Saturday, June 16, 2018

Movie Reviews: Gringo, Fourteen Hours

directed by Nash Edgerton
Uneven film with plenty of stereotypes. It has its moments but the cast was better than the writing.
I expected a little more from this film based on the cast. Most of the top listed cast actors/actresses have been a lead actor or actress in other successful films. So I knew they could act. I can't remember the exact quote which came to mind after I watched this movie. It could be apocryphal but I believe it was football star turned black action movie star Fred "The Hammer" Williamson, who in response to sixties and seventies Hollywood racial stereotypes insisted that if he were going to star in a film at least one of and preferably all of three things would have to happen. (1) He survives until the end (2) He wins the fights (3) He gets the girl. All of things are still uncommon for unambiguously Black male actors in large budget mainstream American films. Those plot points are the obvious indication that the lead actor is the hero, someone with whom the viewer should identify.

I'm not sure Gringo would satisfy all of Williamson's criteria. This is a very uneven sardonic black comedy showcasing people with few redeeming qualities. Maybe the better way to look at this film isn't necessarily through a lens of heroism but of confusion. Why, if there is a perfect, all knowing, and all powerful God, is there evil in the world? Why does it seem that many people who have the moral impulses of a hungry shark flourish in life while moral people suffer. People have asked these questions for years and do so explicitly in this film. Harold (David Oyelowo) is a devout Christian Nigerian immigrant to America. Harold wears his optimism and faith on his sleeve, something that makes people-particularly his bosses- think that he's not really that bright. 

Book Reviews: Agincourt

by Bernard Cornwall
Which one of you SOB's is ready to do some man's work today? Come and have a go if you think you're hard enough!
In 1066 when William of Normandy invaded England, defeated its Saxon king and took the English crown, subduing the Britons and Anglo-Saxons, he did not give up his lands in France, or more precisely Normandy. His descendants were just as aggressive, at one point ruling just over half of what is today modern day France, though technically they were still considered vassals of the French King. This Anglo-Norman presence grated on continental French sensibilities and noble interests. The French began a long campaign to reduce English suzerainty in France, peacefully if possible, violently if not. 

In the 14th century a particularly complex chain of events left the English King with arguably the best claim to the French throne. As a result, long simmering national and dynastic tensions boiled over into the bloody conflict we know as The Hundred Years War.

Although ultimately the French would triumph, ending English claims to French lands or thrones, the English won many of the war's best known battles. Perhaps it's because the English were more adept propagandists (The Battle of Agincourt was memorialized by Shakespeare in "Henry V") and because we speak English that we know more of the English victories and not their final defeat. Overall the Hundred Years War helped to speed the transition of England and France from feudal territories into nation states. It was also a precursor to the English War of Roses but that's another post.

The Battle of Agincourt was an English high point. An English army of  about 6000 sick and half starving men soundly thrashed a French army at least three times its size. Some people claimed the English were outnumbered by as many as five or six to one. Whatever the numbers were, contemporary chroniclers were shocked by the English victory. In this older book Bernard Cornwell takes the reader on an exciting and apparently realistic excursion into 15th century morals, ethics, hygiene, and warfare.

Italy Turns Away Migrant Ship

One of the hot button topics across what is referred to as the "West" is immigration, particularly illegal immigration and refugees. This issue was part of why Trump was elected. It was also behind the electoral success of some right-wing politicians across Europe, including, Italy. The new government in Italy made news recently when it refused to accept a French NGO ship crammed with apparent African and Arab refugees. France ostentatiously criticized Italy's decision but also refused to take in the migrants, something that caused the Italians to go off on the French hypocrisy and arrogance. The Spanish stepped up to take in the ship. Nationalists across Europe cheered Italy's decision.

PARIS — A boat crowded with hundreds of Africans sailing across the Mediterranean after being turned away by Italy this week has exposed anew the shaky fault lines in Europe’s approach to the migrant crisis. On Sunday, Italy’s new far-right interior minister, Matteo Salvini, ordered the Aquarius, a rescue ship operated by humanitarian groups, to stop 35 nautical miles off the coast of Italy, refusing to let it dock.

