Saturday, December 31, 2011

Movie Reviews-Straw Dogs (2011), Fright Night(2011) and more

Straw Dogs(2011)
This remake tells the story of a man , David (James Marsden) and his wife Amy (Kate Bosworth) who move to Amy's culturally distinct Mississippi home town-Blackwater. (Shades of backwater or Blackwater Group??) David is a screenwriter and Amy is an actress. David is writing a book on the 1943 battle of Stalingrad.

Like its 1971 predecessor, Rod Lurie's remake poses some questions.

What does it mean to be a man? Can you change a tire? Re-roof a house?  Break down and clean a firearm? Overhaul a transmission? Do you even know the proper color of your car's transmission fluid?  Put up a fence? Kill an animal? Stand up for yourself? Fix your refrigerator coils? Physically intimidate other men? Enjoy or perform physically violent sports? Speak directly and with bass/baritone in your voice? Bench press multiples of your body weight? Are you a good partner for your wife/girlfriend/friend with benefits? Can she rely on you for protection?

David can't do any of these things. This almost immediately invites the contempt of the town's workers, including his wife's ex-boyfriend. This being the South though their contempt is initially expressed under a thin veneer of excessive politeness, deference and blink-and-you'll-miss-it-sarcasm. When David tells Charlie that Charlie and his crew are taking too long to re-roof the barn, Charlie replies with seeming actual kindness and curiosity "How long, in your experience, should it take to re-roof a barn, sir?".
The story is roughly faithful to the 1971 version discussed here with a few changes.
As I suspected, the portions of Peckinpah film which so troubled some viewers, especially feminists, have been toned down or removed altogether. Amy is still provocative in her dress (going braless for a lengthy run and later deliberately flashing the workers) but this is explicitly tied up with some sort of grrlpower activism. The infamous rape scene still occurs but it is clearly depicted as rape-there is NO enjoyment or ambiguity expressed. It can not possibly be thought of as crude seduction. When the couple is besieged David does not slap his hysterical wife and tell her to do as she's told. These changes probably make the film a bit more palatable to modern filmgoers but they do rob the movie of the shock value and intensity that the original had. Lurie said “I think you will see that one of the reasons for remaking was to turn it into a feminist film.” He may have succeeded in that goal but it wasn't needed. The film is thus deliberately neutered. 
Charlie (Alexander Skarsgard) is more of an eye candy object than Amy is in this film. In addition, the remake removes the slight tension between Amy and David. We never get the feeling that she thinks she settled, which was rather important to the events. There isn't a real hint of Amy's revolt against David's prissiness and peculiarities. 

In the original David was more or less clueless to the cultural norms of the small English village he was visiting. In this film he is still clueless but is willing to at least try to adapt. This makes him a more sympathetic protagonist while more openly painting his tormentors as stereotypical good old boy bullies. 
The movie's irony is that both David and Charlie react to what they think each other's stereotypes are and then in seeming self-defense, become those stereotypes. Under different circumstances the self-described "rednecks" might actually have been interested in the minutiae of World War Two battles while David could have learned to enjoy high calorie down home chili and the rhythmic cadence of a Southern preacher. Marsden is not as slight or nebbishy as Hoffman so the ending violence lacks the original's surprise. 

Word to the wise: the best time to handle problems is when they start. If a strange man who you later find out is your wife's ex walks up to her, ignores you and calls her by an obviously sexual diminutive while trying to play with her hair, you might as well shoot him right then and there. Start as you mean to finish I always say. Save yourself some time and hassle. If this film's story interests you, just see the original instead. James Woods and Dominic Purcell also have roles.

Fright Night (2011)
Another remake, this movie tells the story of a vampire living (and feasting) in suburbia.
Like Straw Dogs this version makes some important changes to the storyline but unlike Straw Dogs these changes actually work. I wouldn't say it was better than the original just different. Financially however, this film was pretty much a flop. 

The primary difference is that the hero Charley Brewster, (Anton Yelchin) a former geek who is transforming into one of the cool kids, discovers VERY early on that his next door neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire. The film's most impressive scene has Charley realize this fact when Jerry -who is unable to enter a home without invitation-does his best to manipulate Charley into inviting him in. The slight Farrell does a bang up job of conveying menace and increasing frustration while Yelchin shows growing panic that there is a monster on the other side of the doorstep. This movie also precisely captures the sad emptiness of some of these semi-rural suburban subdivisions. 
Unfortunately I guess when you show all the goods early there's no excitement left.  This film had no tease. Perhaps it's because modern viewers have such short attention spans?
The film has some great special effects but there just wasn't enough fright or humor to have made this worthwhile for a theater viewing. It may find a second life on VOD and DVD. Who knows.
The vampire hunter Peter Vincent (David Tennant) is reimagined as a somewhat fey Las Vegas magician. Toni Collette, Sandra Vergara,  and Imogen Poots also star. Chris Sarandon (the vampire in the original version) has a cameo.

