Saturday, September 28, 2013

Book Reviews-313:Life in the Motor City, Frank Frazetta: Icon, Great Feuds In History

313: Life in The Motor City
by John Carlisle
John Carlisle is a native Detroit journalist who has written about and photographed the city for the local "alternative" newspaper, The Metro Times. 313: Life in the Motor City is a collection of photographs and columns about the city and its various people. Most of these stories are broadly speaking positive but quirky. There are a few tales that will make you look strangely at the people described or the author, a few that might make you say you'll never visit Detroit and a lot that will make you say you want to get on the next plane and see things for yourself. 313 is the telephone area code for Detroit.

The theme of the book is that Detroiters, good, bad or otherwise are survivors and hustlers. When I write hustler I mean that in the best sense of the word though there are a few legally or morally dubious people detailed. This book shows Detroiters as people who may never quite reach the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but they certainly won't stop working to get there. Hard work pays. Most of the people in this book are hard workers. They make the best out of what they have to work with, which in most cases ranges from nothing at all to not very much. But they keep punching and fighting no matter what. That is the Detroit way.

Although the stories in this book were written and published before the recent events around the emergency manager and pension funds, the book definitely captures the sense of general decline that would lead to those occurrences. But the stories, though often gritty are nonetheless often optimistic. There's a lot of good news in this book. I wouldn't term it poverty porn. Carlisle is obviously interested in seeing the city and its people do well.

Some of the more interesting stories in this book are
  • A Second Chance: This is about a father and son run vacuum cleaner repair shop. The father can't charge very much for his services or compete with Sears or Walmart but tries to help out the community and leave a business for his son, who is the only one of his children who didn't go to college.
  • The Last Song: This details the closing of Pearl's Record Shop. This was a locally owned Mom-n-Pop music store and live club operation that was an East side oasis of music of both old school blues and jazz and new R&B/rap stars. Beyonce visited when she was with Destiny's Child. People like Toni Braxton and Usher stopped by. This store had such a strong connection with the neighborhood that the local hoodlums guaranteed its safety. Pearl's had no iron bars or bulletproof glass. The ONLY time it was ever robbed the money and goods were returned two days later with a note apologizing for the robbery.
  • It's a Man's World: Greek-American barber and former Green Beret Pete Kithas runs his downtown barbershop with a mixture of tough guy bravado and Old World grace. He has a gaggle of stories but few of them are suitable for women or children.
  • Rites of Spring: The Debutante Cotillion Ball, which had died out in 1996, started up again as an attempt to bring meaning back to celebrations which formally welcome young people, in this case girls, into adulthood. And if it has the side impact of bringing back social grace, and elegance and recognizing the importance of femininity and masculinity then so much the better. Debutantes and their escorts are trained in etiquette, table manners, waltzes. The debutantes also attend various outings like chamber music performances at the Detroit Institute of Arts, afternoon teas, in addition to doing volunteer work in Detroit.
  • Custom Revival: East Side Riders is a bicycle club. That's right, a bicycle club. Although it was started by two brothers who certainly have the mass and girth stereotypically associated with outlaw motorcycle clubs, East Side Riders is a bicycle club for all ages and both genders. The members make customized bicycles out of junk bikes that they find and repair on the street. They also provide some male role models and traditionally masculine skills for those kids who lack them as well as doing good work in the community.
This was a really good book which my cousin turned me on to. Having read this book I'd rather not give it back to her but since I HATE HATE HATE when people do that to me I'll have to purchase my own copy and return hers. I don't even loan out my books any more because there are so many people who conveniently "forget" to return them in proper time or worse, return them with damage they didn't have before. People. Geez.  Anyway this book fairly and accurately depicts the city I love. Some of the people featured within have left this mortal coil but their stories live on. If you are just curious about what sort of people live in Detroit or what life in Detroit is like or simply like quirky slice of life stories, you might enjoy this book.

Frank Frazetta: Icon
Edited by Cathy and Arnie Fenner
They say you can't judge a book by its cover. That's generally true. All the same Frank Frazetta was such an incredible painter and artist that I bought several books, most notably Conan reprints, simply because he was the cover artist. And I don't think I was the only one. Frazetta was simply put one of the greatest commercial artists working in the 20th century. He had a special flair for fantasy and sci-fi creations but worked in just about every genre, including comic books. Frazetta, like most great artists had an individual flair that was often copied. He influenced many who came after him but his style was never truly duplicated. In a time before the internet and video games, Frazetta's work was both pure escapism and intensely realistic. You could look at one of his paintings and almost write a story around it. You could almost walk into the painting and partake of the energy expressed. To look at Frazetta's work is to inhabit the scene he's depicting. His stuff is so meticulously detailed you could be forgiven for thinking it's photography instead of created art.

His work was intensely physical. Both men are women are presented in idealized, yet non-caricatured visions of male and female grace and beauty. Although some people have wrongly imo called his work sexist, I don't think anything could be further from the truth. What was true was that Frazetta was unambiguously and unapologetically male. He liked women. He often drew women. Sometimes he drew them with few or no clothes on. His women, clothed or not, are rarely submissive. Indeed his wife was a model for many of his fantasies. Frazetta had an eye for all forms but especially the feminine.

Most of his artwork, particularly the later works, gives off the feeling of action. It's very rare that you look at one of his pieces and experience it as a static set. Something is always going on.
Frazetta worked in a variety of media, including oil, pencil, and watercolor.  He once did artwork for Lil' Abner and Playboy magazine. Icon is also a partial Frazetta biography as much as it is a retrospective. It details his early identification by family members as a talented artist, his work to make himself better, his skills as a minor league baseball player, his tough guy Brooklyn days, his wooing and winning of his wife Ellie, his lifelong battles against ripoffs and for artists' rights, and his stunning depictions of characters from the Robert E. Howard, Karl Wagner, or Edgar Rice Burroughs universes. Ok. Enough. It's difficult to write about what can only be viewed so check out some of these representative pieces below. If you like them, pick up Icon for your library. It's the first in a three book series. It's 206 pages of art. Much like Frazetta's life, this book is oversized.

Great Feuds In History
Ten Struggles That Shaped The World
By Colin Evans
Are you the sort of person who forgives easily and quickly? Because I am not. I can forgive family or other loved ones pretty simply but other people...not so much. I'm very slow to anger but very slow to forgive and forget. Ok, I'm much better at this than I used to be. Trust me. There's a reason there's a saying that when you seek revenge, you ought to dig two graves. Nevertheless there is still and always will be a part of me that bristles at what I think of as maltreatment and seeks to repay whatever someone does to me, good or bad, in double. That's just the way I am. Sometimes I believe in that line from the Godfather that "Accidents don't happen to people who take accidents as a personal insult". I was reminded of some long past interactions while reading this book, which examines some pretty bitter rivalries that turned into heated feuds. Many of these did not end until someone died. While I can safely say I have never felt compelled to take things to that level nor do I expect to do so I also must admit that in some cases I can understand. If there's death on the line, I want to make sure I'm the one that lives to tell the tale.

