Saturday, September 29, 2012

Movie Reviews-The Cabin In The Woods, Beowulf, Blue Collar, Secretary

The Cabin in the Woods
directed by Drew Goddard and written by Joss Whedon
This horror movie was an intelligent update on the whole "college kids go into the woods, have sex and get stalked by incestuous cannibals" or "geeky loser who everyone thought was dead is out for bloody revenge" or "undead entity brought back to life by someone who does something incredibly stupid" type of film genres.

It's the equivalent of a really smart person slumming in a GED class. One minute the person is pretending to be dumb and the next minute they're giving you detailed explanations of Maxwell's Equations, the Copenhagen Interpretation and superconductivity, right before they remember they're supposed to be dumb. You might say what was that and they're like who me, I'm just a dummy.

Of course if you really really don't like horror films regardless of their twists or differences then yeah, this movie won't be pretending to be dumb, it really will be dumb. So different strokes for different folks. If that is you I salute you but think you're missing out. This film is similar to Tucker and Dale... in that it messes with your initial expectations.

Ok. I hope some minor description won't spoil things. Five college friends, Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Holden (Jesse Williams), Jules (Anna Hutchison), Dana (Kristen Connolly) and Marty (Fran Kranz) head off to an conveniently abandoned rural cabin for a fun weekend. Of course "fun" means drugs and sex. Curt and Jules are an item while Curt is trying to set up Holden (his smart teammate) and Dana. So Marty is literally a fifth wheel but he doesn't seem to mind. Anyway, Jules might be up for a little extra fun with Marty if Curt isn't watching...or even if he is. Jules likes to do the do.
From the beginning we are aware that someone is monitoring the students' whereabouts and reporting back to a underground terminal center which seems to be run by Gary (Richard Jenkins) and Steve (Bradley Whitford). Jenkins and Whitford really make this movie work as they PERFECTLY embody just about every midlevel IT manager I've ever known. But we don't know who these people are or why they're interested in these kids. In fact we're not even sure that they ARE interested in the kids. And that's really all I can say without delving into spoiler territory. This was written and produced by Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers. It's worthwhile if you are a fan of classic horror movies but are also looking for something that is both a tad more intelligent. It has lots of well placed humor and a cameo by "Ellen Ripley" herself.

I really liked this film. It shows that horror movies don't have to be dumb and gross-out, though it has its share of gore. Like any other genre, if you put good writing together with top notch production, direction, writing and lighting, and throw in some decent actors and killer special effects you can make a high quality entertaining movie. The Cabin in the Woods both mocks and endorses some common horror tropes, often at the same time. And no the black guy does not die first. If you're a horror fan don't miss this one. And if you are iffy about horror this could be a good intro.

directed by Alan Zemeckis
The poem Beowulf is the oldest surviving Old English epic poem. In Annie Hall Woody Allen famously joked that you shouldn't take any college class where they make you read Beowulf. Hmm. In college I did take classes where they made us read Beowulf though I had previously read it. It is a favorite. Beowulf was written and experienced in an evidently pre-ironic time. There's nothing that is postmodern, cynical or feminist about it. Zip. The poem's eponymous Geatish (southern Swede) hero comes to Denmark to further his name and fortune. The Danish King Hrothgar has been having his feast hall raided and his men murdered by some ogre named Grendel. A King who can't provide wealth, protection and merriment for his sworn companions is no King at all. Beowulf arrives. Upon hearing that no weapon can harm Grendel, Beowulf decides to fight him mano a mano with bare hands and match him strength for strength. One translation of the poem reads  "All at once that master of wickedness [Grendel] discovered that he had never come upon a stronger hand-grasp on this planet, in any other man in the regions of Earth."

This cat Beowulf is a bad mother....shut your mouth!!! Beowulf defeats Grendel by ripping his arm from his body. When Grendel's monstrous mother seeks revenge Beowulf kills her in an underwater battle royale. Beowulf returns home and becomes King, where decades later in his old age he must give his life to protect the land against an awakened dragon. Believe me this sounds MUCH more majestic in Old English. There's some overlay of Christian themes (Grendel is thought to be a descendant of Cain) in Beowulf but not much. This was written for and by people who either still believed in the Old Gods or had only recently converted to Christianity and retained a certain appreciation for the old ways and pagan heroism.

Zemeckis' movie captures some of the story's excitement in the knock down dragout fight between Grendel and Beowulf. But, unfortunately from my pov, the creators couldn't resist adding some modern cynicism, deconstruction, and TONS of Judeo-Christian guilt and sacrificial imagery. There's also, depending on how you look at it, either an unsubtle feminist critique, or an overwhelming fear of the female principle. The film tremendously changes the character motivations and storyline. Among other things, rather than being savage, unreasoning and implacably evil, Grendel is portrayed as being misunderstood and ultimately rather frightened and pathetic.

It's almost like going to watch The Lord of the Rings movie and learning that the One Ring wasn't at all a talisman of evil that belonged to the Evil Overlord Sauron. Instead, imagine that Sauron was a misunderstood schmuck who had given his mother's wedding ring as an engagement gift to the beautiful but vain Galadriel who had then capriciously rejected him but refused to give the ring back. And thus the war of the Ring got started. Everything else was just vile propaganda put out by Galadriel and her lover Gandalf. How you feel about these changes will depend on how you felt about the Beowulf story to begin with. If the story is new to you then you likely won't care about the changes. The changes are internally consistent at least so there's that. I just wasn't that interested in sympathy.

Arguably the original poem leaves out so much that it is nearly impossible for a film adaptation not to put in a lot of rework and new ideas. Otherwise the film would only have been about 30 minutes long. This film's screenplay was written by noted author Neil Gaiman. Some of it touches on short stories he had previously written about Grendel.
Despite those changes the film Beowulf remains interesting and even exciting. The film's major draw is the special effects, primarily the motion capture animated images of the actors. This is most obvious with Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and Grendel's Mother (Angelina Jolie) but you will be intrigued by the altered versions of several other well known actors. These include Grendel (Crispin Glover), Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), Unferth (John Malkovich), and Queen Wealtheow (Robin Wright Penn) I like Winston's acting. His work, I guess that would be mostly voice, is pretty good here. It's hard to remember that you are watching animation. Although it's animation, it's really not for kids. Nope. There is a bawdy song about Norse wenches and glaciers, plenty of cleavage and Angelina Jolie...
I am Beowulf!!

Blue Collar
directed by Paul Schrader
Have you ever arrived to a restaurant only to find that the host has double booked you and someone else and invites you and your group to share a table? Or maybe an airline has done the same thing with your ticket?Perhaps your boss promises you a raise and a sweet position but has also promised the same thing to someone else. When that becomes apparent he tells you to just work it out and stop bothering him for Christ's sake.