Brotherhood of the Wolf
For fans of the fine feminine form of Monica Bellucci this French film is worth watching for her alone. For everyone else this isn't a bad little adventure/drama/mystery/period flick that is chock full of court intrigues, duels, forbidden romance, sexual perversion, murders, supernatural(?) events and martial arts-18th century style.

This kitchen sink approach would normally make a movie feel ridiculous but I think it worked for this film. The cinematography of the film is quite close to Blade 2 or even The Matrix, with similar action sequences and lighting. The film has lots of blue or dark scenes occasionally transposed with lighter more upbeat ones. This film won a host of awards and was financially successful in the US as well, no small feat for a subtitled movie with a running length of over 2 hours. The film hit the sweet spot of being able to appeal to both men and women, drama fans and action fans, conspiracy theorists and romance junkies, film snobs and people that just want to escape reality for a while. And the costumes weren't bad either. The film is based on (really more extrapolated from) real events.

The opening story is that a French knight , Fronsac (Samuel Le Bihan) and his Iroquois partner Mani (Mark Dacascos) return to France from North America in order to hunt and kill a strange beast that is terrorizing the countryside. They also intend to enjoy the favors of the sort of women that aren't found in North America. Fronsac in particular is something of a player and almost immediately takes up with the mysterious Italian prostitute Sylvia (Monica Bellucci) while simultaneously romancing a local young noblewoman Marianne (Emile Dequenne). Mani knows kung-fu and is something of a a$$-kicker. Like the Starks in A Game of Thrones, Mani has a wolf as his totem animal and is virtually psychically linked with wolves. And he doesn't think the beast doing the killing is a wolf.
This beast seems to primarily attack and kill young girls. Fronsac and Mani find this strange to say the least. Additionally the footprints and bite marks of the beast are much larger and more powerful than any wolf. Some witnesses have sworn the beast was controlled by an evil wizard. The killings have become so common that people are attempting to use them as a religious symbol that God has withdrawn his favor from the French king. So the pressure is on Fronsac and Mani to solve this case FAST. They are overseen and occasionally mocked by the one armed Jean-Francois (Mr. Monica Bellucci aka Vincent Cassel), Marianne's brother, who seems to know more about the beast's behavior than he should. And the plot thickens from there. I don't want to say more because that would involve spoilers. I'll just say that this was a very satisfying film. Check it out.

Final Destination 5
This sequel closes the loop and does so in some pretty ingenious ways. If you've never seen any of the Final Destination movies I won't say you've missed a whole lot. It's basically an upscale Faces of Death. The storyline is always the same. One member of a group of attractive well scrubbed ethnically diverse youths has a premonition of impending death, freaks out and convinces some of his/her friends to get off the plane/bus/train/rollercoaster/ship or whatever they are on. The friends do so reluctantly, primarily so they can complain to each other about what a loser their freakout friend is. After the small group has left the area then the exact catastrophe which the psychic friend foresaw occurs.

The person comes to the attention of the local authorities or more usually the FBI, who can't believe the person didn't cause the tragedy somehow. Soon after the brush with death though, the survivors all start to perish in seemingly random and quite improbable ways. The local coroner (Tony Todd) who may or may not be an avatar of Death, shows up to warn the psychic that Death won't be mocked and the group's only hope of survival is to somehow break the pattern.

The real appeal of these movies is to detail all the numerous ways in which death can strike us all at anytime. Food that goes down the wrong way causes choking and asphyxiation instead of a cough. You slip and fall the wrong way on a wet bathroom floor and hit your head. Everything that can go wrong with a LASIK treatment does. The guy sitting next to you at a baseball game doesn't catch the foul ball but you do-right in the face. This may or not be your cup of tea but FD5 is consistent and is exactly like the previous four movies. See one, you've seen them all.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Book Reviews- Night Watch, Salem's Lot and more

Night Watch
by Sergei Lukyankenko
There are of course just tons of books about the battle between Good and Evil. You might say in some respects that's a central human feature. What makes an act good or evil? Is there any real difference? Who has enough foresight to tell? Is it all a question of point of view or does actual good and evil exist independent of our actions? After all if cattle could talk they would no doubt say, with some justification that human beings are pure evil and nothing but that. These questions and  many more are explored in Night Watch, an entertaining opening to a fantastic fiction tetralogy by Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko.

Night Watch is thematically somewhat similar to Susan Cooper's The Dark is Rising series but Night Watch is quite firmly written for adults. There is a subset of superhumans who have always existed alongside humanity. These people call themselves Others and are the source for all of the myths about angels, demons, and other supernatural creatures. Others may not initially be aware of their powers but by natural events or training usually become familiar with them before adulthood in most cases. Others are divided into good (Light) and evil (Dark) and have roughly equivalent powers.

Thousands of years ago the Light Others and Dark Others gathered for a final cataclysmic battle to decide the fate of the world. However each leader realized that the two sides were too evenly matched and to fight it out would destroy the world. A truce was reached and a treaty signed. This allowed each side minor licenses to behave according to their nature-for example a Light Other Magician could heal people but then a Dark Other vampire could get a free hand in attacking someone. Each side created police forces to monitor the other side for treaty violations or unauthorized magic. The Light Others created the Night Watch while the Dark Others created the Day Watch.

