Saturday, October 29, 2011

Movie Reviews-Trespass, Honey Dripper and more


The movie Trespass showed me a few things I already knew.
  • Nicole Kidman has a great pair of legs.
  • Nicolas Cage loves to overact.
  • It's a very bad idea to let strangers into your home.
Trespass emphasizes these three points over and over and over and over and over again. And then one more time just in case anyone who was really dim missed it. Trespass tells the story of the Miller family. It's barely worthwhile to list character names because you never for a moment forget that this is Kidman and Cage-for the reasons listed above. Anyway Mr. Miller (Cage) is a diamond broker. He and his family reside in a spacious mansion with state of the art security. He's on his cell phone 24-7 making deals. Miller is literally tethered to a secure briefcase from which at day's end he removes items which are carefully placed in a safe. 

Mr. Miller is so busy that he hasn't noticed that Mrs. Miller (Kidman) has made his favorite dinner and is wearing his favorite skintight black dress in anticipation of some spousal Miller Time later that night.  He declines her offer. He has business. She hints at divorce. Their daughter is an unpleasant teen who (against orders) sneaks out to party with her trampy and druggy friends once her bickering parents stop bothering her and start bickering again.
So initially Daughter Miller misses the fun. Before Mr. Miller can depart on business he foolishly buzzes in some people claiming to be police. Ahem. He NEVER SEES THE FACES of the supposed officers before he allows them in his house or even finds out what they really want. Right. If you lived in a million dollar home with surveillance up the kazoo because you carry diamonds and cash with you, you're just gonna let anyone who says he's a cop into your house.  And you have no guns, dogs, panic room or onsite security detail of your own. Smart move, that.

Of course the folks aren't cops. And what they want, besides listening to some shouting from Cage and watching Kidman's dress ride up, is the Millers' money and diamonds. But Mr. Miller isn't willing to give. Mrs. Miller may know one of the assailants. The criminals seem angrier with each other than they are with the Millers.

Joel Schumacher directed this. I probably wouldn't have watched this film if I had known he was the director. It is stylish but it's really a quite empty flick. This film has several instances where characters behave stupidly so that the story can continue. Your tolerance for this movie may depend on how much you enjoy Cage's shouting his lines or Kidman's increasingly manic characterization of a desperate housewife. Funny Games, which I need to get around to reviewing one of these days, was a much better take on the whole "home invasion" trope. 

In both subject matter and pacing this film is somewhat similar to Big Night and takes place in about the same time period. But rather than portray 1950's Italian-Americans in New Jersey trying to make a failing restaurant work it depicts 1950's African-Americans in Alabama trying to make a failing nightclub work. And it's also utterly different.

The early fifties was when the older blues and R&B of people like Charles Brown, Muddy Waters, Louis Jordan, T-Bone Walker and others began to transition into the rock-n-roll of people like Ike Turner, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Bo Diddley. Director John Sayles brings that story to life as well as a few other subthemes. 

Honeydripper tells the story of one saloon/nightclub owner, a Mr. PineTop Purvis (Danny Glover) who runs his club (The Honeydripper) as an old school blues joint.  As might be expected from his name, Purvis is himself a talented blues pianist. His primary musical attraction is the singer Bertha Mae (real life blues/gospel artist Mable John) who belts out pre-war blues tunes. Unfortunately few people-especially younger people-want to hear that old timey stuff any more; Purvis has lost most of his customers to a  competing juke joint that offers modern R&B and jump blues via jukebox. Purvis' wife Delilah (Lisa Gay Hamilton) is a proud Christian woman who wants to make Purvis choose between her and the blues.

An young itinerant musician Sonny (real life Blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr.), arrives in town only to be immediately arrested by the genially racist sheriff Pugh (Stacy Keach) who accuses and convicts Sonny of vagrancy. As by coincidence it just happens to be harvest time Sonny is sentenced to pick cotton. During his VERY rare down time Sonny wanders into the Honeydripper where he tries to convince Purvis and his right hand man Maceo (Charles Dutton) that he can play his guitar-a homemade solidbody electric guitar. Skeptical of his skill and disbelieving of anything so crazy as an electric guitar the older men show him the door. And a protective Purvis warns Sonny away from his stepdaughter, China Doll (Yaya DaCosta).

Between organized crime extortion, bigotry and bank liens, Purvis is just about to lose the club. He calls in a few favors and arranges to have famous New Orleans guitarist Guitar Sam (a homage to real life Guitar Slim) appear for one big night where Purvis hopes to make enough to pay off all his debts. But for whatever reason Guitar Sam doesn't arrive. Desperate, Purvis starts to wonder if that nutty kid with the weird guitar can actually play...

This was a slow moving deliberate movie until the last 20 minutes. This was a good choice I think. The Sheriff's racism is downplayed a bit too much for my taste but that wasn't this film's focus. Keach plays it almost tongue in cheek. Vondie Curtis-Hall, Mary Steenburgen, Sean Patrick Thomas and real life musicians Keb Mo and Eddie Shaw also appear in this film. 

The Big Sleep
This is one of the greatest movies of all time, not just film noir. The Big Sleep was directed by Howard Hawks and based on a story by Raymond Chandler. It is also at some points almost impossible to follow. Supposedly when the screenwriters and director got confused about who actually committed a murder and whether or not a character was dead they called up Chandler, who after some thought, had to admit that he didn't know either.

