Saturday, December 26, 2015

R. Kelly and Scapegoating Black Men

Ok. There are a couple of things which I should point out before this short little post. (1) I am not an R. Kelly fan. I don't like or listen to R. Kelly's music. I know at most just two songs of his. There is very little modern R&B that I listen to as on balance I find the genre in its current incarnation to be about as soulful as Pat Boone and Lawrence Welk eating spam and mayonnaise sandwiches while riverdancing to Muzak. (2) Although in some states, including my own, the age of consent is 16, I don't have much respect for any grown man (i.e. over 21) who is doing anything with someone who is under 18. I think such action is distasteful when it's not outright criminal. Apparently R. Kelly has a new release and like any other musician in his position he wants to drum up interest. For some reason he or his oh so skilled top notch management/marketing team thought that it would be worthwhile for him to appear on Huffington Post Live with feminist Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani to discuss this release and other things. The interviewer wanted to get into the accusations of sexual misconduct. R. Kelly didn't want to discuss those allegations. So this interview went about as well as you might expect. You can watch it here. Basically R. Kelly lost his cool, made an ill-fated attempt to compliment Caroline Modarressy-Tehrani and then left the premises in a huff. R. Kelly knows his history. And he's old enough to know how America works. He must have been deluded to think this interviewer would not have asked questions about the past accusations against him. Let me reiterate that I don't give a flying fig newton about R. Kelly, his music, his pocketbook or his well being. He's meaningless to me. What I do care about though, is the ease with which the American media (both white AND black) can so easily and consistently make a black man the face of a larger public issue- in this case pedophilia/teenage groupies- and the self-righteousness which some people bring to bear on anyone who doesn't accept faulty logical premises about what makes good art.

Book Reviews: Soft Target

Soft Target
by Stephen Hunter
What do you do when your most impressive hero has finally gotten a little bit too old to be a believable butt kicker? Why if you're Stephen Hunter you bring in the next generation. Although they were introduced previously in a book I didn't read (I don't find it necessary to read this series in order), Soft Target finds USMC sniper Ray Cruz (despite the last name and half-Asian ancestry he is Bob Lee Swagger's son with all of the traditional Swagger skill at fast thinking and instinctive violence) and his half-sister news reporter Nikki Swagger caught up in a Black Friday terrorist attack on the Minneapolis Mall of America. Bad guys shoot Santa Claus and round up over a thousand hostages. Nikki is reporting on the incident. She also plays an important role in combating the attackers because after all, she has her Daddy's steel trap brain. Ray is caught inside the mall with his wife (or is it girlfriend, I can't recall and it is so not important) and her family. And Ray doesn't have any weapons with him. But Swaggers Die Hard (and yes this does read like a particularly bad ripoff of those movies) and Ray Cruz soon has a plan. He also has someone to help him, an Ebonics speaking black woman with a bad attitude. The bad guys are cartoonish Somalis who are more interested in rape, molestation and telling bad goat jokes than they are in the stated goal of avenging Osama Bin Laden. Their Imam is a conflicted and possibly gay man who tries to deny his tendencies by overindulging himself with Hustler magazine. But of course as you might expect in this sort of story the Somalis aren't even smart enough to pull this attack off by themselves. There's a shadowy mastermind. FBI Sniper Dave McElroy is watching the carnage take place. But he has no orders and no shot. As has seemingly become his practice now Hunter creates caricatures of liberals that read as if they are straight from Fox News. All the liberals in Soft Target are mushy she-men who dither and dally and get people killed. The primary and most offensive example of this is head of the Minnesota State police, Douglas Obobo, who is the son of a Black Kenyan Harvard graduate student and a White American Radcliffe Anthropology major. Obobo is a good looking charismatic Harvard Law Graduate who "despite the fact that he never broke a case, arrested a suspect, won a gunfight, led a raid, or testified in court" has risen inexorably to ever more lucrative and powerful jobs in law enforcement, helped along by an adoring media and his public affairs guru David Axelrod Renfro. 

There are rumors that Obobo will be the first black head of the FBI. Obobo (and I'm just guessing here that the name was chosen less for any Kenyan antecedents and more for the resemblance to the name Bozo) is a new kind of law enforcement official who believes in talking things out. He has an unshakable belief in his own abilities of persuasion and communication. He dislikes other cops much more than he does criminals. He has a smooth baritone. And he gets highly irritated whenever anyone questions him. Gee, I wonder who Hunter had in mind here

