Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Virginia Walmart: Those Don't Look Like Your Kids

The other day I stopped in my local grocery store to pick up some items. I saw a black man and white woman couple. They had a white girl and a younger black (mixed) boy tagging along with them. Obviously the black man was a pimp and the white woman was his prostitute. The two kids were either criminals in training or had been kidnapped for some other unspeakably nefarious reasons. So I went to the store manager and pointed these miscreants out. The manager called the police. The police bopped the two criminals on the head with their nightsticks and threw them in the squad car. So I had done my good deed for the day. But sometimes we are called to do more. When I turned into the bread aisle I saw a white man with two young black girls. So he HAD to be a pedophile. Why else would they be calling him Daddy and asking for donuts. I couldn't let this stuff go down. Not on MY watch. So I tackled him and this time called the police myself.
And this sicko was hauled away just like the couple before him. I felt good about myself. My spidey sense was on the job, amplified by my bigotry, resentment and paranoia. What's that you say, that doesn't sound like me? Well you're right it doesn't. And it wasn't. Nevertheless there are some people in this country who still think exactly like that. And they aren't exactly shy about getting officials with guns and authority to follow up on their suspicions. Witness Virginia:

              DC Breaking Local News Weather Sports FOX 5 WTTG

A Virginia couple was shocked to find a police officer in front of their home when they returned from running errands, but they were even more surprised by the reason for the cop's visit-- to question whether or not they were in fact their children's parents.
Joseph, a white man who didn't want his last name revealed, and his black wife Keana told Fox5DC that they were outraged after the policeman told them a security guard at their local Walmart had suspected Joseph of kidnapping his three young daughters."He asks us very sincerely, ‘Hey, I was sent here by Walmart security. I just need to make sure that the children that you have are your own,’” Joseph said.
"I was dumbfounded," Keana said. "I sat there for a minute and I thought, ‘Did he just ask us if these were our kids knowing what we went through to have our children?’The couple, who have been married for 10 years, have a four-year-old daughter and two-year-old twin girls. Joseph had taken the girls to a Walmart near their Prince William County home to cash a check and left after spending a short time in the parking lot. After speaking with the officer, they called the store demanding an explanation...
Now far be it from me to suggest that citizens not be vigilant about protecting children from pedophiles, kidnappers or other adults who would do them harm. But in order to have a suspicion and act on it I think both citizens and law enforcement ought to have a little more to go on besides the fact that two people or a group of people out and about in society are of apparently different races. What happened in Virginia, although it thankfully did not rise to the level of official police violence or arrest, was wrong. It was a hunch based on stereotypes about the way the world works. Although most people still date or marry within their race, increasing numbers do not. So it's obviously incorrect to assume that any adult accompanied by a child of a different race is some sort of deviant. 

I don't know legally what exactly rises to probable cause or reasonable suspicion. I can say that if that had been me purely on principle I probably wouldn't have answered any questions from the police. This may have escalated to my disadvantage of course but I feel pretty strongly about avoiding unnecessary contact with the police or for that matter other government agencies. The ironic thing is that in the almost Kafkaesque system we've built around "protection of children", the parents may have done the right thing by speaking to the police because sometimes the police appear to be more bound by rules and protocol than child protection services. Child protection services may well have just stormed the house and removed the children first and asked questions later. So maybe all's well that ends well.

Still the same racial assumptions that started in someone's brain about seeing a white man with black (biracial) children are the exact same beliefs that I listed in the first paragraph that can rebound to people's disadvantage in several ways. Is that white man driving in the inner city at night coming home from work or is he looking to buy crack? Is that black youth walking in a nice neighborhood the son of a successful black attorney or is he a thug casing the area? Is that white woman in a SUV with a bunch of black teens a kidnap victim about to be raped or she is a suburban mom driving her son and some of his baseball team home from the game? Is that black young woman walking down the street trying to solicit sex or is she a teacher walking home late from student-teacher conferences?

We all definitely have biases and prejudices. There's no denying that. But we should try our best to rise above them. And before we stick our nose in someone else's business we ought to have a greater justification for interference than "well you and them just didn't look right together". I don't think bigotry is probable cause. It's ironic that it was a Virginia court case featuring a black woman and white man that the Supreme Court used to overturn anti-miscegenation laws.


Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Reviews-The State of Jones, Point of Impact, Bugs Bloodsuckers Bacteria

The State of Jones
by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer
This is probably the best book I've read this year. I like to think of myself as a well read, historically knowledgeable man. But I was surprised and embarrassed that I had never heard of this story's hero, one Mr. Newton Knight. Well there's no shame in being ignorant but there is shame in staying so.
Newton Knight should be as well known as John Brown, perhaps even more so because unlike Brown he was from the South. Knight stood up and did the right thing at great personal risk. He led an anti-Confederacy insurrection in Mississippi for over two years. He was constantly hunted and nearly killed many times. But at the high point of his guerrilla war, his home of Jones County Mississippi was a very dangerous, virtual no-go area for Confederate soldiers, and especially for Confederate tax collectors. Knight maintained two families, one black and one white and had both blacks and whites fighting and working under his leadership. This was quite scandalous. For many Northerners the Civil War's goal was to preserve the Union. Ending slavery was a secondary consideration. For many Southerners keeping slavery and white supremacy were the war's principal aims. What's often overlooked is the story of Southerners who neither owned or wanted slaves and certainly didn't see the point of starting a war to defend slavery. Newton Knight was such a man. Although his grandfather and other relatives owned slaves neither Newton nor his father ever did. Before the war Newton and his parents were known for holding strong religious beliefs on the equality of all men. This was in Mississippi. As you might expect this didn't make Newton's immediate family too popular at secessionist barbecues. Nevertheless in Jones County, secession was a minority viewpoint. Until he died, Newton always claimed that Jones County had never technically seceded because the voters had selected a Union supporting candidate. But that delegate was either intimidated or bought off. He voted for secession.

