Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Reviews: Birth of a Nation, The Sillymarillion, The Ceremonies

Birth of a Nation
by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin
This is an older satirical graphic novel that asks what if questions about the 2000 election. My cousin let me borrow it. I am grateful to her. As you may remember there were irregularities in that election which even before the Supreme Court decision came down, helped to make the election much closer than it otherwise would have been. A number of people who should have been able to vote were prevented from voting.

Certain companies tasked with providing voting machines or records of votes turned out to have partisan connections to Republicans. US and world history would have been very different if George Bush had not been selected President in 2000. McGruder and Hudlin imagine a world in which the response to that election was very different indeed. Make no mistake though, although the election is the catalyst to the events in this book, McGruder and Hudlin turn their gleeful and irreverent viewpoints on a wide variety of topics including but not limited to black (dis)unity and identity, hip-hop, international capitalism, climate change, religion, race, racism, gender, the military and politics. 

The book is helped immensely by the fact that Hudlin grew up in East St. Louis, the setting for most of the story. As Hudlin explains in the introduction, some events depicted (city residents putting their garbage on roofs to prevent dogs and wildlife from getting at it during a sanitation strike) really did take place. The title obviously refers back to the racist D.W. Griffith film of the same name. Given the book's events it's another play on words/inside joke. The deeper question which this book examines in both a very humorous and not so humorous way is what does it mean to be a black citizen of the United States of America. What does integration mean and is it something that is truly desirable or even possible? Is it better to strive for inclusion or are Blacks better off building their own institutions--including nations. McGruder and Hudlin don't have the answers. I don't think anyone really does. Those are questions which have been asked in different manners for generations. But don't be afraid to read this book. It's hardly sober and didactic. Much the opposite. You will be laughing out loud more than you might think.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Michael Bloomberg and the 2016 election

I do not like Michael Bloomberg. I think his enthusiastic embrace of "stop-n-frisk" tactics in NYC was not only something that violated the Fourth Amendment but was also emblematic of his larger approach to life. Bloomberg seems to prefer that people live according to his rules and sees few if any issues to using government force to make sure that they do. He is quite dismissive and oft contemptuous of opposing views. While this is admirable when it comes to such public goods as clean drinking water and auto safety it's perhaps not so great when it comes to private decisions on how much sugar or fat a person should be ingesting. Perhaps irritated by the rise of Trump and shocked by the fact that at the time of this post Sanders is giving Clinton more of a fight than he was supposed to, Bloomberg has floated a trial balloon about running for President this year as an independent candidate. As Bloomberg is anywhere from four to ten times as wealthy as Trump, Bloomberg would not at all be pressed by the costs necessary to build a national campaign at this late date. I don't doubt, Republican or Democratic protests and shenanigans aside, that if Bloomberg really wanted to get on the ballot in all 50 states he would have the money and moxie to make that happen. The question though is that in a time when the Republican and Democratic parties have accepted and enforced ideological purity it's not clear from which party and in which state Bloomberg would take more votes.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Bronx Subway Brawl Beatdown

We've talked before about the seeming modern phenomenon of women assaulting men and the internal moral conflicts which such actions can cause. Really though, such actions are probably not modern at all. It's just that we're better able to capture such assaults on video. Ronda Rousey or Laila Ali notwithstanding if you see a man really going all out on a woman, chances are quite high that the woman will badly lose the physical confrontation. So most civilized men are taught from early on to refrain from hitting a woman-often even in situations of self-defense or instances where another man would have already caught several fists to the face. Unfortunately this cultural expectation of male physical restraint has led to some women deciding that they can initiate a physical confrontation with a man without suffering any consequences. They, and indeed much of society, are actually outraged if a man under attack decides to defend himself. My personal belief is that a gentleman should never hit a lady but neither should a lady ever strike a gentleman. In other words--no hands. Period. Make sure that whatever you do to someone is something that the person is going to like. Because there's an excellent chance that he or she will respond in kind. And gentleman or not, we all have the right and duty to defend ourselves. Recently a man in NYC got into a dispute with a woman on a subway train. Allegedly she was too heavy to fit into a seat next to this man. So someone else got the seat. Words (and elbows?) were exchanged. After a period of mutual insults and threats the woman hit and spit on or at the man. Now that was the wrong thing to do. Is there any worse sign of utter contempt? But the target of her ire was evidently something of a chivalrous sort. Being unwilling to hit the woman, this fellow decided to beat the dog**** out of her husband. So I guess we should all be happy right? There was no violence against women. The problem with holding a man accountable for his wife's or girlfriend's actions is that by doing so we are giving women the moral standing of children. And that's no good. The whole point of being an adult is that we take responsibility for our own actions instead of passing the buck to someone else. Bottom line however is that one man got beat up and another is wanted for assault, all because no one knew how to act. Anyway the video is below. I am happy that I live in an area where I don't use public transportation. I have enough hassles in my life. This is why before you marry someone you might want to make sure that they are not the kind of person who will let their mouth write a check that your behind can't cash. I guess the husband had time to think about his wife's poor cognitive abilities while he was on the floor getting beaten like a rented mule. Love is grand isn't it?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Flint Water Crisis: For a Few Dollars More

