Saturday, August 27, 2011

Music Reviews-Elmore James, Billy Joel, Rigoletto, and more

Elmore James
Slide guitar is one of the best known techniques in blues. Playing slide is one method of permitting the guitarist to temporarily turn the guitar into a fretless instrument and more easily reach those microtones, the notes between the notes that are not normally recognized in Western music but are essential in many non-Western musics, especially much African music. As blues is African-American music it is unsurprising that slide guitar became (somewhat stereotypically in present day) a blues guitar hallmark. BB King, who does not play slide, came up with his distinctive trilling technique by initially trying to imitate the slide sound of his cousin, Booker White.

There were and are many great slide players as well as guitarists who occasionally made use of a slide but were just as talented without one. Some of them I may mention in the future-Hound Dog Taylor, JB Hutto, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Jimi Hendrix, Booker White, Ben  Harper, Duane Allman, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Blind Willie Johnson, and several others. But one who stood apart was Elmore James. He was also a singer of some renown who had a distinctively masculine voice that sounded like a lovesick bull braying. You can hear both pain and pride in his voice and he's real about both of those feelings. Along with Muddy Waters, Elmore James virtually defined post-war slide technique.

Where Muddy's slide sound was trebly, whiny and always perched just on the edge of distortion, Elmore's sound was thick, full and bassy. And he dove into levels of amplified distortion meltdown that would not be attempted again until Hendrix, Clapton and the Young Brothers (AC/DC) took up playing. If you want to hear CRUNCH listen to Elmore James. From a technical standpoint this is really amazing considering that James very very rarely played a traditional electric guitar. He usually played an acoustic guitar that he had personally modified with his pickups. This was played through either some no-name cheap amp or a homemade amp. (James was a technical ace who had worked in a radio repair shop) Eventually James was able to replicate his slide sound even without using a slide.

Although many of his licks can now be considered simplistic virtually all of them remain exciting. James' band, The Broomdusters, were just as loud and as avant-garde as he was. It is quite easy to hear echoes of many of the above mentioned guitarists in his music as James was quite influential. Muddy's sound was quite urban. James travelled back to Mississippi quite frequently and his music reflected that. He was playing "blues-rock" before it had a name. If you like loud blues, rock-n-roll, and music that is designed to put your moneymaker in motion, if you want to know what a 1959 African-American house party or fish fry sounded like this might be for you. James had a chronic heart condition and passed away in 1963 but his music will live on forever.

Something Inside of Me   It Hurts Me Too  Done Somebody Wrong   Anna Lee
The Sun is Shining   I can't stop loving you   Bleeding Heart

Billy Joel

Billy Joel is a pop-rock pianist and songwriter from Long Island, NY. Somewhat unfortunately for him initially he came on the scene when critical taste had veered away from openness and honesty in music to irony, cynicism and decadence. Although some of Joel's music can be extremely cynical (having your brother-in-law and lawyers rip you off for millions can do that to a man) he also wrote many McCartney-esque pop tunes. These didn't endear him to critics who considered them "sappy" or akin to musical Hallmark cards. It didn't help that Joel played piano, not guitar, at a time when guitar had become the definitive RAWK instrument. And Joel's penchant for ripping up critical reviews on stage- well that sent the critics to the mattresses and the 1977 Village Voice war was on.

Unlike fellow piano superstar Elton John, Joel did not usually engage in a lot of flash and circus during his live shows (I don't think he was ever seen in heels or makeup either LOL) and generally relied on a pleasant, if somewhat nasally tenor voice and great songwriting. Joel was influenced much more by old school rock-n-roll, Brill Building pop, Broadway show tunes, doo-wop, light jazz, ragtime, classical, older R&B/soul and jump blues than by hardcore blues or hard rock, each of which were safer influences (critically speaking) to have during the early seventies.

Although the critics had doubts, Joel persevered and like others before him must have cried all the way to the bank (He is the third best selling solo artist of all time in the U.S.). We each may have only a few years to REALLY make our mark on the world and for Joel that period was the early seventies to the mid eighties. He created some really really good music during this era. Joel has suffered (still suffers?) from depression. He once tried to commit suicide and more than a few of his songs hint at the loneliness and darkness in life. (Piano Man anyone???) But although many of his classic tunes mention the darkness they aren't consumed by it. There's joy in his music. A lot of it. I can't pick a favorite song of his but Vienna comes close. It's a song Joel wrote after visiting his father.

It is the mark of a really good songwriter that they are able to take a quite particular point of view or set of experiences (in Joel's case a Jewish kid who was a teen boxer/delinquent growing up in Hicksville, Long Island) and make it universal without losing an ounce of specificity. I've only been to New York once yet I feel like I know it intimately just from Joel's songs. Joel's lyrics tell stories. His music often sounds like soundtracks to movies that haven't been made or maybe even to your life. I have little in common with Joel but he is a favorite. His music is quite fun to sing along to in the car or at parties. And everyone knows a Brenda or Eddie or has been a Brenda or Eddie.

