Saturday, April 29, 2017

Movie Reviews: Sleepless

Sleepless
directed by Baran Bo Odar
This is a crime thriller movie which despite a talented and energetic cast suffers from some languid direction and a couple lazy stereotypes. Movies with black leads are few and far between but nevertheless I'm glad I skipped this in the theaters. It wasn't a horrible film but it turned out to be nothing that I hadn't seen done better before. Regarding stereotypes how many times do we need to see the aggressive female cop with a chip on her shoulder who's eager to prove she's just as tough as the boys? How many times do we need to see an angry black woman with an attitude who thinks that she knows everything? How many times do we need to see aggressively alpha male pugnacious hillbillies going out of their way to show how insane they are? At least once more according to this film I guess. The film's hero was far from invulnerable but that didn't make me see him as relatable. I've mentioned it before in other reviews but my experience growing up all those years ago was that black parents were generally less tolerant than other parents of anything involving disrespect from their children. In my circles if a kid even looked like he was thinking about talking back that kid would have a serious problem on his hands. And from the black parents I know today it seems to me that cultural expectations of deference towards parents haven't changed all that much. In Sleepless the kid yells at and almost curses out his Dad with no repercussions. Yeah. Well maybe. But not in my neck of the woods. 

There were better ways to show the family issues. If the film had had a black writer perhaps it might have found them. Sleepless moves quickly, primarily because there's not all that much to to the story or plot. Visually it's ok. A lot of it takes place in darkness. It has the blue filter that many of these films like to use. 

Trump Tax Plan Is Giveaway To Fat Cats

President Trump recently revealed a summary of his preferred tax plan. It is something that is as many people said, unserious. Of course that description depends on your perspective. The plan was something that many Republicans would support. Among other things the tax plan would radically cut taxes on businesses and the well off, eliminate some funding for ObamaCare, end federal deductions for state and local taxes, and eliminate the estate tax. If you earn a lot of money or have a lot of wealth then there's a lot for you to like in this plan. Some representatives from states with high tax burdens don't like this plan because they don't want their constituents to lose the ability to deduct their local taxes. People who earn in the high six, or better yet, seven or eight figures, would make out pretty well if this plan were to be adopted as is. People opposed to the plan have spent and will spend a great deal of time going over the tax cut plan summary (and perhaps details once those are released),and pointing all the various ways in which the average taxpayer will get hosed, to use a verb that is safe for work. 

Detractors will say that this proves that all the people who voted for Trump are dummies. They will alternate between mocking the stupidity of the Trump voter and wondering how long it will take before that moron sees the light, if ever. They will enjoy this. And so on.
That's all good as far as it goes. As Jonathan Haidt has pointed out people on the progressive side of the spectrum tend to value the moral concerns centered around "care" and " fairness" very highly, even occasionally to the exclusion of all else.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Michigan Doctors Charged with FGM

Every culture and religion has slight to extreme different ideas about right and wrong. In most cases these differences of opinion are minor. People avoid discussing them. Or if the subject can't be dismissed people often take a live and let live attitude. In other instances though these different concepts simply can't exist in the same polity. One side must win. One side must lose. An example of this sort of dispute is the ugly practice of Female Genital Mutilation, which may involve a number of different cuttings to young girls' genitalia, whether it be snipping of the labia, cutting or total removal of the clitoris or narrowing/tying of the vaginal opening. It differs from culture to culture. But in Western culture, specifically American culture, this practice is looked upon with horror and outlawed. But as greater numbers of people arrive in America from areas where this custom is normal there will be more conflicts between those who are convinced they are living up to their religious and cultural requirements by having their young girls cut and those who seek to stamp out something they see as a horrific infringement on a girl's body. Two Southeast Michigan doctors were arrested for performing a banned procedure on two seven year old girls from Minnesota. The doctors, at least one of whom is an American citizen, are apparently both South Asian descent Shiite Muslims from a sect known as Dawoodi Bohra. If the case goes to trial it will be the first ever federal trial for FGM in the United States.


