Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Reviews: Kill 'em and Leave, Lovecraft Country

Kill em and Leave
by James McBride
This was a short book. It wasn't a biography of the late James Brown as much as it was a series of stories about Brown and the impact he had, good or otherwise on the people he interacted with in his life. Brown likely never saw himself as a victim and would (and did) reject anyone who tried to view him through that perspective. 

But as McBride points out much of Brown's early life was heavily influenced by poverty, familial strife and of course Jim Crow in all of its forms. Some people who worked with Brown claim that his deepest emotion was fear of white racism. This could be expressed in a number of different ways, not all of which were positive. In some respects this is a sad book. 

Although Brown died a millionaire he didn't have as much wealth as he should have had. Brown's inability to trust very many people, dislike of banks and chaotic business dealings led him to hide cash all over the place. Some people stole this money. But the book's primary vitriol is resolved for the South Carolina good old boy political and legal network that used Brown's family strife to throw out a clear will and trust after Brown's death. This led to a decade long and ongoing court battle in which the money that Brown intended to be used for the benefit of impoverished children in South Carolina and Georgia instead flowed to the pockets of well connected attorneys, judges and accountants, all of whom were determined to prolong court proceedings until the very last penny was extracted from Brown's estate. Money can make even the best person greedy. 

Some of Brown's children sued him for royalties for songs he had ghostwritten in their names when they were children. At one point Brown became so reclusive and upset that he insisted his children and grandchildren make appointments if they wanted to see him. That may have been Brown's way of screening out people who just wanted money. This book is no hagiography. This book argues that Brown was at various times a distant father and husband, a tyrannical boss, and a horrible businessman. Brown also had substance abuse issues late in life. This is something which the workaholic and temperamentally conservative Brown always despised in others. 

But McBride also takes pains to point out and document all the ways in which the recent Mick Jagger produced film on James Brown (reviewed here) got things wrong, sometimes deliberately. McBride is also a musician. He provided some interesting insights into the differences and similarities between funk and jazz. Some very talented jazz musicians spoke of being unable to perform to Brown's expectations even though in some aspects jazz is more advanced music than funk.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Michelle Obama Reminds America About Its Greatness: "I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves"

The first night of the Democratic convention took place Monday, July 25, 2016, with a line-up of Democrats that included Corey Booker, Eva Longoria, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and First Lady Michelle Obama.  Michelle gave a moving speech about her perspective as a mother of two girls growing up in America, and she did not hesitate to make an important historical observation to underscore how far America has come as a nation when she said:
"I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.  And I watch my daughters, two beautiful, intelligent, black young women, playing with their dogs on the White House lawn. And because of Hillary Clinton, my daughters and all our sons and daughters now take for granted that a woman can be president of the United States. So, don't let anyone ever tell you that this country isn't great, that somehow we need to make it great again, because this right now is the greatest country on Earth."

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Movie Reviews: Green Room

Green Room
directed by Jerry Saulnier
Ok, first things first. If you are a person who is very sensitive to apparently realistic cinematic depictions of violence then this is most definitely not the flick for you. People are threatened, slashed, beaten, shot, stabbed, bitten, bludgeoned, spat at, choked, cut open, punched, kicked and otherwise harmed. Gender, age or formerly pacific nature is no protection from harm and no predictor of violent capacity. Anyone can get got and does. This movie is mildly transgressive not so much in its violence but in its unspoken assumption that despite their loathsome political and racial views and glorification of violence, white supremacists, white nationalists and Nazis are human too.

I DEFINITELY don't mean this in any sort of goofy let's all find each other's humanity and love each other way. Only a masochist would love someone bent on their destruction. No rather, like any other group of humans, the bad guys here make mistakes and have internal romantic and business rivalries. They have a Bell Curve population distribution of leaders, followers, cowards and people who will go along to get along with whoever appears to be in charge. Just like Hitler loved his dog, a Nazi dog-handler is greatly dismayed anytime someone harms or misuses his animals. New information or a new perspective can make someone who was previously determined to kill you become an ally. This also works the other way, obviously. This world already has plenty of angels and devils in human form who are far more depraved or beatific than anything we could dream up. And some of them probably work and live right next to you. The Ain't Rights are a gritty punk rock band who haven't exactly fallen on hard times, because apparently they've never had too many good times. 

