Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book Reviews: The Cartel

The Cartel 
by Don Winslow
Don Winslow is among other things the author of such books as The Death and Life of Bobby Z, Savages, The Winter of Frankie Machine, and The Power of The Dog. The last title was a favorite mystery/drama/crime book. Even mentioning that it is a crime novel probably gives you the wrong idea. The Power of the Dog is a novel that simultaneously offers an intimate look at the lives of some very broken, dangerous and obsessive people on both sides of the law and a panoramic view of the drug trade originating from south of the border, primarily Mexico. It weaved in some allusions to the real life Iran Contra and the CIA Freeway Ricky Ross scandals. The US government used domestic and foreign organized crime elements to pursue more important goals than drug interdiction. The novel's dominant theme was the mutual hate relationship between top Mexican drug kingpin Adan Barrera and American DEA agent Art Keller. Barrera's people tortured and murdered Keller's partner. Barrera's hothead brother is killed. Finally, through familial deceit and betrayal, Art lures Adan across the border into the US, where he is swiftly arrested and later convicted, receiving 12 consecutive federal life sentences. The Cartel picks up the story shortly afterwards. Art is deeply disappointed that his superiors won't look deeply into Adan's financial and political connections. The US government doesn't seem to care that much of the financial and military aid it provides to Mexico and Colombia disappears into private hands or is used to repress political or labor union movements. So Art has semi-retired from the DEA. He lives as a monk. Art is also half-Mexican. His mother comes from Adan's home state. Adan is languishing in prison when he learns that his only child, a sickly daughter, has died. He insists upon going to the funeral. In order to make this happen Adan agrees to provide information about some top Mexican organized crime/cartel members. This information is too good to pass up. The White House/DOJ/DEA/CIA/FBI can't say no to this request. This is especially the case as Adan is not even asking for release from prison. Adan wants to serve out his time in a Mexican prison, something everyone thinks is insane since as a snitch or dedo, his life there won't be worth much. But a deal is a deal. 
One of Adan's primary characteristics is that with few exceptions he's always the smartest man in the room. The people he's informed on were his bitter enemies. Within top cartel circles Adan's act isn't seen as contemptible and dishonest but rather canny and worthwhile. Of course it helps that Adan's a boss. The Mexican prison he's sent to is run by Diego Tapia, a cartel boss in his own right and Adan's first cousin. 

In short time Adan "escapes" from prison and starts rebuilding his power, ruthlessly eliminating anyone and anything in his way. Art is invited back to the DEA to consult with Mexican law enforcement and prosecutors looking to arrest Adan. There are politics, nationalist resentment and corruption to complicate Art's job. And Art won't be content to sit on the sidelines and provide intelligence or advice, especially when he's unsure just whom to trust.

Although the Art: Adan conflict is central to this book's decade long story, The Cartel is in some respects almost a Dickensian love letter to Mexico, its good, bad and ugly. There are a lot of characters in this story all of whom have parts to play. One of the scariest things in this book (and in real life) is the fact that the cartels have supposedly corrupted nearly every important institution in Mexican society. The most dangerous and vicious group associated with the cartels is not in fact Adan's Sinaloa group but an organization calling themselves The Zetas. The Zetas are at their core a group of former military and intelligence officers and soldiers, who after doing stints as bodyguards and enforcers for some cartels, decide to go into business for themselves. Their tactics, drawn from counter-insurgency training, set new lows in fear and savagery. But there is also resistance from unlikely sources. A baker goes on a hunger strike, almost killing herself, in order to force the army to release her son. A woman who was savagely mutilated years ago may have the key that allows Art to split Adan's organization. A genteel newspaper editor insists upon calling it like he sees it even after threats and multiple attempts on his life. An impoverished writer with divorce and child support issues struggles with the morality of taking money. A beautiful doctor puts her life on the line by showing the torture and abuse the army metes out. Some police officers still go to work after one cartel or the other lists them by name and promises to kill them. This is not an idle threat. The Cartel has a lot of mordant and even slapstick humor. The man who later became known as "Crazy Eddie" is an initially low key Mexican-American mid level drug dealer (and former Texas high school football star) who runs afoul of the Zetas. The Zetas forced Eddie to watch as they slowly murdered his best friend. The Zetas didn't consider Crazy Eddie a threat, and so let him live to tell the tale. The Zetas later regret that. As his nickname indicates Eddie becomes a dangerous war leader for his group. His internal dialogue is among the funniest as he is thoroughly sex-obsessed. Eddie has a sixth sense about betrayal which often serves him well. And compared to the lunatics he works for or fights against, Eddie is almost decent. I liked his sense of self-preservation, which is almost always present. Even when he's looking down a woman's top, silently estimating her waist:hip ratio or wondering about her bedroom skills, Eddie always has one eye on the nearest exit.

