Saturday, January 24, 2015

Movie Reviews: American Sniper

American Sniper
directed by Clint Eastwood
The late Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL from Texas. He was the deadliest sniper in American military history with 160 confirmed sniper kills. Kyle received a host of medals including Silver Stars, Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars. Kyle served four tours in Iraq. American Sniper is the story of Kyle's life based on his autobiography of the same title. This film featured such an extremely smooth fit between acting and direction that an incautious viewer could almost believe it was a documentary. The cinematography and sound were top notch. I think that a person can enjoy an artistic creation regardless of his or her thoughts about the creator's political leanings or of those who are depicted in the work. More on that later. American Sniper has a very simple narrative structure. Eastwood shows us the hero's early days before his destiny was revealed. The hero is challenged by forces both internal and external. He has to explain to himself and others why he feels what he does about the world and why he has the beliefs that he does. Ultimately the hero becomes the "great man" who is hailed by his peers before his betrayal and death. American Sniper opens with Kyle about to make a decision of great moral import in the middle of a street battle in wartime Iraq. But before we see what choice he makes Eastwood takes us back to Kyle's youth in Texas. Kyle's father was a disciplinarian who didn't care for bullies. As he explained to his two sons the world was divided up into wolves (who hurt, rob and murder people), sheep (passive people who were the prey for the wolves and had little if any power to resist them) and sheepdogs (active people who had the physical strength to protect the sheep from the wolves and the moral courage not to become wolves themselves). The elder Kyle explained that he wasn't raising any sheep in his family and he would be damned if his sons became wolves. This simplistic if effective moral message became the adult Chris Kyle's (Bradley Cooper) moral true north. He believes that it is his obligation to protect others just as he protected his younger brother from a schoolyard bully. His mantra is God, country and family. So when Kyle saw the Al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies and later on 9-11 he took it very personally. After the embassy attacks he joined the Navy, leaving behind his previous profession of rodeo rider. He also left behind an implied lifestyle of easy women, meeting his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and impressing her with a combination of chivalry, good old boy charm, politeness, rectitude and confidence.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Abigail Simon and Jailbait: Why you take the plea

Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-that's jailbait
-Andre Williams
It's all very well to stand on your innocence and refuse to take a plea deal if you know for a fact that you didn't do the crime and/or are convinced that you can win at trial. Every year we hear of people who have steadfastly maintained their innocence for decades being finally released from prison because of unknown or prosecutor hidden evidence that exonerated them beyond all reasonable doubt. But on the other hand sometimes you're better off taking the plea deal whether you're innocent or not. I think that sometimes prosecutors and judges want to make that point to people who make them go through all the trouble of having a trial. Abigail Simon, a 35 year old tutor for students at Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently found that out the hard way when she was convicted of criminal sexual conduct with a 15 year old male high school student. Simon received a prison sentence of 8-25 years. She had previously turned down a plea deal that would have required her to spend just five months in jail. So sometimes you roll the dice and come up snake eyes. The whole point of statutory rape laws is that society holds that there is an age of consent. If someone is below that age of consent you can't have sex with them. Period. End of story. This is especially the case if you are a teacher or adult in a position of authority over the child. Other than saying they've got the wrong (wo)man there really isn't much of a response to this charge. If you willingly have sex with someone underage, the news gets out and the local prosecutor is sufficiently competent and interested in the case, off to jail you will go. 

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

2015 SOTU

President Obama delivered the State of the Union Address last night. The speech was both reflective, often highlighting certain Americans and their achievements, and forward looking and called on leaders in Washington to stop talking past each other on cable TV shows.

If you caught it, what were your take aways?

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Detroit Arrest: Police Brutality or Street Justice?

