Saturday, January 31, 2015

Movie Reviews: Predestination, Lucy

Directed by Michael and Peter Spierig
This is a science fiction film which involves time travel that goes both forward and backwards depending on your perspective. The initial storyline involves a law enforcement/intelligence agency that operates to stop crime before it starts by going back in time to change just enough in the timeline to prevent the future murder or other atrocity. Although this might immediately put you in mind of Looper or Minority Report, Predestination is a more hauntingly personal and downright weird film with its own musings on life, the choices we make and whether or not things are meant to be. I thought this film seemed strangely familiar. I wasn't too surprised to discover later that it was based on a story by sci-fi giant Robert Heinlein. I'm not sure that I read the source story but I'm not sure I didn't either. In a bit of a paradox, much like the world it envisions, the more ridiculous this film becomes the more it makes you think or in some cases shudder. It is somewhat amazing that any of us are here. What are the odds that your mother and father met and fell in love? And what are the odds that they created you on the day they did? And what are the odds that your grandparents, great grandparents, and on back to antiquity met or created all the people they had to meet or create to become your ancestors and give you your particular set of biological and environmental strengths and weaknesses, quirks and talents that make you you? If anything changed, no matter how small, you might not exist. There are some theories based on quantum physics interpretations which claim that there are an infinite number of universes all based on each individual decision that we all make over our lifetime. Maybe if your mother doesn't leave home exactly when she does she never meets your father. Perhaps if you don't go to the coffee shop at exactly 7:25 AM you don't meet the barista with the nice smile, smooth moves and good looks that you want your children to have. 
Then again maybe everything was always meant to be or from someone else's point of view has already happened. Maybe, like in the movie Prince of Darkness, a future you is desperately trying to warn you against making a critical life altering mistake but s/he can't change the past and you blissfully ignore the nutter with a strange resemblance to you.

The Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke) is trying to catch the Fizzle Bomber, a masked man who will kill over 10,000 people in a 1975 NYC bombing. He's on the man's trail but is badly burned trying to defuse a bomb. He travels to the future to get healing and reconstructive surgery as well as some advice and warnings from his boss (Noah Taylor). Healed, the Agent travels back to 1970s New York to work as a bartender in an area and time period where he knows the Fizzle Bomber hangs out. There he meets an odd young woman who calls herself The Unmarried Mother (Sarah Snook) who says she has the strangest story to tell which anyone has ever heard. The story she tells is indeed weird and draws in The Temporal Agent. And's lets stop detailing the narrative right there. Even as the film becomes stranger and stranger it also becomes more poignant and gentle in some ways. You will definitely come out with your preconceptions shaken up a bit. The film is just chock full of paradoxes. The filmmakers can't resist leaving some clues as to the nature of the story. Visual and auditory Easter eggs are scattered across the film. Unless you're smarter than the average bear you might have to watch it a second time to pick up on all of them. This is not a movie with big shootouts or tons of crass special effects. The special effects are good but Hawke's and especially Snook's acting are what drive the film and story. Snook's range is just short of astonishing. 

The film looks like an updated film noir with its lighting and shadows, cigarette smoke and heavy overcoats. There were also some art deco architecture and settings which I enjoyed. The pacing was a little off in a few spots but it was otherwise a quiet film that drew you inwards to the story and made you think afterwards about what makes you who you are. I liked the film. So to conclude, if you are willing to let a film warp your brain for a while, check this film out. If you want more conventional fare, check out Lucy.

Directed by Luc Besson
Lucy is the movie that Transcendence could have been. Well. For me anyhow part of that is because Scarlett Johansson is far more interesting to watch on screen than Johnny Depp. The fact that for about a third of the film Johansson was running around in a tight t-shirt probably helped with that. But animal instincts aside Lucy is fun and visually involving in a way that Transcendence simply wasn't. Although the premise behind Lucy isn't true (we use more than 10% of our brainpower) and indeed the film becomes increasingly and outrageously ridiculous as the story proceeds it's still more entertaining than Transcendence was, not because Johansson is a better thespian than Depp but because the story doesn't get bogged down into taking itself too seriously for long periods of time. By the time we realize how silly this movie is (and for some of you who are smarter than I that may happen in the first ten minutes) it's easier to just kick back, put your feet up and enjoy the ride. The movie is only about 90 minutes. It maintains a breakneck pace throughout. Transcendence came to mind not only because of the similar themes but because Morgan Freeman basically plays the same character in both films, the comforting wise avuncular scientist who is pleased as punch to help younger people and witness what may be a new frontier in human advancement.

This film has a little something for everyone. There's plenty of action, sadistic violent baddies, the aforementioned cleavage factor, some warped science, and philosophical questions (and answers?) about the nature of life, the universe and everything. That's a lot to pack into ninety minutes and on one actress but Johansson pulls it off. This is a Johannson film through and through. I can't imagine anyone else doing it. In many aspects some of this is a continuation of her roles from the Black Widow parts in the Avenger series. Lucy (Johansson) is a college student and girlfriend of a useless (American?) goofball in Taipei, Taiwan. We know that he's cowardly because he's trying to convince Lucy to do his job and deliver a briefcase to a mysterious Mr. Jang (Choi Min-Sik), his ultimate employer who doesn't tolerate tardiness or mistakes. When Lucy declines to do so her erstwhile boyfriend handcuffs the briefcase to Lucy and forces her into the hotel where Mr. Jang is waiting. Well sometimes you just have a bad day. Jang's employees kill the boyfriend and take Lucy upstairs where she sees they've murdered others as well. It turns out that the briefcase contains packets of very powerful synthetic psychotropic drugs which Jang requires Lucy and other hapless mules to move into Europe. This isn't a request. The drugs are surgically inserted into Lucy and company with a warning from a dapper English translator (Julian Rhind-Tutt) that any attempt to remove the drugs, alert authorities, or deviate from instructions in any way will result in a sudden case of death for their loved ones.

