Saturday, March 28, 2015

HBO Game of Thrones: Quick Draw Videos

Some people on my facebook feed or at my workplace who pride themselves either on not being up to date on pop culture or on not reading anything remotely fantastical have finally gotten a vague idea that this Game of Thrones television thing is somehow popular in some circles. So they have asked me to explain it to them in a way that they can understand. At this point it's a bit much to try to break down everything that the story includes. And if they didn't pay attention the first time I tried years prior I usually won't have much patience for doing so again.  Maybe I will start using the below new 60 second quick draw video shorts on the lives of Ned Stark, Robb Stark, Joffrey Baratheon, Ygritte, and Khal Drogo to explain the important story elements of the Game of Thrones series to people. I think the videos are good accurate summations of the key events. The videos are useful if someone has a short attention span. Of course hopefully these videos are also amusing to people who've read the books or watched the show. 

Movie Reviews: Sword of Vengeance

Sword of Vengeance
Directed by Jim Weedon
When William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings and became the first Norman King of England, not everyone on the island was thrilled with this turn of events. Some nobles refused to swear allegiance. Others were slow to provide feudal service or managed to be out of town whenever William sent messages requesting same. A few peasants and merchants were always telling William that their tax payment must have gotten lost in the mail. They were sure it would turn up any day now. The church hierarchy remained dominated by Saxons who weren't necessarily loyal to the new Norman overlords. Some folks even mocked William's accent, his illegitimate birth and mother's lowborn status. This last was a really bad idea as William's berserk button was anyone saying ANYTHING remotely negative about his mother. William tended to break things (and people) when someone insulted dear old mum. The people who were the most dismissive and defiant of the Normans were the Saxons in the north of England. They had rustled up a rival Saxon heir to the throne. They were buoyed by a Danish incursion (at this time the Danish and northern Saxons were close kin). Apparently the Northern English believed that William was too far away to do anything to them. Well they were wrong about that. This was not an era that rewarded weak or indecisive leaders. And William was neither. He was a brutal man for brutal times. When his enemies refused to bend the knee, William decided to bury those cockroaches, Norman style. William launched an invasion of the North that was considered close to genocide by contemporaneous historians. In what was called the Harrowing, William and his armies not only defeated, executed, chased off or paid off rebel armies, they also ruthlessly and thoroughly destroyed the ability of the North to rebel ever again. 

They accomplished this by purposely targeting non-combatants (including women and children) for slaughter. They burned villages, killed livestock, salted fields, committed public atrocities to cause fear, poisoned wells, destroyed homes, crops and tools, starved out families, and made the North such a wasteland that twenty years later the population was only one quarter of what it had been prior to the Norman depredations. Sword of Vengeance is set in the immediate aftershock of the Harrowing. Earl Durant (Karel Roden), a Norman noble, has taken over large swaths of Northern England that he rules as a virtual king. He only answers to King William the Conqueror, whom he assisted both at Hastings and during the Harrowing. Away with William fighting in France, Durant has left his lands under the control of his two feuding sons Lord Artus (Gianna Giardelli) and Lord Roman (Edward Akrout). They reign supreme over a wasteland in which food and shelter are virtually non-existent if you aren't Norman. Well they reign supreme until a rather intense young man with improbably magnificent sword skills more reminiscent of Japanese kata techniques than medieval European styles, shows up and starts turning Norman soldiers into chop suey. This man, known only as Shadow Walker (Stanley Weber) is cool. We know that not only because of his speed and swagger and name but because he's apparently the first white man to discover cornrows. You know anyone who's brave enough to stand up against the Normans is going to attract attention and loyalty. Shadow Walker gets both from a renegade band of Saxon survivors/refugees. This group, led by the fetching Anna (Annabelle Wallis), shieldmaiden extraordinaire, thinks that Shadow Walker could be just the man they need to lead them to justice.

This movie is rather obviously a spaghetti Western/samurai film translated into the sword and sandals genre. Shadow Walker even has what looks like a Clint Eastwood style poncho. The film has a short running time (85 minutes). It makes the critical mistake of giving too much away in early flashbacks but again stories like these tend to be predictable anyway. It's done by the same people that were behind Hammer of The Gods and is about as violent as that film was. Everything is blue or gray in this movie except for the blood and viscera, which are all too red. I liked this film but even a genre fan such as myself would advise possible viewers that this film is not the best in terms of dialogue or story. In fact the dialogue occasionally is almost laughable. This film is mostly an excuse to see grim people get bloody revenge on those who have wronged them. I'm not sure why I like these films as there aren't a tremendous number of people still around on whom I would like to have bloody revenge but all the same if you're into this sort of thing the movie can be cathartic. I think it's just that I like underdogs and dislike bullies. There is something I appreciate about the idea that one man armed with nothing more than two swords, an obvious back story and a bad attitude, can make a serious difference in the world. 