The ship is now on its way to Spain, which showed up its neighbors by solemnly announcing that it would “respect its international engagements” and accept the boat after Malta, too, refused it, and France stood idly by. Brussels, the seat of the European Union, looked on in relative silence. There was no common policy to receive the Aquarius and no authority to impose one if there were.

The Italian refusal to offer safe harbor to a ship loaded with what aid groups described as 629 migrants — including 123 minors, 11 small children and seven pregnant women — was intended to underscore a long-simmering grievance.

The Italians have bridled for years that they have been left alone by their European Union partners on the front line on the Mediterranean with an unmanageable burden of migration that Mr. Salvini pledged to reverse in his recent election campaign. But his refusal to accept the boat did more than pit humanitarian necessity against political expediency. It roiled tensions with European allies in ways that made President Trump’s performance at the G-7 summit last weekend look almost diplomatic by comparison.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Supreme Court Decision: Ohio Voting Rolls

If you live in Ohio, skip a few elections, and don't respond to state inquiries, you will be purged from the voting rolls. And the Supreme Court agreed that there's no problem with this.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday upheld Ohio’s aggressive efforts to purge its voting rolls. The court ruled that a state may kick people off the rolls if they skip a few elections and fail to respond to a notice from state election officials. The vote was 5 to 4, with the more conservative justices in the majority. The case concerned Larry Harmon, a software engineer and Navy veteran who lives near Akron, Ohio. He voted in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections but did not vote in 2012, saying he was unimpressed by the candidates. He also sat out the midterm elections in 2010 and 2014. 

But in 2015, Mr. Harmon did want to vote against a ballot initiative to legalize marijuana and found that his name had been stricken from the voting rolls. Ohio is the only state that commences such a process based on the failure to vote in a single federal election cycle,” said a brief from the League of Women Voters and the Brennan Center for Justice. “Literally every other state uses a different, and more voter-protective, practice.” The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled in favor of Mr. Harmon in 2016, saying that Ohio had violated the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by using the failure to vote as a “trigger” for sending the notices.

A Reuters study in 2016 found that at least 144,000 people were removed from the voting rolls in recent years in Ohio’s three largest counties, which are home to Cleveland, Cincinnati and Columbus.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Book Reviews: The Outsider

The Outsider
by Stephen King
King's most recent book shares a title with Camus' famous 1942 existentialist novel and makes a slight head fake at some of the ideas bandied about in that book. But this is King, not Camus, so you already know that concepts such as the human desire to express and receive love, and pity for those lacking such connections will eventually show up. And they do. I can't read as often as I used to but I can't think of too many modern novelists in any genre who can so quickly and seamlessly build true life characters as King. There have been King plots I didn't care for and occasionally some settings or themes I wasn't crazy about. But his characters have always leapt off the page, at least for me. And this book was no different.

Here, King moved the setting from his beloved Maine to small town Oklahoma and Texas. YMMV on this. King did the research. None of the characters employ Maine drawls or aphorisms. On the other hand, although the book is set in the present day, some of the adult characters, who are mostly in their thirties, forties or fifties, have memories of key life events that would really be more in line with momentous occurrences in the life of a seventy year old writer from Maine. A 45 year old in 2018 probably won't remember where they were or what they were doing when John Lennon was assassinated. You will notice this occasional dissonance.

Although I don't like it, physics shows us that matter, in the form of electrons, can be in two separate places at the same time. Even more weirdly, observing one electron can impact the behavior of its "twin", at a distance. Apparently this only happens at levels that are far too small for humans to perceive. In our reality I can't simultaneously be at home writing this blog post and also doing the same thing at work. 

Movie Reviews: Feral

directed by Mark Young
Unimaginative and boring even for the genre
How many times do we see people traipse off into the wilderness, discover they have no way of communicating with the outside world, encounter a challenge that will leave some of them dead, do stuff that's incredibly stupid, and reveal hidden capacities for leadership or endurance that will keep a few of them alive to tell the tale. Well pretty often. It's a big part of the Hero's Journey. This motif pops up not just in horror stories but in a great many other tales. It's part of human (mostly male) stories. So the problem with this movie wasn't that it used a common theme. The problem wasn't that it attempted to gender switch everything. The problem wasn't even that it was cheaply made with limited sets. No. 