Later on, a lower ranking bad guy, bent on a little "fun" which Lucy rejects, gives her a beating which causes some of the drugs to leak into her bloodstream. That was a mistake. For him. The drugs rework and rewire Lucy's brain. They turn her into something that is growing beyond homo sapiens. This all happens in the first 10-15 minutes. The film's balance is concerned with Jang's attempt to get his drugs back, Lucy's attempt to understand and deal with what's happening to her and Professor Samuel Norman's (Morgan Freeman) attempt to explain things to the audience and to Lucy. Much like with Neo in The Matrix or the Superman reboot, if someone has powers beyond the human, we had better hope that they maintain some sort of moral control and human connection. Because if they don't we're all in a lot of trouble. The action showdowns are really just the fluff to get you into the meat of the film. Where did we come from? How far back does it all go? What's the meaning of life?  The film often looks good while asking the questions. But if you realize that the premise is nonsense you may not be able to take anything else seriously. Besson is also less interested in what Lucy can do than what this all means for mankind. It's an uneven film but Johansson puts it on her back and carries it into the end zone. You may laugh and cringe at places that weren't meant for either. After her dosage with the drugs, Lucy often speaks in a distracting near monotone.

HBO Game of Thrones: Season Five Trailer

If it's Saturday there must be another Season Five Game of Thrones trailer to share. I mentioned last time that I didn't see myself being quite as interested in upcoming Season Five as I had been in the previous seasons. This is because I don't think the remaining currently published source material was quite as strong as the previously depicted books and because I am going to be working a new schedule at my day job that may interfere a bit with writing Monday reviews/recaps. Snicker. But looking at this latest trailer for the new season I may have to rethink some things. I said before that because of the inexorable pace of the television series, the different requirements of the medium and especially because some characters have already neared or reached the end of their published storylines, that I thought all of us, book readers and show watchers alike, would probably be seeing more surprises this season. Judging by this trailer there might be something to this hypothesis. It could be hit or miss. Sometimes the show writers have scored home runs with the material they've invented ( the frank and blunt conversation between Robert and Cersei about their marriage, Arya and Tywin's interactions) and sometimes they've struck out (the Jaime-Cersei "rape" scene or the endless harping on Pod's hidden bedroom talents). Anyway check this out below the jump. Of course trailers are edited to mislead and excite interest simultaneously. But there's little here which is immediately obvious to a book reader though it's been a minute since I read the books. So this could presage the best season ever or..not. Time will tell. I do know I will be surprised either way. Jaime in Dorne is something different. And is that Grey Worm and Missandei together??

Friday, January 30, 2015

Religious exceptionalism and the law

I am not religious but many people I deeply care about are. Even if everyone I loved, admired or respected were an atheist I would still think that common courtesy means that generally I am not going to go out of my way to insult someone's religious beliefs. For other personal and political reasons I even occasionally have some sympathy for religious people who feel that they are set upon by a government which is determined to drive all religion out of the public square or force religious business owners or individuals between a rock and a hard place where they must choose to violate religious beliefs or pay exorbitant fines. But I said some sympathy not a lot. As religious people, usually on the right, have fought back against what they see as government overreach by claiming religious exceptions to generally applicable laws, they have generally done so by citing Christian or occasionally Jewish doctrines. That's all well and good but this is a big country with lots of different religious traditions. What may be profoundly silly to someone of a Christian faith tradition may be a matter of serious import to someone of a non-Christian faith tradition. Many of the right-wing Christians who are seeking or have won religious exemptions to such things as birth control provisions or wish to allow government judges, magistrates and mayors to opt out of issuing marriage licenses to gay couples or who have the bright idea to limit marriage to religious people alone should remember that they aren't the only people to have religious objections to something that seems pretty cut and dry otherwise.

Case in point: in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn Heights, a woman named Malak Kazan was caught driving on a suspended license and then subsequently arrested. But when she was taken to booking things got interesting.
Before reading further you should know that the tri-country area of SE Michigan has the United States' largest grouping of people of Middle Eastern and Southwest Asian descent. It is not all odd to see women wearing hijab or to drive down the streets of certain neighborhoods and see Arabic script on billboards or storefronts. The population of Dearborn and Dearborn Heights is at least 1/3 or more of Middle Eastern descent, something that has caused some right-wing bigots commentators to refer to the general area as "Dearbornistan". It's also important to know that not every local person of Middle Eastern descent is Muslim. There are a lot of Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Maronites and so on. Anyhow Kazan was of the opinion that to remove her hair covering in the presence of an unrelated man was not only demeaning and degrading but unconstitutional. When she was forced to remove her hair covering she filed a federal lawsuit.

A Muslim woman filed a lawsuit Thursday accusing Dearborn Heights police of violating her constitutional rights by making her remove her Islamic head scarf after they arrested her for driving on a suspended license. The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Detroit, asks for Dearborn Heights to "modify its current policy" so that Muslim women can wear Islamic head scarves during booking procedures. Malak Kazan of Dearborn Heights was pulled over by police in July on a traffic violation and then taken into custody on a traffic misdemeanor because of her suspended license, according to the lawsuit.