Book Reviews: Killing Johnny Fry

Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel
by Walter Mosley
Killing Johnny Fry is an older novel by Mosley that I never got around to reading. I had heard both good and bad things about it. But mostly I heard that it was very different from his usual style. So nothing if not curious I finally felt compelled to sit down and read this book during my all too rare and rapidly shrinking lunch breaks.
Different doesn't begin to describe what's going on here, though the change is still more in subject matter and tone than it is in style. Although the subject matter and language may be something new to Mosley's work, the everyman hero is certainly someone who would have fit quite easily in Mosley's other novels. Although Killing Johnny Fry is not technically pornographic if only because the primary purpose of the text is presumably not physical self-pleasure, Killing Johnny Fry is sexually explicit to the point where it could just as easily be pornography. You say toe-may-toe. I say toe-mah-toe. One might say that Killing Johnny Fry is an erotic novel of adventure. I have often noticed that people, including yours truly, and for that matter animals, often take things for granted. When I was a child my family had two dogs. The older dog would often ignore the toys we gave her until the younger dog tried to play with the toy. The older dog would bare her teeth or grab the toy and walk out of the room. Humans are similar. When someone tries to use or take something of yours without asking, you'll probably protest even if you weren't using the item. I can't steal a classic car from your garage and successfully defend myself by saying that you had not been properly maintaining the vehicle. People often feel that same possessiveness towards providers of their nookie. It doesn't matter if said nookie wasn't very good or the provider was unskilled or indifferent. 

Cordell Carnel is a pudgy phlegmatic middle aged African-American New York City translator who works for various art agents and publishing houses. He's coasting through life. Cordell's girlfriend is also Black. Her name is Joelle. The couple lives apart. Joelle frequently makes it clear that she doesn't want to see Cordell every day. Cordell accepts this. One day he goes to visit Joelle and finds that she's left her apartment door open. Worried he enters the apartment but discovers Joelle (insert euphemism for having sweaty nasty enthusiastic sex) with the very Caucasian Johnny Fry (someone whom Cordell and Joelle met at a party). Johnny and Joelle are doing things that Joelle has never even mentioned to, let alone done with Cordell. The lovers are far too enthralled with each other to notice Cordell. Cordell quickly leaves and doesn't tell Joelle that he saw her.

However the revelation has touched something deep in Cordell. Obviously he immediately starts thinking of ways to murder Johnny Fry (thus the title of the book) but he also re-examines his life and sexual desires, failings and kinks. His hurt, anger, and confusion coalesce into a spinning mandala of lust and re-invention. Cordell also starts to have a LOT more sex with Joelle and other women. His increased desire for Joelle is balanced by his disgust for her. Cordell believes that he's been living life too meekly and too safely. Cordell drops some weight and embarks on an odyssey during which he engages in some truly bizarre activities. Women are usually impressed, excited, and occasionally a little frightened by Cordell's newly revealed capacities. I thought some portions of the story became ridiculous near the end. It is fascinating how the process by which we were all created can be described and experienced so completely differently by men and women. This book is not written like romance novels or 50 Shades of Grey or Twilight. The descriptions are blunt and male. There is humor and philosophy within this story. Cordell is looking for purpose in life, in part by enjoying or enduring sex with many different women. But he's also trying to ascertain what it means to be a healthy individual. Is anyone really healthy? What does love mean? Does it always require possessiveness? What is psychologically pleasing sex? How do men deal with emotional pain? Why do we have sex even if we have no desire or capacity to reproduce? Why do we so often want one person to the exclusion of all others when the world is packed with suitable partners? 

This was an okay albeit graphic story but going forward I think I'll stick with the adventures of Easy Rawlins or Leonid McGill. That might be unfair to Mosley but Killing Johnny Fry was a serious shock to my expectations. If you're looking for something different from Mosley this story is for you. This is a very honest raw book.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Inkster Cops Beat Black Man

So much of how police react to you depends not just on what you do but on you who are. If you are a black man or even a black woman, police are much more likely to see you as a threat to be neutralized than if you are of another race. This is regardless of whether you are actually doing anything wrong. At every point in the justice system black people don't get the benefit of the doubt. A situation that would call for a friendly warning results in snide lectures and tickets. Wallets are mistaken for guns. What would normally require a stern talking to turns into an arrest. A situation that necessitates probation ends up in incarceration. Instead of a ticket you get a beating. A child playing with a toy gun is shot dead. This is a nationwide problem. It's not just Ferguson or the South or in small towns where there is explicit racial hatred far beyond the ordinary. It's not an individual problem but a systemic one. I was recently reminded of this ugly truth when a local retired(?) black man named Floyd Dent, driving through a mostly black city, cruised past a stop sign and was soon after stopped and beaten by city police officers. The police later claimed to have found crack cocaine in Dent's vehicle. This brings to mind Dave Chappelle's skit line of "Sprinkle some crack on him and let's get out of here." Mr. Dent tested negative for drugs. He has no criminal record. He points out that his fingerprints are not on the bag that the police claim to have found in his car. Charges of fleeing and resisting arrest have already been dropped. The drug charges have not been dropped. Dent did have a suspended license. The cop seen punching Mr. Dent in the head had previously been acquitted of, among other things, planting evidence. 

