Sunday, February 18, 2018

Movie Reviews: Black Panther

Black Panther
directed by Ryan Coogler
I didn't know if this film would be good or not before deciding to see it. I was interested in seeing it in part because black heroes in mainstream movies are rare. It's also rare for a studio to take a financial risk on a big budget movie with a predominantly black cast. The writer, musicologist, musician, civil rights activist, and photographer Julius Lester recently passed away. Lester moved around the political and religious spectrum quite a bit in his life, from Christian integrationist to black nationalist to Judaism convert and later vociferous Zionist. That's neither here nor there. As a child I remember reading a story in one of Lester's collection of Black folk tales. I can't remember the exact story name, but at the end of the story a newly freed Black man (can't remember if he bought his freedom, physically defeated his previous slave owner or heard about the end of the Civil War) decided to leave the plantation and walk down the road to seek his fortune as a free man. His previous master, mistress and their children watched in seething impotent rage. Unable to hinder his progress they started yelling to the black man to remember that no matter what, he was still a n*****. I mention all of that because that's what a lot of the initial conservative response to this movie's concept felt like. Many conservatives racists were offended by the very idea of Black excellence or Black people being happy. That's some really sick s***. The movie could be good or bad but being upset that black people are excited to see heroes and heroines who look like them shows just how invested some people are not just in hating black people but demanding that black people hate themselves. Twisted.

Fortunately I can say that the movie was good. Not great but very good indeed. It also had a very strong Lord of Rings/Hobbit vibe not just because of the inclusion of two key actors from that franchise and similar framing of battles but because like those movies Black Panther engages the question of whether using the enemy's methods to defeat the enemy is possible or for that matter, morally desirable. Can you take up Sauron's ring?

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Movie Reviews: The Hitman's Bodyguard

The Hitman's Bodyguard
directed by Patrick Hughes
This movie is a generic action flick of the buddy film variety. Two bada$$es with utterly different professional and personal styles (and occasionally moralities) are against their will thrown together to battle against the world. One's country; the other one's a little bit rock-n-roll. One never loses his temper; the other one has no constraints on his id. One is quiet and exacting; the other one is a hyperactive extroverted motormouth. One's a slob; the other spends all of his money on exquisitely tailored British and Italian suits, when he's not getting a pedicure, that is. One is weak in an area where the other is strong and vice versa. One's an experienced ladies man or successful husband; the other is too scared to approach the woman of his dreams. One's... well you get the idea. There are far too many movies to mention which use these themes:Tango and Cash, Rush Hour, Bad Boys, 48 hrs, Midnight Run, yada, yada, yada. 

The not so dynamic duo may squabble with each other throughout the film. They will almost certainly fight each other. Usually the fight is a draw or is interrupted somehow. But when the chips are down the two men discover that they aren't so different after all and team up to take down the Big Bad who made the unfortunate mistake of trying to harm one or both of the men and/or their love interests. 

Black Children Threatened at Michigan School

Parents complain that authorities aren't doing enough to find the sender of a racist, threatening email to six black students at the Washtenaw International Middle Academy in Ypsilanti that included the words "Go Trump."

The recent message also has the n-word and ends with seven skulls and crossbones.

Students interviewed tell Andrea Isom of WXYZ that they're scared.
"They did inform us that the email did come from the school, around 3:30 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 29. The student whose name is in the email, has been back into the school community,” says parent Ronald Ellerson, who feels authorities aren't responding properly. The Washtenaw County Sheriff’s Department tells the station it takes this matter seriously. Spokesperson Derrick Jackson issues this statement: 


I want to ensure all involved that we take incidents such as this very seriously and that deputies have been working to identify who the sender of this email was. Several students have been questioned as part of the investigation and deputies will continue to gather the facts. Once the investigation has concluded we will then forward our report to the prosecutor.


One would hope that the recent events in Parkland, Florida would serve as a horrible reminder of the cost of silence and inaction. One would hope that school administrators and legal authorities would be doing their best to determine who sent the threatening email. It's important to know if this email, as seems likely, was actually created by someone inside of the school. This is of course the same school which recently saw a bomb threat made. Students should not be going to a school where they have good reason to feel unsafe.


Worms as Food Source

It is interesting to me what different cultures consider okay to eat and what they might consider disgusting to consume. Sometimes the foods we consider good or bad are thought to be so because of completely arbitrary reasons. Maybe a long time ago a certain food was more closely associated with THOSE people and therefore the "good decent" people (snicker) decided that those "nasty" foods were forbidden. Or because people developed in different areas they grew to consider the foods they had around them to be fine and good while looking askance at foods found in other lands. Religious texts often have rules about which animals may be consumed and which ones can't. I can only imagine the horror felt by a devout South Asian Hindu watching a conquering South Asian Muslim walk up to a cow and slaughter it for food. 