Newton Knight
At war's start Newton Knight resisted enlistment.  He finally volunteered with other residents from Jones County because by doing so they could serve together. His well known anti-slavery stance probably caused Confederate partisans to burn his home down. Getting a temporary discharge Knight went home where he killed his younger sister's abusive husband, a strongly pro-Confederate man. Returning to the army he ran increasingly afoul of harsh discipline. He despaired of the starvation rations (for enlisted men) and reports from home of violent and corrupt Confederate soldiers/tax officials. He finally deserted for good. He hid in the swamps and woods of Jones County, assisted by runaway slaves and various other desperadoes. By 1863 Knight had become the leader of Jones County "insurrectionists", mostly white men who swore Union allegiance. Armed only with shotguns, older muskets and terrain knowledge, they launched a pro-Union revolt. Eventually they received supplies from and shared intelligence with the Union Army. By war's end this force had become interracial. Knight also embarked upon a relationship with Rachel Knight, a woman previously owned by his extended family. Rachel Knight provided the group with food, medicine and most importantly information. She became Knight's common law wife, despite the fact that he was already married to a white woman, Serena Knight.
Rachel Knight
The book details a funny story of Confederate soldiers harassing a deserter's mother to tell them where her son and Knight were. They threatened her until she said "I told you I don't know where he is. But I can find out." With that she marched into her house and blew a warning on her horn. Within a minute the woods were alive with answering calls from other horns. The soldiers decided that discretion might be the better part of valor.
After the war Knight became a deputy US Marshal. He was able to requisition food and other supplies for his neighbors. For a brief shining moment he was a hero to almost everyone in Jones County. He was known to be a "fighting fool afeard of no man". For those slave owners who tried to keep blacks enslaved after the war, a grim word from Newton Knight was often enough to convince them otherwise. Knight had put a lot of men in the ground. At 6'4" and lightning quick with his hands, axe, knife or gun he was not a fellow to be taken lightly. Unfortunately times changed. Many of Knight's white neighbors and fellow soldiers, although they had been happy enough to take his food and protection during the war, now looked askance at his default (interracial) bigamy and stubborn insistence on black political, social and economic rights. For example Knight provided the capital and much of his own labor to build a school for the county's children. But when the school opened Knight's black children by Rachel were turned away while his white children with Serena were accepted. Shortly afterwards the school was burned down and I'll give you one guess as to who did it.
This book rips apart the persistent lie that the South fought for state's rights or against tariffs or anything else like that. The primary consideration was white or as the era's newspapers put it "Anglo-Saxon" supremacy. The Southern political leadership considered it an intolerable insult that blacks were voting, serving in office, attending theaters, and going to school. A persistent resistance to equality sprang up. It became more and more violent. After the horrific "compromise" of 1877 and the removal of federal troops from the South this brutality increased exponentially. Independent minded Blacks and any white supporters were often assassinated, chased out of Mississippi and in several instances lynched or massacred. Neither the black legislator nor the black couple trying to walk down the street were safe from the ugliest violence. Mississippi became a terror state and would remain so for the next nine decades.

Knight's bloody reputation meant that he was, with a few tragic exceptions, able to protect himself and his families. Knight was rejected by some of his white children. Any racial issues they may have had were no doubt intermingled with their anger about Knight's domestic situation. Knight withdrew from society and was rarely seen outside, even in his advanced years, without a shotgun or revolver.
Nevertheless some of Rachel's children from other men married some of Knight's children with Serena. Knight became so closely identified with blacks that a census described him as black. We don't know if that's what he told the census. We do know that some of his children with Rachel moved elsewhere and passed as white. This caused lawsuits in later years when jealous romantic rivals unearthed the grand children's past. Other of Rachel's children married black. Later their children and grandchildren were curious about the identity of the white man in family pictures. People lived hard back then. Folks would often remove their shoes and walk barefoot to church or school in order to avoid getting their shoes dirty. And stealing a man's horse or cow was grounds for a serious beating if not killing. Of course being Mississippi, just about everything was grounds for a killing. I haven't described half of the events here. If you're looking for a story of derring do, secret love, feuds, wars, close calls, tragedies, and political upheaval, please read this. It's just as interesting as any fantasy or sci-fi saga. But it's all true. 

Point of Impact
by Stephen Hunter
This book was made into a passable movie, Shooter, starring Mark Wahlberg. But I thought the book was much better. It's much more complex. It combines action with mystery and intrigue. The author has an excellent knowledge of guns, gun culture and how bureaucracies work. I am only going to give a short review because there are just tons of spoilers I don't wish to discuss. 

Bob Lee Swagger is an Arkansas native and Vietnam vet. He was the military's second best sniper. He comes across as a good old boy stereotype but he's a LOT smarter than he lets people know. Wounded in Vietnam and rather disgusted with the war, the lies and the killing, he lives alone after his divorce and doesn't take kindly to visitors. 

But there's a secret organization that has plans for Bob Lee. They entice him with shared military backgrounds and the promise of patriotic actions that need his help to bring to fruition. From what Bob can tell they seem on the up and up, except for one man who he doesn't like. This group has evidence that there's going to be an assassination attempt on the President. But the best people at Secret Service and CIA can't seem to determine where the attack will come from. They need Swagger, one of the world's best snipers, to help them anticipate how an assassin would do it and arrange countermeasures. They lure Swagger in with the hint that they know the sniper who wounded Swagger in Vietnam and killed his best friend.
Of course the organization is not what it seems. In short time Swagger is accused of attempting to murder the President. All hands are raised against him. He's wounded and hunted across the US. His dog is killed. But as Bob Lee's ex-wife says  "If Bob Lee Swagger took it in his mind to fire a bullet at the President of the United States, then the President of the United States would be a dead man, and not no Salvadoran archbishop. You're telling me Bob Swagger aimed at a man and missed and killed another man? Bob Lee Swagger never missed nothing he aimed at his whole life and that's the Pure-D truth".

Conspiracies unfold and retribution on a Biblical level follows. It's one thing to lie, set a man up for murder and try to kill him. But you kill his dog, you are asking for it. I loved this book. It's a murder mystery combined with revenge, action packed last stands and a detective procedural. It's also about a man who learns to let go of the past and love again. This book was long at just under 600 pages but it was definitely a page turner. You can't wait to see what happens next. This is first in a series.