So it is occasionally bewildering in the details. But the reason to watch it is to see one of the coolest actors of all time, Humphrey Bogart, at the top of his game with the woman he loved, Lauren Bacall. I mean these two are some really suave people..just suave. You can tell that they had a lot of fun acting in this movie. And of course some of this wasn't acting. This movie is famous for its convoluted story, Hawks' use of lighting and shade, the ominous sets, the gray morality and seedy environments but one of the things it's most famous for is the infamous "horseracing" conversation between detective Phillip Marlowe (Bogart) and Vivian Rutledge (Bacall). They are flirting, confronting and evaluating each other all at once.
Vivian: Tell me: What do you usually do when you're not working?
Marlowe: Oh, play the horses, fool around.
Vivian: No women?
Marlowe: I'm generally working on something most of the time.
Vivian: Could that be stretched to include me?
Marlowe: Well I like you. I've told you that before.
Vivian: I like hearing you say it. But you didn't do much about it.
Marlowe: Well, neither did you.
Vivian: Well, speaking of horses, I like to play them myself. But I like to see them work out a little first, see if they're front-runners or come from behind, find out what their hole-card is. What makes them run.
Marlowe: Find out mine?
Vivian: I think so.
Marlowe: Go ahead.
Vivian: I'd say you don't like to be rated. You like to get out in front, open up a lead, take a little breather in the backstretch, and then come home free.
Marlowe: You don't like to be rated yourself.
Vivian: I haven't met anyone yet that can do it. Any suggestions?
Marlowe: Well, I can't tell till I've seen you over a distance of ground. You've got a touch of class, but, uh...I don't know how - how far you can go.
Vivian: A lot depends on who's in the saddle. Go ahead Marlowe, I like the way you work. In case you don't know it, you're doing all right.
Marlowe: There's one thing I can't figure out.
Vivian: What makes me run?
Marlowe: Uh-huh.
Vivian: I'll give you a little hint. Sugar won't work. It's been tried
This HAS to be heard to fully appreciate the humor, double-entendres and wit involved. I don't know how that got past the censors in 1946. Phillip Marlowe, a short hardbitten wiseacre detective, is hired by wealthy General Sternwood (Charles Waldron) to stop the blackmail of Sternwood by  the gambler and gangster Joe Brody (Louis Jean Heydt) to make Sternwood pay gambling debts. This blackmail is centered around Sternwood's younger daughter Carmen (Martha Vickers), who is something of a sexpot. 

Sternwood also wants Marlowe to discover the whereabouts of his former employee Sean Regan, who recently disappeared and may have had a relationship with Carmen. Marlowe is watched and shadowed by Sternwood's eldest daughter, Vivian (Bacall) who has her own game to play and is quite capable of holding her own with Marlowe. Before the film is over the viewer is taken through a murky underworld of pornography, prostitution, drugs, aberrant (by the standards of the time) sexuality and murder. The film does all this with no nudity, no bad language and most violence off screen. It's all in the reflexes, as old Jack Burton might say. If you do decide to watch this do not under ANY circumstances see it in color. This MUST be seen in glorious B&W. Again, the interplay between Bogie and Bacall is just magnificent. 

Prank call     Trailer

Lair of the White Worm
What's Halloween without a cheesy cult horror movie? And The Lair of the White Worm, directed by Ken Russell, based on a short story by Bram Stoker, definitely fits the bill. This is a lush movie with lots of atmosphere, shock moments, hints of decadent sex and plenty of mordant humor. It really doesn't have a lot of gore.

It's only 90 minutes and moves quickly. A Scottish archaeology student named Angus -Peter Capaldi (and yes he does play bagpipes in a memorable scene) is working with his girlfriend/assistant Mary (Sammi Davis) in an excavation on a English Midlands property owned by Mary and her uptight sister Eve (Catherine Oxenberg). Angus finds a pre-Christian and possibly pre-Roman temple that appears to venerate some sort of snake god. He also finds an ancient reptilian skull which is not easily categorized.

The enigmatic Lady Sylvia Marsh (Amanda Donohoe) shows up at her estate again-she tongue in cheek claims to have been hibernating. She is very interested in what Angus has found. She also looks a lot like the previous Lady Marsh and the one before that as well.

There are plenty of local legends of how the ancestor of the current Lord D'Ampton (Hugh Grant) fought and killed a wyrm (Anglo-Saxon term for dragon) centuries ago in a cave that is not too far from Lady Marsh's home. The Trent sisters' father disappeared some time ago but suddenly his watch is found near the same cave. And the fossil vanishes from the Trent girls home. Suspicious, Angus and Lord D'ampton decide the time has come to see just what's in those caves and investigate just who (or what) Lady Marsh really is. This is a fun movie that is made more so by Russell's visual stylings, the English estate settings and Donohoe's lavish costumes and over the top performance.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Pat Robertson thinks GOP too extreme

I rock for Jesus, baby!!!!
You know you have a substance abuse problem when Robert Downey Jr. says he's worried about your drug intake.
You know you have a weight issue when Oprah says you could stand to drop a few pounds.
You know you have an extremist issue when Pat FREAKING Robertson says you've gone too far to the Right.
That's right. Pat FREAKING Robertson, the hateful religious fraud last heard claiming that the Haitian earthquake was punishment for a slave revolt inspired by the devil and that divorcing a spouse with Alzheimers is the right thing to do thinks that the current GOP candidates are slipping too far to the right, and that this will hurt the GOP in the general election.
I believe it was Lyndon Johnson that said, ‘Don’t these people realize if they push me over to an extreme position I’ll lose the election?’” he said. “Those people in the Republican primary have got to lay off of this stuff. They’re forcing their leaders, the frontrunners, into positions that will mean they lose the general election…They’ve got to stop this! It’s just so counterproductive!

