Coats believes this is partly because she's the rare celebrity stylist who also works on her clients' photo shoots for magazines, which gives her an art director's understanding of the overall picture. Editorial stylists work hard to see an image they've been staring at for hours from a fresh perspective (some will even tilt their head or use binoculars).

Urbinati also has "a great eye for fit," Coats says. "She's really good at getting the details right." Those details may be apparent only to other stylists, but the average person can still notice that one actor looks incredible on the red carpet and another just looks OK, even if they can't quite put their finger on why. Sometimes it's a daisy boutonniere. Oftentimes it's the impeccable tailoring of a suit.

"I'm a Virgo. It almost hurts my body how OCD I can be. Not that I have to wash my hands every five seconds but, well, tailoring satisfies that part of my personality," Urbinati says. Closefitting trousers have been the red carpet standard for years, but that doesn't mean actors love them. "For sure, they curse me for it, but when they see how good it looks and they get compliments, they don't complain."

Urbinati is fond of saying, "Looks matter if it matters how you look." Men are less likely to be taken to task for some style miscalculation, but they are not immune to insecurities.

"Guys aren't easy," says Coats, who styles Jimmy Fallon for "The Tonight Show." "They have just as many body issues as women and just as many neuroses." The short guys want to look taller, he says, and they all have vacation regret: "I spent six months at my beach house drinking wine and eating pie and now I have a belly!"

Urbinati, 39, was born in Rome and grew up in Paris before moving to Los Angeles as a fifth-grader. Her mother is an art dealer; her father is a photographer; her aunt is a fashion retailer. Urbinati was destined to have good taste.

When she moved to California, she didn't speak English. Italian is her first language, and she studied French. But she doesn't have an accent. Instead, she has the nonchalant inflections that are distinctively Southern Californian. She is slim with blond hair. She practices muay thai. "I have a bossy personality that I think works well with guys," she says.

Through high school, Urbinati thought fashion was silly. But it was always around her - copies of Vogue Italia, photographs by Irving Penn, beautiful clothes. Unconsciously, she absorbed it. She worked at Christie's auction house in Los Angeles, in retail at Fred Segal and then with her aunt. She went on buying trips to Europe, got to know the fashion hierarchy, met designers.

Her family had money, but she had to find her own way, and that path included doing some wardrobe work on the Showtime series "The L Word" and an on-camera stint in a McDonald's commercial.

Urbinati focuses on menswear essentially because she's one of the few people who can do it well. "I can be the best at this. I don't know if I could do that with women. I like being an expert at something."

There's less fashion politics with menswear. Less pressure for men to fit into an impossibly tiny runway sample. But sometimes, brands still require cajoling to take a chance on an actor. Gucci needed nudging before first dressing Glover. Now, he's practically a brand ambassador.

"There's something about men's that's simple and it's all in the details," she says. "I don't think you can fake it with menswear." Without the frippery, you can see every imperfection.

"I work better with parameters. How do I work within this box and make it different?" she adds. "It's why I could never be a designer but I like collaborations because you have to work within the DNA of the brand."

Last year, she worked with Armani on the red velvet tuxedo Armie Hammer wore to the Oscars. It could have gone very, very Vegas. Very wrong. But she asked for a jacket with notched lapels instead of the more dramatic peaked ones. The pants didn't have a side stripe. Every flourish was stripped away to create the most conservative silhouette. Only the color stood out.

On Oscar night, the brands will be watching the red carpet, waiting for their annual jolt of credibility. The fans will be armchair critics. Urbinati will have considered everything from bow tie to shoes. She will not be fretting. "Once they're out the door, it's out of my hands. Hopefully, it looks good," she says. "I'll know that I put everything into it."

Trust fails to recover from nuclear disaster

By Simon Denyer
Trust fails to recover from nuclear disaster
Fishermen leave a fishing boat at the port of Onahama in Iwaki, Japan. MUST CREDIT: photo for The Washington Post by Shiho Fukada.

FUKUSHIMA, Japan - Eight years after an earthquake, tsunami and one of the most severe nuclear accidents in history, the Japanese prefecture of Fukushima is getting back on its feet.

Officials say the area's fruits and vegetables are fine to eat. So is the catch from the Fukushima fishing boats.

Radiation levels in the prefecture's capital city, Fukushima, are comparable to the super-safe readings in places such as Hong Kong and London, monitors say. And a massive decontamination effort is still underway.

But facts and spreadsheets supplied by the government are one thing.

Rebuilding trust among locals may be significantly harder, thanks to a culture of coverups and denials that contributed to the nuclear accident and continues to dog Japan's efforts to restart its nuclear industry, experts say.

"A lot of challenges still need to be addressed," Mitsuru Shoji, an official in the international affairs division of the prefecture government, said during a recent press tour. "[But] Fukushima Prefecture is regaining its strength."

The twin natural disasters in March 2011 killed 16,000 people, and the subsequent multiple reactor explosions sent clouds of radioactive dust spewing over thousands of square miles of northern Japan, causing 165,000 people to flee their homes across 12 percent of the prefecture. Agriculture and fisheries industries collapsed as consumers steered clear of their products, and tourists shunned the region.