Well if that happened to you I'm betting you wouldn't like it very much. You might even make a stink, threaten someone's job, or get into a fist fight. That is pretty much what happened in the movie Blue Collar (perhaps even including the fight though that is just a rumor). Rising stars Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel were all lured to do the movie with the promise that they would be the film's breakout star. After they started filming, they all learned each of the two other men had been told the same thing and the film was really more of an ensemble piece. None of them were happy with the director or with each other. The tension could be felt in the film (in a good way and a bad way) and may have caused the director to temporarily lose his marbles.

This was Schrader's directorial debut. Previously he had been best known as the screenwriter for Taxi Driver, which presumably explains the Keitel connection. This movie has a very strong realistic and seventies feel to it. I like a lot of movies from that period. Filmmakers back then weren't afraid to take chances and take a strong point of view. They also weren't afraid to take their time and let things play out. Scenes are shot and develop very organically. It's rare that you remember that you're actually watching a movie. Blue Collar shows that Pryor may have missed his calling as a dramatic actor. He turns in very strong work here. In a different world he could have become like Robin Williams, known as much for his dramatic roles as for comedy. There's some small comedy here but it's balanced over a knife's edge of danger and drama. I think this is Pryor's best dramatic work. If you only know him as the wild and crazy profane comedian or as the enfeebled fool or old man from his later roles you may be rather surprised by his work here. It's too bad he didn't have more roles like this.

Blue Collar is a film that is close to my heart because it is set in Detroit, (although much of it was shot in Kalamazoo) and shows the lives of people that aren't seen in the movies very much, blue collar auto workers. These aren't guys who can goof off and daydream on company time or company property. They can't come in late and leave early or take 3 hour lunches. These guys don't work with computers. They work with their hands, their back and every single muscle they have anywhere from 8-12 hours a day or more. They're on the clock and must produce every minute while they're there or someone will immediately get in their face and demand to know why. Some relatives worked in the plants. They were adamant that it was not a job they wanted their children to do. It's hard, tough, backbreaking and monotonous work.
Zeke Brown (Richard Pryor), Jerry Bartowski (Harvey Keitel), and Smokey James (Yaphet Kotto) are Detroit autoworkers who have put years of blood, sweat and tears into their jobs and don't have much to show for it. Honestly they don't have anything to show for it. For Zeke and Jerry, who are married men, this is really becoming a problem as they struggle to provide for children's medical and educational costs, pay back loans and taxes and maintain their wives' respect as family providers. This last is crucially important and is something that has until recently been overlooked in modern life. No matter what people say most men and women still expect the man to be the primary provider. If he can't handle that role, and Zeke and Jerry are slipping, the marriage will suffer. Smokey is single and has no family to complicate things but he's tired of the bs all the same.
Zeke is smart enough to figure some angles. He works hard, knows the rules and isn't afraid to stand up to management or his union rep. But he's not smart enough to find a way out for himself. Smokey lives by a one day at a time, don't f*** with me and I won't f*** with you ethos. And Jerry is a true believer in hard work and the union but is really too scared to imagine that there might be something else out there. The only thing the trio have going for them is occasional parties with women not their wives, alcohol and some drugs. And those pleasures are fleeting. Because the next day they're still poor with no future. Feeling oppressed not only by the auto company but by an indifferent and corrupt union they get the bright idea to rob the union office. This will allow them to pay some bills and get out from under.
Unfortunately there is very little money in the safe but there is something more valuable and much more dangerous: information. And the powers that be want that information back. Now.
The three friends come up against a mostly unseen and seemingly unbeatable enemy that will endanger them physically and seek to corrupt them and/or break them apart from each other. How they deal with this is a quiet tragedy. If you liked movies like Norma Rae, Matewan or Harlan County USA you may like this film. It's a little didactic, especially near the end, but it's more than worthwhile in my view. It's very rare that you see a film that so openly discusses the class issue. This wasn't played for laughs. The story was serious. I would like to see more movies like this being made today. I think there could be a market for them. I loved the soundtrack by Jack Nitzsche. This film can be hard to find but if you do come across it please give it a look see. I think you might be impressed by it. "Enjoy" is probably the wrong word to use here.

directed by Steven Shainberg
Ok, just up front this movie is not for everyone. But you should probably already know that because it stars James Spader. It is occasionally explicit. It's certainly not for kiddies. This film is, in a weird twisted way, a romantic comedy. It's a fairy tale, a modern day Cinderella. It follows the primary tropes associated with that genre; a strong minded yet traditional woman convinces, after struggle, a high status man to settle down with her and her alone, after both she and her prince have proven to each other that they are indeed worthy of one another.
The difference is perhaps minor and perhaps quite major. It all depends on your point of view. I was reminded to watch this film again by both the current frenzy over 50 shades of Grey and seeing a commercial for Maggie Gyllenhaal's new movie, Won't Back Down.

The twist is that both the Cinderella and her Prince in this story are deeply disturbed, even warped beings, who nevertheless find something useful in each other.
Lee Holloway (Gyllenhaal) is a young woman recently released from a mental hospital. She cuts herself. Lee is an extremely shy person and is an introvert even among introverts. Socially inept doesn't even begin to describe her. Her parents (Lesley Ann Warren and Stephen McHattie) are unpleasant people. I wouldn't want to spend time around them either. Seeking a new start while also dealing with an on-again off-again relationship with dweeb Peter (Jeremy Davies), Lee answers an ad for a legal secretary for lawyer E. Edward Grey (James Spader). As it turns out Grey is a domineering perfectionist who notices everything and misses nothing, not Lee's cuts and certainly not her typing mistakes. If there's one thing Grey can't stand it's a typo. Grey is something of an oddball himself and has trouble talking to people, especially women. When his verbal reprimands of Lee fail to have the desired effect he corrects her physically. As it turns out this is something that turns Lee on IMMENSELY. She wants things to continue down this path. Grey does as well but is afraid to admit that. He's ashamed of what he likes and is more than a little disturbed by the fact that Lee's needs mesh perfectly with his own.

In a deliberately parallel story to the idea of gays coming out of the closet first in self-acceptance and later to the greater society, Secretary tells the story of two people who are perfect for each other, provided they can each admit and accept their outre desires. YMMV for this film. It is occasionally funny but the ending is over the top. I suppose you could call it a happy ending though. Probably one of the more important things in life is to be honest about who you are and what you want. This is true even if, or rather especially if, society finds who you are to be disgusting or shameful. Watching this film I of course remembered this song by Tom Lehrer, which I heard on the Doctor Demento show many many years ago. Snicker.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Free Speech, Mona Eltahawy, Pamela Geller and Censorship

As we've discussed before there are people who make money, get media attention, and have fun baiting Arabs and Muslims with speech that is either deliberately insulting or could be inferred to be insulting. This is wrong BUT it is something which they have every right to do. There are plenty of things to be critical of in the Arab or Muslim world. Some critics want to see a form of modernity and rationality emerge in some areas to improve people's lives. Other critics just like irritating people. And thin-skinned people of any creed are usually irresistible targets for trolls, whether it be online or elsewhere. If I know that you're going to go berserk every time I say the word "Rosebud" I just might, were I so inclined, amuse myself by saying that word and watching the world burn.