Some feuds came about from simple, even petty misunderstandings. What was needed was someone who could knock heads together, arrange a sitdown and enforce a peace. When that was lacking things went from bad to worse quickly. Other feuds arose from fundamental political, philosophical and profoundly personal differences. Have you ever met someone you just disliked immediately. Let's say the feeling was mutual. What if there are only so many goodies to go around and it comes down to between you and this person. Even if you are conflict-averse and prefer to keep the peace, it's quite possible that a nastier side of your personality could emerge. You might surprise yourself.

Some of the famous feuds detailed include
  • Joseph Stalin vs. Leon Trotsky: Trotsky considered Stalin his intellectual and oratorical inferior and was shocked, angered and outraged by Stalin's post-Lenin power grab. Stalin considered Trotsky a bigmouth dilettante who lacked political realism. They also had completely different ideas about the need to have worldwide socialist revolution (Trotsky) or consolidate socialist gains in Russia (Stalin). Once Stalin had gained complete power he exiled the loquacious Trotsky, a move he soon regretted as Trotsky became even more of a pain in the fundament. Stalin had his people chase Trotsky all over the globe. In 1940, one of Stalin's hitters caught up with Trotsky and delivered Stalin's rebuttal to Trotsky's constant denunciations. Stalin's rebuttal was an icepick. There was no counterargument.
  • Elizabeth I vs. Mary, Queen of Scots: The two cousins were of different religions. Arguably Mary had a better claim to the English throne than did Elizabeth as King Henry's divorce was not recognized by the Catholic Church and thus any children born from subsequent unions (i.e. Elizabeth I) were thus the product of bigamy and quite illegitimate in the eyes of the Papacy and more importantly, France and Spain. When Mary, via marriage, became Queen not only of Scotland but also of France and rather pointedly refused to renounce all claims to the English throne, family or not, the conflict was on. 
  • Hatfields vs. McCoys: This is probably the most famous feud in American history. It was fought between the mostly West Virginia based Hatfields and mostly Kentucky based McCoys. There had been bad blood for years,especially since the recent murder of a McCoy man, an ex-Union soldier by the generally pro-Confederate Hatfields. But it was when a McCoy pig went missing and somehow wound up on a Hatfield farm and was NOT returned, that tempers flared and blood began to flow. Not even an abortive common-law marriage between the two families could stop what was to come.
The book also investigates the Montgomery vs. Patton crackup, Johnson vs. Kennedy, Hoover vs. King and a few other feuds. I enjoyed this book. It was a quick read. It detailed the people or groups on each side of the feud and their strengths and weaknesses.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Jury Duty: Who Are Your Peers?

What is a peer?

Well according to the dictionary a peer is a person who belongs to the same age group or social group as someone else.  A peer is one that is of equal standing with another or especially one who belongs to the same societal group based on age, grade or status.

You have a constitutional right to a criminal trial by a jury of your peers. I will leave it up to the experts like The Janitor or Old Guru to fully break down exactly what are the exceptions to that rule and what peers mean in a legal setting but for many non-lawyers I think it's safe to say that in that context peers would mean adult US citizens. There are of course some questions about whether or not a criminal defendant is guaranteed to have a jury made up of people who share their immutable characteristics (I don't believe this is the case) or whether the state can deliberately and maliciously exclude people who share such characteristics with the defendant (also I don't think this is, with a few exceptions, the case).

But in today's world of ever increasing globalization and immigration, should peer be restricted to US citizens? And when it comes to such things as elections and jury duty who really gets the last word? The federal government or the states? Well that answer can often depend on which side you're on when it comes to such things as immigration. People who point to federal supremacy when a state like Arizona tries to make life more difficult for illegal immigrants often turn a blind eye when a state like California tries to make life easier for them. And people who scream about the primacy of states rights when Alabama attempts to kick out illegal immigrants wax poetic about federal supremacy when California, Illinois or New York try to do end runs around specific federal programs designed to identify and deport illegal immigrants.

The latest proposal coming out of, you guessed it, California, does not, despite what detractors imply, apply to illegal immigrants, but it does seek to extend rights and duties usually thought only to accrue to citizens to legally resident non-citizens.

SACRAMENTO — Legal immigrants who are not American citizens would be able to serve on juries in California under a bill that lawmakers sent to Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday.The measure joins a proposal already on the governor's desk that would also allow legal permanent residents to serve as poll workers in California elections.The bills are among a handful that would expand immigrant rights in California and have sparked rancorous debate in the Legislature.
Immigrants "are part of the fabric of our community," Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski (D-Fremont) said during the floor debate Thursday. "They benefit from the protections of our laws, so it is fair and just that they be asked to share in the obligation to do jury duty."
Republicans opposed the measure, which passed the Assembly with a bare majority. The Senate approved the bill Monday."I do think there is something called the jury of your peers," countered Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside). "Peers are people who understand the nuances of America."
He noted that some immigrants come from countries where suspects are guilty until proven innocent and where people are taught to obey authority, not question it.The bill, AB 1401, was authored by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which seeks a way to expand the pool of eligible jurors in California...
I think you can probably guess what I think of this proposal but just in case you can't I will spell it out. There is an argument that can be made for the elimination of the nation state. There is also an argument that can be made that nationalism is just another form of bigotry and them vs. us thinking. You could argue that separating people or granting them rights based on where they were born on this planet is not really all that different than basing their level of rights on other characteristics over which they have no control such as their race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, etc. Non-citizens have legally voted in previous elections.
I am wholly unsympathetic to these arguments. The nation state isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Neither are different cultures and different ways of understanding the world or different ideas about how a criminal justice system works.
There is a process by which anyone on this planet can become an American citizen. Depending on which year you're referencing, about a million or so do each year, in which case they can vote, serve on juries and do other things which, usually but not always in the American political system have been reserved to citizens. When you vote or serve on a jury you are exerting influence over a political system you are invested in and for which you have some form of loyalty or hopefully understanding. This isn't perfect of course. There are plenty of stupid or malicious people who vote or serve on juries (how else can you explain the election of Ted Cruz or the acquittal of Casey Anthony) but that is our system. In many respects it's the least bad of all the others.  
My peers are American citizens. I do not wish to be judged by non-citizens. I do not want American elections to have non-citizens participating in them as poll workers or really in any capacity. I know that there are many smart, sober, well-read and intellectually curious permanent non-citizens in this country. I work with several and have no problems saying that some are far more intelligent than I. All the same though this isn't their country unless and until they become a citizen. I don't think it's too much to ask that jury duty and any sort of election work be restricted to US citizens.  