Bugs, Bloodsuckers and Bacteria
by Peter Brookesmith
You definitely don't want to read this book if you have OCD or give it to someone who has OCD or otherwise suffers from serious contamination fears. Because as this book cheerfully makes abundantly and occasionally disgustingly clear, every human being on this planet is host to a number of other living creatures both inside us and on us. Most of these creatures mean us no harm. Some of them are even necessary for our existence. Others are irritating, malignant or even lethal in the right circumstances. I was amazed at the pictures here of the human body and the creatures which inhabit it. A few of the creatures I would have rather not known about to be honest. The pictures were all taken via electron microscope and magnified immensely so that we could get a good look.

The book is not just concerned with human parasites or bacteria but takes a rather too close (ha-ha) look at many of the other entities which reside on human pets such as cats or dogs or in even odder environments. After reading this book I swear that I wanted to throw out all of my bedding and carpet and start living in a hazmat suit but that wouldn't have any effect on things that live inside me of course. This is the human condition, good bad or ugly. And there's a reason we have immune systems and soap.

Almost unavoidably this book is not just about the entities that share our bodies with us but also about our bodies and the history of our planet. Bacteria were the first living things on this planet and remained so for almost 2 billion years. "Our" mitochondria are not us. They have their own RNA, DNA and reproduce differently. They appear to have descended from bacteria. And yet without them we could neither eat not breathe. Other bacteria are just fine in specific areas of the body. But if they should somehow get elsewhere, or God forbid into the bloodstream, the human so afflicted will have some deadly problems indeed. Examples include S. Aureus, Ent. faecalis,  and of course E.coli. Other bacteria are briefly discussed, including the infamous Cl. botulinum, which is so horribly deadly that just two teaspoons would kill about 6 billion people. This bacteria can be found in soil or in improperly canned food.

Did you wash your pillows and bedding this week? I hope so. That's how you can keep your personal menagerie of dust mites, Dermatophagoides pteronyssimus, under control. They consume the dead skin that your body is constantly flaking off. They are especially active at night and love your pillow. Your head is the source of their heat and moisture. Even a frequently washed pillow may contain 10,000 of the little buggers and their eggs and droppings. I suppose that someone watching you through a microscope at night would see your body and head covered in a swarm of mites. Each of us is a real life horror movie every time we sleep. I learn new things every day.

Many of the more dangerous parasites or bacteria can be avoided by adhering religiously to high standards of personal hygiene and ensuring the provisions of clean food, clean drinking water and working sewage systems. This is definitely an area where there is a right way and wrong way of doing things. Some cultures get this right. Others, not so much. These creatures will always be with us. If a bacterium could express a point of view it might remind us that it was here first and may well be here after humans are gone. This was a fascinating if occasionally disturbing book. Now if you'll excuse me I need to go throw out my bedding and take a bleach shower...

Monday, May 20, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: Second Sons

The previous two episodes were heavy on setup and exposition. After Sunday's show there are only two episodes remaining. The first few installments set viewership records for the show, last week's show not so much. There were murmurs across the net that the show runners were making too many changes from the books. I deliberately don't like talking about the books here because (1) I don't want to give spoilers-see warning below, (2) I don't want to be the smug condescending arrogant jerk who compares everything to the books and (3) the show and books are significantly different and ought to be enjoyed and understood separately. I have been surprised by some things and disappointed by others just as people who haven't read the books have been. I love the books but Benioff's and Weiss' creation stands on its own. So all that aside what happened in Sunday's episode? Was it another snoozefest intermittently interrupted by torture? Well maybe. There was only minor torture this week. We spent a lot of time in King's Landing. 

We open up with Arya grabbing a big rock and considering the proper way to smash the sleeping Hound's head in. But The Hound wasn't sleeping and coolly advises Arya that if she wants to kill him she had better do it right the first time otherwise he'll break both her arms. Charming fellow that Hound. Arya thinks she's being taken back to King's Landing but The Hound profanely informs her that he's taking her to The Twins, The Frey stronghold, for the wedding between Roslin Frey and Edmure Tully. The Hound intends to ransom Arya back to her brother and mother.

Outside of Yunkai Barristan sneers at the arrival of the Second Sons mercenary band. They have been hired to fight by Yunkai. Daenerys invites their leader to consider switching sides. Their leader, Mero and his second think that switching sides is bad for business. Mero is a lusty and openly misogynist thug who won't stop drooling over and insulting Daenerys in the crudest of terms. He must have missed the object lesson a few weeks back. The third mercenary officer, Daario, is a bit more polite and philosophical. He wants to know what's in it for the Second Sons. Daenerys gives her spiel about retaking Westeros. The mercenaries point out that she doesn't actually have ships or quite as many Unsullied as she claims. And anyway Mero would rather rape her. Yes he is just that crude. Later back in their camp Daario subtly mocks Mero for cavorting with prostitutes. Daario would prefer to be with women who are completely willing, neither rape victims nor prostitutes. Mero could care less. Daario gets the assignment to assassinate Daenerys. He infiltrates Daenerys' private tent but reveals that he killed his two leaders instead and now rules the Second Sons. He pledges to serve Daenerys. There are rather obviously some other things he would like to do to/for/with Daenerys.
Melisandre (cleavage alert!) and Gendry reach Dragonstone where Stannis stops sulking long enough to confirm that Gendry is Robert's son. Melisandre sends Gendry away to eat and relax. Stannis wants to know what Melisandre intends to do to Gendry and she tells him that's a stupid question. In the night's best scene, Stannis visits Davos. He stumbles over what was for him a heartfelt statement of sympathy about Davos' son's death. Using Davos as a sounding board Stannis tells Davos about Melisandre's plans for Gendry. Obviously Davos is opposed. Stannis is torn between the right thing to do and the easy thing to do. He uses a utilitarian argument to try to justify Melisandre's plans to himself. Stannis agrees to release Davos. He never uses the words "I'm sorry" but he doesn't have to does he?
These utilitarian arguments resonate throughout history and even today. When confronted with evidence that US sanctions against Iraq had contributed to the deaths of 500,000 children, former Secretary of State Madeline Albright famously opined that "we think the price is worth it". Well Albright and Melisandre might worship the same god as Melisandre is also a strongly utilitarian type. I strongly doubt however that Albright ever got a confused boy a little buzzed on wine, stripped naked and started playing hide the kielbasa. Because that's what Melisandre does to Gendry. That is right before she stops the sex, ties Gendry down and uses three leeches to draw blood from him. Evidently she wanted to kill him but Davos objected. Davos and Stannis enter the bedchamber. Davos watches grimly as Stannis intones the names of his enemies and throws the leeches into the fire. On one hand Gendry didn't get to finish what Melisandre started, which must be rather irritating. On the other hand he still has his life and his package, so there's that.
In King's Landing the wedding between Tyrion and Sansa proceeds. Reeking of insincerity Margaery tells Cersei that they will be sisters. Cersei takes the opportunity to remind Margaery of what happened to the Reynes of Castemere, another upstart family (like the Tyrells) who threatened Lannister dominance. As I wrote before, Tywin took this very badly. Cersei promises the same to Margaery should Margaery presume to call her sister again. Looking for every opportunity to mock Tyrion and frighten Sansa, Joffrey insists he will give Sansa away since her father can't and removes the stool that the height challenged Tyrion had planned to use to put a Lannister cloak onto Sansa.