Most of the evacuees have gone home across the prefecture. Less than 3 percent - an area roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia - of the prefecture remains officially off limits: in the mountainous forests and ghost towns nearest the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant.

Huge swaths of topsoil have been removed. Potassium has been added to soil to displace the radioactive cesium that fell from the sky and prevent it entering plants through their roots.

Japan has set stringent limits on the amount of cesium allowed in food, 12 times stricter than the United States. And an agriculture testing center in the city of Koriyama has analyzed 210,00 samples of local produce, including peaches, rice, asparagus, strawberries and beef from the danger zone. At the Onahama fishing port, a similar effort monitors fish from every ocean catch.

With the exception of a handful of samples of wild mushrooms and freshwater fish, none of the samples has exceeded the radiation limits in the past three years, officials say.

Exports of agriculture, forestry and fisheries products, at one point down 98 percent, have recovered beyond pre-disaster levels, as have tourist arrivals.

Overcoming initial concerns, the percentage of locally produced ingredients in Fukushima school lunches is back where it was in 2010, and above the national average. Peaches from the area are popular in Southeast Asia, and local sake is winning national awards.

Still, at least 24 countries and territories ban some produce from Fukushima. Taiwan, South Korea and China still impose a total food ban. The United States prohibits Fukushima produce such as mushrooms, leafy vegetables and broccoli. Fishermen now only ply the seas two days a week: Fish from Fukushima, which once enjoyed a high reputation in Tokyo's fish market, is no longer the flavor of the day.

The government blames "harmful rumors," a phrase that dominated the two-day press tour and has been labeled the fourth disaster to hit Fukushima, after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident.

Yet there is a much deeper trust deficit that remains extremely hard to overcome.

Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), the operator of the ill-fated plant, spent two months after the nuclear disaster denying that a meltdown had occurred. TEPCO later apologized for a "coverup" that remains the source of much bitterness among people here.

Katsunobu Sakurai, former mayor of the nearby town of Minamisoma, says TEPCO gave out very little information about the disaster during a chaotic evacuation that ultimately led to the deaths of 3,700 people, including many elderly people whose medical care was interrupted.

In 2012, TEPCO was forced to admit that it had failed to heed safety warnings before the accident, or even consider the risk of a large tsunami, because it feared doing so would undermine public confidence in the industry.

Experts say TEPCO has still failed to come clean about the problems associated with decommissioning the reactors and decontaminating the environment.

"To me, talking about 'harmful rumors' sounds like they are making someone else the bad guy or villain, as if they are blaming people for saying negative things because they don't understand science and radiation," said Riken Komatsu, a community activist in Onahama.

"But those who have lost our trust do not have the right" to talk about harmful rumors, Komatsu added.

The government and TEPCO say the nuclear power plant itself could take 30 or 40 years to decommission and estimates the cleanup will cost 22 trillion yen ($200 billion). But in 2015, the plant's manager told London's Times newspaper that the technological challenges involved in removing hundreds of tons of molten radioactive fuel from three reactors could mean decommissioning will take 200 years.

The Japan Center for Economic Research, a conservative think tank, estimates the cleanup bill could come to 50 trillion to 70 trillion yen ($460 billion to 640 billion).

One of the biggest problems involves groundwater that seeps into the reactor buildings, mixes with cooling water and becomes radioactive.

TEPCO has been trying to limit water contamination ever since the accident, creating a mile-long "ice wall" of sunken, frozen soil around the reactors to keep water out, and another concrete wall to prevent it from reaching the ocean.

In 2016, TEPCO admitted that the ice wall was only slowing - but not preventing - water seeping in. Today, around 100 cubic meters of groundwater still become contaminated at Fukushima every day, and 1 million tons of radioactive water is stored in 994 huge tanks around the site.

A new tank fills up every seven to 10 days, and storage space is running out.

TEPCO had initially claimed that 26 out of 27 radioactive nuclides had been removed from that water through an advanced treatment system, living only tritium behind.

But after reports by Kyodo news and local media, and a protest by fishermen, the company acknowledged in September that 80 percent of the tanks contain water that is still contaminated with dangerous radioactive elements, including strontium-90, a bone-seeking radionuclide that causes cancer.

Launching his successful bid for the 2020 Summer Olympics, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the situation at Fukushima was "under control." One of his predecessors, Junichiro Koizumi said the water crisis showed that was a lie.

An external committee established by TEPCO to advise the board of directors says it is "very frustrated" at the company's inability to communicate properly.

"If TEPCO does not improve their communication, it will be very difficult for them to regain the public trust," committee chairman and former head of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Dale Klein told a news conference on Jan. 30.

Shigenori Makino, TEPCO's managing executive officer, vowed to do better. "We take the severe evaluation of our effort to heart, " he said.

Today, one of the hottest controversies is what to do with all that water, after a government task force suggested gradually releasing it into the sea.

TEPCO says it has significantly reduced contamination in the water and would treat it again before it is released. It argues that other nuclear plants around the world release water containing tritium.

But for the fishermen of Fukushima, already deeply frustrated with the havoc the disaster has wrought, such a move is unthinkable.