Watch the below video. Make up your own mind. I don't think that the police were defending themselves. They started beating on Dent immediately. This is about hatred, fear and frustration. We can talk about retraining police but the only way to reduce and ultimately stop these incidents is for police to know that they will be imprisoned when found guilty of such actions. That's a very rare occurrence. Otherwise perhaps Cliven Bundy had some good ideas on how to deal with the police?
Fighting back tears, a Detroit man and longtime auto worker with no criminal history, described how Inkster police officers dragged him from his car one night in January, choked him, beat him and tasered him during a traffic stop that was caught on patrol car video. "He was beating me upside the head," Floyd Dent, 57, told a horde of reporters and TV crews during a press conference at his attorney's office Wednesday afternoon, as tears trickled his cheeks. "I was trying to protect my face with my right arm. I heard one of them say, 'tase the M...F. '" 

The Jan. 28 incident was caught on police video cameras and is making national news. It shows Inkster police pulling over Dent in his 2011 tan Cadillac near South River Park Drive and Inkster Drive shortly before 10 p.m. The two officers approach with their guns drawn. As Dent opens the door, they pull him out and shove him to the ground. Dent does not appear in the video to be resisting arrest. As he is on the ground, a police officer later identified as William Melendez has him in a choke hold, and is repeatedly pounding him on his head.  A second officer is attempting to handcuff him behind his back, but Dent has his right arm up, trying to protect his face and head against Melendez.  Another officer arrives and kicks him, and then another officer Tasers Dent in the thigh and stomach as he is handcuffed.  Dent, who has worked for Ford for 37 years, said he was hospitalized for two days for injuries to his face and head.

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UPDATE: Additional video purports to show officer planting drugs.

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Saturday, March 21, 2015

Movie Reviews: Horrible Bosses 2, The Crusades Documentary

Horrible Bosses 2
directed by Sean Anders
If you liked the first movie then you may like this remake sequel. Virtually everything is the same only MORE and DUMBER. I could probably just stop writing right there, actually. But that wouldn't be very descriptive would it? Horrible Bosses 2 features tons of sex jokes, the normal levels of cleavage, dangerous misunderstandings with the police, shockingly inept protagonists, inadvertent racial insults, car chases and various double crosses. Some of this is occasionally funny. But generally this movie is more hit or miss than the previous film. I guess your enjoyment of this flick will depend on your mood and your tolerance of lowest common denominator jokes. What was transgressive or fresh in the first movie is just "been there, done that" in the second. I think I checked out mentally when the sex crazed dentist Julia Harris (Jennifer Anniston) revealed her familiarity with some very disgusting and filthy activities. But hey, to each their own. This film is horribly uneven. There are some (too few) very funny set pieces. But there are also plenty of scenes that didn't work too well. It reminded me of an aging boxer still trying to stick and move but missing his target and getting repeatedly tagged by a younger, quicker rival. Still, just like that old boxer, this film every now and again lands a belly blow that will leave you rolling on the floor (hopefully in laughter, not pain) This was definitely not a movie that needed to be seen in the theater so I'm glad I didn't spend the money to watch it there.

Having escaped prison by the skin of their teeth in the first movie, friends Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis) and Dale (Charlie Day) have pooled their meager financial resources and their even less impressive brainpower to start up a shower caddy business. They've decided that it's time to go into business for themselves. I didn't really pick up on this in the first movie as much but the three men are heirs to the Three Stooges style slapstick comedy only without the constant physical confrontation. Dale is still a mouse of a man who's both faithful to and frightened of his wife. He consistently has the worst ideas of the trio. Kurt is possibly even dumber than Dale but doesn't realize it because he has tons more confidence and swagger. He's always looking for that woman who will let him "bend her over a barrel and show her the fifty states". Quiet and pensive Nick is who passes for brainpower in the group but obviously finds himself drawn in to his buddies' hijinks. His deadpan reactions, sarcastic questions and straight man timing are things I appreciated in this film. Now that I think about it Kurt and Dale have been dumbed down from the first movie. Their not so carefully thought out business plan goes awry. When their financial future teeters on the brink, because as Nick's imprisoned and embittered former boss Dave (Kevin Spacey) not so helpfully points out, the group lacks testicles and brains, the friends once again search out Muyerfuyer Jones (Jamie Foxx) for assistance. However the bumbling group messes up Jones' idea and winds up in a kidnapping situation initially similar to O'Henry's The Ransom of Red Chief. As I intimated, this movie walks the line between crude and dumb. This is not a film that requires you to use the more complex areas of your brain to enjoy it. In fact doing so will probably hinder any pleasure you might find. 

All in all it wasn't as funny as the first movie. Christoph Waltz, Jonathan Banks and Chris Pine also star. Comedian Keegan-Michael Key has a small role.