Joel's muse has evidently left him -no one has an endless well of creativity or energy-and he has stopped writing new pop music. He still tours regularly playing from a huge songbook of hits and hidden gems.
Ain't No Crime        Captain Jack  Piano Man
Vienna                              Roberta   She's always a woman to me
Scenes from an Italian Restaurant  Streetlife Serenader
Moving Out(Anthony's Song)           Big Shot   Billy The Kid

Rigoletto is an opera by Verdi. It is a favorite of mine and is one of the better known of his operas. The story is classic and illuminates the meaning of the grim proverb "If you seek revenge, dig two graves". The Duke is a notorious player. He seduces women all over the duchy, married or not, young or old. He brags about this while the lesser nobles seethe. They can't touch the Duke. But they mean to take vengeance on the Duke's jester, Rigoletto, who even more so than his boss, mocks the cuckolded husbands, infuriated brothers or angry fathers. Rigoletto often picks out the women to be seduced and counsels the Duke to have this or that man executed, rather than risk the revenge of a dishonored individual. One such man curses Rigoletto-something which Rigoletto ignores at first but remembers later. Having heard a rumor that Rigoletto himself has a mistress the nobles intend to kidnap her and present her to the Duke.

Rigoletto has no mistress but he does have a young innocent daughter, Gilda, who for obvious reasons, he keeps hidden away. Both the Duke and the nobles discover Gilda. In an increasingly tragic series of mixups, Rigoletto is tricked by the nobles into kidnapping his own daughter and delivering her to the Duke. By the time he discovers the ruse it's too late. The Duke has "done the job" on Gilda and she's in love with him. Plotting revenge Rigoletto arranges the services of an assassin to remove the Duke from the planet but the lovestruck Gilda disguises herself as a man and is stabbed by the assassin (who has been convinced by his sister-also in love with the Duke-to spare the Duke's life, but murder the first man he sees). Rigoletto arrives to pay the assassin and remove the body (tied in a bag) of who he thinks is the Duke. Just about to throw the sack into the river, Rigoletto hears the Duke once again singing his signature tune about the capriciousness of women "La Donna e mobile" and in horror opens the sack to see his dying daughter, who even then still loves the Duke.

There are a lot of different versions of Rigoletto obviously but for my money the best feature Luciano Pavarotti as the Duke. There's a good chance that even if you aren't a big classical music fan you've heard portions of this opera.
La Donna e mobile   Questo o Quello  Three Tenors do La Donna e mobile   Bella Figlia Dell'Amore

Susana Baca
Susana Baca is an Afro-Peruvian singer and musicologist. I have a few of her cd's. The best way I have of describing her voice is probably languid and rich. Although their sounds are not similar much like Billie Holiday, Baca is quite skilled at singing behind the beat and occasionally turning the time around. Beside Holiday the other singers I am reminded of when listening to Baca are Edith Piaf, Astrud Gilberto and Dinah Washington (on her more reflective songs).

Baca sings primarily in Spanish so obviously I don't understand the lyrics for the most part but good music is good music. Although you can definitely hear the family connection to African performed or inspired music across the diaspora, Baca's music is NOT salsa, calypso, merengue or anything like that. It's very distinctive and sounds to my untrained ears like a mix of jazz, flamenco, bossa-nova and fado with a little soul mixed in for flavor. Before I started listening to her I was only vaguely aware that there were any Black people in Peru.

Ms. Baca recently was recently appointed as Peru's Minister of Culture and has released a CD, Afrodisapora, which explores the various musical links between the disparate African descended communities in the New World. You can read her interview here. I am happy to see someone of her age start to get more exposure and recognition.

Maria Landa   Toro Mata   De Los Amores  Live in Prague Valentin

Eugene McDaniels
Eugene McDaniels just passed away on July 29. He was a somewhat underrated songwriter and guitarist. Like many of the musicians I like McDaniels matured musically before genres had hardened into distinct categories whose adherents did not speak to each other. He sang like a jazz man, bent notes on his guitar like a bluesman, started some of the first "rap" songs-listen to Silent Majority, wrote love songs and produced records for R&B/soul singers, and performed guitar freakouts like the craziest rock star. He also had a noticeable folk influence (check out Susan Jane)
McDaniels was probably best known for his songwriting for Roberta Flack (Feel Like Making Love) and Les McCann/Eddie Harris (Silent Majority, Compared to What). Flack also covered his Reverend Lee.

If you can find them his socially conscious albums Headless heroes of the apocalypse and Outlaw, are definitely worth listening to. At the time when Headless heroes of the apocalypse was released evidently the content was considered so controversial that Spiro Agnew allegedly called up Atlantic records to see "what the hell was going on". And the album was not released. The album was definitely political in nature but McDaniels saw politics as just part of what impacted people's lives. I think his song The Parasite is one of the definitive protest songs about the experience of Native American peoples.
I have to say this-McDaniels was far more of a bluesman than anyone from England or the US who was just aping the culture or sound of someone else. While poseurs were singing about hard times on Mississippi chain gangs while touring in private jets McDaniels was writing and singing honestly about the world as he saw it in his time. While he was influenced by those who came before him he doesn't sound like anyone except himself-which really ought to be any artist's goal. That said, ironically much of his music has been raided by rappers looking for samples. But McDaniels said he was quite happy to provide the next generation assistance. So it goes.