The book opens in Moscow with the cynical Light Other, Anton Gorodetsky, being taken from his mundane desk job and thrust into field work-something he claims to be no good at but soon develops surprising aptitude for. Anton's first assignment involves a normal seeming human boy who can nonetheless enter levels of reality that should only be accessible to Others as well as trying to find out who cursed a beautiful young woman and if that curse is powerful enough to destroy all Moscow. 

Anton is cynical because his ultimate boss, Gesar (head of the Night Watch) never tells anyone the whole story and will not hesitate to manipulate or sacrifice his troops if that is what some unknown objective requires. Anton's cynicism deepens when he learns that some of the good he does rebounds to the Dark's benefit. And Anton nearly loses it when he discovers that some of the 20th century's worst regimes, wars and genocides were actually started or helped along by the Light, which was ineptly attempting to bring about heaven on earth. The Dark is always growing stronger, thanks in part to the nature of humanity. Anton and his fellow Night Watch agents are always struggling not to break the Great Truce or just take control of people and MAKE them do right-which is of course exactly the sort of thing that Dark Others do. Night Watch is an interesting read which places some deftly hidden philosophical musings inside of urban fantasy.

Salem's Lot
by Stephen King
This was the second Stephen King book I ever read and probably hooked me for good on his prose style. King has an uncanny skill to depict realistic characters, get inside their heads to let you know what they're thinking and make them react in very honest ways to some fantastic situations. In some respects this is a resetting of the Dracula story in 1970's America but it's not just about supernatural evil.

It's also about all the everyday evils that occur day in towns large and small across America whether they are acted upon or not: greed, spousal abuse, adultery, bullying, child rape and abuse, bigotry and closed mindedness, lust, poverty,  substance abuse and murder. These things all have more impact on us than a singular Evil. In one of the book's ironies, before the true nature of the supernatural evil visiting the town has before apparent, a Catholic priest, Father Callahan bitterly resents the newfangled Church , which is concerned with feminism and civil rights and anti-war issues. He wants to confront Evil with a capital "E". Later, he gets his chance but the results are not quite to his liking.

If you haven't read this book, well you should. And if you have already, heck it's worth a read again.The book is divided up into four sections:
a) the introductions of the main characters and a sketching of the past evil that afflicted the town and may have attracted Barlow; 
b) the unsettling arrival of Straker, who is a sort of John The Baptist to his vampire master Barlow, in that he prepares the town for Barlow's coming;  
c) The arrival of Barlow and the growing number of dead  or turned citizens even as most people can't believe what's going on; 
d) The rejection of subterfuge as Barlow openly declares himself and battle is joined.  
The vampire here, Barlow, is not one of the modern pansexual pretty boy vamps that flitter and flutter in and out of Twilight or True Blood. Barlow is made of much meaner, uglier and forceful stuff. He's not looking for his lost love nor he is going to fall in love. He does not simper. He's an undead killing machine who enjoys doing what he does-pure monster. It's a shame that the modern version of the vampire myth has swung so far away from its core-a dead thing that drinks blood-but thankfully that's the trope that King used here.

Again, King created a very wide array of characters who all deal with this threat in different ways. Some deny; some leave town, some hide, and a very few decide to fight back. This book was a very worthwhile addition to the modern vampire mythos. Salem's Lot is one of the scariest vampire books ever written and if you have an overactive imagination it's probably not something you should read at dusk or at darkest midnight.

by Rex Miller

The late Rex Miller was certainly not everyone's cup of tea. Although he was associated with the splatterpunk genre, that description was too limiting. His writing as he freely admitted, came from some painful places, some of which he didn't care to describe in depth. As he wrote in a Dark Muse piece, "..evil exists. [It] needs to be cut out of the herd and incarcerated."

Frenzy is a short novel that is a battle of wits between two Midwestern men, Jack Eichord, a detective who specializes in taking down serial killers and Frank Spain, a mild mannered St. Louis based man who also happens to be the country's best hit man. Spain is primarily associated with the Midwest Organized Crime Families (St. Louis, Kansas City, and ultimately Chicago). Spain takes no pleasure in his job. It is just something that he does. Spain does not let his wife know of his business which unfortunately turns out to be a mistake and later a tragedy for Spain.

His wife Pat, is tired of Frank's constant absences and infrequent amorous attention. She comes to believe he's a wimp so she cheats on him with their insurance salesman. He catches her but does not kill her as he still loves her and Frank only kills on business. Pat leaves and takes their teen daughter Tiffany with her. Under her mother's less than attentive care, Tiffany falls in with a fast crowd. On a visit from Tiffany , Frank tries to correct this but overreacts. Tiffany runs away with her no-good boyfriend who turns her out into prostitution and later much worse activities. Ultimately she's murdered. Frank is devastated. 