I am not overly fond of police. Usually when they are talking to you something has gone wrong with your day. But I must admit that they are necessary for society. Although I can honestly say they've never directly helped me much, we are all made safer when alleged or actual criminals are removed from the street. That's a police department's primary job responsibility: to apprehend such people. A local police task force apprehended and arrested a carjacker and felon named Andrew Jackson. The police may or may not have used excessive force in arresting the man. This story is attracting attention locally. I briefly read about it in the Detroit papers. But I didn't really start paying attention until driving home a few days ago when I listened to a rather heated discussion on the Mitch Albom radio show. Albom and his co-host Ken Brown (who is black) were mostly supporting the police, pointing out that the alleged criminal was armed and wasn't completely restrained during most of the use of force. Brown, who is a comedian with a penchant for hyperbole, exclaimed that he "wasn't marching for no criminal!". Numerous people called in to state that Albom and especially Brown were missing the point. The story discussion also lit up my Facebook feed and email accounts. Various friends and relatives, few of whom would ever be caught dead donating to policeman charity funds, took different sides on this issue. We don't and can't expect perfection from police. However, if you let things slide eventually you may wind up with infamous jails or prisons like LA County or Riker's Island where police and prison guards have felt free to abuse, beat, rape and even kill inmates, some of whom haven't even been found guilty yet. It's not the police officer's job to punish someone accused of a crime. Attacking someone after they are restrained is cowardly and evil. No good. 

But the accused apparently did have a gun on him before he was taken into custody. And police are most definitely trained and allowed to use appropriate force to protect themselves and complete the arrest. Force during the arrest can be ok; force after the arrest generally isn't. Unlike other cases we've discussed this situation apparently does not involve mistaken identity. A police officer did not decide to bully, harass or insult someone just because s/he can. Some people found karmic justice in watching a grown man who was a big bad wolf while allegedly terrorizing an unarmed grandmother, turn into a little sheep crying for Jesus when the police catch him. But everyone, even vicious criminals, deserves legal protection. Otherwise all we have is might makes right. Below the fold watch what happened during part of the arrest and read the thoughts of Mr. Jackson's (alleged) victim.

Oil Prices and You: Winners and Losers

Although I happen to know a few people working in the financial industry who are peeved about the fall in oil and gasoline prices, I am delighted about the drop. My weekly commuting costs have been cut in half. That's more money to pay down debts, build savings, increase emergency funds, invest, assist relatives or perform any number of other Shady approved initiatives which are of much higher utility to me than spending $15-25 on gasoline every day from Sunday through Thursday. The drop in gas prices has a similar impact to a tax cut or pay raise. For people who drive 200 miles/week or more it's a virtual godsend. I am amused that the conspiracy theorists who come out to blame the Trilateral commission, the oil companies or THEM when oil and gasoline prices are high are nowhere to be found when prices are low. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. These low prices hurt producers. There are some very real winners and losers. I don't much care about the losers but it is worth thinking about because low prices may have bad results down the road. The reason that prices are low is the interaction of supply and demand. Higher oil prices gave US and other producers greater incentive to seek oil through fracking and new drilling, thus increasing supply worldwide. Domestic oil production doubled over the past six to seven years. The US is currently producing about 9.1 million barrels of crude each dayThere is a ban on US oil exports but the greater supply still indirectly reduced the global prices. It did this via the mechanism of US production crowding out foreign imports which had to seek new markets. The fact that much of the world is still mired in a slowdown or very weak expansion also caused demand to drop. 