Susan Jane  Silent Majority (with Eddie Harris)  Outlaw (contains some profanities)  The Parasite
2010 Interview  The Lord is Back

Friday, August 26, 2011

Michigan Cuts Welfare: 11,000 Families Lose Benefits!

Michigan Republicans to welfare recipients: 
Elections have consequences. That is something that people who won the last election like to smugly say to people who lost the last election. This is nowhere more true than in Michigan since the recent election of Republican Governor Rick Snyder, former chairman/coo/president of Gateway, who with the assistance of a Republican majority in the legislature, has instituted some sweeping changes.
The latest change is that there will be an end to cash assistance welfare for families who have received more than four years of help. This starts October 1-just as school is starting up and winter is coming.

Lansing— The state Legislature on Wednesday passed a 48-month lifetime limit on welfare benefits expected to cast more than 11,000 families off the welfare rolls on Oct. 1 — including more than 29,700 children, according to state officials.The cumulative time limit will save $77.4 million in the budget year that starts Oct. 1, but Democrats and child advocates said they fear it will cause a humanitarian crisis as social agencies are flooded with families who can't pay for rent, utilities or other essentials.
Gov. Rick Snyder, who proposed the cap as part of his 2012 budget, is expected to sign the bill into law.
Judy Putnam, spokeswoman for the Michigan League for Human Services, said: "The impact is going to come … when families lose a key source of income and may not be able to pay the rent just as the school year is getting started and kids are settling into classrooms."She added that many nonprofits and charities also have been slammed by the recession.
Wayne County will be most affected, with 6,560 families losing the cash assistance. Genesee County will see 1,533 families come off the rolls, with 600 in Muskegon, 385 in Oakland and 371 in Saginaw.
Statewide, 11,188 adults and 29,707 children will lose their benefits in just over five weeks. By September 2012, there will be 13,789 families to drop off the rolls, said Sheryl Thompson, acting deputy director of field operations for the Department of Human Services.
Thompson was not able to give a breakdown of adults and children by county, but she said the average family includes one adult and two children. DHS Director Maura Corrigan announced earlier this month that the agency would no longer grant extensions to clients who have exceeded the five-year federal limit on cash assistance. Thompson said most of the families who will lose their benefits Oct. 1 have been on the rolls five years or longer.
Republicans said Michigan no longer can afford to allow families to stay on the assistance plan for four years or more. Rep. Kenneth Horn, R-Frankenmuth, noted that food stamps, Medicaid and child care payments will continue for those kicked off cash assistance. "This should be a strong statement for Michigan residents that (cash assistance) should not be a lifestyle," Horn told members of the House before Wednesday's vote. The measure passed largely along party lines in both chambers. Link to Detroit News Article
Now I was prepared to be exceedingly wroth but upon reading the article and doing some more research I learned that the current federal lifetime limit on welfare cash assistance is just five years. States are allowed to exempt up to 20% of their case load for hardship reasons, which Michigan announced it would no longer do. So perhaps moving from five years to four years is no big deal? Perhaps.

However Snyder and his merry band of right-wingers also just recently overhauled the Michigan budget and tax structure. I don't intend to dive down into the nuts and bolts right now but the big picture is that pensions are now taxable, the limit for state unemployment payments was reduced, the Earned Income Tax Credit was cut, business taxes were cut and aid to schools was cut. The only problem is that in the real world where states have to balance their budget, cutting taxes leads to less revenue coming in and that has to be made up somehow. How fortunate then for the Republicans that the amount of money they expect to save from the welfare cuts happens to be the exact amount of the probable budget shortfall from the tax cuts.
What an INCREDIBLE coincidence!!!!!! 

Poverty, Schmoverty! Look at the big picture people!!!
Although it's not national news the way something would be if it were happening in California or New York, the ugly truth is that Michigan has a very serious problem with child poverty. It's risen 64% over the past decade

That's right 64%!!! That's a lot of children living in homes with impoverished parents-a lot of people working low pay dead end jobs or unable to find jobs.