Am I wrong?

Should permanent legal residents be able to serve on juries?

What should be the distinctions between citizens and legal residents?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Does the President Need A Different Style?

Recently with the self-imposed confusion over policy in Syria, new threats over government shutdown, the debt ceiling, gun control defeat, the sequester, the liberal revolt over Larry Summer's possible appointment as Fed Chairman, and a few other so-called controversies there were quite a few articles and columns questioning, mocking or outright attacking President Obama's personality and leadership style. Some were questioning his manly vigor. These ranged from the snarky and mean to the more level headed and analytical:

Maureen Dowd
With a shrinking circle of trust inside the White House, Obama is having trouble establishing trust outside with once reliable factions: grass-roots Democrats and liberals in Congress. As Peter Baker wrote in The Times, the president is finding himself increasingly “frustrated” by the defiance of Democrats who are despairing of his passive, reactive leadership. 
Senator Jon Tester, a Democrat from Montana on the banking committee, told Jonathan Martin for Politico in February, after he scraped through to a second term, that the president was not engaged with the Hill, that he had not met with Obama at the White House since 2010, and that he was sorely missing aides like Rahm Emanuel, who tirelessly worked and stroked Democrats in Congress. Tester was one of three Democrats who spurned the president on his favorite to run the Federal Reserve, Larry Summers. The White House didn’t call Tester until Friday, when it was too late; Summers was allowed to twist in the wind, like Susan Rice before him. Top Democrats who used to consider Obama one cool cat now muse that he’s “one weird cat,” as one big shot put it.

In recent weeks, disgruntled Democrats, particularly liberals, have bolted from the White House on issues like National Security Agency surveillance policies, a planned military strike on Syria and the potential choice of Lawrence H. Summers to lead the Federal Reserve. In private, they often sound exasperated describing Mr. Obama’s operation; in public, they are sometimes only a little more restrained. 
They complain the White House has not consulted enough and failed to assert leadership. They say Mr. Obama has been too passive and ceded momentum to Republicans. 
“If you read the papers, you almost think the Republicans are in control,” said Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats and vigorously opposed Mr. Summers until he withdrew from consideration. “They’re constantly on the offensive. Democrats are on the defensive. ”The lack of strong leadership, he added, has created a vacuum. “I think you’re going to see more independents saying, ‘Mr. President, we look forward to working with you, but we’re not simply going to accept your leadership and your ideas,’ ” he said. “ ‘We’re not going to follow you. You’re going to have to work with us.’ 

Washington Post
Style points? Seriously? Style points? That’s what President Obama thinks the criticism of his zigzag Syria policy amounts to? As presidential spin, this is insulting. As presidential conviction — if this is what he really believes — it’s scary. Presidential actions have ripples beyond ripples. Obama may have lucked — or his secretary of state accidentally may have stumbled — into an approach that averted “The Perils of Pauline” moment. But the indecision, the mind-changing, the lurching — and, note, Obama did not dispute such characterizations so much as dismiss them — have consequences. 
“Style,” as the president would have it, matters. Adversaries and allies, foreign and domestic, take a measure of the president’s steel. They judge whether he can be trusted, whether he will back down, whether he has what it takes to lead his country and the world. In the past few weeks, I have encountered not a single person outside the White House, Republican or Democrat, who has kind words for Obama’s performance. 
The President is an introvert. Although politics is often thought to be a more welcoming realm for extroverts there have been enough introverted Presidents or other political leaders to call that assumption into question. But as someone who is decidedly introverted himself and thus somewhat sympathetic to the President on this issue, I think the issue of introversion vs. extroversion misses the point. All introversion means is that you recharge and relax by being alone or around a small circle of close friends and by thinking, reading or writing rather than talking. Extroversion is the opposite in that you prefer to be around people and engaged with them. You like to talk and interact with people. You gain energy and comfort by doing that. These different personality traits might be stereotypically associated with leader/follower roles but they don't have to be. There are extroverted type A personalities who make truly horrible leaders and introverted analytical close-mouthed people who nonetheless manage to shine and rise quickly to prominence once they're in the Big Seat.
The President's perception issues stem from the fact that he can argue against himself in his speeches, can back down in the face of opposition, evidently feels that the glad-handing and personal touches that are important to build relationships are beneath him, and hasn't given a consistently strong indication of what he thinks his second term goals are. This has emboldened his opposition while confusing or disheartening his supporters. It's far far too early to consider him a lame duck but perception can become reality if he's not careful. The same rationality which allows him to see and understand multiple sides of an argument can be a liability if he can't fight for his side of the argument and explain himself in broad, simple strokes. Otherwise the President leaves himself open to interpretation by friends or foes who have their own interests to pursue. 

The President, like just about every other Black man working in America, has most certainly had to watch his step and restrain his emotions lest he be seen as an "angry black man" and lose public support. There's no doubt about that. The fact that someone as milquetoast and mainstream and pro-business as President Obama is seen by a sizable minority as an anti-American, anti-white, militant, Muslim, foreign, revolutionary and treasonous Nat Turner/Malcolm X Mandingo thug from Chicago shows you that this is hardly a post-racial society. However people rightly or wrongly often respond to strength. I think the President too often fails to convey that emotion. And I think that's what animates much of the criticism in the linked articles. Note that this criticism is coming from people who for the most part are broadly supportive of the President's stated policy goals. It's not coming from Tea Party folks. Some criticized the President's previous lack of executive experience. That was a fair criticism even if it was often mouthed by people who were anything but fair when it came to the President. After having been President for four years and seeing the opposition that he faces, one would think that he would have realized that, even if he thinks it's silly, he will have to do some things differently. 

Most Republicans, especially in the House, are simply beyond his ability to reach. The vitriol and irrationality are too deep. But when Democrats are complaining publicly of a White House that ignores them and doesn't return phone calls, when labor Unions are deriding Obamacare, there's a leadership problem. Whether it's rooted in personality, principled contempt for politics, or simple uncertainty on how to proceed, he needs to fix it. The President's greatest advantage is that his Republican opposition is incompetent and mostly incoherent. They can't agree on anything other than hating Obama. That's not enough to win on as they found out in 2012 and 2008. But if President Obama wants to push forward, he needs to change perceptions. My perception is that he can be reactive. 

1) Do you think President Obama is a firm, decisive leader?

2) Do you think this criticism of his leadership style is unfair?

3) What traits are important to lead others?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

I Won My Case At The YMCA!