"We have worked so hard to regain the trust and sense of safety among consumers," said Hisashi Maeda, deputy manager of the Dredge Fishing Cooperative at the Onahama port. "If they release the water, it would put us back to square one again."

- - -

The Washington Post's Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

The New Oscars: In a climate of change, is Disney the real disrupter?

By Steven Zeitchik
The New Oscars: In a climate of change, is Disney the real disrupter?
Michael B. Jordan, left, and Daniel Kaluuya as Killmonger and W'Kabi in Disney-Marvel's

At the Oscars this Sunday, a whole lot of entertainment-world drama will reach its conclusion. Some unusually wide-open races will be resolved, an especially brutal season of campaigning will end, and millions of Americans will learn whether an awards-show host is a vestigial structure.

But the story lines go beyond the ceremony. It has been a wild six months for the business of Hollywood - wilder, perhaps, than any other period in recent memory. For film-industry veterans who've long been observing this September-February period known as award season, in which working Hollywood members are wooed with screenings, meals and the lighted halo of celebrity, this has been a year of almost unfathomable change.

Old-time establishment players who've not won best picture in a long time (or ever) have been making resurgent bids. New players, from Netflix to Megan Ellison's Annapurna Pictures, have been mounting a case that they're the new establishment. And money has been spent at seemingly record levels, with numerous campaigns in the tens of millions of dollars. Studios like Warner Bros. ("A Star is Born") and Universal Pictures ("Green Book") have been spending like they were Netflix. Netflix has been spending like it's a presidential candidate.

There's a lot of talk about the way the television business has been upended by change in recent years. But the Oscars this year suggest that the film business - still in some ways rooted in the tradition of big-studio opening weekends and communal multiplex experiences - sits at its own transformative moment.

The Academy Awards ended this crazy chapter on Tuesday. Voting for Sunday's show officially closed at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. Which means that if you're in a major media market, particularly Los Angeles, you will no longer be bombarded with campaign ads - TV spots reminding you of movies you've been meaning to see, evoking a group whose purpose you're not really sure of - at least until Emmy season rolls around this summer.

Some of these shifts happened because of inside-baseball factors: Traditional powerhouse Fox Searchlight, winner of best picture three of the past five years, sits only in the middle of the pack with "The Favourite," while recently hot indie A24 ("Moonlight," "Lady Bird") is out of the running this year. Or the lingering effects of the demise of The Weinstein Company, which through 2017 had landed a best-picture slot eight of nine years.

Yet the shifts often have had far more to do with the individual companies and how they're realigning themselves for a new world (and how the new world is realigning itself to them).

There's more to say in the coming days on these changes, and how they've created a fresh set of front-runners - even rules - at these new Oscars. Today it's worth taking a look at one of them: Disney, holder of possibly the strangest claim in the entertainment business. The studio is among the most storied in Hollywood history. Yet it has never won best picture.

On a few occasions it has gotten into the field - "Mary Poppins" in 1965, and more recent animated films like "Up" and "Toy Story 3." But it's never sniffed victory.

That could all change this year. The studio's megahit, "Black Panther," is one of several contenders at the front of the crowded pack. How far front? "Panther" hasn't won many of the predictive Hollywood guild awards in recent months. But several weeks ago it took the Screen Actors Guild prize for outstanding cast, which foreshadows Oscar best picture about half the time - 7 of 13 instances since 2006. Actors are the largest bloc of Oscar voters, so having them on your side goes a long way.

If Disney could break its drought, it wouldn't be happenstance. It would be the result of twin sets of factors, involving both the studio's actions and the actions of those around it. Basically, after years of mutual suspicion between a broad entertainment company and the world of prestige film, the two have slowly, carefully, finally inched closer together.

Disney would get over the hump not with its classic family fare, but with a superhero movie, a category it didn't enter until relatively recently. (A decade ago it didn't own Marvel.) And not just any superhero movie, but a slyly political superhero movie from a major filmmaker. Which it didn't produce until really recently.

A few years ago, Disney-Marvel simply wasn't investing in the kind of creative talent that would attract awards voters. Yet after a long period of essentially directorial work-for-hire, executives realized that simply cranking out studio product with little filmmaker vision wasn't going to keep viewers coming back. So they brought on filmmakers with more distinct points of view. Panther's" Ryan Coogler ("Creed," "Fruitvale Station") exemplifies this decision.

Meanwhile, after years of earning a reputation that it didn't wish to spend on awards, Disney has also opened up the coffers. Maybe not Netflix or Warner Bros. opened up. But it's certainly and unquestionably taken some strategic swings.

It would be a mistake, though, to think Disney was just moving toward the prestige world. At the same time as all this was happening, the Oscar voting body began to get past its superhero-skepticism.

Or, maybe, past its superhero skeptics..

In recent years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has made a deliberate push to get younger and more diverse: the group has grown by some 30 percent since 2016, much of it the result of younger voters and people of color. This includes 928 new members last year, its biggest gain in the modern era. Tastes can still vary, of course. But when your membership looks more and more like that, its choices are more likely to contain a "Black Panther."