More than 36 percent of all Michigan children younger than age 18 were living in a household in 2009 where no parent had full-time, year-round employment, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual Kids Count Data Book released today. That compares with 31 percent of children nationally. The report also found that 12 percent or 281,000 children in Michigan had at least one unemployed parent in 2010 compared with 11 percent nationally. And 5 percent of Michigan kids were affected by foreclosures since 2007, compared with 4 percent nationally.
“This report shows with startling clarity how deeply the recession has affected families across Michigan,’’ said Jane Zehnder-Merrell, director of the Kids Count in Michigan project at the Michigan League for Human Services. “Unemployment and foreclosures are adult issues but ones that dramatically affect kids, too. These economic stressors place children at much higher risk of worsening health and education outcomes.”
Some 23 percent of Michigan children lived in poverty last year -- with poverty calculated as two adults and two children living on $21,756 or less, up 64 percent since 2000.
With the news that the Federal COBRA subsidy is ending I guess now would be a particularly bad time to be unemployed in Michigan. The other thing to consider is not only will these welfare cuts hurt some undeserving people but that increasing the labor supply at a time when there is already 9% unemployment is not going to have a particularly good impact on wages. Of course that's if you're an employee. If you're an employer this is good news because your leverage over your current (low-skill) workers just got a little tighter. Don't like your job? Shut up and grin or I'll replace you with a welfare recipient. There is an effort to recall Snyder (it was started well before this latest news) but it doesn't look like it will go anywhere.

Of course to be fair there IS another side to this issue. I don't have much sympathy for it BUT at one point we didn't have federal cash assistance for impoverished people.  A four year lifetime limit is pretty long. If you can't afford kids don't have them. You have no right to other people's money. Some people need a kick in the butt to get them moving. Quit hiding behind your kids and get your tuckus to work. We heard the same doom and gloom predictions when Clinton made changes during the nineties so quit your squawking and get a job.

I have to admit I know some people to whom I would have no problem preaching that last paragraph. But are they the majority of welfare recipients? I don't think so. Not at all.

What's your take?
Is a 4 year lifetime welfare limit too stringent?
Should this wait until there is lower unemployment?
Should this be phased in over a few years?
Is this the morally right thing to do?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Movie Reviews-Rise of the Footsoldier, Salt,Downfall and more

Rise of the Footsoldier
Rise of the Footsoldier, directed by Julian Gilbey, is a pretty gritty British gangster film that centers on the two decade evolution (devolution?) of soccer hooligan Carlton Leach and his buddies from mindless rioters into even more mindless gangsters, extortionists and drug dealers. It has more than few similarities to Goodfellas. The film is based on a true story, the Rettendon Range Murders, which also featured in another good British crime film, Essex Boys. Carlton Leach tells the story in voiceover and freezeframe, which gives it even more of a Goodfellas style. However if anything this film is even more pointed in its depiction of violence and brutality, which is unrelenting throughout. 

The only people scarier than Carlton and his friends are the Turkish Mafia, which is shown to be capable of depravities beyond your normal English thug. There are no sympathetic figures in the movie. Carlton is depicted as less violent than two of his best friends, which is not surprising as I believe the movie was based in part on Carlton's book and input. The most violent and chaotic of Carlton's friends is Pat, who is similar to Goodfellas' Tommy. Don't tell Pat what sort of pizza his girlfriend can or can't have deliveredI enjoyed the film. It was very dark, both in the actual shooting of the picture and the theme.

This film starred Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Andre Braugher has a brief cameo.

Originally this was to feature Tom Cruise in the lead role but he declined and the movie was rewritten for Jolie. If there's one actress who can make you believe that she has the capacity to fight men and occasionally win it's the statuesque Jolie. I think Jolie is better suited for this than Cruise would have been. I have trouble believing Cruise could win a fight with the paperboy.

Jolie is a deep cover CIA agent (Evelyn Salt) who is interrogating a Russian defector who suddenly states that Jolie is actually a deep cover Russian mole planning an assassination. Jolie refuses to be interrogated in turn and escapes. Mayhem ensues. Schreiber is Jolie's CIA supervisor, who doesn't want to believe she's gone bad. Ejiofor is a counterintelligence officer who does everything by the book even as he starts to notice some anomalies.

The movie is fun but mindless. The director realizes this and attempts to make up for it by plenty of closeups of Jolies' lush lips or pencil skirted legs. Jolie's character even uses her panties to escape lockdown. While this is... interesting,  =) I'm not sure it really balances out a script that has some very obvious logic holes and some misdirection that doesn't quite work. And although one fight scene might be believable it's a bit much to watch Evelyn Salt constantly duke it out toe to toe with men 50 lbs heavier and 6 inches taller.  In its defense though the movie is anything but ponderous and moves pretty quickly. It's just under 90 minutes. In general though I couldn't really care about any of the characters. They didn't quite come across as real.

This is a drama about Hitler's last days in the bunker in Spring of 1945 as the Russians close in from all sides.
It is in German of course with English subtitles. Usually I'm not a fan of subtitles but I can't imagine this particular film being shown any other way. German is a fascinating, if harsh sounding language to me and it does have a majestic tone to it. In some circles this film is probably best known for the many youtube parodies that it engendered of Hitler's final classic rant when he discovered that there really was no relief army coming but it should be seen on its own merits.