There are some musicians such as Prince, Toby Keith, Madonna, Jimmy Page and several others who are quite knowledgeable about the business side of the music business. They make it a point never to make the same mistake twice. They often have complete control over when, where, how and by whom their music is used. If someone is using their music then they are going to be paid in full, right down to the penny, according to the law governing that use. Although such musicians are not uncommon today, I don't know that they're the majority. It's a rare person who is expert in tax, copyright and contract laws of multiple jurisdictions, can successfully run international multimillion dollar concert promotion companies, can handle all their own merchandising, advertising and publishing, understands accounting backwards and forwards, and finds the time to continue to be the one in a million amazing songwriter, bandleader, musician or performer who originally grabbed the adulation of millions. There have always been performers who were more concerned with "sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll" than with ensuring that their business was tight. When their manager or lawyer told them to sign something they signed it. When their record company got cute with royalties they didn't demand an outside audit. And when a radio DJ's name showed up on a song they alone wrote they shrugged and told themselves that was the cost of doing business.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. One person who learned that the hard way and has fortunately lived long enough to finally see the law work in his favor rather than against him is Victor Willis, better known as The Policeman in the group The Village People.
In the lucrative world of music copyright, it may be something of a watershed moment: on Friday, after six years of legal wrangling and decades after he wrote the lyrics to the hit song “YMCA,” Victor Willis will gain control of his share of the copyright to that song and others he wrote when he was the lead singer of the 1970s disco group the Village People. Mr. Willis, who dressed as a policeman during the group’s heyday, was able to recapture those songs, thanks to a little-known provision of copyright legislation that went into effect in 1978. That law granted musicians and songwriters what are known as “termination rights,” allowing them to recover control of their creations after 35 years, even if they had originally signed away their rights.
“YMCA” is one of 33 songs whose copyright Mr. Willis was seeking to recover when he first went to court. Hits like “In the Navy” and “Go West” are part of that group, but another well-known song whose lyrics Mr. Willis wrote, “Macho Man,” was excluded because it was written just before the 1978 law went into effect. In a telephone interview from his home in Southern California, Mr. Willis said he has not yet decided how best to exploit the song catalog. “I’ve had lots of offers, from record and publishing companies, a lot of stuff, but I haven’t made up my mind how it’s going to be handled.”
He added, however, that he is thinking of prohibiting the Village People — the band still exists and is touring this month and next, though with largely different members — from singing any of his songs, at least in the United States. “I learned over the years that there are some awesome powers associated with copyright ownership,” Mr. Willis said. “You can stop somebody from performing your music if you want to, and I might object to some usages.” 
Mr. Willis had declined interview requests during earlier stages of the dispute, but said he decided to speak out now so as to alert other artists, both established and emerging, to protect their copyrights. He said it was only because his wife is a lawyer that he became aware of his termination rights. “I’m hoping that other artists will get a good lawyer and get back the works that a lot of us gave away when we were younger, before we knew what was going on,” he said. “When you’re young, you just want to get out there and aren’t really paying attention to what’s on paper. I never even read one contract they put in front of me, and that’s a big mistake.”
Good for him I say. Again, no matter what sort of business you enter into, whether it's creative or prosaic, whether you're a cubicle drone working for Penetrode Corporation or an innovative fly by the seat of your pants entrepreneur it's critical that you always maintain awareness of your rights and your options, especially if you're in a contractual relationship. Because as we've discussed before there is always someone willing to take horrible advantage of you and your ignorance or deference and smile at you while they do so. No one cares as much about you as you do. Believe that.

Book Reviews-The Third Bullet, Warrior Queen

The Third Bullet
by Stephen Hunter
I like Hunter's writing style generally speaking though I'm not sure I'd agree with him politically on much. I'm impressed with how his hero gets older and more damaged throughout his books. Bob Lee Swagger sounds like a bada$$ name and indeed the former Marine sniper and Vietnam Vet is one tough SOB. This is the case even though he's old, retired, and dealing with worsening physical infirmities. In the first Bob Lee Swagger novel, Point of Impact, there is a point in time when one of the bad guys has been killed by Swagger's buddy and sometime sidekick, FBI agent Nick Memphis, himself an excellent shooter though not in Swagger's class. People are rummaging through the bad guy's effects and come across what is described as "a curious collection of fired 162 grain .264 caliber bullets from some bizarre project or other in the early sixties, found in his safe deposit box." Now reading that line and knowing the deadly skill of the bad guy who had just been put down it was pretty obvious what Hunter was teasing. IIRC he didn't come back to that line until now, when he's written what could be the last Bob Lee Swagger novel, roughly 15-20 years after the events in Point of Impact.

As is obvious from the title and the book cover this is Hunter's take on the JFK assassination. Trouble finds Swagger though he's happily married, retired and living semi-incognito. If you like black humor Hunter serves it up here. He writes himself into the novel as a balding, overweight, bearded, pompous, alcoholic, blowhard thriller author. The author is killed in a hit and run "accident" that is no accident. This man was a conspiracy buff. His widow tracks down Swagger to ask him to investigate her husband's death. Swagger is gentlemanly but stubborn. He's retired. Despite his previous experiences with various conspiracies, he's not interested. Lots of people die in hit and runs. When the woman describes the apparent professional nature of her husband's killing Swagger is intrigued. But when she makes an offhand comment about a prosaic item discovered in Dallas after fifty years Swagger is suddenly chilled to his bones and decides to investigate. Although this was something which linked back very obviously to Point of Impact, I didn't pick up on it until later. Maybe I'm just dumb but in my defense it was a very innocuous statement.

This kicks off Swagger's journey through the looking glass and his attempt to understand the events of November 22, 1963. He travels to Russia and gets obsessed with Lee Harvey Oswald and his visits to Russia and Mexico. He pores over details about Oswald's life and the link back to the failed conspiracy that almost took his life in Point of Impact. He has run ins with Russian organized crime and Russian counter-intelligence. 
About halfway thru the book the POV switches to the Big Bad, who really was behind the JFK assassination, though perhaps not for the reasons that everyone thinks. He's aware that Swagger is on his tail. Having tangled with Swagger before, albeit at a distance, he takes steps to ensure that the truth never comes to light and that this time Swagger gets the permanent dirt nap. 

Perhaps in deference to Swagger's advanced age (he's in his late sixties by this point), the book is less of an action tale and much more of a detective story. Swagger knows he's not physically the man he used to be. The Third Bullet is also a hagiography of those skilled men who could shoot a quarter out of your hand at a thousand yards or throw a silver dollar in the air and hit it three times before it touches the ground. Hunter certainly loves them, good or bad and it shows. Swagger constantly complains of hip pain. He's been shot multiple times and walks with a noticeable limp. Once expansive muscle has withered away to stringy rawhide. But when the s*** gets real, old or not, Swagger still deals in lead. His "I'm just a dumb country boy" routine is getting a little long in the tooth but it still tricks some people into underestimating him. That's usually a fatal mistake. Just ask the bad guys in Point of Impact who told Swagger to drop his weapon or they'd kill his wife. Swagger agreed and said he'd put his gun down on the count of three. He started counting but shot everyone on the count of two. There are a couple of scenes like that here.

