Saturday, August 31, 2019

Movie Reviews: Brightburn

Brightburn
directed by David Yarovesky
Richard Donner directed Superman and The Omen. Brightburn is a low budget earnest mashup of those movies. It is produced by the people who created Guardians of the GalaxyBrightburn imagines the origin story of an evil Superman. Evil is a loaded word. There is no such thing as evil in nature.  

The cuckoo who tricks other birds into raising its hatchling, who immediately destroys the host birds' eggs, the wolf who hunts bison to eviscerate and eat them, or (in the film's example) the wasp who lays eggs in or around other insects who either raise wasp young or become food for wasp young are all acting according to their instinct. They can't be reasoned with or trained to do otherwise. Their behavior is pre-programmed. It's who they are and what they do.

Arguably humans can deliberately ignore, short-circuit or rewrite much of our instinctual programming. Some argue that humans don't even have instinctual programming. I don't know that I would go that far but humans certainly possess a level of free will that is apparently unparalleled for other beings. Brightburn depicts events when someone who looks human but isn't reaches a point where his pre-existing programming activates. The results for humans are similar to the caterpillar who discovers that its supposed stomach ache is actually a young wasp eating its way out of the caterpillar. Not good.

Book Reviews: Goodbye Homeboy

Goodbye Homeboy
by Steve Mariotti with Debra Devi
I am always intrigued to find that a person talented in one field is also skilled in another. The musician Debra Devi's new book demonstrates that Devi should be just as well known as an author as a musician. I had a strong sense of six degrees of separation reading this book as the other author and primary subject, Steve Mariotti, is a Michigan native and University of Michigan graduate.

This book is a memoir by a white teacher who helped mostly Black and Latino impoverished students better themselves and improve their lives. Some people will immediately dismiss it on those grounds alone. That would be a mistake, I think. The story is real. I didn't pick up any white savior vibe. This book makes the implicit and occasionally explicit argument that teachers need higher salaries and better social/workplace support.


In his younger days (I have no idea of his politics now) Mariotti had a libertarian streak. The book features amusing stories about Mariotti's meetings--really more head butts-- with Objectivist philosopher, author and Libertarian inspiration Ayn Rand. I thought Rand was a horrible person on a personal level and a philosophical one. 


Near the end of her life Rand wasn't that different from a cult leader. When Mariotti shared his ideas or principles with Rand, she insulted him and dismissed him from her presence. Rand went out of her way to write nasty letters to Mariotti calling him a loser and ordering him to never darken her door again.

I found this darkly amusing only because at the time of Mariotti's interaction with her, Rand was at an advanced age and was certainly not, to put it mildly, a beauty. Rand was a mean narcissist who apparently found it important to use her time to attempt to crush a young man's ego. Some people.


Karachi: City of Flies

More people live in the Pakistani city of Karachi than live in the states of Michigan and Wisconsin combined. I would not care to reside in a place with so many people and so little space or privacy. 

I would like it even less if through poverty and poor decision making I lived in a place with poor sewage systems and the resulting infestation of flies and disease. I am amazed that Pakistan has allowed the conditions in its largest city to become this horrible. It was evidently more important to the powers that be in Pakistan to have nuclear weapons and flex muscles at their arch rival and neighbor, India, than to build clean safe cities for their citizens. And one could say the same about conditions in some Indian cities. 

That's a shame. One of the most important responsibilities of a state, society and culture is to provide clean drinking water, safe food, protections from disease and vermin and a sense of cleanliness. Without that you don't have anything as far as I am concerned.

KARACHI, Pakistan — First came the floods, as weeks of monsoon rains deluged neighborhoods across Karachi, sending sewage and trash through Pakistan’s largest city. Then came the long power outages, in some cases for 60 hours and counting.

And then it got worse: Karachi is now plagued by swarms of flies. The bugs seem to be everywhere in every neighborhood, bazaar and shop, sparing no one. They’re a bullying force on sidewalks, flying in and out of stores and cars and homes, and settling onto every available surface, from vegetables to people.