Bruno Ganz stars as Hitler. The resemblance is disconcerting. It's even more impressive how well the actor captured Hitler's frothing rages, his sudden switches to kindness to women or children, his paranoia and deep hatreds, his physical deterioration from drug abuse, stress and Parkinson's and his manipulative hold on the minds of millions even as the country came apart.
This film is told largely from the POV of Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), Hitler's final secretary who was personally picked by Hitler just before everything fell apart. Junge is quite happy to get this assignment. 

Although in some respects movies like this could be accused of humanizing a monster the fact remains that Hitler was human. Humans contain the highest angels and the meanest devils within. The other thing which is factual is that up until the very end many Berliners fought the Russians from door to door, not so much to protect Hitler, who had by then made his contempt for the "weak German race" quite explicit, but to protect their lives and their women. It's not often discussed and is only obliquely mentioned in the film but a significant portion of the Russian Army committed atrocities against German civilians-primarily the rape of women-once they crossed into Germany. Such incidents were seized on by Nazi propagandists.

The paragon of Nazi propagandists was of course Goebbels (Ulrich Matthes) who along with his wife Magda (Corrina Harfouch) remained a fanatically devoted Hitler follower. Near the very end shortly before their mutual suicide, Magda commits an act that even her husband can not bring himself to do. The costs of true belief are shown in very ugly detail but they are costs which some Nazis are quite willing to pay. Because the film focuses so much on the leadership it is easy to forget that a nation of millions was paying the price for that leadership. There are some other questions raised around this which may be beyond this review but one of them is, in modern warfare is it moral for civilians to pay the price? Should we mourn for the dead of Dresden or Hiroshima or do we shrug and say they got what was coming to them?

Most of the film takes place in the bunker , which gives it a suitably cramped and desperate feel. But on the occasions that the film ventures outside things are even worse as we watch the unending procession of wounded soldiers, frantic doctors, thieves, SS fanatics, murdered civilians, and children or women pressed into combat. Ultimately this is a tremendously sad film because we see what an evil thing war is.  I really do think Americans would be much less jingoistic if war were more than a video game to so many people. Eva Braun (Juliane Kohler) is depicted as a simple-minded seductive individual who never thinks to challenge her husband (they married right before committing suicide) except when she is begging for a relative's life. This is a really really good film.

This movie's lead is The Rock, or as he now prefers to be known, Dwayne Johnson. Faster also stars Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Mike Epps, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and one very nice 1970 Chevelle SS. It is directed by George Tillman, Jr.

It is a revenge flick starring Johnson as the protagonist out on a rampage to deliver some serious hurting to people who wronged him. It's a welcome switch from the kiddy genre to which Johnson was temporarily exiled.

However the movie makes some very very critical mistakes of motivation, pacing and story. Simply put, a revenge motivation is meaningless unless you understand who the hero lost, why the loss is so devastating and you root for the hero to get his own back no matter what. This film has trouble doing that. Also Johnson's character lacks humanity-he has no girl-isn't the hero always supposed to get the girl?? And the film spends WAY too much time on supporting characters at the expense of Johnson's storyline. It feels like the film was hedging its bets. It switches up at the end and almost feels like two different screenwriters were fighting it out.

I don't want to accuse Thornton of just phoning it in but he does look kinda bored here.
The film does have a Revolvers are just Better theme and One Cool Car Those were fun but that was about the extent of it.

How to make an Oscar Winning Movie.
This is not a review I wrote but it is a send-up of what many award winning movies tend to look like these days and I thought it was funny. Hopefully you do too but as always YMMV.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Breaking News: Immigration Reform

In news that is sure to please some supporters of "immigration reform", the Obama Administration announced that it was suspending deportation proceedings against "non-criminal" illegal immigrants in order to focus on the "criminal" element. Link to complete NYT Article.

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration announced Thursday that it would suspend deportation proceedings against many illegal immigrants who pose no threat to national security or public safety. The new policy is expected to help thousands of illegal immigrants who came to the United States as young children, graduated from high school and want to go on to college or serve in the armed forces.
White House and immigration officials said they would exercise “prosecutorial discretion” to focus enforcement efforts on cases involving criminals and people who have flagrantly violated immigration laws. Under the new policy, the secretary of homeland security, Janet Napolitano, can provide relief, on a case-by-case basis, to young people who are in the country illegally but pose no threat to national security or to the public safety.
The decision would, through administrative action, help many intended beneficiaries of legislation that has been stalled in Congress for a decade. The sponsor of the legislation, Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, has argued that “these young people should not be punished for their parents’ mistakes."  The action would also bolster President Obama’s reputation with Latino voters as he heads into the 2012 election. Just a week ago the leaders of major Hispanic organizations criticized his record, saying in a report that Mr. Obama and Congress had “overpromised and underdelivered” on immigration and other issues of concern to Latino voters, a major force in some swing states.
As many readers no doubt are aware I don't support either normalizing work status or putting illegal immigrants on a "path to citizenship". I know that's a minority view here but that's fine. I could be wrong. I don't say no to that. If "normalization" or "reform" were truly the will of the American people as expressed by their duly elected Representatives and Senators then I would have no choice but to accept it. I might mumble a bit but I'd accept it.
But this?
This looks like an end run around the law and appears to be another executive encroachment on Congress' role-just like the Libyan war. Aside from the capriciousness and obvious political self-interest of the Administration's decision there are at least four other reasons why I think this should give people pause.