However Frank is beyond enraged when he discovers that the people who murdered his daughter ultimately worked for the same Mafia group HE did. As far as Frank is concerned they're ALL responsible and they're ALL going to pay. The Mafia's number one murder machine goes off the reservation, leaves sanity behind and comes to the attention of Eichord, who doesn't understand at first that this is an intensely personal killing spree that he's trying to stop.
This book was short (300 pages) and to the point.

332nd Fighter Group-Tuskegee Airmen
by Chris Bucholtz
Something that many black professionals hear starting out is that you have to be better than your white counterparts in order to get the same level of recognition. This is real. And although Herman Cain's aborted farcical Presidential campaign shows the custom may be subsiding somewhat this requirement was almost literally law in the 1940's. 

The fact that the men of the 332nd Fighter Group rose to this unfair and harmful rule was impressive. That they did so while literally fighting for their lives was actually amazing. The Tuskegee Airmen experiment was actually designed to fail. Many people wanted to show that blacks lacked the ability to lead, the intelligence to process vast amounts of information quickly, and above all the guts to tangle with the enemy.

The 332nd Fighter Group-an all Black group proved all of their doubters wrong and actually made a reputation for themselves as an elite fighting group. They were able to boast of over 111 confirmed aerial kills, the sinking of a German destroyer and most importantly of never having lost any bomber they escorted to enemy attack (though this last has recently been questioned by some revisionist historians).
This was an enjoyable book to read and showed a side of World War 2 that is virtually always left out of history books and movies-the dashing, devil may care, cigar chomping, flight scarf bedecked fighter pilot-who is black. This book makes liberal use of primary and secondary interviews with Tuskegee Airmen as well as tons of photos and information from the National Museum of the United States Air Force.  One reason for the success of the 332nd Fighter Group, besides the intense desire of the men involved to prove their detractors wrong,  was the command presence of the group's leader, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis (pictured here) who made it crystal clear to his men that their primary mission was to protect the bombers no matter what. 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Obama's Indefinite Detention Bill

President Obama is poised to sign a bill (The National Defense Authorization Act-NDAA) which really honestly leaves me almost unable to write because I'm so angry. To put it mildly this is a very bad bill.
It codifies and regularizes indefinite detention of American citizens without trial within the United States of America. Yes that's right. Theoretically you could be minding your own business, running your blog, sending naughty IM's to your SO, chatting with various people across the blog-o-sphere and suddenly jackbooted black helmeted thugs could break down your door, tase you and seize your pc and other private effects and documents, blind you, gag you and prevent you from hearing anything and leisurely drag you off to the local military base (or as far as I know private detention center) where military or national security personnel could keep you imprisoned for as long as they like.

Lawyers? Warrants? Habeas corpus? Bump all that!!!! Of course I'm sure that they wouldn't like torture you or threaten to torture your loved ones because that would be illegal. And with the effective right to a speedy trial guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment , your rights to due process and protection against self-incrimination guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment and especially your protection against warrantless arrest and search guaranteed under the Fourth Amendment you can certainly tell the large humorless men with guns and nightsticks that as they have NO right to hold you you're walking out of there. Yes.

Of course before they start the waterboarding they will probably inform you that under the NDAA the country just collectively squatted and relieved itself over the Bill of Rights. The military, law enforcement and national security personnel don't need to worry about such quaint details anymore. And if THEY don't YOU certainly don't.

It is ironic that people from across the political spectrum from left-wing black nationalists to white racist paleocons to right leaning libertarians to classical liberals to radical socialists can all see the dangers in this bill, soon to become law. Unfortunately the larger American citizenry doesn't see the danger because otherwise something like this would never have been passed in the first place. Certainly the bipartisan Beltway elite don't care because as they well know this bill is not aimed at THEM. It's aimed at YOU.

Laws like this are usually passed because politicians claim to want to keep us safe. The problem is there is no such thing as complete safety. And by trying to reach it you inevitably attack freedom. We all know the Benjamin Franklin quote.
They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.
But it's worse than that. It's not just well-intentioned people making mistakes out of fear. President Obama may or may not possess the discipline and wisdom to use "responsibly" the powers granted in this new bill. But what about future Presidents? Based on his statements about arresting judges who rule in ways that he finds faulty do you think a President Gingrich could be trusted not to indefinitely detain a few "pointy headed liberals" he doesn't care for? Would a future President Chris Christie find it amusing to indefinitely detain national union leaders who wouldn't sign on to his Social Security plan?  Would a future feminist President order a dismantling of the men's rights movement? Heck, were I President, could I be trusted not to immediately detain Gloria Allred?

Seriously the point is that NO ONE should have to ask those kinds of questions. The entire point of this republic is that no one (wo)man should have that power. Power is supposed to be limited and split among the three branches of government-with the balance held by the people. When one branch of government (or one person) has that kind of power the temptation to use it against political enemies is overwhelming. The act of doing so becomes inevitable. It's not just cheap hyperbole to say that this is the twilight of the republic. On this issue it doesn't matter whether it's Bush or Obama. They are both horrible on civil liberties. Frankly, Obama is sliding into "worse" territory.