This book doesn't glorify the cartels or the police or army or prosecutors who battle them or more often take money from them. The only people who truly come off well are the small people who are trying to get through life in one piece. Compared to some of his more monstrous colleagues, Adan Barrera isn't personally that dangerous. He's polite, respects women and often avoids violence if he can help it. But like any other CEO he's not the one getting his hands dirty. If Adan gives the order to corrupt a media organization and murder those who refuse bribes, that order is carried out. Art never forgets Adan's evil even as his own lust for vengeance takes him into some moral quagmires. Art is not really a nice guy. He's a man who tries to keep the wickedness inside of him chained and leashed but increasingly wonders why.

Although this book is a sequel it gloriously stands alone. You don't need to have read The Power Of The Dog to enjoy The Cartel. As one character muses this isn't really about a drug war. It's the war of the haves against the have nots. You should read this book. It's a tale which will have you furiously turning pages to learn what happened next and just as furiously turning pages backwards to see how a throwaway line or character five chapters back is essential to what's happening now. There are some authors who quite aside from their skills at constructing a novel are just wonderful storytellers. Winslow is such a writer. So much of the story (The Zetas, the religiously inspired atavistic savagery, the threats to journalists and writers, the corruption of the Army) is taken from real life. But Winslow also gives voice to a Mexico that is often forgotten in the drug war stereotypes. This is the Mexico of Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Carlos Fuentes, Fidel Sanchez and several other intellectuals, political leaders and artists who have lent their voices, talents and occasionally their lives to the struggle for beauty, decency and humanity. Winslow dedicated this book to various murdered journalists. Read it.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Mel Farr and Old Commercials

Mel Farr recently passed away. He was a former Detroit Lions football player who was a little before my time. I never saw him play football. He also sang backup on Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On". Returning the favor to his friend, Farr helped to arrange a Detroit Lions tryout for Gaye.  
After the recording, Gaye, 31, told Barney and Farr that he wanted to try out for the Lions. The article quotes Gaye from "Marvin Gaye, My Brother, a book by his brother Frankie: "You know what? I'd rather catch a pass and score a touchdown in Tiger Stadium than rack up another gold record." Gaye started working out with his buddies and Lions great Charlie Sanders, and bulked up by 30 pounds. Then-Lions coach Joe Schmidt, also a fan, agreed to take a meeting with Gaye. But when he found out he had never played football, even in high school, he said no to a tryout. But he changed his mind before training camp and agreed to give Gaye a look during a LIons workout at Michigan.  Gaye looked "decent," but Tinsley writes: "Privately, Schmidt imagined the wood-layers of their day — Deacon Jones, Chuck Howley or Dick Butkus — violently greeting one of America's foremost musicians running across the middle. Marvin would've been a moving target. That was too much burden for any coach's conscience."

But it was only in later years that I learned that Farr was a former Lion great. My primary memory of Farr was as the owner of an auto dealership group who tried to ensure that he and other black dealers got fair treatment from the auto companies. He was one of the first if not the first black auto dealers for Ford. He also tried his hand in other business ventures, some of which worked and some of which didn't. I also remembered Farr as the star of some cheesy hard sell commercials. Later on I also learned that he had a reputation as something of a sharp dealer who didn't mind taking advantage of unwary or low credit/impoverished buyers. But that's normal among auto dealers and scarcely bears mentioning. It's not a business which encourages leaving money on the table. I don't think such a business exists. No it's the commercials which are the first thing that came to my mind. And I could not remember the Mel Farr commercials without also recalling some of the other local commercials of note from back in the day, especially the Highland Appliance and WRIF remarkable mouth ads. Those were good times. It's funny how some commercials can instantly transfer you back across decades. I don't watch a lot of television any more and in particular not a lot of local television. But these local television and radio ads bring back fun memories. I also enjoyed the Angels With Dirty Faces Highland Appliance parody and obviously the Faygo commercial. If anyone should ever ask you the best Faygo flavor is Moon Mist.

