Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Zoe Saldana, Nina Simone, Race, Skin Tone and Hollywood

What do you think about supposed plans to have Zoe Saldana play Nina Simone in a movie?

One of the first things that you think about when you think of someone for these projects, is you’re going to try to make it believable in terms of appearance,” Simone Kelly, daughter of the late singer/songwriter, tells The Daily Beast. The married mother of two—an accomplished singer/actress in her own right—is in the midst of a furor over last week’s news that Saldana will play Nina.

The controversy hit a high note, with many crying foul over what some consider a dubious casting choice for the film. There’s even an online petition demanding that Saldana, who has yet to comment, be replaced by an actress “who actually looks like Nina Simone.”

With writing and directing duties going to Will & Grace producer and rumored Jodie Foster gal pal Cynthia Mort, the film, which was first announced in 2005 with Blige attached, is based on the life rights of Cliff Henderson, the openly gay personal assistant to Nina Simone in her final years.
Casting aside, Kelly is strong in her convictions. Since Nina Simone did compose much of her most pivotal music, the estate maintains control over its usage. Mort, who Kelly says she only communicated with once, may have difficulty getting rights and clearances for the songs.

“As long as this script is based on a lie, anything that comes through me will not be approved,” Kelly promises. “I cannot condone a lie. I don’t live my life as a lie. And the truth is stranger than fiction.” 
Usually I don't care about "controversies" like this but Nina Simone happens to have been a favorite singer of mine. I had a viscerally negative reaction to the idea of Saldana playing Simone. With any movie there has to be some sort of ability to suspend belief. Most movies are not documentaries. People who don't necessarily look exactly like the role can nonetheless turn in pretty good performances. But there are limits to this.

  • If I am casting for Queen Elizabeth chances are I don't want a man of any color.
  • If I am casting for Shaka Zulu I probably don't want a white man or a woman of any color.
  • If I am casting for Admiral Yamamoto at the very least I will likely be looking for a man of East Asian, preferably Japanese descent.

Now there are exceptions. Sometimes a particular actor is just so skilled that the director or producer might ignore their race or even gender and rewrite the part or even more brazenly leave the part as written and have the actor play a gender and race that is obviously not their own. That's all up to the creative impulse and whether the creators feel that the change can be sold to an audience. Money is the name of the game and you want someone who works for the story AND who can put bottoms in theater seats.
I really don't think that Zoe Saldana looks anything like Nina Simone or can be made to look like her. Nina Simone was a Black American from the South who had what can be described as distinctive looks with very strong West African features. There was nothing that was remotely biracial looking about Nina Simone. She was not mixed, biracial, multiracial, omniracial or anything like that. She was BLACK. Just in case people didn't realize that she wrote more than a few songs about it. To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Four Women, and Mississippi God*** among others let you know who she was and where she was coming from.
Zoe Saldana is an Afro-Latina with more aquiline features and a totally different look and skin tone. My understanding is that she does indeed identify as Black. It is very sensitive to write about skin tone. I don't think that there should be a paper bag test of blackness. I believe in Pan-Africanism and ultimately that all men and women are brothers and sisters. But I don't think it's correct to take a woman who looked like she had unmixed descent from West Africa and have her depicted by a woman who looks like Saldana. If someone were to do a movie depicting the lives of Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge I would not be happy if Mo'Nique or Whoopi Goldberg were playing the lead. All black people do not look alike. There are limits to believability and Saldana playing Simone crosses those limits for me. 
The elephant in the room of course is the issue that Saldana is a popular actress and it may be easier to sell a Nina Simone biopic to a white mainstream audience because of Saldana's looks, popularity and skin tone. Also given the dearth of lead roles for dark skin African American actresses it seems more than a bit unfair that a role that seems tailor made for a Viola Davis or a Rutina Wesley should be given to a Saldana.
Of course this is all subjective. If this film is made Saldana may do a bang-up job. Maybe I am full of it.

What's your take? 

Much ado about nothing?

Would a black director/writer have made the same call?

Does/should skin tone or race matter in casting?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Music Reviews-Andre Williams, The Watts Prophets, Melanie, AC/DC: Powerage, Isaac Hayes: Hot Buttered Soul

Andre "Mr. Rhythm" Williams is an Alabama born and formerly Detroit based singer, frontman, producer and songwriter who worked in the fields of blues, doo-wop, rock-n-roll, R&B, soul, country, punk rock, and hard rock. Williams has worked with or written for a who's who of rock-n-roll and R&B including but not limited to The Contours, Ike and Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, The Chi-Lites, Mary Wells, Edwin Starr, The Five Du-Tones, The Dirt-Bombs, Jon Spencer, The Sadies and Parliament-Funkadelic. He is also one of the dirtiest old men alive. Imagine if Redd Foxx (who was one of Williams' friends) had decided to be a musician instead of a comedian. I mean you have to be careful listening to Andre Williams' music because it might give you some hopelessly depraved ideas about what to do with certain body parts. Williams knows what goes where and why and he will gleefully tell you all about it too. "Jailbait" is something that R.Kelly should be forced to listen to.