There is an excellent analysis of this bill's dangers by legal scholar Glenn Greenwald here. I implore you all to go read it in full as he has the legal knowledge which I lack to put all this into depressing perspective. Some highlights

  • The NDAA codifies into law indefinite detention
  • The NDAA does not exclude American citizens
  • The NDAA permanently expands the scope of the War on Terror.
What’s particularly ironic (and revealing) about all of this is that former White House counsel Greg Craig assured The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer back in February, 2009 that it’s “hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law.” Four months later, President Obama proposed exactly such a law — one that The New York Times described as “a departure from the way this country sees itself, as a place where people in the grip of the government either face criminal charges or walk free” — and now he will sign such a scheme into law.
So far I've only seen one national political figure who has the stones to speak out against this new bill. You may not like him for other reasons but on this issue he's dead on target.

Ron Paul speaks out.

h/t Jonathan Turley

1) Do you think President Obama will sign this bill? If so why?
2) Are civil liberties a concern for you personally? Why or why not?
3) Do you think American citizens should be immune from military detention without trial?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Movie Reviews-Cowboys and Aliens, Supernatural Season Two, Rob Roy

Cowboys and Aliens
I saw a trailer for this while watching another movie. I thought it was just so silly it just might work. Well trailers can be deceiving of course. Don't get me wrong, it's a well crafted film (Spielberg and Ron Howard are among the producers) but there really aren't a whole lot of surprises. It is more or less completely predictable once the big reveal of aliens in the Old West is completed. It has a relatively decent cast-Daniel Craig, Adam Beach, Olivia Wilde, Harrison Ford, Paul Dano, Keith Carradine and Sam Rockwell. It was directed by Jon Favreau. (Iron Man, Swingers) 

Cowboys and Aliens was a little longer than it needed to be and frankly the storyline didn't really appeal enough to me to use the character names so I'll just use generics here. It's not really a character driven movie anyway. The special effects are pedestrian and very video-game like.

Squinty eyed Tough Guy (Craig) wakes up in the Arizona desert with some weird bracelet on his wrist. He has amnesia. We know he's tough because when some would be bounty hunters try to jack him, he easily sends them to the afterworld, despite the fact that he's unarmed. He wanders into town where he is found by Preacherman (Clancy Brown) a kindly but armed to the teeth man who disarms Tough Guy and stitches up some weird wounds he has. Tough Guy wanders out into what passes for the main street and watches Snotty Rich Kid (Paul Dano) humiliate Wimpy Saloon Owner (Sam Rockwell). Snotty Rich Kid tries to do the same with Tough Guy but gets chin checked..hard. Feeling a bit impotent, Snotty Rich Kid takes a shot at Tough Guy but misses and hits a deputy. So Sheriff (Carradine) stops looking the other way and arrests Snotty Rich Kid. Snotty Rich kid offers dire warnings of retribution from his father, who more or less owns most of the town.
Tough Guy sidles into the saloon where both the saloon owner's wife and Mysterious Brunette (Olivia Wilde) make goo-goo eyes at him. Mysterious Brunette keeps asking questions that Tough Guy can't answer because he can't remember who he is. But Sheriff has realized that Tough Guy is a notorious bandit and murderer and arrives at the saloon to arrest him. Tough Guy is not having it and is in the process of showing the sheriff just how far his boot will fit up the Sheriff's fundament when Mysterious Brunette clocks him from behind.

In the meantime Snotty Rich Kid's father, Mean Old White Man (Harrison Ford) has heard about his son's arrest from his employee, Good Indian (Adam Beach) and has gathered up a posse to go free his son-but not before stopping to hurl some insults at Good Indian. Mean Old White Man loves hurling insults. Good Indian looks longingly at Mean Old White Man. He's like a puppy that gets constantly kicked but still loves its master.

The Aliens attack. Tough Guy discovers that his wrist bracelet is a weapon. He also finds he wants to be intimate with Mysterious Brunette, despite the fact that she whomped him upside his head. The cowboys and outlaws and lawmen and Apaches all must put aside their hatreds to fight the aliens. 
Ho hum. It was okay for mindless weekend fun but not something that would be on my must see list. If I see ONE more movie in which a non-white person sacrifices himself to save a racist white person so afterwards the white person can muse thoughtfully, "You know that so-and-so wasn't that bad..for a so-and-so" I just may lose it.

Supernatural-Season Two
Supernatural made a few changes to the formula for Season 2. Season 2 was a much darker set of episodes. It dealt a lot more with loss and sacrifice. There was still some fun of course and the essentials of the two leads remained intact-Sam is emo while Dean is ebullient but Season 2 sets up some serious shifts in later seasons.

The Winchester Brothers , Sam (Jared Padelecki) and older brother Dean (Jensen Ackles) are hunters-they eliminate supernatural threats to humanity. During Season One they were involved in a search for their father John (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). They have found him but in so doing the three men have attracted the attention of the demon Azazel (Fredric Lehne) who killed their mother and for whom John Winchester has been searching. John Winchester has a gun which will kill anything-including Azazel.  Azazel cunningly sets up a car accident in which all three Winchesters are badly wounded but Dean is dying. Desperate to save his son's life John makes a deal with the demon. In exchange for Dean's life John will give up the gun, and his own life and soul. He sacrifices himself for his son.