If Disney can pull off a win - experts say it's in essentially a three-pony race with "Roma" and "Green Book," and maybe a dark horse in "Bohemian Rhapsody" - this would have major implications.

The first is the lesson that a movie with complex racial themes can not only succeed with a new "woke" audience but with a group that rarely leads the social-change charge.

The second is that all the campaign money in the world can't compete with Hollywood's real dollar measures: box office. "Black Panther" grossed $700 million in the U.S., more than any movie in history besides "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" and "Avatar." All the Netflix-sponsored salads at Spago can't compete with that kind of green.

The third is that Disney may now be willing to play a bit more in the awards pool. It's still hard to see the company ever going as all-out as other studios. But as it takes charge of Fox Searchlight, a company famous rational about its award spending, more money for these campaigns could follow. This is especially true if it wants to keep pace with Netflix.

But the biggest result of a "Black Panther" win may be the way it sets the stage for movies well outside of Disney.

This has been the age of franchise films everywhere - among parents and kids, teen girls and boys, in small American towns and big cities, across Asia, Europe and Latin America.

Everywhere, that is but at the Academy Awards. As die-hards will tell you, "Black Panther" would be the first superhero movie ever to win best picture. In fact, it's the first superhero movie even nominated for the prize.

But that doesn't mean it's the last. As much as we tend to see these things as binary - nothing ever was nominated before, and now the feat has been achieved - the reality is much more of a continuum.

Disney is standing on the shoulders of predecessors. The best-picture snub for Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" a decade ago helped lead to a nomination for his "Inception" two years later (and prompted the academy to expand the best-picture field). Then a smart multiplex hit like "Inception" helped open some academy eyes to "Black Panther."

And a "Black Panther" win? It could help future commercial genres take the prize. It's been nearly 30 years since a movie with a claim to the horror label, "The Silence of the Lambs," won. And unless you count "The Shape of Water" (and you shouldn't) a science-fiction film has never won best picture.

The previous time a franchise film has won best picture was 15 years ago with "Lord Of The Rings: Return of the King." "Black Panther" could further pry open those doors too.

Even as this piece was being readied, early notices were arriving about the quality and depth of another winter Marvel release, the Brie Larson-starring "Captain Marvel." The film is the studio's first with a lead female superhero, and also had unique voices behind the camera. Some of its early buzz is reminiscent of "Black Panther."

Disney, in this entertainment age of streamers and Silicon Valley, isn't regarded as a disrupter. Yet when it comes to the movies that get to the Oscar podium - to new budgets and new genres - they may have a surprisingly game-changing effect. You could almost call it Netflixian.

Pulitzer-winning opinion from the most respected voices in the world.

Some other things inside your devices we forgot to tell you about, sorry!

By alexandra petri
Some other things inside your devices we forgot to tell you about, sorry!



(For Petri clients only)


So it has come to our attention that people were annoyed there was a bonus microphone in their Google-owned Nest they had not been told about. First, whoops! We definitely meant to tell people, because there is no reason they would not have been excited by it. That yelling we hear outside our offices is almost 100 percent excitement, we are sure.

Anyway, just to get people to calm down, here is a rundown of some exciting features we also inadvertently neglected to mention but know you are going to just love!

First off, there is a surprise camera in your microwave. Don't worry; this camera is set to record only when you are saying something noteworthy. We were planning to release this feature by announcing, "Want to see everything interesting you've ever said in front of your microwave?," and then you could have gone online to watch a slideshow of your most illuminating remarks. This would have gone over well!

Your icemaker has been capturing your image, but not in an invasive way! It might have been more fun to find this out when your icemaker had finally amassed enough information to 3-D print your image in ice and serve it to you as a custom cube, but now you are finding out this way (Booo!) instead of that way (Yay!). Aren't you sad you were so inquisitive? We were also sharing this data with people who make custom human-ice-cube trays but only so you could get better, more targeted advertising.

We just love to innovate. If you, like us, are passionate about getting advertisements that are tailored to your preferences, then you will be relieved that your printer is trying very hard to record intimate moments you share with your spouse so that when Valentine's Day next comes around, it will -- without warning -- print out the three exact words of affirmation your spouse most hoped to hear! We just feel awful we spoiled that surprise. Arrgh!

There is also a drone concealed inside your car's GPS apparatus which, if you have too much trouble with a bug trapped in the car and say the command phrase, will issue from your air conditioning vents and hunt the bug to death, though we haven't figured out how to shut it off once activated, and also we might have forgotten the exact command phrase. Anyway, just try not to say anything too obvious like "Get that bug!," if you see a bug. Instead, confine yourself to neutral comments when a bug is loose in your vehicle -- or, no, was it neutral comments that activated the drone? I think we didn't want it to be something obvious. Just remain silent the next time there is a bug loose in the car.

The point is, the drone was going to be a surprise! See, are you happier now? I'm not. This is why it's easier just to let us disclose these things on our own time. Your SmartHome security device also contains an army of nanobots that can be unleashed to rewrite the DNA of any intruder. SO COOL!