For the most part, especially in his older music, Williams accomplished some sleaze by judicious use of metaphors and double entendres but in recent years with various punk-blues or alt-country bands he has been much more direct. I have a mixed feeling about some of his later stuff. The guitars tend to be much louder and more distorted. There's much more use of profanity. His modern bands aren't quite as flexible in their musical approach. But songs like "Everybody Knew" (which has VERY EXPLICIT ADULT ONLY language-I am really not kidding about this) or "Let Me Put It in" are really over the top. They're almost funny. YMMV. Those are the hardest of hard blues/rock. The raunch on "Let me Put It In" matches or exceeds anything ever done by The Rolling Stones or Guns N' Roses or any modern rapper. You may find Williams' later music "offensive", "profane" and any other negative characterization you care to use.  I wouldn't disagree. I do generally find his older music like "Is It True" and "Cadillac Jack"  to be more fun. At the very least you can listen to those songs with children or female relatives in the house. So there's that. "Pass the Biscuits Please!" is funny, clean and true to life.

Like James Brown, Williams is not a great singer although unlike Brown he has an extremely resonant and expressive baritone voice. So Williams often talks or raps over his music as much as he sings over it. If you want to start with his older stuff look for his work on Fortune Records or Chess Records. Chess Records needs no introduction of course but Fortune Records was the low-rent brother to Motown Records in Detroit. The recording studio at Fortune was a dirt floor garage. Production quality was often hit or miss (more miss) but they did have a few wild rock-n-roll performers, of whom Williams was the most infamous. Being small they could and did take more chances than Motown, whose goal from the start was to reach the mainstream.
Williams 90's update of the classic Dominoes doo-wop song The Bells is more than worthwhile. I also like his older cuts I wanna know why , Going Down to TijuanaBacon FatGreasy Chicken, Pulling Time, and Sweet Little PussycatLooking down at you looking up at me is a modern sleazy tune but it manages to stay just this side of explicitness. I really like the frantic hurried rhythms used here.

Williams is one of the last living links to the earliest days of rock-n-roll and has tons of interesting and harrowing stories to tell about his experiences. He's never really been at the top but he has definitely been down and out. Honestly if you saw him on the street you might either give him a few bucks because he looks desperate (he HAS been homeless in the past) or step out of his way because he looks desperate. If you are interested, on Hulu and elsewhere you can find the film "Agile, Mobile and Hostile". This 90 minute documentary from 2008 looks at a day in Williams' life and his past glories and failures. It's probably only worthwhile if you are a serious Williams fan but I mention it here just in case you want to know more.

The Watts Prophets
It is sometimes difficult to discover who exactly was the first to come up with something in the creative world. Copyright aside, people always share, steal and are influenced by others. In this post alone Andre Williams and Isaac Hayes could be said to have inspired rap as they were doing spoken word and rap in some form long before the late seventies. You could go back to Jamaican toasts, southern dozens, and even Louis Jordan to look for other arguable antecedents to what is today known as rap.

One of those antecedents though certainly would have to be The Watts Prophets, who in the late sixties and early seventies, released two albums, Rapping Black in a White World and On the Streets. These albums combined a militant black nationalism with social realism. They had rap, chants, spoken words and poetry. The music was often raw, angry and harsh but it also drew deep from blues, jazz, gospel and soul influences. There was always a hint of love peeking out through the rage. Although they were never that commercially successful I consider much of their work to be a more faithful updating of blues tradition than anything that say anyone from Britain ever released. Their music sought to illuminate and educate and inspire as much, or really more than it tried to entertain anyone.
As mentioned much of their music at this time was extremely profane which likely was one reason that they didn't get as much success as some other groups. It was a different time. Standards were different. I look back at this music as a necessary purging of some very bad feelings that black people had been forced to bottle up for centuries. I was able to pick up both of their albums in a used record store a few years back. If you can find them and you are into this sort of music definitely buy the albums. They have since been re-released on one CD. The Watts Prophets were generally a core trio (Otis O'Soloman, Anthony Hamilton, Richard Dedaux) with sometime member Dee Dee McNeil (a musician and songwriter who had worked for Motown) often providing the female vocals. I believe that's her on "Black in a White World", which is probably my favorite Watts Prophets' composition. As this group originally grew out of a local writers' workshop, exact membership at a given time was somewhat fluid.

Some of their music is below. It is as detailed, explicit. I probably wouldn't listen to some of this at work unless you have headphones or failing that, bosses, co-workers and customers who share your musical tastes, ideas about profanity and political views.
What is a Man?  Black in a White World   What is it Sisters Everybody Watches
The Days The Hours  The Prostitute   Clowns All Around  Tenements and The Master

I don't know if Melanie was the first Caucasian-American folk singer to come up with the idea of using an African-American choir for a song she wrote. I would guess not. But for my money she did it best. Lay Down (Candles in the Rain) is a beautiful song. It is a collaboration with The Edwin Hawkins Singers. I really like the contrast between the higher pitched more nasally vocals of Melanie and the haunting gospel vocals of the choir. Melanie wrote the song after performing at Woodstock. She initially had a bit of a struggle to convince Edwin Hawkins that performing a secular song was a good idea. But as the sound is about peace, love, and brotherhood, Hawkins and his choir were convinced. The song was recorded live in one take. The rest as they say is history. I never would have known of Melanie were it not for The Edwin Hawkins Singers. If that were all Melanie had ever done, I would still find her worthy of mention just because that song is so wonderful. But she had a lot of other musical interests as well. As she was something of a flower child these songs tended to be about standing up for what was right and resisting corruption. (Look What They Done to My Song Ma, Peace Will Come (According to Plan, The Nickel Song ) But she also wrote or sang songs with more personal or earthier interests (Brand New KeyPsychotherapy,  Do You Believe) And how can you resist anyone who is a Winnie the Pooh fan? Check out her song Christopher Robin.

by AC/DC
In another life when I was a fledgling financial analyst my then boss was a huge AC/DC fan. I had never heard of the band but upon listening became fascinated by the combination of sped up Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed riffs, lead singer's Bon Scott's strangled Howling Wolf meets Little Richard voice and lyrics that were often naughty but rarely explicit. Unlike some other rock bands AC/DC often had a bit of syncopation and bounce to their sound. It wasn't just plodding music.