I mean think about this. Pat FREAKING Robertson thinks the GOP candidates are too far to the Right.
This is the man who 
  • Had lucrative diamond mining business with former Liberian President and accused war criminal Charles Taylor and former Zairean dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
  • Agreed with Jerry Falwell that liberals, atheists and feminists had brought on 9-11 as God's Punishment. Robertson explicitly also made his own statement that his God had lifted his protection from the US as a result of engaging in or allowing non-Pat Robertson approved activities.
  • Thinks that Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke as God's Punishment for being willing to cede land to the Palestinians.
  • Thinks that "gay days" at Disneyworld will bring about God's Punishment
  • Said that Hurricane Katrina was likely God's Punishment for US abortion policies.
  • Predicted terrorist mass killings in 2007 in the US as, you guessed it, God's Punishment.
And there's plenty plenty more here and here
However the sun shines on a dog's butt every now and again. And even a nutty loon (or is it a loony nut) like Pat FREAKING Robertson may have a point. Perhaps the Republicans would be well advised to listen to the crazy "religious" man in this instance. Because if anyone knows crazy ugly extremism, it's Pat FREAKING Robertson. If you're guzzling down shots at the Crazy Bar and Robertson pulls your coat to whisper, "Hey, you've had enough to drink-let's go", maybe you should step away from the counter and not call for another round. 
Do you think Robertson is correct and Republicans are tilting too far to the Right?
Were you aware of Robertson's previous loony statements?
Does this mean the evangelicals may not turn out in force for the eventual Republican nominee?

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Music Reviews- Rufus Harley and Harmonica Shah

Ultimately all men are brothers. This is apparent when you listen to a lot of different music. Old English/Scottish murder ballads morph into African American blues songs. Herky jerky funk vamps are echoed in Eastern European dance tunes. Hearing the equivalent of “Take it to the bridge!!” in Romanian or Serbian is amusing.
Afro-Cuban son and salsa both influences and was influenced by Senegalese, Gambian and Congolese music. In some respects music is one big swamp of mixed origins.

This was certainly true of the art of famed jazz musician Rufus Harley, who made his mark not just as a passably good composer and interpreter of other people’s work but as the genre’s primary (though perhaps not sole) bagpipes player. That’s right, BAGPIPES. Harley played an ancient instrument that may have originated in North Africa, the Middle East or Eastern Europe, but has since become almost uniquely identified with Scotland and to a lesser extent Ireland. And he played his pipes in such a manner that one wonders why other jazz or blues musicians haven’t picked them up. The really defining characteristic of bagpipes of course is that the musician is able to produce a drone. 

Drones are quite common in much of Indian music and some other non-Western music, including some traditions from West Africa. In the fifties and sixties as Western musicians in various disciplines began to listen to, be inspired by and perform their own versions of “world” music (especially that of India), drones started to pop up more , often in jazz and rock. And in some forms of blues-most famously the North Mississippi styles-drones never went away.  Harley was already a multi-reed player when he saw the Black Watch perform at JFK’s funeral. Inspired, he bought himself a set of Scottish Highland bagpipes and got to work learning how to play. As the results weren’t very pleasing at first he was the subject of many complaints by neighbors. When the police arrived, having hidden his instrument away, an aggrieved Harley would tell the police, “Bagpipes???!! Do I look Irish or Scottish???
Over time Harley became a better musician to the point where he led his own band and proved to everyone that he was not just some gimmicky performer. Similar to many people of his era , he definitely showed a Coltrane debt but like most good players he had his own voice. Unlike other reed players, HIS voice just never needed to stop for air. 
He recently passed but his legacy shows us that a talented person can find inspiration anywhere and use just about any tool to make music. If you like post 60’s jazz, you will like Harley. And if you’re sort of leery of the pipes, give him a listen. You might be surprised by how well the tone of bagpipes can fit in to modern jazz music.  The Constitution is amazingly funky for a piece that doesn't feature a bass. Harley was also featured on the Roots “Do you want more?”  

Although Detroit doesn’t have quite the place in blues lore that Chicago has there were still quite a lot of blues performers who came out of Detroit-most famously John Lee Hooker but also people like Eddie Burns, Little Sonny, Andre Williams (the dirtiest old man that ever existed) and many others. Detroit is also the home of Harmonica Shah. 
Born in the late forties, Harmonica Shah is one of the last real bluesman in America-people that grew up and survived under some very difficult conditions. Born in Oakland, Shah got interested in the blues while he was living in Texas. He started pursuing music professionally when he moved to Detroit. While he was in Detroit he was also working on the line for Ford Motor Company but after some years departed to perform full time. So organized labor’s loss is the music fan’s gain. Unfortunately for Shah, the popularity of the harmonica as lead instrument has declined drastically since the mid fifties, as has the popularity of blues music in general with black people. So you probably won’t see him featured on Vibe’s cover. And obviously Shah is not white or British so don’t look for him on the cover of Rolling Stone either. 
But he’s probably among the best blues harmonica players still around-definitely in Detroit. For a while Shah had a profitable relationship with guitarist Howard Glazer (heard on two cuts here) that reminded some blues fans of previous celebrated harmonica-guitar duos. Glazer had a somewhat limited blues-rock sound that nonetheless worked well with Shah’s thick “Mississippi Saxophone” tone. 
Sadly someone told Glazer he could sing and he went solo. Glazer can’t sing. Not a note. So Shah lost a decent guitarist. And Glazer lost someone who could tell him to stop playing so loudly all the time. But so it goes. Other guitarists who have worked with Shah include Mel Brown and Little Jr. Cannaday, each of who are very different players and FAR more rhythmically adept than Glazer. 
Shah is a good singer and is fun to listen to. The interplay between his voice and his harmonica is very enjoyable. And when the harmonica and guitar trade off, it’s even better. Shah’s voice drips authority and testosterone; it's a far cry from high pitched bleats from gelded boy band singers or syrupy whimpers from R&B sopranos. This is tough music sung by a tough dude. He’s been there, done that and is still standing.  