HBO Game of Thrones: Season Five New Characters

Season Five of HBO's Game of Thrones starts again this year on Sunday April 12, at 9 PM.  I am not looking forward to this premiere as much I did for earlier seasons. I didn't think that the likely source material for this season, primarily books four and five of George Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, was gripping reading like the first three books. However I am an unabashed Stark bannerman. That bias can occasionally warp my enjoyment of the story. Books four and five introduced a boatload of new characters and shifted emphasis to events in new Westeros locations or different continents altogether. This was a an issue for me because I want bloody revenge for the Starks. I really just want to see the remaining Starks grow up, reunite and destroy their enemies but to quote Ramsay Bolton, "If you think this has a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention". George RR Martin has consistently said that his story's conclusion will be bittersweet. I don't think that revenge, justice or the Starks are the most important elements of his tale. We shall see. It is 2015. The book series has at least two more entries yet to be published while the HBO series will probably complete in 2017 or 2018 based on prior statements by the showrunners. So there's an excellent chance that the story's conclusion will be shown on HBO before it is revealed in a book. So it goes. Theoretically show viewers could visit book reader blogs and drop spoilers all over the place, just for fun. Season Four already depicted non-book events. Some of these were presumably Benioff/Weiss initiated story changes while others could have been Martin created storylines which he has not yet published but has shared with the showrunners. It's important to remember that the showrunners know Martin's ultimate ending while we don't.  Supposedly inexplicable narrative twists may make perfect sense if we knew the greater story. We do know that the British-Nigerian actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, pictured above, will be playing a character named Malko. Malko was not in the books. He may or may not be a replacement for or amalgamation of other book characters.

Season Five and future seasons will have more surprises both for people who have read all of the books and people who only watch the show. Season Five will feature many people from Dorne, which we talked about here and here previously. Dorne is not as patriarchal/patrilineal as the rest of Westeros. In the books it's also slightly more diverse. We'll see if that last element makes it to screen. Sarella Sand, the Red Viper's black daughter, has not been cast AFAIK. Another Dornish character, Arianne Martell, has either not yet been cast or has been dropped. Both absences could have butterfly effects for the remaining story. Anyhow, please watch below for introduction of some new actors. And as usual please don't discuss spoilers if you know them.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Romney Part III

Remember Mitt Romney?  Of course you do.  He just ran for president in 2012 and lost to President Obama in the general election...and he also ran for president in 2008 and lost in the primaries to John McCain.  Apparently he now wants to run for president for a third time in 2016:

WASHINGTON — In private meetings and phone conversations, Mitt Romney has begun to answer the biggest question looming over his potential entry into the 2016 presidential contest.
Romney’s stunning change of heart, after two years of strenuously denying he had any interest in seeking the Republican nomination again, appears to have evolved in just the last few weeks. And, just as quickly, he has been developing a rationale for a third bid, say supporters he spoke with recently.
Economic stewardship would still lie at the core of a Romney campaign, as it did in 2012, but he also would seek to turn some past weaknesses into strengths. The candidate — once lampooned for his wealth and caught on video dismissing the 47 percent of voters on government assistance — has been telling supporters he would run on an antipoverty platform. And while a trip abroad proved to be a low point of his 2012  campaign, he is making the case that he is uniquely qualified on foreign affairs.
Underlying it all is the notion that, in the mind of Romney and his top advisers, the country made a mistake in not electing Romney in 2012. They want to give the country another shot at sending him to the White House.
But not everyone in the Republican Party is convinced that this is such a good idea:

In interviews this week with nearly a dozen committee members — the people who comprise the most active and powerful core of the party apparatus — nearly all expressed deep skepticism about a third Romney White House bid. The sentiment was unambigious: The GOP needs to find a new candidate to carry the party past its painful 2012 loss and back to the White House.
“He had a great opportunity last time and I personally want a fresh face,” said Roger Villere, the Louisiana Republican Party chairman. “What’s going to be different this time?”
“I have not detected a groundswell of support for him,” added Rob Gleason, the Pennsylvania GOP chairman.
But let's look at presidential history.  In modern politics, we've seen candidates often take 2 bites at the apple, but not 3.  Going all the way back to George Washington, there have been very few candidates who have run for President 3 times.  Of those few candidates who ran 3 times, over 90% of them actually won the Presidency during either their first or second runs before they ran for a third time.  By contrast, Romney is running for President for a third time without ever having won on either of his first 2 attempts.  History does not favor such a move.