Season 2 deals with the aftermath of the guilt and anger Sam and Dean feel as they try to process their father's death, get revenge on the demon who has tormented their family so, deal with other supernatural threats, find out what this demon's long term plans are and of course get laid. 
Much of the folklore which is used in this show is from American mythology-especially African American folklore. A flashback is shown of blues musician Robert Johnson, who gained ungodly skill on the guitar very quickly, was believed to have made a deal with the Devil at the crossroads, died young under mysterious circumstances and actually wrote a song titled Hellhound on my trail. The show's use of unseen hellhounds is pretty doggone effective.
This season was good. It had a satisfying arc and introduced some new characters.

Rob Roy

This is where we fight! This is where they die!
I'm going to take this right foot and whop you on that side of your face. And you wanna know something? There's not a damn thing you're going to be able to do about it.
And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I've done to him.
I can tell you with no ego, this is my finest sword. If on your journey, you should encounter God, God will be cut.
I am the Anti-Christ. You get me in a vendetta-kind-of mood, you tell the angels in heaven you never saw evil so singularly personified as you did in the face of the man who killed you.
I shall think on you as dead until my husband makes it so. And then I will think on you no more.

If these sorts of filmic bada$$ boasts bring a smile to your face, you will probably enjoy watching Rob Roy. And if you like well made epic historical adventure movies that manage to combine convincing action with a pretty realistic and adult love story you will definitely enjoy watching Rob Roy.

Liam Neeson plays the title character, a cattle drover and the leader of Clan MacGregor in 18th century Scotland. Like that other Scots archetype of Honor Before Reason Ned Stark, Neeson is a man whose word is bond. He has a deep fierce love for his wife Mary (Jessica Lange) and their children. Unfortunately cattle driving doesn't pay like it used to so Clan MacGregor is not as powerful as it used to be.
Against his nature (he despises debt) in order to keep his business, family and larger clan safe and financially healthy, Rob is forced to go almost literally hat in hand to the Marquis of Montrose (John Hurt) to request a loan to keep things going. Montrose agrees but reminds Rob that should Rob default or refuse to pay then Rob's lands and cattle will be forfeit.
Rob sends his most trusted loyalist Alan MacDonald (Eric Stolz) to pick up the money and return home. However the Marquis' top assassin and enforcer, one Archibald Cunningham, (Tim Roth in a performance that should have won an Oscar) hears about the deal and hurries off to rob and murder MacDonald soon after he's been given the loan.

Rob is angry at not having received the money and even angrier when Montrose and Cunningham casually suggest that MacDonald stole the money and fled to America. This was all a setup to force Rob-who has an unblemished reputation as a honorable man who does not lie- to falsely testify against a few of Montrose's political opponents.  When Rob indignantly refuses to do so Montrose declares him outlaw and sends Cunningham and soldiers to take vengeance on Rob and all of the MacGregors but especially Mrs. Mary MacGregor.

This movie was shot on location in Scotland which is a place I've always wanted to visit. The sets and backgrounds are truly majestic and are as much a part of the movie as the actors and scripts. Speaking of actors, Neeson, and Roth especially, bring the goods here, climaxing in perhaps the most stunning and yet realistic sword fight ever filmed. This film is worth seeing for that showdown alone. Cunningham is an evil SOB. It is rather strongly implied that he is an illegitimate son of one of the nobles that he serves. Rob is no superhero and makes mistakes throughout the movie. The film does not glamorize Rob's life-he's not a rich man and lives pretty similar to his clan brethren. What keeps him and his wife (who has her own deadly journey to overcome) going is the love they share for each other. This film was somewhat ignored because it came out at the same time as the Mel Gibson film about ANOTHER Scottish hero but this film is worth a look.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Israeli Settler Violence: Double Standards

Everyone has double standards. It's part of being human, unfortunately. If someone who's not on our team does something dirty we scream in horror and call for penalties. If someone who's on our team does the same action, we chuckle and say hey the guy's a bit aggressive sure, but ultimately he's a good fellow.

Although this might be par for the course it's really not a good thing. It's actually something humans need to strive to eliminate actually, especially when it comes to justice. You may not have heard about this but in the West Bank Israeli settler movement there is a subgroup of settlers who take what they call "price-tag" attacks on Palestinian homes, farms, churches, mosques and well Palestinians themselves. Occasionally these are in response to Palestinian attacks but are more usually done in response to "provocations" like the Israeli closing of a settlement outpost or other political moves. Settlers also seem to enjoy such fun date night activities as random beatings of/shootings at Palestinians, destruction of Palestinian olive groves and farmlands and just general harassment such as calling your mother all sorts of foul names.