Sometimes though, criticism originates from a place of hatred and racial/religious superiority rather than love, from a place of contempt rather than attempted understanding. The criticism may be stated in blunt ugly antagonistic terms. This is usually the case with the noted conservative racist birther blogger Pamela Geller, who has built her career in part by saying nasty things about Muslims, Arabs and occasionally blacks or President Obama as well. Evidently, Geller has paid for ads to run in NYC (and other) subway systems which read "In any war between the civilized man and the savage, support the civilized man. Support Israel. Defeat Jihad"

Obviously I don't agree with the ad's implication that anyone who is opposed to the current Israeli government's policies is a "savage" or in support of jihad. And it is ironic beyond words that Geller, who was vehemently opposed to Muslim Americans building a mosque in New York City that she felt was "too close" to ground zero, and sought to limit other people's property rights and rights to practice their religion has wrapped herself in the same First Amendment that she seeks to ban for others.

But that we are all hypocrites to one extent or another doesn't change that fact that in America, we ALL have the right to free speech. The government can't tell you what to think, what to believe, prevent you from expressing your opinion, or send you to jail or fine you for expressing your opinion. It also means that other people can't (either individually or as part of a mob) prevent your speech from being heard in the public arena. This second part is a little trickier because of course your right to free speech ends where someone else's ownership rights begin. You have a right not to be put in jail for speech. You have no right to a blog post or comment, to be published, to have your ad accepted. So while I can appreciate journalist and occasioal MSNB contributor Mona Eltahawy's passion and righteous indignation at seeing that message, I can't agree that attempting to deface and censor the message is really "free speech". The proper response should have been to organize and get her own message out there. Geller has every right to put her message in the public square. It is, perhaps worth pointing out, if you are not familiar with Eltahawy, that she is not a fundamentalist but a liberal who advocates for women's rights. She has been scathingly critical of several aspects of the Arab world's politics and traditions. In Egypt she's been arrested and assaulted for her activism and reporting.

Of course I haven't recently strolled by an ad implying that millions of my countrymen and co-religionists are savages so it's easy for me to take a somewhat detached look. Defacing ads is small potatoes in free speech wars. People have done it in other situations but that doesn't make it right. It is important to confront "racist speech" but the way you do that is by more speech, not by trying to censor. That's what I believe. Geller has every right to imply that some people are savages. That right must be defended. Free speech is not negotiable.  Again, though this particular "speech" didn't quite trip my outrage wires the same way that this cartoon might have so I think we all have limits. Bottom line is that as I don't want you deciding what I can read, think or say you probably wouldn't want me determining your correct thoughts or statements. Watch the video as Eltahawy defaces the ad and Pamela Hall, president of Stop the Islamization of America, another Geller group, tries to stop her.

What do you think? 

Is the ad free speech?

Should there be a hate speech exemption to the First Amendment?

Is Eltahawy's response appropriate?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Lynyrd Skynyrd: Heritage not Hate Dodge

South East Michigan has many people (both black and white) who have parents, grandparents or great grandparents that came from the South. This was because of the 20th century automotive industrial boom. So many Southerners migrated here that certain Detroit suburbs or neighborhoods got the pejorative suffix "tucky" as in "Kentucky". The southern (white) migrants also brought a virulent racism which would be a causal element for riots in 1943 and 1967, not that Michigan was a sauna of racial tolerance before they arrived. I haven't been down South in a while but I always thought it was odd that I've seen more Confederate Battle flags in Michigan than I ever did down South. Usually that flag is attached to a pickup truck bumper or displayed in a gun shop or military surplus goods store.

My earliest memory of the city where I now work was two white men in a pickup truck with a Confederate Battle flag attached, slowing down to spit and hurl racial slurs at my then babysitter as she drove me and another child home. Such brave men, yes? So I usually associate that flag with racial hatred, white supremacy and above all, losing. The South lost the Civil War. I'm glad they lost because that meant that my great-great-great-grandfathers/mothers no longer had to live in slavery. So this was an unambiguously good thing as far as I was concerned.
Not everyone feels that way.
Some think that slavery was a good thing or at the very least not all that bad and black people should stop whining talking about it and find the positives. Others will, at least in public, not defend slavery or white supremacy but nonetheless will try to find some good things about the antebellum South and connect this to a pride in (white) Southern heritage. One such person would be Gary Rossington, famed guitarist of the reconstituted Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd.

CNN news anchor Fredricka Whitfield—who, it may not be irrelevant to mention, is African-American—mentioned the history of the band using the Confederate flag in concert and album art, saying, "We don't see that anymore. At what point did you make a decision to lose that, or what was the evolution of that?"
Rather than tell her she was mistaken, Rossington—the sole remaining member of the group's classic 1970s lineup—launched into an explanation of how the flag has been misappropriated. "It became such an issue about race and stuff,"
Rossington explained on camera, "where we just had it at the beginning because we were Southern, and that was our image back in the '70s and late '60s, because they kind of branded us from being from the South, so we showed that. But I think through the years, you know, people like the KKK and skinheads and people have kind of kidnapped that Dixie or rebel flag from the Southern tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That was what it was about, and they kind of made it look bad in certain ways. We didn't want that to go to our fans or show the image like we agree with the race stuff or any of the bad things."
Singer Johnny Van Zant, who replaced his late brother Ronnie in the group, chimed in: "If nothing else, we grew up loving the old blues artists and Ray Charles. We just didn't want to be associated with that type of thing".


Since the early seventies the band has been associated with the Confederate Battle flag. So many fans gave a rebel yell at the idea of their band changing the imagery that Rossington was forced to reverse his stance and repudiate his comments. Having had tragicomic accidental exposure to classic rock radio at an impressionable age I actually liked a few Lynyrd Skynyrd songs. In some areas during the seventies/eighties it was literally impossible not to hear the mournful slide tones of Freebird or the boogie of Sweet Home Alabama somewhere on the radio or blasting out of someone's Firebird. Somewhat ironically the hook for "Sweet Home Alabama" is so catchy that other musicians like the Geto Boys used it. Even more ironically Black women singers provided backup vocals for "Sweet Home Alabama".

Just as some rappers and artists have sought to take what is referred to as "the n-word" and put their own meaning into it, others have tried to redefine the Confederate Battle flag as not being symbolic of a struggle to maintain slavery and white supremacy but as a simple pride in Southern heritage, not backing down from a fight and standing up for your beliefs. Some more honest people also try to attach a "non-racist" white pride to it, claiming that if everyone else can be proud of their ethnic heritage and ancestral deeds, why can't southern (or southern identified) whites?

I think this argument is sort of disingenuous though on the surface it's somewhat compelling. The Confederates initiated an armed rebellion against the United States, one which even today remains the bloodiest war the US has ever fought. And they did so precisely because of a fierce belief in slavery and white supremacy. Don't just take my word for it, look up what they wrote about why they were rebelling.

