Saturday, July 20, 2019

Movie Reviews: A Violent Separation

A Violent Separation
directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz
How far would you go to protect a blood relative? That's a question raised in a number of films.  A Violent Separation was trying to be a Golden Age of Hollywood film noir. Part of the reason that it didn't really make it was because most of the lead actors and actresses were English or Australian people trying and failing to ape a Missouri or even generic Midwestern/Southern accent. I don't think they did a good job of it. There have been a lot of people who have spoken with annoyance on the increasing phenomenon of foreign actors playing American roles. As with anything else, there are some people who can do it and some people who can't.

But aside from the acting and accents the writing just didn't make sense in this movie. At some very critical points in this film I was taken out of the "unreality bubble" by seeing someone do something senseless. Then when I started thinking about how dumb a given decision was I was hit again by the foreign accents seeping through what someone thought was a Missouri accent. So I was irritated either way. 

The film's saving grace was Ted Levine, who has an accent and cadence which I always find worthy of listening to in whatever character he's playing. Levine is a fine character actor who deserves better than this film, though he raises the verisimilitude of every scene that he's in. Unfortunately he can't save the film by himself.  

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Movie Reviews: Pet Sematary (2019)

Pet Sematary (2019)
directed by Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer
This is a, well not quite remake, but second film adaptation of the Stephen King horror novel. As is typical with book to film adaptations in general and Stephen King books in particular the directors left a lot out of the film. That's unavoidable. In this case I thought that the film would been better if it had more back story to give context and  nuance to some of the characters' actions and motivations.  

In the book, it's important that the protagonist's father-in-law never really liked the protagonist or thought the protagonist worthy of marrying his daughter, perhaps in part because the protagonist isn't Jewish and isn't successful enough. It's important that the protagonist himself wonders if he's living up to the patriarchal imperative of providing and protecting for his wife and children. It's important that the wife still greatly resents her parents for making her a child caretaker for her now deceased sister, who had spinal meningitis. 

The film leaves a lot of those things out or only briefly sketches them before moving to something else. However King's source material is so strong that the viewer who hasn't read the book can still enjoy the film on its own merits. 

When King wrote the story a cursed Native American burial ground was already a horror cliche. Some writers can spin dross into gold. King is one of them. Some of this story grew out of King's own experiences living in a home located on a busy road and having to explain death to his daughter. This movie gender switched the bad guy, perhaps because an evil little girl is creepy while an evil toddler is too reminiscent of Chucky?


Dershowitz Kept His Drawers On

You may have heard that financier and pedophile Jeffrey Epstein is in trouble again over his penchant for very young girls. Epstein is an (alleged) friend to many powerful men, something that may well have explained his previous easy deal on rape and pedophilia charges.  I think Epstein may have been a foreign asset or tool. We'll see. Anyhow, one of Epstein's lawyers was famed Harvard attorney Alan Dershowitz, who categorically denied that he was ever involved in any Epstein sanctioned crimes, despite witnesses saying he was there when underaged girls were around. There were also some sordid rape allegations aimed at Dershowitz.

Now strictly speaking everyone is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law as far as I am concerned. However I do remember the times growing up when I was accused by one or both of my parents of eating half of the cookies from the cookie jar or some other silly crime. Often I would deny the accusations and say it must have been someone else. I would maintain this position until I learned that the person making the accusation had actually watched me eat cookies from the cookie jar. At that point it was usually best to throw myself on the mercy of the court, so to speak. But every now and then I would double down and say something like "Okay so I ate a few cookies I wasn't supposed to eat. But I didn't eat half of the cookies. That's ridiculous. Besides, the cookies weren't very good/shouldn't have been left out/(insert excuse designed to minimize my complicity here)"

Listening to the married Alan Dershowitz suddenly admit that yes he did get a massage at one of Epstein's parties but he kept his underwear on, doesn't like massages, and by the way the masseuse was old and not that good looking reminds me of that kid long ago who got caught with his hands in the cookie jar and had to think fast to explain why none of this is his fault.

Movie Reviews: The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946)

The Postman Always Rings Twice
directed by Tay Garnett
This was the first English language adaptation of the book of the same name. Along with movies like The Big Sleep, The Big Heat and others this film was one of the best examples of what film noir should mean. It had a "hero" who is neither particularly smart nor heroic, rules that trap people no matter if they do right or wrong, and of course a femme fatale. 