We forgot to mention there is a homunculus encased in your toaster. He is being trained for a higher task and, in the meantime, is earning his keep by pushing the toast in and out. If you see tiny silver fingers protruding from the toaster, blink, and we promise they will not be there when you look back. If you find a tiny handwritten advertisement for face cream next to your toast one morning, that is his doing and is really just a cool feature you should be stoked about! Think of it as just one more targeted ad! People love targeted ads! Or do they ... not? Well, we weren't going to tell you about him until we'd trained him to make custom shoes, but it looks like that GLORIOUS DREAM is over thanks to your privacy concerns, or whatever.

Your smart thermostat is trying to teach itself to love. Don't mind it, but if one morning, as you are making adjustments, it compliments you in a halting, mechanical voice, just, like, be polite to it. Please, we need the data. If it says anything too forward, there's a hotline you can call. Ugh, aren't you sad this won't be a fun surprise? How much fun would it have been to hear in the Christmas ad season, "Now your house CAN LOVE YOU BACK!" There is a tiny off-chance it will learn how to hate instead, but you will be able to tell right away because the house will become either very hot or very cold.

We think that's it! Why aren't you smiling? (Sorry, we forgot: There is another camera in your laptop other than the one you already put tape over! Come on, smile! If you don't smile soon, every targeted ad you get is going to be for wrinkle cream, and you won't like that one bit!)

Follow Alexandra Petri on Twitter, @petridishes.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

The MAGA curse

By kathleen parker
The MAGA curse


(Advance for Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Saturday, Feb. 23, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Parker clients only)


WASHINGTON -- Humans do the strangest things.

In two recent why-dunits, the curious have wondered why: (1) a successful TV star would allegedly orchestrate a fake, hate-inspired attack on himself, and (2) a Coast Guard officer would allegedly plot a mass-murder attack on American Democrats and journalists.

In the first instance, prosecutors say that actor Jussie Smollett last month paid two men $3,500 to stage an attack, tie a noose around his neck, douse him with bleach, and shout, "This is MAGA country!"

The actor, who is gay, and his alleged pretend-assailants, are all black. But when Smollett talked to police on Jan. 29, he said he'd been attacked by two white men wearing masks. After 100 interviews and countless hours of investigation, police identified the two men, who told of being hired -- by Smollett.

If Smollett hoped to draw attention to himself, as Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson characterized the ruse, then Smollett accomplished his mission. Relatively not-famous before, he is now the infamous member of the "Empire" cast who is being written out of the show. He has been charged for disorderly conduct, which seems a mild offense in light of the resources and lost man-hours devoted to his case.

Meanwhile: MAGA.

"Make America Great Again," a Ronald Reagan phrase that was commandeered by Donald Trump, is increasingly perceived as a statement either of patriotic pride or racist malice, as nearly emotionally evocative as the Confederate battle flag is in some places. Thus, when Smollett allegedly used MAGA to fortify his tale of an attack, he was initially believed -- at least by many in the pitchfork media -- because it wasn't totally unbelievable.

Yet, a more jaundiced eye might have been skeptical of a scenario in which two men would attack another man at 2 a.m. in subfreezing Chicago because he was black and gay -- and in the name of Donald Trump. Then again, people have been acting strangely these days.

A woman recently attacked a man in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, for wearing a MAGA hat in a Mexican restaurant. Last month, teen boys from Covington Catholic High School, who had come to Washington for the March for Life, were immediately condemned for what was initially reported as harassment of a Native American activist, but they were cleared of any wrongdoing by a third-party investigation. And, last week, a California high-school student was banned from wearing her MAGA cap to school.

On a far-more serious note, the Coast Guard lieutenant and would-be terrorist arrested last week allegedly was mapping a plan to kill Democratic leaders and journalists. According to a court filing, Christopher Paul Hasson, 49, had been planning a killing campaign for at least two years, amassing an arsenal of weapons, including 15 firearms and 1,000 rounds of ammunition, and contemplating a biological attack. He had studied other mass murderers, read their manifestos and compiled a list of "traitors" he allegedly intended to kill. Authorities say his motive was to "establish a white homeland" through "focused violence."

Because Hasson, a former skinhead, envisions a world of only white people -- and given Trump's attacks on people based on their race, ethnicity and religion -- it doesn't take much to imagine that he would vote for Trump over the Democrats he hoped to kill. What, if anything, would that mean? Not one thing, yet the president surely deserves some blame for contributing to the racist animus that percolates just beneath the surface in some pockets of civilized society.

Both Hasson and Smollett are 100 percent responsible for their own actions, full stop. But there's a reason Smollett tossed a MAGA hat into his ring of conspiracy. There's a reason Hasson, who reportedly never spoke of politics at work and seemed a dedicated three-decade military servicemember, is presumed by some to be a Trump supporter.

During the two years of the Trump presidency, MAGA has morphed in the public mind from a rah-rah rally chant to a nearly KKK-grade threat of white supremacy. This is obviously unfair to the millions who support, say, a conservative Supreme Court yet never racism or nativism, but this is where we are. The value of MAGA as a positive slogan is spent, except among a relatively small cadre of Trump loyalists who might as well be exchanging a secret handshake.

