Saturday, March 27, 2021

Book Reviews: The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien
When we read books we dislocate ourselves in space and also time if the book is sufficiently old. What Tolkien did with The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings was to create a world which was (he was sometimes coy about this) our own but much removed in time. This world had a backstory of untold eons, its own invented languages (Tolkien was above all a philogist, being able to speak or read at least seven different languages), and its creation stories that intertwined Christianity and the Northern European myths of which Tolkien was so fond. Tolkien was also keen to point out that although the Northern myths were his favorite because they were those of his origin he was also interested in many other cultures and tales.
Although Tolkien lived and died long before the internet was a thing he was a prodigious letter writer. This book is exactly what it claims to be. It is a collection of letters written by Tolkien to friends, relatives, business associates, employers, priests, publishers, fellow writers, fans, detractors, and finally a few to his fiancee and later wife Edith. There aren't many epistles to Edith in this collection because Carpenter and evidently the Tolkien Estate thought most of them were too personal for public release. Would you want to know all of your parents' intimate discussions? Would you want everyone else to read them? I'm betting not. 
Tolkien's letters range from October 1914 to August 1973, just a few days before Tolkien's death. There is a gap in letters from 1916 to about 1923 and another from 1925 to about 1937. Carpenter says that there (a) aren't a lot of surviving letters from that period and (b) many of those that do survive are either again too personal or have little to do with Tolkien's literary works. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

Senator Schumer Shields The Rich

One of the predictable things about life is that people are hypocrites. People sanctimoniously blast others for looking after their tribe or self-interests but rush to do the exact same thing when they are in power. 
One politician who exemplifies this more than most is New York Senator Charles Schumer. 
Some people have referred to old Chucky as the Senator from Wall Street because of his previous interest in ensuring that New York based financial entities are protected from legal accountability and get their "fair share" of any "gub'mnt cheese" that is being disbursed. 
Well surprise, surprise, as it turns out Senator Schumer is also, despite former hints to the contrary just fine with public funds being given to private schools. 
Tucked into the $1.9 trillion pandemic rescue law is something of a surprise coming from a Democratic Congress and a president long seen as a champion of public education — nearly $3 billion earmarked for private schools. 
More surprising is who got it there: Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the majority leader whose loyalty to his constituents diverged from the wishes of his party, and Randi Weingarten, the leader of one of the nation’s most powerful teachers’ unions, who acknowledged that the federal government had an obligation to help all schools recover from the pandemic, even those who do not accept her group.

Brooklyn Bus Battle: You Back Up!

It's unavoidable. In life we will have arguments, debates, disagreements, contretemps, squabbles, or outright fights with other people: friends, relatives, spouses, lovers, co-workers, and strangers. It is of course always more important to insist that you are right and that the other person acknowledge that he is wrong than to find a solution to an issue that is affecting both people. Okay, obviously that statement is hyperbole but people do act like that often enough such that it's a permanent problem in human relations, both individual and societal. 
Fortunately in a recent Brooklyn confrontation, two bus drivers armed with nothing more than rising tempers clashed instead of two nations armed to the teeth that were each looking for a reason to start trouble. Bystanders intervened, lowered each antagonist's temperature, and found a solution that allowed everyone involved to maintain pride. So people solved the issue before anything other than harsh words were exchanged. And that was good. Would that more clashes turned out like this. We would all be better off for it.

Two quarreling city bus drivers locked horns and refused to move their massive rigs in a bizarre stand-off on a narrow two-way avenue in Brooklyn, a video released Friday shows. 

