Monday, March 31, 2014

Are Rap Music Lyrics Criminal Confessions?

Did you know that there is an increasingly frequent prosecutorial tactic of using rap music lyrics, or at least rap music lyrics written by black musicians, as evidence of criminal activity or conspiracy or as crimes in and of themselves? It's something that doesn't make a lot of sense to me but there are a lot of things in this world that don't make a lot of sense to me. In order to make these kinds of arguments you would think that prosecutors would have to do violence to all sorts of standards of evidence as well as the first amendment and basic logic but I'm not a prosecutor. I thought that you might have some sort of right to free speech and the ability to create fiction, even disturbing fiction, without having it be seized upon as a criminal confession but apparently I was wrong.
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — The case had gone cold. Four years after the 2007 murders of Christopher Horton, 16, and Brian Dean, 20, detectives here had little to go on. No suspects. No sign of the gun used to shoot the men. No witnesses to the shooting outside a house where officers found Mr. Horton sprawled next to a trash can and Mr. Dean on the front porch.  But in 2011, the case was reassigned to a detective who later came across what he considered a compelling piece of evidence: a YouTube video of Antwain Steward, a local rapper with the stage name Twain Gotti, performing his song “Ride Out.” “But nobody saw when I [expletive] smoked him,” Mr. Steward sang on the video. “Roped him, sharpened up the shank, then I poked him, 357 Smith & Wesson beam scoped him.” Mr. Steward denies any role in the killings, but the authorities took the lyrics to be a boast that he was responsible and, based largely on the song, charged him last July with the crimes. 
Today, his case is one of more than three dozen prosecutions in the past two years in which rap lyrics have played prominent roles. The proliferation of cases has alarmed many scholars and defense lawyers, who say that independent of a defendant’s guilt or innocence, the lyrics are being unfairly used to prejudice judges and juries who have little understanding that, for all its glorification of violence, gangsta rappers are often people who have assumed over-the-top and fictional personas. In some of the cases, the police say the lyrics represent confessions. More often, the lyrics are used to paint an unsavory picture of a defendant to help establish motive and intent. And, increasingly, the act of writing the lyrics themselves is being prosecuted — not because they are viewed as corroborating an incident, but because prosecutors contend that the words themselves amount to a criminal threat.

I'm not a big rap music fan and haven't really been since the early to mid nineties or so. The music no longer speaks to me. That said, in today's pop music and certainly among the past there have been all sorts of lyrics that may or may not be disturbing, challenging, stupid, boastful, sexist, racist, simple, complex and every other adjective good or bad that applies to art that human beings created. These lyrics are usually understood by most people who do not exclusively breathe through their mouth as not to be taken literally. For example, consider the following:

Dangerous song lyrics that were really criminal confessions.

Well I stand up next to a mountain and chop it down with the edge of my hand
Voodoo Child (Slight Return)- Jimi Hendrix

I'm your doctor when in need/Want some coke have some weed
You know me I'm your friend/Your main boy, thick and thin
I'm your pusherman
Pusherman- Curtis Mayfield

I hear the click clack on your feet on the stairs/I know you're no scare eyed honey
There'll be a feast if you just come upstairs/But it's no hanging matter/it's no capital crime
I can see that you're just fifteen years old/No I don't want your id
Stray Cat Blues- The Rolling Stones

Freedom came my way one day/And I started out of town
All of a sudden I saw sheriff John Brown
Aiming to shoot me down
So I shot -- I shot --- I shot him down and I say:
If I am guilty I will pay
I Shot the Sheriff- Bob Marley

You let me violate you/You let me desecrate you
You let me penetrate you/You let me complicate you
Help me I broke apart my insides/Help me I've got no soul to sell
Help me the only thing that works for me/Help me get away from myself
I want to f*** you like an animal
Closer- Nine Inch Nails

Your world was made for you by someone above
But you chose evil ways instead of love
You made me master of the world where you exist
The soul I took from you was not even missed
Lord of This World- Black Sabbath

I've got something to say/I raped your mother today
And it doesn't matter much to me/As long as she spread
Last Caress- The Misfits                                                                                                           
If this logic put forth in the NYT story holds then someone should have arrested Jimi Hendrix for EPA violations, arrested Curtis Mayfield for racketeering, narcotics trafficking and conspiracy charges, arrested Keith Richards and Mick Jagger for pandering and statutory rape, arrested Bob Marley for first degree murder, arrested both Trent Reznor and The Misfits for rape, and arrested Ozzy Osborne and Geezer Butler for being the Devil.
To me this is very simple. If a prosecutor has serious evidence that someone committed a crime then of course they should pursue a case against that person. But using a piece of music as such evidence and actually convicting a person of charges based on nothing else than their music is ridiculous, unless you also believe that Robert DeNiro is a dangerous hit man/mob boss/serial killer; The Shining really was Stephen King's confession of child abuse; or that based on his characters' descriptions and internal thoughts in A Song of Ice and Fire, George R.R. Martin is a man with an unhealthy interest in teen girls who should be locked up before he harms one. I mean how stupid is this? Using a rap video as evidence in a criminal trial of a rapper seems like using the infamous eyeball scene in Casino to prove that Joe Pesci is really a dangerous killer for the Chicago Outfit.  

This appears like nothing so much as (1) a way for lazy prosecutors to avoid doing serious work of finding real evidence of criminal behavior and (2) for authoritarian types to shut down black identified music that they don't like. It's the same of story of assuming that whatever black people are doing, in this case rap music, is pathological. And race aside, I think the actions of these police and prosecutors show a serious and quite problematic hostility to free speech. But I could be wrong of course...