Hunter's conservatives are all virile square jawed heroes who try to do the right thing but are always hemmed in by the liberal backstab. This motif is very common in conservative politics and goes back at least as far as WWI era Germany. I wouldn't mind this political axe grinding all that much if the writing was still up to snuff. But it's not. Here Hunter is FAR more interested in taking shots at President Obama and the left than in writing a good story. His gushing political bile sunk the entire narrative. For example, the FBI will take over control of a case once there is a international, terrorist or inter-state aspect to the crime. Feds are superior to local law enforcement. This didn't happen in this story solely so Hunter could continue to show how incompetent Obobo is. And there are plenty of other plot holes throughout the novel. Almost every white man in this book is scared s*itless by the idea that someone might call them a racist for opposing Obobo. The problem, from my perspective, is that in lampooning what he thinks of as mushy headed thinking on the left, Hunter only reveals worse mushy headed thinking on the right. Although there is definitely a time where violence is the answer, there are also times where it pays to find out what's going on first and/or avoid violence. Too many people at both extremes view the other side's preferred approach as not only wrong tactically but wrong morally. In real life I think the most effective leaders are those who understand that there is a time to talk and a time to kick butt. Both approaches are tools worth using. Because Hunter can't even bring himself to investigate and write honestly about Islamic terrorist motivations his villains are flat and lifeless. Even his heroes don't notice obvious bad guy mistakes until the plot needs them to do so. This was sophomoric lazy writing and not at all worthy of Hunter's earlier work. Perhaps that is why it was on sale for $3.99. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Movie Reviews: Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens
directed by J.J. Abrams
My Dad took my brother and me to see the first Star Wars movie all those years ago. That is a good memory. It was quite the event. Afterwards we had a great steak dinner at Flaming Embers. Good times. So I was interested to see the new Star Wars movie, even though I was a little leery of the director. Now I am unfamiliar with and don't really care about all of the expanded universe stuff that never made it to the canonical films. SO maybe some of those questions are answered there. But as far as I can tell at the end of the first trilogy, the good guys won. The Emperor and Darth Vader were defeated. The Republic was restored. Wasn't that the case? Apparently if that happened it wasn't for long. Because in The Force Awakens, the Empire or at least an Empire inspired bunch of counterrevolutionaries, has been reconstituted as The First Order. We know that these are the bad guys because they have storm troopers and prefer a Nazi inspired sartorial color scheme of red, black and white. Some of the crowd scenes also appear lifted from Pink Floyd's The Wall. The bad guys and bad girls all appear quite dashing if you're into that sort of thing. And what do these folk want to do? They want to do the same thing the bad guys and girls always want to do. Take over the world! Or in this case the Universe. Again, maybe this was all explained elsewhere but for me anyway a tiny little bit of exposition would have been helpful. The First Order has a tremendous number of soldiers and informers. They're armed to the teeth with the best military equipment. Where did they come from? How did they get so powerful? Are they all disgruntled ex-Empire soldiers who were dismissed from their positions? They are opposed by the Republic and The Resistance. At this point shouldn't The Republic and The Resistance be the same thing? But I guess none of that is really that important in the big scheme of things.

People I respect have threatened bloody murder should I reveal any spoilers. Hmm. Well that's actually pretty easy to do and easy not to do. This film is just a remake/reboot of the 1977 movie. If you've seen that film or are just familiar with it via cultural osmosis The Force Awakens not only won't have any surprises, it will also have damn near the exact same storyline and conflicts.
To wit:

  • A white robed person grows up on a desert planet living hand to mouth.
  • A droid has really important information that is critical to both sides of the conflict.
  • The aforementioned droid fortuitously winds up with the impoverished white robed person.
  • The bad guys include an officious general and a weird fellow in a black suit with Force abilities. They don't care for each other all that much.
  • There's a weapon which can destroy planets.
  • There are sinister junkmen/traders who will sell out the good guys for profit.
  • There's a chubby guy in an X-Wing fighter who gets to say "I'm hit!" before his disintegration.
  • An outsider is tricked/manipulated/guilt tripped into helping the good guys because deep down inside he's a good guy.
  • Princess Leia gives off her trademarked non-nonsense aura.
  • A wise mentor dies(or does he) at the hands of the villain in black

And so on. The only real differences are that the hero in The Force Awakens is not a man but a woman. Unfortunately this woman is a true Mary Sue. There is nothing that Rey (Daisy Ridley) can not do in the movie, raising the uncomfortable question of why she needed any of the other actors. This is not the fault of the actress. I think that she did well with the role. This is entirely the fault of the writer and director. In order to be the hero you need to have something to overcome-internally and externally. Rey is shown as hypercompetent at EVERYTHING. She has no flaws or weaknesses. So she's boring. There's no opportunity for growth or conflict. There was much media and online attention paid to the fact that Finn (John Boyega-last seen by me in Attack the Block) was black and presumably the hero or at least one of the heroes. That was pretty obviously bait and switch for some or perhaps trolling of others.. While Finn's not quite comic relief his role does come perilously close to that at times. He's more or less incompetent and has to be saved by many of the other characters. And you could argue that he plays the Sleeping Beauty role. All of this would have been tolerable if Finn was actually good at anything. But he's not. He's earnest, and that's about it. Perhaps his role will be expanded in the sequels. But much like Prince albums or Spike Lee movies I think I will wait to see what other people say of the sequel before I venture to spend my money on it.

If you were looking for a film with a black male hero, this wasn't the movie you were looking for. This is Rey's story all the way.  Again, I don't mind that all that much, but I can't help but think that this sort of thing was better done in Big Trouble in Little China. The white hero (Kurt Russell) saves the day but mostly by accident. His Chinese friend Wang Chi (Dennis Dun) is shown throughout the film as just as competent, if not more so. It's an alliance of equals. This isn't the case in The Force Awakens. Rey doesn't need Finn and lets him know that just about every chance she can. And she's right. Finn brought very little to the story. He's a renegade sanitation engineer. I didn't think it was necessary to almost make Finn a butt monkey in order to raise up Rey. Although the female character who screams and faints anytime anything happens is a useless stereotype better left to some late fifties Hammer films, it's also a useless stereotype when a female character is better at everything than her male counterparts.

Anyway, that aside this film had the normal special effects, swelling music and sound, duels and familial reveals that you've come to expect from the Star Wars franchise. But it just didn't reach me on the mythic level which the first film did. It's very well made with some enjoyable moments. It was good but by no means great. But I've just moved on in my life. Bottom line is that if you were too young to see the original Star Wars this will do nicely. But for me it felt like a pale imitation. It also bothered me a bit that every time a bad guy makes a Death Star, some plucky good guy blows it up. It would seem that after this has happened a few times, the bad guys would try to think outside the box and do something a little different. Don't they teach that in "Smashing your Enemies 301: Do the Unexpected" at Evil Overlord Academy?  Adam Driver is Kylo Ren, Darth Vader 2.0. Harrison Ford, Mark Hamil and Carrie Fisher all reprise their original roles. Oscar Issac is Poe Dameron, the Resistance's most skilled pilot. Gwendolyn Christie is Captain Phasma, a First Order devotee. Lupita Nyong'o is Maz Kanata, a thousand year old pirate/smuggler with information about the missing Jedi.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Movie Reviews: Just Before I Go, Ant-Man, The Wannabe