The Crusades
as shown on the History Channel
President Obama recently was attacked in some quarters for stating that Christians have their own history of religiously inspired intolerance, fanaticism and violence, most famously the Crusades. Of course as Professor Juan Cole pointed out, Christians in general and European Christians in particular have set some records when it comes to killing people for any number of reasons. Since killing people is in direct contravention to the teachings of Jesus Christ, Christians are hard pressed to defend killing and war. Of course needs must and as we live in a world that is not perfect, Saint Augustine and Thomas Aquinas codified the theory of the just war. President Obama's critics referenced this theory in arguing that that the Crusades were really wars of self-defense and thus morally ok. The truth, as always is somewhere in between and definitely depends on which side you are standing. It is true that the Western European Catholic Christians came to fight the Muslims because of stories and rumors of mistreatment of Christian pilgrims and residents in the Levant. The newly dominant Seljuk Turks were said to be less tolerant of Christian worship than had previously been the case. There was also a state of war between the expanding Muslim ruled areas and the declining Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire which was slowly losing its domains in Asia Minor. It is also true that the Pope and various European rulers were eager to be rid of what they saw as excessive numbers of warriors, who caused all sorts of havoc across Europe with their interminable bloody feuds, battles for land or thrones, and their general resistance to strong central states. Pope Urban rationalized that if he could not get rid of violence, why not redirect it towards the infidel? A crusade would reduce the surplus military population, possibly help unify Europe under papal rule and extend Latin, which is to say Catholic, authority in the East. It would also bring the sites of Christ's birth and death back into Christian hands. 

Crusader armies and mobs gathered, excited by the chance to expiate their sins and see Jerusalem. Along the way to the Middle East, some Crusaders decided that rather than wait until their destination to combat the enemies of Christ, they could do so in Europe. Jewish communities were attacked. Some were decimated while others were forced to convert.

The Byzantine Emperor who had written the Pope for assistance had in mind only the 11th century equivalent of Seal Team Six or the French Foreign Legion. He wanted a handful of tough guys/advisers who would lead and inspire his armies. He felt threatened and somewhat betrayed by thousands of armed fanatics showing up on his doorstep, led by men who were all too obviously interested in carving out their own dominions in lands being fought over by the Byzantines and Muslims. The Emperor forced the Crusader leaders to swear oaths of allegiance to him before turning them loose on his Muslim rivals. These oaths were only briefly honored. Fortunately for the Crusaders the Muslim leaders facing them initially were weak, divided, and had little knowledge of Western style war. Jerusalem fell to the European invaders in a sack which even by the callous standards of the era, was considered to be a war crime. Contemporary eyewitness accounts tell of mass rape and slaughter, mosques and synagogues burned down and streets literally running red with blood. The Crusaders killed Muslim, Christian and Jew alike. Conveniently forgetting their promises to the Byzantines, the Crusaders set up independent states in what is now Israel, Lebanon, Syria and Turkey. This set off a multi-century struggle back and forth between Christian and Muslim over the Holy Land which ultimately saw the European Christians defeated and expelled. 

The documentary covers the first three Crusades. Only the First Crusade saw a complete Christian victory. I thought the documentary should have covered the Fourth Crusade, in which the simmering hostility between Eastern and Western Christian finally boiled over, resulting in the sack of Constantinople by Crusader armies. This documentary gives a lot of time to the Muslim point of view which is usually not part of the Western narrative. That's fair I guess. But it's also fair to point out that the people who bemoan European Christian invasions of the Middle East and the associated barbarity and imperialism were often as quiet as church mice about the prior and contemporaneous Muslim invasions of North Africa, Spain and France and future Muslim invasions of Eastern Europe. By the time of the First Crusade Muslim invaders had ruled huge swaths of Spain for almost 400 years. In the big picture, very few people have clean hands, historically speaking. The re-enactments are nicely done.You get a surprisingly detailed examination of what it was like to live, eat, sleep, fight and die in a time before modern medicine and refrigeration. It is humbling to watch someone drive down a highway, stop and tell the viewer that one thousand years ago the battle of such-n-such took place right here. This documentary also details the various machinations, murders and backstabbing that went on among the Muslims as various leaders vied to unite the Muslim world. The one who briefly did, Saladin, gets a fair amount of analysis. The entire documentary is about three hours. It can be watched online.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Spring Finally Arrives!