The reception is something of a farce. Loras is obviously miserable. Cersei is mighty buzzed and upset herself. Tyrion is completely and totally drunk, so much so that Tywin doubts he'll be able to do his marital duties. Tyrion no longer cares about that. Joffrey smirks to Sansa that he will rape her as it doesn't matter to him which Lannister impregnates her. Joffrey then wants to start the bedding ceremony. In this marriage ritual the male guests undress the bride and escort her to the bed chamber while the female guests do the same for the groom. Tyrion refuses and says there will be no bedding ceremony. 
When Joffrey insists Tyrion again says no and stabs the table for emphasis, threatening to cut off Joffrey's manhood. Threatening the king is a capital offense but Tywin defuses the situation. In the bedchamber with Sansa Tyrion has an attack of conscience or disgust when he takes in Sansa's youth and obvious revulsion towards him. He says he will not have sex with Sansa unless she wants to. And as far as Sansa is concerned she will never want to. Next morning Shae sees that the sheets have no virgin blood and appears somewhat surprised and pleased.

Sam and Gilly find an abandoned cabin near a heart tree where Sam again shows that he is completely useless around the house. Obviously he neither paid attention to all the outdoorsy manly man things his father tried to teach him nor took any classes at Home Depot. Gilly has to make the fire. Gilly is also quite sensitive about Sam thinking she's stupid. Well if your father is also your grandfather and your mother is your sister I can see why folks might assume your brains are a little scrambled. But Sam means no harm. If you recall earlier Sam found a cache of obsidian weapons. I mentioned then that those would come in handy. And they do. When the ravens make a ruckus outside, Sam goes to see what the issue is. And it's not just a few ravens either. It's hundreds. A White Walker comes out of the woods. It shatters Sam's sword by freezing it. It wants Gilly's baby. In desperation Sam grabs the obsidian spearhead and stabs the White Walker. It turns out that White Walkers have the same reaction to obsidian as vampires do to sunlight. Rock on with your bad self Sam!

What I liked:
  • Gleeson continues to bring Joffrey to life in all his maliciousness. The kid is pure evil. Whether in great things or small, he just really enjoys terrorizing people. To kill someone's father and then say he will give them away at the altar is beyond malevolent.
  • Sansa finding the courage to say no and Tyrion finding a conscience. This could be important as we all know that a marriage that is unconsummated is not really a marriage.
  • Melisandre's scene with Gendry (for the obvious reasons heh-heh but also because it shows us that Stannis still has a conscience)
  • The arranged marriage situation. Although Sansa's example is extreme, being forced to marry into the family that defenestrated her brother, murdered her father and friends, and is attempting to defeat her brother, it's not unheard of. Marriage for romantic love and making individual choices on marriage are quite modern inventions as is marrying late. Old enough to bleed, old enough to breed is not just a saying. It's a way of life. We can see that no one is happy but their happiness is not as important as inheritances and alliances.
  • Daenerys being nude in front of Daario. It shows she's not afraid of him but also that there might be mutual attraction. Jorah if I were you I'd get rid of this pretty boy right now. Wait and it might be too late.
What I didn't like
  • Another episode with a severe lack of wolves. 
  • Bran and Arya's story lines continue to be somewhat shortchanged. 
  • Rather than switching from scene to scene every five minutes it might help pacing if each episode featured just one or two locations. We saw some of that last night.
  • The earlier overemphasis on the Theon torture porn continues to cause other story lines to be rushed and underdeveloped.
  • Melisandre's scene with Gendry (this scene was invented for the show and could be considered to be fanservice. Seeing Carice Van Houten naked is usually a good thing but again there's a lot to accomplish.)
  • Just two episodes left. I think HBO needs to find a way to have 12 episodes or maybe a two hour season premiere/finale. 
*This post is written for discussion of this episode and previous episodes.  If you have book based knowledge of future events please be kind enough not to discuss that here NO SPOILERS. NO BOOK DERIVED HINTS ABOUT FUTURE EVENTS. Most of my blog partners have not read the books and would take spoilers most unkindly. Heads, spikes, well you get the idea....

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Movie Reviews- Gangster Squad, Mama, Stand Up Guys

Gangster Squad
directed by Ruben Fleischer
This film is a little light on story and gloriously heavy on scenery, costume and surroundings. It's a trip to heaven if you are into late forties and early fifties clothes, cars, and art deco architecture or happen to yearn for a simpler time when men were men, women were dames and there was no problem that couldn't be solved with two fists and a .45. Gangster Squad is inspired by history but is not bound by it. It takes lots of liberties with the story. So if that appeals to you this movie could be worth your while. Despite some surface similarities it is nothing like LA Confidential, The Big Sleep or any other films with conflicted heroes or outright anti heroes. No here, the good guys are good, the bad guys are very bad and that's pretty much that. And all the girls are crazy about sharp dressed men...