The Ain't Rights usually earn just enough money to make it to their next gig. Barely. Sometimes, well more frequently than they like, they have to steal (siphon) gas from other vehicles to make it to their shows. Tiger (Callum Turner) the singer, Reece (Joe Cole) the drummer, Samantha (Alia Shawkat) the guitarist, and Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) the bassist, drive their own van, set up their own gear and evidently aren't even well known enough yet to have groupies. That seems like a pretty crappy lifestyle for a band-no money, no roadies and no groupies. 

Friday, July 22, 2016

Ailes Out at Fox News

Once a year everyone in my company has to complete online training on how to prevent or not engage in sexual harassment. It's painfully obvious stuff. You don't have to believe in or accept 100% of the most radical feminist worldviews to understand that putting hands on someone without their permission, commenting on their body parts without invitation or God forbid making their promotion, continued employment, assignments or pleasant work environment contingent upon them having sex with you is illegal and something which could cost you your job and your employer a lot of money. Some of the examples which are used in my company's yearly training are so over the top that I couldn't believe that even the densest rockhead out there wouldn't already know that this stuff is out of bounds. But there's always someone out there who thinks that the rules don't apply to him. The latest example of this was former Fox News Boss Roger Ailes, who was accused by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson of long running virtual textbook sexual harassment over several years of her employment at Fox News. You can read some of her complaint here. Among other things Ailes allegedly asked Carlson to turn around so he could look at her bottom and told her that she should have had sex with him a long time ago in order to help her career. Ailes' alleged statements to and activities around Carlson are exactly the sorts of things which I thought were so obviously sexual harassment as to not be worth mentioning in a corporate CYA training video. Now to be fair there are a fair number of married people who meet each other in a work environment. And I don't think that one pass is grounds for harassment. But Ailes was Carlson's boss. That alone should have made Ailes keep everything above board. Apparently Ailes' bosses, Rupert Murdoch and his sons, decided that Fox News could get along without Ailes. Ailes "resigned" with a reported $40 million payout. If someone "suggests" that you resign or be fired, resigning is probably the smart move, right? According to some reports the Murdoch sons and Ailes were never overly fond of each other. Ailes chafed at having to report to the younger Murdochs. Some other women, most of them anonymous, claimed to have been harassed by Ailes over the years. But what may have flipped the switch was alleged confirmation by Fox News' top star Megyn "Jesus is White" Kelly, that Ailes sexually harassed her some years ago. Kelly is the future of the network. Presumably the Murdochs want to keep her happy and around. It puts more money in their pockets.  

So Ailes will have to face Carlson's lawsuit on his own. Fox News is of course, depending on your POV, famous or infamous, for transparent desks, thigh level camera POV, and women who show off expanses of cleavage and legs. So all in all I'm not surprised that the man who created a sexually charged work environment allegedly sought to benefit from same. For most people it's usually a bad idea to get your honey where you get your money. And it's always a bad idea to tell someone to give it up or get out. Allegedly....

Jon Stewart and Late Show: Donald Trump

Jon Stewart has a special talent for the describing the phenomenon which is the Donald Trump campaign for President of the United States. Below is his appearance on the Late Show where he goes in on the double standards that the conservative media uses when discussing President Obama and the birther running for President, Donald Trump. I liked what Stewart had to say about conservatives not owning America. It's a point worth repeating over and over again. A lot of Trump's support comes from dismay with or fear of THOSE people. This fall election is going to be very interesting from a blogging perspective, regardless of who wins.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Melania Trump and Plagiarism