Just Before I Go
directed by Courteney Cox
This film is superficially interesting on initial view but the deeper you get into it the less it makes sense. Cox relies on some warmed over racist tropes (the black characters are only there to help the white characters find themselves ; the sole black female character is a loud brassy obese woman with a substance abuse problem) and relatively flat motivations for some of the other characters. Although the idea behind the movie (You can't go home again) is a old one I was hoping that Cox would be able to put some oomph into her take on this story. That turned out not to be the case. Part of the problem was that the story tried to reach for American Beauty levels of subtext and *important* storytelling while remaining wed to American Pie levels of crassness and silliness. So everything is uneven. The hero's motivation is so weakly defined that I never felt any sympathy or empathy for him. He's an incredibly dull man. And if a male director had crafted a role for Kate Walsh where 90% of her character's scenes involved pleasuring herself while semi-topless in front of her brother-in-law, I imagine that some people would start screaming sexism. There are some directors who can very easily make bittersweet comedy/dramas or "dramedies". Cox isn't one of them yet. Ted Morgan (Seann William Scott) is a man in his late thirties/early forties who feels (not strongly because he doesn't seem to have strong feelings about anything) that life has passed him by. He doesn't have any career path that beyond a dead end lower management job at a pet supply store. His wife (Elisha Cuthbert) cheats on him with her guitar instructor. In the ensuing divorce she accuses Ted of just stumbling through life without any purpose or excitement. She gets no passion from Ted. And apparently that is why she decided to hitch a ride on another man's train. How Ted's personality failings morally justify her adultery isn't clear but her criticism clearly cuts Ted to the bone. He's left reeling after being dumped. He feels worthless and inept.
Looking back on life Ted thinks that everything started to go downhill after his father's (Clancy Brown) death when Ted was in grade school. That was when Ted attracted the negative attention of two bullies, one of whom was a teacher. Ted thinks his life is pointless. He decides to kill himself. But he doesn't want to do that before he returns to his hometown to settle the score with the bullies and say goodbye (without announcing his suicidal intent) to his stereotypically blustering clueless macho chief of police older brother, Lucky (Garret Dillahunt), Lucky's wife Kathleen (Kate Walsh), his lesbian mother (Connie Stevens) and her Elvis impersonator partner (Dianne Ladd). But upon Ted's arrival he discovers that his nephew Zeke (Kyle Gallner) needs some help accepting who he is. This is shown, like most other things in this film, in a rather hamfisted manner. And the people who gleefully bullied Ted back in the day, most comically the earnest Rowley (Rob Riggle), are now totally different people who deeply regret their previous actions. Some of them don't have great lives themselves. A former grade school crush, Vickie (Mackenzie Marsh), is very happy to see him while his former teacher's granddaughter, Greta (Olivia Thirlby) has her own hidden reasons for tagging along to document Ted's last days. So Ted has to make a decision as to whether this suicide thing is still for him. In more experienced hands this could have been a more interesting and perceptive film. Unfortunately Just Before I Go always seeks the cheap laughs, while ineptly attempting to shoehorn in "important" messages about bullying, sexuality, acceptance and whatnot. The film was trying too hard to be something Wes Anderson would have done. You can safely skip this movie, unless you are eagerly anticipating seeing Kate Walsh almost topless. 

There aren't many surprises or new takes on old tropes. Thirlby did a good job with what she had. She just didn't have a whole lot with which to work. This film is something that, absent the generalized vulgarity, would have been a good fit for a 70s era ABC After School Special.


directed by Peyton Reed
This is a movie whose titular hero was never someone whose story interested me all that much. I mean, really your great superpower is that you can shrink yourself to the size of an ant and control ants? Whoop-de-doo! And who pray tell is your great enemy, against whom you must always be on guard? Borax Man? The Big Boot? The mysterious enemy known as The Broom? No I wasn't expecting very much from this film. But I was pleasantly surprised. Sure the story was something that's been done a million times before in various fairy tales and classic literature. A young impoverished man must win the trust of the king (and the hand of the princess) by performing great heroics and defending the kingdom against the renegade evil prince. But old stories stick around because they work. And yet because I wasn't as familiar with the specifics of the Ant-Man storyline as I was with the details of other Marvel heroes, it still had a few places where either the events or the special effects impressed. This is overall a fun movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. And that helps the viewer to enjoy it a lot. It drags ever so slightly in the middle but brings the bacon home at the end.

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is a scientist (and the original Ant-Man) who has perfected shrinking technology. However, much like Einstein, he's quite troubled by the military application of his advances in physics. He resigns from S.H.I.E.L.D. and is later forced out of his own company by his resentful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) and his former protege Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) who may have a thing for Hope but definitely wants to prove to Hank that he's just as good as Hank at science. Cross is getting closer every day to perfecting Hank's old technology. And unlike Hank he has no problems with military applications. He's not even particular about to which nation or terrorist organization he sells his technology. Hope doesn't exactly like Cross but she thinks her father unfairly dismisses her abilities on account of her sex. And she also has unprocessed feelings over her mother's long ago death, something that her father won't talk about. Hank and Hope snipe at each other throughout the movie. Hope is no shrinking violet. She's back on her father's side..maybe. The father and daughter become angrier with one another when Hank, getting more and more worried about Cross' scientific progress and amoral worldview, decides to manipulate Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), an electrical engineer/activist/burglar, into working with him. Hope sees this as patriarchal betrayal of her. She has a need to prove to Daddy that she's just as capable as any man and certainly more so than Scott. Scott is just trying to stay on course to do the right thing by his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and daughter. But it's difficult since no one is eager to hire an ex-con. No money means he can't provide child support. No child support means no visitation. And Maggie's new husband Paxton (Bobby Cannavale), while not entirely unsympathetic to Scott's fatherly prerogatives, would nevertheless prefer that Scott not show up and mess up his good thing with Maggie. Paxton is a cop so he's always giving Scott a little sideways look.