I don't think that Hunter believes in JFK conspiracy theories. The Third Bullet is dripping with Hunter's contempt for other conspiracy theories. As something of a conspiracy nut myself I thought Hunter was unfairly dismissive of some things. But YMMV. Hunter includes tons of detailed specialist information about guns, shooting and gun culture. Some questions about the events of November 22, 1963 will probably always be unanswered. But it's certain that you don't want to mess with Bob Lee Swagger.

Warrior Queen
by Alan Gold
And I will execute great vengeance upon them with furious rebukes; and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall lay my vengeance upon them. Ezekiel 25:17

When we study history we often talk about the glories of the Roman Empire and the benefits of civilization that the Romans brought to the places they conquered. What was overlooked until relatively recently historically speaking, is that advanced civilization or not, subjects of the Roman Empire did not necessarily appreciate being conquered, having their cultures altered, being forced to pay tribute or being enslaved. There is a pretty good book titled The Enemies of Rome that is worth reading if you can find it. Some of these people attained an almost legendary status over the centuries, even if they lost in the end, as most indeed did. There's something about standing up against all the odds, knowing you'll probably lose and putting up your dukes anyway, that resonates with people looking for heroes or heroines. Hannibal of Carthage, Arminus of Germany, Vercingtorix of Gaul and Spartacus of Thrace were some famous leaders who resisted Roman expansion or enslavement. Though Carthage lost the Punic Wars, Hannibal's tactics are still studied in military academies. Arminus was later murdered by his own people but his destruction of Roman forces at Teutoberg Forest ended Roman attempts to colonize Germany. Vercingtorix remains a national hero for France. And everyone knows the story of Spartacus, who became an inspiration for slave revolts down thru the ages.

But for pure style and tragedy none of these leaders could match up with Boudicca, Queen of the Iceni and leader of the most massive British revolt against Roman rule ever seen. Boudicca was married to King Prasutagus, leader of the Iceni, a Roman client state in the east of England. Upon his death, seeking to protect his wife and children, Prasutagus attempted to make the Emperor Nero co-ruler of his kingdom with his minor daughters. However the Romans had other ideas. They seized all of Boudicca's property and informed her that henceforth the Iceni would no longer have semi-independence but would be a conquered/enslaved people like any other. The Roman philosopher/banker Seneca called in his loans to the Iceni, further impoverishing them. When Boudicca went with her children to the local Roman governor to protest this treatment, the Romans made an example of her. Queen Boudicca was publicly stripped naked, beaten and whipped into unconsciousness while her minor daughters were gang raped by Roman soldiers. But the Romans made one mistake. They left her alive.
In short time Boudicca raised an army among not just the Iceni but various other British tribes. She became the most relentless executioner the Romans had seen. She exterminated an entire Roman legion, and sacked and completely burned down three Roman cities, including Londinium (London) and Camalondum (Colchester). Her stated intent was to drive all the Romans from Britain. She showed no Roman any mercy regardless of age, gender or combat status. Thousands of Romans were killed and many more fled overseas. Boudicca would have won if she hadn't made the critical mistake of attacking a Roman army on ground of its own choosing. Her largely irregular forces could not break the famed Roman cohesiveness nor withstand the deadlier Roman weaponry. And because they had foolishly brought their families along to watch their expected victory the Britons were hindered from fleeing the battlefield by the need to protect their loved ones. The Queen either died in battle or committed suicide to avoid capture. Before this last battle she gave a speech in which she listed all the various harms done to her, her daughters and Britain in general. She said she was only a woman but was willing to fight. She dared the men of Britain to stand with her. They did.

This book is historical fiction with emphasis on the fiction part. It shifts among the various points of view of major characters, including Boudicca, her husband, the Roman emperors Claudius and Nero and the Roman general Suetonius, who was destined to defeat Boudicca. Warrior Queen also gives a nod to the fact that truth is stranger than fiction by briefly detailing the sexual misadventures of Empresses Messalina and Aggrippina. Cersei Lannister had nothing on Aggrippina, who married her uncle Emperor Claudius and had regular sexual relations with both her brother, the Emperor Caligula and her son, the Emperor Nero. Warrior Queen attempts an overarching view of Celtic life. It starts in Boudicca's childhood and drags at the start. Still, it's a quick read, if not a great one. The dialogue is a little flat. Boudicca is thought to mean victory. The closest modern equivalent is Victoria. There are some timeless arguments about the difficulty of deciding when to go along to get along and when to get up and stand up for your rights. There is some contrast described between the extreme Roman patriarchy and the Celtic relatively relaxed gender roles. Before the final battle General Suetonius gave a speech mocking this difference. The book does not shrink from describing unpleasant cultural practices of both peoples, especially the habit of deliberate Roman atrocity. In this telling Boudicca is fully aware of her relative amateur military tactician status. She utilizes the Romans' arrogance and sexism against them.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Does Your Parachute Work?

Things are finally looking up for me financially. Nevertheless I still operate on a thinner margin than I would like. It's taken hard work to get where I am and will take more hard work to get where I want to be. Bad decisions made years ago have ripples down through the decades. There's nothing I can do about that except live and learn. I was reminded of all this recently while I was stopped at two different expressway exit ramps, watching two different young men hold up signs asking for help. They avoided eye contact and I'm sorry to say so did everyone else. They had what appeared to be their worldly belongings in either a milk carton or a backpack. Of course you see people like this all of the time and unfortunately you get used to it. Some people make bad decisions in life. There's plenty of work if you aren't lazy. It's not my problem. There's a decent safety net. Maybe those people all have substance abuse problems. And so on. Those are the things we privately tell ourselves in order remain convinced that WE would never fall so low as to be begging on the street.

But recent unfortunate events in my personal circle of family/friends and the news that the income gap between the richest 1% and everyone else has grown to the widest ever and that even the top 10% are also taking more than half of total income, also a record, have made me wonder (and will hopefully make you wonder), does your parachute really work? How easy is it to find another job that pays the same or more as the one you currently have? How far are you really, from begging strangers for money? 