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Join The Urban Politico Team: Live Chat - GOP Presidental Debates

Join The Urban Politico team for tonight's Republican Presidential Debate.


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Airing tonight at 8pm ET/5pm PT is the Western Republican Presidential Debate live from Las Vegas, Nevada. The debate is sponsored by CNN and the Western Republican Leadership Conference. Tonight's broadcast will feature seven GOP candidates since Jon Huntsman has chosen not to attend this time around.

Join us this evening for a live-chat via and logging into our Chat Feature.

Monday, October 17, 2011

McDonald's NY Beatdown

Women start fight and lose badly
Our recent post on battered women syndrome engendered some discussion about when violence is appropriate. I think it's legitimate in self-defense. Unfortunately some people have a rather elastic concept of self-defense and would extend it to such actions as shooting someone while he's shaving or burning his bed while he's asleep.

Self-defense is legitimate while the aggression is taking place and when the force used is proportional to the threat. I can't shoot someone because they stepped on my blue suede shoes. But some citizens, either from their basic nature or bitter experience, have decided that a deliberately disproportionate self-defense response is the best way to discourage further attacks. Two very stupid, drunk and violent women recently discovered that the hard way in a Manhattan McDonald's. 

An argument between a cashier and two irate customers at a Manhattan McDonald’s turned violent, leaving both customers injured and all three facing charges. The entire incident, which was captured on video, happened Thursday morning at a McDonald’s on West Fourth Street in Greenwich Village, CBS 2’s Chris Wragge reports. It appeared to have started when two female customers argued and yelled obscenities at the cashier when he questioned a $50 bill they gave him. One of the female customers then slapped the cashier. A woman is then seen jumping over the counter while the other woman goes behind the register..
Video Below

Both men AND women need to avoid starting fights.You don't know what other people consider to be a "proportional" response to your provocation. If I were moronic enough to walk up to Ray LewisChuck Liddell or Bernard Hopkins, curse them out and slap them in the face, I would expect that there would be consequences and repercussions. Cause, meet effect.

I think some women have learned the wrong message from the modern female empowerment environment we live in. Like those old Dave Chappelle skits, you can decide to "keep it real". But every now and then you're gonna run into someone who REALLY doesn't give a f***. And this was so stupid. Cashiers are often told to verify large denomination bills. It's not something worth starting a damn fight over.

1) If two men had cursed a cashier out, slapped her and jumped over the counter with bad intentions before catching a beatdown from the woman, would this story be described as horrific or humorous? Do the women have a legal case against McDonald's?
2) Do you think the man's response was disproportionate? Would you accept an argument from him that he was acting to protect himself or team members? Or do you now have sympathy for the women?
3) Was it news to you that McDonald's is hiring violent ex-cons?
4) Bonus question: What causes the sort of brainlessness shown in this video?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Movie Reviews-Thor,You Kill Me, Reanimator and More

I am a huge Norse mythology fan. I was less interested in the Marvel cartoon series and comic book featuring Thor. Those were  watered down and rewritten versions of pagan myths made more palatable for children. The original stories were grim and bloody. Unlike the Greek gods or the Christian God, the Norse gods are not all-powerful. They can and do die. They are going to lose the battle at the end of the world and die. And they know this. But they persevere anyway because that's what northern heroes do-be they gods or men. The Norse mythos is the incarnation of It's Grim Up North.

So I was a little wary of the Thor movie. However Marvel has generally done a good job with its comic book adaptations. I was intrigued because this was directed by Kenneth Branagh and included Natalie Portman. So I put aside my complaints and sat down to watch it.

Thor was okay for what it was.  It was thoroughly predictable, even if you neither knew nor cared about the myths behind it. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the arrogant and eldest son of Odin (Anthony Hopkins), king of gods (it's explained in an aside that these are not actually gods but quite advanced extraterrestials) is convinced that the Old Man's gone soft in his dotage. Thor wishes to restart the eternal war against the Jotuns (Giants) who have managed to find a way into Asgard to attempt to steal a relic of great power. Incensed by his father's refusal to act forcefully, Thor leads a punitive expedition to Jotunheim. This is a total failure. Thor is only saved by Odin's timely intervention.
Brought back to Asgard, Thor refuses to admit he was wrong and continues to needle and insult Odin and question his leadership. Finally roused to wrath, Odin strips Thor of (most of) his godly powers and hurls him to earth where, banned, he will be unable to regain his true powers until he has learned humility. From earth this appears to be some sort of singularity that opens and closes. It attracts the attention of scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and Eric Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard). Foster has a more than scientific interest in Thor-especially as the buff Hemsworth appears shirtless in a few scenes. Unlike the comic book, Thor has not forgotten who he is, nor is his hammer altered; he just can't get to it.
Meanwhile back in Asgard, Thor's foster brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), is attracting the suspicion of Heimdall (Idris Elba). When Odin is mysteriously struck down, Loki becomes ruler of Asgard and starts making even more changes.