This album saw the introduction of a new bassist and perhaps not coincidentally a different production approach, one with a lot more clarity and actual audible bass. It didn't quite have the hits of later albums but I do think the album is a bit underrated.
The songwriting is a bit more mature this time around although to be honest mature songwriting is usually not what you're looking for in an AC/DC album. Angus and Malcolm play their riffs. Bon screams and howls into the microphone. The rhythm section furiously bashes away. And Angus does a bluesy solo, often while doing a Chuck Berry duckwalk or having a spasm on the floor. That's their formula. It worked. That is it worked until unfortunately Bon died and the band had to regroup with a different singer, Brian Johnson. I like Johnson's work but Bon still remains a favorite. There's nothing here that I would call funk but "Gone Shootin" certainly grooves and makes what sounds like at least a nod towards soul and funk while also staying faithful to Angus's most obvious influence, Chuck Berry.

The entire album is a textbook demonstration of how to make two guitars mesh together but "Gone Shootin" does that the best in my unmusical opinion. "Down Payment Blues" was one of the first AC/DC songs that I was able to work out on guitar. It's easy but fun and I like the lyrics. If you've ever found yourself a bit light on cash you might be able to appreciate the humor and desperation in the song. I also like the tom-tom breakdown. The lyrics to "What's Next to the Moon" are more than a bit surreal and a true example of rock-and-roll poetry.  Sin City speaks for itself. Gimme a Bullet burnishes Bon's tough guy image and Rock-n-Roll Damnation  is a lyrical and musical forerunner to "Highway to Hell".  Bon was true to who he was and rarely if ever tried affectations of other people's cadences or accents. You have to appreciate that. Well at least I do.

Hot Buttered Soul
by Isaac Hayes
Although this was not Isaac Hayes' first release as a leader for Stax Records it was the one that put him firmly and permanently on the map as a songwriter, interpreter, sex symbol and superstar. Hayes had long been a producer, session musician and writer for Stax Records and shows up on quite a few Stax hits of the sixties. With ownership transition of Stax Records and Stax's betrayal by Atlantic, the new Stax management and ownership was open to new ideas-hopefully ideas that would earn lots of money. And Hayes had evidently decided that the time was right for him to move into the spotlight. His first release flopped badly but undeterred Hayes came back for a second try, insisting on total creative control. The result was Hot Buttered Soul, an album which both anticipated later watered down soul artists who spent 30 minutes moaning orgasmically over "beats" and also made discerning listeners yearn for the real thing on display here.

Hayes' and team's production on this release was simultaneously sparse and quite busy. Female choruses merge with lush string sections and horns almost seamlessly. Often times a piano can get drowned out by loud electric guitars but here everything is in balance. There's just the right touch of what seems like room reverb on the drums with maybe a hint of studio trickery. And the bass booms and rolls without either dominating the sound or getting lost in the mix. Compared to "modern mixes", say anything recorded after 1990 or so, the mix is clean and loud but not overwhelmingly so. It's rare that you would want to turn this down.  It sounds like everything was recorded live in one session-even though that probably wasn't the case. And finally of course there's the true lead instrument here, Hayes' bass voice. Much like Andre Williams, Hayes had a singular deep resonant singing voice the likes of which I don't hear in much of today's popular R&B music. Of course I hardly listen to any of today's popular R&B music if I can help it so feel free to correct me if I'm mistaken.

Hayes was as much of an interpreter as he was a songwriter.  This album only had four songs. Only one of them was written by Hayes but he makes them all his own. None of them are less than five minutes long. So there are some extended grooves. Hayes takes his time getting to the point but you will likely enjoy the ride all the same. On his take on the country tune "By The Time I get to Phoenix", Hayes speaks, preaches and raps as much as he sings. Before he starts singing you may well be crying for the pain he's going through. This is just really good stuff in my opinion. Growing up more than a few people in my extended family had this album and considered it proof of Hayes' musical genius. I have no qualifications to say that but I will say this is one of my favorite Isaac Hayes albums. This is the kind of music one listens to in a basement party with blue lights and a little incense or something else burning.  Three of the four songs are about infidelity and loss of love. It's really updated blues. Hayes was backed musically by the revamped Bar-Kays, back from their near deaths in the plane crash that took the life of Otis Redding.