Let's say you work for someone else. If that person died, transferred or retired, just how safe is your job? I've had the experience of a new boss arriving and wanting to hire and promote his or her own people. Depending on company culture, holdovers from the old regime might just be fired on the spot or not so subtly harassed until they transfer or quit. If your company decides that your services could be better and more cheaply performed by someone else, whether in this country or even overseas, there might not be any hint of change, just a terse email and a humiliating walk-out by company security. I've seen that happen too. It's also true that by the time you reach your forties and fifties and are at or near your maximum earning potential you are also a tempting target for a firm looking to save on salary and benefits or bring in younger and more malleable workers. If you work for yourself and make a mistake in business plan or your leverage you could also lose everything and watch your company go belly up. In any case no matter what happens to you the world will keep on turning. There are very very very few people on this planet who care quite as much about your well being as you do yourself. Because ultimately it's your life. You are the person who will reap the benefits or bear the costs of choices that you make.

If whatever you do today for money was no longer viable starting tomorrow, just how long would it be before you were on the street asking for money. My macho pride says that would never ever ever happen to me. I'm a (insert family name) and WE don't do that. But sometimes I'm not so sure. No one can see the future. Whether it's medical bills, lawsuits, divorce, bad personal habits, deaths, job loss there's always something that hits you when you least expect it. There are numerous calamities that could wipe out whatever financial stability you've attained. Winter is coming for us all. We don't know exactly when but it is coming. Count on it.
Now there are also tons of ways to deal with this risk and we've discussed some of them before. Spending less than you earn and saving the difference is the number one solution. Playing your cards right and regularly saving your money immediately after entering the workforce can give you a nice little nest egg by the time you hit your late thirties, forties and fifties and presumably start to slow down a little. Starting a side business is a great way to bring some extra income into your pockets. Keeping your skills up to date, staying in touch with close friends and family, avoiding or limiting consumer debt and getting married are also helpful. Divorce is obviously a big risk but having a second income and/or a second pair of hands to perform tasks you otherwise would have to spend time and money on is a huge advantage of marriage.

Still although it is ultimately on the individual to find his way through life I can't help but wonder if the changes we've made in our political economy over the past forty to fifty years have really helped more people than they've hurt. The economy is a man made entity. We can make changes in how we do things. There's not any good reason that we have to accept that the work participation rate in the US is at a 35 year low. Whatever bad decisions a particular homeless person might have made they did so against the backdrop of a US economy that is not producing enough jobs for everyone who wants one. But on my own I can't change that. I would need your help and that of millions more. But I can change my financial situation. To do that I need the help of much fewer people. So that's what I try to do.


If after you read this your current income was abruptly eliminated what would you do?

How long could you survive at current spending habits without income?

Do you have people who'd be willing to support you? How long? Indefinitely?

Do you have sympathy for the homeless? Do you give money? Volunteer at shelters?

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Movie Reviews-The Iceman, Now You See Me

The Iceman
directed by Ariel Vroman
There are some actors who either through their looks or their skill at their chosen craft bring an unique intensity to all of their roles. Michael Shannon is such an actor. I first became aware of him as the self-loathing tightly wound Treasury Agent in Boardwalk Empire. His large almost Cookie Monsterish eyes allowed him to project a lot of emotions, mostly nervousness, hidden rage and desperation. He also had a funny turn reading the letter of an angry and EXTREMELY PROFANE sorority girl. So when I read that he was going to take the role of Richard Kuklinski, a serial killer who moonlighted as a mob hitman, or maybe he was a mob hitman who moonlighted as a serial killer, I thought that was a good role for him. Having watched The Iceman I can now say that not only was this a good role for him but was also was the role he was seemingly born to play. The film's makeup department did a great job at making Shannon look like Kuklinksi. Shannon is close to the same height as the gigantic Kuklinski was. The majority of the credit must go to Shannon himself, who via his body language, carefully swallowed vowels, ominous silences and sudden sarcastic asides, manages to become Kuklinski, or as he was known, The Iceman.

The Iceman, (his nickname referred to his cold blooded nature and his innovation of freezing the corpses of his victims to prevent coroners from determining time of death), was a murderer who worked for the East Coast Mafia as a contract killer from the 60's thru the 80's. He also killed people for his own reasons. Annoying him was dangerous. He occasionally killed someone just to see how a particular weapon or technique worked. He was both a serial killer and a profoundly professional and mercenary one.

As with any movie based on real life organized crime figures the truth is pretty hard to determine. Kuklinski claimed involvement in murders that he was almost definitely not part of, most outrageously that of Hoffa. The film wisely ignores some of the outlandish claims and builds a character drama about a coldblooded introvert who just happens to be an excellent killer. This film is primarily based on the Anthony Bruno book but it looks like it might also draw somewhat on the Phillip Carlo biography, if you are so inclined to look deeper into the story. Shannon plays Kuklinski as an evil man but one who has the evil within him carefully chained and caged. His lovely wife Deborah (Winona Ryder) has no clue what her husband does for a living other than he's some sort of currency trader. She doesn't ask too many questions as she's not exactly a feminist. Richard is not forthcoming. He provides well for his family. Generally that's all Deborah wants to know. And that is all Richard ever wants her to know.
Richard runs across Gambino soldier Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta in a meaty role) and is introduced to the world of contract killing. Richard's only rules about killing are no women and no kids. Other than that he'll kill anyone for any reason or no reason at all. One person who doesn't share Richard's scruples but becomes his partner for a while is Robert Pronge (Chris Evans), an Irish-American contract killer who has a cover as a ice-cream truck driver. Pronge shares new ways of murder with Richard. They briefly bond as non-Italians in an organized crime milieu run by Italians. For a while things are okay with Richard's world. But when DeMeo and he have to temporarily part ways, Richard keeps on killing for money and finds himself out of his league. The film sketches the physical (sexual??) abuse Richard and his siblings suffered at the hands of their father, and asks the viewer if evil truly begets evil. As Richard's brother Joseph (Stephen Dorff) reminds Richie, his work for the Mafia was not the first time Richard killed, tortured or beat people. Joseph is in prison for the rape and murder of a 12 year old girl. Richard truly despises his brother. Joseph thinks that Richard is just like him and will wind up in the same prison. Grim yet enticing movie. I loved it. This is a movie which will make you think about how well you know your own family. The years have been very kind to Winona Ryder. James Franco, David Schwimmer, Robert Davi, John Ventimiglia, and Erin Cummings also star. The trailer is a good gauge of the violence in this film.