  • We have 9.1% unemployment. Unemployment is even higher in the black community. Econ 101 and sheer self-interest indicate that we simply do not need additional workers in the economy now.

  • President Obama has once again caved to a particularly loud interest group that threatened to use its leverage. Surely his enemies must notice this but so will his friends. It's not a good look. 

  • We don't know who the unlawful residents are. They didn't undergo background checks or any of the other tests and verifications that legal immigrants have to endure.

  • People shouldn't ignore the law. It's the law it's not a suggestion. There are laws which I don't like but they are part of being an adult citizen. People obey these laws not only out of an internal belief that they are correct or at least guarantee the past of least resistance but also from the fact that breaking the law carries unpleasant consequences. But now we see that one group of people (of whom it bears repeating are not citizens and can't vote) have consistently refused to obey the law-not because they have any logical cogent rationale about why the law is unjust but because they find it inconvenient. Ok. Does that mean that a right-wing citizen who doesn't want to pay his income taxes (as many illegal immigrants do not) or purchase health care insurance, can refuse to do these things, if he or she finds enough likeminded people to raise a stink? We consent to be ruled by law in the belief that all are subject to it equally. That is of course an ideal not reality. But once anyone can pick and choose which laws she wants to obey, everyone else will clamor to do the same. The center won't hold.

But again, perhaps I am being melodramatic. Your call.

1) Do you think this is a good/moral move by the Administration? Why or why not?
2) Will this help the Administration with Hispanic voters? Hurt them with others?
3) What is the solution to unlawful entry/residence in the US?
4) If we are no longer going to deport people unless they are felonious, why bother with borders at all? Let's just let non-citizens decide how many people the US needs.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Movie Reviews-Ironclad, The Lincoln Lawyer, The Warrior's Way and more

written and directed by Jonathan English. 

Ironclad depicts the 1215 siege of Rochester Castle. King John was extremely angry at being forced to sign the Magna Carta. If a King's authority could be limited by men but the King received his authority from the Church and God, then the Magna Carta was not only treasonous but blasphemous. That was King John's (Paul Giamatti) opinion anyway, and he was sticking to it. Giamatti really chews up the scenery here and spits it out but the viewer will buy into his anguished and murderous outrage.

King John hires numerous Danish mercenaries. With his new best friends King John travels across Britain for friendly chats with the various barons or priests who forced him to sign the Magna Carta. When he meets them he just completely ruins their day. When the King inquires if that's your signature on the document, the correct answer to give is no. DO NOT respond with the 13th century equivalent of  "Yeah I signed it so whatchu gonna do about it, son?"  Not wise.

Rochester is the final castle that King John must subdue. The King is opposed by Baron Albany (Brian Cox) and a small group of big bad mofos (sort of a Magnificent Seven) that Albany recruits around England in a Blues Brothers "We're putting the band back together" montage. These roles aren't well fleshed out but they don't need to be. The group includes a young naive unblooded squire, a rambunctious brawler, a vicious fellow who claims to only be in it for the money, a ladies man, an older family man ready for One Last Assignment, a skilled archer, etc.

The deadliest warrior and pack Alpha Male is a Knight Templar named Marshall (James Purefoy). Marshall doesn't say much (at film's beginning he is under a vow of silence) and is haunted by atrocities he saw or committed on crusade. The film does not explicitly mention it but King Richard the Lionheart (King John's older brother) massacred over 3,000 Muslim prisoners at Acre. Marshall is undergoing a crisis of conscience because of his unparalleled skill at violence which violates both Christian scripture and perhaps his own nature.

The heroes reach Castle Rochester. They organize the castle to resist until the French cavalry arrives, over the pragmatic Castellan Cornhill's (Derek Jacobi) objections. Cornhill has a loveless marriage with his shapely young wife Isabel (Kate Mara) who immediately shows carnal interest in the celibacy sworn Marshall. Megan Fox was originally supposed to play this role. I enjoyed Mara in it more than I would have Fox. Fox is a caricature of desire while Mara is attractive but not cartoonish. She doesn't have a lot to do but she does it well.