Younger folks will likely recognize "Hyperbolicsyllabicsesquedalymistic" from its sampling by Public Enemy in "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos". I like how the beat turns around in the song. As mentioned Hayes made a serious and mostly permanent break from the 3 minute soul song here. Some people like to intimate that this was influenced by rock musicians. I kind of doubt that because there were TONS of contemporaneous similar jazz and funk musicians starting to expand the realm of what was possible. Hayes and his band were also much tighter than any rock band performing, then or now.  Walk on By is his take on a Burt Bacharach song while  One Woman again speaks of a man struggling with infidelity, only this time it's the man himself who is untrue.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Fear Cuts Deeper Than Swords-A Game of Thrones

If you've been around the blog for a while you know that I am an A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones fanatic.
This post's title is a mantra which Arya Stark was taught by her fencing instructor Syrio Forel. Unfortunately she has reason to take it to heart and live by it as she must endure experiences which might scar a grown man, let alone a nine year old girl. But things are what they are. I really like the phrase "Fear cuts deeper than swords" because it has a meaning which definitely rings true in my life. I bet at least once it may have been true in yours as well.

The Storyteller recently did a great post about fear being used by both sides to influence the upcoming election. Fear is a useful emotion. It tells us that we don't know what's going to happen next and we have to be careful. It may sharpen our senses and make us very alert to our surroundings and events taking place therein. If you happen to work with mobsters or you are followed by hoodlums or you are forced to consider heart surgery or you are stopped in the "wrong neighborhood" by a police officer with a bad attitude or you are trapped on a sinking ship that is surrounded by sharks then fear is a completely rational response. Fear in those situations can help keep you and yours alive. For most of us that's more important than anything else. Someone who claims to be fearless is usually someone who is lying through his teeth, doesn't have much relevant information about the situation he's in, or no longer cares if he lives or dies. So in that aspect a little fear can bring much needed rationality and clarity to a situation. We all have fear. We all need fear. Believe that.

But on the other hand, fear has a very negative side as well. Fear pops up in situations that aren't life and death. Fear can arise when you think about doing something out of your comfort zone that you haven't done before. Fear can arise when you have to stand up to a boss and tell that person that they are full of it and if they don't like what you said that's too freaking bad. Fear can arise when you want to make that move on someone you've had your eye on for a while but you immediately start to think of all of the reasons why s/he wouldn't give you the time of day. Fear also has some negative physical impacts. Being in continual fight-or-flight mode can contribute to such problems as hypertension and sleep deprivation, not to mention heart disease and other ailments. And a fearful person may lash out at other people for no good reason, even those or especially those that remind them of themselves. Ultimately if you constantly live in fear of doing new things, of taking chances or risks, of growing up, of confronting problems or bad people in your life, you end up in a state of paralysis, unable to move forward and mature. You can become stagnant and trapped in rationalizations of your own failings. You may congratulate yourself for avoiding the risks of talking action but on the other hand you never get to enjoy the rewards of growth. You may watch with envy and confusion as other people move past you by whatever standard has meaning to you.

This can be quite painful for some people's egos of course so rather than examine and confront the reasons why they are afraid they will often pretend that the rewards of change and growth aren't really what they are cracked up to be. They tell themselves that they could have chosen to be more successful but they made a deliberate decision not to do so. Some folks even go further and suggest that this somehow makes them a better, more moral person, than the individual who dealt with their fears and worries and went ahead to take chances. If you happen to know people like this it can be both sad and infuriating at the same time because they've convinced themselves not only that deliberately throwing away their full human potential is a practical thing to do but also that it's a good thing to do and they are better than you for doing so. In the worst cases you have someone who is smugly and perversely proud to have made nothing of his life or natural talents. That indeed does wound the person deeper than a physical attack would have done. It's often extremely difficult for someone to come back from a fear that has consumed their self-worth. That sort of damage can take years to repair.

It is of course much easier to surmount your fears if you have a supportive family and/or especially a significant other or if you've been trained from birth to acknowledge your fears but proceed with your plans and dreams anyway. The other method in which some people confront their fears and to paraphrase George Clinton, "rise above it all or drown in their own s***" , is to be forced into a position in which there is literally no choice but to take action. There is a phrase that a hero isn't anything but a coward that got cornered. There is something to that. Whether it's the fictional Batman descending into a cave to deal with his fears of bats and darkness or the very real parents who at some point place their child in the deep end of the pool and urge him to swim or tell the bullied child that if he doesn't go back and confront the bully he'll have a worse problem at home, sometimes a shock to the system can shake things up. The person then realizes that the fear that he had was preventing him from going to the next level of accomplishment. Fear is just a message that you are sending to yourself. There is no shame in fear. There is shame in letting fears define or limit you. Winter is coming for us all whether we like it or not. We do ourselves or our loved ones no favors by not living life to its fullest.
Bran Stark: Can a man still be brave when he is afraid?
Ned Stark: That is the only time a man can be brave.


How have you overcome fears in your life?

What have your fears taught you about yourself?

Has fear ever helped you in a bad situation?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Movie Reviews-Breaking Bad (Season 2), White Heat, Intruders

Breaking Bad (Season Two)
created by Vince Gilligan
What would it be like to be a criminal? Have you ever thought about it? What would it be like to live outside the law and have to deal with all the problems that decision would include? How would you change personally? Obviously criminals can't be nice guys, especially if they are working as drug dealers. How could you trust your partners? How you would you hide your ill gotten gains? How would you keep the IRS from sniffing around? Could you be a vicious mean SOB at "work" and still maintain a decent "home" personality? How would you keep your work associates from knowing where you lived or contacting you during off hours? What if one of your associates gets arrested and decides to rat? If you work with killers and other dangerous people do you have to become a killer and get a deadly crew of your own just to keep up with the Joneses? Is it a good idea to let vicious and totally immoral co-workers get the idea that that you're soft? How do you learn the rules of the criminal world? Can you learn how to bribe people and who to bribe? Is the money really worth all the extra bother?