The male police officer then asked Kazan to remove her head scarf to take her booking photo, which usually requires no head coverings or hats. Kazan objected, saying her Islamic faith required her to cover her hair and neck in the presence of men who are not part of her immediate family, the lawsuit said.

Initially I was a little torn on this. There are people in prison who have successfully won the right to kosher or halal food or access to the religious books of their choice. There are Orthodox mohels who use their mouth to draw blood from newly circumcised baby boys. There are a handful of religious exemptions to PPACA. And so on. So what was the big deal right?
Now there are lawyers around this blog who could quote you all the relevant case history and Supreme Court decisions. Perhaps they will drop by and leave some more knowledge. But my interest was less with the legal specifics and more with common sense. After some more thought I don't see it as a horrible violation to have to remove a hair covering for a booking photo. The point of the booking photo is identification. It's not to humiliate you. It's something that anyone who is arrested will have to do. So, if everyone who's arrested has to remove head/hair coverings that could interfere with their identification I would not be in support of Kazan's lawsuit. There are however some people who see situations like these and look jealously at existing exemptions or special treatment given to other religions and ask, why should we assimilate. This case reminded me a little bit of another Muslim woman, one Sultana Freeman, who wanted to have her driver's license photo show her in a veil with only her eyes showing. Some things just won't work. I don't think we can chase all religion out of the public square. I doubt we can come up with bright line rules that automatically make the answers obvious whenever someone raises a religious objection to secular law. But I also think that there are some generally applicable laws and rules that must apply to everyone regardless of their religious beliefs. You get arrested; you take off your hair covering. You want a driver's license; you show your face. And if you're a state justice of the peace or magistrate and a same sex couple wants to get married, you marry them.

How do you see all of this?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Marshawn Lynch speaks to the media

As most of you know the Super Bowl is this Sunday. I am betting (not literally of course since I don't make enough money to lose any) that the Seattle Seahawks will defeat the New England Patriots. If Seattle does win there's no doubt that their starting running back Marshawn Lynch will be key to their victory. If Seattle loses or gets blown out (assuming New England didn't cheat) there's a pretty good chance that Marshawn Lynch either didn't have a good game, was hurt, or otherwise removed from the game plan. He's that dominant. Known as Beast Mode, Lynch has a very aggressive commanding running style. There's a few times I've seen him dragging defenders down the field, simply refusing to be tackled. He's a very exciting player in a time where the passing game has tended to outshine the running game. But Mr. Lynch has become just as well known for his dislike for talking in public, or rather, his dislike for talking in public to reporters. His teammates have consistently said that he's a great guy. One of the most extroverted and verbally demonstrative Seahawks, cornerback Richard Sherman, has said (paraphrasing) that asking Lynch to go out and answer interview questions and/or verbally banter with reporters is akin to asking a reporter to play linebacker and tackle Adrian Peterson. Nonetheless, the NFL is adamant about ensuring that the media has access to star players. The NFL has fined players, including Marshawn Lynch, for avoiding interviews or cutting them short. Although I suppose a $10,000 fine won't hurt someone who's making millions those fines can add up. 

So Lynch stopped skipping interviews. Though he attended interviews he limited himself STRICTLY to what the NFL required. He answered reporters' questions but used the exact same phrase over and over ("Thank you for asking") no matter what. The NFL said he had to answer questions for at least five minutes so he set an alarm on his phone and "answered" questions for exactly five minutes and not one second longer. You would think people would get the hint but this just continued a game of "Let's ask Lynch a question today just because" and showed the limits of the NFL's or the media's power to compel someone to engage verbally. On sports radio shows arguments have raged about whether the NFL is right to attempt to make star players speak (it's good for business and was apparently negotiated in the collective bargaining agreement) or if this is just a pushy, entitled and uncaring NFL/media complex trying to force an individual to do something he's not good at and has no interest in doing. As someone who is introverted and generally only opens up verbally to people I know very well or like a great deal I tend to support Lynch. On the other hand he's paid a lot of money so what is so bad about answering some, admittedly mostly silly, questions. Well yesterday Lynch did have a little more to say besides "Have a blessed day" or "That's a great question". Check it out below and share your thoughts.

Drug Tests, Welfare and Joni Ernst

I have no use for junkies. They are wasting their human potential. Perhaps if my reality were woefully lacking I would better understand their cravings. However, though I haven't gotten everything I wanted out of life I really like myself. I don't want to become like a now deceased grade school classmate who fell into a drug habit for which he paid by walking the streets. Drug dependency is foul. Nevertheless some drug usage is not that different from legal substances such as tobacco or alcohol. I also eschew those items but that is just me. People near and dear to me as well as (obviously) strangers make different decisions and that is fine. If you smoke God bless you, just don't do it around me or there will be some problems. If you drink, knock yourself out, just don't drink and drive or operate other dangerous machinery or vehicles while your judgment, perception and motor skills are somewhat impaired. So with some exceptions I'm pretty much a live and let live fellow. We're all going to end up six feet under so if your idea of personal fun is different than mine I won't have a temper tantrum about it, provided it doesn't interfere with my life or hurt other people. Unfortunately a swath of the Republican Party doesn't see things that way. The conservative brain trust's latest idea is that the impoverished people on government assistance should be tested for drug use, before and during the times that they are accepting assistance. This idea was tried and rejected in Florida but Michigan recently implemented a pilot program to do much the same thing. Keep in mind that Michigan already has a 48 month lifetime limit on welfare.