Donald Trump has run a deliberately disruptive and occasionally amateurish campaign for President. He's gotten as far as he has by breaking or ignoring the normal rules of political decorum. You can't argue with success I guess. But one rule that Trump and his team probably shouldn't ignore is that you use your own words to tell your own story. Doing otherwise goes against a major theme of Trump's campaign: that he's the only candidate who's honest enough to tell it like it is. Trump's wife, Melania Trump, seemed to violate that campaign focus last night when in her speech, which she claimed to have written herself, she used not only the same theme found in a previous speech by First Lady Michelle Obama, but several of the exact same words and phrases. It was something that was pretty obviously lifted from Michelle Obama's speech. Plagiarism is not only dishonest but it's lazy. In this day and age where anyone and everyone can look up what was said previously, plagiarism is also pretty stupid. The whole point of a wife's convention speech (I guess at the Democratic convention it will be the husband's speech) is to humanize the candidate. The spouse theoretically knows the candidate better than anyone else, so he or she can explain to the world exactly why the candidate is the right person for the job. That's it. It's not rocket science. The speech doesn't have to be anything too personal or intimate. And it can't be something where everyone thinks that the spouse had to have his or her arm twisted to say something positive. All it has to be is something in the spouse's words that make everyone feel good about nominating his or her better half to be their Presidential candidate. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Trump organization couldn't meet that admittedly low bar of competence. Although the plagiarism scandal is not in truth all that important compared to other world events it is humorous to me. As the saying goes,"If I can't trust you with the small stuff, why would I give you greater responsibility?". Why should Americans vote for a candidate who brings in an immigrant wife to steal American speeches? And if Trump's lady is going to steal speeches why would she steal from the Obamas? I thought the Trumps hated the Obamas? 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Reviews: Monster Hunter International

Monster Hunter International
by Larry Correia
I had heard different things about this book. Judging by some of his blog posts the author seemed like an optimistic sort though we certainly wouldn't agree on very much politically. Correia has said that this book and the resulting series was inspired in part by his love for classic and cheap horror movies, the kind that come on late night or on Saturday afternoons. This book's premise shared some themes with the Supernatural tv series. So I decided to give this older book, Correia's first and initially self-published novel, a chance. It was an okay read. I liked the opening. I didn't like some of Correia's right-wing swipes at his political betes noires. But compared to some authors (cough* Stephen Hunter* cough) for the most part this book didn't have too many political statements. The characters' behavior is itself an explicit political statement. People tell aspiring writers to write what they know. I guess Correia took that advice. The story protagonist is a Correia avatar in terms of looks, attitude, career path, size and politics. Owen Zastava Pitt is a huge (6'4"+, 300lb+) recent college graduate who works as an accountant. Owen has an interesting family background. His Green Beret father was a disciplinarian survivalist. Owen's father insisted that his sons learn to handle weapons and protect themselves. Owen may be white collar but he can fight, thanks not only to his father's training but also to Owen's past employment as a bouncer and underground cage fighter. When pushed Owen has a bad temper. However in the corporate arena the size of your paycheck means more than your physical size. And Owen doesn't make much money. He's under the thumb of a boss who can charitably be described as an a$$hole. Owen doesn't care for his boss. And the feeling is definitely mutual. One night while Owen is working late with no one else around, his boss calls him into the office and explains that he never did like Owen. And then the boss shifts form and tries to eat Pitt. Yes you see the boss is a werewolf. But Owen is not a man who runs from confrontation. More importantly, he can't outrun a werewolf. A knockdown, drag out no holds barred fight ensues. It doesn't help Owen's chances that a werewolf can almost immediately heal itself from most wounds. This was both an exciting fight and something that was almost satire. Long story short, Owen manages to throw his boss out of a 14th story window. Even a werewolf can't regenerate from that. Owen is severely wounded and technically briefly dies. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Miko Grimes and Anti-Semitic Statements