I wrote about LA mobster Mickey Cohen before here. In Gangster Squad, Cohen (Sean Penn) is the quintessential bad guy. Quick tempered with a very broad NU YAWK accent, Cohen is the rising star bad guy in Los Angeles. He's got his fat little fingers in everything, prostitution, narcotics, gambling, bookmaking, loansharking, you name it he does it. A former boxer, Cohen is quick with his fists and doesn't mind throwing a beating to hapless subordinates. He doesn't like mistakes. Of course if you get off with a beating count yourself lucky as the quite sadistic Cohen has many other ways to enforce discipline, most of which involve removing you from the planet. Cohen's only rival for power in California is the older and more cautious Mafiosi Jack Dragna (Jon Polito) who is worried about Cohen's strength and insolence.

One person in the LAPD who is neither intimidated by Cohen nor in his pocket is Sgt. John O'Mara (Josh Brolin) who is first seen rescuing a naive woman from a Cohen pimp platoon. O'Mara's actions come to the attention of Chief Parker (Nick Nolte) who has despaired of taking down Cohen by legal methods. He commissions O'Mara to put together a squad of non-corrupt cops to get Cohen. They aren't to kill him but are to destroy his businesses, humiliate him and if possible get some real evidence of Cohen's crimes. They won't be able to identify themselves as cops. If they're caught Parker will disavow all knowledge of their actions. O'Mara's wife Connie (Mirielle Enos) is initially upset that her husband will be going into more dangerous work. She's pregnant and thinks it's time her war vet/OSS hubby let someone else take the lead. But when she sees he can't be dissuaded she insists upon picking the team herself. The police officers she chooses are
  • Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie), a skilled knife man who hates drug dealers. 
  • Max Kennard (Robert Patrick) a Trace Adkins soundalike who is quicker and more deadly with a single action revolver than most men are with automatic weapons.
  • Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) an intense intelligent man who used to work in Army Intelligence. He's the surveillance and legal expert.
  • Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena) who has little else to do besides hero worship Kennard.
  • Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling) a lazy lady's man with a hidden conscience and a thing for Cohen's number one lady, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone
After a few missteps and the obligatory character conflicts, under O'Mara's leadership these men morph into a smooth oiled machine bringing the pain to Cohen all across Southern California. With the brief exception of Kennard explaining that from bigotry no one in the LAPD but him would work with Ramirez, the movie is thoroughly anachronistic with regards to race. No one ever calls Harris any slurs. He's even invited over to cookouts at his partners' homes. He enters white clubs with no problems. Right. Anyway Cohen isn't the type of gangster to take attacks lying down and he strikes back in vicious and quite personal ways. You can probably figure out the rest. This is a good fun romp but please don't look for anything more than that. Basically this is quality fast food. Very violent fast food. It's all broadly drawn but sometimes that's ok. Penn chews the scenery but in a good way. Sullivan Stapleton stars as Jack Whalen, a Cohen associate who is Wooters' good friend.

directed by Andy Muschietti
This movie starred Jessica Chastain's chest. Really. Ok, that aside what was this movie about? Basically it was an extended episode of Supernatural without the Winchester Brothers. Seriously, this is something which would have been better handled and experienced on the small screen. But it was a 100 minute movie so things had to be dragged out a little bit. As mentioned Chastain was quite noticeable in this film but perhaps women might enjoy looking at Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who appears in a dual role. But it's really Chastain's film all the way. She's the lead here and does a pretty good job of crafting a believable character. NCW doesn't have a whole lot to do as he disappears from the film for huge swaths of time. I'm actually glad I saw this on the small screen as I would have felt ever so slightly cheated if I had seen it in the theater.

The visual aspects were quite good. The director made a scary film without gore or much violence. Things are more implied than shown. The first ten minutes of the film are just as frightening than the remaining ninety minutes.

The film opens up with Jeffrey Desange (NCW) taking his daughters Victoria and Lily out for a drive. Sounds nice except for the little fact that Jeffrey has just murdered his wife and his business partners. The girls are toddlers. The older Victoria, who is three, is perceptive enough to ask about Mommy and their destination. Jeffrey drives them to an abandoned cabin. He is pretending that everything is okay when it's obvious he's at mental breakdown. Just as he is about to murder his daughters and presumably commit suicide ("You know Daddy loves you, right?") something, we can't tell what, grabs him away from the girls and breaks his neck. Something gives the girls a cherry. This scene is full of pathos as kids and animals have no ability to defend themselves against homicidal or otherwise dangerous adults, even if they can perceive the danger, which usually they can't. 
Zip over to Jeffrey's twin brother, Lucas (NCW again) who has heard about the murder of his sister-in-law and arrived at his brother's house frantically looking for his missing nieces. Lucas doesn't give up the hunt. For five years despite his limited funds, he's a freelance photographer and his girlfriend Annabelle (Chastain) is a struggling punk-rock bassist, he searches for his relatives. Finally the girls are found, just as Lucas' savings have run out. But the girls aren't the same. Victoria DeSange (Megan Charpentier) is filthy and feral. Her little sister Lily (Isabelle Nelisse) is even more so, with hardly any English language skills. Both scurry around on all fours and talk to each other in a strange patois. Victoria cleans up well. Lily less so. With the help of a doctor (Daniel Kash), Lucas (enthusiastically) and Annabelle (very reluctantly) obtain custody of the girls, over the objection of their maternal relative. The doctor arranges for the newly made family to live in a home where he can study the girls. But something returned with the girls from the woods. As you might expect from the title this is something that has taken a proprietary interest in the girls, and definitely doesn't appreciate either Lucas or Annabelle playing parent.

As mentioned, there's no gore at all but this is still a pretty creepy film thanks to reaction shots and the normal frights of being upstairs in a large house and swearing you heard something downstairs. After Lucas is temporarily removed from the board Annabelle finds that she has some maternal instincts that are kicking in just when she least expects them. I didn't particularly care for the ending and as mentioned this film could have been shortened by a good 20 minutes and not have lost much. But there you are. If you want a horror movie that doesn't rely on blood sprays, brutalized, naked and humiliated women or ridiculously gruesome murders, you could do worse than to check this movie out.