Of course cultures change internally as well. The lobster has a slight resemblance to a cockroach and allegedly some of the same bad habits. It wasn't until the late 19th thru the mid 20th century in North America that lobster was considered a delicacy enjoyed on special occasions or only consumed by the rich. Before then people thought lobster was nasty food fit only for poor people, enslaved people or prisoners. In certain nations in Africa and Asia insects are considered okay to consume. China is notorious for having a national palate that includes almost everything. 

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Detroit Grocery Sells Expired Food

I don't want it sold to children! That's an infamia. In my city, we would keep the traffic in the dark people, the coloreds. They're animals anyway, so let them lose their souls.-The Godfather
Until very recently there haven't been many large chain groceries located within Detroit. The majority of Detroit liquor stores aka "party stores", food wholesalers, and small to mid size grocery stores happen to be owned by people of Middle Eastern descent. Some of these businessmen and businesswomen have a reputation for a certain disdain for their predominantly black and often impoverished clientele. 

This distaste can be expressed in any number of ways. I don't live in Detroit any more so there's no reason for me to shop at such stores. Even when I did live in Detroit I rarely shopped at those stores as I was taught never to spend money with people who have nothing but contempt for you. Unfortunately some consumers in Detroit evidently feel that they have no choice but to spend money on inferior goods and services. More's the pity.

Disgraceful. The Kit Kat Grocery store on Harper near Van Dyke on Detroit's east side, which has a history of health code violations, sells packaged food with expiration dates as far back as 2015, Hank Winchester of WDIV discovers. Winchester of "Help Me Hank," a consumer advocate feature on WDIV, finds Sister Schubert rolls that expired in April 2015, Jimmy Dean sausage with a use-by date of September 2016 and bologna that expired on Aug. 29, 2017. The hamburger meat had freezer burns. A box of Betty Crocker potatoes was sealed with Scotch tape and had a best if used by date of November 2017. 

Movie Reviews: The Foreigner, Devil's Gate

The Foreigner
directed by Martin Campbell
Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn't have f***** with? … That's me.

There are several older man takes revenge flicks, some good, some not so good. Years ago Liam Neeson reinvigorated the genre with Taken. In that movie we saw Neeson's secret agent with a very particular set of skills open up a can of whup-a$$ on people foolish enough to kidnap and threaten his daughter. Denzel Washington riffed on this theme in Man on Fire and The Equalizer. Michael Caine did the same in Harry Brown. Gran Torino (quoted abovesaw Clint Eastwood deconstruct this trope. Mel Gibson explored this genre with Blood Father and Edge of Darkness. You could even argue that no matter what role he's playing Bruce Willis is never too far from this trope. 

There is an ongoing cinematic desire for patriarchal protection and revenge, regardless of real life society moving away from that. People often like to think that they are worthy of such protection or alternately that they are capable of providing protection or revenge for those they love. The Foreigner is a worthy entry into this crowded field. It's not the best. It's not the worst. It is different for at least two reasons.

The first is that The Foreigner is a dramatic turn by actor and martial artist Jackie Chan. Chan is not making any jokes in this drama. Chan has no reason to laugh. The second reason that this movie is different is that it partially steps away from the cardboard cutout bad guys who usually provide the cannon fodder for the vengeful father as he fights his way up the ladder to the Big Bad. It's not just a mindless action film, not that there's anything wrong with a mindless action film, thank you very much.  It's just that this is not that. If you would otherwise avoid action films you might want to give this one a look see. It skillfully uses tension and release to maintain viewer interest in the story. Brosnan and Chan played well off of each other.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Retail Racism in West Des Moines Old Navy

Well meaning people often try to comfort themselves by thinking that racism is something that is only found in a few backwater states or among low class low iq people or a problem that can be dodged by wealth, correct diction and classy style of dress or something which will be reduced if not eliminated by the vigorous application of free market principles. Unfortunately none of those statements are true. Racism is worldwide. There's no place in the U.S. which is certifiably racism free. Something as innocuous as attempting to purchase goods or services can be dangerous to your emotional and physical well being. Maybe it's waiting for a restaurant table longer than everyone else or being refused entry into a nightclub. Maybe it's being followed around a store because the employees automatically assume you're a thief. Maybe it's a clerk who wants two pieces of ID when you pay with a check or credit card when you just saw her decline to demand the same of the white customer in front of you. Maybe the landlord who agreed over the phone to rent to you has just rented the unit when he sees you in person. 