We are amazed but not amused By all the things you say that you'll do
Though much concerned but not involved With decisions that are made by you
But we are sick and tired of hearing your song Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
'Cause if you really want to hear our views You haven't done nothing
"You haven't done nothing"- Stevie Wonder

Unless you have been completely cut off from the news over the past 90 days you have heard about the crisis in Flint, Michigan. In 2013, the State of Michigan took control over Flint and forced a change from the Detroit water supply to the local water supply from the Flint river. The problem with this decision was that the Flint river water was too corrosive for older untreated pipes. Lead and other contaminants soon started leaching into the water supply. There is no amount of lead in drinking water which is considered to be safe. People consuming or using the water immediately noticed bad colors, foul smells, wrong tastes and acidic reactions to metals. When all of this was brought to the attention of the emergency manager,the state officials responsible for water safety, and other state appointees and politicos they ignored the concerns of the citizens, mocked them, slow walked or tried to "fix" water quality tests, viciously attacked any scientist who raised alarms about the Flint water, lied and said the water was safe, and worked assiduously behind the scenes to figure out a way to blame anyone except themselves. I really don't have a lot to say about this both because (1) I need to create shorter posts due to increasing work responsibilities and (2) the actions of most of the people involved are obviously beyond reprehensible. They shock the conscience. It is just barely defensible for the state to take over financial operations of a city that is unable or unwilling to pay its bills. It is never defensible for anyone to poison people to attempt to balance the books. And yet that is precisely what happened in Flint.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Music Reviews: Wet Willie, Lee Michaels

Keep on Smiling, Do you Know what I mean
I am a child of the seventies (and eighties too I guess). So I appreciate a lot of the music that was created back then. Like many people I am partial to the music I heard when I was younger and more impressionable. I would argue, not completely tongue in cheek, that music was more soulful back in the day. Of course I suppose 20 years from now people will be talking about how they just don't make singers of Justin Bieber's status any more. Anyway during the past week, I heard these two songs over the cafeteria radio during my lunch break. They brought back good memories. Well mostly. The Lee Michaels song "Do you know what I mean" briefly reminded me of someone who is better forgotten but I guess we all have people like that in our past, don't we? The Wet Willie song "Keep on Smilin'" is a fun optimistic tune. No matter what is going on in our life it is probably better to find something positive on which to focus. That doesn't mean that you have to be a Panglossian idiot who mindlessly repeats that this is the best of all possible worlds but it does mean that wallowing in negativity rarely helps matters. Both musical groups were probably one-hit wonders (definitely so in Lee Michaels' case, somewhat less so in Wet Willie's case). Sometimes you just catch magic I guess. Anyway I like both of these songs a lot.