And you can guess the rest. The movie looks good; I loved the rainbow bridge. But I would still like to see a true rendition of a Norse story-cycle. In the myths, Odin is the arrogant and cruel god. Thor is a friendly, red-bearded, simply dressed rustic who is often mistaken for a plowman or other peasant.  Since Marvel's Iron Man used Black Sabbath's Iron Man, I was half expecting Thor to use Kiss' God of Thunder but I don't think it did.


You Kill Me

Movies like this are often described as quirky or offbeat. You kill me fits that description quite well. It makes a few tips of the hat to The Sopranos or Analyze This.
It is about the problematic life of one Frank Falenczyk (Ben Kingsley), a hitman for his Buffalo based crime family. And this is a family- the boss is Frank's uncle Roman (Phillp Baker Hall).

Frank used to be one of the best killers around but lately he's gotten depressed and has a rather serious drinking problem. Frank's family is being pushed out of the rackets by the Irish mob-presided over by Edward O'Leary  (Dennis Farina). Roman knows he's running out of time before O'Leary eliminates the Polish gangsters. So he orders Frank to do what he does best and remove O'Leary from the planet. However Frank falls asleep and does not carry out the hit. Worse, O'Leary becomes aware of the failed plot and Frank's degeneration into drunkenness.

Angry, embarrassed and frightened, after telling Frank that the only reason he's still alive is because of their blood relationship, Roman sends Frank across the country to AA in San Francisco with orders not to return until he's clean and sober. The dour Frank gets a job as a funeral home assistant. He finds this ironic considering that he usually supplies funeral homes. But he comforts himself with the idea that he's still in the death business. After some hesitance Frank becomes friends with fellow AA member Tom (Luke Wilson) as well as a woman, Laurel (Tea Leoni), who attends a funeral and shares Frank's mordant sense of humor. Things are going better for Frank. But AA requires that you share everything. Frank doesn't want to share what his day job is. And without a Frank there to scare them off, back home the Irish mob is digging graves for Frank's friends and family.

The movie turns on what makes Frank happy and whether by attempting to solve his alcoholism and depression, AA and his friends are just making Frank a better killer. The answers may surprise you. Kingsley and Hall are always fun to watch. Farina has played his share of gangsters but they tend to be Italian, not Irish so I guess this was different. Obviously there is also a love story between Frank and Lauren. Leoni is channeling Lauren Bacall here. Bill Pullman has a small role. This was a nice movie but not a must see by any stretch of the imagination. Killers with personal problems has been done to death if you pardon the pun.

This is a CLASSIC horror film that is based on a pulpy, viscerally racist HP Lovecraft story.
The movie Reanimator drops the racism but turns up the pulp. This is an EXCELLENT Saturday afternoon movie that over the years became something of a cult hit. Reanimator walks that fine line between too much and not enough in terms of sex, gore and frights.  It was considered over the top when it first came out but it's nowhere near today's torture-porn. It also has a delicious sense of humor.

Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott) is your normal semi-impoverished horny medical student at Miskatonic University. He may be struggling now but he has a bright future ahead of him, not only because he's going to be a doctor but because his girlfriend is Megan Halsey (Barbara Crampton), a leggy blonde bottle of energy who also happens to be the daughter of the medical school dean (Robert Sampson). Dan's future is so bright he's got to wear shades but he still needs help with the rent (He and Megan don't live together as she has to play "good girl"). Dean puts up a "roommate wanted" sign on campus. At an incredibly inopportune time  (Dean and Megan were just about to play "Doctor and Nurse") a strange, prissy young fellow named Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs) shows up to become Dean's roommate. Megan immediately takes a dislike to him. Combs is perfect for this role. He literally brims over with repressed arrogance, pride and anger. He's the Nietzschean Superman made flesh. Evidently West was expelled from European medical schools for his unauthorized experiments and his outre beliefs about the limits of life and death.

West doesn't tolerate fools much. On literally his first day in class he gets entangled in an argument with his instructor,  Dr. Carl Hill. (played by John Kerry lookalike David Gale) Hill is a creepy fellow who is friends with Dean Halsey. Hill has an interest in Megan Halsey that is anything but professional. He's not her father but he'd like to be her Daddy if you know what I mean.
West is obsessed with death. He begins the same experiments that got him previously expelled elsewhere. Only this time he has a (mostly unwilling) accomplice in Dan , who he browbeats, blackmails and begs for help. I really, really liked this movie. In terms of music, pacing, direction, and lighting Reanimator showed that you don't need a lot of money (the film cost less than $1 million) or huge stars to make a great horror film. Stuart Gordon directed and Brian Yuzna produced. Both men have an affinity for Lovecraft stories. If you like short quality horror movies with little flab, lots of scares and by today's standards modest amounts of gore, this could be for you. This was similar  in feel to Evil Dead (1 and 2). The trailer gives away too much imo so no link here. The SFX were quite realistic and scary. This owed a lot to old time comic books and pulp novels. And it showed in every scene.