The special effects are impressive and thoughtful. Scott's burglary crew (Michael Pena, T.I., David Dastmalchian) provides a lot of the film's humor with one-liners, deadpan reactions and clothing styles.  Anthony Mackie has a quick cameo as The Falcon. As mentioned there are predictable story elements but overall this film was a fun ride. You should see it. It's not a grim or violent movie. It won't change your life or anything, but it satisfied. The good guys are good and the bad guys are bad. What more do you need? I enjoyed this movie.

The Wannabe

directed by Nick Sandow
This movie is based on the same true life story which inspired the film, Rob The Mob, previously reviewed here. If I had known that ahead of time I might not have sat down to watch the movie. It is interesting how some small time criminals manage to become larger than life Robin Hood/Bonnie and Clyde types while others live and die in utter obscurity. The husband and wife who were at the heart of this movie now have at least two different films detailing their exploits. I'm not sure they deserved one. This film has a slightly higher end cast than Rob The Mob (recognize all the names from The Sopranos, The Wire and Boardwalk Empire) but I don't think it fully reached the cast's potential.  The primary difference in how the two films treat their subjects is that in The Wannabe the duo, Thomas especially (Vincent Piazza) is portrayed not as any sort of tragic heroic dyad but as two low class deluded losers. Thomas lives up to the movie's title. He's someone who's on the periphery of the fringe of the outside of organized crime. Thomas tries to dress and talk like a gangster in order to convince people who don't know him that he's somehow connected. In truth he only knows a few mobsters about as well as the company CEO knows the first floor security guard. When Thomas is released from prison after a sentence for robbing video stores, he attempts to ingratiate himself with real gangsters by claiming mob bona fides for keeping his mouth shut about crimes no one ordered him to commit. Thomas tries to sound like a tough guy by quoting mob movies. Thomas' fake persona and claims of Mafia affiliation annoy authentic local gangsters, including the physically imposing Mickey (Domenick Lombardozzi), the quiet Sicilian neighborhood boss Richie (Vincenzo Amato) and the abrasive Queens neighborhood watchman (Mike Starr). In what is obvious foreboding each of these men tell Thomas at different times and in different ways: "You're not with us.".

Having fantasies of meeting and saving indicted Gambino boss and man-crush John Gotti, Thomas hangs around Gotti's Queens neighborhood where he meets, befriends and beds (not necessarily in that order) Rose (Patricia Arquette). Rose falls hard for Thomas and will later marry him. But as Rose's relatives point out, Rose, who is a junkie, is not exactly the best judge of character. Thomas' brother Alphonse (Michael Imperioli) tries to keep Thomas grounded in reality but you can tell that he's tired of this fight.  When a harebrained scheme to use fellow courtroom observer The Twin (Doug E. Doug) to bribe a Gotti trial juror falls apart, Thomas can't stand the difference between reality and his fantasy any more. Like Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy, Thomas takes drastic steps to get people to recognize that yes, he really is somebody. These steps include robbing various Mafia social clubs and trying to murder Curtis Sliwa (Daniel Sauli), who has been relentless in his criticism of the Mafia in general and the Gottis in particular. David Zayas has a small role as a television reporter who torments Thomas in his dreams. Martin Scorsese was an executive producer for this film but it's not something which really bears his mark in any real way I could see-with the possible exception of the ending. There are a lot of scenes showing the couple enjoying drugs and the material goods they bought with their robbery proceeds. These get kind of repetitive. 

The film itself was shot in a murky style. But perhaps that was a deliberate choice to portray 90s era NYC. This is not, despite the subject matter, a shoot em up gangster story. It's more about two sad characters and how they lie to themselves. It does have a certain panache to it but I think you'd have to be in a certain mood to enjoy this story. Rose's nervous energy plays nicely against Thomas' self-pity. Rose, despite her substance abuse issues, seems to be better grounded than Thomas. 


Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Detroit Water Bills Redux

Another day, another bad story out of Detroit concerning payment of bills. We've discussed this before. Not much has changed. There is still a big mess. It's a perfect storm of massive unemployment and underemployment, poverty, bad consumer decision making, poor record keeping and accounting by the Water Department and malicious gamesmanship by landlords and speculators. All of this has meant that there are some people who simply won't pay their water bills because they have had the accurate perception that they can get away with not doing so mixed with a population of people who simply don't have the resources to regularly pay their water bills. Poverty is real and limits people's ability to enjoy life. Perhaps some of the people in this latest story should not be shamed but rather all of us should be ashamed for having built a society in which large numbers of people have no opportunity to get ahead. It doesn't matter how much moral opprobrium you vent at someone for their life choices. If they don't have the money, they don't have the money. But public utility bills must be paid. I have little sympathy for someone who makes sure that their cable bill is paid but the water bill isn't. When someone does that they're telling you loud and clear what is most important to them. And it's not the water bill. If you use a service you should pay for it. Without everyone agreeing to that basic deal, society doesn't work. Things fall apart. People at the higher end of the income and wealth spectrum start to resent paying for those they see as deadbeats and freeloaders and become more receptive to the idea of starving the public sector of funds (except for military and police and fire). And people at the lower end of the income and wealth spectrum become more receptive to the idea that virtually every "need" should be provided for by the government free of charge. Throw in some racial resentments around gentrification and the idea that the Water Department has devious reasons for shutoffs and demanding payment and you get  this situation. How do you survive without running water for more than two years? First, get a trash can. Put it under the roof to collect water to flush the toilet. Then, get a bucket and remember what your grandparents taught you in the early 1950s, before indoor plumbing reached all of rural America. “You use your brain. You scramble. You survive because you’re used to dealing with nothing,” said Fayette Coleman, 66, who grew up fetching water from wells in Belleville. She hasn’t had running water in her Brightmoor house since May 2013. The crumbling home is one of at least 4,000 in Detroit — and perhaps many more — whose water was never turned back on after massive shutoffs attracted international attention last year. 