Although supporters claim that the state has an interest in ensuring that anyone who is accepting government funds is not a drug abuser I don't think that's the real concern. Most information that we have shows that poor and black people (and make no mistake there's a racial element whenever we talk about "welfare") use illegal drugs at similar or lower rates than rich or white people. It's expensive to be a junkie. The welfare rolls are not overrun with junkies. They are filled with people who can't find a good paying job. The biggest reasons that they can't find a job are not because they are substance abusers or lazy coconuts but because in a time of globalization, outsourcing, de-unionization and de-industrialization, increasing automation, dodgy child care, segregated job markets and housing tracts, racist hiring practices, bad schools and employers who can afford to be picky with a large labor reserve, living wage jobs are not easily found. There are so many myths about poor people
Many people who support testing welfare recipients anyway ignore those points and counter with "Well, if they don't want to prove that they're drug free, they must not need the help that badly." This is a moral statement that shows the true issue behind the urge to drug test welfare recipients. It's all about power and humiliation. It's an S&M power play posing as purposeful public policy. It's just to humiliate and shame people for the crime of being on welfare. 

Yes, there are some welfare recipients who are scamming the system, who do have drug or alcohol issues or who just need a swift kick in the butt. But in this case the state will likely waste more money determining who is "deserving" of assistance than it will save by identifying those welfare baseheads. And if people taking government assistance should be tested for illicit drugs why aren't we applying that standard to everyone across the board?

If you own a home, or to be more precise, are paying interest on a loan you took out to purchase a primary residence, you may deduct the interest paid on that loan against your federal tax liability. Effectively the government is subsidizing your purchase. You're getting government help. If you own a business you can depreciate machinery, business property and other items to once again reduce your federal tax liability. If you are building or already own a sports stadium or multi-use property it's quite likely that the local and/or state government gave you sweetheart deals on the land, agreed to not collect taxes or only do so at a extremely low rate, provided you loans at very favorable terms, used public money to build your stadium or even used eminent domain to move other private businesses, individuals or even competitors out of your way. If you're a farmer, you can mumble a few platitudes about "the heartland", "American values", "pickup trucks", and maybe chew on a corncob pipe while you rush yourself down to the nearest Department of Agriculture office to pick up your subsidy check. You can then kick back and sneer at all those lazy welfare city slackers who aren't real Americans like you. These examples are just a very small portion of middle-class or upper-class goodies available from the government. This doesn't include the salaries and perks of upper level government employees like Senators, Representatives and Judges.

In most political circles the above people are not regularly and constantly derided as lazy spongers, useless eaters, parasites or the like. Few of them are ever told "Well if you want this money from the government, go fill this cup so we can ensure you're not a crackhead". Why? Statistically we KNOW some of them are snorting, smoking, injecting or injesting something the law forbids. It's because conservatives in particular and Americans in general believe that if you're poor you're a loser who should be shamed, mocked and generally pushed around. If welfare drug testing was really about the principle that government aid should come with strings attached then we would see people calling for testing individuals in the classes listed above. But we usually don't. One irony is that conservatives have generally been skeptical or hostile to the idea that government involvement or assistance in a private business or marketplace, direct or diffused, can or should be the leverage used to compel a private behavior change. The other irony is that your stereotypical welfare queen with a substance abuse problem doesn't greatly impact my life. But a Senator or Representative who's on the pipe? A real estate mogul who has both a heroin addiction and friends with eminent domain power? A judge with an oxycontin dependency who is hearing a case with a Big Pharma defendant? Those people can affect my life more than a poor family trying to survive on food stamps and hundred dollars and change each week.

The public spotlight might not prove to be Ernst's best friend. The District Sentinel, a Washington, D.C., news co-op, reports that despite her campaign pitch that her parents "taught us to live within our means," her family members collected $463,000 in federal farm subsidies from 1995 through 2009.

The figures come from the Environmental Working Group's authoritative database of farm supports. Most of the money, more than $367,000 in mostly corn subsidies, went to Ernst's uncle, Dallas Culver, and his farm in her home town of Red Oak, Iowa. An additional $38,665 went to her father, Richard Culver, and $57,479 went to her grandfather, Harold Culver, who died in 2003.

We called Ernst's Senate office to ask how this record comports with her ostensible distaste for individual reliance on the federal government, but there was no answer and the line wasn't taking messages.

If "welfare" means taking government handouts then the families of people like Joni Ernst or Mike Illitch are bigger welfare queens than anyone in any inner city tough town, USA. But somehow all the various corporate welfare transfers don't excite the same level of contempt and slavering rage that a poor person does when he or she needs help. To repeat, there are indeed lazy greedy people who are always looking for a way to get over on everyone. But let's not pretend that they are all at the lowest end of the income/wealth spectrum. So all of you form a line to the left, drop trou and fill that cup!!!