Stand Up Guys
directed by Fisher Stevens
Look it's Al Pacino in a movie. And he's not shouting in all of his scenes!!! Imagine that. This movie also starred Alan Arkin and Christopher Walken. I like these actors and they don't disappoint. It's rare that a movie featuring actors who are, for lack of a better word, old, treats both the characters and the situations with an enjoyable mix of comedy and sympathy. The film never lets you forget that the main characters are hearing Death's footsteps. Sex is not something they have a lot of natural energy for any longer; they aren't as physically intimidating as they used to be, which is what the younger contemptuous hoodlum Larry (Bill Burr) keeps telling them every time he sees them. But just because there's snow on the mountain top doesn't mean there's not fire down below. The characters played by Pacino, Arkin and Walken all take it to the limit one more time. They're old school. They do things the right way because they are indeed stand-up guys in a world where rules and class don't seem to matter any more.
The mobster Valentine (Pacino) has just been released from prison after doing a 28 year stint for an armed robbery in which at least one person was killed. Despite that, Val kept his mouth shut and did not rat out anyone else who was involved in the crime, most especially his friends the tired, depressed and less than debonair Doc (Christopher Walken) and the now asthmatic Hirsch (Alan Arkin). Doc looks every minute of his age and dresses it too. Val teases him about his "old man gin rummy" clothes.

Doc is Val's best friend. They go back together, way back. So Val is quite happy to see Doc and even happier to make a quick pit stop at the unassuming brothel run by the good natured Wendy (Lucy Punch). If there is such a thing as a hooker with a heart of gold that would be Wendy. She's taken over the business from her mother, who was friendly with Doc and Val. When, after some launch difficulties, Val is able to finally clear the pipes he notices that Doc is not as happy to see him as he should be. One of the people killed in the caper that sent Val to prison all those years ago was the son of Doc's and Val's boss, Claphands, (Mark Margolis-I remember him from Breaking Bad).
The permanently choleric Claphands blamed Val for his son's death but refused to have Val murdered in prison because he wanted him to suffer. Now that he's out Claphands wants him dead. And in the mob the best person to kill you is the person closest to you. Doc gets the order.

Both Val and Doc are angry about this but orders are orders. There's nothing for it except to break their wheelman Hirsch out of his nursing home and spend their last night together saving kidnapped women like Sylvia (Vanessa Ferlito), stealing cars, slow dancing with younger women in clubs, snorting Viagra, and slowly getting to know a friendly young waitress Alex (Addison Timlin) on whom Doc seems to have a fixation. But time is running out. Claphands wants Val dead by 10 AM or else. And even for the world that Val and Doc inhabit, Claphands is considered to be an especially vicious and totally unfeeling sort of gentleman. Disobeying a direct order from him is a sure ticket to the afterlife. Just irritating him is enough to get people quite worried about their immediate future.

This movie had a few cheap jokes, mostly around erectile dysfunction and priapism, but it's both a gentle comedy and a standard set action piece. It takes some turns you've mostly seen before and a couple you might not have. It has some things to say about friendship and honor. The ending is superb. You could say that Walken and Pacino could do these sorts of roles in their sleep and you'd probably be correct. But sometimes a familiar story is still a good story. Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are classic for a reason. I liked this movie. YMMV. The soundtrack makes judicious use of old school soul and rock-n-roll. Julianna Margulies has a small role. Throughout the film you are reminded, as are the characters, that these are gangsters. They may be old. They don't have the strength they used to have. But a retired bada$$ is still a bada$$. Don't believe me? Just insult Doc in front of Val. You'll be surprised that an old man still has such an effective jab...

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Obama, Holder, Clinton: Benghazi, and DOJ AP Subpoenas

Well well well, what a difference a day makes. It was seemingly just yesterday when the President was having his inauguration and sneering at people who didn't trust the government, or thought that they were taxed enough already, thank you very much. And it wasn't that long ago that rather than answer direct questions about her role in the Benghazi situation, Secretary Clinton was screeching "What difference does it make" at questioners.

Well Madame Secretary it may make some difference after all. Yes indeed. You know just like it makes a difference that you didn't actually land under sniper fire in Bosnia. With that record of truthfulness you might understand that people don't necessarily want to take your word on something without proof.
( When you have a moment after reading this post please check out this excellent C-SPAN discussion with CBS investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson. It's very long and not strictly speaking necessary for this post but it does clarify a great many of the issues raised by this scandal)


Or it may not, it could all indeed be much ado about nothing  h/t field negro
We don't know yet. What we do know is that Cheryl Mills, Secretary Clinton's Chief of Staff, called Gregory Hicks, the deputy Chief of Mission in Libya, and expressed her firm displeasure that Hicks had spoken to Representative Jason Chaffetz. She was also peveed that Hicks was raising questions about the initial official explanation on Benghazi. Hicks claims that his job and competence were harshly questioned and that he was demoted. We also know that Hicks stands firm that there was a stand down order that prevented a possible rescue mission from taking place

The full truth has yet to reveal itself. This story is changing by the day.  By the time you read this new facts will almost certainly have been revealed. I doubt there was any sort of desire by the Obama Administration to allow attacks on American consulates. But I do think that, rightly or wrongly, whether it's in response to Republican hatred and intransigence or born out of pure technocratic arrogance that there is often an Obama Administration response to a crisis that privileges politics over all else. Maybe this is no different than any other Administration. After all why would you be kind or forthcoming with folks who have made it clear that they would like nothing better than to beat your brains out with a baseball bat?  Nevertheless when the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, suggests removing or reworking talking points to be given to the public and media because "the information could be abused by members of Congress to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings" at the very least there is some inter-agency CYA behavior going on here.  At worst, well I don't think we have evidence to suggest the worst just yet. 