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Murder Over Stimulus Check in Indianapolis

When I read about the story below I was reminded of the Tolkien quote which headlines this post. I am not opposed to the death penalty per se.
But even in the most execution happy states of America, most first degree murderers never receive the death penalty. I'm not sure that imposing the death penalty would provide deterrence. There are some people who just don't care.
Obviously the death penalty is also just filthy with race and class bias just like the rest of the justice system. I have seen too many cases where innocent (often Black or poor) men have been convicted of crimes and sentenced to multiple decades to the hell of state or federal prisons, often by openly racist prosecutors or jurors who ignored exculpatory evidence, for me to uncritically endorse usage of the death penalty. 
Having  written that, I don't think the world needs people who murder children. I DO think such people deserve death. If we had the death penalty for all murderers and carried it out after trial and limited expedited appeals would there be a deterrence impact? Should we only use the death penalty where there is absolutely no doubt of guilt? Or is that morally wrong? I don't know. I'm certain that the perpetrator of the below crime should pay with his life for his deeds.
INDIANAPOLIS — Her family said Jeanettrius Moore worked hard at a beauty supply shop to support herself and two little girls and appreciated the most recent $1,400 stimulus check issued to help Americans recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. The father of her youngest baby, Malik Halfacre, thought he should get half.

Book Reviews: Dave vs. The Monsters: Resistance

Dave vs. The Monsters: Resistance
by John Birmingham
Often second books in a trilogy are a let down. Resistance is not a bad book, but the middle of stories are rarely as exciting as introductions or as satisfying as endings. To briefly recap the first book, parts of the United States and other places have been invaded by monstrous insectoid/ogrish looking creatures who have either lived in the planet's interior or are denizens of an alternate dimension that has intruded upon our own.
 The aliens always reach our world by tunneling upwards. The aliens remember humanity as frightened scared cattle. Humans don't remember the aliens at all, although they could be the inspiration for some old legends. 
Although most of these creatures are more than a match for several full grown men, their technology is at Dark Age levels. After the hero, Dave Hooper, defeats their champion, the U.S. military massacres the alien army. The aliens have no words to express what is happening to them. 
The aliens are shocked at what they saw as treachery by Dave; the deal was that that particular alien army could return to the underworld without further bloodshed. The U.S. military was not party to the deal that Dave made and wouldn't have lived up to it if it had been. Dave was initially upset about that. Captain Heath, Dave's primary military contact, makes it clear to Dave that he doesn't follow Dave's whims or film driven fantasies about honor or showdowns. Heath has much more important issues to consider, and so do his superior officers.
In Resistance, Dave has gone Hollywood. Dave spends his free time partying with Hollywood starlets, eating, drinking, and copulating with said starlets and other female members of the jet set. Dave also has hired a lawyer to try to prevent his ex-wife from cashing in on his new found fame and hopeful fortune.

Movie Reviews: Scream Blacula Scream

Scream Blacula Scream
directed by Bob Kelljan
Hollywood occasionally notices that Black audiences exist and would like to watch films in which Black actors/actresses are not always the chaste best friend, comic relief, incompetent bad guy, or useless "red shirts" who die to demonstrate the danger for the (usually white) hero/heroine. 
The late sixties and early seventies were one of those times. Scream Blacula Scream was created during that period. 
Scream Blacula Scream was a sequel to the original, equally unimaginatively titled Blacula. Despite the name, however, neither the original nor the sequel were bland mishmashes of Stoker's Dracula. In the original film--although the time period is off by about three hundred years--- Prince Mamuwalde (William Marshall), leader of the African Abani people, travels to Europe to seek support for ending the African slave trade. 
Mamuwalde asks the help of Count Dracula. Unfortunately Dracula is a racist who supports the slave trade. Dracula finds it ludicrous and offensive that any African could call himself a prince. 
Dracula turns Mamuwalde into a vampire and imprisons him, telling him his new name is Blacula. In the seventies, Blacula's sealed coffin is transferred to Los Angeles where the revived Blacula turns people into vampires while searching for the reincarnation of his long lost love.  This film starts shortly after the first film's events. A religious leader/voodoo Queen is near death. She transfers leadership to her adopted daughter Lisa (Pam Grier) instead of her biological son Willis (Richard Lawson).