We hold as undeniable truths that the governments of the various States, and of the confederacy itself, were established exclusively by the white race, for themselves and their posterity; that the African race had no agency in their establishment; that they were rightfully held and regarded as an inferior and dependent race, and in that condition only could their existence in this country be rendered beneficial or tolerable.

The Confederates wanted to make sure everyone knew what they thought about blacks.
Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition.

And like I said..they lost. When I see that flag I think of a racist loser. So I see nothing to honor or be proud of.
It is true that the Confederate Battle flag has been associated with white power movements, the Klan, and American Nazis. Rossington is correct about that. What he misses, most likely deliberately, is that there's a reason for that. It's not so much that the Confederate Battle flag has been misappropriated as it is that it's an almost perfect beacon for many of the beliefs that white power movements, the Klan and Nazis have.
There were many brave men who fought for the Confederacy. I have no doubt about that. There were also many brave men who fought for Germany in WW2. Some Waffen SS men laid down their lives trying to protect German civilians (and especially German women) from rape and death at the hands of the Russians. But if a German woman hoisted a Swastika or Waffen SS flag today and claimed that she is not supporting Nazism but is merely honoring the bravery of her ancestors, would anyone believe her? Probably not. Those symbols are fixed in their meaning. And despite the bravery of individual soldiers the cause for which they fought was so wrong that even attempting to honor them feels wrong somehow. They weren't the good guys.
The problem is that the South, unlike post war Germany, never had to admit that it was wrong for starting the war or wrong for having slaves. There weren't war crimes trials which ended with slaveowners dancing at the end of a rope or overseers being lined up against a wall and shot. There were never generations of education in the postbellum South which emphasized the wrongness of human bondage. And of course there were never reparations paid to the slaves. There was a brief attempt to ameliorate some of slavery's effects which was met with sullen and later openly violent Southern white resistance. The North shrugged its collective shoulders and by the 1890s or so the South had been left to handle its own affairs and write its own version of events, one which surprisingly enough was generally accepted by the North, at least insofar as black people were concerned. Slavery had nothing to do with the war. Slavery wasn't that bad. The South were genteel farmers who were were resisting an invasion by northern industrialists. Slaves were fat happy people who loved giving relationship advice to white people. And so on...
At a time when Confederate Battle flag enthusiast Kid Rock gets an NAACP award and says he loves black people and is not racist, is it time to look past imagery and judge people more by actions? Or is some imagery so disgusting that that's impossible to do. The great Southern writer William Faulkner famously wrote "The past is never dead. It's not even past'. I think that quote is quite applicable here. The Civil War and slavery still cast a heavy shadow over America, in part because some of the issues we thought were resolved then haven't quite been. And because historically speaking the Civil War wasn't that long ago it's not necessarily easy to let go of certain things. I doubt, by way of comparison that too many British are still too sensitive over the Norman invasion of 1066 or the War of the Roses. Why? Because those things are long long past. The winners and losers have merged. You can't tell a Norman from a Saxon. The issues have been forgotten or no longer matter. None of that is true in the American context of state's rights, discrimination, race relations, etc.


1) What does the Confederate Battle flag mean to you?
2) Is it possible to redefine symbols like the Confederate Battle flag?
3) Is it possible to have white pride without being racist?
4) Had you ever heard of Lynyrd Skynyrd before?

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Music Reviews-Bo Diddley, Alicia Svigals, 100 Proof(Aged in Soul), Sweet Honey In The Rock

Bo Diddley
Along with fellow Chess Records label mate Chuck Berry, and men like Ike Turner, Louis Jordan, Little Richard and Fats Domino, Bo Diddley could (and often did) make a claim to be a Founding Father of Rock-n-Roll. His music was slightly different than Chuck Berry's. Both men were influenced by previous jazz, blues and R&B musicians but whereas Chuck Berry added a little more country and jump blues to his music, Bo Diddley's works, much like John Lee Hooker's, provided an obvious link back to Africa through his more open use of clave. I understand clave as a 3-2 call and response pattern. Clave is of course found all over the music of the African Diaspora from people as seemingly disparate as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Mongo Santamaria, Fela Kuti, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Bobby Bland, Duke Ellington and many others but in the US is most closely associated with music from the Caribbean: especially Afro-Cuban compositions. The simplified popular version of clave often can be expressed by the "shave-and-a-haircut-two-bits" rhythm but it can get much more complicated than that. I am neither a musician nor a musicologist so I'll just stop there and just say clave is an important element of African and Diasporic music.

Diddley played up this seemingly exotic sound by having a maracas player (Jerome Green) take a prominent role both in studio and on stage. Many Bo Diddley songs didn't change chords. This was similar to people like John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf. But Diddley was playing faster than they were with more "drive" for lack of a better word. He tended to use straight eighth rhythms instead of triplets. He once claimed he couldn't really play blues.
As with older blues players it could occasionally be difficult for someone unfamiliar with Diddley's music to detect where the "one" was. This could be very rhythmically intoxicating. Bo Diddley was extremely aware of his own skills and originality. He often verbally fenced with interviewers determined to get him to list his influences. He always said that he got his own sound and thought other musicians should as well.
Like James Brown, Bo Diddley brought an intensely rhythmic drive to his music, one which was no doubt influenced by his church experiences and early training on drums. His music always had a lot of bounce and syncopation. He played the guitar like a drum. This approach may have been because of extremely large hands and fingers that made certain techniques easier and others more difficult. He started out playing classical violin and wasn't bad at it. Check out "The Clock Strikes Twelve". Bo Diddley wasn't crazy about a lot of cymbals, because he thought they often clashed with what he was playing on guitar. He did like tom-toms and maracas. A lot of his music has very prominent tom-tom sounds. I like this as I think the tom-tom is often overlooked in modern music. For my money there's nothing like the deep resonance of a tom-tom drum.
Bo Diddley was born Otha Ellas Bates in McComb Mississippi but grew up and learned to play music in Chicago. His stage name was African in origin and was said both to refer to nothing and the one string wall guitar (diddley bo) that was also African in origin and on which many future blues stars first learned to perform on. Bo Diddley had a different vocal style than Chuck Berry as well. Whereas Chuck Berry occasionally fancied himself something of a crooner in the Charles Brown or Perry Como style, Diddley's deeper voice and music were a little bit rougher and occasionally a bit more menacing. It wasn't every man who could convincingly sing of having walked 47 miles of barbed wire, used a cobra snake for a necktie, lived in a brand new house on the roadside that was made from rattlesnake hide with a brand new chimney made out of human skulls. But Bo Diddley could. His music had a large sense of humor to go along with the often surreal lyrics such as "You should have have heard what I just seen". He wrote the song "Love is Strange" which became a hit for Mickey and Sylvia.
Diddley was also a forerunner of rap. Many of his songs were self-referential. On stage he was the macho braggart with the heart of gold or he put it "..a young woman's wish and an old woman's dream.." Although Bo Diddley's songs often included outlandish mannish boasting (check out his rewrite of Muddy Waters' "Hoochie Koochie Man" as "I'm a Man" which was a pretty revolutionary song for a Black man to be singing in 1950s America), he was an equal opportunity employer and often had women lead guitarists. That was very unusual for the times. It's actually The Duchess playing lead on "Aztec". "Aztec" sounds like a missing cut from a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack. Bo Diddley was a big sartorial and musical influence on later guitarists-most obviously Jimi Hendrix, Billy Gibbons and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Check out Bo Diddley's hats and jackets and then look at Jimi or SRV. Bo Diddley was one of the first guitarists to consciously seek out and use such "bad" sounds as pick scratches, fret noise, harmonics, distortion, and feedback squeals. This was most apparent in "Please Mr. Engineer" and "Roadrunner".