Saturday, March 29, 2014

Movie Reviews: Better Living Through Chemistry, Homefront

Better Living Through Chemistry
directed by Geoff Moore and David Posamentier
Why are there so many movies about a nebbish who is getting pushed around by life, meets a woman who is a little kooky and slowly transforms himself with the woman's enthusiastic help into a more aggressive, confident, sexually alluring and downright dominant man? Are there movies when it is the woman who makes the transformation? I'm sure there must be although off the top of my head I can think of only one recent such film, The English Teacher, at this time. Anyway this is an old story and one that is done just well enough to make this movie worth a look see. Ultimately the movie wasn't quite daring enough. It got just close enough to the ledge to tease you that it was something truly out there but went for a more or less conventional ending. So this was an okay movie but probably not something that is a 100% must see film. It was enjoyable and occasionally laugh out loud funny but not something that you haven't seen before. As with a lot of stories like this the question is not so much is the story new and exciting but rather is the story well directed, produced and acted. Did you find the characters believable and/or sympathetic. I think the answer in the case would be mostly yes. Of course if you aren't old enough to have had a few regrets, have wondered if your life is offtrack or to have occasionally had the strange feeling that on life's expressway you missed your exit about 20 miles back and are now lost and low on gas, some of this movie's humor might appear a bit forced. YMMV.

This is a directorial debut. Douglas Varney (Sam Rockwell-who is perfect for this role) is a pharmacist who is on the verge of taking over the family business. Unfortunately it's not strictly speaking his family's business. No you see Doug married into this business. His bossy domineering father-in-law Walter Bishop (Ken Howard) is finally retiring as the owner and operator of the town's pharmacy. Walter has transferred the ownership of the pharmacy to Doug. However, Walter being the man he is, simply can't imagine that Doug really knows what he's doing. So Walter remains full of unwanted advice and irritating actions, like ensuring that the store's sign still reads "Bishop's" instead of "Varney's".

Well the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Walter is a hard driving man who doesn't really respect Doug. Similarly Walter's daughter and Doug's wife, Kara (Michelle Monaghan), is a bossy, unpleasant and highly competitive woman who puts little stock into what Doug wants. Although usually Doug tries to go along with what Kara wants in order to keep the marriage peace, the truth is that Kara finds herself unable to respect a man who takes all his cues from her. She constantly is irritated with Doug, often for no reason, and tells him "... it's called being a man! You might like it." Her disdain is symbolized and magnified by the fact that she is very athletic and usually wins the local cycle race while the hapless Doug almost always finishes last. When their son shows signs of juvenile delinquency and psychological disturbance, Kara shoots down suggestions from school officials and her husband. She instead urges Doug to step aside and let Walter spend more time with the boy as "obviously" Walter is more manly. Ouch. Kara strictly regulates the intimacy. It's quite rare and must be scheduled in accordance with her needs, not Doug's. Even at work, Doug gets little deference or recognition as his employees ignore his requests, openly disrespect him, come in late and leave early.
This all starts to change, when Doug, because of a lazy employee, finds himself doing the low level grunt work of delivering prescriptions to people at their homes. One of the last deliveries he makes is to an attractive rich bored borderline alcoholic trophy wife named Elizabeth Roberts (Olivia Wilde). Doug is intrigued with her and strangely enough the reverse is also true. Although Elizabeth doesn't have the money for the co-pays, Doug, as pharmacy owner, waives the fees. They soon find themselves talking to each other on a regular basis. Just as many men and women in those situations do, they eventually realize that rather than complaining about their spouses they could get busy putting smiles on each other's faces. And they do so. Repeatedly. Enthusiastically. In various places and positions. After one of these sessions, having just experienced la petite morte, Doug starts to complain about how much his life stinks and that the only happiness he finds is the brief time he spends with Elizabeth. She remarks that having all that chemistry knowledge and complete access to almost every drug imaginable must make his days full of temptation. Ding! Ding!! Ding!!! Doug starts to make up drug cocktails, at first just for use during his fun times with Elizabeth, but later on for his everyday work.

The drug use leads to personality changes, including a humorous "who's the man, now??" showdown with his wife and a sweet attempt to bond with his son. It also leads to murder plans and increasingly frequent visits from a seemingly incompetent DEA agent Andrew Carp (Norbert Butz), who is required to check inventory and prescription records because of the ownership transfer. It's an open question as to whether Doug's new found assertiveness is a result of his drug use and dalliances or if the drugs and adultery really revealed who he was all along. This was a black comedy I guess but it's not a particularly dark one. Ray Liotta stars as Mr. Roberts and turns in a short performance that is 100% the opposite of what you'd normally expect from Liotta. Something I did find amusing was the fact that the local pharmacist knows a LOT that is private and/or embarrassing about many people in the local population. Similar to the voiceover and red lines in The English Teacher, this is mostly played for laughs. Jane Fonda provides narration and an ending cameo.

directed by Gary Fleder
I like Jason Staham's work but as I've mentioned before he probably could stand to find some different scripts. But then again if you're well paid doing the same thing over and over again do you really care? I mean if you're a multimillionaire and provide well for yourself and your loved ones would you really lay awake at night worrying whether your artistic talent was truly being stretched? Well maybe you would. The Janitor recently wrote a post about moving outside of his comfort zone. Certainly some people enjoy doing that. But there are other people who do just fine staying in their lane and reaping the rewards thereof. Maybe that is what Statham is doing.

I can't blame anyone for doing that. Life is very short and opportunity doesn't always knock more than once. If someone has found a niche that works for them nobody else has the right to tell them to stop doing that and instead do something different. Unfortunately although this film definitely fell within Statham's wheelhouse it lacked any sense of humor, something which is often found within Statham's work. It was plodding and paint by numbers. Also the big bad was already imprisoned while the other bad guys didn't have enough to do. So Statham doesn't have a really good foil to go up against. Although, as is usual for these type of movies, he gets captured and immobilized, there is never any doubt that he's going to escape and show these people that they made their first mistake when they saw him coming and didn't step out of his way. There are one or two scenes that are fun to watch, mostly Statham breaking someone's bones, but otherwise this was ho-hum.