Mel Farr Superstar

Mel Farr Flying with Billy Sims

Highland Appliance Rocky Sullivan

You have a remarkable mouth

Faygo (Remember When)

Highland Appliance Bully (Radio)

Detroit Zoo

Highland Appliance Fur Elise

Highland Appliance Fifty Watts Per Channel

Colonial Merchandise Mart

Highland Appliance Rumors (Radio)

You gotta have art

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Movie Reviews: Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton
directed by F. Gary Gray
It was the late eighties. I was temporarily home from college for some reason or the other. My younger brother, bless his heart, had wasted no time turning what was formerly our bedroom into his bedroom. One of the ways in which he signaled this change in management was by blasting what I later learned was N.W.A.'s seminal album Straight Outta Compton as loudly as he could. I didn't really sit down and listen to the lyrics then. All I heard was all the profanity and racial slurs. I politely advised my sibling that as free speech was not necessarily a guaranteed right in our residence when it came to profanity if he wished to avoid a serious (ahem) correction, he would need to turn that **** off before our father returned home. Otherwise things could get ugly. And I didn't want any of that correction bouncing off my brother and hitting me. That would have just ruined my day. Quickly coming to his senses, my brother agreed. Still there was something about the music which almost forced you to listen. I picked up the album later. It was raw, ugly, vicious and admittedly every kind of problematic "ist" you could think of. The album Straight Outta Compton was outlaw chic that went to heights, or rather depths, which had only briefly been previously reached by similar styled rappers such as Ice-T or Schoolly D in "6 in the morning" or "P.S.K", respectively. It certainly wasn't the kind of music I listened to in mixed company or in front of my father. But it also was music that was in its way directly descended from the hardest core blues (check out some uncensored versions of Stag-o-lee, songs about prison rape or Pat Hare's I'm gonna murder my baby) or some of the bleaker soul music of the seventies (some of Curtis Mayfield's work). N.W.A. made mostly nihilistic music that claimed to tell the story of the streets. This music was often apolitical in that it made few attempts at any sort of uplifting message. The group claimed to be documenting what was going on but of course there was some glorification. This was no different than Scorsese films in many aspects. N.W.A.'s "Straight Outta Compton" was the perfect soundtrack for adolescent or even older male power fantasies. This made heavy metal sound like Lawrence Welk. This album changed music, specifically rap music for both the better and the worse. The film Straight Outta Compton tells the origin stories, rise and fall and continued success of the young men (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Easy E, MC Ren, Yellaboy) who became N.W.A.

The first thing to address is that this film was executive produced by Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Easy E's widow. So I didn't go into the theater expecting this film to provide a deep holistic warts and all look at the more problematic aspects of N.W.A's behavior or lyrics. One of the victims of Dr. Dre's violence, Dee Barnes, was upset that her attack was not even referenced, although she didn't necessarily want to see it depicted. As I wrote before the ugly truth about life is that some very talented and successful people can have some very ugly retrograde views or behave in quite nasty ways to those around them. There was an old joke about Ray Charles which stated that to become a Raelette (female backup singer) a woman needed to "let Ray". I don't think that all of that was included in the Ray film. You will have to decide for yourself how important these things are to you as a viewer. For what it's worth Dr. Dre has released a new general apology for his past actions. Straight Outta Compton is the best film I've seen this year because of the acting, streamlined directing and especially the casting. More on that in a second. But most importantly Straight Outta Compton manages to show Black men as full human beings. They make mistakes, get sidetracked and argue but can still come together as friends who have complex, conflicted and even loving relationships. It's odd that I could write that about a film depicting a group calling themselves N.W.A. who could in many respects ( remember Stanley Crouch or C. Delores Tucker anyone) be rightfully accused of gleefully and profitably portraying the absolute worst stereotypes of black people, specifically black men, but life is full of ironies like that.

I mentioned the casting. We shouldn't be surprised that the actor playing the group's most prominent and charismatic lyricist, Ice Cube, looks just like Ice Cube, circa 1988~1995. O'Shea Jackson Jr. happens to call Ice Cube "Dad'. So of course he closely resembles his famous father. But the younger Jackson made his role work by capturing his father's quick snarl that could just as easily turn into a smile, gait, tone and every other characteristic of the elder Jackson. One of his most powerful scenes is wordless as he watches a gang member provide an impromptu after school motivational speech to a busload of high school students. He nailed this role, no question. Corey Hawkins also shines as Dr. Dre, a talented but frustrated DJ and producer who knows that he's wasting his time working for people who can't see that hardcore rap is the next big thing. Easy E (Jason Mitchell) likely has the film's meatiest role. Mitchell was in the films Contraband and Broken City but obviously not as lead. I can't even remember him. Mitchell has only been acting for three years. His performance here just shows what some people can do when they get a chance. I think Straight Outta Compton narrowly avoids a descent into melodrama when it focuses on the later part of Easy E's short life but the quick pace makes it work. Easy E was an unlicensed pharmaceutical distributor with awareness that his progress along that career path was likely going to be limited by the law or permanently ended by rival unlicensed pharmaceutical distributors. Easy E obviously had entrepreneurial talents. He ran in some of the same circles as Dr. Dre and rapper MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.). Appealing to Easy's eye for profit, Dr. Dre convinces Easy E to bankroll studio time and record production for a group he's overseeing. When the original talent leaves in a huff, Easy is cajoled and almost shamed into getting in front of the mic, despite his highly questionable relationship with pitch and timing. And we see the birth of N.W.A.