Diddley's techniques would lay the groundwork for hard rock and heavy metal later on. He also was a big fan of tremolo and vibrato. There may be a few recordings floating around with him using a wah-wah pedal though it could be judicious use of tone controls. Bo Diddley designed, customized and occasionally built his own amps and guitars. He was most closely associated with the Gretsch Guitar company, who built him odd custom instruments of unusual shapes, colors and sizes-some were even fur lined. Billy Gibbons was the presenter for Bo Diddley's induction into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. Gibbons credited Diddley not only as a primal influence but also with turning him on to fur covered guitars. Go figure.
Bo Diddley's music prioritized rhythm over melody. Unfortunately for him, American law did not (does not??) recognize rhythm as something which can be copyrighted. So he had no recourse when other people started using rhythms he had popularized. Things went from bad to worse when he was cheated out of the royalties from songs that he did write. In other desperate situations he signed away certain publishing rights. And trying to build a music career as a black man in segregated America was no one's idea of an easy task. These experiences apparently left him rather bitter as over the years he rarely failed to bring this up in interviews. Live and learn I guess. Many original rock-n-roll musicians, especially the black ones, were treated poorly and ripped off by record company execs, publishers, promoters and agents. He never had many chart hits but his music was influential both on his peers and musicians who would come afterwards. Early on, The Rolling Stones were a virtual Bo Diddley cover band. The Who's "Magic Bus" is a Bo Diddley vamp. In the seventies Shirley had a disco hit with "Shame, Shame, Shame" which was also a take on a Bo Diddley riff. In the 70s, he updated his music to include nods to current funk and rock which had replaced original rock-n-roll as popular music. In his final decades he made a semi-respectable living on the old time rock-n-roll circuit with occasional flashes of interest that came from opening tours for others or the commercial he did with Bo Jackson.

Bo Diddley, the original sharp dressed man, is gone now but his music will last forever. If you're not hip to him well you ought to be. As he said "You've got your radio turned down too low. Turn it up!!!"

Who Do You Love  Bo Diddley   Pretty Thing  I'm a Man  Mona   500% More Man   Rock-n-Roll  Hong Kong Mississippi
Say Man  Bo's a Lumberjack  Cops and Robbers  The Clock Strikes Twelve
Before You Accuse Me   Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry together live No More Loving
Please Mr. Engineer  Aztec    I don't like you   Shut Up Woman   Roadrunner
Bo Diddley live at Shindig with The Duchess You can't judge a book by looking at the cover Crackin up

Alicia Svigals
Klezmer music is Jewish mostly secular folk and dance music that primarily hails from Eastern Europe, especially what is now Poland, Romania, Moldova and The Ukraine. It is pretty lively stuff that also has a fair amount of Roma, Greek and Turkish influences. Once it got to the US it also underwent minor cross cultural sharing with jazz and blues. They're long gone now but there used to be a number of African-American blues players who threw in klezmer licks or Yiddish vocals in their music as well as a number of klezmer players who picked up some pop or blues sounds. Obviously times change and both the Holocaust and the process of modernization and assimilation drastically reduced the number of klezmer musicians in the post WW2 US.

However in the past few decades there has been something of a modest klezmer revival as people gain interest in the music of their forebears. One of the musicians leading the charge in this is Alicia Svigals, who also happens to be one of the finest violinists I've ever heard. She was a founding member of the klezmer revivalist group The Klezmatics and also has enjoyed a vibrant solo career. She's also performed with (and tutored) Itzhak Perlman. Svigals is probably the best klezmer violinist performing today and has eagerly shared her knowledge with many other students of the violin or fidl. In an interesting echo of past cross-fertilizations, adventurous jazz musicians like Don Cherry have worked in klezmer styles while some klezmer musicians have included jazz or other world music in what they're doing.

Her solo album Fidl is probably the best introduction to klezmer music and her very individualistic style. Like a lot of the best musicians who straddle the gulf between old styles and new, she knows all of the traditionalist rules and styles and also knows when to break them. This music is an acquired taste of course but if you are open to hearing something different, klezmer music may hit the spot.

Gasn Nign Manhattan Concert Bessarabian Medley Romanian Fantasy Kallarash

100 Proof(Aged in Soul)
Motown owner, CEO and President Berry Gordy was notoriously tight with control and money. This became a problem for his three top songwriters and producers, Lamont Dozier, and brothers Brian and Edward Holland, who were famous, even legendary, as the Holland-Dozier-Holland team. It became so much of an issue that once ultimatums had been issued, Gordy showed the team the door and told them that they were free to do their own thing (though not free to use their own names as Gordy tied that up in legal disputes). Peeved the trio did just that and started the record labels Hot Wax Records and Invictus Records. Many bands that signed to these labels had a recognizably "Motown" sound which made sense considering who was running the label. Most of the bands were quite funky as that what was in at the time. There were, despite Gordy's best attempts, some musicians who worked at both Motown and Hot Wax/Invictus. I suppose I'll be discussing more musicians from this period later but one group which I always enjoyed was 100 Proof (Aged in Soul). I don't know much about them. I think all the original members are dead and gone. I'm sure I must have heard them growing up but my first "modern" taste of them came on an Invictus compilation release which featured tracks from people like Parliament, Freda Payne, Honey Cone and several other heavy hitters.

100 Proof (Aged in Soul) was initially made up of Eddie Holiday, Steve Mancha, and Joe Stubbs (brother of Four Tops vocalist Levi Stubbs and former member of The Falcons and The Contours).

I really like the song "Everything Good is Bad". I don't think a lot of people really sing like that any more. The vocals are soulful, masculine and pleading without falling into either ridiculous melismas or wimpish whines which seem to make up a lot of what passes for modern R&B. I also like how the bass drops out. This reminds me of dub/reggae. Music like this was really updated modernized blues. Much of the lyrics are concerned with unrequited love, passionate love, adultery and hard times, just like many classic blues songs.