Saturday, January 24, 2015

Movie Reviews: American Sniper

American Sniper
directed by Clint Eastwood
The late Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL from Texas. He was the deadliest sniper in American military history with 160 confirmed sniper kills. Kyle received a host of medals including Silver Stars, Purple Hearts and Bronze Stars. Kyle served four tours in Iraq. American Sniper is the story of Kyle's life based on his autobiography of the same title. This film featured such an extremely smooth fit between acting and direction that an incautious viewer could almost believe it was a documentary. The cinematography and sound were top notch. I think that a person can enjoy an artistic creation regardless of his or her thoughts about the creator's political leanings or of those who are depicted in the work. More on that later. American Sniper has a very simple narrative structure. Eastwood shows us the hero's early days before his destiny was revealed. The hero is challenged by forces both internal and external. He has to explain to himself and others why he feels what he does about the world and why he has the beliefs that he does. Ultimately the hero becomes the "great man" who is hailed by his peers before his betrayal and death. American Sniper opens with Kyle about to make a decision of great moral import in the middle of a street battle in wartime Iraq. But before we see what choice he makes Eastwood takes us back to Kyle's youth in Texas. Kyle's father was a disciplinarian who didn't care for bullies. As he explained to his two sons the world was divided up into wolves (who hurt, rob and murder people), sheep (passive people who were the prey for the wolves and had little if any power to resist them) and sheepdogs (active people who had the physical strength to protect the sheep from the wolves and the moral courage not to become wolves themselves). The elder Kyle explained that he wasn't raising any sheep in his family and he would be damned if his sons became wolves. This simplistic if effective moral message became the adult Chris Kyle's (Bradley Cooper) moral true north. He believes that it is his obligation to protect others just as he protected his younger brother from a schoolyard bully. His mantra is God, country and family. So when Kyle saw the Al-Qaeda attacks on the US embassies and later on 9-11 he took it very personally. After the embassy attacks he joined the Navy, leaving behind his previous profession of rodeo rider. He also left behind an implied lifestyle of easy women, meeting his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and impressing her with a combination of chivalry, good old boy charm, politeness, rectitude and confidence.

Although Miller's role is at first small and doesn't really have a theme of its own it's critical to the film because it's through Taya and her and Kyle's later children together that the film reveals Kyle's damaged and later salvaged humanity. So although this is a violent war movie it's also an exploration of the impact of war and the resulting PTSD on families, husbands and wives and their children. I think that might be an important consideration into why American Sniper isn't just another war movie, although some other people certainly saw it that way. Eastwood remains pretty conventional in his story line. We watch Chris win and woo Taya. We also watch him confront the physical challenges of SEAL training (he was older than the average SEAL prospect) and the fact that despite his familiarity with shooting and guns he wasn't exactly impressive at his initial marksman training and testing. It's shortly after Chris and Taya's wedding that the newlywed and new SEAL is sent off to war in Iraq. His job is to protect marines and soldiers as they perform missions in dense Iraqi cities. Chris is good at his job. He's so good that other armed forces members start requesting his team to watch their backs. His fellow warriors call him "Legend", somewhat sarcastically of course but never without respect.
But what apparently drives Kyle even more than the number of kills that he's made is that he's saving American lives (and incidentally some Iraqi ones as well, though the real life Kyle made it crystal clear that Iraqi lives were a minimal if not non-existent portion of his moral calculus in war) and helping Americans win over the "savages'. American Sniper takes the easy way out and doesn't display any American savagery. We don't hear epithets like dune coons or sand n*******. We don't see any carpet bombing, torture or indiscriminate shooting from gunships. We do see Al-Qaeda murder and torture. To help protect more Americans, Kyle leaves his sniper's perch to lead marines and soldiers from the front to help them safely search and clear houses. This is a very violent film but with one or two exceptions it never feels gratuitous. The movie has a very old school Western feel to it. We even have two mustache twirling Big Bads to act as Kyle's foils. There is The Butcher (Mido Hamada), an Al-Qaeda bigshot who is Al-Zarquawi's number two and Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), a Syrian Olympic medal winning sniper who is just about as talented as Kyle is, and who has been assigned to hunt Kyle. Kyle is not depicted as perfect. In one scene Eastwood depicts Kyle's pride interfering with good decision making with tragic results. The film leans toward hagiography but again it is based on Kyle's book. Kyle was pro-war. Eastwood shows that Kyle has no answer for his brother, a fellow veteran who now despises the war. And Kyle is shocked to be challenged in his Manichean beliefs by other sailors and soldiers who point out that evil is everywhere, not just in Iraq. The film avoids larger questions of the legality or morality of the Iraq invasion or the lies that preceded it by maintaining a very tight focus on Kyle and his struggle to survive.If the film has a weakness, and it has a few, one is that with four tours of duty some of the action is repetitive and hard to tell apart. Of course that could be the point.