Movie Reviews: Clown

Clown
directed by Jon Watts
This movie came out in 2014. Clown was Watts' directorial debut. It's low budget but does its best with what it has. Clown is by turns equally inventive and formulaic. I guess the viewer can decide for himself or herself which description best fits this horror movie. 
Now that I think about it I also wonder if Watts might be using the supernatural evil described in this film as a metaphor for an all too common real life evil. 
This movie really doesn't pull many punches in terms of graphic violence so if that is not your thing then this movie is most definitely not something you should be watching. Most of the special effects appear to have been done without the noticeable use of CGI. That choice gave the film a sense of reality that intensified the emotional impact of the violence. Horror movie viewers know the basic horror movie survival rules. 
If your special rider invites you to a weekend getaway at his/her antiquated isolated family manor you should respectfully decline the invite and end the relationship. If you find an ornate old metal box engraved with ancient silver runes, don't open that box. If a weird old man/woman moves into the crumbling manse next door and neighborhood pets go missing, call the police instead of doing your own investigation.

Movie Reviews: Strangers On A Train

Strangers On A Train
directed by Alfred Hitchcock

I was only familiar with this film via the later spoof Throw Momma From The Train which starred Danny Devito and Billy Crystal. So when I had an opportunity to watch the original I decided to check it out. It wasn't a dark comedy like the DeVito film. 
This was a serious noir film. It was based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, who also wrote the novels The Talented Mr. Ripley and its sequels. 
Many of these books were also adapted into films. Highsmith was a lesbian. This would not be relevant but for the fact that Strangers On A Train seems to contain some gay subtext. The viewer can decide on that for himself/herself. I haven't read the novel to see if Hitchcock turned up this subtext or if it was present in the book. I suspect that it was exaggerated in the film. 
Guy Haines (Farley Granger) is an up and coming tennis star with women problems. Big ones. He's married to a woman Miriam (Kasey Rogers, later seen in the tv series Bewitched) who not only gets around with anyone and everyone, she's pregnant. 
And Guy is definitely not the Daddy. Guy is, as you might suspect, a bit bummed out by this development. He wants to get a divorce so he can marry his own sidepiece, Anne Morton (Ruth Roman), the daughter of a US Senator. 

Saturday, March 13, 2021

Movie Reviews: Fatale

Fatale
directed by Deon Taylor
This new thriller is a neo-noir which compares well with the forties and fifties noir films that are its ancestors and somewhat less so with the Shannon Whirry and Shannon Tweed eighties and nineties erotic thrillers that are its more immediate antecedents. The title (and much of the story) reminded me of the femme fatale often found in such films and the Michael Douglas/Glenn Close movie Fatal Attraction. You have seen the themes and plots in this movie before. However, as some storytellers insist, perhaps ultimately there only a few archetypes which are repeatedly shared. I thought that this story was well acted and generally well written. 
There are a few things which are obvious to the viewer which aren't obvious to the protagonist. In these movies the protagonist is not usually a man who is filled with rectitude. He's a man who makes mistakes.  You might even say that he's a man who indulges some sins. But in noir films the protagonist is often not the worst person depicted on screen. He's usually a man who thinks, often accurately, that his choices are few or constrained. Thus, like many people in real life, the noir protagonist has to choose what he sees as the least bad outcome. 