Everything good is bad    Don't you wake me  Somebody's been sleeping in my bed  I don't care if I never get over you If I could see the light in the window 90 day freeze
Nothing sweeter than love

Sweet Honey in The Rock
At this point Sweet Honey in the Rock is as much an institution as a musical group. In its origin it was founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon, a civil rights activist (check out her work in "Wade in the Water") who always let her music show which side she was on. It's primarily, though not exclusively, an acapella group. When they do use instrumentation it's usually minimal. Reagon retired from the group a few years back which is a shame but that's life, you know. Anyway in my opinion they are among the best living performers of African-American spirituals (and gospel as well) and old pre-blues folk music. Obviously there's also some doo-wop and scat singing in their sound as well. Basically they draw upon the entire history of African American vocal traditions, both secular and profane. At a time where too many women of all colors seek attention for not wearing many clothes and speaking in degraded language, Sweet Honey in The Rock has upheld a musical and fashion standard that does not treat women as if their only value is sexual.

Their songs run the gamut of various personal issues of course but they are best known for reinterpretations of traditional tunes or original music which is concerned with struggling for justice in a variety of contexts, gender, racial, environmental, economic, etc. Sometimes when people who have strong political beliefs make music, the music suffers. Sweet Honey in the Rock is the exception to that rule. Sometimes I think that the most beautiful and most versatile instrument is the human voice. This group may make you think so as well. "When I Rise" is really incredible work.

When I Rise  Doing Things Together Ballad of Harry Moore Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Round Testimony More than a paycheck Ella's Song

Friday, September 21, 2012

Father Daughter Dances: Gender Discrimination??

I am for the most part on the progressive side of the spectrum. But there are a few places, often involving what are referred to as "social" issues, where I am not. In fact there are some areas where I think self-styled progressives are full of it. This story out of Rhode Island is one such instance.

Father-daughter dances and mother-son ballgames -- those cherished hallmarks of Americana -- have been banned in a Rhode Island school district after they were targeted by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU, the self-proclaimed guardian of the nation's liberty, says such events violate the state's gender-discrimination law. The organization challenged their existence following a complaint from a single mom who said her daughter was prevented from attending a father-daughter dance in the Cranston Public Schools district.
The story has created a furor both online as well as in Cranston, a community located south of Providence and considered one of the safest places in America.
"[Parent-teacher organizations] remain free to hold family dances and other events, but the time has long since passed for public school resources to encourage stereotyping from the days of Ozzie and Harriet. Not every girl today is interested in growing up to be Cinderella -- not even in Cranston. In fact, one of them might make a great major league baseball player someday.

For my money it appears that some people who would make a fuss over a father daughter dance aren't so much trying to prevent "gender discrimination" as they are trying to impose their framework of gender relations upon everyone else. Just for the record I am against "gender discrimination" but I don't think father-daughter or for that matter mother-son activities fall under that rubric. And if they do according to Rhode Island law then the law is stupid and needs to be either ignored or better yet changed. It's little things like this that make people on the bubble withdraw from public society and only engage in their own private social networks. I mean this is ridiculous. A state is actually saying that a father-daughter dance is "gender discrimination". Why would I want my kids to attend public schools if public schools are going to have to submit to that sort of foolishness? I would pull them out to a private school and start agitating 24-7 to reduce teacher pay and school funding. Were I an ACLU member (and I happen to be) I would question making donations.
Not everything is for everybody. If a young girl doesn't have a father in her home or in her life but would still like to attend a father-daughter dance the proper response should be to have an uncle, cousin, grandfather, older brother, in-law or properly vetted family friend or priest stand in to escort the child. The correct response is not to shut down the entire project because someone in the ACLU apparently has issues with traditional gender roles or heterosexuality itself. Maybe these little girls are being trained for future oppression by having a school sponsored dance with Daddy. Oh the horror, the horror!!!!! Are we going to shut down proms because not everyone could get a date?
Sometimes people who are pro gay marriage wonder why opponents even care. Well things like this are part of the reason. The idea that gender is or ought to be irrelevant in almost every instance is an article of faith for a vocal section of the left. This underlying idea is what leads some to enthusiastically support gay marriage but it also leads to some people having barely disguised hostility to cultural artifacts of gender distinction like father-daughter dances. I mean who sits around thinking that we need to stamp out father-daughter dances because otherwise we'll never have any female major league baseball players? Somebody explain to me how that works because I'm not seeing the connection. Whatever happened to if you don't like or can't participate in an activity, don't do it? Right? If you don't like gay marriage, don't marry someone of the same sex. If you don't like abortion, don't have one. If you don't like opposite gender family to the state and get them shut down because they offend your delicate sensibilities.
The US is the midst of a transition, really a decline, in which for women under thirty most births occur outside of marriage. I don't think this is good for men, women, or children or society as a whole. I may write more about that at a later time. With so many single mothers, there will be many more daughters who may not grow up with their father. That's unfortunate. Good paternal relations can head off a host of problems down the line. But for those daughters who do live with their father or at least have a relationship with him, let's not prevent them from enjoying a happy and harmless little tradition like a father-daughter dance. What's wrong with some common sense?


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Mitt Romney Secret "Victims" Video Blows Up

In our recent radio show we raised the issue of why, with voters faced with massive income declines and stubbornly high unemployment, Mitt Romney has so far been unable to surpass President Obama's poll numbers. Not only is Romney staying ever so slightly behind President Obama but recent swing state polling data would seem to indicate that Romney might even be headed for an electoral college beatdown were the election to be held today.

Of course the election is not going to be held today but in November after the presidential and vice presidential debates and one more jobs report. So although Mitt Romney hasn't made tingles run up the legs of likely American voters the night isn't over and Mitt still might get lucky. This is despite the fact that some conservatives and Republicans are essentially edging away from him BEFORE the election while some normally Republican voters who hate President Obama are nonetheless resigned to voting for the President instead of Mitt Romney.

Sheryl Harris, a voluble 52-year-old with a Virginia drawl, voted twice for George W. Bush. Raised Baptist, she is convinced -- despite all evidence to the contrary -- that President Barack Obama, a practicing Christian, is Muslim.
So in this year's presidential election, will she support Mitt Romney? Not a chance.
"Romney's going to help the upper class," said Harris, who earns $28,000 a year as activities director of a Lynchburg senior center. "He doesn't know everyday people, except maybe the person who cleans his house."
Neither the President nor Romney is extroverted. Both men keep a close circle of friends and advisers, beyond which they don't venture willingly or for long periods of time. Doing so can be enervating. This is classic introverted behavior. I know because I am an introvert. But introversion doesn't mean you don't have a lot to say to and a lot to share with certain people. And recently Mitt Romney shared his strategy for winning with a small group of supporters. Thanks to Grand Central for bringing this to our attention. Mother Jones magazine infiltrated a recent Romney fundraiser (they won't confirm the location or timing) and took these videos of Romney. Romney said that President Obama started out with an advantage of poor voters who believed they were victims. Although Romney's statements were somewhat insulting and factually untrue, that's really almost besides the point. What I was fascinated by was the passion that animated his statements, though I vehemently disagreed with them.