But withholding truthful but harmful information because you fear rivals will use it against you is wrong. It doesn't work. Think about your own job. If you or someone in your department have made a serious mistake, sooner or later it's going to come out. It's best to own up to it, put the truth out there, (wo)man up and take what you have coming to you. And this issue also shows the importance of maintaining calm and politesse under great stress. Perhaps if Mills and Jones hadn't felt entitled (for political reasons?) to tear Hicks a new one and demote him, perhaps he wouldn't be the country's newest whistleblower. But who can say. As I mentioned I don't think there's really anything here. The Republican eagerness to find something, anything on the President is too obvious. And Benghazi is just the latest in a long line of attacks on American institutions. 

Government agencies often defend overbroad exercises of power by tacitly assuming that the ends justify the means. So whether it's guns in New York where Mayor Lord Bloomberg sends out his minions to shake down anyone darker than Wentworth Miller, or California cops who enter a home without a warrant and taser a husband and wife on suspicion of domestic violence, people who are legally allowed to use coercion must be strictly watched and limited. Otherwise they have a tendency to get out of hand. I've written here and elsewhere that the Obama Administration has a mild to strong disdain for civil liberties. I think this comes from the top. It's nothing new in Washington. The entire reason that we theoretically want limited government authority is that the power of the government is so extensive. The government can compel you to do a lot of things against your will. But there are supposed to be limits. 

The Department of Justice ignored those limits. In a search for leaks around overseas activities in Yemen, the Department of Justice secretly obtained two months of phone records from AP reporters. It's unclear whether a judge signed off on this or not
NEW YORK –- The Associated Press revealed Monday that the Justice Department secretly obtained two months of reporter and editor phone records from the spring of 2012, the latest and most illustrative example of the Obama administration's unprecedented war on leaks.
AP president and chief executive officer Gary Pruitt wrote in a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder on Monday that "there can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters." Pruitt demanded the DOJ return the records and destroy any copies.
The AP reported that the DOJ obtained lists of "incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery." The Justice Department seized records for more than 20 telephone lines from April and May 2012....
Obama and Holder can't be bothered to prosecute banks for bad behavior. Because that might impact the world economy or something. But evidently Holder, or to be precise, his deputy attorney general, has no issue in taking steps which make a mockery out of the First Amendment.  I think this is a much larger scandal than Benghazi. The press ignored the previous tell signs like FISA or the Patriot Act or several other laws or actions that make Swiss cheese out of constitutional protections. It's only when the press' own prerogatives are seemingly violated that it raises an uproar. Well better late than never I say. Self-interest comes through again.  It's critically important to remember that everyone leaks. People do it because they want to hurt the Administration or because they want to help the Administration or because they want to settle scores with rivals or because they've honestly run across something so bad they think every citizen needs to know about it. 

You can't have a functioning constitutional republic without an informed citizenry and a watchdog press. 

If citizens would rather read about which Hollywood starlet is sleeping with which musician/athlete and the press would rather act as the court stenographer for the King, then you can kiss democracy goodbye. You can't have a watchdog press if the government is obtaining phone records that, by their very nature, show to whom the press is talking, and what they're investigating. You would have to be extra special stupid to tell a news agency about something shady that's going on if you know that the government is getting your phone records (and tapping your phone??) Actions speak louder than words. As has been pointed out much of late, the Obama Administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined. Sometimes this moves into the realm of farce. The President grandly decided not to prosecute any of the CIA agents or others who tortured. How nice of him. I know if I were a torturer I'd be relieved. But a CIA agent who disclosed the torture was gleefully prosecuted and convicted. Actions speak louder than words, my friends.

Now on both the Benghazi and the AP situation there is no doubt that some of the President's critics are acting in bad faith. It was just a few weeks back that some Republicans were claiming that recognizing that the Boston bombing suspect had Miranda rights was somehow being soft on terrorism.  Good luck trying to find many mainstream Republicans or conservatives who enthusiastically support the Fourth Amendment. There are previous Presidents, Democrat or Republican, who have committed what I view as unethical, unconstitutional or outright criminal acts. But as the cop who stopped me for speeding a few years back told me when I angrily pointed out the other people exceeding the posted speed limit, "But I saw you." Obama has to live up his own standards of excellence, not just say he's like all the others. Despite Republican hostility, even a broken clock is right twice a day. The AP story in particular as well as the IRS issue which we wrote about yesterday may last a minute. And just as I am about to publish this I notice that the President is calling for a new federal shield law which would prevent the DOJ from doing what it just did. Right. In other news the New York Mafia's Five Families today urged passage of a law which would prevent extortion and loansharking....


1) Do you think the Benghazi and AP scandals matter or not?

2) Will Benghazi damage Clinton's future political plans, if any?

3) Do you think the DOJ subpoenas were overbroad?

4) Should Holder resign?

Monday, May 13, 2013

HBO Game of Thrones Recap: The Bear and the Maiden Fair

This episode was penned by George R.R. Martin himself. For those who care about such things it had significant differences from the books. If you don't like that I suppose you could take it up with GRRM. =) Of course I would prefer you didn't as time spent responding to your outraged missives is time that GRRM's not writing the next book.  Anyway we open up on the Wall. The Wildling party has made it to the other side. Jon confronts Orell about the little issue of cutting the rope and dooming Jon and Ygritte but Orell says that's business. I liked this if nothing else because we get to briefly see a less emo and more forceful Jon Snow. Ygritte asks questions about the North's battle tactics and makes fun of what she sees as excessive regimented styles but it's apparent that she's somewhat nervous. Later Orell makes a play for Ygritte's wildling love (or at least Ygritte's wild thing) but she shoots him down by confirming that she loves Jon Snow. Embittered on a personal level as well as still not trusting Jon, Orell warns Ygritte away from Jon. Ygritte mistakes a windmill for a castle and has no cultural frame for understanding Jon Snow's more traditional expectations for women. She mocks them. Jon gives an impassioned speech about the futility of the Wildlings attempting to invade and defeat the North. From the way Ygritte looks at him you get the feeling that she might even believe this herself but can't stand to hear Jon say it. It's well acted, I thought. Ygritte reminds Jon that come what may they belong to each other.