Movie Reviews: Shot Caller

Shot Caller
directed by Ric Roman Waugh 
I remember the righteous living and doing all I knew for good
/If I could change this corruption you know I would if I only could." Up in Heah" Ike &Tina Turner
A Shot Caller is the person or persons in a prison gang who has the authority (keys) for his gang for a particular yard, building, prison complex, group of prisons, or even entire state. What this person says goes. Challenging his authority or otherwise disrespecting him isn't wise. While a specific shot caller won't necessarily have defined authority over other races or prison gangs, depending on how numerous, vicious, and/or well connected his particular gang is, a particular shot caller could be the dominant boss.
If you are in a prison of 3000 and 2500 of the inmates belong to your race or gang then the shot callers for other races/gangs probably don't want too many problems with you. Or vice versa, if your 500 out of 3000 are known to be unified and insanely hyperviolent, you could punch well above your weight in terms of prison power and influence.
Shot Caller examines the fall of California stockbroker Jacob Harlan (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau , Jaime Lannister from HBO's Game of Thrones) from naive yuppie to a prince of darkness. The film has too many flash backs and flash forwards. It made sense at the end for reasons I can't discuss here but I think a traditional narrative would have been equally powerful. Physics hasn't given us the definitive answer for whether time travel into the past is possible. I think most people have wished that we could go in back in time to change a bad decision. Jacob certainly wishes he made better choices.

Georgetown Law Professor Fired

Adjunct Georgetown Law Professors Sandra Sellers and David Batson were caught on Zoom discussing the less than stellar performance of some Black law students. It appears that Sellers did the talking while Batson nodded. I thought that this was another Amy Wax situation in which a smug white professor jeered the low performance of Black students, argued that they shouldn't be in her class breathing up all of her white woman's air, opined that their low performance was because of intractable biological or cultural inferiorities, and ended by screaming the N-word. That's hyperbole. Professor Wax didn't do ALL of that but her blunt hostility to Black students was crystal clear.

We didn't see that extreme contempt here. Sellers said she was frustrated (she used the word "angst") that most of the Black students were consistently among the lower performing cohorts. The professor identified a pattern. There is a HUGE difference between noticing a phenomenon you don't like and saying you think Black people are intellectually inferior because of their race.
(CNN)One Georgetown Law professor has been fired and another placed on administrative leave after one's comments disparaging Black students were recorded via Zoom.
Sandra Sellers and David Batson, the two professors, had a conversation regarding Black students' performance in their classes at the end of a lecture last month. Their comments were included in the recorded lecture, said Hassan Ahmad, a student at Georgetown Law who posted a snippet of the video on Twitter.

Michigan Deer Stampede

I wouldn't say this is a common sight in Michigan. But it's not rare either. Good thing no humans or deer were harmed.

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Georgia Republicans Attack Black Voting

A constant in American politics and society is that white racists create rules to exclude Black people from enjoying benefits or from accessing certain constitutionally guaranteed rights. 

When Black people figure out a way around, over, under or through those roadblocks the racists retreat to a prearranged rally point and create new rules to continue doing (exclusion and prevention) what the older rules can no longer legally accomplish. The mid 20th century Civil Rights movements removed many of the explicit anti-Black rules. But there was always a backlash. 
Forced to let Black people into public pools? Close down all the public pools. Forced public school integration? Depart districts with Black residents or send your children to exclusive private schools which can legally discriminate. Forced to hire Black people? Hire some but make things so unpleasant that they leave on their own. 
Forced to let Black people vote, as if they are American citizens or something? Can't bring out the dogs, thugs, and firehoses as much as you would like? Well change the rules to target Black voters. We should remember the intellectual Godfather of post WW American conservatism and founder of the National Review, William F. Buckley, made a name for himself by opposing voting rights for Black people:

Saturday, March 6, 2021

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo Under Fire

That smell you detect coming from the East Coast is the unwrapping of Governor Cuomo's diaper. As long as he was a marshal of the "Resistance" against Trump I think that some people were willing to overlook Cuomo's dominant and domineering personality and infamous rivalries and feuds with other elected Democrats. 

But now that Trump is gone perhaps folks are okay with taking a closer look at some of Cuomo's behavior. You may have heard that Governor Cuomo has been accused of inappropriate behavior and/or sexual harassment by three women. Two of the women worked for Cuomo. FWIW I believe those women. Their stories do not rise to the "Give me some or you're fired!" level of harassment but the allegations, if true, demonstrate that the Governor has at best poor judgment. The third woman did not work for the Governor, but accused him of trying to hit on her at a wedding. I think the third story is weak sauce. 
Men and women do flirt with each other and make moves on each other at weddings---and other places at well. I don't think we should or can criminalize or stigmatize most of this behavior when it occurs out of the workplace. It's part of life. Sometimes people say no. Other times they say yes. There is a huge difference between a boss talking to a subordinate about what he or she likes romantically/sexually and someone using the exact same lines with a stranger at a bar, wedding, or other social environment. 