This review could be even shorter. Basically, Homefront can be stripped down to these essentials.
  • Tough guy undercover cop takes down narcotics biker gang. Biker gang boss' son is killed. Imprisoned boss swears revenge.
  • Undercover cop moves to remote southern area with cute as a button tomboyish daughter. His wife is conveniently dead which allows the available but sexy in a wholesome way teacher to make goo-goo eyes at cop.
  • Through really ridiculous coincidences undercover cop gets in ongoing fracas with local crime boss and his inbred/incompetent relatives and employees. Local thugs quickly discover cop's identity and pass this along to biker gang, most of whose members helpfully live only about two to three hours away. Various a$$-kickings and shootouts commence.
  • James Franco is about as convincing as a southern fried tough guy as Pee Wee Herman would have been.
Jason Statham is Phil Broker, former DEA agent. James Franco is Gator Modine, local meth supplier and someone who is by all accounts, dangerous. Winona Ryder is almost unrecognizable as Sheryl Mott, a meth addicted good time girl. Sheryl is someone who everybody "knows" if you get my meaning. Kate Bosworth is wasted as Cassie Bodine, a stringy prideful woman who looks to her brother for revenge (and drugs). Cassie is about one step up from Sheryl but only because she's still married. Take that away and she too would have bikers publicly chuckling about that time she was really desperate to score and did..well you know.  Chuck Zito is Danny T, boss of the biker gang. Frank Grillo is a cipher as bada$$ biker #2. He should have had the role Franco had imo. He radiated a sense of capricious danger which Franco didn't really accomplish in showing imo. If you've never seen any Statham movies before this might be ok but if that's not the case I can't help but think this would be a disappointment. Cliche after cliche abounds. There are few if any surprises. Blame the writing I guess.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Federal Judge Richard Kopf Supports Professional Dress For Women: Called Sexist

This issue of professional dress never really goes away because humans are animals when you get down to it. I enjoy writing about it because it amuses me. A long time ago when I was working in a different industry and for a different company than I do now, I and a few of my fellow plebes were leaving for the day and happened to share a elevator ride down to the lobby with a firm partner. This man was known to be chronically irascible. I think we all hoped to just spend the 20-30 seconds needed to reach the lobby in silence. No such luck. The partner noticed that one of us, fortunately not me, was dressed in what he considered to be a cheap and unimpressive suit. As the firm's business model involved sending people worldwide selling or producing quite expensive accounting, financial and information technology solutions, the partner was concerned that my co-worker was not representing the firm professionally. The partner told the employee that "We pay you too much to dress as s**** as you do." He asked him where he got that suit and told him to take it back. We reached the lobby. Everyone else scattered but the partner and my hapless co-worker remained behind. The partner wasn't finished with his lecture. I learned the next day that after the partner had finished tearing this guy a new one, he arranged for his own tailor to create a group of new suits for the employee.

For certain businesses and at certain levels within those companies, how you dress is almost as or equally as important as what you know or how well you do your job. This has changed somewhat in America as casual workplaces have become more common but certain industries haven't really budged all that much. There are expectations of a professional demeanor and style. This is true for both men and women. I no longer am required to wear a suit every day but the managers two and definitely three levels above me are always in suits.

A Nebraska federal judge named Richard Kopf made what he thought was an obvious, self-deprecating and humorous short observation about the need for women lawyers to dress in appropriate, that is, non-sexy, attire. He did so on his blog, which you can read here if you're so inclined
True story. Around these parts there is a wonderfully talented and very pretty female lawyer who is in her late twenties. She is brilliant, she writes well, she speaks eloquently, she is zealous but not overly so, she is always prepared, she treats others, including her opponents, with civility and respect, she wears very short skirts and shows lots of her ample chest. I especially appreciate the last two attributes...
From the foregoing, and in my continuing effort to educate the bar, I have three rules that young women lawyers should follow when considering how to dress for court:
1. You can’t win. Men are both pigs and prudes. Get over it.
2. It is not about you. That goes double when you are appearing in front of a jury.
3. Think about the female law clerks. If they are likely to label you, like Jane Curtin, an ignorant slut behind your back, tone it down.
Leaving aside the oddity (to me) that a federal judge has his own blog, I understood the point the judge was making. He was speaking primarily of courtroom attire but as I pointed out these issues occur in every workplace. There have been several instances in my work history where people have been admonished, cautioned or disciplined for inappropriate attire. This included a woman sent home for wearing capri pants and a man bluntly told both on and off the record that his habit of wearing jeans guaranteed that he would never get promoted. And he never was.
Needless to say the judge's observations didn't go over very well with some people. Roughly half the comments on his original post are him explaining or apologizing while he made a more complete explanation/apology in a follow up post. Obviously all the usual suspects predictably weighed in to call him sexist, lecherous, accuse him of objectifying women and so on. I don't think his point was out of bounds. There are ways in which people can dress that are more appropriate for the nightclub or dance scene than the workplace. People notice and make assumptions. Making assumptions is wrong of course but people still do that. And noticing is always going to happen. I have written before that if a lady goes through the trouble to put certain things on display it would be rude for me not to notice. It's just human nature.