The outcry faded, but the situation hasn’t. Within a block of Coleman’s house on Fielding near Lyndon, at least three neighbors have endured shutoffs, including one who spent months walking up the street, twice a day, to fill buckets at a friend’s before service resumed in mid-November. Citywide, a third of all residential accounts in Detroit— 68,000 of 200,000 — are at least 60 days past due, city records show.
The water issue is coming to light as a special panel studying water affordability is expected to present its plan to the Detroit City Council in January. The group expects to consider recommendations — including lower prices for low-income residents — when it meets for the last time Tuesday. Help is available, said Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department. Some 39,000 residents are on payment plans, and the city has nearly $1 million available in payment assistance. “If you come in and say you are having an issue, we can find ways to help people,” Brown said. “But you have to come in.” Coleman gets by using bottled water for drinking, much of which she gets from charity. She heats water for sponge baths and flushes the toilet only after bowel movements. Otherwise, she does without.



Saturday, December 12, 2015

Music Reviews: Richard Thompson 1952 Vincent Black Lightning

I have always enjoyed Richard Thompson's music from his initial days as guitarist with folk/rock group Fairpoint Convention to what I think of as his most critical musical period with his then wife Linda and his later peripatetic solo career. Thompson remains one of the best living unheralded songwriter/guitarists which I why I mentioned him before here. Anyway I ran across a video of Thompson performing his song 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. Like much of Thompson's work this song combines Scottish/English folk music with American blues and country for a sound that's unmistakably all his own. I think that this piece is one that people will still be singing fifty or sixty years from now. It's a sad song but many of the best ones are. Young love, death and transcendence, this composition hits all the emotional high and low points. I like music that tells a story. It seems as if fewer songs can do that these days. Thompson's songwriting often manages to be somber and optimistic at the same time which is quite a neat trick. Anyway if you have a chance to see Thompson you should take it. He's quite the musician. This song is only a very small example of his capacities. If Trump gets elected perhaps he will force out the British Thompson from his residence in the United States. After all Thompson is a Muslim. So if we believe Trump and his mouth breather supporters, how can we really know what nefarious plans this guitarist has in mind?

Why Some People Don't Deserve A Dog

I ran across this article the other day. My husband and I did the unthinkable: We returned our 5-month-old puppy to her breeder despite the fact that our family loved her and thought she was adorable. I work from home most days and thought that would make housetraining easier, but I soon realized it made it harder because there was no set schedule or routine for Eevee. Some days she wouldn’t go in the crate at all. Other days she would be in the crate for three to four hours. At a six-week training course, we were told to put Eevee in the crate several hours a day even when I was home. I would lure her into the crate with treats and pretend to go out, but Eevee was smart enough to sense I was still home. She would bark and whine until I let her out again. I soon realized that Eevee wasn’t Lambic, and much like children, no two dogs are alike. Plus, my husband and I were used to an older dog that knew our family’s patterns and rhythms and didn’t need the constant attention and discipline of a 2-year-old child.The hardest part about the entire situation was telling our daughter. She had promised to help take care of Eevee, and for the most part, she did. But as much as she was willing to walk the puppy and play with her, it wasn’t enough, and it didn’t ease our stress. People like this sadden me. The whole point of having a dog is that dogs are companion animals. Most of them thrive on human contact and love. If you get a good dog and treat it well you will have a friend for life, tragically short as its life will be compared to yours. A dog is not a toy to be put away in the closet or discarded when you lose interest in it. These people should be well known by every breeder and animal shelter out there so that no one ever again makes the mistake of sending another dog home with them. It is true that sharing your space with a puppy who will eventually turn into a dog can be challenging. 

Many dogs shed or smell bad. They lack table manners. They may act up around strangers. They have to go to the bathroom constantly, and do not care where they relieve themselves. Depending on what's going on they may continually bark or whine. Heck, even if nothing is going on they may continually bark or whine. It is expensive and time consuming to ensure they have proper medical care, shelter, food, entertainment, and dental care. But if you're an adult you know all this already. It's up to you to train your dog so that its behavior falls into socially acceptable patterns. A dog is a dog. It is not and never will be a furry little human. Expecting that is stupid. But if you're willing to put in work, as obviously these yahoos were not, then in most instances you can have a rewarding and fun relationship with a very social animal who by nature tends to be willing to please. Getting a dog is a big decision and not one which should be lightly taken. Selfish lazy people should never have dogs. Hopefully the dog is not too damaged from the mistreatment it received and can find a new home with people who actually know what to expect from our canine friends. After all, the dog didn't ask to be there. Generally speaking, a dog is just a mirror to what sort of person you really are. And if you are the sort of person who can't handle the "horrible stress" of having a puppy act like a puppy do yourself and your potential puppy a huge favor and get a less stressful and more affectionate and expressive animal like a goldfish. But be careful. You do have to change the goldfish's water from time to time.
Story Link

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Donald Trump: Racist White Man's Badass Revenge

Donald Trump is the walking unalloyed id of fearful white reactionaries. He says what a lot of people are thinking (if you believe that various online comments are a window into some people's souls) but until recently have not said out loud in mixed company. Trump opened his presidential campaign with slurs against Mexicans and Hispanics. He has continued it with broadsides against and snide comments about Blacks, the media, disabled people, President Obama, Jews, women he finds uppity, and of late, Muslims. It is arguable as to whether Trump truly believes all that he says. Much of what he says is demonstrably untrue. There were not thousands, hundreds or even dozens of American Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9-11 attacks. Black people do not commit 81% of murders. And so on. And it would be neither wise nor constitutional, as Trump suggests, to employ religious tests for immigration to and ultimately citizenship in the United States. The US military and law enforcement agencies should not and must not, as Trump has suggested, go after the families of suspected or convicted terrorists. And Muslims should not be forced to have special IDs or sign up for a database. Trump thinks that the United States should use a religious test for entry into this country. And the test would be simple. If you are a Muslim, you don't get to enter. How he would square that with the Constitution is anybody's guess. Obviously, for quite a lot of people, apparently most especially Trump, the election of a black man to the highest office in the land was a severe shock from which they've never truly recovered. As a result some folks think if that Barack Hussein Obama can do it, I KNOW I could. It's one thing to think that the President is incorrect on this or that issue or even incompetent. That comes with the job. But when you, as at least some Republicans do, view the election of a black man as prima facie evidence that something has gone very badly wrong in the system then you're playing with some very dangerous forces.