King John's forces arrive. The REAL bloodletting begins. We've seen hints of Marshall's abilities but he takes it to that other level. This is an extremely brutally violent movie. I have new respect for the destructive capacity of a five and half-foot Templar sword. This film utilizes a hand-held "Saving Private Ryan" jittery shooting style for many battle scenes. These heroes aren't supermen. They get tired, hungry, irritable and make mistakes. Chances are excellent they won't all survive the siege. Ironclad employs tension effectively from beginning to end. Purefoy addressed the violence: 

"The first time I saw this film, I was really shocked by the violence in it, but I didn’t find it sexy or cool or glorified, in any way. I just found it real. It is sickeningly real, in many ways, and that’s the way violence really should be. Violence is a very ugly thing. Violence is often so casual on film, and made to look so cool and so sexy, but violence is a repulsive, repugnant act that human beings inflict on each other. It shouldn’t seem to be cool and sexy, ever really. That’s one of the reasons I liked it."
Charles Dance (Tywin Lannister for Game of Thrones fans) has a small role as Archbishop Langton, who supports the Magna Carta despite threat of excommunication. The film's dialogue is not great. There are a few acerbic one liners. The best lines belong to the choleric King John, who in a magnificent monologue of spittle specked spite explains exactly what divine right is and why it is so important that he keep it. Ironclad is lower budget but well crafted. With heavyweight actors like Cox, Giamatti, Jacobi, Purefoy and Dance involved we see that good actors and good directing win out every time. Despite some glaring historical inaccuracies I liked this movie. However I'm a genre fan. YMMV. If you like "last stand" or "siege" type movies this is worthwhile. If violence sickens you, stay away from this film. Now where did I leave my two-handed sword...

The Lincoln Lawyer
This was a so-so drama starring Matthew McConaughey as the titular Mick Haller. Mick's a defense lawyer who doesn't mind stretching the rules to defend his client. He often does business from his Town Car backseat. Mick demands cash upfront. He has an on-again off again relationship with his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) and spreads around cash and favors to court workers to recruit clients, get info or move his cases ahead of schedule.
Mick is hired to defend a wealthy young man (Ryan Phillipe) accused of attempted rape. The case is complex. Mick finds himself simultaneously trying to solve old crimes, defend his client, uphold justice system ethics, protect his family, stay alive and stay out of jail. Interesting but most story twists were telegraphed in advance. No real surprises. The movie ran a little long but it wasn't the worst way to spend 2 hrs. One thing which I didn't care for was that the film's only black character was Mick's driver who evidently has criminal contacts (as does Mick) and calls Mick "boss" all the time. Not "Mick"-not "Mr. Haller"-just "boss". Ok Rochester. This film also featured Michael Pena, William Macy, John Leguizamo, and Trace Adkins.

The Warrior's Way
This tells an old story which has been told millions of times before and will likely be told just as many times again, long after everyone reading this is dust. There are some basic themes which just work. Or they would work if people executed them properly. In this case, sad to say, the director and writer(s) didn't. So what should have been a solid revenge or moral rebirth movie, complete with some really astonishing visuals and vivid colors, just fell flat. This could have been a zany hit or underground cult flick. The direction and cinematography is as if Fellini, Woo, Coppola and Sergio Leone all got drunk and made a film together. But this movie just doesn't work.

There are a few reasons for this. In most stories, the hero gets the girl. That is often the primary motivation and definition for being the hero. Men and women suffer for each other (the vicious beatings of Clarence and Alabama inTrue Romance) and/or protect each other (Trinity arguably resurrects Neo in The Matrix). Of course there are stories where the man and woman pass in the night (much of film noir) but you need a good reason for deviating from this trope. This film doesn't give such a reason leaving me with a suspicion that the color difference between the lead actor and lead actress might have been a consideration. Dunno. Regardless, this was a disjointed film. It needed a better villain. The protagonist did not impress.

Yang (Jang Dong-Gun), a swordsman/assassin of unearthly skill and indeterminate nationality has successfully killed his clan's last rival. However the enemy had a small baby. Yang's orders are to kill all of that clan. He balks at killing a child. He takes the infant and flees to America. Yang arrives in a western town populated solely by a circus troupe populated by lovable losers. This troupe is watched over by a black dwarf named 8-ball (Tony Cox) (so funny I forgot to laugh) and an attractive tomboyish young woman named Lynne (Kate Bosworth).

A outlaw gang led by The Colonel (Danny Huston) routinely shows up to kill people and rape women. Via flashback we see that years before The Colonel attempted to rape the then underage Lynne. When her family tried to protect her The Colonel murdered her family and left Lynne for dead. Lynne wants revenge. When Lynne discovers that Yang is a sword expert she pesters him to teach her. Karate Kid scenes (mixed with tentative romance) ensue. Yang seeks to overcome his violent past. However Yang's former friends are tracking him. And The Colonel is due to show up soon. I liked the film's visual style. Bosworth is easy on the eyes. But the film could not effectively either use or transcend the Western and Martial Arts cliches.

Big Night
directed by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott

This is a quiet film about the love of family and good food. In fifties era New Jersey two Italian-American brothers and restaurant owners have reached a personal and business crossroads. The older brother Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the very incarnation of Old School. Primo is the chef. He doesn't serve food until HE knows it's right. And he insists on making real Italian food, not Americanized versions with more cheese and fat. And if the customers don't like it well then they should go elsewhere. Primo will happily show them the door. 

The younger brother Secondo (Stanley Tucci) is the maitre'd and manager for the restaurant. He has to soothe customers outraged when the prideful Primo insults their understanding of Italian cuisine or takes too long to deliver an order. As manager, Secondo knows that the restaurant can't last much longer. He's already ducking creditors.