Now You See Me
directed by Louis Leterrier
Do you like heist/caper movies? Because that's what this movie is. I like these sort of films so I was positively inclined to this film even before I saw it. Again I want to be very careful about what I write here because the film deliberately is evasive about what's really going on at various points in the story. And that's important. There are plenty of plot twists that you might not see coming. Well you might, after all there aren't too many truly original stories but the fun in these kinds of movies is in getting there, not necessarily knowing ahead of time how it's done. I guess you could say the same thing about the dance of life between men and women, eh? And that's also a very minor plot point in this movie as well.
Although this film is star packed, along with a mini Zombieland reunion of sorts, the stars are not all that important. I mean they look good and are very convincing in their roles but this film's value is found in the director's set pieces, great dialog, stunts that feel realistic and a well written script that has plenty of surprises along the way, even for a jaded film goer. Maybe I'm gushing too much but suffice it to say I liked this movie. It was long but I never felt it dragged. I wanted to see what happened next.  Whether a story is short or long I think the best thing you can say about it is that it kept your interest.
Ok, just shortly then because I really think you ought to see this movie if you haven't done so already, let's quickly review some of the plot. There are four magicians/scoundrels who make their living doing tricks that have generally already been done by other magicians. They're good but they're not necessarily breaking new ground. These magicians are Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher), Jack Wilder (Dave Franco) and Merritt McKenny (Woody Harrelson). After they've all done a trick or in some cases while they're doing a trick they all get a tarot card and instructions that lead them to a New York apartment. A year later they are world famous magicians who perform as the Four Horsemen. Daniel and Henley have some history with each other. More to mess with Daniel than anything else Merritt offers his (ahem) "physical capabilities" to Henley but he's probably not serious. Probably not. Anyway as the Four Horsemen they perform in Las Vegas. They ask the audience how they would like to rob a bank and pick a man out of the audience. The group picks a man out of the crowd and seemingly teleport him to the vault of a French bank. There he activates an air duct that shoots money over the delighted crowd before the Horsemen bring him back.
When the authorities find out that money really is missing from the bank and the man is convinced he was teleported to France, obviously they have some questions for the Four Horsemen. That kicks off a game of cat and mouse and increasingly bigger stunts, robberies and events that appear to be impossible. As Daniel boasts, the secret to being a magician is to always be sure you're the smartest guy in the room. One person who thought he was the smartest guy in the room is the FBI agent assigned to the case, one Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo). He's assisted by French Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent) and congenitally bemused magician and debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman). Common, Elias Koteas, Michael Caine, Michael Kelly and David Warshofsky also star. If you haven't seen this film, check it out but leave your cynicism at the door.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Movie Reviews-Pain & Gain, The Colony, Three Extremes

Pain & Gain
directed by Michael Bay
Back in the day there was a late night infomercial get rich quick scheme promulgated by Tom Vu. Like all good pimps salesmen Vu played on his audience's fears to convince them that they had what it took to make him money to make themselves rich. Vu stood apart because of his VERY strong Vietnamese accent and because he openly and unabashedly aimed at his apparently mostly male audience's base desires of women, cars and big houses. Especially women. In his commercials the diminutive Vu would be surrounded by numerous curvaceous women. To his audience this evidently proved his business model worked. Vu denigrated people who didn't believe in his process as "dummies" or "losahs". His thick accent and seeming earnest nature explained his appeal. It's probable that just as many people were laughing at him as with him but when your business model involves a "free" seminar followed by suckers buying your hugely overpriced semi-worthless materials, you only need to slaughter a few sheep to make big bucks. It's all about volume evidently. Vu is a high stakes poker player now.
Pain & Gain follows three bodybuilders who decide, after inspiration from the Vu stand-in, to grab the good life (women, cars and big houses) for themselves, legalities be dammed. 

The film attempts a broad comedic stance before flipping to black comedy. But because this story involves kidnapping, torture and murder there are few directors (Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese and Guy Ritchie are among them) who could pull this off. I don't think Bay fully succeeded. The film is about 20 minutes too long. If you are sensitive to stereotypes there is a black man with a strong preference for fat white women, a Jewish man who would rather be tortured for days than surrender one thin dime and a dumb Eastern European woman who seeks work as a highly paid prostitute. YMMV. This was based on a real life story. There are some funny scenes but they a) mostly involve Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson (damn that is one HUGE man) b) are few and far between and c) make you feel guilty for laughing at them.
Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) is a would be entrepreneurial ex-con and fitness fanatic. He works as a personal trainer in a body beautiful gym that he helped to make the hip and happening place to be. But he's unhappy with his life. He believe he's running out of time to make a mark. So he's fresh meat for Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) who urges people to be "doers". That is Wu's mantra, that is when the sexist Wu is not telling his assistants to get the "b*****s on the boat" so they can go on to their next gig. Duly inspired, Danny starts paying closer attention to his latest client, the smug, crass and totally unlikable Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub), a successful small businessman with his fingers in a lot of profitable pies, not all of which might pass IRS or other legal scrutiny. Kershaw just can't stop boasting about all the money he has, women he sleeps with, or taxes he doesn't pay. Danny decides that Kershaw doesn't actually need all of that wealth. In fact, as far as Danny is concerned, the congenitally irritating Kershaw doesn't need any of it. Danny is going to be a doer and TAKE his piece of the pie from Kershaw. Danny is ready for the big time right now!
Danny recruits Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie), a fellow trainer with a taste for plus sized women and a set of steroid damaged twig and berries, and Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), a gentle giant of a man who's devoutly religious. Doyle sees himself as a peacemaker but his idea of making peace is to stomp a mudhole in someone's a$$. And he will praise Jesus while doing so. He's an ex-con and is prone to sudden attacks of conscience. These three men, none of whom are cursed with devious or even particularly quick brains, decide to kidnap Kershaw, force him to sign over his wealth to them, and then kill him. It's a piece of cake and as easy as pie. Yes? No. Everything that can go wrong does go wrong and before long all of the men are being trailed by semi-retired private eye and former cop Ed Dubois (Ed Harris). Dubois is both amused and insulted by this group. He can't believe how stupid or greedy they are.
And not even the gargantuan feminine pleasures of Robin (Rebel Wilson) or the more typically hourglass sultry stylings of Sorina (Bar Paly) can make these men's lives better, as one crime begets another and murder leads to more murder. Evil leads to evil and more evil and more evil and so on.
As mentioned because the trio's actions are so unpleasant it's difficult if not impossible to root for them or even identify with them. So I had a little bit of distance watching this movie. Kershaw is depicted as a real slimeball in order to try to gin up sympathy for the people who kidnap him. The humor is often jarring. Because Danny and company are both cheap and stupid they try to return tools used in crimes and get refunds. They attempt to set up a neighborhood watch group while high on cocaine. I thought Wahlberg did a good job of playing a person who's dumb but is somehow convinced he is smart. The Rolling Stones' song Can't You Hear Me Knocking, which was used to such incredible effect in Casino and Blow, makes an appearance here but just like Adrian, it's limp. Michael Rispoli, Peter Stomare, Rob Corddry, Tony Plana, and Larry Hankin also have roles.