For some people, the fact that the President is black, regardless of how much of a centrist/Eisenhower Republican Obama can be, means that America is in decline and must be restored. Those are the people to whom Trump speaks. I don't think that Trump is a stupid man by any means. However I don't believe he's as smart as he would have us conclude. 

It is darkly humorous and quite revealing that Trump supporters, some of whom froth at the mouth over President Obama's executive orders and aggressive bureaucracies, cheer at Trump's "Me, me,me, I, I, I" rhetoric and promises to make changes that simply can't be made without the agreement of Congress, the courts, and occasionally other countries. But when Trump defends his idea by saying well it's not as bad as FDR's internment of Japanese-Americans then as I wrote, you're dealing with someone who is downright dangerous. It has become popular in some circles for people to claim that they would rather have their racism and bigotry upfront and honest, rather than hidden behind politesse and smarmy denials. Well those people will have their claims put to the test should Trump ever become President. Trump is in full "attack the other" mode. And for him the other is anyone who is not Caucasian and Christian. Many people find the whiff of fascism, racism and sexism in anyone who's to the right of Noam Chomsky and more masculine than pajama boy. Those folks can usually be dismissed. But this time they are dead on accurate. Trump may or may not become the Republican nominee for President. But if he does then the American voter will have a quite clear choice to make. I can understand why people who didn't care for George Bush's cowboy certainty were initially attracted to Obama's cool as a cucumber persona. And I can understand why some of those people, now frustrated with what they view as Obama's confusing lack of passion, are excited by Trump's bombast. But blaming all Muslims for the acts of a few makes no sense. That's not how America is supposed to work. I think that most Americans still get this. But quite a few Republicans do not. For them the descriptor  "American" simply can't be easily fit onto anyone who isn't a White Christian. That is why so many of them still believe that the President is neither American born nor Christian. These people aren't going anywhere for a while. And they vote. Buckle your seats because this election cycle just became a lot more interesting and vital. I wonder if the Christian right-wingers who mutter about exercising their Second Amendment options accept that Muslim-Americans, facing talk of id cards, immigration restrictions, calls to "go after" family members of suspects, and internment camps, might themselves decide to get better armed...just in case.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Book Reviews: The Bazaar of Bad Dreams

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams
By Stephen King
I am always fascinated by artists or other performers who are at the top of their game. Whether it's watching Rahsaan Roland Kirk playing three saxophones at once, Stephen Curry making other professional basketball players look silly or Bruce Lee demonstrating his one inch knockout punch it's a beautiful thing to experience. We only see the finished product but don't see all the hard work it took to get there. Stephen King is one of America's, maybe the world's greatest writers. And he's still got it. This is a collection of short stories which were all new to me though several of them were previously published in slightly different forms in such magazines as Playboy, Esquire, The New Yorker or The Atlantic. So if you're an King collector/fanatic you may already be familiar with some of these tales. But as King says as far as he is concerned no story is every really done until the writer is dead. King says one question that people always ask him is where he gets his ideas. King states that the question is essentially unanswerable. Nevertheless he gives an introduction to each story which provides the reader an entry into his state of mind at the time of the story's creation. He even occasionally explains exactly where and how he thinks the story germinated. So there's that gift for those of us who want to know how the magic works. King also announces that he does not do confessional fiction but then declares that obviously as he ages ideas about what happens next and what do we leave behind start to come more and more to the forefront. And his near death experience after being hit by an inattentive driver has seemingly become something which well, haunts his writing, might be too strong of a phrase but informs his work, would not be. So like everyone else King is a man of paradoxes and contradictions. Go figure. Although King is known as a horror writer, that's not necessarily a title he seeks out. He tells the story of being sent to the grocery store by his wife and being accosted by a woman who chides him for writing all those scary supernatural stories. She wants to know why can't he write a nice uplifting story like "Shawshank Redemption". King replies that actually he wrote that story. The woman responds "No you didn't". And King can't convince her otherwise. Perhaps this collection can be of interest to people who think that King can only write supernatural or downbeat stories. Even where there is a supernatural element it is extremely well integrated with the rest of the story. I think that about half of the stories in this book do not have any supernatural components. You will have to decide for yourself if they are uplifting or not.
King has always impressed me most with his ability to create firmly believable characters. This talent is most easily seen in his novels of course but it's even more on display in his short stories here. In a very small number of pages King can build fictional people who just reek of verisimilitude while other authors can take damn near the entire book to create flat and lifeless characters. With most of the stories here I didn't feel as if I was reading them so much as if I was transferred into that reality. There was very little skimming occurring while reading this collection. That's usually a benefit of a short story collection though. If something doesn't really make your skirt fly up there's a new story arriving in just a few pages. I liked most of these stories. King includes some of his poetry. But I'm not a huge poetry fan so I couldn't really get into that. If you're looking for what you think of as the "typical" King story, the author has got you covered with "Mile 81" which introduces some good Samaritans, some frightened kids and a car that is more than meets the eye. "Dune" could be the best story of the book as it saves the shock for the final sentence. Then again "Herman Wouk is still alive" could also challenge for the best story of the collection. Two impoverished women, best friends since high school, go on a road trip while at the same time two old poets go on a picnic. King strongly believes that a writer should be able to write from any point of view. He puts this belief to the test in "Mister Yummy" in which an elderly gay man tells of strange things he's seeing in a retirement home. "Blockade Billy" is a rollicking story set in the classic 50s-60s baseball era. A strange catcher comes out of nowhere to invigorate a team. "Morality" examines how a married couple in dire financial straits responds to a proposal (and no it's not that kind of proposal) from the wife's employer, a wealthy older man. In "Drunken Fireworks", a Maine rivalry between a wealthy Italian-American vacationing family and a drunk man and his obese alcoholic mother slowly gets out of hand. In "Under the Weather" King examines the ability of the human mind to deny reality. As the story is told from the pov of the person who's an unreliable narrator there are a few juicy surprises in store for the reader. "Ur" uses a typo made while ordering online to explore love, fate and the question of multiple universes. There are other good stories here which I won't describe. Basically if you're a King fan you should buy this book. And if you're new to King you should buy this book. I read most of it while spending too much time at an auto dealership waiting on repairs. The repairs took twice as long as they should have but I wasn't that upset because I had this book to read.