"This is no thaw. This is spring. What are we to do? Your winter has been destroyed I tell you!"-The Dwarf in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Although fall is my favorite season by a huge margin I also enjoy spring, at least the early part of spring. It's good to live in a country or an area which has four well defined seasons. I like that. And I like spring. From a purely prosaic standpoint spring usually means a (not large enough) pay raise/bonus and the ability to turn off the gas heat in my house. Both of those things mean more money in my pocket which is a good thing. Obviously there's a lot more that's good about spring that has nothing to do with greenbacks. Another great feature of spring is that the ice, snow and cold of winter has departed or is about to depart. Walking through the cool streets early in the morning all you hear is the sound of water from the melted snow rushing through the sewer system. Your vehicle is no longer encrusted with all the salt, muck and mud of the Midwest winter. You can venture outside without having to wrap yourself up in layers of clothing. You can stay outside without wondering if you're putting yourself at risk of frostbite or fever. Many birds have come back; those who never left are more vocal. Spring is that sweet spot where it's cool enough so that no one is running around reeking of sweat and funk but warm enough so that you can enjoy the feeling of the sun on your skin. Sunshine is the best way to ensure that you're getting your vitamin D, after all. And that is very important for your health. There's something to be said for clean air and sunshine.
The insects have not yet reached the numbers that they will later in the summer.  You don't have to cut the grass every three to five days like you do in the summer. You can spend your weekends or evenings planting shrubs or bulbs. With any luck the flora that you plant will survive the summer heat and even the eventual fall and winter to come. And if you're still above ground a year from now you can sit on your stoop and watch that plant be reborn next spring. There's something satisfying about that. Kids are running around laughing and jumping in puddles. It's time to air your home out and give it a nice cleaning. You made it past another winter. If you look around you'll see trees starting to bud and plants pushing their way up through the topsoil. 
If you happen to be a person who is concerned with your health or perhaps someone who is just vain (and most of us fall into at least one of those two categories) spring could be the perfect time to take up that new running, walking or jogging program that you've been thinking about. Drop that winter weight. Get outside and enjoy life. The days are longer. The primary emotion that I experience during spring is optimism. That is after I deal with the man-made foolishness of daylight savings time. Why we haven't tossed that idea in the dustbin yet is something that confuses me. But leaving that silliness alone there's a lot to look forward to in spring. You have flowers, rain, baseball starting up, sunshine without too much heat and just oodles of good things going on around if you deign to look up from your daily labor and experience all that life has to offer. After all some day you won't have that opportunity. But be sure that while you're out and about frolicking and celebrating another season of renewal and rebirth that you're careful where you walk. Perhaps my area is just disproportionately populated by scofflaws but I have noticed that many of my fellow dog owners seem to feel that it's okay not to pick up after their furry friends during winter. Well that stuff doesn't just break down in a few months. It's still there in all its glory just waiting for an unwary person to step right in it. And spring or not, that will temporarily ruin your day. You may find yourself using invective and vituperation you had forgotten you knew. But that unfortunate possibility aside, I love spring.

I feel that spring is coming on/I feel it all in my bones
A feeling that no one can explain so all I can do is call it spring
Everything about me is fine/I feel so happy all the time
All year long I've been so blue/But now this spring will send me to you
Little Milton-Spring

Book Reviews: Murcheston

Murcheston The Wolf's Tale
by David Holland
This is an older book which you will hopefully be able to find online or in a quality used bookstore. Everyone should be so lucky as to live close to a good used bookstore. You never know what you might find there. If you happen to have literary tastes that range beyond the pedestrian these are good places to hang out. Unlike the few remaining big box bookstores these tend to be quiet places that cater to people who actually like to discover new authors and genres. Used bookstores often have their own (quite literally in some cases) funky aroma and style, whether it be an insouciant feline who struts across the counter while you're trying to pay for your purchase, a sleepy old dog who warily watches you from one eye or a clerk of indeterminate gender and excessive body hair who apparently hasn't showered or used deodorant since sometime during the Clinton Administration. But if you're a bookhound you put up with all of this and perhaps even enjoy it in small dosages. You do that because occasionally you discover little gems like this book. It is no spoiler to say that this book plunges into the supernatural, as should be evident from both the title and the cover art. Duh. But what sets this book apart is not the supernatural story but the philosophy, worldview and settings that animate the story. It tells the tale of a world long gone in Victorian era Great Britain. This setting still engages the imagination of many. At just under 400 pages this book is a quick read but one that is still relatively dense. You are easily brought into the description of events and will want to find out what happens next. The story seamlessly switches between third person and first person. The first person is largely told via diary flashbacks, something which (deliberately?) puts the reader in mind of Bram Stoker's Dracula.

While George R.R. Martin has reworked the werewolf myth with his "good" Starks and their (well some of them anyway) ability to "warg" or place their consciousness into their wolves, this story mostly keeps the classic tropes of the werewolf myth. A man is attacked by something that appears less than human but more than animal. He's wounded but survives. At the next full moon however he turns into a wild animal and wreaks havoc. In Murcheston, the man so afflicted is Edgar Lenoir, who's bitten on a hunting trip to the Carpathian Mountain ranges in Eastern Europe. Edgar is the Duke of Darnley. He can trace his lineage to the arrival of William the Conqueror. The catch is that this story is told via Edgar's diaries to one of Edgar's younger relatives who is next in line to become Duke after Edgar...well you'll have to read the book and see. Even before he was bitten Edgar was a fierce individualist and Social Darwinist, a hedonist and rogue. Afterward he's even more confirmed in his attitude that life belongs to the strong. He becomes increasingly convinced that morality, religion and even unnecessary kindness are strictures devised by the weak to turn man from his true nature. Edgar resolves to put all of that aside. He believes that he is being modern and scientific in his approach. He views his lycanthropy as a blessing and gift. The reader can decide how truly lost Edgar is. The man who delivers the diaries to Edgar's relative has a personal reason for doing so. I liked this book. It effectively combined mystery, social and philosophical commentary, history and a little horror for a fun and occasionally thrilling read. If you like Victorian period settings and mysteries, check this one out.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