Fear of a Black Hat
The obvious comparison is to the similar satire film This is Spinal Tap. But honestly Fear of a Black Hat is much funnier. It's also aged surprisingly well. It's a satire of just about every rap group of note from back in the day. 
Fear of a Black Hat is shot in documentary style. It follows the rise, fall and eventual comeback of the rap trio N.W.H.  N.W.H. is led by the sly, extremely verbose and sex-obsessed Ice Cold (Rusty Cundieff). The other two members are Tasty Taste (Larry B. Scott), an angry short man with a fascination for "busting a cap in somebody's a$$"  and Tone Def (Mark Christopher Lawrence) a gentle giant of a man--unless you mess with his money. The documentary director Nina Blackburn (Kasi Lemmons) follows the group around-primarily Ice Cold, who is totally upfront with his desire to get to know Nina on a biblical level.
This is one of the funniest satires ever made. Obviously the director (Cundieff) knew and loved a lot of the then current rap music. Whether it's lampooning the need for rappers to be seen as hardened criminals -a school reading session with rival rappers escalates with each group making ever more outrageous boasts about their criminal past- making fun of the group's seeming inability to keep managers alive (Ice Cold explains that starting out many of their managers got shot in disputes and since then the group decided it would be healthier for the black community and the group's families to only have white managers) or the ripoffs inherent in the music business-the shot at C&C Music Factory is a laugh out loud moment, this movie starts in "Tough Neighborhood, Anytown USA" and doesn't let up for a moment.

The group is never seen without hats because as Ice Cold earnestly explains, during slavery blacks worked all day in the fields without even a babushka to shield themselves from the sun and were thus too tired and hot to rebel. But now they have hats, so watch out!!! N.W.H. wears increasingly ridiculous hats throughout the movie and occasionally even in the same scene.

Ice Cold is particularly adept at coming up with laughably ludicrous justifications to show the alleged hard core social and political meaning behind his lyrics, most of which are relentlessly concerned with sex, violence and partying. A semi-clean example involves a song titled "Kill Whitey" which the group claims is just misunderstood and not a racist ode at all.  Ahem. Supposedly the song was actually about their former manager Whitey DeLuca , who allegedly ripped the group off and was later mysteriously shot to death. Tasty Taste and Ice Cold say they don't know anything about the murder as "they were out of town when it went down". The somewhat slow on the uptake Tone Def contradicts his band members and is telling them " Remember you two said we had to straighten DeLuca out for once and for all" before the tape is stopped and restarted and Tone Def reappears to solemnly agree that no one knows what happened. 
This came out at the same time as CB4, which had a similar theme. But Fear of a Black Hat is a much much tighter satire and about 1000 times funnier. It helps the viewer, but is not necessary to have a passing familiarity with rap and R&B of the late eighties and early nineties.

The Thing
This is strictly speaking a prequel to the 1982 Kurt Russell movie but in actuality it's a remake right down to the music and even the scene progression. This was a mistake. A bad one. The SFX are good but basically if you've seen the previous movie, you've seen this one-only done right.  In fact this was such a disappointment I don't really feel like writing much about it. This might be okay for people who haven't seen the 1982 move but of course any sci-fi/horror fan has already seen the 1982 movie. This is based on a John Campbell pulp story but it's 100% Lovecraft inspired. Sigh. It wasn't a bad movie but looking back I just think it was unnecessary. The SFX are both a homage to and an improvement on the 1982 film but what's missing is the sense of paranoia. There was also more explicit violence and gore, probably because that's what the modern audience is used to seeing. A woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) had the lead role. She does ok. The movie just didn't work for me. Ok that's it. I'm not writing more about this. Here's the trailer and you can make up your own mind.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Battered Woman Syndrome-Real or Not

What does self-defense mean to you?

To me it's a pretty simple concept. Someone is threatening your life, the lives of those you love or of innocent bystanders and the only way to end that threat is to use deadly force against the person or persons making that threat. This means that either you can't leave, you are under no reasonable obligation to leave (i.e. you're in your home or your car) and the threat is imminent or immediate.

This last to me is pretty important. It's not really self-defense in a legal or moral sense of the term in my non-lawyerly mind if someone threatens you on Monday and on Saturday you see them and shoot them in the back while they're unarmed. Now of course they may have deserved it but that's not really self-defense. Or is it?

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York jury cleared a woman who shot dead her retired police officer husband of murder on Thursday in a case that had been seen as a test of the battered-woman defense.
Barbara Sheehan, 50, was acquitted of second-degree murder after three days of deliberations by the jury in state Supreme Court in Queens but was found guilty of a lesser charge of gun possession.
Sheehan's lawyers successfully argued that she fired only after her husband threatened to kill her, and Sheehan and her grown children had testified about the violent household ruled by Raymond Sheehan, 49, a former New York City Police sergeant. Both the prosecution and defense said the beatings and bruises came to an end on February 18, 2008, when Sheehan shot her husband 11 times in their Queens home.
Legal experts said the case was a test of the battered-woman defense, in which the history of abuse is explored to explain a woman's mental state at the time she is accused of committing a crime.
Key to the battered-woman defense is the issue of self defense. New York state law justifies the use of lethal force in response to an immediate threat to life. Under the battered-woman defense, lethal force can sometimes be justified even if the threat may not appear immediate. Court documents said the shooting happened after Sheehan refused to go on vacation with her husband. She testified she was scared because he had threatened to kill her if she didn't go.
Prosecutors said Sheehan shot her husband 11 times using two guns the former police officer had at home. Her husband was in the bathroom shaving before Sheehan shot him.

I don't doubt that abuse was going on. Likely these two people didn't need to share the same home any longer. And I have never ever ever understood how anyone can go to bed and sleep if their partner is SERIOUSLY upset. Because after all, sleeping in front of someone who is seething with anger at you just doesn't seem super prudent on anyone's part, no matter their gender.