I was raised to believe that no matter what your family should be united against the outside world. So this means that if your brother gets into a fight with the local college football team you jump in to protect him even if he started it and was utterly in the wrong. If he gets his behind kicked then you'd better be right there on the floor taking the beating with him. If someone calls your sister stupid or otherwise insults her then you rise to her defense even if you think to yourself that the person making that statement may actually have a point. You can cuss out and fight with your relatives later. But if someone else bothers them then that someone else has a problem with you. And this would obviously go double for your husband or your wife. After all you took a vow which, depending on when you were married, probably included some language about forsaking all others, honoring, obeying, and/or protecting your spouse in sickness and health, in good times and bad until you are separated by death. That's not just boilerplate. It's pretty serious stuff. You're taking an oath, after all. None of these ties and bonds, whether familial or romantic, mean that you are always going to like your family or your nookie providers or agree with them. You may well believe that a relative had to have been dropped on their head as a child to be so dumb or idly wonder if your spouse will indeed bequeath an unpleasant trait to your children. But it's your right to have and express those beliefs, no one else's. I'm not going to publicly criticize or distance myself from family even if I think they are 100% offbase. I'll have a discussion with them in private about what I think they're doing wrong. I'm not going to criticize family because an outsider says I should. But I am not married to Miko Grimes, who has a history of statements and actions which would sorely test my commitment to handling family business behind closed doors.
Miko Grimes, the wife of former Miami Dolphins and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Brent Grimes, blasted Miami brass on Monday, using anti-Semitic language that she later tried to clarify. In a tweet referencing Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum, Miko Grimes tweeted:

Gotta respect ross for keeping his jew buddies employed but did he not see how tannenbaum put the jets in the dumpster w/that sanchez deal?

Philando Castile, Dallas, and Blowback

On July 6th, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, local police stopped a car driven by school cook Philando Castile. Castile was a black man. Also in the car was Castile's girlfriend Lavish Reynolds and Reynolds' four year old daughter. According to Reynolds the police demanded that Castile produce his license and registration. Although I'm not sure he was legally required to do so Castile allegedly informed the officers that he was a licensed gun permit holder and had his weapon with him.  An officer, allegedly Jeronimo Yanez, then shot Castile multiple times as Castile reached for his paperwork as directed. The police yell and and freak out as Castile slumps in his seat, dying. Reynolds was prescient and calm enough (with guns pointed at her and her daughter) to livestream the post-shooting events to Facebook. You can watch it here if you want to do so. The police ordered Reynolds out of the car. They handcuffed and detained her. Reynolds broke down later. To literally give the devil his due we don't see the events that occurred before the shooting. But we do know that Castile was legally entitled to have his gun. We don't know when and why the officers unholstered their guns. The lawyer for Yanez stated that the traffic stop was initiated because Castile resembled a robbery suspect because of his "wide nose". Reynolds stated that they were told they were stopped because of a malfunctioning tail light. But that doesn't really matter. Castile is just as dead. His crime? Being black and following instructions. Problematic doesn't even begin to describe this. Because Castile had no felony record the normal post death smears to his reputation won't be as easy to do. However the lowlifes who do things like that are even now poring over Castille's and Reynolds' social media accounts to find something to justify Castille's death. Some mental midgets were stating that Reynolds must have stolen her cigarettes. 

I would love to believe that if I just did A, B and C then I and people who look like me would be safe from police violence. But that's just not the case. You can have a pristine record, be entirely innocent, follow the officer's instructions (legal or not) to the letter and still wind up insulted, brutalized, humiliated or dead. Police initiate negative contact with black people, especially black men, at higher rates than they do with white people. If you are black the officer is more likely to search you or your vehicle, regardless of probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Anything other than instantaneous abject compliance can cause the officer to resort to deadly violence. And as Castile and Reynolds found out, even compliance isn't enough. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Rudy Giuliani and the Black Lives Matter Movement

Black lives matter.  Those three words have been at the center of heated public debate over the recent police shootings of Alton Sterling in Louisiana and Philando Castile in Minnesota, and also of the peaceful protest turned police ambush which took place in Dallas, Texas.  Perhaps the most interesting aspect of those three words -- Black Lives Matter -- is how they serve to function as a modern day Rorschach test to the listener.  Some people hear those three words and think "you're right, black lives should matter too; there's evidence to suggest that they are not treated equally by law enforcement and we should do something about that."  Other people, like former NYC mayor Rudy Giuliani, hear those three words and say this:

“If you want to deal with this on the black side, you’ve got to teach your children to be respectful to the police, and you’ve got to teach your children that the real danger to them is not the police,” Giuliani said.