University of Oklahoma Racist Frat SAE Suspended

By now you may have seen the video of some members of the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma and their friends allegedly singing a racist ditty about how they would never ever ever have black members in their Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter. I am not surprised by this even though I suppose in some quarters it's almost expected to say you're not surprised by these events. People usually drop their masks and speak and behave more honestly when they are surrounded by those that they consider their own kind. This is true across racial, religious, ethnic and gender lines. It's just the way that human beings are constructed. So no surprises here. But it does provide some anecdotal contradiction to the notion that the United States as a whole and as a collective is always moving forward when it comes to racial animosity. These young white people on the bus are future CEO's, hiring managers, jurors, judges, professors, FBI agents, realtors, venture capitalists, university administrators and many other future leaders who will have plenty of opportunities to put their prejudices into practice. So that's the real issue here. These are not people who grew up under segregation or explicit white supremacy. These are people who were for the most part born after 1994 or so. And yet they are behaving just as their grandmothers and grandfathers would have behaved back in 1964. So it goes. Racism is an ugly weed that will always continue to bloom anew. The other thing that comes to mind watching the below video is that we should remember that there are limits to integration and very good historical and current reasons for the establishment and maintenance of black political and social organizations.
It is common in some conservative circles and even many liberal ones to bemoan, criticize or question any such black organizations, whether they be fraternities or sororities, charities, beauty pageants, television stations, newspapers, etc. This is often raised as the question of "why are all the black kids in the cafeteria sitting together?". It's blaming (gleefully in the case of conservatives) or (ruefully in the case of liberals) social segregation entirely on black people and ignoring the reasons why such organizations exist in the first place. All I can say to that is who enjoys hanging around people who have made it crystal clear that they don't like you? Most psychologically healthy people avoid such scenarios. Earning your daily bread may require you to work with, report to or otherwise interact with various sorts of bigots or otherwise unpleasant people but that's work. You're being paid to do something. Your choices may be temporarily constrained. But when your choices are free, as they are in areas of social intimacy, people generally don't wish to associate with people who have contempt or hatred for them. This is why black Greek organizations or business associations or other such entities exist. People want to be able to relax without having to be constantly on guard for the kind of bigotry expressed here. Living in a state of continuous fight or flight response is quite unhealthy. The people on the bus appear to be having a good time. If you ever wondered about the people who arrived to lynchings and burnings with smiles and grins on their faces captured for posterity well these are their spiritual and no doubt in some cases lineal descendants.

The progress that the country has undertaken is ongoing. It was demonstrated by the fact the university and the national fraternity immediately distanced themselves from the local chapter, suspending the chapter and closing the house. A black college football recruit decommitted from the school. The head football coach joined in protests with his team. 
The University President put out a statement which left no doubt about where he stood.
"To those who have misused their free speech in such a reprehensible way, I have a message for you. You are disgraceful. You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves “Sooners.” Real Sooners believe in equal opportunity. Real Sooners treat all people with respect. Real Sooners love each other and take care of each other like family members.
Effective immediately, all ties and affiliations between the university and the local SAE chapter are hereby severed. I direct that the house be closed and that members will remove their personal belongings from the house by midnight tomorrow. Those needing to make special arrangements for positions shall contact the Dean of Students.
All of us will redouble our efforts to create the strongest sense of family and community. We vow that we will be an example to the entire country of how to deal with this issue. There must be a zero tolerance for racism everywhere in our nation.
Other people have pointed out that the chant is not that unusual among other chapters of SAE or similar fraternities. They just happen to be the ones who got caught. Some people are calling for them to be expelled. I wouldn't shed tears were that to happen. We shall see. 

Are you surprised?

Should the students be expelled?

How long before one of the students is hired by Fox News?

HBO Game of Thrones: Season Five New Trailer

Well, well well. What have we here? It's yet another trailer for the new Game of Thrones Season Five starting April 12. This snippet is a little longer than the previous trailers. It touches upon a few more storylines. There are a few things referenced from the most recently published book. This looks good. I am starting to anticipate this season a little more than I had been. I will be interested to learn what items were cut from the books and what surprises are in store for us all. Unless this was all taken from episode nine (snicker) it appears that there could be more exciting things happening throughout the entire season. Time will tell. Perhaps Daenerys is ready to return to her continent of birth and reclaim the Iron Throne? Are Stannis and Roose Bolton going to have a conflict? How are the Red Viper's relatives and friends going to deal with his death? And the dragons are yet bigger. Will Tyrion end up back at the top of the game or will he continue to be everyone's lovable loser? Will Margaery be able to bend King Tommen to her will and remove him from the influence of Cersei, his capriciously cruel mother? How will the creators keep up the quality and excitement as the story moves into some places that I wasn't crazy about in the books? What is Brienne's purpose now? Where does she go? What does she do? Well it all goes down on April 12.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Movie Reviews: The Curse of the Werewolf, The Salvation, The Raid 2