(CNN)A 7-year-old girl who underwent a painful genital mutilation procedure told federal investigators that after a doctor completed the process, she was rewarded with a piece of cake for "doing good."
Court documents obtained by CNN contain that account, along with other details in the cases of three medical professionals now facing charges in the first federal female genital mutilation case in the United States. The father of the girl -- one of two 7-year-olds who underwent the procedure on the same day -- told investigators, "that if they knew what would come of it, this would never have happened," according to the documents.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Everyone Has The Right to Free Speech!!

I've written on this before but it's an issue which is worth revisiting. The University of California at Berkeley, which is a public university, has earned a reputation as ground zero for battles over free speech in the past and the present. College students and others at UC Berkeley and elsewhere have used the threat of violent reactions or actual violent reactions to prevent or shut down speeches by conservatives such as David Horowitz, Heather MacDonald, Milo and others. The latest skirmish in this battle involves conservative writer and provocateur Ann Coulter, who had planned to speak at Berkeley on April 27. Berkeley required a number of conditions for this speech to proceed, all of which Coulter claimed she followed. Nonetheless UC Berkeley said that it could not guarantee Coulter's safety nor that of its students or other people. So UC Berkeley cancelled the planned April 27th speech. After some negative reaction UC Berkeley backtracked and stated that an early May date at a different venue might be possible. That also happens to be when many students would most likely be in finals or off campus, so the possible audience for Coulter's speech would be much smaller. At the time of this writing Coulter is stating that she will give a speech on April 27 as originally planned. Period.This sets up a possible showdown between Coulter and supporters and campus or city police. This is probably exactly what Coulter wants.

As part of this generalized controversy over conservative "hateful" speakers being prevented from speaking at public universities, former Vermont governor and DNC chairman Howard Dean tweeted that "hate speech" was not protected by the First Amendment. Some writers and intellectuals that I otherwise appreciate and respect actually agreed with him. 


Movie Reviews: The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation
directed by Nate Parker
I try to handle it without violence being involved/But sometimes that's the only way these problems are solved
Well run Red run because he's got your gun/And he's aiming it at your head
I am finding it hard to accept the apparent rebuff at the box office of “The Birth of a Nation,” particularly after seeing the film last weekend. It is an exceptional piece of artistry and a vital portrait of our American experience in trying to live up to ideals we say we have. No one should miss it — no one who respects our country and its long struggle to define itself. I am sorry about the conflict with Nate Parker’s past, but let’s try for some honesty here. If you want to make a list of the directors and actors who have rather public indiscretions, and who have in some cases been acquitted of them, start counting. What troubles me is this: Are we being particular here with this extraordinary film because it’s about the racist curse we are struggling to erase from our country and its director is black? The curse is there. Go look at it. Do we have the courage to do that? It’s a fine work.-Hal Holbrook

The Birth of a Nation (BOAN) was probably not an Oscar winning film considering all the competition it was up against. It has a tour de force incarnation by first time director Nate Parker as Nat Turner, leader of the most successful slave revolt in American history, but everyone else virtually fades into the background insofar as memorable performances go. BOAN should have done more to depict just how frightened whites were of the spectre of black revolt. White slaveholders throughout America were worried about the recent successful Haitian revolution. Slaveholders knew what they were doing was wrong. Some of the more perceptive, including one Thomas Jefferson, knew that there would be a reckoning some day. But addicted both to free labor and the venomous ideology of white supremacy which justified black enslavement, whites found it impossible to free slaves and outlaw slavery, even if they wanted to, which most of them assuredly did not. Every fact or argument was used to justify slavery, no matter how contradictory. Was a black person stupid or cowardly? Well that just showed that slavery was his or her natural state of affairs. Was a black person brave or intelligent? Well then by God you had better break their body and spirit to show to everyone else that no n***** would ever be equal to a white person. BOAN probably needed a more detailed white villain to show the utter desperation in which enslaved Africans found themselves. 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Bill O'Reilly Fired From Fox News

Apparently because of a combination of spousal pressure, bad publicity, and advertising losses Fox News owners Rupert Murdoch and his sons Lachlan and James decided to let go of long time employee and number one cable news host Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly had a long history of sexual harassment settlements. The New York Times recently ran a story detailing that the settlement amounts and number of settlements were higher than was publicly known. Bill O'Reilly took a previously scheduled vacation. Unfortunately for him this was right around the time of the Times story and new allegations of sexual approaches by former Fox news personalities or other associates. Faced with the loss of advertising revenue from departing companies, all of this O'Reilly mess was apparently too much for Murdoch and sons, who told Bill O'Reilly not to come back from his vacation. As Smokey might say, you have to be a stupid muyerfuyer to get fired on your day off. 