I don't think that women or men should or can spay/neuter themselves when they go into the workplace. But it's not too much to ask that explicitly sexy clothing be discouraged at work. It can lead to serious misunderstandings, lack of focus and harassment claims. Those last are worst case scenarios of course. But I think at the minimum it's somewhat disingenuous to have created a corporate environment where almost anything can be construed as sexual harassment and yet have some women dress in a manner that is designed to invite notice, commentary and sexual interest. It is true that your style of dress says absolutely nothing about your skill set. It is also true for women that if you come to work in a skirt that barely covers your lower half and a top that shows off your upper half, you will get a different level and kind of interest from (especially male) peers and supervisors. Anyone who claims otherwise is likely not being truthful. 

Pointing this out is not being sexist. It's being realistic. As I've written before if you have a skirt that is so short that you must struggle to get out of your chair without showing everyone everything or are wearing a top so low cut that men's eyes constantly drift, chances are your clothing might be a tad provocative for your workplace. That is unless you work for Hooters. It's all about time and place.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Detroit Superland Market

One of the worst things about racism is that black people tend to internalize it. This is true of classism, sexism and all of the other "ism's" which still plague humanity. If you subconsciously think and accept that you are less than someone else then you will start to behave in ways that support that line of thinking. I have seen black people that would literally shoot another black person just for looking at them the wrong way meekly accept bigoted language or actions from white people. There are some black people who would raise a fuss over poor service from a black owned business who don't say a mumbling word when they're the last party seated at a bad table in a white owned restaurant and so on. One of the things that my parents tried to teach me and my siblings is that as a consumer, as a citizen, as a black person, you should never ever ever accept mistreatment, poor goods or poor service from anyone, no matter their race. Demand and insist upon respect. And if someone is unable or unwilling to do that don't be an idiot and give them your money, work or time anyway. Shop or work elsewhere. I have tried to live up to those teachings.

I was reminded of those long ago lessons when a local news station had a short story on a particularly unsanitary local grocery on the west side of Detroit. I've written before on how the majority of grocery stores and convenience stores or "party" stores in Detroit, and for that matter likely in the entirety of Wayne County are owned and operated by people of Middle Eastern descent. This has led to regular static because of allegations of disrespect, poor store conditions, sexual harassment, violence and refusal to hire local (read "Black") employees aimed at the ownership and allegations or incidents of theft and violence caused by the clientele. From time to time, a case where one side or the other does something really egregious makes the news.

Fox 2 News Headlines

Now there are some people who might wonder if this entire intervention with Malik Shabazz and the store owner was already preplanned. Certainly the owner Steven Najor seems a bit calm for someone who supposedly just had his business exposed as a filthy place to buy food. I couldn't say one way or the other. And boycotts have a long history as part of black empowerment activism. But it's also 2014. We need to ask ourselves as Black Americans and/or other supportive folks, are boycotts really the best way to get where we need to go? Rather than boycott, which judging by the comments of some of the putative shoppers, might not be too effective anyway, why not work on pooling resources to open up more of our own businesses? How is it that entire lines of business that make money in the black community are rarely owned by blacks? That's one question. The other question is how do we convince people that they are important enough to refuse to accept bad treatment. Because frankly what durned difference would it make if the store owner was Black, White, Middle Eastern, Asian, Hispanic, whatever if s/he runs a dirty store? The limiting factor is not only lax state and city enforcement of appropriate regulations but a clientele that is convinced that filthy stores and post dated perishables are the best they can hope for. 

I go back to the parents. I will never forget that when I was a young boy and had not gotten the proper change from a store clerk, my father sent me right back out again with an admonition to get his money and not take any stuff. Now it was only $0.10 but it was the principle of the thing. Ultimately the citizens of Detroit need to make it clear to business owners that they demand clean stores and will accept nothing less. This requires a change in how people perceive themselves. This takes time.


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Water Tower: Stand and Salute!

When I drive through this city and pass this building I occasionally wonder if I should stop the vehicle, get out and give a snappy salute. This building was originally erected in 1889-1890 as part of a Ypsilanti, Michigan water supply project. The designer was one William Coats. It is unfortunately lost to history as to whether Coats was laughing up his sleeve when he submitted the design to the city leaders or whether they were in on the joke as well. I can't imagine that anyone looked at the completed building and didn't immediately crack a grin. At a time when in some circles modesty required women to cover up ankles or for both men and women to wear bathing suits that covered up almost everything, it seems astonishing that this building looks like it does. In any event the building's strong and apparently deliberate resemblance to a certain body part possessed by 1/2 of humanity can't be missed and is still to this day a source of local humor. 

There are jokes galore about this building, most of which I won't repeat here. Still, I have heard from some people that touching this building or giving it a hug will immediately cure erectile dysfunction in men or cause women of any age to become spontaneously pregnant. Supposedly if any virgin ever graduates from nearby Eastern Michigan University this building will crumble and fall apart. I know nothing about the sexual habits of EMU students but I do know that the Ypsi Water tower is still standing strong. It has won a contest for the most phallic building in the world. So far nobody has seriously linked this building to "rape culture" or fears of assault. This isn't Wellesley . Maybe 1000 years from now anthropologists will find this building and theorize the existence of some strange fertility cult. Who knows if we go on after we die but if we do I'd like to think that somewhere, in some other space and time, William Coats is still chuckling.