Movie Reviews: Replicas

Replicas
directed by Jeffrey Nachmanoff
Replicas is a example of how even a movie that has A-list stars is still subject to story limits. Top stars paired with a great story usually means a great movie. Top stars paired with a mediocre story often means a mediocre movie. And top stars weighed down with a sh***y story usually means a sh***y movie, for example, Replicas

It's a mystery that the head producer and studio executives didn't watch this completed movie, pull a sap or baseball bat out of their desk drawer, yell "Come here, come here!" and chase the director and writers of this tripe around the office and through the building, trying to belt them upside the head. 

If I gave someone $30 million dollars and they turned in this crap I would do them bodily harm. I would presume they were deliberately trying to get me fired. If I were the studio head, owner or distributor and learned that an executive spent $30 million of company money on this movie I'd fire them before they left on Friday. I'd call competitors to ensure, as the hoary phrase goes, that the offending person would never work in this town again.

Some say there are only a limited number of stories. I don't know. I do know that there are some common themes which inspire or lurk behind many films or books. We need romantic/physical/sexual love. We want material success. We fear the unknown. We want to live and avoid illness and death. We want to protect our loved ones-whether they're young and naive or old and frail. Those themes are what the viewer is set up to expect will be explored in Replicas. Unfortunately they were ignored or ineptly handled.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Movie Reviews: Greta, Creed 2

Greta
directed by Neil Jordan
Greta has the very serious and greatly acclaimed French actress Isabelle Huppert playing the title role in a movie which is almost certainly far beneath her talents but at the same time fits some stereotypical assumptions about older women. 

The camera is not really a friend to Huppert here but no one stays beautiful or on top forever, which perhaps is one of the points this uneven movie was making. 

Twenty or thirty years ago this sort of movie would have starred Jennifer Jason Leigh and Farrah Fawcett. The story is very familiar. What matters is not the story's lack of originality but whether the writers and actresses involved pull the viewer into the unreality bubble and keep them there. With a few huge glaring exceptions they accomplished this task for most of the film. The exceptions are what made me think the story was uneven.

Frances (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a NYC waitress who is struggling to process grief over her mother's recent death from cancer and what she sees as her father's (Colm Feore) insufficient period of mourning and rapid remarriage and immersion in work. Frances lives with a wealthy stylish roommate Erica (Maika Monroe) who is constantly after Frances to enjoy life and stop moping about. 

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Movie Reviews: Ode to Joy

Ode to Joy
directed by Jason Winer
This is an intermittently humorous though predictable romantic comedy that deftly weaves through some dark passageways before returning to the crowd pleasing formula that typifies the genre. 

Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy must reexamine his life choices and triumph over internal challenges and fears. Hopefully transformed, newly confident boy goes after girl again hoping for second chance.


This film's hero is Charlie (Martin Freeman), a forty something unmarried schlub librarian who works in the Brooklyn Public Library. His sad sack co-workers like Charlie. They wonder if Charlie's gay or asexual because Charlie is never seen in the company of women, nor does he come in on Mondays talking about weekend dates with beautiful ladies.  


Charlie is neither gay nor asexual.  Charlie's problem, which is (not quite hilariously) depicted at the wedding of his little sister Liza (Shannon Woodward) is that he suffers from cataplexy. Any strong emotions, in Charlie's case joy is usually the culprit, trigger blackouts, loss of muscle control, and fainting. It's incurable and embarrassing. At Liza's wedding Charlie fainted and took out at least four people.


Movie Reviews: The Great Race

The Great Race
directed by Blake Edwards
I first saw this film as a child many many years ago but had forgotten the title. I recently ran across it. It's a slapstick comedy with a side order of The Battle of the Sexes. This film works the same side of the street as films like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or later works like Smokey and the Bandit

The scene that stuck in my head was when the heroine challenges the hero to a duel, snidely announcing that she was the Women's International Fencing Champion. Unperturbed, the hero accepts the challenge, swiftly defeats her and coolly reminds her that he was the Men's International Fencing Champion.