O'Reilly is a stupid muyerfuyer in many ways. He's also a very racist one. What's ironic about advertisers and O'Reilly's employer parting ways with him now over sexual harassment allegations is that O'Reilly has a very long history of making covertly and overtly racist comments. This is not just a question of people being too sensitive to someone born in a world that's for good or bad now gone. It's much more than that.


Saturday, April 15, 2017

Mr. Trump Goes To Washington

You may recall that the issues that won Donald Trump the Republican nomination and ultimately the Presidency were things that more or less had simplicity and economic nationalism in common. Trump wove a story of feckless elite American leadership that was either compromised by, intimidated by or in bed with foreign interests.Trump was going to change all this by putting America first. Now people who bothered to look at Trump's business history and that of his family knew that this was at best unlikely. But what the Democrats and their candidate didn't understand was that there was a hunger for the narrative that Trump was selling, that America needed to put its own economic and military interests first and stop dancing to the tune called by transnational corporations and Beltway elites. There is obviously a very strong racist and anti-Semitic undertone to some of this once you dig into it. But as I've written elsewhere in and of itself nationalism is not always a bad thing. Many of Trump's most fervent supporters were drawn to his oft simplistic, yet generally nationalist stances on trade, immigration, jobs, foreign policy and infrastructure. Well the Presidency has a way of changing people. There were plenty of indications of this even before the latest news but over the past ten days or so the President has gone out of his way to reverse himself on many of his statements made prior to becoming President.  

Book Reviews: The Phantom Tollbooth

The Phantom Tollbooth
by Norton Juster
The Phantom Tollbooth was one of my favorite children's books. A few months back I reread it to see if the story held up to a more jaundiced eye. It did. I believe that this is one of the rare books that can be equally enjoyed by both children and adults. Adults and precocious children alike will appreciate the unending wordplay, puns and explorations of paradox. Adults might also take to heart the book's underlying message that time is precious and that what you do on this planet matters. The Phantom Tollbooth can also be understood as a quirky Alice in Wonderland story and enjoyed purely on that level. The book made just as much of an impression for the illustrations, provided by famed cartoonist Jules Feiffer, as it did for the story. This is a relatively short story that doesn't waste a lot of time on character development. This makes sense because the protagonist literally doesn't have time for long discussions with one or two people. He's thrown immediately into adventure. 

People are annoyed that he doesn't get up to speed as quickly as they would like. This is an ongoing source of humor throughout the book. It is interesting that this author was able to get so much out of the "You could do it all along" trope which is found in Dumbo, The Wizard of Oz, and many other stories. Again, I would bet that this book has more puns contained within than any other book with the exception of stories written by Terry Pratchett. Milo is a preteen child who is, despite his tender age, bored and cynical about the world. He can't stand school and views afternoons as nearly impossible to get through. Although he's not suicidal or anything he is a little depressed. Life seems pretty meaningless. And there's too much of it left. 


My Office Hours Are From Nine To Five

In the movie The Five Heartbeats there is a classic scene in which the singer Bird, disturbed by some irregularities with his royalty payment amount and frequency, confronts the cheerful record label owner (and gangster) Big Red at a party. Big Red calmly explains to Bird that Big Red prefers to handle business during his office hours, which are nine to five, and not during his time off. Bird expresses his displeasure at this stance. Big Red then convinces Bird to see things his way. I recently remembered this movie scene when I was in line at the local post office. It was just before closing time. At closing time a post office employee will lock the entry door. At that point if you aren't already in line you won't be allowed into the post office service lobby. Roughly two minutes after the workers had locked the entry door a man who may or may not have been mentally challenged came into the post office through the exit door and started ranting and raving about how he needed to pick up a package. 