In the second season of Breaking Bad, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has to confront all these questions and more. He became a murderer in Season One though it was by accident, impulsive and arguably in self-defense. In Season Two White becomes a more calculating and less sympathetic character. He finds it less possible to hide behind the "Hey I just make the stuff, what people do after that is not my business" dodge and occasionally he doesn't want to. He's also, to his partner's annoyance, an arrogant SOB.

That said, changing morals or not, blooded or not Walter White at this point is still a lower middle class high school chemistry teacher who's cursed with terminal lung cancer. His experience with underworld ethics and rules is still quite limited. He's not by any means physically imposing or intimidating nor is he capable of shooting first and asking questions later like some of his associates.

One such associate would be the violent, depraved and scarily unpredictable Tuco (Raymond Cruz) who is the distributor for Walter's and Jesse's (Aaron Paul) trademark blue meth. Tuco is the living embodiment of chaos. He beat an underling to death for the sin of speaking out of line. Tuco did this in front of Walter and Jesse. Now Tuco's business is under assault from the local police and DEA. Worried and paranoid, Tuco kidnaps Walter and Jesse and prepares to flee to Mexico, that is if he doesn't decide to kill them first as witnesses or possible snitches or because his sickly but still malevolent uncle just doesn't like them.

Walter and Jesse manage to escape from this situation by some unexpected intervention from Walter's DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). Although this initially feels like something of a deus ex machina it has a cost that will reverberate throughout the season. for everyone. The strutting macho slightly bigoted Hank discovers that taking a life or seeing one taken has consequences, some of which he can't share with anyone. Rather than be caught at the scene Walter and Jesse flee separately and make up totally implausible stories to explain their sudden disappearances and reappearances. These stories put Jesse on Hank's radar screen and cause Walter's pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) to start to question her husband's sanity and then his truthfulness. How many lies would you let your significant other tell you? Is one enough to end a relationship? Does it matter what it was about?
The tension ratchets up as business and personal advances and setbacks see Walter and Jesse make and lose fortunes and engage in very volatile relationships with their loved ones. Walter finds that the harder edges of his business side poke through in his personal life whether he wants them to or not. In a strange way it's almost like watching a werewolf movie. Walter is changing. He can't help it or always control it and he often likes it. For his part Jesse is tired of always being considered the partnership's dumb second banana. He makes some bad business and personal decisions that will end in tragedy for many people. Season Two also introduced the enigmatic Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), who may have a business arrangement for Walter, and the oleaginous Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) a truly criminal lawyer who keeps a sharp eye out for his own interests. And there's still the cancer thing of course. The cancer treatment is running through Walter's money faster than he can earn it. 

This season went to some very dark places but the acting and writing shone through. Cranston and Gunn really bring it! It's a truism that if you hide things they just fester until they come out in other even more harmful ways. And Walter White has been hiding a lot over the years. He was at or near the top of his class in high school and college but somewhere something went awry. Walter intends to fix that and get his rightful place in the sun, by hook or by crook.
Trailer for Season Two   Scene from Season Two

White Heat
directed by Raoul Walsh
Warners Brothers was always known for its gangster movies and White Heat was a beauty. It was one of the last of the classic crime movies with the old school touch.
I could say just see it and leave it at that. I like film noir and this fits the bill. It's filmed in glorious black and white and features film legend James Cagney in one of his later, more mature gangster roles. Although White Heat was considered bloody and violent for the time it is perhaps surprising to see how much can be said or implied without explicit bloody violence or nudity.
Even if you've never seen this film you may be familiar with some of its dialogue, including the infamous line "Made it Ma! Top of the world!!!".

Cagney was a former vaudeville song and dance man and this film plays to that strength. Even at the age of 50, Cagney brought a tigerish grace and lithe athletic intensity to the role of Cody Jarrett, stick-up man, gangster, bank robber and all around thug. He's always moving, bouncing on his feet and acting aggressively. He dominates the film and I mean that in a very good way. This film set the stage for later filmic killers like O-Dog in Menace II Society. The language is not as foul but it's the same guy separated by time, race and setting. The lead character is a psychotic killer who may be epileptic. He's cruel and capricious but he is occasionally quite funny. Everyone has the trademark quick, fast paced snappy dialogue that was common in many films of this time. I really like this dialogue. Too bad we don't speak like that any more.This picture was inspired in part by real life gunsels such as Ma and Doc Barker as well as Two Gun Crowley
Cody Jarrett is the leader of a small time bunch of hoodlums. He doesn't really trust or like any of them, especially his number two guy Big Ed (Steve Cochran). As Cody says, "Ya know somethin', Verna? If I turned my back long enough for Big Ed to put a hole in it - there'd be a hole in it. Big Ed. Great Big Ed. You know why they call him that? 'Cause his ideas are big. Some day, he's gonna get a really big one - about me - it'll be his last."  Cody has a strange almost Freudian relationship with his Ma (Margaret Wycherly) a cold gangster in her own right who watches over Cody's interests when he's not around. She's one of the few people that Cody trusts absolutely. She also physically comforts him when he suffers from horrible headaches/manic moods. Cody also has to act as referee between his mother and his beautiful but vain and vindictive wife, Verna (Virginia Mayo). The two women do not get along, perhaps because they are so similar. Verna might be jealous of Cody's relationship with his mother. Verna is also wondering if Cody still has the stuff to lead and if she might not be better advised to jump ship to another up and comer.