There was no abuse in my immediate family though I have since known people who were either abusers or abusees and sometimes both. It's a tricky situation. The best rule imo is to say "no hands for any reason at any time". On the other hand I know that people do have fights and each person has the right to defend themselves. Everyone's tolerance for intimate violence is different. I simply can't imagine staying in a situation where someone was verbally, let alone physically abusing me.

That said, I do not like one bit the concept of "battered woman syndrome".
From afar, it appears as if a few of these woman kills man stories aren't about self-defense as much as they are about someone deciding they aren't going to take it any more or being angry over past humiliations and abuse. And I really don't like the idea of any sort of syndrome being available as a defense to someone only depending on their particular inalienable characteristic. The law -especially laws around killing people- should be blind to that sort of thing as much as possible. I've been on the planet a while now and one thing that I know is that although men and women differ in some key ways, morality isn't among them.

Shooting someone eleven times while they're shaving and then saying they deserved it because of previous incidents, I don't know. Is there a "battered man defense"? Would anyone seriously believe or sympathize with a man who killed his wife or girlfriend because he was "battered" and felt threatened? I don't think so. What's YOUR take?

1) Do you believe that battered woman syndrome should be permissible as a defense?
2) Is there ever any reason for a woman or man to hit each other?
3) Should abused spouses have to try to leave the situation before they can kill the other and claim self-defense?
4) Should you be able to kill people for what they might do as opposed to what they are doing?

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Book Reviews-Fatal Error, Coal to Cream, Prizzi's Honor, Shadows Fall

Fatal Error
By  F. Paul Wilson
This is the penultimate Repairman Jack book. Wilson is very close to wrapping things up before the end of the world as we know it. The story seemed a little rushed.  Don't get me wrong, Repairman Jack remains one of those rare characters who is always fun to read about. It's just that maybe I was a little let down because the story is coming to an end and because the usual bad guys lack a lot of their mystery and menace. Jack is called to help an Arab-American software engineer, Munir, who is being forced to put code on his pc by a 9-11 obsessed nutcase who has kidnapped Munir's wife and child. The kidnapper has sent "proof" of his viciousness and threatened worse mayhem should Munir call police.

Jack doesn't have any more cases that don't touch on the supernatural. He's now a key player in the unending war between two multi-universal entities known as the Ally (indifferent to humanity) and the Otherness (viciously hostile to humanity). The Ally means to turn Jack into a possible replacement for its previous Champion, Glaeken. When tricked into believing that the Otherness was defeated on Earth, the Ally withdrew its powers from the millennia-old Glaeken and let him age normally.

But the Otherness' Champion on this planet, Rasolom, wasn't actually killed. Rasolom is determined to win. He intends to destroy the incarnate Earth spirit, a goddess in human form, known as The Lady.  Should the Lady disappear, the Ally will believe that the planet has no sentient life and withdraw completely. The Otherness can then invade with no opposition. Rasolom works in secret since he still believes that Glaeken is just as powerful as he is and will "kill him" again if he's foolish enough to work openly. 
Thus, Rasolom pursues a very complicated scheme though varied secret organizations (which are obvious parodies of Scientology,  Fraternities, New Age groups, Fight Club and Masons) in order to kill The Lady.  Some of Jack's friends are unwillingly and/or unwittingly involved. When Jack finds out he wants to take the fight directly to Rasolom but he's counseled against this by The Lady and Glaeken, who dare not let Rasolom know just how weakened Glaeken now is. In other events a woman gives birth to a very special and rather disturbing "baby" that Rasolom has plans for.

This was okay but not super special. In the earlier series books I enjoyed reading about Jack juggle normal "fix-it" cases contrasted with those that brushed up against the secret history of the world and magical elements. That's gone. This book can be read on its own. It may get you interested in the previous series installments. It was a quick read.  Jack is a walking libertarian trope who only has compassion for a few special folks-primarily his fiancĂ©e Gia and her daughter Vicky. As usual, a few very stupid people attempt to harm those ladies. And as usual they find out the hard way what an insanely bad idea that is. You don't pull on Superman's cape, you don't spit in the wind. You don't pull the mask off the Lone Ranger and you don't mess with Jack's family.

Coal to Cream
By Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson is best known today as a Pulitzer Prize winning columnist for the Washington Post and as a contributing voice to various MSNBC shows. He is also an author, as are many talented columnists. Coal to Cream is one of his older books, which is even more relevant today with the demographic and cultural changes taking place in the US.
The book is subtitled “..A Black man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race”.
It is almost de rigueur today to scoff at the concept of race as either a biological or cultural concept. The American one-drop rule (hypodescent-especially for Black people) is under attack, not just by increasing albeit still small interracial marriages but also by increasing immigration from people who do not easily fit into or accept traditional American racial definitions. Robinson examines some of this but does so in a very interesting way.
For a period of time Robinson was a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post and lived and worked in various South American countries, including Brazil and Argentina. He looked forward to this for both personal and professional reasons and definitely enjoyed the opportunity to improve his Spanish and Portuguese. A large part of the reason he took this assignment was that he wanted to step away from the poisonous racial atmosphere that he experienced in America. For a short time he found South America to be extremely different. He did not immediately sense racial hostility or feel that he was automatically marked as a Black man. 