Movie Reviews: No Escape

No Escape
directed by The Dowdle Brothers (John Erick and Drew)
This was an exciting and well directed movie with only a few events that didn't make sense. Ok maybe it had more than a few things that didn't make sense. But it was still a thrill ride albeit perhaps a subtly manipulative one. There are some deeper questions about planetary fairness and corporate neo-colonialism that the film clumsily shoehorns into the narrative as a vaccine against charges of bigotry. These questions are still worth thinking about. For example, you may well believe that it's wrong that half the world's population lives on less than $3/day, doesn't have access to clean drinking water or toilet facilities, or has to deal with diseases and conditions long since eradicated in the West. You may blame Western imperialism, colonialism and racism for this state of affairs. Perhaps you sympathize somewhat with Third World socialist or nationalist movements or parties who seek to alter this state of affairs. Perhaps. However if someone who has suffered thru these repressive living conditions decides that they are entitled to beat, rob, rape or murder you in order to exorcise their bad feelings and settle the score, I'm betting any sympathy you had for their plight vanishes. So there's that. Brothers John Erick Dowdle and Drew Dowdle, who also wrote and directed As Above, So Below and Quarantine, directed this movie. No Escape had a horror movie sensibility to it but then again the worst horrors are other people. One can argue about whether some of the behaviors depicted in this film would really happen but there's thousands of years of history to show that they would. If enough people get the idea that they can let their worst instincts run loose with no repercussions, well you get things like the Opelousas Massascre, Kristallnacht, St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and so on.
It is really important to re-emphasize how well this film is edited and put together. You feel as if you are actually there. This is the sort of movie which may have you yelling at the screen. The camera work moves smoothly back and forth between close handheld views and more panoramic vistas.

Do you remember the ending of The Sopranos? Do you remember how the director skillfully made you think that something drastic was about to happen? Well maybe that drastic thing happened and maybe it didn't but this movie opens up with the same sort of palpable tension. In an unnamed SouthEast Asian country the prime minister, surrounded by bodyguards and soldiers, meets with a Western (American?) diplomat or businessman. Something is subtly off. The prime minister has a food taster who doubles as his top bodyguard.  Are the drinks poisoned? Is there a bomb hidden somewhere? Is the Westerner an assassin? Well the Westerner leaves but then things jump off. 17 hours before this, the genially clueless Texan civil engineer Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson), his quite curvy but somewhat hard looking wife Annie (Lake Bell) and their two pre-teen daughters are flying to this country to start over. Jack's previous employer has declared bankruptcy. This new assignment is his last chance to stay in his chosen career. Jack will be overseeing water treatment and delivery projects. On the plane the family makes an acquaintance of the suave Britisher Hammond (Pierce Brosnan). Arriving at their hotel the family is nonplussed to learn that the amenities aren't exactly up to First World standards. Annie and the kids didn't want to leave home to travel halfway around the world. Jack can't believe that the hotel clerk has no messages for him. He can't even find a current English language newspaper for goodness sakes! After again encountering Hammond, who is raring to go sample the nightlife, Jack decides to stay in for the night. He tries, albeit ineptly, to comfort Annie, who's sobbing in the bathroom about well, everything. So it goes. Marriage is for better or worse. It's right there in the vows.
The next morning, Jack sets out on a journey to find a newspaper. But Jack is a rather unlucky fellow. Returning to the hotel he witnesses the start of a bloody confrontation between the police and rioters. The rioters get the upper hand. And in front of the hotel Jack sees rioters executing tourists. Well that will just ruin your day won't it. Jack must find his wife and daughters and leave. But leave for where exactly? Jack and his brood can't exactly blend into the local populace. Additionally, they neither speak the language nor understand the culture. And Jack isn't some secret Billy Bada$$ who will suddenly reveal a very particular set of skills. But all the same needs must. When the lives of your loved ones are at stake, you may find yourself doing things you never thought you could. In many aspects this is basically a live action zombie movie. As mentioned there are a few nods here and there to the humanity of the people of this country but that's really not what the film is interested in showing.  Jack and family are outnumbered and surrounded. They do get help from some unexpected quarters but ultimately they're on their own. This movie was very fast paced at about 103 minutes. You can't wait to see what happens next. The film goes from strength to strength visually. The writing is not the film's best feature but again, it's showing clueless Americans caught up in a coup and trying to escape. If you can't identify with that, this is not the film for you. 

Game of Thrones Season Six Trailer Tease

Well there's not much here nothing new here of course but then again it is a tease. In fact this is less of a tease and more of a reminder how just how much the Starks have been screwed over. There are plenty of hints in book and show that Bran has a big part to play in whatever the end game is going to be. But who knows if that part will be for good or bad. Bran may well end up transcending such petty concerns as Stark revenge or other political concerns. For all we know Bran could wind up making people ask why didn't someone take him out when he was young. We shall see. Most of the big narrative events in the published books have already been depicted in the show. I am looking forward to the new season, upset that there is not yet a new book to read, and disappointed that the final conclusion to the story will be revealed on television before print.

Hannah Duston: Heroine?