When Cody commits a train robbery he admits to a lesser charge. He's sent to prison with a shorter sentence where the authorities plant an undercover agent "Pardo" (Edmund O'Brien) in his cell to try to get Cody to confess to other crimes and/or find out who his fence is. But it's while Cody is locked up that Big Ed finally starts to make his move. And some of these moves involves Cody's family. Locked up or not you don't do that to Cody.
Ma: Any time I can't handle his kind, I'll know I'm gettin' old. No one does what he's done to you, son, and gets away with it.
Cody: No, no, Ma, look, listen to me, you won't have a chance...
Ma: I'm goin' after him, Cody, to keep him from having you knocked off in here.
And that's when the movie moves into a higher gear, one replete with double crosses, fake outs, more lies and one of the best shootouts then filmed. Cagney carries the film and I had a lot of fun watching it.

directed by Juan Carlos Fresnadillo
Although this is a modern film it is a bit of a throwback to sixties movies in that there is not any blood and gore, only a small amount of nudity (provided by Game of Thrones star Carice Van Houten aka "Melisandre") and not much in the way of hyperactive camera work. This film takes its sweet time to provide old school fears, mostly by the simple technique of not showing everything. In fact it doesn't show much. So if you're looking for guts, gore and lots of toplessness this probably isn't the film for you. This is by the same director who did 28 Days Later, which had completely different camera work and storytelling style.

Intruders tells two stories of children on the verge of puberty, one Spanish boy Juan (Izan Corchero) and one British girl Mia (Ella Purnell) who are being terrorized when they sleep by the seeming boogeyman come to life, who they name Hollowface. Hollowface apparently doesn't have a face of his own (hence the name) and wants to steal the children's faces. Both children are thus afraid to go to sleep and need extra attention from their worried parents, as well as either priests or psychological specialist as culture dictates.

Mia's father is John Farrow (Clive Owen) and her mother is Susanna Farrow (Carice Van Houten). Mia is their only child and John, a construction worker, dotes on her. So when she finds an old story about Hollowface in a tree trunk he's worried. And when she starts to see or hear Hollowface he's more than concerned. Meanwhile Juan is almost kidnapped by Hollowface but is saved at the last minute by his mother, Luisa (Pillar Lopez). Later, Luisa tries to get a priest to perform an exorcism. Susanna thinks Mia is hysterical while John tries to calm her with a staged burning of a Hollowface effigy.
The burning doesn't work as Mia's convinced that Hollowface is inside the home, hiding in the closet. Her parents don't believe her until one night when John hears a noise and screams from his daughter's room and runs in to confront Hollowface. He fights the thing but for some reason the entity is not captured on the video camera John has installed. So the question starts to become is this supernatural or psychological? And why can't you find a good exorcist when you need one? This is a creepy little film but I'm not quite sure the payoff works. Still I liked it because it was a change of pace in thriller/horror films. Again, this is really NOT a film with a lot of violence, sex or bad language. It's the slow building sense of fear that this movie tries to stoke and employ. If you are a patient film viewer this could be for you.  TRAILER

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Yeah About That Dream Act...

Do you remember all the rhetoric over the Dream Act?
When the President decided to implement via executive decision what he couldn't get passed by Congress there were a lot of stories about how unfair it was that someone who was brought illegally to the United States as a child and had graduated high school or college faced the possibility of deportation and couldn't find work legally. Tears of compassion were shed and calls for change went up throughout the land. It was estimated in think tank studies, media reports and official/unofficial government statements that roughly about 800,000 illegal immigrants would be eligible under the Dream Act. Congress refused to change the law. President Obama, it being an election year, suddenly decided that he had powers that he had previously denied having and ordered the relevant agencies to cease and desist deportations of people that would have fallen under the Dream Act, had it been passed which it wasn't. Now this is a rather unique sort of approach to the law. Order people to act according to a law which doesn't exist. Fascinating.

Anyway yesterday was the first day that illegal immigrants were eligible to apply for work permits and deferred action status under this new "law" which was not passed by Congress and doesn't exist. Of course now that they have what they want the details of the new policy turn out not quite to be what either the President or the advocates for illegal residence in the United States had told everyone they were. Instead of 800,000 people being eligible, the new estimate is 1.7 million!!. That's right, over twice the initial widely reported number. And it's not going to be only high school or college graduates who are all going to build the next Facebook or Microsoft, that is if they didn't have to worry about those pesky ICE agents. Nah. The new policy includes not only the people with degrees or who graduated high school but those people who are working towards a GED, people that aren't working towards a GED but will be at some time in the future or people who aren't even in high school yet but may be eligible for this deferred action status at some distant yet to be determined time.