Book Reviews: The Prince of Thorns, The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics

Prince of Thorns
by Mark Lawrence
This book was a gift from my brother. I didn't love this book. I may or may not read the sequels. My biggest issue was that the story is told in first person by a teen sociopath. Many stories use themes of young men and women who have been viciously wronged, sinned against or had something stolen from them. They then turn to a life of crime and outlawry. Sometimes they have a fair end they're trying to obtain by foul means. Sometimes they only rob those who are political enemies. Sometimes they have just devolved morally until a previous comrade or moral guide shames them into returning to righteousness. Tolkien used this trope in his Turin Turambar stories in The Silmarrilion. GRRM uses this both in the Brotherhood Without Banners and with a few other characters I can't name yet for spoiler reasons. This trope is played for laughs in the The Pirates of Penzance and in The Princess Bride. Michael Moorcock and Robert E. Howard both used this in their Elric and Conan stories. In some legends Robin Hood was a loyal noble retainer to King Richard III or a brave Saxon resistance leader against Norman invaders. This is an OLD storyline both in fiction and reality. But to my memory few or none of the stories I mentioned above opened with the protagonist and his friends completing a rape and slaughter campaign against poorly armed peasants. We didn't have the "hero" musing about how he'd prefer sex with a willing woman or cursing the fact that he has to wait in line to "enjoy" an unwilling teen girl. We didn't have heroes stripping and despoiling the dead or killing a person because he didn't like the man's tone of voice. No hero mocked a farmer as he died or questioned him about the location of any hidden gold or daughters.

Now we can argue that this behavior is the reality of how armed groups of men behave when they have no powerful state, leader or organization to restrain them. If you give someone unchecked power of life and death over other people it's a good bet that various bad behaviors will occur. Human beings are mixes of angels and devils. And war is no place for angels. 

In real life, war criminals were often feted and rewarded. American soldiers sexually mutilated Native American women and took trophies. British settlers in Australia shot aborigines for sport. From boredom and sadism, Spanish conquistadors set mastiff war dogs on Taino children. And so on. So I can't say that the attitudes on display in The Prince of Thorns have no basis in reality. I just found it very difficult to sympathize with the protagonist.

This book skips back in time to tell the story. When it opens the "hero", Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath is almost fourteen. Jorg leads a murderous bandit band of older men. When Jorg was nine, his convoy was attacked by soldiers belonging to the rival Count Renar. His brother was murdered. His mother was raped and murdered. Jorg nearly died himself but was wounded and trapped in a thorn patch where he witnessed the atrocities against his kin. For reasons that become apparent later, Jorgs's father the King did not take vengeance against Count Renar, thus losing the support of his father-in-law and the love of his son. After being rescued Jorg wanted revenge. He ran away from his castle, but not before releasing a number of imprisoned ruffians, who became the core of his band of brothers. They now roam the lands, looting, robbing and raping, while Jorg seeks a way to kill Renar as well as punish/impress his father, who very ominously from Jorg's POV has remarried. The King of Ancrath appears ready to disinherit Jorg and pronounce his new wife's child as heir. All of this is told piecemeal as to give you some sympathy for Jorg. He has nightmares of his mother's screams and his brother's blood.

Jorg plans to get back into his father's good graces or failing that, deal permanently with his father. Jorg's goals are complicated by his father's adviser, a foreigner named Sageous, who influences the King and knows more of Jorg than he should. Sageous isn't the only wizard with big ideas, either.

Like Moorcock's Runestaff series this story is slowly revealed to take place in a post-apocalyptic world. There was a "Time of a Thousand Suns" which seems to refer to nuclear Armageddon. Humanity has reverted to medieval level technology. There are still chemical and nuclear weapons lying around. Some people have been genetically and physically warped by these weapons. Magic is real although some of it is likely science. This was a quick read at just over 300 pages. This book has black humor. For example, Jorg having been manipulated into a sword duel with a skilled knight twice his size, ends the duel by simply shooting the hapless knight in the face. Jorg is not completely given over to evil, just mostly. He has a soft spot for a few younger children. My brother says that the sequels make Jorg more heroic. I may see. To be fair, Alex in A Clockwork Orange, who was similar to Jorg, became sympathetic by the writer's trick of being contrasted against and used by worse people. Maybe that is what will happen in the sequels. 

The Beatles Illustrated Lyrics
edited by Alan Aldridge.
This is a book that is truth in advertising. What you see is what you get. If you are a serious Beatles fan or just someone who is interested in art you may want to pick this book up. It was originally published in 1969 but was republished in 1999 and 2012. Although I don't think many people would say that the Beatles were among the greatest musicians of all time they were in my opinion excellent songwriters. So what could be better than viewing some great pop art circa 1969 that was influenced by the Beatles lyrics and/or seeks to captures the artist's impression of a song or a particular turn of phrase. Additionally this has little blurbs by the Beatles or their wives, relatives, or girlfriends discussing what was the story or meaning behind a particular lyric or what made the writer think of xyz or how the lyrics came together. Of course sometimes the writer doesn't really know why he wrote a certain lyric and can only discuss what was going on in his life at that time. For example McCartney speaks with regret of his initial attempt to boss around Starr because he felt he was a more accomplished and professional musician than Starr was. This is a lovely book that captures the majority of the Beatles discography. It has all the hits and most of the lesser known songs as well. The art is definitely of the time and feels like a trip down memory lane for those people who are familiar with late sixties, early seventies pop art. Some of the art, not shown here, is honestly erotic. For example the artwork inspired by Lovely Rita Meter Maid, might make many men decide to park illegally somewhere. Other art, is dreamy and out there, as befits Beatles songs like A Day in The Life. All in all good stuff and something that may make you appreciate the Beatles more.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

HBO Game of Thrones S4 Trailer: The Devil Inside

Enjoy the latest HBO Game of Thrones trailer embedded below. As always, if you've already read the books or know what happens next please don't reveal spoilers for this season. Youtube is full of people who gain perverse joy from doing things like that. Weird. Anyway there are a lot of new characters. And some older characters go thru changes. I am looking forward to this season. The creators have started to move the pacing of book events around more and more. There is less of a one-to-one relationship between book and season. This could be good. The creators have said they don't want to do more than seven seasons. GRRM only has five books written at this time. He's not the fastest writer so there's a chance that unless he's trolling everyone and already has books six and seven written, the story ending could be revealed on screen before print. We shall see. Expect the unexpected, both in life and in the trailer.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Is President Obama a lame duck?