The Curse of the Werewolf
directed by Terence Fisher
This film is a favorite which I just watched again. I am on something of a Hammer binge lately. The Curse of the Werewolf was a classic Hammer Film and AFAIK its only take on the werewolf myth. It's a film that I think I must have first seen when I was maybe twelve or thirteen years old. I can't be sure. I am certain however that I would definitely not have watched this film with my parents. It just wasn't that kind of movie. I would not have been comfortable. There would have been a pretty good chance during a certain scene I might have heard something along the lines of  "Shady, I'm not sure this movie is for you". Snicker. And that would have been that. The Curse of the Werewolf did leave an impression on me, not just because of the gravity defying nature of Yvonne Romain's bountiful charms but also because of the essential unfairness and arbitrariness of the titular curse which afflicts Oliver Reed (seen here in one of his earliest film roles before obtaining his famous facial scar in a bar fight). This was Reed's first lead role, though ironically he doesn't appear on screen until about halfway thru the film.  I sometimes tend towards the cynical and fatalistic so Oliver Reed's smoldering cursed from birth protagonist appealed to me. Reed's character was literally born under a bad sign, as the Albert King song would put it. His fate was fixed. 

This film is comfortable with Eros. The werewolf is representative of man's hidden sexual urges. But repression causes worse future problems. Leon's (Oliver Reed) curse becomes ever more apparent as he ages and becomes sexually mature. The Curse of the Werewolf is unusual for a Hammer film in that it's the male sexual awakening and not that of the female which brings terror. This film is set in 18th century Spain and has more of a romantic than gothic feel. Hammer had sets left over from an aborted Spanish project so with typical pragmatism the producers and director decided to make use of them. The film changes a few werewolf myth trappings. The Curse of the Werewolf also has a class analysis subtext. The sequence of catastrophic events is started by the decadent and wicked noble class, here embodied by the Marquis Siniestro (Anthony Dawson). The Marquis is a greedy, cruel and capricious man who guards his wealth like a wolf guards its kill. On the Marquis' wedding night, a desperate starving beggar (Richard Wordsworth) tries to crash the party. Peasants and a sympathetic guard warn him away but the beggar persists. In a rare good mood, the Marquis invites the beggar to his table. The Marquis is content to throw leftovers at the beggar, mock him and make him dance. But when the beggar relaxes and presumes to "congratulate" the Marquis on his wedding night the Marquis takes offense. His essentially vindictive nature reveals itself. The Marquis orders the beggar's execution but is convinced by his wife to imprison the man instead. Decades pass during which the Marquis is widowed and the beggar rots forgotten in the dungeons.

As a child the jailer's daughter helped to feed the beggar. But now that she's become Yvonne Romain the insane and incredibly hirsute beggar looks at her with a different hunger. The dirty old Marquis has also noticed the remarkably curvaceous young woman. She resists the Marquis' advances. She is imprisoned and attacked by the dying beggar, now more animal than man. She escapes the prison. A local scholar Don Corledo (Clifford Evans) finds and tends to the woman. Later she dies giving birth to a boy. Don Corledo raises this baby as his own son though his housekeeper is wary. It's considered sinful to be a bastard born on Christmas Day. Leon's experiences confirm the housekeeper's suspicions. Leon is haunted by strange incidents and bizarre dreams. The visions temporarily abate during his love affair with the beautiful Christina ,(Catherine Feller) daughter of his employer. But can true love overcome a curse? Hammer was very well known for its sets, costumes and cinematography. This film doesn't disappoint with its lush, lurid palette. Red is always very prominent. It's not just the spurting blood either. All the contrasts are very nicely done. The special effects were decent, considering the period. Although this was considered bloody and risque for its time, compared to today's grindcore styles this is tame indeed. The Curse of the Werewolf was one of Hammer's better films. 

The Salvation
directed by Kristian Levring
American fantasy is often dominated by reference to European medieval and more specifically British motifs. Maybe it's a fair turnabout that one of the better Westerns I've seen in a while is a Danish-British production which was shot primarily in South Africa. Some of the South African landscape is a dead ringer for the Old West of the movies. The Salvation is not a deconstruction of the Western. It's a classic Western with subtle updated nods to the genocide of the First Peoples. It has a very powerful traditional revenge story at its center but also (purposely?) raises questions about the guilt or responsibility of settlers coming to the West in the first place. The big bad is Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). His ease with violence grows from his actions in the US Army where he helped expel or exterminate many Native Americans. Delarue is nothing if not pragmatic. And his followers are the same. If they see something they want, they take it. Morgan's height and sense of physical comfort add a lot to his character's authority. He dominates most of the scenes in which he appears. Delarue is someone you'd follow into battle without hesitation. The only problem is that he's a bad man. He inspires fear, not respect. Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) is a quiet and happy Danish immigrant to the western town of Black Creek. This man who had so much to live for suffers an unthinkable tragedy. In the aftermath the character is effectively numb. There is a certain chaos and malevolence in the world which is not easily explained. Job asked God for an explanation and was told to stop asking questions above his pay grade. Why do some wicked people live long healthy productive lives while some children die from leukemia before they reach their teen years? I can't explain it. This movie doesn't try to either. It avoids getting bogged down in theodicy. There's no time for that. Jon tries to set things right, or as right as they can be after his loss. It's an understatement that he will never be the same. His brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) comes to Jon's aid. Blood will be shed.