“The real danger to them — 99 out of 100 times — is other black kids who are going to kill them,” the Republican ex-mayor added, citing a fake statistic.

“When you say ‘black lives matter,’ that’s inherently racist,” the ex-mayor said. “Black lives matter, white lives matter, Asian lives matter, Hispanic lives matter. That’s anti-American and it’s racist.”

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Movie Reviews: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane
directed by Dan Trachtenberg
This film tries and succeeds in having it both ways. It  could be a sequel or even a reworking of the 2008 movie Cloverfield and a film that stands completely on its own. The events in Cloverfield are only obliquely referenced if at all. In fact for the vast majority of 10 Cloverfield Lane the events of the previous film do not matter. As the previous film came out 8 years previously 10 Cloverfield Lane would have to be its own film anyway. This movie is mostly a psychological thriller. If you are the sort of person who has a low tolerance for violence this film is generally safe to watch as violence doesn't occur very much. There are only three primary characters in the entire film. On the other hand the film definitely uses a variety of techniques to make you think that violence is imminent. And when the violence does happen it's not cheap or played for laughs. It actually has a purpose. You care about the people it touches. The film regularly ratchets up and relieves tension or makes you think that it relieves tension. Although the film touches on the weird and the abnormal mostly near the ending of the film, everything else that has happened prior is really the meat and potatoes of the movie. The comedian Louis C.K has a thoughtful little bit about how weird, strange, and wonderful it is that women ever go out with men at all considering that men can pose significant physical dangers to women. Humans do not have the greatest sexual dimorphism in mammalian species but our average sexual size differences are great enough that most people would cringe at the idea of a woman fighting a man. I was reminded of Louis C.K.'s bit watching this movie. 

There is a strong argument to be made that this entire film is actually a parable about domestic violence. 10 Cloverfield Lane puts me in mind of some old Tales From The Crypt or Twilight Zone episodes. This movie is an example of how a low budget and limited sets need not harm a movie if the acting and writing are good, as is the case here. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a tall but slightly built woman (5-8, 120-130lbs?) who just had an argument with her boyfriend, She hits the road. But she doesn't get too far before she's sideswiped by a truck and forced off the road. Her car tumbles and flips.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Alton Sterling Killed By Louisiana Police While Lying on the Ground

A few facts about this tragic case of yet another Black death at the hands of police:

A 37-year-old man was fatally shot by police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, early Tuesday morning in an incident caught on video by a witness.
The 48-second video showing the shooting ofAlton Sterling has sparked outrage in the community and on social media.
The officers have been identified as Officer Blane Salamoni and Officer Howie Lake II.
The investigation has been turned over to the FBI and both officers have been placed on paid administrative leave.
Sterling was shot and killed about 12:35 a.m. Tuesday, The Advocate reports.
Sterling was selling CDs outside the Triple S Food Mart, at the corner of Fairfields Avenue and North Foster Drive, WAFB-TV reports.
Salamoni and Lake had responded to a disturbance call in which the caller said someone had been threatening him with a gun, police told the news station.
Baton Rouge Police have released few details about the shooting, including whether Sterling was armed. But a witness told The Advocate that Sterling did have a gun, but was not holding it or reaching for his pockets during the incident.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Professor Nagel Sires 22 Children