Good morning. Unfortunately this is another day when it looks like the overseer at my salt mine employment wants to know in exact detail how much salt I've mined over the past month, where are the records and why didn't I mine more salt. So as a result this will be a short post but it is something that has been on my mind lately. Is President Obama a lame duck? Usually, lame duck status only accrues to a President in the final two years or less remaining of his term, after the November midterms, when his party has usually lost seats in the House or Senate or even if they haven't done so are looking forward, often for reasons of self-preservation, to the next political cycle, which by definition won't include the current President. Much like the lag period between a corporate boss announcing that they're retiring and the time at which they actually do so, people who used to toady to the boss or at least grudgingly offer respect to the position, may suddenly discover heretofore unknown independence of thought and action. The boss' requests may be ignored or slow-walked. If the boss was never much liked in the first place, open insubordination is not out of the realm of possibility. This is particularly true when the boss was not well plugged into the power structures of the company. Other power brokers can even subtly or not so subtly encourage such behavior, especially if your workplace is a real dog-eat-dog kind of environment. I've heard that Washington D.C. is such a place where the weak are killed and eaten, politically speaking.

Now as far as some more right-wing citizens were concerned of course the President lacked legitimacy in the first place so they saw him as a lame duck from the start despite being elected twice by comfortable margins. But some recent events and data should give the President and his supporters, if not fits, cause for serious concern.

President Obama hit a new low in support, according to an NBC/WSJ poll. President Obama’s job approval rating sank to a new low of 41 percent in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Tuesday, forecasting political headwinds for the Democratic Party in the months leading up to November’s midterm elections.
Forty-eight percent of respondents in the survey said that they are less likely to vote for a candidate who is a solid supporter of of Obama, versus 26 percent who said they are more likely to support a candidate that supports the president. More than a third of respondents remained neutral, with 41 percent saying that their vote will have nothing to do with the president.

Now from a purely selfish standpoint this may not matter too much to the President. We don't have a parliamentary system with votes of confidence or party leaders being removed by their party. Short of impeachment and conviction President Obama will serve out his term. But this matters a great deal to Senate and House Democrats, who are starting to see less of a downside to opposing the President. This was made clear in the successful (and shameful) disposal of the nomination of Debo Adegbile to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the similar ominous storm clouds gathering around the nomination of Vivek Murthy to be the Surgeon General. Now regardless of whether you think that either man would have been good at his job the point remains that it is Senate Democrats who either wavered or led the charge against both men. Those aren't the actions of people who think that President Obama is popular or that they need to worry about opposing the President. There is no price to pay for opposing President Obama. He talks tough but seems to be at a loss how to deal with determined opposition. Again, it is a little early to be having these sorts of problems with your own party. Part of this may be coming from a long held belief among some Democrats that President Obama has short coattails and so they have to look out for themselves, politically speaking. 
WASHINGTON — Democrats are becoming increasingly alarmed about their midterm election fortunes amid President Obama’s sinking approval ratings, a loss in a special House election in Florida last week, and millions of dollars spent by Republican-aligned groups attacking the new health law. The combination has led to uncharacteristic criticism of Mr. Obama and bitter complaints that his vaunted political organization has done little to help the party’s vulnerable congressional candidates. Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic members of Congress, state party officials and strategists revealed a new urgency about the need to address the party’s prospects. One Democratic lawmaker, who asked not to be identified, said Mr. Obama was becoming “poisonous” to the party’s candidates. 
At the same time, Democrats are pressing senior aides to Mr. Obama for help from the political network. When two senior White House officials — Jennifer Palmieri, the communications director, and Phil Schiliro, the health care adviser — went to the Capitol late last month to address Senate Democrats about the Affordable Care Act, they were met with angry questions about why Mr. Obama’s well-funded advocacy group, Organizing for Action, was not airing commercials offering them cover on the health law....
Surprise, surprise the PPACA has been driving some of the Democratic problems. Well I can't see the future but you may remember that I predicted that it would not work as designed, which is apparently why the President has been making so many changes to it. Time will tell if I'm wrong or not but if it was such a great plan there wouldn't have to be so many unilateral changes to it. Similar past changes to the REAL ID act and some deep discussions with our very own The Janitor have grudgingly convinced me that the President is probably still within his legal rights though he may be pushing up against the extreme limits. Different topic, different day. But anyway I don't think that pro-PPACA voters will be a serious factor in the midterm elections. Democrats know this which is why they are about two minutes away from hitting the abandon ship button. Still, as we've seen in the past, oftentimes the evil overlord plans don't work out. President Obama wasn't supposed to win in 2008 or 2012. But he did. Every time his rivals cackle that they've got him now he seems to thrive and win. So Democratic panic may be real but it also may be overstated. I can't call it. Well I could but I'd rather know what you think.

Is President Obama a premature lame duck?

Are some Democrats correct to distance themselves from the President?

Do you think Republicans can retake the Senate?

How can the President keep Senate Democrats moving in his direction?