What are your thoughts on Romney running for a third time?
On the 2016 race in general?  


Saturday, January 10, 2015

Movie Reviews: Everyday Sunshine, Leaves of Grass

Everyday Sunshine
directed by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler
I wrote a previous post on Fishbone's music here. Everyday Sunshine is not only the title of one of Fishbone's most accessible songs but is the title for the generally sad but mostly informative 2011 band documentary. This documentary followed the band for about three to four years. At the time this documentary was made the band only had two original members remaining (frontman, saxophonist and poet Angelo Moore and bassist Norwood Fisher). Before watching this documentary in its entirety (I had previously seen bits and pieces) I knew that Fishbone had never really attained massive financial success or even decent returns. However I was surprised to learn just how far they had fallen. At one point Moore was living with his mother while Fisher only had a small modest apartment. No palatial estates, vintage auto collections or harem of supermodels for these two men. Sometimes people tell us to do what we love and good things will follow. Perhaps, but those good things don't necessarily include money. We follow the band as they play to shockingly small and visibly bored audiences in Eastern Europe, carry their own instruments and other gear through airports,and arrive at music stores for CD signings only to discover that the band outnumbers the people who are interested in having a CD signed.

Laurence Fishburne provides narration. He used to moonlight as a bouncer in some of the clubs where Fishbone honed its craft. Most of the original band members were from South Central LA with the exception of Moore who met the other members when they were bused to his local suburban Valley high school. Moore is described as having no hood sense at all. He narrowly avoided a few beatdowns when he went to South Central to visit and practice with his new friends. The early story was told via humorous Fat Albert style animation. The cartoons captured Moore's near constant charming and somewhat manic smile and Fisher's laid back confidence. Fisher used to ask fellow students if they wanted to be in his fan club.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Obama's Tuition-free Community College

Washington Post
Today, President Obama will propose making the first two years of community college free for eligible students.  Under his plan, students who maintain a 2.5 GPA and are at least half-time status, would be eligible for free tuition.

According to Cecilia Muñoz, one of the goals is "to make two years of college the norm - the way high school is the norm." 

States would also have some level of responsibility.  In President Obama's plan, community colleges would be expected to offer high-quality programs, with credits transferable to four-year colleges.  Participating states would share the cost and commit to various steps to improve the educational system.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Je Suis Charlie: Paris Attack on Charlie Hebdo Offices

I think that one of the keystones of modern civilization is the ability to say, believe or write things which others find offensive without being killed for your expression of thoughts. I don't think that anyone who believes in freedom of speech can hold otherwise. And even people who aren't necessarily the biggest fans of free speech still usually aren't big fans of murder. So all right minded people deplored the Paris acts of murder directed against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. At least two armed French-Algerian men, presumably angered by satirical and scatological cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad, stormed the magazine offices, killing twelve people and wounding eleven others. At this time the men are still at large. They are believed to be the brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi. 
On Wednesday, eight journalists - including the magazine's editor - died along with a caretaker and a visitor when masked men armed with assault rifles stormed the Charlie Hebdo offices during an editorial meeting. Eleven people were also wounded, some seriously. Two policemen were also killed.
Witnesses say the gunmen shouted "we have avenged the Prophet Muhammad" and "we killed Charlie Hebdo", as well as "God is Great" in Arabic. The attackers fled to northern Paris before abandoning their car and hijacking a Renault Clio, police say. The magazine's office was firebombed in 2011. It had angered some Muslims by printing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad as part of its irreverent take on news and current affairs.
These murders and attempted murders were immediately condemned by the overwhelming majority of Muslim leaders, religious and otherwise, in France and beyond. Nevertheless, the murders of French cartoonists for blasphemy feeds into the idea of a clash of civilizations, much beloved by extremists in all of the Abrahamic faiths. In this Manichean understanding, certain religions are simply incompatible. We must eliminate or suppress them. We can not possibly live with them. They are evil. Obviously "we" and "them" and "they" depends on who is speaking or writing. Strangely enough the people rushing to condemn all Muslims for the depraved acts of a few don't think that others should condemn all whites or all cops or all Christians for similar acts in the past  or the present. A Muslim acting badly reflects on all Muslims but a Christian acting badly is one individual. Right. Doesn't that seem a little, well, wrong?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"Empire" (Premieres Tonight at 9pm on FOX) - Did "Empire" Copy the Marketing Strategy of "Power?"