Movie Reviews: Redemption Day

Redemption Day
directed by Hicham Hajji
It's rare to see films where the Black lead gets to be the hero, kick some butt, and win the girl. So I was predisposed to like a film that was set up to do just that. Unfortunately although this movie attempted to hit all those points, it was a bland mix of plots and themes that were better done in video games. 
The leading actor and actress did okay with what they had to work with I suppose but the writing and cinematography didn't offer them any support. I also had the sneaking feeling that a lot of the story was a compromise among the director, writer(s), and producer(s). There were too many plot lines left dangling like a worm on a hook. Some important themes started but ended abruptly. The film had a number of internal contradictions, the most obvious of which was that in my opinion the leading actor was a bit too old for his military rank. Gary Dourdan is extremely well preserved for his age but he is fifty-four years old. I don't think he could pass for much below forty.
My understanding is that even forty something is older than the normal age range for a Marine Captain. It seems as if Dourdan's character, if active duty, should have been a major or lieutenant colonel. Of course it's possible that some of the flashbacks were meant to be twenty years prior but they were ineptly done. In any event Marine Captain Brad Paxton (Dourdan) has returned home after some stuff went really wrong in Syria. Brad saved lives and prevented things from getting worse. He was decorated for his actions and is viewed well by the military brass. 

Movie Reviews: Deadline At Dawn

Deadline At Dawn
directed by Harold Clurman
Deadline At Dawn
was based on the novel of the same name by the famous pulp writer Cornell Woolrich aka William Irish aka George Hopley, some of whose work appears in The Big Book of Pulps, which was earlier reviewed here. Woolrich had a pretty interesting life in some ways, tragic in others. 
Filmmakers adapted a lot of Woolrich's work for the big screen. The most famous films made from Woolrich's novels or short stories were probably Alfred Hitchcocks's Rear Window and Francois Truffaut's The Bride Wore Black
There are always secrets within secrets in Woolrich's work, in print or on screen. Likely this had something to do with his own life and secrets. Woolrich was a repressed guilt ridden diabetic gay man who after a failed marriage lived with his mother until her death. Woolrich was also one of the greatest pulp writers to exist, with a keen if oft cynical insight into human nature. Pick up any of his works if you are into pulp/noir fiction.
Deadline At Dawn is an excellent film by Harold Clurman, though as befitting his stage background it often feels like a play. It loses something by being shot almost entirely on soundstages. The hurly burly of mid century New York City doesn't always come across. 
What does come across is the mixture of love, lust, greed, altruism, revenge, and forgiveness that mark us as human and which we all have in various proportions. As with the best films, Deadline At Dawn is timeless. It could very easily be set in today's time with minor changes. People might dress differently and speak differently but the core challenges of being human are more or less the same as they have always been.

Dollar Store Meat: Good Deal or Dirty Meal??

I have been financially worse off than I am currently. However I have never been so desperate or so cheap as to need to purchase food from a Dollar Store or similar establishment. I can not imagine that anything edible at the Dollar Store would be truly worthwhile. After all, you often get what you pay for in this world. Recently I ran across this video by a person who prepared and consumed some Dollar Tree meat. The experience turned out as I expected it would. Although this is humorous because the person who created the video evidently has enough income so that he doesn't HAVE to purchase such "food", it's not that funny if you think about people whose only choice is to take chances on food like this or not eat at all. It is unfortunate that a hundred years after Upton Sinclair's The Jungle turned an eye on unregulated capitalistic slaughterhouse and distribution practices, such "food" is still allowed to be sold.