Romney shows a heretofore unseen self-awareness and vigor. We see the calculation of the 1% businessman who knows that he must carefully market a message to suburban white independents and hopefully peel off a few Hispanics while holding on to his own lunatic fringe. The reason the lunatic fringe is both lunatic and well...a fringe is that they actually believe that their candidate should yell their slogans from the rooftop every chance he gets. Ironically if Romney loses this election it may well be because he veered too far to the right and never could connect to those middle swing voters. These videos do show that however unsure some conservatives might feel about Romney's bona fides on immigration, affirmative action, abortion or contraception when it comes to economic issues he is Mr. 1%. If Romney could put this energy in his campaign President Obama might have something to worry about. I'm happy the videos came out. Romney lays out what appears to be a cool contempt for poor voters, those that he thinks of as lazy. I am sure there will be some damage control around this but it's good to get things out on the table, I always say.

There are numerous problems with Romney's statements but honestly I currently lack the time to point all of them out. I will just say that most people who don't pay federal income taxes don't pay because they are either retired and living on Social Security payments or they are so doggone poor that they don't even earn enough to qualify to pay federal income taxes. That would be somewhere around $20,000/yr. Does Mitt Romney really think that people earning $20,000/yr need to pay more taxes?  Do you know anyone who is earning that kind of money who is happy because although they're poor they're not paying federal income taxes? Would you rather earn $20 million/yr and pay 13% in income taxes or earn $20,000/yr and pay nothing? If you have to think about your answer to that question you might be named Mitt Romney.

The other factoid which Romney left out is that in 2011 there were a fair number of Fortune 500 corporations which paid extremely low income tax rates, no income taxes at all, or in a few cases wound up owed money by the Federal government. There is also the unpleasant fact that the Federal government spends more money on corporate welfare than it does on social welfare.  Are those "people" victims? Should we ensure they pay higher taxes? Anyway there are numerous other issues that are raised by this that maybe we can discuss today.

1) Is insulting half the nation a winning election strategy?
2) Does Romney have it right that he essentially has no chance with poor or lower middle class voters?
3) Why isn't Romney running a better campaign?
4) If you were Romney's campaign manager how would you turn this thing around? Is it too late?
5) Should Romney apologize, clarify more or distance himself from these comments?
6) Is this much ado about nothing, since each candidate essentially ignores the other side's base?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Movie Reviews-Breaking Bad (Season Four), Which Way is Up, Battleship

Breaking Bad (Season Four)
Growing up I played Dungeons and Dragons. D&D had a system to describe your character's morals, ethics and general world view. This was called alignment. It's hopelessly inadequate to describe real world people since we're mixes of good and evil. We're simultaneously fierce individualists and herd animals. But nonetheless alignment made the game work and was useful in describing fictional motivations. Good is mostly defined by caring about and trying not to hurt other people. Evil is usually either caring solely about yourself and/or being indifferent to or even enjoying the suffering of others. Of course there were other extremes of worldview besides good and evil.  A lawful person often sees the utility in externally imposed standards of conduct and group cohesion while a chaotic person sees no benefit to living by other people's rules, following laws or allowing other people to impose their will on him. And neutral positions can be found between both good and evil and law and chaos. Some people are just trying to live their lives and don't make special efforts to help or hurt people. Others have ethics and values that vary depending on the situation. So you could be good, neutral or evil and also lawful, neutral or chaotic, for a total of nine different alignments. 
There were three major different types of evil. Some evil people are capricious, won't keep promises, go out of their way to hurt people, don't like joining groups and break laws and violate mores just because. Imagine the Joker or your average street thug. Other evil people are methodical. They prefer organizations and enjoy defined hierarchies. They stay within the law (or at least their law) when possible, though they twist it to their own benefit every chance they get. They often have a perverse or malicious sense of honor, order and loyalty. Imagine Vito Corleone or Darth Vader or a corrupt police officer or judge. And finally there are those evil people that lack a strong philosophical connection to either groups and law or radical individualism; their primary motivation is selfishness. They can only be counted upon to do whatever is best for them. They couldn't care less who gets it in the neck. This is Neutral Evil. This is Walter White. In Season Four of Breaking Bad, Walter White's moral decline is complete. He's an evil SOB. Walter is neither cartoonishly evil nor is he an antihero. Walter simply lacks human feeling for anyone outside of his immediate family. 

Last season Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) had become well paid employees of the debonair, deliberate and extremely Lawful Evil Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). If you follow orders and perform well Gus will do right by you. You need not fear. Gus keeps a low profile and does not bully or humiliate his employees. He doesn't financially cheat people. His word is his bond. That's the lawful part. But if you disobey his directives, interfere (purposely or not) with his plans, fail at a task or challenge his authority Gus will make you wish you had never been born and take a vindictive and quite sadistic delight in doing so. That's the evil part. Push him to extremes and the nice guy mask drops. It's quite chilling. In Season Three an impulsive action by Jesse and a protective response by Walter put both men in Gus' bad books. The only reason he hasn't murdered them yet is because he can't find other high quality meth cooks. But he's looking. And Gus is NOT the sort of person to forgive or forget. Anything. Ever.
Typically, Skyler (Anna Gunn) has bogarted her way into Walter's criminal life. She decided against divorce. Unsurprisingly Skyler (a CPA) thinks she already knows more than anyone else ,especially Saul (Bob Odenkirk) or Walter, about how to be a criminal mastermind. Over Walter's tepid objections, she becomes Walter's money launderer. Having sudden access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash goes to Skyler's head. She makes some bad decisions behind hubby's back that place both of them in legal jeopardy. She's not yet as unlikable as Walter but she's getting there quickly. Like Walter, Skyler thinks she's always in charge of any given situation. 
Hank (Dean Norris) is undergoing slow painful recuperation from Season Three events. He's been busy putting two and two together and coming up with five. He thinks maybe Gus is not the community pillar that he pretends to be. Hank begins to investigate, well at least as much as a semi-paralyzed man can investigate. His activity attracts the attention of Gus and Mike (Jonathan Banks), who are fed up with interference from Walter White and his extended family. Gus embarks on a season long quest to break Jesse apart from Walter while Mike informs Walter that if he knows what's good for Hank, he will find a way to divert his attention. This chess match drives the season's storylines. Hank's recovery journey is an important story theme. A strutting macho man who prides himself on being in charge is reduced to someone who has an epic struggle to walk a yard and must rely on his somewhat scatterbrained and kleptomaniac wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) for everything. I have had to help family invalids and if you haven't done so yet, eventually you probably will. One day you may have to have loved ones (or employees) help you with the most basic intimate things. That's scary. Seriously. That was something I didn't like seeing and don't like thinking about. Hank's situation strains his marriage. 
We get some more background on Gus and learn why he is so careful, detailed and patient. Even so Gus isn't perfect. The cartels, Hank, and Walter are all looking for chinks in his armor. Saul continues to provide some comic relief but he also has a darker side behind the bad jokes and sexual innuendo. The tension ratchets up during the season. To steal a phrase from Supernatural, there's a storm coming and Walter and Jesse are smack dab in the middle of it! Supernatural came to mind as Jim Beaver, who plays Bobby Singer on that show, had a Breaking Bad cameo as an avuncular gun dealer.