The workers said that the office was now closed. This man yelled that if he didn't get the package today then he would lose his job. The senior post office worker responded that the man's problems had nothing to do with them; the man needed to close the door and leave. The man left. But he was wandering around the parking lot gesticulating and screaming. Then an older woman who was apparently either the man's caretaker, mother or grandmother came in. She also started yelling and making snide comments about how "you people" should help the man because he was about to lose his job. The senior post office worker again said that the office was closed and that the woman needed to leave! Things were starting to get heated.


Monday, April 10, 2017

Santa Monica PTA and Equality

I thought that this story coming out of Santa Monica was interesting because it obliquely and not so obliquely touches on a lot of the fault lines of modern life-race, class, gender, citizenship status. It also reminded me, as many social programs are likely to do, of Kurt Vonnegut's dystopic satire Harrison Bergeron, in which equality is not only the law of the land but is affirmatively guaranteed and vigorously enforced by action of the government. In this story equality of outcome, not equal opportunity, is what is mandated. So no one is allowed to have more or less of anything than anyone else. Smarter people have electrodes placed in their brain to disrupt their thinking. Attractive people must wear prosthetics to make themselves less good looking. Strong people must have weights attached so that they can't take "unfair" advantage of their strength. And the Handicapper-in-General is licensed to arrest or execute anyone who tries to use their natural talents.

Broadly speaking, Vonnegut was a man of the left. But the Harrison Bergeron story, which today reads as if it were written by a right wing libertarian, remains a prophetic piece of sci-fi. So this story out of California was intriguing.

SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Of all the inequalities between rich and poor public schools, one of the more glaring divides is PTA fund-raising, which in schools with well-heeled parents can generate hundreds of thousands of dollars a year or more. Several years ago, the Santa Monica-Malibu school board came up with a solution: Pool most donations from across the district and distribute them equally to all the schools. 

This has paid big benefits to the needier schools in this wealthy district, like the Edison Language Academy in Santa Monica, where half the children qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. The campus is decorated with psychedelic paintings of civil rights icons such as Cesar Chavez and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the work of the school’s art teacher, Martha Ramirez Oropeza, whose salary is paid by the pooled contributions. That money has also funded the school’s choral program, teacher aides, a science lab and a telescope. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Book Reviews: Say Nothing

Say Nothing
by Brad Parks
It is fascinating that by browsing in a bookstore you can find books that you never would have found online. That's the biggest reason why I still patronize bookstores. You can get a feeling for a story by holding the book and flipping through it that you can't get otherwise. I don't think I had ever heard of this author before. Without his book being on display I would have continued on, blissfully ignorant of his work. Well that would have been a loss. Don't get me wrong. You can also get some truly bad clunkers by picking up unheralded books but overall I've been pretty lucky in finding some heretofore hidden gems in bookstores. Now for all I know this book could have been hyped endlessly in various newspaper reviews. I don't know. All I know was that it was new to me. I enjoyed it. Although this book is not by any means a horror story I found myself being reminded of Stephen King for the quick easy way that Parks outlined his characters and put them in some very dangerous yet believable situations. A truism about life that is both wonderful and yet terrifying is that something horrible can happen to you, something that will change your life forever, and the world will keep on turning. Right now someone somewhere is drawing their last breath. Someone is falling in love. Someone is being fired. Someone just got shot. Someone just got promoted to partner/division head/managing director. Someone is beating their spouse. And someone is joyously listening to their child's first words. And despite all of that the sun is going to rise tomorrow.

Suburban Virginia resident and Federal District Judge Scott Sampson experiences the seeming arbitrary nature of life one Wednesday afternoon. He is, as is his prerogative as workplace boss, about to leave work early to pick up his six year old twins, Sam and Emma, from school. The plan is to go swimming at the YMCA as they do every Wednesday.  Scott really enjoys being a father. He enjoys every second he spends with his offspring.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

Trump Launches Over 50 Tomahawk Missiles Into Syria

BREAKING NEWS:
WASHINGTON — President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Syria early Friday local time in retaliation for the chemical weapons attack that killed 86 people on Tuesday, according to the Pentagon.
The attack, the first conventional assault on another country ordered by Trump, comes a day after he declared that the chemical weapons assault had “crossed many, many lines,” including causing the deaths of 27 children.
Years of previous attempts to change the behavior of Syrian President Bashar Assad have failed, Trump said from his resort in Palm Beach, Fla.
The missiles, fired from a U.S. Navy vessel in the Mediterranean Sea, struck multiple sites, including the airfield where Syria based the warplanes used in the chemical attack, a Defense official said.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Illegal Immigration and Discrimination against Black American Men