Despite the violence of these attacks and the harm they cause the Israeli government has more or less turned a blind eye to the settler movement's violence against Palestinians. Settlers have had government support. Well the problem with double standards is that quite often they come back to bite you in your tuchus. 
Some 50 settlers and right-wing activists entered a key West Bank military base early Tuesday morning and threw rocks, burned tires, and vandalized military vehicles. The settlers were acting in response to a rumor that the IDF would act to evict a West Bank settlement in accordance with an August Supreme Court rulingIn the attack on the Efraim Regional Brigade's base near the West Bank city of Qalqilya, right-wing activists threw stones at region's brigade commander and his deputy after forcefully opening the door to their jeep. The brigade commander was lightly wounded after a stone hit his head.

No arrests were made. Now it's pretty obvious or should be what would have happened if a wild bunch of Palestinians had invaded an Israeli military base to throw rocks, burn tires and vandalize military equipment. You would have been reading the next day about a bunch of dead Palestinians. Period.
This has embarrassed the IDF to an extent. After all no matter whose side they're on, no army wants people to get the idea that they can just roll up to a military base and pimp-slap soldiers willy-nilly. So they are trying to find a way to deal with settler violence-settler violence directed at the army anyway. They could care less about settler violence directed at Palestinians.
The IDF is holding discussing on ways of handling future cases of settler violence following the raid on the Ephraim Brigade base and the attack on the brigade commander on Tuesday. The army is considering taking a firmer hand against rioters targeting the IDF.
Among the options being explored is the use of crowd dispersal means such as shock or gas grenades, water canons and in cases of mass riots more advanced tools such as odor and noise weapons.
The IDF is also revisiting fire protocols in cases where soldiers' lives may be in danger which involve the hurling of stones or glass bottles. IDF forces refrained from using weapons in previous clashes with Jewish rioters and physically blocked the assailants. Ephraim Brigade deputy commander Lt. Col. Tzur Harpaz did just that on Tuesday when he left his weapon in the jeep before being hit with a stone in his head.
I see this just as chickens coming home to roost. You can not lovingly give a bunch of insane chauvinists guns, tax-exempt donations from the US, turn a blind eye to their violent rhetoric and actions against Palestinians and then be surprised when they decide that the Palestinians aren't the only people that might need to be punched in the face. Settlers across the world have often turned against their own government-whether it be Algeria, South Africa, Kenya or elsewhere. The increasing violence of some settlers and their disdain for political authority was thoroughly predictable. The Israeli political leadership finally decided to state that violent settlers would be subject to administrative detention though Prime Minister Netanyahu still refused to call them terrorists. 

I think that this will just be a road bump. In the short term both sides will do their best to contain their ire at each other and instead take it out on the hapless Palestinians. It's not in either side's interest to raise the level of violence even further. The long term question is that since much of the settler movement believes that God gave them the West Bank and no politician has any right to remove them, is it even possible for any sort of two-state solution to go forward-especially since settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem are still continuing. I say no.

1) What should the Israeli government do with the settler movement?
2) Why didn't the IDF soldiers defend themselves against the settler attack?
3) Do you think a two state solution is still possible or desirable?
4) Why is the US allowing tax breaks for settlement donations?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Music Reviews-The LeBron Brothers, Slim Harpo and Roy Buchanan

The Lebron Brothers
African inspired music sounds (and is) different across the diaspora. However there are similarities, occasionally small and hard to hear, that link all of these various musics together and make it apparent that they share a common ancestral heritage, however remote that ancestry might be. From time to time various musicians within one particular New World heritage appropriate traditions more closely associated with a different New World heritage. For example the clave rhythms in much of Bo Diddley's music or James Brown's "The Big Payback" are more common in Afro-Cuban music than African-American music but are ubiquitous throughout almost all West African music, which was the source for African-American AND Afro-Cuban music.

This mixing and matching of rhythms and influences goes the other way as well. A prime example of that would be The LeBron Brothers, a Puerto Rican salsa band that became quite adept at playing boogaloo. In some respects boogaloo was to salsa as rock-and-roll was to blues. Boogaloo combined Black American soul and R&B rhythms with Afro-Rican/Afro-Cuban styles-especially son montuno. The combination irritated some salsa purists but I liked it. And so did plenty of people in NY during the mid sixties and early seventies. 

The LeBron Brothers (Jose, Angel, Pablo,Carlos and Frankie) played their own instruments and sang in English and Spanish. They played salsa, soul and as discussed boogaloo among other styles. It was and is fun music. If you have an opportunity to pick up their 1967 album Psychedelic Goes Latin, I don't think you will be disappointed. It was crossover music before the term had been invented. I don't speak Spanish but just as you don't have to speak Italian or German to enjoy some very good opera I don't think you need to speak Spanish to enjoy some great salsa and boogaloo. Check them out.