Both Jesse and Walter are murderers now. Walter is, typically, not bothered by this while Jesse, much like Hank, must find a way to separate what he has done from who he thinks he is. This will almost tear Jesse's psyche and soul apart. In Season Four there is a serious question raised as to whether the new person Walter is now is really who he was all along. Skyler once asked Walter if he was in danger. Walter's arrogant response was "You don't understand. I AM the danger." Walter's paranoia and narcissism are in full effect. Remember that he not only started cooking meth out of desperation to pay for his cancer treatments but also because he was angry at his lack of financial success and social status. Now Walter is reveling in his new found wealth, his ability to kill at will and his firm and increasingly annoying belief that yes he really is smarter than everyone else. 
Walter White is definitely going to Hell. But when he gets there he will have an epic rant about why he doesn't belong there and snidely demand to speak to the idiot in charge. In Walter's mind it's always about Walter. It's his world. You're just living in it. Walter has literally become unable to process any information without thinking about the benefits to himself first. It costs him a fair bit of energy to pretend otherwise. Walter is the sort of person who, if you both were trapped on a sinking ship, would spend his last moments, not trying to make his peace with the Lord or finding a way out but would be yelling at you for being stupid enough to get him in this situation. I am a bit worried by the fact I took an online quiz and scored as Walter White. Uh-oh.

If you haven't seen this series, do yourself a favor and start from Season One. This show ranks with The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Shield. I am not surprised that this won Emmys. Steven Bauer (Manny from Scarface) had an important guest spot. In the extras Bauer spoke about the differences between Mexican and Cuban Spanish and how he tried to ensure that his normal Cuban accented tones would pass for the different cadences of a Mexican. Obviously if you speak Spanish, which I do not, you would get more out of this. Comedian Bill Burr also has a small role.

Which Way is Up
directed by Michael Schultz
This was a Richard Pryor movie that I wasn't allowed to see as a kid. Of course kids being kids I saw bits and pieces of it over the years but it wasn't until I was in college that I saw the complete film. When you're grown you can do what you want to do. These days this film would likely be considered mild stuff but back in the seventies it was considered quite raunchy, crude and a little bit nasty. It also might be considered racist, sexist, colorist, and every other "ist" there is. It probably is all of those things I guess. I found it funny years ago. Upon re-watching, I'm not sure it was as humorous as I thought. Maybe I changed or maybe it was never THAT funny. It's uneven. There are a few scenes though that will still have me fall out laughing. Evidently it was based on an Italian film ,The Seduction of Mimi, which I suppose I should get around to watching some day.

Pryor plays three separate characters though really only one of them is that well defined. 
This film really doesn't have any redeeming message. Well maybe just one which I'll mention later. It's mostly a collection of skits that follow the misadventures of one Leroy Jones (Pryor), an impoverished southern California orange picker who lives with his wife Annie Mae (Margaret Avery) and his obscene, profane and sex crazed father (Pryor again). Jones doesn't have anything to anticipate except backbreaking low paid work and rare loveless unpleasant sex with his wife. He's a desperate poor man who lives in fear.

When a union leader (think Cesar Chavez) tries to get permission to have a vote on whether the orange pickers can be represented by a union, no one will step forward to give the permission needed for fear of losing their job and/or their life. Leroy is watching the events and very much accidentally becomes that one worker needed to get a certification vote. He flees to Los Angeles but again becomes a target when he is a witness to the attempted murder of the union leader. 

Feeling that Leroy Jones is really too dumb and weak to kill and might be of more use to them alive, the Powers that Be (who all wear special rings so you know they're the bad guys) decide that Leroy should become a foreman at their processing plant , as long as he keeps his mouth shut. Leroy brings in his friends from back home but soon alienates them by becoming a caricature of a slave driving manager. Leroy has also started a relationship with an intelligent feminist labor activist Vanetta (Lonette McKee) who tells him that she'll be and do anything for him, provided he can be faithful to her and her alone. She's not interested in adultery, polygamy or being a concubine. And she doesn't hand out second chances. Back home Annie Mae is feeling ignored and is seduced into a relationship by the greasy sleazy lecherous Minister Lennox Thomas (Pryor again).
Hijinks ensue. There is a classic picnic scene which I love. In some respects this movie could be about the dangers of unrestrained or misdirected masculinity or the costs that men pay to live up to a masculine stereotype. However it's mostly just about Pryor acting a fool.

directed by Peter Berg
I had a free rental and unfortunately decided to waste it on this film. I like alien invasion type movies and was hoping this film wasn't as bad as other people had claimed. Well the only good things about this movie from my pov were Rihanna's and Brooklyn Decker's good looks, the 16 inch guns of the Battleship Missouri, and a new ZZ top single. But those really weren't enough to recommend the movie. It was just about as bad as everyone said it was. Bad acting, bad writing, bad special effects, just bad. This movie took a few good parts from classic alien invasion movies and lazily threw them against the wall to see what would stick. 

Scientists have beamed a transmission to a possibly habitable planet they've discovered that's roughly 20 light years away. That means that traveling at the speed of light the transmission would take 20 years to arrive. And if intelligent life could immediately send something back it would be another 20 years before we received it. Of course a 40 year round trip is not what the filmmakers had in mind and just seven years after the initial transmission, NASA (and presumably other organizations) notice several unidentified flying objects headed for earth. Right. Faster than light travel. Hmm.

In the meantime a maverick ne'er do well named Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is dragooned into the Navy by his protective big brother and destroyer commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard). Somehow Alex is an officer which is strange because we last saw him committing burglary to impress the curvaceous Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker) who happens to be the daughter of Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson). I guess the Navy is really desperate for leadership material.  Alex and Samantha got a thang going on. It's unclear as to whether this has just been on the back burner for seven years but they are ready to get married once Alex gets the stones to ask his would be father-in-law (and boss) for the fair maiden's hand. 

But that will have to wait because during a multinational naval exercise Alex gets into a fight with Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) and during the resulting disciplinary hearing smarts off before top brass. Well that's it because the Admiral has had it with him and big brother can't protect him any more. Dishonorable discharge is imminent. But then the aliens invade, kill big brother, separate Alex's ship from the task force and start kicking booty and taking names. Alex and Captain Nagata are the only leaders left. Only one little problem. These aliens who have broken the laws of physics by faster than light travel and have materials that aren't on the table of elements are evidently SEVERELY allergic to the sun. Yes that's right. Aliens traveled 20 light years to invade a planet which gets TONS of sunlight. Well I guess the aliens weren't too bright. You may lose IQ points watching this film. It's full of cliches, CGI and noise. Again, short of watching Decker bounce around or Rihanna (whose acting wasn't that bad here) I didn't gain much from this movie. This movie was like eating junk food when you're hungry because there's nothing else around. You know it's not really good for you but you don't feel like actually taking the time to go get something nutritious. If you have really low expectations, this movie might work for you. And yes they really do play Battleship...