Book Reviews: The Dragon Factory

The Dragon Factory
by Jonathan Maberry
I hadn't read anything by Maberry since his vampire trilogy a while back. I liked it even though I felt it was a bit stretched out. So when I was checking my home library for something to read during my ever shrinking lunch breaks I decided to give another Maberry book a try. I am very happy that I did. Let's get a couple of things out of the way first. This book is second in a series but as with many such entries, The Dragon Factory more or less stands alone. There were only a few instances when I thought that I should have read the first book first. Maberry sketches out many of the important story points so that you're not completely in the dark while at the same time leaving past events vague enough so that you'll go back and read the first book-- which is what I'm doing now. So don't be afraid to read The Dragon Factory if you're into the genre. At just under 500 pages this book is not short by any means but neither is it a chore to read. It's fun to read. Things zip right along. You won't want to put this book down once you've gotten into it. The plot is more important than most of the characters, but I wouldn't call the characters flat. Maberry has done a tremendous amount of research into such areas as biology, genetics, diseases, homeland security, intelligence agencies and the military, history and martial arts. And it shows. It also probably helps that Maberry is a martial arts expert, black belt, and former bodyguard and bouncer. The characters may not be super deep but they feel real. The other thing I appreciated about this book, especially after having just finished some Stephen Hunter works, is that the author doesn't beat you over the head with his politics. After reading this work of fiction I have no idea of Maberry's political leanings. And I liked that. So what's the book about? Hmm. I don't want to say too much because I've been accused recently of giving away spoilers. Of course some people who say that think that plot description of any kind is a spoiler. I disagree with that. Still,with this book in particular it's essential not to reveal very much. So I will attempt to do that. Imagine 24 mixed with some Michael Crichton stirred with Homeland blended with some Jim Butcher and F. Paul Wilson topped off with some Contagion with just a little Stephen King and Ian Rankin added for taste.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

#OscarsSoWhite: Stacy Dash & Donald Trump Get In on the Act

It's been one week since the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the nominees for the 88th annual Academy Awards. It's been one week since it was revealed no people of color, African-American or otherwise, were nominated in any of the onscreen categories. The omission, for the second year in a row, prompted the hashtag on Twitter and Instagram and other places across the web #OscarsSoWhite. Major media outlets even jabbed the Academy for the gross oversight with morning news coverage and above the fold, front page, newspaper exposes.

One week later the hub-bub over the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards has not died down. In fact it's reached a fever pitch if I may be so cliche. That's because Jada Pinkett-Smith announced on Monday, MLK Day, that she was boycotting the Oscars. She doesn't even plan to watch to keep her dignity in tact. She urges other African-American actors, actresses, writers, directors etc. to let the Academy do them and let us do us. Spike Lee, lover of controversy and protest, jumped on the boycott and says he's not going to the Oscars. He's going to see his beloved Knicks play at the Garden.

Again the media pounced including the ever-conservative FOX News. They carted out one of their token commentators, who just happens to be an African-American actress to drop some knowledge on their red leaning watchers.

I give you Stacy Dash:

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Movie Reviews: Sicario, What Love Is, Crime Story

directed by Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve also directed Prisoners. And Sicario has more than a few of the same questions about moral lines being crossed or even drawn that were posed in that film. Both because of space and spoiler concerns this review of Sicario needs to be shorter than normal. I will say that although the marketing may have led one to believe that this film is yet another entry in the now overdone trope category of "slight woman beats up or intimidates men twice her size" that is quite deliberate misdirection. And that's no spoiler. This is a very serious movie with a lot of moving parts and gray areas. As we have discussed before there are a few people who will not let moral concerns get in the way of what they think needs to be done. Although many of us describe those people as "evil" it's not always that simple. If for example you are on a secret military mission to kill or capture say Osama Bin Laden and a child sees your team approaching the compound what is the correct decision to take regarding that child's life? Do you let that child survive and give a warning which will result in the slaughter of your team? Decisions, decisions.

The film's initial "heroine"and arguably its moral center is FBI SWAT team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). You could use the cliche that Macer is tough as nails but that's not quite true. She's as tough as she needs to be but like most people she has bosses to whom she has to answer, people who could easily destroy her career with the click of a mouse. She's not so tough with them. Macer does believe in doing things by the book, a characteristic that is not necessarily shared by anyone in the FBI hierarchy besides her partner and second-in-command Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya). Both Macer and Wayne are gung-ho for their work but are young and considered idealistic by their bosses. We open the movie with Macer leading a SWAT takedown of what she believes to be a kidnapping situation. It turns out to be something much much worse. Afterwards, Macer is picked by her boss Jennings (Victor Garber) and a happy-go-lucky Department of Defense official named Graver (Josh Brolin) to assist in an interagency takedown of the people responsible for the atrocity that Macer discovered. 