Summertime Blues  Descarga Lebron  Apurate  Money Can't Buy Love

Slim Harpo
Slim Harpo was a blues/rock-n-roll singer and harmonica player (thus the name) who became virtually synonymous with "swamp blues". Most of his recorded music had a lot of extra studio reverb and echo added in (or was recorded initially with that). Often either instead of a drummer or in addition to a drummer he would use coke bottles, rolled up newspapers, cardboard boxes, maracas, claves, and anything else that would make a percussive sound. Ironically although Harpo's primary producer, JD Miller, claimed to love blues music and occasionally even used racially mixed bands in the studio, he also supported segregation and produced some very ugly racist Cajun rock-n-roll music. People are complex.

Harpo's vocals were easier for whites to approximate and his songs were usually good-time tunes. So he sold a fair share of records to both black and white audiences. Harpo's songs were covered by many rock-n-roll bands just starting out, including the Rolling Stones, various country bands and the Yardbirds. In my opinion he was only a so-so harmonica player but he was a pretty good songwriter. His music is seemingly simple but the feel is hard to get right, as several lame covers made painfully clear. His music is made for dancing, not listening and always has that shuffle beat going-sometimes up front, sometimes slowed down or more subdued. His music pulses, pushes and pulls like a tranny on a 56' Lincoln Continental.

Even the great Muddy Waters' version of Slim Harpo's I'm a King Bee doesn't quite do the original justice to my ears. Harpo passed away from a heart attack in 1970 but his rhythmically intense dark music lives on. This is just the kind of music you'd be listening to if you were having a sultry down and dirty adulterous affair with a Cajun/Creole queen (king) in New Orleans.

Got Love if You want it   Buzz me Baby   Rainin in My Heart

I'm a King Bee  Shake Your Hips  Baby Scratch My Back

Roy Buchanan
Substance Abuse.
The Greatest Guitarist You've Never Heard Of.
Those things come to mind when I think of Roy Buchanan. There is often a predictable, if somewhat depressing tendency in America to overrate the Caucasian practitioners of blues and blues-derived music while the Black performers get ignored. That as you might imagine, irritates me greatly. But there are or in Roy's case were, white artists of INCREDIBLE skill who were shamefully ignored. Roy Buchanan is an example. He was skilled enough to play with anyone, though the notoriously introverted Buchanan once declined an invitation to share a stage with Albert King, claiming he wasn't that good, and turned down a request to join the Rolling Stones.

Buchanan grew up impoverished in Arkansas and California (his parents were sharecroppers) and was soaked in the then current white gospel and country music. His father wasn't religious but his mother occasionally attended racially mixed revival meetings where Buchanan picked up an interest in black gospel. That's Buchanan's version anyway. Buchanan's brother JD claimed that Buchanan didn't show an interest in or affinity for black music until the family moved to California and through one of JD's black friends, Roy started hearing more blues, R&B and rock-n-roll. Wherever he first got turned on to black music Roy showed a lifetime love for it. Roy picked up a few tips from Jimmy Nolen-later to become famous as James Brown's guitarist-and was a professional guitarist by age 16.

Unfortunately Roy's various bands were rarely at the same level he was, especially rhythmically. Playing for small pay on the white version of the chitlin' circuit also made it difficult to keep bands together. When Buchanan had a good backing band he would reveal more talents. Check out his cover of Al Green's I'm a Ram and see if you don't start dancing.

Buchanan was not the first to use pinch harmonics. Ike Turner, BB King and Hubert Sumlin occasionally used these tools. But Buchanan's embrace of pinch harmonics  (those "squealing" sounds you hear when he plays -Home is where I lost her is full of them -was total and complete and a defining characteristic. Buchanan was well versed in country, blues, rock-n-roll, jazz, flamenco and many other styles. In the late seventies he gamely took a stab at fusion and disco. Buchanan could and did replicate pedal steel and violin sounds on his guitar. Buchanan summoned a wide variety of tones that other people would need to use effects pedals to recreate. Buchanan rarely used electronic effects. It was all fingers, amp and attitude. Check out Five String Blues-it sounds like wah-wah pedals and volume pedals are being used...but they're not.

However because of his looks (his crazily intense Charles Manson stare wasn't something that could be easily sold in the pop market), his shyness and refusal to make the compromises necessary to become a bigger star, and his fierce insistence on musicianship above all else (as a hungry teen he once lost an audition when he insisted on tuning a guitar to the correct standard), he never hit the big time. He was a mediocre singer and a passable songwriter. Playing was his strength.

Buchanan's struggles with depression and alcohol/drug abuse limited his career and may tragically have been what cost him his life. After coming home drunk and getting in a "discussion" with his wife, Roy was arrested. The police later claimed that he committed suicide in jail. Incensed, his wife opened the coffin for close family and friends, who reported that Roy had had his head bashed in. Unfortunately his wife did not have the resources to further investigate his death.

"I have been played on the black stations. When I play I don't try to copy any of the black guys. A lot of people say I'm not a purist. Well there's no such thing as a white purist."
-Roy Buchanan in Maryland Musician in 1988.

The Messiah Will Come Again   Home is where I lost her (Billy Price on Vocals)  Fly Night Bird

Sweet Dreams(Live)   Hey Joe  I'm A Ram  Five String Blues   Roy's Bluz  Rescue Me