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Movie Reviews: 300: Rise of an Empire, The Counselor, The Bagman

300: Rise of an Empire
directed by Noam Murro
I adored the original 300 movie. This film dramatically ups the violence and blood splatter but it didn't satisfy emotionally. It can be difficult for sequels to match or improve upon the original. Even if they are good movies in their own right, often the sequel is retreading what we've seen before. Slowed down and sped up athletic violence? Close up depiction of blood spray? Someone seeing a close relative die? Been there done that. Whereas Butler's King Leonidas was a baritone big baaaaad man, Athenian Admiral/General Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton) is more of a thinking man's leader. He's known more for superior tactics, deception and resoluteness than for macho come get some attitude, although he'll show that at times. It was Themistocles who killed the Persian Emperor Darius (Yigal Naor), Xerxes' father, though he does not brag of this. He's basically Odysseus, the intellectual warrior to Leonidas' brawling Ajax

Themistocles will give public voice to his doubts, fears or mistakes. Leonidas had no doubts, fears or mistakes, not in public anyway. This fits the stereotypical characteristics of Athenians and Spartans quite well but unfortunately, though it was per creator Frank Miller, purposely done, I thought it left something out of the lead role. I only rarely had the idea that the actor was actually the role and not just acting the role. There was something missing.

This void was, apparently gleefully, filled by the beautiful actress Eva Green as the Greek female admiral, Persian loyalist and chief Athenian/Spartan antagonist, Artemisia. Green dominates the movie. Her scenes radiate vigor. If you're searching for someone to play a manic, dangerous, slinky, seductive villainness who looks like she could explode any minute and makes little distinction between violence and sex, Eva Green's your woman. She would be perfect in a remake of Black Sunday. However...if I were a feminist, which I'm not, I would probably question having the lead female role interpreted as an emotionally damaged woman. Artemisia, due to seeing her family raped and murdered and suffering rape and abuse herself by fellow Greeks, now enjoys hurting other people, mainly men, preferably Greek men. Ironically she seeks a "real man" who can master her, seemingly by roleplaying some of the same actions which she suffered. 

There's no historical indication that Artemisia was motivated by rape. She was a Greek Queen. Some Greeks fought for the Persians. Artemesia was unusual for her gender, not her nationality. King Xerxes was never said to be anything but supportive of and impressed by Artemisia, not angered, jealous, frightened or intimidated. He singled her out for praise and wealth. Ho hum. Someone has to play the bad guy or in this case the bad gal. And Green does that well.

The film narrative jumps in time. Events happen before, during and after the first movie. This film does point out the historical irony that a militaristic superstitious monarchy like Sparta helped defend all Greece (and democracy??) at Thermopylae. Persia is attacking Greece by land and by sea. The Spartans have the superior army but the Athenians have the superior navy. Before the Battle of Thermopylae Themistocles goes to Sparta to ask assistance but gets brushed off. It's a religious holiday and per Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) the Spartans aren't overly fond of alliances anyway. In flashback we see the events which led to both Artemisia's and Emperor Xerxes' (Rodrigo Santoro) rise to prominence. Themistocles gets the fractious Athenians to give him permission to fight the advancing Persian fleet. With two of his best friends and one of their sons at his side, Themistocles proves himself a wily adversary who out maneuvers and outfights Artemisia's finest commanders. This excites the woman. 
Under truce she invites Themistocles to come aboard her (ahem) ship to show him what she the Persian Empire has to offer. But bellum interruptus leads to coitus interruptus. So a very displeased Artemisia uses the 480 BC equivalent of nuclear weapons to destroy much of Themistocles' fleet. She thinks him dead. Having survived, Themistocles learns of the Spartan defeat. Themistocles must deliver a new plan. He also must restore the morale of his remaining marines/sailors as some of them are starting to think life under the Persian boot is better than death. I mean when you get your behind kicked that badly you might wonder if you're fighting for the wrong team. Mother Mary is this the end of Greece? The rest of the film plays out like a classic Western. We're outnumbered, outgunned, and surrounded. Boys we got those SOB's right where we want them! Attack!
Although I have a soft spot for movies like this, unless you are really into swords and sandals films, have some violent urges that need to be exorcised via cinematic catharsis, or are an Eva Green fanboy this might not be worth seeing for full price. It's extremely graphically violent (more than the first movie) and briefly depicts more than a few rapes. Cities which fell, as Athens did here, were often subjected to days, even a full week of looting, rape and murder. Headey convinces as the embittered and widowed Queen Gorgo. And we see, as King Leonidas boasted, that Spartan women can be almost as physically dangerous as their men. I did not enjoy this as much as the first film though Green's performance was mucho fun. A family friend who is also a comic book geek/action movie fan strongly disagreed with my take so YMMV. Caveat Emptor.

The Counselor
directed by Ridley Scott
This film was based on a Cormac McCarthy screenplay. McCarthy is the award winning author of such books made into films as The Road, Child of God, No Country for Old Men, and All The Pretty Horses, among many other literary achievements. This film featured an A-list, perhaps even all-star cast. It is a very bleak desolate film but I think it was meant to come across that way. It makes subtle points about greed, need, and how our choices impact ourselves and others. It also features Cameron Diaz in a role that reminded me both visually and thematically of Kristin Scott Thomas' Crystal in Only God Forgives. There are few likable people in this film. And with one exception those who are likable are only so because they're compared to worse people. This film plays with your expectations and refuses to spell everything out for you. There are some things in The Counselor, even down to character names, which foreshadow future events. This is a very bright movie, visually. A lot happens in the daytime. I was impressed by this because it reminded me that no matter what tragedy occurs to you, the world just keeps on turning. Most people are oblivious to your pains. Such is life. A new baby is born just as somewhere else in the world someone is gasping their last breath. Just as with No Country for Old Men, if you are looking for a definitive showdown between the good guys and the bad guys, you won't find it here.