The brothers' situation is made worse because their rival, the jovial Pascal (Ian Holm) owns a nearby restaurant. Pascal doesn't mind catering to more pedestrian tastes. He's doing well financially and looking to expand. Pascal has offered to hire the brothers, something that both Primo and Secondo decline. Undeterred, he tells them that they need a "big night" to bring in more customers. Pascal offers to have Louis Prima show up at their restaurant. Excited, the brothers mortgage everything that isn't already mortgaged in order to raise funds for one last shot at the big time. Secondo is aided by his girlfriend Phyllis (Minnie Driver) who wants him to commit. Secondo doesn't want to do that until he's successful.

This movie mixes drama and comedy which is not the easiest thing to do. It has some appealing things to say about the conflict between art and commerce as shown by the differences between the two brothers. And anyone who really likes food and enjoys preparing it will probably enjoy this movie. Tucci and Shalhoub are quite demonstrative and expressive performers. Marc Anthony, Liev Schreiber and Isabella Rossellini also star.

This film departed from the sadistic hyperviolent torture flicks that dominate the modern horror/sci-fi genre. Splice is not as action packed or as violent as the trailer indicates. With a few notable exceptions, Splice doesn't depict much violence or use jumpy camera shots until the movie's final 20 minutes.
Two young genius scientists (and lovers) who are searching for a protein to heal animal (and human) diseases decide for reasons both scientific and personal to splice human DNA into their latest batch.

The Frankenstein theme is obvious (the two taboo breaking scientists ,Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley, are named Clive and Elsa while their creation, Dren is a dead ringer for Elsa Lanchester in Bride of Frankenstein) but MUCH more than Frankenstein it's Freud that provides the film's true horror. (Of course one could argue that Frankenstein itself is Freudian but that's a different post)
It's the implications of parenting and familial separation that create the scares, not the special effects. The ultimate horror can be betrayal by or becoming like one's parent. Splice explores the corporate driven amorality of patenting life. I'd be surprised if the film's director and/or writers were not at least sympathetic to animal rights arguments. This film echoes those debates. Pets or children didn't ask to exist and deserve protection, not exploitation.

Splice's true fright isn't the "monster" created but in the motives and moral blind spots of her "parents". Clive and Elsa are the bent ones here. Their uneven and dishonest relationship with each other colors everything that happens.  Freudian horrors abound.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Wisconsin - The Face of Democracy: Recall Elections

Democracy at Work

Democracy is a form of government in which all eligible people have an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives. Ideally, this includes equal (and more or less direct) participation in the proposal, development and passage of legislation into law.

Scott Walker marched into the Wisconsin Capitol on January 3, 2011 with an anti-Wisconsin agenda - dismantle the unions, abolish women's rights and put the state of Wisconsin on a path backwards. Swept into office on the Republican wave, Walker was said to be a moderate republican, who would reduce taxes, cut spending, create jobs and grow the Wisconsin economy. This all sounded great to the voters of Wisconsin, so they elected him Governor with 52% of the vote. Unfortunately, voters were unaware of Walker's plan to balance the budget on the backs of government employees with the exception of law enforcement personal and firefighters. With control of Republican State Senate and legislative maneuvers Scott Walker was able to pass his anti-union bill and sign it into law on March 11.

The people of Wisconsin did not sit around and accept the bad cards they were dealt, they galvanized and took democracy into their hands. Using the Wisconsin Constitution, the put into play a series of unprecedented recall elections. Since 1908, only 20 recorded state legislative recall elections have taken place.

Recall Races

(District 2)
(R) Robert Cowles vs. (D) Nancy Nusbaum

(District 8)
(R) Alberta Darling vs. (D) Sandy Pasch

(District 10)
(R) Sheila Harsdorf vs. (D) Shelly Moore

(District 14)
(R) Luther Olsen vs. (D) Fred Clark

(District 18)
(R) Randy Hopper vs. (D) Jessica King

(District 32)
(R) Dan Kapanke vs. (D) Jennifer Shilling

Republicans held onto control of the Wisconsin Senate on Tuesday, beating back four Democratic challengers in a recall election despite an intense political backlash against GOP support for Gov. Scott Walker's effort to curb public employees' union rights.

Fueled by millions of dollars from national labor groups, the attempt to remove GOP incumbents served as both a referendum on Walker's conservative revolution and could provide a new gauge of the public mood less than a year after Republicans made sweeping gains in this state and many others.

Even though the Democrats failed to capture the majority in the State Senate through these recalls, I think they set the tone for 2012 and have given Americans a bigger picture - democracy at work. I don't see this as a loss. This is a sign of bigger things to come and more work to be done.

Did Citizens United play any role in the outcome of the recall elections?
Do yesterdays recall elections set the tone for 2012?
Did Democrats loose the War or did they win the Battle?
Will the recall elections impact the likelihood of Scott Walker being recalled in January 2012?