Ned Stark Misses the Big Picture: Loras Tyrell

Ned Stark was a good father, brother, husband and son. But he was a maladroit political strategist. Even when he tried to plot his sense of honor and morality made him value other people's interests as highly as his own. Martin seems to be telling the reader that this is not only a mistake but is also on some level immoral, at least as judged by utilitarian standards. And an utilitarian approach, at least in part, might appear to be necessary for leaders. Rulers and leaders can't afford to live by rigid personal standards of honor. Unlike almost everyone else in King's Landing, Ned simply doesn't put his own well being first. That is an excellent characteristic for a traditional family man. It's not so good for a wartime political leader. Tywin Lannister sends The Mountain (Gregor Clegane) and crew raiding, raping, robbing and pillaging throughout the Riverlands, Catelyn's family's realm. Clegane and his dogs aren't under Lannister banners but The Mountain is so widely known and feared that everyone realizes it's him. Tywin's actions are a direct challenge to Ned's and therefore Robert's authority. Tywin wants to make it clear that Catelyn Stark's kidnapping arrest of his son Tyrion is not a cost free action. We learn later than Tywin intended for Clegane to capture Ned and trade for Tyrion. Ironically if this HAD happened Ned might have survived Joffrey's crowning since he wouldn't have been in a place where Littlefinger Joffrey could have ordered his execution. The canny Tywin would have recognized that a living Ned (even with a released Tyrion and crowned Joffrey) was more valuable to his family's interests. Perhaps war wouldn't have broken out as captive Ned would have been unable to complete his clumsy detective work and learn of the Lannister incest. Even if war erupts a living Ned means that Robb doesn't declare himself King of the North. If Ned (and Arya/or Sansa) are traded for Tyrion and/or Jaime the Starks would have been in a much better position. But of course Ned couldn't lead the excursion against the Mountain. Ned had a lame leg. So Ned sends the majority of his personal guard after the Mountain. Ned is actually upset that he can't lead the party as being a macho man of the North he won't ask anyone to do what he won't and so on. 
But Ned had other choices.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Movie Reviews: American Ultra, The Gift

American Ultra
directed by Nima Nourizadeh
This is a fairly predictable action-comedy movie made more so by the fact that the film's main twist is revealed in the first ten minutes. The other twist, which I won't mention here is also not exactly hard to figure out. So your enjoyment of this film will depend on how engaged or amused you are by the conceit that small town convenience store clerk, artist, slacker, stoner and nebbish Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who has the musculature of a wet noodle and all the intense machismo of a neutered chihuahua, is in fact an extremely dangerous CIA killer. The hook is that Mike doesn't know any of this at first. All Mike wants to do with his life is get stoned and make love to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Phoebe is very patient dealing with all of Mike's fears, paranoia and quirks. Even so, there are a few times when she wishes that Mike would evince more typically masculine behavior patterns. But Mike is who he is. And Mike loves Phoebe. Mike also loves drugs, which are provided with a side of urban attitude and paranoia by the friendly hyperactive local drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo). So life is pretty good for old Mike. This all changes when CIA agent Victoria Lassiter (Connie Britton) learns that her sexist energetic younger rival and boss, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to take all the credit for his successful version of an Agency hitman program known as Tough Guy. Like most bosses Yates wants to scrub from existence all similar previous programs which he didn't oversee. In this case that means getting rid of the unsuccessful Ultra program overseen by Lassiter. And there's just one survivor from the Ultra program, Mike. So as far as Yates is concerned it's goodbye Mike. Yates is moving up the CIA ladder. He has no time for failed projects. Yates has all the restraint of an irritated rattlesnake and is about as venomous. Get in his way and he will make you regret it.