A little over a decade ago the film director Spike Lee made a movie which was titled She Hate Me. Among other things this film depicted the plight of a desperate biotech executive who, running into political, racial and financial problems at work, starts a lucrative side hustle of being the sperm donor for (primarily) lesbian women looking to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term. The movie's hook was that the executive and many of his clients preferred that the actual impregnation occurred in the old-fashioned face to face "hands-on" way. Well it wasn't always face to face strictly speaking (snicker) but no turkey basters, laboratories or other artificial methods were involved, thank you very much. I watched this movie mostly for Dania Ramirez, Monica Bellucci and Kerry Washington, all of whom are as far as I'm concerned, good enough reasons to watch most movies. Critics generally panned She Hate Me as dumb, unrealistic and of course "misogynistic". All the "serious" critics and sexuality "experts" told us that such a thing would never happen. Lesbians would never ever ever do such a thing. After all, by definition lesbians are not interested in intimate or romantic contact with a man, right? This film was just fevered sexist fantasy no doubt inspired by male fears over the rightfully lessening cultural and economic importance of masculinity. The movie was not only a critical flop but a financial one as well. And beautiful actresses not withstanding I would have to admit that the movie was not Lee's best work. Not by a long shot.  It was actually a film that made me think that I should probably wait to see what lots of other people thought of a Spike Lee film before I spent money or time on it. Well sometimes life is just as strange as fiction. In New York, some folks who apparently watched She Hate Me a few times too many have shown that the central premise of Lee's film actually does work for some people. 

On a busy night last week at the Target on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Ari Nagel, 40, emerged from the men’s bathroom looking a little flushed and quite pleased with himself. “It’s better when it’s fresh,” he told them. “It” is Nagel’s semen, and it’s in demand. The 6-foot-2 CUNY Kingsborough math professor has served as a sperm donor for dozens of locals, siring 22 kids over the past 12 years with 18 women of various backgrounds. For lesbian couples and single ladies looking to have a baby without the expense of going through a sperm bank (which can run in the thousands of dollars), he’s the No. 1 dad. “This isn’t time-consuming, and I’m doing it anyway,” he says of his hands-on hobby. “It’s very easy for me to do.” His oldest child, now 12, was conceived with a woman he was in a committed relationship with, but all of his offspring since, he says, have resulted from his donations.

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Movie Reviews: Free State of Jones, 13 Hours, Cell

Free State of Jones
directed by Gary Ross
Alright, alright, alright. This could have been a better movie. Maybe if this were the seventies or eighties some of the critical reaction to this movie would have been both more accepting and more vitriolic depending upon the critic's race and politics. It seems incredible now but remember that some white critics actually attacked Spike Lee's eighties film Do The Right Thing for raising the chances of massive race riots against white people because of a fictional depiction of a character throwing a garbage can through a window. Apparently millions of black Americans were just one film away from running amok. Those were silly, even hysterically (and historically) stupid criticisms. Now some black critics are attacking Free State of Jones because (1) it doesn't place black people at the center of a true story about a rather extraordinary white man or (2) show to their satisfaction the exact levels of heroic resistance which Black Americans attempted in a losing struggle against post-Civil War state and individual white terrorism and disenfranchisement. I think the second criticism is fair. It can be argued at least. There were post Civil War pitched battles between white racists intent on strangling black freedom in the cradle and desperately outgunned and outnumbered newly freed black citizens trying to exercise their political rights. Most of these battles and massacres are forgotten today. But the first criticism is sour grapes. If you go to the theater to watch a movie touting itself as the Ray Charles story would you expect that the entire film will center on the importance of Charles' friend, country star Buck Owens? Probably not. Although there is understandable resentment to fictional white savior stories I would argue that Free State of Jones is not such a film. Newton Knight really did put his life on the line in opposition to slavery and white supremacy. He really did lead a resistance movement in Civil War Mississippi. So complaining that a movie about his exploits puts him at the center of the story seems unwise. I want to see movies about black heroes as much as anyone else. I'm looking forward to the Nat Turner movie. I'd like to see a film about Toussaint L'Ouverture or Antonio Grajales. I don't need made up white savior films. But Newton Knight was real. There are valid and torrid criticisms that can be made about this film. I'll mention a few below. But its mere existence isn't one of them.