This film opens up with The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) making sweet love to his fiancee Laura (Penelope Cruz). They live in different cities but The Counselor (he's an attorney but no one ever says his name, not even Laura while he's making her happy) intends to change that when they get married. Like all new husbands to be The Counselor loves Laura very much and wants to ensure that Laura enjoys the good life. Well that's half a lie. He does want to take care of her but he's also greedy and ambitious for himself, having watched other people do well materially. Two people who are more financially successful than The Counselor are Reiner (Javier Bardem aka Mr. Penelope Cruz -they share no scenes together in this movie) and Reiner's girlfriend Malkina (Cameron Diaz). They are drug dealers or to be more accurate drug importers/investors/wholesalers. 
The duo is an odd couple. Their eccentricities go beyond Reiner's Little Richard/Eraserhead hairstyle or Malkina's (her name means bad cat) penchant for hunting with her cheetahs, her tattoos, her sexually voracious and predatory nature, or her often outrageous jewelry and clothing. Bardem plays Reiner as a man who is trapped by his lifestyle but isn't smart enough to find the exit. Reiner once invited The Counselor to invest with him but The Counselor declined. Now The Counselor is ready, particularly when he hears about a 4000 % rate of return.

Malkina meets Laura. It's hard for the viewer and Laura to discern if Malkina is teasing her or seriously coming on to her. This encounter leaves Laura unsettled. Malkina views sex as just another power play. Certainly Malkina has enjoyed many sins. She makes that clear when she mockingly attends confession and makes a play for the priest (Edgar Ramirez). Reiner admits that he's occasionally afraid of/disturbed by Malkina, in part b/c of an incident I won't mention here. Reiner accepts The Counselor in on his next deal and sends him to work out some details with Westray (Brad Pitt) a fellow investor, middleman and troubleshooter for Reiner. Whereas Reiner is all drunken drained debauchery, (evidently Malkina is a physically demanding woman), Westray is tightly wound cool. He has only a few weak spots. Westray explains to The Counselor that it's every man for himself. He emphasizes that the Mexican Cartels simply don't tolerate mistakes. In fact they will torture, kill and rape just for fun. The Counselor is undeterred. Westray talks about his own exit strategy, which he can execute at a moment's notice.
While The Counselor is waiting for the deal to be completed (we see how the drugs are packaged and hidden for shipment) he still has to do his day job. As an offhand favor to Ruth (Rosie Perez), a foul mouthed woman that he is representing on a murder charge, The Counselor agrees to bail out her son (Richard Cabral), who was arrested for speeding. This movie is a good example of the hoary truism that if you sit down at a poker table and can't find the mark, you are the mark. This film was a tough one to judge. I think that rather than "show don't tell", this film too often decided to "tell don't show". There was slightly too much dialogue for me. Again this is a very bleak, cold pessimistic movie. It felt more like a play. The film's final portion gives Fassbender the chance to convincingly emote. Other actors include Dean Norris (Breaking Bad), John Leguizamo, Natalie Dormer (Margaery from Game of Thrones), Bruno Ganz, Ruben Blades and Sam Spruell.

The Bagman
directed by David Grovic
This movie clocked in at just under two hours but was nonetheless about 15 or 20 minutes too long. It could have been a contender but unfortunately got bogged down in how smart it thought it was as well as using some tired stereotypes. It uses a MacGuffin (in this film it was a bag) to increase interest. This works for a while. The film looked grandly magnificent and with a different director might have been a worthwhile update to the noir classic genre to which it pays homage. I really enjoyed the muted lighting, sense of increasing desperation, and weird elements. But the ending undercut the good parts. I watched this because I thought that DeNiro and Cusack working together would be fun to watch. But DeNiro is offscreen for most of the film. Jack (John Cusack) is a loyal if somewhat acerbic hitman who works for the crime boss Dragna (DeNiro). Dragna is an urbane, verbose man who has no problem assaulting his daughter and breaking her nose. His business is never quite explained but evidently he is in part a currency trader. Dragna has a job for Jack. Jack is to retrieve a certain bag from some people. Once he has the bag Jack is to go wait for the boss at a particular room at a specific motel. This bag is very important to Dragna but as he makes crystal clear to Jack, Jack is not to look into or open the bag under any circumstances. Period. Story. End of.
Jack follows orders but is upset when an associate of Dragna's tries and fails to kill him. As instructed Jack checks into room 13 at the motel run by the handicapped, officious, petulant, stubborn and creepy Ned (Crispin Glover). Ned is exactly the sort of unpleasant individual that makes you say to yourself that "Just because you're crippled don't think I won't throw you a beating!" After berating Dragna but not getting any response other than "Did you look in the bag?", Jack settles down to wait for Dragna's arrival. He's been shot but obviously doesn't dare go to the hospital. He can't explain the gun wound or the dead body in his trunk. Dragna or his people call at odd intervals to ensure that Jack is in the room.

Jack's paranoia is sky high. He's in kill or be killed mode. Someone saying the wrong thing to Jack can and does get killed. But Jack's been doing his work for a minute now. He hasn't killed or hurt anyone who didn't have it coming. Things get complicated when having briefly exited the room to handle some business Jack returns to find the Israeli prostitute Rivka (Rebecca DaCosta) hiding in his room from her violent pimps Lizard (Sticky Fingaz) and Guano (Martin Klebba). Jack doesn't toss her out because he dislikes pimps and doesn't know what Rivka saw. But that doesn't mean he likes or trusts Rivka either. The walls are closing in, especially when the local police, led by the quietly intimidating Sheriff Larson (Dominic Purcell) start nosing around the motel because of some irregularities. Larson, like some police officers I have known, gets right up in your face when asking a question and is a master at letting silence speak volumes. It's a subtle yet effective way of establishing dominance, particularly if you are as big as Purcell.
The film takes a few weird turns which are more Lynch than Tarantino. There is a fair amount of violence. DaCosta mostly keeps her clothes on. She may or may not be the femme fatale. Cusack's character could be an older version of his role in Grosse Pointe Blank. This is not a black comedy. I would have preferred more interaction between DeNiro and Cusack.