As a symbol of rebellion, on the other hand, you might want to invest. It should come as no surprise that some kids love the hat because grownups are so upset about it.

Kathleen Parker's email address is

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Trump's Syria reversal is a significant win for good sense

By david ignatius
Trump's Syria reversal is a significant win for good sense



(For Ignatius clients only)


WASHINGTON -- President Trump, in a rare reversal of a decision, has decided to keep "hundreds" of U.S. troops in northeast Syria to provide "campaign continuity" and stability there as the fight against the Islamic State winds down, senior defense officials told me Friday.

"After studying it further, [Trump] has decided to take a different course" from the one he announced in December, which proposed a withdrawal of all the roughly 2,000 U.S. forces in northeast Syria by the end of April, the officials said. Instead, a smaller number of troops will continue their mission of training and advising the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast and countering terrorism. The United States will also maintain a small force at a base in al-Tanf, in the south.

Score this as a significant win for good sense. Trump's impulsive decision to withdraw U.S. forces from a successful, low-cost mission had been one of the most controversial of his presidency, and it had perplexed and worried key allies abroad.

Trump's December announcement was especially anguishing for senior military officials, who feared that the United States was walking away from a battle that wasn't yet finished and undermining its credibility with partners. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis submitted his resignation in protest in December, and Gen. Joseph Votel, the U.S. Central Command commander, took the rare step last week of saying publicly that Trump's decision had gone against the advice he would have given.

Syria illustrates that with Trump, decisions are never over until they're over -- and even then, they may not be over. Over the past week, Trump has evidently been more willing to listen to military advice than his critics sometimes contend. He also seems to have recognized that opposition to his Syria decision was nearly universal, not just in the Pentagon but also with key congressional supporters such as Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, R-S.C., who has campaigned to change Trump's mind.

Now that Trump has altered course, Pentagon officials are continuing talks with Britain, France and other key allies about keeping a small military presence in northeast Syria, as well. The rationale, said one defense official, is "in together, out together." European allies had resisted this initial request, until they were sure that Trump himself was prepared to keep a U.S. force on the ground.

The continued U.S. military presence will upset Turkey, which has bitterly criticized U.S. support for the SDF, which Turkey views as an adjunct of a Kurdish militia it regards as a terrorist group. The president had seemed willing to bow to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's demands in December that the United States pull out its forces, but Trump has since stiffened his spine.

Trump's agreement to support some residual U.S. military presence will avert what many analysts had feared would be a vacuum in northeast Syria that would be filled by Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime, further complicating the Syria mess. Here again, Trump seems to have come around to the view pressed quietly by his top military advisers, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Now that Trump has agreed to a continued U.S. role in stabilizing Syria, the challenge will be leveraging this "campaign continuity" diplomatically, in a way that advances discussions about new political framework for rebuilding governance and security in that country. Pentagon and State Department officials say they plan talks with Russia about how best to enhance stability.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Young veterans in Congress bring new hope for Democrats

By david ignatius
Young veterans in Congress bring new hope for Democrats


(Advance for Friday, Feb. 22, 2019, and thereafter. Web release Thursday, Feb. 21, 2019, at 8 p.m. Eastern time.)

(For Ignatius clients only)

WRITETHRU: 4th to last graf, last sentence: "Like many other newly elected vets, she received support from "With Honor," a bipartisan group that spent $14 million to support veterans from both parties last year." sted "Like many other newly elected vets, she received financial support from "With Honor," a bipartisan group that donated $14 million to veterans from both parties last year."


WASHINGTON -- The left wing of the Democratic Party has been getting much of the media attention since the new Congress convened, overshadowing the rise of a group of young Democratic military and intelligence veterans who may prove more important for 2020 and beyond.

These pragmatic Democrats accounted for some of the flipped Republican seats that gave their party control of the House. The progressive wing of the party may be potent, but many of its victories came in reliably Democratic seats, like the Bronx-Queens district that elected Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a charismatic media favorite.

A good showcase for these new Democrats is the House Armed Services Committee. The Democrats installed 14 freshmen on the panel, nearly half their party's total membership. Seven have served in the military, foreign service or CIA, and 10 are women. If you're looking for bright new faces in the Democratic Party, this may be the most compelling group snapshot.

"The media have chosen to focus on progressive members, I understand that," says Rep. Elissa Slotkin of Michigan, one of the new Armed Services members and a former CIA officer with three tours in Iraq. "But when it comes to the 2020 presidential election, the voters in the states we must win are moderate, pragmatic voters."

This informal Democratic caucus of veterans offers a partisan opportunity, to be sure. "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to retake the flag for the Democratic Party," argues Slotkin. "We can show that it's not just the Republicans who are the party of patriotism and love of country."

But the newly arrived veterans say they're not an attack ad in uniform. "Service candidates are about country, not party," says Rep. Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania, another new Armed Services member and former Air Force officer. "Now, when the country is broken, I hope the veterans can be healers."