The Colony
directed by Jeff Renfroe
Do you have a child of your own or perhaps a young niece, nephew, cousin or grandchild who creates some art and displays it to you with anticipation and hope in their eyes? Or perhaps you're married or otherwise involved with an artistic person who requests your feedback on their latest creation. Well you'd have to be pretty cold to laugh at that person's creation and tell them that it was derivative, empty and not very well done. Most of us would mute our criticism or couch it in the mildest terms possible UNLESS the relationship is so strong and everyone is so mature that 100% brutal honesty is both demanded and given. I was reminded of these sorts of experiences watching this film. It's a paint by numbers sci-fi/horror film. I don't blame it for being that. I knew that going in. The question is how well is the story executed and whether or not the characters and special effects grab your interest. I think the film falls a little short. The film was shot in and around former NORAD facilities which gave it some nice verisimilitude. The special effects are very obviously CGI.
In the future, because of global climate change humans have created a worldwide network of weather modification stations. It's not explained very well and for purposes of the film (and this review) doesn't need to be. These stations either malfunctioned or worked too well and large portions of the planet were cut off from the Sun via some sort of greenhouse effect. Shortly afterwards a second ice age ensued. Billions of humans perished. Small groups of survivors eke out pitiful existences in underground colonies. Food and water are at a premium while paranoia runs high. One such colony is presided over by Briggs (Laurence Fishburne) who as a former soldier is tough but fair. Briggs' second in command and fellow veteran Mason (Bill Paxton) is more tough than fair. He has the responsibility of identifying and expelling/executing people who are sick and don't get better. He's supposed to give them a choice between expulsion and execution but of late just kills them. 
The colony receives a distress signal from another colony. Briggs intends to go help. Among other volunteers he takes Sam (Kevin Zegers) with him. Briggs is worried by Mason's attitude and after some harsh words he leaves Sam's girlfriend Kai (Charlotte Sullivan) in charge and departs, promising there will be more permanent changes upon his return. Obviously the colony should have ignored that distress signal. This was a classic B movie. It was recycled cheese with a side order of spam. It was okay to watch IF you do not have very high expectations. The Colony is a perfect movie for a lazy Saturday afternoon. Last stands abound. If I ever am in a last stand I want an automatic or at least a semi-automatic weapon, not a bolt-action. But I suppose bolt-actions work better for drama. Can you center the rifle sights on your target, aim, shoot, reacquire a target and rework the bolt in a smooth motion to keep up a steady rate of fire? Sure you can. Unless you happen to be an extra in a B movie when the script calls for a jammed bolt. That'll just ruin your day.

Three Extremes
This is an interesting collection of three short films by three different Asian directors. Obviously it is subtitled for the English speaking audience. The first short is directed by Chinese director Fruit Chan and is titled DumplingsSouth Korean director Park Chan-Wook helms the second feature which is titled Cut. And the last is directed by Japanese director Takashi Miike and titled Box. These are horror films folks. So if you don't like explicit horror this is probably not the film for you. Squeamish folks would do well to pass this by. Although it's not always or necessarily supernatural horror, it is incredibly creepy stuff. I'm serious about this. These shorts take themselves seriously indeed. Each is definitely trying to shock you, gross you out or make you think, sometimes all at once. Each short film is extremely well shot with very colorful cinematography. For my money Dumplings was the standout here. It was extended to a full length film. After I saw the short I ordered the full length version of Dumplings. But I will need to order a different version. The version I had ordered wasn't compatible with US area blu-ray players. Go figure. All three shorts were similar to, if harsher than, some of the best stuff from Tales from the Crypt or the Friday the 13th TV series. So if you ARE a horror fan you should definitely have this in your collection.

I'm not sure exactly when Bai Ling became a stereotypical joke of an actress, more famous for appearing half-nude in public than for her theatrical work but in Dumplings her acting was still on point. Obviously there is still some erotic display- the camera loves the down blouse shots of Bai Ling - but I had no problems with that. The story is pretty disturbing and disgusting once you realize what's really going on. Although cultures vary widely across the planet, one thing which seems to be pretty consistent is that youth and beauty are valued greatly, especially in and by women. Dumplings is an almost clinical look at what some women will do to keep their youth and beauty. It's not really a morality play. The people doing evil are not worried by their actions. This is the strongest and creepiest piece here. The subject matter, well let's just say not only does this film touch some basic worldwide human taboos it depicts the breaking of several. 
Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) is an middle aged woman who's losing her looks and intuitively knows that her husband (Tony Leung) is doing the do with someone else. Although hubby is polite and conscientious towards his wife, he never initiates intimacy or displays any passion beyond that which he might show to his grandmother. Dismayed and looking to get her groove back Mrs. Li meets with Aunt Mei (Bai Ling), a woman known for helping women regain and retain their feminine wiles. Mei is what you might call an organic foods enthusiast. She makes her special dumplings for Mrs Li. Despite Mei looking like well, Bai Ling, she gives off the impression of being older, MUCH older. You know how old people stereotypically just blurt out what's on their mind without regard to courtesy or propriety? That's Mei. 
Mrs. Li starts noticing some positive changes in her weight, skin elasticity and looks. Mei knows what she's doing. A big secret is revealed pretty early and although the audience will hopefully be shocked and horrified, Mrs. Li certainly isn't. How far would you go to regain your youth?  Beware the gross-out. 

This is basically Saw. I believe this came out at the same time as Saw. I don't know who influenced whom or if it was pure coincidence. Cut is indeed a morality play that asks you how good are you really and what would you do to save yourself or your spouse. A successful film director (Lee-Byung Hun) returns to his spacious mansion and is knocked out. Upon waking he finds that he, his wife (Kang Hye-Jung) and a small child have all been restrained by a madman with a grudge. This madman (Im Won-Hee) spends a lot of time trying to get the director to figure out who he is. Wrong guesses or refusals to play the game are punished by beatings, screaming fits or worst of all severing of the wife's fingers. She is a concert pianist.
The lunatic was a film extra. The director was kind to this man. But this nut was so twisted that he felt embarrassed by the director's good nature. Though he admired the director he hated that not only did the director have more money, fame, and a better looking wife than he did, but also that he was a nicer person. This sent him over the edge and now crazy boy wants to humiliate and destroy the director. He wants to bring the director down to his level. 

I can hardly write anything about this short without giving away spoilers so I want to see if I can describe basic things about the story and cinematography in five to seven sentences and shut up. It's a very weird flick. It once again shows that Freud and the Oedipus myth might have had some insights not just limited to the people of their time and culture but human beings in general. This film is VERY reminiscent of David Lynch's weirder stuff. It concerns a woman Kyoko (Kyoko Hasegawa) who as a child performed in a circus with her twin sister with whom she had a romantic rivalry. Now she's having dreams of her dead sister and of being buried in a box.  And dreams and reality are starting to merge.