All of those things are common in the horror genre. The problem was that the writing and characterization and yes even some of the acting was bad. I mean really bad. I mean this is akin to elementary school plays that you only attend because someone related to you is acting in them and your cousin, in-law, or sibling will be hurt if you don't show up for at least some of them.

There are ways to humorously and succinctly reveal that someone has hidden capabilities without ruining the storyline. In the Beverly Hills Cop movies the baby faced younger cop is shown to be a very well armed and eager gun nut, something which causes his partners some unease and promises of "We're gonna have to talk later". In The 13th Warrior, when the Vikings ask their Arab companion where he (suddenly) learned their language, he replies contemptuously "I listened!" And so on. I'm sure you can think of more cinematic or literary examples. But in this movie it's a bit much to swallow that certain characters suddenly have skill sets more commonly found among Army Rangers or Navy SEALs or that they got them from Girl Scouts. YMMV.

Miguel Cabrera and Child Support

You ought to marry the person who will help you promote your genes into the next generation. But many people aren't invested in the concept of "Until death do us part" or even marriage itself as a precursor to having children. Lust and love affect your judgment. What do you owe your children? Society has laws to ensure that non-custodial parents can't duck their financial responsibilities to their children who live with the custodial parent. Theoretically, this is good. But the devil is in the details. If a man is wealthy does it automatically follow that his children must live extravagantly? I would say no. I have known relatively impoverished people who spent every dime they could beg, borrow, or steal so their children could live high on the hog. I have also known millionaires who live frugally and send their children to public schools. These are parental decisions. But when the parents are not married, disagree with one another, and/or live apart, such decisions become public.

Belkis Rodriguez is the ex-mistress of Detroit Tigers slugger Miguel Cabrera. She has two children by Cabrera. Both Belkis and Cabrera were married to other people when they started their relationship. Cabrera has been paying Belkis between $12,000 and $15,000 per month in child support not including other payments. Cabrera was paying more in child support than the judge had ordered. Well no good deed goes unpunished. Belkis is suing Cabrera for $100,000/month in child support.

Miguel Cabrera has a delicate balancing act on his hands: He's trying to appease one woman while pleasing another. One is his wife and high school sweetheart; the other an ex-mistress. Caught in the cross hairs are five innocent children — three from his marriage, two from the affair. For the $30-million-a-year baseball superstar embroiled in a legal fiasco that has so far been about money, a bigger perhaps more important issue remains: Can he be a good father to all five children, and does the law require that?

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Movie Reviews: In Darkness

In Darkness
directed by Anthony Byrne
Margaery Tyrell and Daario Naharis team up in London
In Darkness is a slow burning British thriller that has multiple twists, none of which will be revealed here. It might be a just a bit too smug and smart for the target audience. It has some similarities to the classic movie Wait Until Dark. If you like this sort of mystery thriller it's probably a movie worth watching more than once to see the things that you missed. The movie makes no concession to listeners not native to the UK who will hear some occasionally very strong British accents. Either the viewer/listener will get it or s/he won't. Things are made worse on this front by dialogue that's intermittently drowned out by action or soundtrack. But although the audio is sometimes a bit iffy the visuals are lush and rich. 

This film looks really good, even the portions which are shot in low light or darkness.The colors and sets are lavish.  Byrne co-wrote this film with its star, his girlfriend Natalie Dormer, who also produced. The film's first half is crammed full of the sort of visual and auditory techniques which bring unease to the viewer without revealing very much in terms of story. I loved this. The second half shows us more even as the action ramps up. But the director hides things in plain sight. Like an elaborate con this movie has a lot of hidden layers and unanswered questions. This is a movie that with a few violent or sexual scenes excised would have worked well as a film noir in the forties or fifties. 