In between his various tours of duty we see the increasing pressure that Chris and Taya's marriage comes under as well as the huge mental and physical stress that Chris undergoes, though he refuses to admit it to anyone. If Chris saved service members' lives overseas and back home via his work with veterans, the film gives the clear impression that Taya saved Chris' life. Say what you will about marriage but one clear benefit of a good marriage is that you have someone else looking out for your physical, mental and emotional health. The film's ending was abrupt. It was more effective because Eastwood didn't portray the final minutes of Kyle's life but rather showed him playing with his kids and flirting with his wife before leaving home with the man who would murder him. Eastwood used real life pictures and video of Chris Kyle's funeral and funeral procession while the credits rolled. When I saw the film's ending there was silence then applause in the theater. It's worth pointing out that I live in an area that very strongly trends Democratic and liberal. It's certainly possible that the film showing just happened to disproportionately attract Fox News viewers and/or relatives of veterans but I couldn't say. I would tend to doubt it. The theater was packed to the brim. This film is touching something among viewers of many political backgrounds..
As we noted when Kyle was murdered some people took the opportunity to say that he was a psychopathic killer or hurled even worse calumnies at him specifically and at the military in general. There's a political and cultural undercurrent. Kyle was a large southern masculine man who hunted animals and killed people in war. He apparently lacked or at least didn't publicly share any doubts about the essential rightness of his actions. He was proud of what he did. Some people can't tolerate that. Strangely enough however some of the people who eagerly hurled insults at Kyle or who saw him as a psychotic killer are also among the biggest supporters of our current President who has killed at least 2400 people in drone strikes. And unlike Kyle many of the people that President Obama killed were women, children and other non-combatants. In some cases President Obama and his team did not even deign to find out who they were bombing. They wanted to send a message and put the fear of God into people. They called such events signature strikes. The people ordering drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia from offices halfway around the world are never in any physical danger with the possible exception of carpal tunnel syndrome or running out of diet Coke. Kyle killed enemy soldiers and/or people who were trying to kill him or his fellow Americans. There's no record of him torturing people, committing war crimes or bombing wedding parties. As a sniper every bullet he fired was supposed to have a militarily justifiable target. Kyle may have occasionally felt like operating under much looser restrictions and indeed said so IRL but he didn't. He walked into physical danger and paid the price. Kyle thought he could morally justify every shot he took.
I don't see a moral calculus under which anyone can have an inchoate rage about Chris Kyle and not have worse anger towards President Obama. I think many film critics are really expressing their disdain for the symbol of Chris Kyle and not necessarily his actions. On the other hand there are many on the right who wish to wave Kyle's bloody shirt as part of their burning atavistic anger and hostility towards liberals, non-whites, people who believe in free speech, non-Christians, antiwar activists and so on. Some of the biggest loudmouths attacking anyone who disliked this movie never themselves served in the military. American Sniper, despite the cheers of some right-wingers or the jeers of some of those on the left was not the definitive story of the Iraq War. It was the adapted portrayal of one man's view of his wartime experiences. The film (and I still haven't gotten around to reading the book yet) strongly hints that Kyle's work helping vets re-integrate themselves into civilian life was as much about helping him to deal with his own PTSD as it was about helping other people. To conclude I think you can be strongly antiwar and still enjoy this film. You can vehemently disagree with the Iraq war without demonizing veterans. There are veterans who disagreed with the Iraq war. You can appreciate the price that Kyle and similar people paid and still remain opposed to war. You can dislike Kyle and still respect his courage. So see this movie or do not but don't fear that it will make you change your ideas about the military or the Iraq War. Regardless of where you are on the political spectrum don't let this film make you start hurling invective at THEM. I liked this film. I would also still like to see Bush and Cheney in prison. I think the over the top reactions to American Sniper show why it's a bad idea to have the South so overrepresented in the military and the Pacific Coast and Northeast so underrepresented. There is an over identification with the military in some quarters and a snooty distance from it in others. Watch for the fake babies used to portray Kyle's children at young ages. Cooper's acting is sublime. Again, this is an intense film. Like many of Eastwood's works ( Letters from Iwo Jima, Flags of our Fathers, Gran Torino and especially Unforgiven) it shows that while in an imperfect world, violence may be necessary, it still has a cost.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Abigail Simon and Jailbait: Why you take the plea

Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen-that's jailbait
-Andre Williams
It's all very well to stand on your innocence and refuse to take a plea deal if you know for a fact that you didn't do the crime and/or are convinced that you can win at trial. Every year we hear of people who have steadfastly maintained their innocence for decades being finally released from prison because of unknown or prosecutor hidden evidence that exonerated them beyond all reasonable doubt. But on the other hand sometimes you're better off taking the plea deal whether you're innocent or not. I think that sometimes prosecutors and judges want to make that point to people who make them go through all the trouble of having a trial. Abigail Simon, a 35 year old tutor for students at Catholic Central High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recently found that out the hard way when she was convicted of criminal sexual conduct with a 15 year old male high school student. Simon received a prison sentence of 8-25 years. She had previously turned down a plea deal that would have required her to spend just five months in jail. So sometimes you roll the dice and come up snake eyes. The whole point of statutory rape laws is that society holds that there is an age of consent. If someone is below that age of consent you can't have sex with them. Period. End of story. This is especially the case if you are a teacher or adult in a position of authority over the child. Other than saying they've got the wrong (wo)man there really isn't much of a response to this charge. If you willingly have sex with someone underage, the news gets out and the local prosecutor is sufficiently competent and interested in the case, off to jail you will go. 

The only other obvious possible defense is to argue that never mind how everything looks. You were actually the victim. You were minding your own business when out of the blue you were attacked by this underage person who proceeded to have sex with you against your will. You hated every minute of it. Now that the sex crime has been exposed you are eager to point the finger at the real offender. Now I would certainly bet good money that somewhere sometime someone has made a successful use of this defense, people being who we are. But it's something that would probably make most people laugh out loud if a male defendant tried it today. And most female defendants likely wouldn't have much better luck, especially when the prosecutor introduced into evidence tons of text messages (over 1000) showing that contrary to what they're saying now, they were quite happy to be doing the do, rolling and tumbling, and dancing the horizontal mambo. That is they were happy to be doing all of this as long as nobody knew. It's also interesting that apparently Simon lied about being assaulted or forced, claiming that the teen boy used threats of violence to keep her silent. It's just another example of why everyone should always wait to see what the facts are in a court of law before immediately claiming that one gender or another is always the victim or always the aggressor. Neither men nor women, boys or girls have any sort of monopoly on doing wrong.

The texts are exactly what one would expect from a 15-year-old boy and his girlfriend - professing deep yearning, devastating love and unyielding desire interspersed with playful insults and jealous spats. But the texts also include Simon allegedly texting that they need to keep the relationship quiet and her bemoaning the fact that he is not of age. Then there is banter about rough sex. The woman liked to be slapped, the alleged victim testified. "She would do whatever she wanted to me and tell me what to do," the teen said in court Friday. 