The Salvation also stars French bombshell Eva Green in a speechless role. Her character was previously mutilated and thus can't talk. So Green has to do all of her acting with her large eyes and facial expressions. This is much more effective than you might imagine. There is no toplessness or nudity from Green here though there are some uncomfortable sexually charged scenes. Her role is almost but not quite camp. It is something that would have fit Helena Bonham Carter a few years ago. Although you will recognize the story as one you've seen before the film has more than a few surprises and treats wrapped up in its minimalist visuals. H.P. Lovecraft wrote stories in which his characters, coming face to face with inhuman entities, struggled to explain what they were experiencing. Well, just like those H.P. Lovecraft characters you may occasionally wonder what color you're seeing in some scenes. There's a yellow or gold overcast to a lot of the film, something that tends to make you almost feel the dust and wind that constantly flows throughout the film. Keane (Jonathan Pryce) is the town's undertaker and mayor. I didn't think he had quite enough to do but Mikkelsen, Green and Morgan carry this grim film well enough. Watch this film and enjoy the ripoff/homage to Sergio Leone style Techniscope look. After watching this movie you probably won't have any greater understanding of why evil exists in the world or why bad things happen to good people but you might appreciate more what your response should be. Mikkelsen and Green were also in the film Casino Royale; I knew Morgan primarily from the first two seasons of Supernatural. This was a good albeit not great film. I enjoyed it and you might as well if you like Westerns. 

The Raid 2
directed by Gareth Evans
Second verse, same as the first. Rama (Iko Uwais) was among the few police officers to survive the massive trainwreck that was the raid on the apartment complex in the first Raid movie. In the opening scenes of this film, Rama's brother (who saved his life in the first film) is killed by a rising affably evil gangster named Bejo (Alex Abbad) for reasons which aren't important right now. Needless to say Rama is highly upset. He wants revenge. Rama is also disturbed to discover that part of the reason that everything went to crap in the first film was because of police and political corruption. The criminals knew the raid was coming. However Rama's approached by an internal affairs officer who thinks Rama can bring down the entire underworld superstructure. Rama can get revenge on Bejo, obtain evidence on the corrupt police commissioner and his previously untouchable political friends who make everything run smoothly in the underworld. Rama must go undercover as a criminal. He will hookup with Uco (Arifin Putra) the spoiled and dissolute son of the local boss Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). Uco is doing a short prison bid. Internal Affairs can insert Rama into the prison as an inmate. After hopefully winning Uco's trust and that of his notoriously paranoid father, Rama should be able to rise through the ranks and get hard evidence of links between the upperworld and underworld.  And then he'll be able to get Bejo, legally if possible but if he has to use other means no one will mind. Does that sound like a well crafted plan to you? No, well it didn't really appeal to Rama that much either but he doesn't think he has many options. Corrupt ranking police officers suspect he wasn't killed in the raid and want to know why. His family could be in danger.

Where the first Raid movie used the claustrophobic settings of an apartment building to rustle up the scares, the sequel moves Rama through many different locales. He's kicking behind and taking names in prison, the alleys, warehouses, restaurant kitchens and several other places. But unlike the first film where it was very obvious to Rama who was on his side and who wasn't here he's undercover. He must engage in certain unlawful activities or watch people do things which violate both the law and his personal principles. Rama has to be on his toes as he's working with much more powerful, vicious and intelligent criminals than the street hoodlums he previously encountered. He can't trust anyone. Rama also finds himself in the middle of an Oedipal struggle between Uco and his father. That's a bad place to be, particularly when tensions rise with the Japanese syndicate headed by Goto (Kenichi Endo). It's not just the double cross you have to look out for in this milieu. Everyone takes that for granted. Beware the triple cross. Bejo has three top enforcers but the two who almost steal the film through sheer bloody minded dexterity are the aptly named Hammer Girl (Julie Estelle) and her extremely protective brother Baseball Bat Man (Very Tri Yulisman). Sorry there are no bonus points for guessing their preferred weapons. This, like the first film, is a martial arts extravaganza. It has a larger than life operatic style. The colors are solid. The director uses the entire color spectrum to give the film a modern hyperrealistic look. If you like these sorts of movies, you really need to see this film. It's a keeper. The fight choreography and camera work are top notch. It's a bada$$ ballet. Uwais could do for Silat what Bruce Lee did for Kung fu. The movie runs a little long at 2.5 hours but most genre fans probably won't mind too much. Almost everyone in this movie is too cool for words. I imagine Hollywood will remake this some day and mess it up entirely.