 In short dropouts, middle school kids, heck just about EVERYBODY will be eligible. It's a rolling amnesty. If you are an illegal immigrant and don't fit the deferred action criteria, don't sweat it. Just wait until you do. After all the Administration has already announced that short of committing a felony, they aren't going to even pretend to try to deport you. ICE has more important things to do than deport illegal immigrants, like allegedly running a female frat house and sexually harassing male workers.

The MPI estimates are up from the 1.39 million figure provided on June 15 —reflecting the updated DHS guidelines that youth lacking a high school or GED degree would be eligible to apply for deferred action as long as they have re-enrolled by the date of their application.
While USCIS will only accept applications for the DACA initiative from applicants 15 and older, the deferred action policy also will apply to qualified unauthorized immigrants —regardless of whether they are older or younger than 15 — who are already in removal proceedings or might be in the custody of immigration officials in the future

As you may remember I opposed the Dream Act and I oppose this deferred action policy, which is the Dream Act in all but name. Why? Because this is MY country. It's not a country for illegal immigrants. If you want to be an American, either be born here or get permission from the people living here. Now this is usually where someone talks about the Native Americans and thinks that ends the conversation. It really shows how important it is to maintain a strict immigration policy. Show me a country existing today that has the exact same ethnic mix and form of government that it did 500 years ago. Those are rare. Things change. What was done to the Native Americans was wrong. It can't be undone. That has absolutely nothing to do with immigration policy in the 21st century. Maybe you want to argue that America has no right to exist and should be dismantled. I don't see things that way. Other countries, including some that are exporting millions of illegal immigrants into the US have the same history of European conquest, displacement, rape, enslavement and settlement that the US has. The Mexicans weren't exactly best friends with the Comanche or Apache.  No country is quiet about millions of foreigners moving in without permission. Just about every group of people on the planet at some level have a "this is mine" relationship to the patch of earth they call home. Most of us are no longer nomadic hunter gatherers or herdsmen.

I see the country as my house. I have a nice house. There are millions of homes that are much nicer and larger and millions that are not as nice but this one is mine. The only people that are allowed in my house are people that I want there. And if I decide that I don't want them there any longer, they have to leave. My basement is larger than some people's homes, as I am sure some people's basements are larger than my entire home. Does that give someone a little less fortunate the right to enter and stay in my basement, on the grounds that it looks to them like I'm not using it anyway? Even if they cleaned things up and lived quietly I wouldn't like it. And if they catch an attitude about how I run my house and agitate to invite more of their friends in I would like it even less. 
Is it fair that I have a nicer house than some people? Is it fair that every day I see the same bum on the expressway exit begging for a handout? Do I owe that person anything? Do I owe him my house? Nope. I don't owe him anything.

Similarly it is unfortunate that Mexico and large portions of Central America are apparently relatively unpleasant places to live and that so many residents there would evidently prefer to live somewhere nicer. But that doesn't give them any right to move to the US without permission and stay. And I feel the same way about people outside of the US regardless of where they came from. If you come here legally then I will call you an American and welcome you as a countryman. Otherwise, please go home. Race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, nationality, religion or any other characteristic is immaterial to me in this matter. I understand why someone would want to move to the US. I sympathize. But I also would like a new 2013 Bentley. It doesn't mean anyone owes me one.

As we have discussed before no one begrudges the executive branch the right to gently stretch the law or use discretion in what cases it takes up. Although I am rarely fortunate enough to get off with just a warning I understand that police do not stop every speeder nor do they issue tickets to everyone they stop. A kid caught shoplifting may get a scary lecture in the back office instead of a juvenile record. A man who beats up his jerk brother-in-law for hurting his sister might get a wink and a nod from the prosecutor and lowered charges. I get all that. That doesn't bother me.

That's not what is happening here.

If a local police chief were to suddenly announce that going forward his department would no longer enforce speed laws that's a problem. Or to put it in even more relevant terms should Mitt Romney become President he will want to lower taxes. He probably won't get that through the Senate. Let's say that a frustrated President Romney announced that since Congress wouldn't act he had to. If a President Romney were to direct the IRS and Treasury not to investigate or prosecute anyone who refused to pay capital gains or estate taxes, would you think that a good idea? Or would you rage at an arrogant princeps taking the law into his own hands?

There is a difference between discretion and dismissal. And this executive Dream Act crosses that line.  ICE Agents face suspension for arresting illegal immigrants-even though that is the law of the land. As you might expect the ICE union is not very happy about this. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, fresh from her general loss in the Supreme Court announced that Arizona would not be issuing driver's licenses to anyone allowed in under the new policy. For now at least states still have the right to do that. For now... 

What's your take?

Is this something that is long overdue and compassionate?

If you like the country as it is are you a bad person?

Do you think the economy will be better off with millions more workers?

What is the solution to the problem of illegal immigration?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Vice-President Biden, Chains, Wall Street and Black People

If I stood in front of an audience which had a sizable proportion of Jewish Americans and claimed (even tongue in cheek) that my political opponent would have them "back in death camps" some people might consider that a desperate attempt for votes and something of a slanderous low blow. I might even get a verbal brush back from the ADL or AIPAC chiding me for lightly using such metaphors. But Vice-President Joe Biden is not a person who is worried about such things. In Danville, VA , a city that is roughly half black and happens to have been the final capital of the Confederacy, and in front of an audience which NBC News stated was representative of the city, Vice-President Biden spoke dismissively of Republican plans to change Wall Street regulation.
Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday that a Republican-led effort to loosen new regulations on Wall Street would put voters "back in chains." "Romney wants to, he said in the first 100 days, he's gonna let the big banks again write their own rules," Biden said of the GOP nominee's proposals to roll back the Obama administration's financial reforms. "'Unchain Wall Street!'" Lowering his voice, Biden added, "They're going to put you all back in chains."