He said he met Simon while a student with lousy grades that could have kept him from playing sports. She helped him become an honor roll student. The two went from meeting for coffee to kissing in her car to having what he said was rough sex at her RiverHouse apartment, which he had a key to, the boy testified. "If you were 25, I'd make you marry me next weekend," Simon allegedly texted the boy. She threatens to "murder" him if he brings girls to her apartment while she is out of town. She allegedly gave him a key to her apartment and referred to it as "our pad.” “Us forever, I so hope," she allegedly texted him.


The obvious takeaway from this is not only should adults not have sex with children, even if the child is mature for his or her age and close to the age of consent, but that people in general might want to reconsider sending explicit or charged messages via email or text. When it's two adults all you risk is embarrassment. And who hasn't been embarrassed before? But when you're committing a crime it's evidence. And only a big dummy willingly leaves evidence of a crime all over service provider servers. Once again, it's like the whole Kwame Kilpatrick situation never happened. People should have been paying closer attention. Unless you are texting to your spouse or someone else who can't be compelled to testify against you or to someone with impeccable honor or unless you know that your service provider destroys messages after 48 hours or something like that, think twice about sending out incriminating messages. You may regret it. I think it's safe to say that Simon will regret it. I think she will deeply regret it for at least eight years. That plea deal probably looks good right about now. 


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Detroit Arrest: Police Brutality or Street Justice?

I am not overly fond of police. Usually when they are talking to you something has gone wrong with your day. But I must admit that they are necessary for society. Although I can honestly say they've never directly helped me much, we are all made safer when alleged or actual criminals are removed from the street. That's a police department's primary job responsibility: to apprehend such people. A local police task force apprehended and arrested a carjacker and felon named Andrew Jackson. The police may or may not have used excessive force in arresting the man. This story is attracting attention locally. I briefly read about it in the Detroit papers. But I didn't really start paying attention until driving home a few days ago when I listened to a rather heated discussion on the Mitch Albom radio show. Albom and his co-host Ken Brown (who is black) were mostly supporting the police, pointing out that the alleged criminal was armed and wasn't completely restrained during most of the use of force. Brown, who is a comedian with a penchant for hyperbole, exclaimed that he "wasn't marching for no criminal!". Numerous people called in to state that Albom and especially Brown were missing the point. The story discussion also lit up my Facebook feed and email accounts. Various friends and relatives, few of whom would ever be caught dead donating to policeman charity funds, took different sides on this issue. We don't and can't expect perfection from police. However, if you let things slide eventually you may wind up with infamous jails or prisons like LA County or Riker's Island where police and prison guards have felt free to abuse, beat, rape and even kill inmates, some of whom haven't even been found guilty yet. It's not the police officer's job to punish someone accused of a crime. Attacking someone after they are restrained is cowardly and evil. No good. 

But the accused apparently did have a gun on him before he was taken into custody. And police are most definitely trained and allowed to use appropriate force to protect themselves and complete the arrest. Force during the arrest can be ok; force after the arrest generally isn't. Unlike other cases we've discussed this situation apparently does not involve mistaken identity. A police officer did not decide to bully, harass or insult someone just because s/he can. Some people found karmic justice in watching a grown man who was a big bad wolf while allegedly terrorizing an unarmed grandmother, turn into a little sheep crying for Jesus when the police catch him. But everyone, even vicious criminals, deserves legal protection. Otherwise all we have is might makes right. Below the fold watch what happened during part of the arrest and read the thoughts of Mr. Jackson's (alleged) victim.

Grosse Pointe Park — Protesters Wednesday outside the headquarters of the Department of Public Safety questioned "whether excessive force was used" by area police officers videotaped hitting and kicking a carjacking suspect in Detroit.
"We are on a peace mission ... this is the kind of thing that can incite something," said Ron Scott, director of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, who was joined by a dozen other protesters.
The coalition called for criminal and civil charges plus the suspension of the officers from a multi-jurisdictional task force involved in the incident, which occurred Monday morning on Plainview, near McNichols and Evergreen.
The video of the arrest, which was recorded by Detroit resident Emma Craig on Monday on the city's northwest side and posted on Facebook, shows two officers beating the suspect identified as Andrew Jackson Jr. while apparently trying to handcuff him, and administering more blows after his hands were secured behind his back. According to Hiller, task force officers were tracking a vehicle that had been carjacked two hours earlier.
"This subject was a parole absconder wanted for an armed robbery in Detroit. He was armed with a handgun," Hiller said.
"The subject resisted arrest and in an attempt to restrain him an officer deployed a Taser," according to a police statement. "However, it failed to take effect due to the subject's heavy clothing. The subject continue(d) to reach for the area of his waist band and refused all orders to show his hands.
"He curled up in a ball and his right hand again went under his clothing. Fearing for their safety and those in the immediate area, an officer delivered a kick to the thigh area of the subject thus allowing the other officers the ability to arrest the subject. Located in his waist band was a loaded semi-automatic handgun."
The victim in Monday's carjacking is telling what happened before any camera started rolling - and any cops started hitting and kicking an armed and dangerous man. The 55-year-old woman says her grand kids were in the car. She was standing just outside around 7:40 Monday morning near Greenfield and Fenkell.
"This is a dangerous felon who had a semi-automatic gun which was loaded, that he had put in my face and my children's face," the woman said. 
The victim had a broom to brush the heavy snow off her car, that's when she said a man came up to her with a gun and pointed it at her.
"He puts the gun in my face and says '(blank) give me your car and your purse, I'm robbing you,'" she said.
She told him she had no money and her grandsons were in the car.
"I'm screaming and yelling, 'Help help I'm being robbed,'" she said. "And he's telling me to shut the hell up and then he pointed the gun at my two grand kids." Boys, just 9 and 12 years old with the older child having special needs, were inside the car. 
"'Get your ass out of the car,' he just kept yelling and screaming," she said. Jackson fled in her car and GPS tracking led the police's Auto Theft Task Force to the suspect. 
But Jackson wasn't ready to give up. Armed and dangerous, he ran and police gave chase for a quarter mile before catching their suspect. Their officers' actions - kicking, hitting, the victim believes were totally justified based on what Jackson had just done to her family.
"I think they did a good job, maybe the officer's emotion got the best of him," she said. During the arrest as he was being struck, the suspect called out "Jesus." One of the officers said "Don't you dare" as he hit him.
The victim referred to the suspect's apparent cry for help from above.
"I'm like the officer," she said. "How dare you call on Jesus when you robbed somebody by gunpoint. Was he thinking of Jesus when he put a gun to my face and my grand kids' faces?"