Monday, January 4, 2016

"Making a Murderer" Provides Insight Into America's Criminal Justice System

Over the holiday break, Netflix released a documentary titled "Making a Murderer" which follows the story of a Wisconsin man by the name of Steven Avery.  Avery was wrongfully convicted of sexual assault by the state of Wisconsin in 1985.  After serving 18 years for a crime that he did not commit, the Innocence Project of Wisconsin looked into Avery's case and successfully petitioned the state to reexamine DNA evidence that was retrieved on the day in question.  The DNA evidence not
only ruled out Avery as a suspect, but it confirmed that another man by the name of Gregory Allen -- a man who was actually a known sex-offender under surveillance by the county sheriff's office and the state prosecutors at the time when Avery was convicted -- was, in fact, the man who committed the 1985 sexual assault.  Avery was released from state prison in 2003 after 18 years and pursued a civil suit against Manitowoc County for his wrongful conviction.

During the depositions taken during Avery's civil suit, it was discovered that Manitowoc County actually had received tips from several sources indicating that Gregory Allen -- and not Steven Avery -- was the real criminal, but the authorities willfully ignored those tips and instead prosecuted Avery who they already had in custody.  It should be noted that during the 18 years that Steven Avery was in prison for the crime that Gregory Allen committed, Gregory Allen sexually assaulted at least 2 other women in Manitowoc County.

Just as depositions were about to wrap up in Avery's civil suit in 2005, a young woman named Teresa Halbach was reported missing and last seen at Avery's family-owned junk yard taking pictures for AutoTrader as she had done on several prior occasions.  Days later, a volunteer search party led by Halbach's family discovers Halbach's Toyota Rav-4 parked in Avery's junk yard in plain view.  Manitowoc County, which conceded that it had a conflict of interest due to Avery's civil suit against it, went ahead and searched Avery's property anyway instead of waiting for a neutral neighboring county to conduct the investigation as it initially said it would.  Manitowoc County searched Avery's property for 8 straight days while preventing Avery and his family from entering [Editor's Note: Violation of the 4th Amendment right against illegal search and seizure].  Initially nothing is found, but after several repeat trips back to the property, the same Manitowoc County police officers who handled Avery's wrongful conviction case, just so happened to find the key to Ms. Halbach's Toyota Rav-4 sitting in plain view on Avery's bedroom floor (this is particularly interesting because an earlier search conducted by the neighboring county police officers specifically photographed this same area and showed that nothing was on the floor during their search).  To make matters worse, drops of Avery's blood were found inside the Rav-4.  Avery is arrested.

The events that happen after that are troubling to say the least.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Movie Reviews: The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight
directed by Quentin Tarantino
This is Tarantino's eighth directed film. It seems as if he's done more than that. This film has almost all of the stylings and quirks which you've come to expect from a Tarantino production. There are snarky one liners, sarcastic asides, wordplay, riffs on things that appear not to matter that much, black buddy/white buddy motifs, implied danger masquerading as excessive politeness and twisted sexuality. This film also impresses with the cinematography. The Hateful Eight was shot in Colorado and used widescreen Panavision. The effect is reminiscent of several old Westerns and classic seventies films. Tarantino loves film, and it shows. Even if you're not otherwise a Tarantino fan you might want to look at this movie simply for its visual feast. The colors are a treat. The film is broken up by title cards and even has a spot for an intermission. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone scored this film and allowed Tarantino to use previously unreleased tracks. So the film is also an auditory experience. The Hateful Eight features many actors who've worked with Tarantino before. This movie also finds Tarantino continuing his gleeful, irreverent and occasionally painful or offensive inspection of America's obsession with race and sex-particularly how those two baseline concepts intertwine. Thematically The Hateful Eight picks up after Django Unchained. It takes place in an undefined time period after the Civil War, probably the 1870s or early 1880s. But that's not really important. Although slavery has been outlawed and blacks are theoretically equal citizens, no one black or white, really believes that blacks have equality. The white conservatives of the time are openly hateful of the freed blacks while the liberals are just as prone to racist language and beliefs. Racial hostility suffuses the movie and is never far from the story. If you can't tolerate racial venom being expressed in fictional creations, this is not the film for you. Dialogue is very important in this film, occasionally more so than plot.