Here the femme fatale was particularly compelling as the character was played by bombshell actress Lana Turner, sometimes known for obvious reasons as the Sweater Girl. In real life Turner was known to have a pretty healthy appetite for men and for not caring whether such men were married to other women. So unlike some movies where the love interest is miscast, in this film it was very easy to see why a man would find Turner worth killing for, worth dying for, and worth going to hell for. Amen. 

As with most movies of this era today's directors and actors might be able to learn that sometimes less is more. By today's standards there is nothing at all explicit. It's the implications and inferences that matter. We don't see certain things happen. We see the build up and aftermath. So our imagination can fill in the rest. And here, that technique is more powerful. This plot has been told many times before this film and influenced many stories after it. So there are some human emotions and stories that pop up again and again in life. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Democratic Debates

I haven't been all that impressed with any of the Democratic presidential contenders so far. Some were better spoken than others. Some like former vice-President Joe Biden seemed to have no clue why they were there. Senator Gillibrand's voice grates.

I liked Tulsi Gabbard's anti-war stances. Senator Harris was cynical and smart enough to attack Biden on his anti-busing position before later admitting that her present day stance wasn't all that different from Biden's. It's really early though.
In fact it's so early that it seems silly even to be talking about debates. As we saw in 2016 anything can happen. Just as I am finishing this post it looks like another candidate is already dropping outLightweight.

But there were a few things that came out of the recent first debates that I thought were worth people's notice. The Democrats as a whole seemed to be for decriminalizing illegal entry to the US and providing taxpayer paid health care for illegal immigrants. A few were also in support of eliminating private health care insurance in favor of a Medicare for All system. This will require higher taxes and not just on the rich, however that class is defined. 

I could be wrong but I do not think that there are tons of American voters who want to sacrifice their private health care coverage, enter an underpaid and understaffed public system, have the same coverage as someone who is not even supposed to be in this country, AND pay higher taxes on top of it all.


Saturday, July 6, 2019

Movie Reviews: Glass

Glass
directed by M. Night Shyamalan
This film was a sequel to Shyamalan's previous films Unbreakable and Split. It's not really necessary to have seen the previous films although it probably helps. As with most (all??) of Shyamalan's films there are a few surprises and twists which I obviously won't discuss.  

I will say that in this case I thought the twists were, if not transparent from the get go, were pretty much in line with what I thought they would be. And I didn't care for the twists. But as always YMMV. In some aspects you could even look at this movie as an investigation of what happens when the Nietzschean Superman runs into a younger and better looking Nurse Ratched.

David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a Philadelphia area vigilante. He's able (or so he believes) to know what bad acts someone has committed merely by touching them. Dunn also has far greater than normal strength and endurance.  It's been about two decades since Dunn discovered that he had these abilities, primarily thru the machinations of one Elijah Price aka Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson) a genius comic book nerd and mass murderer who suffers from a rare disease that makes his bones extraordinarily fragile. 

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Book Reviews: The Fix

The Fix
by David Baldacci
This is another installment in the Amos Decker detective series. Decker is a detective on semi-permanent loan to the FBI. He is a former college football player who is fighting a desperate battle against the scale. Decker suffered major injuries, including brain injury, in the college game that ended his career and any chance at NFL stardom. Worse, years later, Decker's wife and daughter were murdered. 

However these two tragedies deeply impacted his life. Decker sees emotions and events in color. He also has a photographic memory for everything he sees and near total inability to forget anything, ever, including his family's murder scene. This event left Decker with a fierce desire to see justice done whatever the cost. 

Although Decker may see emotions in color, he sees things morally in stark black and white. Either a job is done or it is not. Someone is guilty or they are not. Decker's highest loyalty is to the truth, not to his friends, his bosses, the FBI, or even justice. Decker may have been made mildly autistic by his brain injury all those years ago, as he lacks awareness of social cues that most people, even extremely shy people, take for granted. Decker will suddenly stop talking to someone and get up and walk out of the room. Nonetheless his heart is in the right place. He gets obsessed with loose ends and finding the truth. He rarely means to offend someone and will apologize if he becomes aware that he has.

Going to attend a meeting at FBI headquarters, Amos Decker witnesses a man named Walter Dabney shoot and kill a woman named Anne Berkshire before turning the weapon on himself. Dabney is a defense and intelligence consultant. Berkshire is a schoolteacher. The case becomes federal because of Dabney's links to the federal government. 