You wouldn't see a scene like that in many films today. And if you did, it wouldn't be good natured like this movie. Men and women can complain and snark but each makes the other possible. Although the film is humorous it's not the anarchic over the top style of The Three Stooges, at least not until the end. Although I enjoyed watching the film for old times' sake it was rarely laugh out loud funny. I smiled and chuckled though.


By modern standards this film is tame on sex and violence. There is minor slapstick mayhem and Natalie Wood in a few (well more than a few) revealing outfits but that's it. At the beginning of the 20th century Leslie Gallant III (Tony Curtis) is a daredevil. He's always dressed in white, supremely confident, polite and protective of women, children and the downtrodden. 

Yellowstone Park: When Bison Attack

I would like to think that as an adult I would be smart enough to stay far away from a one ton bison. I also like to think that if a child of mine were in danger I would run to try to save that child instead of running to save myself. But one never knows, does one. I'm glad the girl in the below video is okay. I can't blame her for being so close to a large wild animal. She's only nine years old. I don't expect her to be full of wisdom and smarts. She just got here. I do blame her parents for being stupid enough to allow this event to occur. News flash. Wild animals are well, WILD.




Friday, August 16, 2019

Stuyvesant and The Limits of Affirmative Action

I support public and private sector workplace affirmative action programs. Many people have a strong preference for their own and a disdain for Black intelligence and competence. We live in a very segregated society. 

People who live separate residential and personal lives are as a group often unable or unwilling to judge co-workers, business partners, or new hires solely by potential and results. Humans usually don't work that way. 

Whether it is law firm partners who find more errors in associates' work if they think the associate is Black, hiring agents who sight unseen reject candidates with "Black" names, people that just tell someone straight out that they don't hire their kind, immigrants who won't hire Black people, managers more willing to hire white felons than Blacks without criminal records, workplace bigotry and stereotyping remains a huge problem. It's partly why the black unemployment rate has stubbornly remained twice that of whites for about as long as the metric has been recorded. If you're Black and haven't experienced any workplace funny business, congratulations but I think your number just hasn't come up yet.  It will soon

We do need standards. Properly done, affirmative action should make people define and enforce objective standards. If a company hires an incompetent Black person, I won't cry when that person is fired, demoted or transferred. But evaluating job performance can be opaque and biased. A person who excels in one role or with one set of people can fail in a different role or with different co-workers. Measuring educational performance is different. This brings us to Stuyvesant High School. 

Michigan White Woman Calls Police On Black Man For Reckless Eyeballing

American Black men who are present where white people think they shouldn't be or who look at a white person and scare that person can be in danger of being assaulted (if the white person in question happens to be male and/or larger than the Black man) or of being detained/arrested by the police (if the white person in question happens to be female and/or smaller than the Black man). Of course if the frightened white person happens to be armed, that Black man or boy might be in even more serious and immediate trouble.

This was often called "reckless eyeballing" after the southern habit of arresting black men accused of looking at a white woman. Looking a white woman in the eyes, or with with what she thought was sexual interest, or just making her uncomfortable could and did lead to arrest, assaults, beatings, lynchings, murders and pogroms.  

Matt Ingram was among the last convicted under this framework, in a 1951 case made notorious by civil rights activists in North Carolina. A seventeen-year-old white woman named Willa Jean Boswell testified that she was scared when her neighbor Ingram looked at her from a distance of about 65 feet. Prosecutors demanded a conviction of assault with intent to rape that was reduced to assault on a female by the judge, leading to a two-year sentence.
At the appeal in Superior Court, the judge instructed the jury that Ingram was guilty if he used “intentional threats or menace of violence such as looking at a person in a leering manner, that is, in some sort of sly or threatening or suggestive manner…he causes another to reasonably apprehend imminent danger” The all-white jury again returned a conviction, leading to a six-month sentence of labor on the roads, suspended for five years.