The highly anticipated drama about a musical family staring Terrance Howard and Taraji P. Henson, premieres this evening at 9pm on FOX. Before we talk about the show and what we can expect lets discuss the press leading up to tonight's premiere. 

The whitewash that was once prime-time television seems to be slowly dying. Granted it's not dying as fast as I would like, I feel much better with the amount of African-Americans that I can see on television today versus a few years ago. We still have a lot of work to do. With that being said I want people to understand that the lane for African-Americans on television in leading roles is a pretty wide and open lane. We can all drive in this lane and we can all make some money in this lane. No need to be greedy or territorial :)

Think about television in the 90's, we had Martin, The Wayan's Brothers, Seinfield, Friends, The Fresh Prince of BelAir and The Cosby Show, just to name a few. You didn't see Bill Cosby beefing with Quincy Jones about producing a show with highly successful black professionals as lead characters. We didn't see Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David beefing with the cast of "Friends" for having a show that focused on friends living in New York. See my point. 

So why oh why is there tension between 50 Cent (Executive Producer of "Power") and Taraji P. Henson (star of "Empire)?

Here is the back story.....

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

NYC Subway "Manspreading" Double Standards

Big Sister Is Watching You
I am often glad that I live in a region where public transportation is all but considered an environmentalist plot to deprive every true blue red blooded American of his right to drive a vehicle of his choosing anywhere he wants to all by himself if he so desires. Okay that is obviously an exaggeration but not by all that much. People like their cars and trucks around here. What public transportation exists in southeast Michigan is modest and often doesn't go beyond municipal boundaries. Although downtown population densities are slightly increasing, suburban sprawl remains king. Even people who live and work within the same city usually drive to work instead of taking the bus. There isn't really any train or subway system. Outside of married people working at the same firm, carpooling isn't all that common. Single driver usage rules. This means of course that each driver is king or queen of their own vehicle and all that resides within it. They can listen to music as loudly as they wish, recline their seat as far back as they want, use the passenger's seat as a combination office desk/restaurant table and sit in their seat however they damn well please. This last consideration is under some attack in New York City. Apparently there are some women people who have decided that how some other men people sit on the subway is not only rude, gross and downright nasty but that it's also sexist, unchivalrous, in need of public shaming and likely eventual ticketing by police. Yes I am talking about that apparent scourge of New York City public transportation, men sitting with their legs wider apart than some women care to experience. The horror!!! The horror!!!  

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Things Not To Say To Black People

Sometimes when people complain about 'political correctness" they are really complaining about not being able to openly insult certain people any more without worrying about the insulted person's feelings let alone losing their job. These are the people who get personally offended that at work they can't openly call a black person a n****** when they've already given most people the impression they use the slur pretty routinely with friends and family. So I don't pay a whole lot of attention to some complaints around political correctness. But there are other folks who haven't grown up around different people. As adults they do not routinely work with different people or have any of them within their circle of intimates (neighbors, spouses, in-laws, lovers, close friends, etc). And since they're in the majority they don't really need to know what a minority may consider offensive. So though some people may not mean harm by their statement or question, insult can still be taken. We all have difficulty seeing through other people's perceptions. It's not always easy to determine if someone is saying something from honest well meaning, if clueless curiosity, or instead is expressing racist malice. Often times black people try to discern the difference and decide if the situation is worth verbally chin-checking someone. I generally feel that it is worth the hassle to set someone straight. My experiences have been that when you give some people an inch they take a mile. I have usually regretted it when I've let stuff slide. However there is no right answer to this because we are all different with dissimilar tolerances for what we consider offensive, racist, or just off-color (pun intended). 