Book Reviews: Known Devil

Known Devil
by Justin Gustanis
Although this is the third in a series, I didn't know that before starting the book. I don't think it made all that much difference. It's old hat nowadays to imagine a world in which magic and monsters exist side by side with all of the prosaic concerns and institutions of the real world. This story does imagine that and mixes in some timely political parodies as well, even though the book was written well before the current President was elected. The book's prose is, well you will have to decide this for yourself. This is how it opens and it's pretty consistent.
"I've never had a lot of of use for elves. In my experience they're lazy and dumb--nothing like those drones in the stories who supposedly work for the Fat Guy up north. I don't like elves, and elves with guns I like even less. And when those guns are pointed at me--well it's like that Mafia guy on TV used to say: fahgettaaboudit"
Stan Markowski is a detective in the Scranton PD's Occult Crimes Unit. His partner Karl Renfer (there are A LOT of tongue in cheek references to other horror movies and novels)is a vampire. Their job is to keep the peace between humans and supernaturals or supes, as well as prevent the more dangerous supes from acting up. Problems arise when the detectives learn that there is a new drug on the streets, one that gets supes addicted to it and willing to commit all sorts of crimes to get the drug Slide. Experts previously thought that with one or two exceptions, supes were immune to addiction.  

No Good Deed Goes Unpunished: Robert Smith and Morehouse

When you do something good for people you should be praised for your actions. You may have heard that Black American billionaire Robert Smith attended the 2019 Morehouse commencement where he promised to pay off the entire student loan debt of the graduating class, a gift that will amount to the not insignificant sum of about $40 million. 

Billionaire Robert F. Smith, who received an honorary doctorate at Morehouse College’s Sunday morning graduation exercises, had already announced a $1.5 million gift to the schoolBut during his remarks in front of the nearly 400 graduating seniors, the technology investor and philanthropist surprised nearly everyone by announcing that his family was providing a grant to eliminate the student debt of the entire Class of 2019. 

This is my class,” he said, “and I know my class will pay this forward.” The announcement came as a surprise to Smith’s staff and to the staff at Morehouse, and elicited the biggest cheers of the morning.

About 400 new graduates, predominantly Black men, will be able to start their professional life without any student debt. An adult's twenties and thirties are critical times to establish savings, investments, retirement accounts and capital for business creation. It is also a time to save money for marriage and child care costs. There is a huge wealth gap between Black and White Americans. There is a student loan gap between Black and White Americans. Black Americans owe more in student loans and earn less after graduation, in large part because of discrimination. So when Smith stepped up to do his part to help Black people who were in a tight spot, you might reasonably think that he would be universally lauded.

And you would be wrong.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Television Reviews: Yellowstone Season One

Yellowstone Season 1
created and written by Taylor Sheridan
I'm not sure if I thought this Paramount TV drama was trashy fun or funny trash. Yellowstone was created by the man who wrote and directed Wind River, reviewed here. Sheridan also wrote Sicario, reviewed here, acted in Sons of Anarchy, and wrote the Oscar nominated Hell or High Water. So there is some skill behind this creation, but it's not always consistently super apparent in the first season. There are a lot of ups and downs with the narrative. I think as is common with a lot of shows these days the creator/writer wants you to identify with everyone and no one.

There is some confusion in what the show is trying to say at times, something I think comes directly from the top. The creator has said that he doesn't really believe in the concept of white privilege and finds it very offsetting to those whites, who like him, grew up without what they saw as any privilege. 

On the other hand Sheridan's work seems to be at least partially influenced by the work of his brother, John Gibler, a journalist who has passionately detailed drug war atrocities in Mexico, environmental racism in California and Texas and other human rights issues. Sheridan has also written of how certain restaurants or bars out west refused to serve Native Americans, white police would wait outside reservations specifically to profile Native Americans and how gas stations would refuse to serve him once they discovered he was friendly with or working with Native Americans. So whether he likes all the language used by the modern "woke" audiences or not, Sheridan is certainly aware of racial disparities. The question is what to do about it. 

What to do about it is only one of the various questions addressed in Yellowstone's first season, and perhaps not even the most important one. The best description of Yellowstone might be "Dallas" meets "The Godfather" with a VERY healthy slice of "Sons of Anarchy", "West Side Story" and "The Wild Bunch".