What's your take on this incident?

Oil Prices and You: Winners and Losers

Although I happen to know a few people working in the financial industry who are peeved about the fall in oil and gasoline prices, I am delighted about the drop. My weekly commuting costs have been cut in half. That's more money to pay down debts, build savings, increase emergency funds, invest, assist relatives or perform any number of other Shady approved initiatives which are of much higher utility to me than spending $15-25 on gasoline every day from Sunday through Thursday. The drop in gas prices has a similar impact to a tax cut or pay raise. For people who drive 200 miles/week or more it's a virtual godsend. I am amused that the conspiracy theorists who come out to blame the Trilateral commission, the oil companies or THEM when oil and gasoline prices are high are nowhere to be found when prices are low. But there is no such thing as a free lunch. These low prices hurt producers. There are some very real winners and losers. I don't much care about the losers but it is worth thinking about because low prices may have bad results down the road. The reason that prices are low is the interaction of supply and demand. Higher oil prices gave US and other producers greater incentive to seek oil through fracking and new drilling, thus increasing supply worldwide. Domestic oil production doubled over the past six to seven years. The US is currently producing about 9.1 million barrels of crude each dayThere is a ban on US oil exports but the greater supply still indirectly reduced the global prices. It did this via the mechanism of US production crowding out foreign imports which had to seek new markets. The fact that much of the world is still mired in a slowdown or very weak expansion also caused demand to drop. 

So increasing supply combined with weak demand means that oil prices fell to levels not seen since 2009. Now usually under such circumstances the largest oil producing and exporting countries, many of whom are part of the OPEC cartel, would have a sitdown and arrange for everyone to cut production proportionately in order to boost prices to what they feel are reasonable levels. Don Corleone would give his protection in the east and there would be the peace. So far these reasonable steps haven't happened.

One of the reasons that production hasn't been cut is that Saudi Arabia, who holds the largest oil reserves and the most ability to withstand lower prices for long periods of time, is playing chicken with North American and Russian oil producers. Saudi Arabia would like nothing more than to take US energy independence and fracking off the table completely. And if they can harm their Iranian rivals while doing so and punish a few other OPEC members with reputations for cheating then so much the better. Many of the Gulf Arab states feel the same way. So Saudi Arabia and its supporters won't countenance cuts in production. In fact they have had the cheek to suggest that the US cut production. The US is not upset to see Russia have budget issues at a time when US sanctions are starting to bite. All of this means that countries like Russia, Iran, Nigeria, Venezuela among others are in deep trouble. Their budgets and internal income transfers are based on oil prices remaining within a certain range, say $70-100/barrel. Oil that remains at $47/barrel, which is the current price, could cripple their economies. There are some obvious political repercussions here. For example some of the funding from the Gulf states to ISIS could decline or dry up completely. Governments which purchase internal loyalty or stability via high oil prices could destabilize. Other losers could include North American oil producers who only expanded or entered their business because their forecasts predicted high oil prices for the foreseeable future. Obviously no one knows what the future holds. It may take more time for the ill effects to be felt. But if oil prices stay low we will see increasing and ongoing employment losses in such states as North Dakota, Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, throughout 2015 and perhaps even into 2016. At that point production will have dropped enough for prices to recover somewhat.

But it's not just people directly involved in the oil and gasoline business who may be facing economic or political problems from lower oil prices. When gas prices drop as much as they have done, consumers tend to lose interest in electric cars, hybrids or super efficient smaller vehicles and start to purchase more full size vehicles, particularly SUVs and pickups. The auto companies like this because they make thousands of dollars more profit per unit on the larger models. However the auto companies also have CAFE standards to meet. It is more difficult for them to do this selling larger vehicles. In general lower energy costs for fossil fuels don't align with decreased carbon production and pollution. There may well be more friction between certain government mandates and market realities. It's ironic that the end to fracking and drilling in pristine areas, something that is high on the agenda of many environmentalists may well occur because of market signals as opposed to social activism or new laws. And although by some lights, now would be the perfect time to increase the gas tax, there probably isn't much political support for that move.

So in any event, enjoy the lower prices while they last. I know I will. But keep in mind that lower prices are causing other people some hardships. We're all connected on some level. And there ain't no such thing as a free lunch.

How have the lower gasoline prices impacted you?

How much longer do you think these prices can last?

If you're saving money, what are you doing with it?