Cases like this were why many older Black men I know avoided even transparently consensual and utterly platonic interactions with white women. They considered it imprudent or even dangerous. But times have changed have they not? Well they have and have not. Recently not far from me, this happened:  Royal Oak police have launched an internal investigation after officers stopped and questioned a black man reportedly because a white woman said he looked at her suspiciously. 

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Movie Reviews: Hotel Mumbai

Hotel Mumbai
directed by Anthony Maras
Hotel Mumbai was Maras' directorial debut. Maras is a cousin of Nick Mamatas (author of I am Providence, reviewed here) and of the Greek singer Eleftheria Arvanitaki, which I guess if nothing else shows that talent does run in families. 

There are some people who wouldn't see the point of this 2018 film and others who wouldn't like it because of its similarity to recent real life attacks by young men with similar hateful beliefs as those depicted here. Some people complained that the white people got too much emphasis at the expense of the South Asian or West Asian actors. I was on guard and looking for that when I went in but I honestly didn't see it at all.  Sometimes those are automatic and incorrect complaints. 

Hotel Mumbai is a fictionalized retelling of the 2008 Pakistani Islamic terrorist attacks in Mumbai. It is violent, though I don't think it fetishizes bloodshed. Watching it I was left with a sense of regret at how fragile life can be and how seductive the call of grievance and hatred often is. This is thus, in many aspects, a horror movie with a heart. 

If you're just not a person who can tolerate any violence then this film isn't for you. It is in my opinion an exciting movie and one that will make you think about the nature of heroism. There is plenty of heroism in this film though not in the way that action film audiences have come to expect it. 


Book Reviews: Button Man

Button Man
Andrew Gross
I thought that this book was a bait and switch. A button man is of course an older term for mobster, or specifically a hitman/enforcer/bodyguard. As the fictional Willie Cicci told us "The boss says to push a button on a guy, I push a button". Later, as the term button man fell out of use, someone who had his "button" was someone who was a full and formal member of an Italian-American organized crime family. This book's title and intro made me think this book would be about early organized crime. 

Well it was and wasn't. What this book really is a fictionalized hagiography to the author's deceased grandfather, a Jewish garment district business owner and later tycoon.


Organized crime makes many people think of the Italian-American variety, the Mafia. Up until at least the 1940s organized crime was just as much a Jewish-American venture. In fact arguably the Jewish syndicate was more powerful. 


Gangsters like Dutch Schultz, Arnold Rothstein, Bugsy Siegel, Gurrah Shapiro, Little Augie Orgen, Meyer Lansky, and Lepke Buchalter were just as infamous and as violent as their Italian-American counterparts. Hollywood has tended to downplay this.


Some Jewish creatives believe that an overemphasis on Italian-American macho criminality has left the Jewish-American image too closely identified with the brainy, sarcastic nebbish, as typified by Woody Allen. These writers want to remind us that for better or worse Jews could be tough guys as well. Meyer Lansky was a hoodlum but he also violently broke up Nazi meetings in New York and beyond. I don't know that Gross feels that way but in his afterword he references as inspirations some writers who do.


This story follows the life choices of Morris Rabishevsky (Raab) and his brothers. The Rabishevksy brothers grow up in horrible poverty on New York's Lower East Side at the turn of the century. Their father dies early; another brother dies in an accident. 



Dumb Criminals Strike Again!

I have always been amazed and somewhat amused by criminals who do really stupid things for really small rewards. This could be a school board member who agrees to take a $200 bribe in order to steer business to a favored company and ends up serving 10 years in prison as a result. 

Or in this case I was wondering why, at a time when gasoline is not cheap, a woman would apparently decide to drive roughly 35 miles from Garden City, Michigan to Pittsfield Township, Michigan in order to attempt to snatch a purse from a 93 year old woman.