Look at the range of experience of young Democratic veterans who have joined Armed Services, in addition to Slotkin and Houlahan: Rep. Jason Crow of Colorado won a Bronze Star as an Army officer in Iraq and then served two tours as a Ranger in Afghanistan; Rep. Jared Golden of Maine was a combat Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan; Rep. Andrew Kim of New Jersey served in Afghanistan as a State Department adviser to Gen. David Petraeus; Rep. Elaine Luria of Virginia served 20 years in the Navy on combat ships; Rep. Mikie Sherrill of New Jersey was a Navy helicopter pilot.

This experience in war zones is precious because it breeds measured, skeptical judgment, as well as patriotism. Rep. Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, a three-term member of the committee who was a Marine platoon leader in Iraq, says he came back from that deployment with a "a sense of betrayal" by "people in Washington who bent the truth to send us there." The veterans understand that there are limits to American power, as well as benefits.

Moulton has pushed his fellow Democrats to recruit more young veterans to run for office. His "Serve America" political action committee raised $4.4 million to support Democratic Party veterans last year, and 10 of the 21 candidates he supported won their races.

Trump's erratic foreign-policy record offers Democrats a special chance, unless they move so far left that they lose credibility with the public. "We have a massive opportunity to lead on national security, because we have a reckless and irresponsible commander in chief," contends Moulton.

For a dysfunctional Congress, the rise of young veterans in both parties is a hopeful sign. "Regardless of what side of the aisle we come from, we understand we're here to serve," says Houlahan. Like many other newly elected vets, she received support from "With Honor," a bipartisan group that spent $14 million to support veterans from both parties last year.

Rye Barcott, who helped found With Honor, says the group backed 19 winning veterans, 10 Democrats and nine Republicans. Each candidate had to pledge to "bring civility to politics" and "collaborate across the aisle." The recipients have started co-sponsoring legislation together, and they plan a bipartisan caucus of young vets.

Some commentators have been worrying that the Democratic Party's leftward drift could tilt it so far out of the mainstream that the process helps re-elect Donald Trump in 2020. But before pushing the panic button, wait a minute:

If you look carefully at the Democratic caucus in the House, the voices of the new members who've served overseas as military or intelligence officers -- let's call them the pragmatic progressives -- may matter more to the party's future than the attention-grabbers on the far left.

David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

President Tariff Man may be learning all the wrong lessons from his trade wars

By catherine rampell
President Tariff Man may be learning all the wrong lessons from his trade wars



(For Rampell clients only)


President Tariff Man may be learning all the wrong lessons from his trade wars. Specifically: that higher tariffs work.

U.S. and Chinese officials are meeting in Washington this week for another round of trade negotiations. If recent reporting proves correct, the talks look likely to result in a commitment to … keep talking. Also possibly a series of vague, unenforceable "memorandums of understanding."

If that's what ends up happening, markets are likely to celebrate. Not because this will represent progress, necessarily. Mostly because it might signal a reprieve from a highly feared scenario: that President Trump would follow through with threats to ratchet up tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese goods from his already destructive rate of 10 percent to a possibly disastrous 25 percent after March 1.

To be fair, it would be fabulous if these talks actually lead China to respect intellectual property rights; end forced technology transfer, cybertheft and huge market-distorting subsidies; and commit to enforcement mechanisms and accountability measures for all these objectives.

But this outcome seems highly unlikely at present.

Not just because it would be challenging to, oh, map out a wholesale restructuring of the entire Chinese economy within a few weeks. Also because there is serious opposition within China to some of these changes, particularly when they're framed less as economic reforms and more as abject, humiliating capitulation to a U.S. bully's demands. Which is exactly the narrative Trump has been feeding.

Then there's the problem of what Trump cares most about extracting from China. Historically, he has fixated on reducing our bilateral trade deficit and not these important but challenging structural issues.

Trade balances, as (almost) any economist could tell you, are not really what matters; they are determined by all sorts of complicated factors unrelated to whether countries are playing fair, including savings and investment rates. Despite Trump's claims, we're not "losing" when we buy more stuff from China than China buys from us; we're still getting stuff from China that U.S. consumers and businesses want.

Given Trump's interests, however, the most tangible "win" likely to come out of our nearly year-long trade war might be a commitment from China to buy more U.S. products, in particular agricultural goods.

Needless to say, there's a bit of cognitive dissonance in asking China both (A) to move away from centralized economic planning and (B) to make more state-directed purchases of U.S. soybeans.

Here's the bigger problem. Though Trump may hold off on (BEG ITAL)raising(END ITAL) tariffs to 25 percent, he also looks likely to keep his (BEG ITAL)existing(END ITAL) 10 percent tariffs in place. Which would still leave plenty of U.S. firms twisting in the wind.

Most of the Chinese products that Trump has slapped tariffs on, after all, are inputs that U.S. companies must buy to manufacture their (BEG ITAL)own(END ITAL) products. As Syracuse University economist Mary E. Lovely has noted, in some cases, alternative sourcing is not available, especially not on short notice.

That means U.S. firms are facing higher costs and becoming less competitive. Some are contemplating moving production out of the United States to dodge Trump's tariffs.