The other day I was reading thru the latest Quarterly Journal of Military History. I'm not sure I saw enough to justify the $13 purchase price but I did read about the story of Hannah Duston. I hadn't known about this story before. I thought it interesting and relevant to today's world. As you know the French and English colonized much of North America. They brought over their national, political and religious rivalries. These conflicts routinely erupted into war. In 1687 during the war that was alternately known as King William's War or the Second Indian War, the Abenaki Native Americans, allied with the French, attacked the town of Haverhill, Massachusetts. They killed 27 English colonists and took captives, including one Hannah Duston, her six day old daughter, and her nurse Mary. Hannah's husband Thomas escaped with the couple's other older children, though some people in Haverhill wondered if he was a coward. Some people thought then and now there's no way Thomas Duston should have been alive if his wife and baby were captured. Thomas' defenders argue that he had responsibilities to his other children to consider. As I've written elsewhere you have to make hard choices in tough situations. Hannah may or may not have been raped. That can't be determined. What is certain however is that the Abenaki military party decided that Hannah's new baby daughter Martha wasn't likely to survive the trip north. And they didn't want to be bothered with the trouble of taking care of a baby. So they killed the infant by dashing her brains out against a tree. 
As you might imagine that didn't go over too well with Mrs. Duston. But she bided her time. She was assigned/sold/gifted to a different Abenaki group. Six weeks later, in New Hampshire Hannah saw her opportunity. Along with Mary and another English captive, a fourteen year old boy named Samuel, she went Lizzie Borden on her captors while they slept. Hannah, Mary and Samuel killed two men, two women and six children.

Likely motivated by revenge, a bounty on Native American scalps, and most of all the need to prove that women and a youth had done what they claimed, Hannah Duston also scalped the Native Americans. She escaped back to her home. Hannah Duston became the first woman in colonial America to be honored by a statue. There are memorials and statues across Massachusetts and New Hampshire commemorating Hannah Duston. In fact the axe she used to handle her business is honored in a museum. Some descendants of the Abenaki felt that any glorification or commemoration of Hannah Duston was not only wrongheaded  but racist. 
Margaret Bruchak, an Abenaki historian, said in order to properly understand the Duston story, it’s important to understand the Abenaki culture’s view of combat and captivity.
“The whole point of taking a captive was to then transport that person safely. For the whole of that journey they were treated like family,” Bruchak said. “When captives were taken, they were almost immediately handed off from the warriors to individuals who would then look after them. Hannah, we know for a fact, was handed over to an extended family group of two adult men, three women, seven children and one white child.”
That’s why the Abenaki viewed Duston’s actions after she escaped with such horror, she said.
“It’s almost like the Geneva Conventions, when you think about it. Han
nah betrayed the Abenaki Geneva Conventions. It wasn’t while she was in the midst of warfare that she did these supposedly brave acts. It was while she was in the care of a family,” Bruchak said. “If she had merely escaped, there probably would be very little story to tell, but the fact that she escaped, then stopped and went back to collect scalps – the bloody-mindedness of it is really quite remarkable. …
The Abenaki historian here glosses over the kidnapping of Hannah Duston. It takes some serious chutzpah to criticize Duston for bloody-mindedness after her baby was murdered. The reason that this story and the Abenaki reaction to it struck a chord with me is because it was not long ago that some conservative (and not so conservative) whites got very upset about the unveiling of a Charleston, South Carolina statue commemorating African-American freedom fighter Denmark Vesey, who attempted to lead a slave revolt and escape to Haiti. Vesey was betrayed, tortured and executed.
FAYETTEVILLE, N.Y. — ON Feb. 15, a group of activists in Charleston, S.C., unveiled a life-size statue of Denmark Vesey, a black abolitionist who was executed in 1822 for leading a failed slave rebellion in the city. For many people, Vesey was a freedom fighter and a proto-civil rights leader. But the statue, the work of nearly two decades, brought out furious counterattacks; one recent critic called him a “terrorist,” and a historian denounced him as “a man determined to create mayhem.”
Radio hosts, academics and newspaper bloggers condemned the project as “Charleston’s parallel to the 1990s O. J. Simpson verdict,” and suggested other African-Americans they believed more appropriate subjects of memorialization, like the rock pioneer Chubby Checker or the astronaut Ronald E. McNair.
Yes, because when I think of someone who stood up against all the odds and was willing to die for what was right, Chubby Checker is the first person who comes to mind. Ridiculous. That is exactly like an Abenaki historian saying that the Hannah Duston statues in Haverhill should be replaced with Rob Zombie ones. And the people complaining about the Denmark Vesey statue seem to have missed all the statues and other commemorations given to slaveowners and rebels. Now although you could make (and some have made) the argument that the European settlers never should have been in Massachusetts in the first place I don't think anyone would argue that a mother who had just seen her captors kill her infant child by dashing its brains out wouldn't be justified in seeking some payback. Similarly you have to be tone deaf and ignorant not to understand that if you violently enslave someone (and their children and their children's children) then you shouldn't be too surprised or outraged if they decide to make you bleed rather than submit any longer. Now whatever you think of violence (and if you're like most people you probably seek to avoid it) you must understand that violence begets violence and hate. In short if you mess with me I am going to mess with you. That's human nature. As Muhammad Ali said: I'm a fighter. I believe in the eye-for-an-eye business. I'm no cheek turner. I got no respect for a man who won't hit back. You kill my dog, you better hide your cat.” There's no way we can logically admire Hannah Duston and scorn Denmark Vesey or Gabriel Prosser or Nat Turner. Or rather there is no way we can do that and still pretend to aspire to a universal sense of morality. If you have a severely attenuated moral sense that only responds to what is "good" for your kith and kin, then yes you can cheer for one and not the other, but don't be surprised if someone calls you on your hypocrisy. No human can be kidnapped, enslaved or see his or her relatives brutalized and not want to do something about it. It's a cliche but it certainly often remains the case that one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. History is less about what actually happened and much more about what we're supposed to learn from what happened. So although history is past it's very much a political endeavor of the present. There is a reason why Duston is glorified while people like Vesey, Turner, Prosser and John Brown are ignored or denounced.