With Donald Trump's election there has been a sharp shift in interior and border enforcement against unlawfully resident foreign nationals (illegal immigrants). Per Trump's directives, most of the people detained so far by ICE have been people with felony records and/or previously existing orders of removal. Many people, American or not, fiercely oppose the new Administration's policy changes. Some folks demand that there be not a single more deportation. Others have dropped their pretenses and now insist that the US have open borders. Scarcely a day goes by without one of the major newspapers of record (New York Times, Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, etc) featuring a story, editorial or column decrying the possible removal of illegal immigrants. Some people have drawn analogies between deportations and the US enslavement of Africans or the Holocaust. There have been multiple demonstrations and even a few disturbances here or there. But many people have overlooked the impact that illegal immigration can have on American citizens. This is a story from December of 2016 but it's still quite timely in my view. 

A group of African-American men filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Chicago federal court alleging systematic discrimination by a temporary staffing agency and several of its clients they say passed over black applicants in favor of Hispanic workers. The alleged discrimination took place at MVP Staffing's Cicero branch office, which the lawsuit claims was directed by clients not to send African-American workers to their companies for assignments.
Those wishes allegedly were communicated using code words, according to testimony from former dispatchers and on-site representatives given in prior cases and attached to the filing as evidence. For example, according to the lawsuit, "guapos," which translates to pretty boys, would be used to refer to African-Americans to suggest they don't want to do dirty work. The terms "feos" (translated to mean "dirty ones")," "bilingues" (bilinguals) and "los que escuchan La Ley" (referring to people who listen to Spanish-language radio station La Ley) were used to refer to Hispanic laborers, the lawsuit alleges.

Movie Reviews: Escape Plan

Escape Plan
directed by Mikael Hafstrom
This 2013 release was a solid action movie that was, strangely enough, the first to feature eighties action film icons Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as co-leads. This film is something that really would have been better made in the eighties during both men's salad days. It says something perhaps not so good about the crop of current Hollywood action heroes that I can't immediately think of anyone younger than Sly and Ah-nuld  (besides Mark Wahlberg) who could have given this film the sort of testosterone heavy swagger that its two leads attempt to bring across. The leading men aren't as believable in these roles as they would have been thirty years ago but who else could be cast in these parts?

They may be past their prime physically but each actor brings a sense of gravitas and well, masculinity, that is needed for these characters. Stallone mumbles and Schwarzenegger smirks but what else is new. The story is almost painfully paint by numbers predictable but that's okay for these types of films. You don't watch a film like this for its engaging and surprising story line. You watch to see the put upon heroes struggle, be betrayed, almost fail and then rise above it all to deliver some truly righteous a$$-kickings. And this movie delivers in that regard. And when is the last time you heard Schwarzenegger give extended monologues in his native German? And they even made sense for the story. Schwarzenegger looks like he's having more fun than Stallone throughout the film.

HBO Game of Thrones Season Seven Trailer (2)

Well another day another HBO Game of Thrones Season Seven trailer. Like the one before it this one appears to be designed to give away precisely nothing while increasing speculation. There are, or apparently will be, three power centers in Westeros now: the reconstituted Starks in the North, Cersei Lannister in King's Landing and The Westerlands and the soon to be arriving Daenerys Targaryen, who will possibly have the support of everyone in the South who doesn't like Cersei. And since Cersei has never been shy about murdering her enemies, that's a lot of people. All three rulers appear set on a collision course. 

Will Daenerys and Jon learn that they are aunt and nephew? Will the rulers have to make common cause against the long delayed White Walker invasion? And what do Sansa and Littlefinger really think about Jon ruling the North? Jon doesn't exactly have a lot of loyal retainers to call upon since he only survived thanks to intervention by the Vale (which means Littlefinger). Can Cersei and Jaime possibly forgive Tyrion for the murder of their father? Stay tuned I guess. Clip is a little over 90 seconds. Nothing happens.