The Stark-Tully army is delayed by rain in marching to the Twins for the Tully-Frey wedding. Catelyn is not happy about this. After Robb and Talisa have played hide the sword in the scabbard and find my wedding ring , Robb is temporarily not blinded by Talisa's beauty. Robb notices that Talisa is writing a letter to her mother. Talisa lets Robb know that's she's pregnant, something that makes Robb even happier than he already was.

Sansa finally realizes that maybe she's not the brightest crayon in the Stark family box. Sansa doesn't want to marry Tyrion. But Margaery (cleavage alert!!) suggests that Sansa make the best of her opportunities, pointing out that Tyrion is known to be experienced with women, has been as kind to Sansa as someone in his position could be and is good looking, even if he is a dwarf. Margaery is rambling on about the various different kinds of love, sex and men in the world when Sansa openly wonders how the supposedly virginal Margaery knows such things. In a perfectly played scene where the viewer can virtually see Margaery thinking "THIS GIRL IS REALLY REALLY DUMB!", Margaery tells Sansa that she heard of these things from her mother.
Tyrion is also complaining to Bronn about the marriage but Bronn thinks it's just Tyrion not wanting to admit that he really does want Sansa. Tyrion gives Shae some gifts and again emphasizes that the marriage is not his idea but Shae wants him to run away with her. When Tyrion declines Shae says she's just a whore and leaves.

Tywin said before that he would take a hand in Joffrey's "education" and we saw a hint of that in this episode. Joffrey summons Tywin to report on the council meetings. Direct and polite but certainly not submissive or fawning, Tywin tells Joffrey to attend the meetings if he wants information. When Joffrey displays petulance the previously semi-amused Tywin becomes subtly intimidating, stepping on the throne dais to emphasize the point that he is not frightened by his grandson nor does he intend to report to him. This was my favorite scene. Tywin is no one to mess with. I couldn't help but think of Dick Cheney here. Tywin does what he thinks is best for his family and the realm, but don't ask him questions. You'll know what he wants you to know. Period.
Melisandre informs Gendry that he's Robert's son. It appears they're headed to King's Landing. Daenerys goes to Yunkai, which is another, albeit more powerful slave city. Jorah thinks this is a waste of time and resources but Daenerys, now with more powerful dragons and an army, is starting to get the hang of this power thing. Daenerys is a do-gooder with power. She extorts gold from the slavers who attempt to buy her off and insists that the slaves be freed. Arya is very angry with the Brotherhood without Banners and is made even more so when they postpone taking her to Riverrun in order to attack a Lannister raiding party. She runs off but is captured by The Hound.
Theon is released from the rack by young women who claim to be interested in finding out if he's packing as much as other women claim he is. Theon can't run anywhere because he's got holes in his feet. Despite his feeble protestations, the women get him hot and bothered and ready to rumble, that is as much as any tortured man could be. Just when it looks like Theon might find a brief bit of happiness (didn't we see this before?) the Unknown Young Man enters. He blows a trumpet and beats Theon with it. He says that he's also heard of the size of Theon's package but that Theon needs to learn that women didn't really like him. To that purpose he, with the help of goons, castrates Theon. Osha is angered about Jojen's growing closeness to Bran and refuses to go back beyond the Wall, telling of her companion's death and return as a wight. She says she swore an oath to take the Stark boys to Castle Black. 
At Harrenhall Jaime prepares to leave. Brienne is stoic about her fate but reminds Jaime of their oaths. Jaime swears to return the Stark girls to their mother. Bolton is also leaving for the Frey-Tully wedding and tells Jaime again to inform Tywin that Jaime's mutilation wasn't his doing. Jaime agrees and sarcastically tells Bolton to pass along his regards to Robb Stark. Later, while listening to Qyburn justify his unethical experiments on living men, Jaime is troubled by Brienne's situation. Qyburn is nonchalant, saying that Brienne may be raped and survive the night but after that who knows. Appealing not only to his escort's lust for gold but also to his fear of Bolton's and Twyin's anger, Jaime convinces everyone to head back to Harrenhall where he finds that Brienne has been placed in a bear pit, armed only with a wooden sword. Locke refuses to release her, believing that Selwyn Tarth, Brienne's father did not offer enough in ransom. Just as Brienne is being mauled and about to be killed, Jaime jumps in the pit to distract the bear. He protects Brienne and helps her to get out. He's greatly assisted in this by the fact that his escorts wound the bear with crossbow bolts. Once everyone is out Locke rages but again, the fear of Bolton's wrath is what animates everyone's actions. There's a threat of civil war in the ranks before Locke backs down. Jaime leaves but in a nod to his old snark can't resist taunting Locke about the supposed wealth he's losing. 

I liked the Tywin Lannister scene, the bear pit, and Daenerys' growth into a ruler who is comfortable wielding power. I didn't like the depiction of Yunkai. I think our own American history and sociology influenced that somewhat. The bear pit scene is important because even as Locke's men are mocking Brienne's refusal to hew to traditional gender roles, she faces the bear head on and without fear, just like a "true" (male) knight should. In this she is more knight than any of the men watching her degradation. Jaime's "rescue" of her both upends and confirms gender stereotypes, depending on how you view it. The Jon Snow-Ygritte relationship continues to be one of the show's few healthy dyads. Rose Leslie really shines as Ygritte. 

I need more Arya time. I didn't like the reduction of Bran and Catelyn Stark to virtual afterthoughts but there's so much going on that something had to give. And unfortunately that something was Theon's manhood. I could have done without that. Not just for the obvious reasons (yikes!!) but because I think it's already been confirmed again and again and again what sort of psychotic twisted SOB the UYM is. The show does set up a situation in which your possible initial feelings about Jaime and Theon may be, if not reversed, then made more complicated. There are three episodes remaining. I am looking forward to seeing how they wrap up these storylines.

*This post is written for discussion of this episode and previous episodes.  If you have book based knowledge of future events please be kind enough not to discuss that here NO SPOILERS. NO BOOK DERIVED HINTS ABOUT FUTURE EVENTS. Most of my blog partners have not read the books and would take spoilers most unkindly. Heads, spikes, well you get the idea....