Settling conflicts with a co-worker is different from getting into it with your boss or other ranking leaders. Keeping your job or a viable career path could mean keeping your mouth shut. There are some common comments or actions which many black people have heard or experienced. Most of these things are generally considered offensive to a lesser or greater extent. I ran across this video while looking for something else and thought it humorous enough to share. I have experienced some of these comments (and more) at workplaces. Stereotypes stink.

Movie Reviews: Let's Kill Ward's Wife

Let's Kill Ward's Wife
directed by Scott Foley
This is a black comedy which is most definitely not for everyone. If you can find murder humorous, if you can think of a few people you wouldn't mind removing from the planet, if you have ever gotten away with something and kept it moving, you might find the premise of this movie to be tolerable. If on the other hand none of those things apply then this film isn't for you. I wasn't that bothered by the film's premise : an unpleasant, aggressive, bullying, harridan causes her husband's friends to consider removing her from the planet. A Fish Called Wanda treated murder comically and did so with great verve. But Let's Kill Ward's Wife is not A Fish Called Wanda in either writing or execution. Although the title is if anything flame bait for people who are worried by "misogynist" or "anti-feminist" overtones, the film attempts to inoculate itself against this charge by having various women be in on what turns into a murder conspiracy. I'm not sure this would have made a difference. It might have been more of a twist if the men had carried out the murder and tried to hide it from their wives or girlfriends at first. Dunno.  
Anyway. My major problem with Let's Kill Ward's Wife was that the film never gives the viewer any reason why Ward (Donald Faison from Scrubs) would have married this woman in the first place, let alone put up with her or have had a child with her. His wife is not only verbally abusive, insulting, and nasty to Ward in private she's also that way in public. She will rip Ward a new one in front of company. She has no problem doing that. 

Friday, January 2, 2015

Movie Reviews: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies
directed by Peter Jackson
I really wasn't planning to see this but the regular season of college football is over. I had a few hours to kill during my all too brief holiday break. And I can be a completist. So I figured what the heck. In the previous two reviews I already pointed out my modest displeasure with Jackson's alteration of source material supposedly to make the story more female friendly, the inclusion of greater violence, and the general more and more approach to padding out a simple children's book into 3 sprawling LOTR prequels.  Well been there, done that. Jackson and his co-creators have a certain style and preference. I don't think any of them are changing those things at this point in their lives. Either you can deal with it or you can't. I probably should have waited for DVD for this release as my brother has promised he will do. There is the greater question of how far can you stretch an adaptation before the original meaning of the story or the characters has been lost. As we've discussed before this is always a tricky issue. The films Exodus, Noah and The Passion of the Christ take key protagonists who are critical to Christianity and Judaism and portray them as European when these characters were not European. One reason for this is almost certainly financial but another is likely the fact that most of the people producing, financing and directing such films are of European descent and see no issue with writing themselves into the center of the story. I mention all of that to point out that I think that such changes to religious depictions are much more damaging to people than Jackson and crew changing Tolkien's fantasy work to include more women warriors, doomed cross-species romances and aggressively Scottish dwarves. As an interesting aside, in real life Tolkien mused that his dwarves might be considered similar to Jews (slightly different creation story, different language, and lost homeland). Anyway. It bears repeating that this film is less of an adaptation of The Hobbit and more of an "inspired by The Hobbit". I had to keep reminding myself of that while I was watching the movie. In the big picture, Jackson's alterations, whether they work or not, whether I like them or not, don't change the book.

The movie is also AFAIK the last Tolkien piece that Jackson will be able to interpret for the big screen as the Tolkien estate has steadfastly refused to license any more of Tolkien's novels to anyone, most especially Peter Jackson.