Whatever it may be, spending money with people who dislike or distrust you isn't a good idea. Often their animus can be far greater than their desire for your money. And many people who think this way won't shy away from letting black people know how they feel in word and deed. A recent example of this caught my eye.


Movie Reviews: Acts of Violence

Acts of Violence
directed by Brett Donowho
I try to handle it without violence being involved but sometimes that's the only way these problems are solved -2 Black 2 Strong MMG
Acts of Violence is a low budget mashup of any number of classic thriller and action movies, including but not limited to Death Wish, The Searchers, The Sons of Katie Elder, Four Brothers, and almost every seventies or eighties Golan-Globus production. The film lacks glossy production values, though as it's set in Cleveland, that's probably on purpose to try to increase the verisimilitude.

Acts of Violence has a strong made-for-tv/direct to video feel. Certain themes repeat themselves throughout human stories and history. Men of a different tribe kidnap a woman, presumably for nefarious purposes. The husband, relatives and other friends of the kidnapped woman decide that they aren't going to take that kind of thing lying down and rustle up a posse/army to go rescue the kidnapped maiden or failing that, deliver some righteous vengeance. This stuff is at least as old as The Iliad, which describes the war between the Greeks and Trojans caused by the Trojan prince's kidnap, or was it seduction, of a Greek Queen. And likely 3000 years from now there will still be humans telling stories that use this trope.
In The Iliad, the Greeks' greatest warrior Achilles, sulks in his tent and refuses to fight because the Greek high king Agamemnon, forced to return a female hostage/slave, took Achilles' female captive for his own. Without Achilles the Greeks come close to losing the war. It's only when Achilles' best friend (?)/cousin (?)/lover(?) Patroclus is killed that Achilles is inspired to return to the battlefield and do what he does best.

Ursula K. Le Guin

Ursula K. Le Guin recently passed away. She was among other things, a sci-fi/fantasy author who combined what would today be considered social commentary with a unique and inventive imagination and style. Although I enjoy the European based pseudo-medieval/Dark Ages/Roman era/Renaissance settings that provided fertile fuel for works created by such authors as Tolkien, Vance, Anderson, Martin, Howard and many others, Le Guin always went her own way. And fiction was much the better for that. 

For me her most enjoyable and influential works were the Earthsea series. These were unusual in fiction at the time of their creation and remain so even today because most of the protagonists were what would today be called people of color. These books have dragons, wizards, quests, the entire Hero's Journey, all in a world that is universes apart from the then popular Tolkien or Howard knockoffs. Le Guin also challenged ideas about sexuality, identity, gender, economics and society in such works as The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Lathe of Heaven. But what was really different about Le Guin's works was the concept that the "good guy" would not and should not "win" by greater application of effective violence. The struggles Le Guin described were just as much internal ones to find balance as they were external ones to win victory. 

Violence might occur but it was almost never the answer. It's more important to live in harmony than it is to defeat some great external "evil".  That Le Guin was a Taoist almost certainly impacted many of the themes she explored in her works. To a kid like myself who was mainlining on Tolkien and Lovecraft and Brooks and the like, Le Guin was a fascinating change of pace.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

States Rebel Against Republican Tax Law

The Republicans changed tax law so that starting in 2018 there will be a upper limit of $10,000 for state and local tax deductions to federal taxes (SALT). If you happen to be impoverished, low income or live in a relatively low tax state the impact of this change on you will probably be small or non-existent. If you however live in one of the relatively high tax coastal states and/or happen to be somewhat well off then the impact will be a bit greater. And it may not be a very nice change. Unless the states make other changes, placing a limit on federal deductions for local taxes means that all else equal some people will pay more in federal taxes. Or to put it another way, the federal government will no longer help shield you in toto from your state's tax policy. States will then have less money available for local initiatives.

This delights many Republicans for at least four reasons. (1)They really do believe in low taxes for the wealthy and low services (at least for the poor and middle class). (2) They deeply resent their perception of federal underwriting of higher tax bases in Democratic leaning states. (3) They enjoy watching people who claim to support higher taxes on the wealthy in general turn around to fight effective higher taxes on their wealthy. (4) Most of the states impacted are "blue" states, not "red" ones. Here it's very important to point out that the cost of living/housing can vary widely from state to state. Someone in say SE Michigan with a household income of $180K and a home valued at $500K may be better off even before taxes than someone in New York City with a household income of $250K and a home valued at $700K. Generally the South and Midwest are lower cost regions than the Northeast and West coast.