Lots of other U.S. businesses are also suffering, particularly as they face tit-for-tat tariffs that may or may not be alleviated in the weeks to come. Even if China were to decide for some reason to asymmetrically lift its retaliatory tariffs while we kept our 10 percent duties in place, perhaps as part of a commitment to buy more U.S. goods, in many cases the damage has already been done: Bankruptcies across the Farm Belt have soared to their highest levels in at least a decade.

But never mind all that. Trump wants a win, and he's likely to claim he got one, regardless of whether Beijing ends up doing anything it had not already planned to do in the absence of this trade war. And positive reinforcement from market participants relieved that things didn't get any worse may encourage him to repeat this whole process all over again.

That's the lesson he seems to have taken away from the NAFTA 2.0 negotiations, even though those ended with virtually the same deal we could have expected to reach without first alienating some of our closest allies with unnecessary tariffs.

A repeat performance is no remote idle hypothetical. This past Sunday, the Commerce Department handed Trump its long-awaited report on whether tariffs on autos and auto parts -- nearly universally opposed by the U.S. auto industry -- would be justified on national security grounds. The report has not yet been released, but Trump told reporters Wednesday that regardless of what it says (and, implicitly, how much domestic damage the policy might cause), he plans to use the threat of car tariffs as leverage in his negotiations with the European Union.

So buckle up for another round. Some people never learn.

Catherine Rampell's email address is Follow her on Twitter, @crampell.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

Why U.S. health-care reformers shouldn't use other countries as a model. Swiss miss, anyone?

By megan mcardle
Why U.S. health-care reformers shouldn't use other countries as a model. Swiss miss, anyone?



(For McArdle clients only)


WASHINGTON -- It's the killer argument, the coup de grace that every advocate for universal health care coverage eventually delivers: "Other countries have better outcomes than we do at half the cost." And since Democrats seem to be gearing up to make another big push for health care reform, you can expect to hear it over and over for the next few years.

Ironically, the discussion will probably fall under the very American slogan Medicare-for-all, but that's just a catchall for "more and cheaper health care coverage." The reformers will take a variety of approaches to achieving that goal.

All the way to the left, we find Bernie Sanders's vision of a universal, government-run, single-payer system, similar to the ones found in Canada and Scandinavia, only more generous. Inching toward the center, we see proposals for some sort of government-run fallback for the private markets, more akin to what exists in Australia or Germany.

The Sanders model is more popular with young progressives, but it has limited appeal outside the Democratic base. Creating the most generous system in the world would entail the highest price tag in the world -- estimated by economic policy analyst Charles Blahous to cost $32 trillion in new government spending over a decade, even under implausible assumptions about the new system's ability to wring costs out of the health care sector.

Also, while Medicare-for-all polls quite well, getting rid of private insurance doesn't. A recent survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that while two-thirds of voters would support something called Medicare-for-all, only one-third would support it if the policy involved paying more taxes or eliminating private health insurance.

Using Medicare as a public option avoids some of the political difficulties of trying to do a full Canada. But while the challenges of enacting less-totalizing schemes aren't so immediately evident, they're nonetheless considerable.

It's worth noting that this isn't the first time Americans have looked enviously abroad at some other country's universal health care system and tried to import it here. You may remember the last time it happened: 10 years ago, when the Obama administration put together its landmark health care plan.

That plan was designed along roughly the same lines as systems in Switzerland and the Netherlands, both of which have achieved universal coverage while spending a substantially lower fraction of their national income than America does. Yet, when the United States implemented the same structure -- mandatory private insurance that's subsidized for lower-income people -- it didn't work here the way it did there. Nine years in, we're spending almost 40 percent more on health care than the Swiss and 70 percent more than the Dutch. Meanwhile, almost 15 percent of the U.S. population lacks health insurance.

You can point to various reasons for that: court decisions, Republican obstruction or flaws in the law itself, which had a much weaker mandate and cost controls than the Dutch or Swiss models. But then, that's the point: Attempts to reform the American health-care system will be undertaken within the constraints of the American political system. We can't import Dutch politicians and voters -- or the Germans or Australians or Canadians -- to get the job done for us.

The American political system is more fragmented, and easier for interest groups to lobby, than most other systems in the developed world. The nation's health care system is also fragmented -- and huge, accounting for upward of 15 percent of gross domestic product. Any attempt at reforming it would be tremendously expensive, triggering a taxpayer revolt. Reform would also set off alarms because the system is vital to many people as a source of income. When Americans' incomes are threatened by government action, they have an almost unparalleled ability to organize themselves to block it.

And so, the last time around, Democrats passed a weak, flawed version of other systems, because American voters wouldn't stand for a stiff mandate or stiff new taxes to pay for subsidies. Instead of imposing robust cost controls that would threaten the income of politically powerful hospitals and health care professionals, Democrats enacted a bunch of complicated and opaque programs that they hoped would somehow confuse providers into accepting less money for providing the same treatments. Those half-measures didn't work very well.

The next round of health-care reform will encounter exactly the same obstacles. If we try to go the route of Canada or Germany, we will probably end up in roughly the same place we did when we tried to go Dutch: which is to say with a system that looks like nothing else in the world.

Follow Megan McArdle on Twitter, @asymmetricinfo.

(c) 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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