Sofia (Natalie Dormer-Margaery Tyrell from HBO's Game of Thrones) is a blind British classical pianist and London resident. Sofia lives in an apartment building with plenty of character. Sofia earns her living by working with an orchestra creating movie soundtracks.

Book Reviews: Rising Sun

Rising Sun
by Robert Conroy
I hadn't read any books by this late writer of alternate history for a long time. I decided to cross Rising Sun off the list of books I hadn't read yet. The prose is very short, punchy, and for lack of a better descriptor, male. This is something Mickey Spillane would have felt at ease reading and possibly even writing. There are no flowery long examinations of how someone felt or what did someone really mean when they said so-and-so. Conroy doesn't provide a lot of examination or deconstruction of character motivations. Character doesn't drive this book. Plot does.

Although the US victory at 1942 Battle of Midway was in hindsight a foregone conclusion given that the US had cracked the Japanese naval communications code and had a pretty good idea of where and when the Japanese hammer would fall, allowing the Americans to prepare countermeasures and ambushes, in real life the Americans also benefited from luck. The Japanese commanders, unaware of the true American strength and torn between searching for more American ships and launching attacks on American ground bases, were atypically indecisive. Repeated contradictory orders about whether to load aircraft with bombs (ground attack) or torpedoes (ship attack) left the Japanese carrier task force with carrier decks crowded with armed and fueled planes, while the small number of fighter planes were chasing off American torpedo bombers at sea level. 

The Japanese fleet was therefore a sitting duck for bombing attacks launched from American carriers the Japanese hadn't even known were in the area. Four Japanese carriers were sunk. Over 3000 Japanese sailors or soldiers were killed. The Japanese lost the strategic offensive against the Americans. 

Staying Awake At The Office

I think that some people can probably relate to the below video. Whether it's due to an over heated or under heated room, profoundly boring speakers or discussion topics, too much or too little to eat at lunch, advancing age, lack of sleep, or just generalized frustration that their life is slowly being wasted on tedium, I have over the years seen more than a few people struggle to stay awake in corporate meetings. This has of course never ever ever happened to me because I am an enthusiastic corporate drone. Or something.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Handouts for Billionaires: Dan Gilbert's $600 Million Deal

Some people make a strong argument for government intervention, whether in the form of tax breaks, incentives, subsidies, or outright cash transfers to help poor or middle class people get on their feet, get job training, start a business, get an education, buy a house or (ahem) get some health care. 

The devil is in the details of course but if you're living paycheck to paycheck and/or can't immediately put your hands on $1 million in cash, then I won't begrudge you some form of government assistance. There but for the grace of God go I and yada yada yada. If you are a rich person with regards to income or more importantly in regards to wealth (the top 1% households had a little over $10 million in net worth in 2016then I will suggest that you don't need much assistance from any level of government. You likely work for yourself but even if you don't it's rare that the loss of your job will have you sweating and panicking over a missed paycheck in two weeks. There are some people for whom $10 million is nothing special. They might drop that much on weekend gambling ventures, jewelry for their wife or mistress, rare cars, vacation homes or child support.

A billion is one thousand million. That's ONE THOUSAND MILLION. If you are worth one billion then you or yours don't want for much. Dan Gilbert owns Quicken Loans, Rock Financial, a few casinos and of course the Cleveland Cavaliers. Dan Gilbert is Michigan's richest resident, and likely Ohio's as well when he's in that state. In 2017 Gilbert was number 91 on the Forbes 400 list. Only a few Americans have more money than Gilbert. Dan Gilbert's net worth is approximately 6.3 Billion dollars or to put it another way, 6300 million. There's little that Gilbert couldn't buy or invest in if he so chose. Money is not a limiting factor for Gilbert. So I'm having trouble understanding why the State of Michigan has decided to give a $600 million subsidy to Gilbert for a real estate deal.

Dan Gilbert, the billionaire who has overhauled downtown Detroit by resurrecting historic buildings, sealed one of his biggest Motor City deals yet by getting final approval Tuesday for a $618 million tax incentive plan.