A Garden City woman has been charged with stealing a purse from a 93-year-old woman in a Pittsfield Township parking lot, according to authorities. Police said the incident happened at 4:30 p.m. Sunday in the 3000 block of Packard Road in Pittsfield Township.

Movie Reviews: Hellboy

Hellboy(2019)
directed by Neil Marshall
Neil Marshall directed Dog Soldiers which you really should see and this film which you really should not. Marshall also directed HBO's A Game of Thrones episodes "Blackwater" and "Watchers on the Wall" so it's not as if he's not a talented director with both work he's written and that which he didn't. Marshall's presence is the reason I decided to give this film a look see. 

However there's really no better way than to describe this film than as rancid. If a film could smell this smells like a puppy's crate accident mixed with spoiled Limburger cheese and rotting Durian fruit. Having thought about this for a while I am surprised that after reviewing the finished product the studio and/or producers didn't just tell everyone involved thanks for your work, here's your check but there's no way we can release this film. 


I think the major problem is that this is a reboot of something that didn't really need to be rebooted. The original Hellboy was very much a personal vision of baroque/gothic/steampunkish Lovecraftian horror fantasy lovingly and lavishly created for the screen by director Guillermo Del Toro and interpreted by hulking everyman actor Ron Perlman. When the studio couldn't come to terms with both of those men for another sequel they went to reboot mode.


Saturday, August 3, 2019

Movie Reviews: Gloria Bell

Gloria Bell
directed by Sebastian Lelio
Gloria Bell is Lelio's English language remake of his 2013 Chilean movie Gloria. The very first thing I thought after having watched this movie, which presumably was at least one of the film's purposes, was that time flies. 

It's hard for me to believe that John Turturro, who for me is always defined by his roles in classic films such as Do The Right Thing, Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski, Barton Fink, and Jungle Fever among others, is actually sixty-two years old! Time waits for no man. And no woman either. Julianne Moore is quite well preserved but isn't that much younger than Turturro.

Although the film's trailer might give you the impression that this is a romantic comedy about a couple of a certain age that is not at all where the film's focus is. This is an arthouse slice of life film about a couple of a certain age. And wait, let's rephrase that. It's really about one half of a couple. There are certainly comedic elements in Gloria Bell, oft handled in a mordantly adult way, but this isn't a story where everything will be wrapped up just fine in the third act because someone caught their special rider at the airport/train station/bus station/port and poured out their heart to that special someone just before the other person left forever. 

Friday, August 2, 2019

Democratic Debate Impressions

Tulsi Gabbard debates Kamala Harris
The two recent Democratic Presidential debates were entertaining. Everyone tried to take down Biden. Tulsi Gabbard smacked Kamala Harris around like Harris owed her money or had stolen her man. Even for a politician, Cory Booker oozed insincerity. If I hear him do that fake overemphasis on a syllable or word to show he cares one more time...
Julian Castro continued to press for decriminalizing illegal border crossings. Elizabeth Warren showed that just because she sounds nice you had better not forget that she can and will open a can of whoop-a$$ on anyone challenging her preferred big plans.  
Warren: "You know, I don’t understand why anybody goes to all the trouble of running for president of the United States just to talk about what we really can’t do and shouldn’t fight for. I don’t get it."
Bernie Sanders made an apparent alliance of opportunity and stood back to back with Elizabeth Warren as the two spent a good deal of the night fending off attacks from rivals who insisted that their more progressive plans were unworkable, too expensive, damaging to the middle class and would help re-elect Donald Trump.
We'll see but my take is that some candidates are mistaken if they think people line up to drop their private health coverage for Medicare coverage while paying higher taxes to do so. The larger issue lurking behind that is "equality". The problem is that freedom and equality don't always go hand in hand, as Vonnegut pointed out all those years ago in Harrison Bergeron