Now of course the Administration in the person of one Stephanie Cutter, Obama deputy campaign manager, strongly defended Vice-President Biden's statements. 
We have no problem with those comments," said Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter on MSNBC's "Andrea Mitchell Reports."
Pressed on whether President Obama himself agrees with those comments, Cutter said the full context of the remarks was important.
"[Obama] probably agrees with Joe Biden's sentiments," Cutter said. "He's using a metaphor to talk about what's going to happen."
Ok. Fair enough. I think it's a bit odd to be using language that could be interpreted as fear mongering of a return to SLAVERY because of different ideas about Wall Street regulation but there you are. Perhaps leaving Wall Street to its own devices, free from regulation or the long arm of the criminal law really is akin to putting Americans -especially Black Americans - back in chains. So maybe I should thank Vice-President Joe Biden for having the courage and the commitment to stand up and say negative things about his political rivals, the Republicans. I mean it must take a lot of moxie to talk bad about your rivals. Not everyone has the guts to criticize people on the other side politically. As Biden implied, maybe those evil Republicans really do want to protect big banks and their executives from justice and not put those dastardly devils, those rascally reprobates, those piggish parasites into prison where they so richly deserve to be.

There's just one problem with Biden's self-serving narrative of the Administration being the one that wants to go after Wall Street while the Republicans want to coddle and protect Wall Street.

It's not true.

In news which was ignored by too many people the Justice Department recently announced that it would not be prosecuting Goldman Sachs or any of its employees for financial wrongdoing arising out of the 2008 financial crisis. This would be the same Goldman Sachs that was selling crappy bundled mortgage backed securities to clients and telling them they were A+ rated while describing them as crap in internal documents. This would be the same Goldman Sachs that journalist Matt Taibbi famously described as a vampire squid. for its centrality to the financial rot at the heart of American finance. And this would be the same Justice Department that is headed by Eric Holder, whose former law firm has Goldman Sachs as a client and whose boss, the President, received over $1 million in campaign contributions from Goldman Sachs in 2008 alone. The relative lack of engagement in going after systematic misdeeds by financial institutions has been noticed.
The problem isn't a shortage of scandalous stories. We've seen a lot of those. What we haven't seen, at least here in the United States, is a single indictment of a senior Wall Street banker from the United States Department of Justice. And that's what has these political insiders concerned.
Questions raised
A growing number of people are privately expressing concern at the Justice Department's long-standing pattern of inactivity, obfuscation and obstruction. Mr. Holder's past as a highly-paid lawyer for a top Wall Street firm, Covington and Burling, is being discussed more openly among insiders. Covington & Burling was the law firm which devised the MERS shell corporation that has since been implicated in many cases of mortgage and foreclosure fraud. Wells Fargo has already been implicated in the laundering of money for the Mexican drug cartels that have murdered as many as sixty thousand people, as well as having been found to have engaged in some of the most egregious borrower fraud. Now, as attorney Field notes, it's even illegally closing the bank accounts of unfriendly bloggers to extract revenge.
Despite its massive rap sheet, which includes investor fraud and the bribing of Alabama officials, and despite the SEC investigation of its "London whale" debacle, JPMorgan Chase is is defying a subpoena in California and refusing to turn its emails over to a judge. It's charged with the same kind of criminal activity that was behind the Enron scandal: manipulating energy markets. And despite Jamie Dimon's suggestion that the head of the "London whale's" group would be forced to return her ill-gotten millions, she was allowed to resign and keep the money. There's no sign that a criminal investigation of this affair is underway, despite Dimon's own admission that laws may have been broken.
In short, Biden is in a very flimsy glass house when it comes to throwing stones about who's gonna be tough on Wall Street. Very flimsy indeed. So if Biden wants to make the argument that Romney and Ryan are going to put Americans "back in chains" based on their love of Wall Street I would ask Biden when did he or Obama ever take the chains off? Is Biden really going to argue that I should vote for him because the Republicans won't prosecute Wall Street either? O-kay.
The problem as I see it is that the political establishment and the financial establishment are far too closely intertwined. When you can throw millions at a candidate, they're going to listen to what you say and return your phone calls. And when there is a revolving door between government and business, there should be no surprise that some of the people in government who are supposed to be regulating or even prosecuting business, occasionally need reminders of what their job description really is.
The Republicans, who have spent the past four years calling President Obama everything but a child of God, certainly do not have any room for sanctimonious outrage over Biden's remarks. But just because their hands are dirty doesn't mean that Biden's (and Obama's) hands are clean. There's some other analysis I want to get into about fear mongering, black people, progressives and the fall election but that will have to wait for a later post. Suffice it to say for now that no I don't believe that the world as we know it will come to an end if the "wrong" man should win.

What's your take?

Were Biden's comments appropriate?

Are the Republicans misconstruing them? Is this minor league nonsense?

Is there any difference between the two parties and their devotion to capital?