However he had to start to revisit some assumptions about racial differences in South America one day on a Brazilian beach , when curious about racial differences and relations he turned to a Black Brazilian woman and asked her what it was like being Black in Brazil. Surprised (and maybe a little offended?) the woman replied she wouldn’t know because she wasn’t Black. This of course was a shock to Robinson as the woman was more than few shades darker than him and had clearly West African features. When he tried to point out that he was Black and so was the woman she responded that as far as she was concerned Robinson wasn’t Black either and that this wasn’t America.
This caused Robinson to go on an internal quest of determining what Blackness meant to him.  He sketches many of his experiences in America, some of which are of course still familiar to black people today-being stopped by the police, receiving either patronizing condescension or barely disguised hostility from white co-workers and bosses , but also more positive things like shared history and cultural affinities. Through his experiences in South America, the Caribbean and the UK, Robinson comes to if not quite an acceptance of the one drop rule, an appreciation of the manner in which different historical circumstances can produce different social experiences. These are “real” to the people invested in them even as they may appear ridiculous to people outside of that culture.

Robinson writes near the end of his book of his experiences in Brazil:
But then I saw what it meant when black people, looking up from the bottom of a society, lived without a sense of racial identity. I came to appreciate the measure of power and pride they were denying themselves. ..I came to see blackness-blackness as an identity, which I once considered an outdated and irrelevant concept-as something deeply important o me and every other black person in America, and as vitally current. It wasn’t yesterday’s news; it was tomorrow’s.
This was a really good book. Robinson is also an U-M alum so of course the book is well-written. 
Prizzi’s Honor
By Richard Condon
This book by Richard Condon (who also wrote The Manchurian Candidate) is probably best known for being adapted into the John Huston movie of the same name starring Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner. The movie was relatively true to the short novel but of course in a novel you have a chance to see what’s going on behind the scenes. Ultimately this book is a tragic romance. It’s set in the organized crime genre but that is just window dressing and something of a parody.

The Prizzi’s are the most powerful organized crime family in the United States and possibly the world. The Family headquarters are in Brooklyn. The family leaders include the semi-retired and gently maleficent family patriarch Don Corrado Prizzi, his squabbling sons, Vincent Prizzi (he runs the criminal side), Eduardo Prizzi (he runs the legitimate side), Corrado’s oldest friend and counselor Angelo Partanna (he gives advice and handles payoffs) and Angelo’s son Charley Partanna (he is Vincent’s Underboss and brutally loyal and incorruptible enforcer).

Behind his back, Charley Partanna is called “the All American hood” both for his incredible fidelity to the life and because of his unusual insistence in self-improvement-he got his GED, takes college classes and did the needed market research to launch the Family into the cocaine business. No one calls him this to his face of course as Charley is the human equivalent of a barely restrained Cane Corso. He can make people shudder in fear just by looking at them.

At the wedding of Corrado Prizzi’s granddaughter, Charley Partanna meets a woman who will change his life forever. He falls in love at first sight. This woman’s name is Irene Walker. Unknown to Charley, Irene is actually a contract hitter brought in by Angelo Partanna to do some work while everyone is at the wedding. Later on the fiercely traditional Charley discovers this fact in some unpleasant circumstances while he’s at work. However against everything he’s been taught Charley ignores this portion of Irene’s personality, just as she does with him. The two are in total love with one another and shortly get married.

But Corrado Prizzi has another granddaughter, Maerose Prizzi, Vincent’s daughter. A few years before, she and Charley were supposed to be married. The perceptive and proud Maerose noticed that Charley’s heart wasn’t really in it and she took drastic steps to insult Charley and end the betrothal.  Maerose is the smartest and most vicious of all the Prizzi’s. It’s a source of constant frustration to her that she has to act with feminine wiles instead of masculine directness. Maerose has decided that Charley is the likely heir to the Family throne. She ruthlessly takes steps to manipulate her way back into her father and grandfather’s good graces and onto Charley’s radar screen. Maerose’s actions and the fact that Irene is publicly working in what is considered to be the male arena of contract murder and crime, set up some very tragic events as the story progresses. I liked this book. 

Shadows Fall
By Simon Green
Simon Green is both a favorite author of mine as well as one whom I think has soiled his gift. His later books all read exactly the same, have the same heroes/heroines, thematic concerns and story events almost to the point where you wonder if he’s just doing cuts and pastes and change alls in his novels.
Shadows Fall is one of his earlier novels. It  was originally published in 1994 and was republished in 2005 after his great success with his other novels. It was exciting to read this because you could see some of the themes and character types developing that Green would use in later books. You could also enjoy a very very different writer than what Green later became. Shadows Fall is MUCH more allegorical and high fantasy than Green’s pulp fiction stories. It’s a side of Green that we haven’t seen very often and one which I hope to see again.
Shadows Fall is a town literally in the middle of nowhere. It’s a place where people who are tired of living but not quite ready to die go. It’s a place for losers, misfits, never weres and used-to-bes. But mostly it’s a place where legends and fantasies go to die when people no longer believe in them. So this includes magical toys, talking animals, characters in kids’ stories, rock stars that are losing worshippers, fading demigods, the whole lot. Father Time watches over the town and manipulates the time-space continuum so that Shadows Fall can only be found by those who are supposed to find it. 
However murder has come to Shadows Fall. Something of great evil is killing off these old legends. It’s up to the town’s mayor, Rhea Frazier and her dead but not gone friend, Leonard Ash, to find the killer. Of course the killer is only a pawn in a greater game, though he doesn’t realize it. This book has the best ending of any of Green’s books and it’s a shame in my opinion that he dropped the style of writing on display here.