The other theme which ran through the movie and still resonates today is the way that police, often white, but black as well, continually pick on black people, specifically young black men. You just don't have to be doing anything. You can literally be minding your own business, as jazz legend Miles Davis learned, and be placed under police suspicion, arrest or violence. Class, wealth, employment, intelligence, respectability or artistic skill provide no protection against this. Straight Outta Compton skillfully weaves several examples of this police brutality throughout the film. It's not just a question of physical manhandling but a constant stream of taunting and insulting that explains to everyone why the song  F*** the Police appealed to many people, regardless of what they thought of N.W.A.'s other creative work. I mean would you be happy if someone with a gun and a badge threatened and cussed out your mother? Probably not. It is also important to single out Paul Giamatti for his magnificent portrayal as the alternately shady and solicitous record company owner, manager and promoter, Jerry Heller. The film argues that Heller badly ripped off the N.W.A. members and did so with a smile. This could have been a thankless or even stereotypical cardboard role, but Giamatti brings a certain intelligence and self-consciousness to the character. Heller is someone who can't be trusted but he also has some hard unpleasant truths to tell about the lack of black distribution, production, legal representation and management in the music and entertainment industry. There are doors that a white person could open that others can't easily reach. Heller argues that Easy E (his favorite) and N.W.A need him. But he doesn't want anyone reading contracts too closely. This is a source of irritation to the suspicious Ice Cube. Suge Knight (R. Marcus Taylor), founder of Death Row records, provides a different management style. Knight's contacts with (and membership in ?) the Bloods as well as his intimidating size and fearsome industry reputation make formal contracts only a minor afterthought. If you're signed with his company you're going to stay with his company. And don't ever park your vehicle in his assigned space. Where some people were studio gangsters Suge was the real deal. The film shows that while it can theoretically be great to have someone like that on your side to cut through a lot of industry nonsense it can also be downright dangerous. Dre sees this first hand. And speaking of conflict and negativity Straight Outta Compton entirely ignores the internal black debate over publicly embracing and using ugly language which was previously only used routinely by street people. Richard Pryor did this roughly two decades before Straight Outta Compton but later came to regret it. Is it possible to move forward if you internally see yourself as something negative. That's a question this movie evades to its detriment. In modern times we often think the greatest sin is hypocrisy but I'm not so sure. There was a reason that in bygone days "blue" comedians or singers often made different recordings for different audiences. Anyway.  
As N.W.A. only had one great album, this movie swiftly moves to post N.W.A. successes and challenges, such as Ice Cube's solo albums, involvement with the NOI and film career, Dr. Dre's ascent to become one of the world's most famous producers, his work with Snoop Dogg and Tupac and Easy E's slow health decline and grim realization that he may have been outhustled and punked by both Jerry Heller and Suge Knight. This was a very long movie but with just one or two exceptions it didn't feel like it. The pacing was on point. The camera swoops in and out to give a very naturalistic feeling to the proceedings. As mentioned this was the best first run film I've seen so far this year. No matter if you are already familiar with the time or music depicted or have never heard of the group this is a movie worth watching. Oscar material? I haven't seen enough new films this year to make that claim. Ren and DJ Yella don't get a whole lot of emphasis in Straight Outta Compton but I guess there's only so much spotlight to go around. Those two members didn't write or produce the film so that's what happens. I always thought Ren was underrated. Yella in particular is shown as sex obsessed even by rapper/musician standards.Other associated acts also get short shrift. Look for a humorous shout out to the television hit show "Empire"/movie "Friday". 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Watch: Stevie Wonder and Jazmine Sullivan 'Riff It Up' In Philly

Yesterday afternoon Stevie Wonder surprised Philadelphia with a free concert in Dillworth Park. Despite the obnoxious heat, swarms of fans flocked to city hall, while city government workers gazed on from there city hall office windows.

One of the highlights from yesterday's pop up concert was hearing Stevie Wonder and local talent Jazmine Sullivan exchange riffs on stage. In an entertainment industry riddled with mediocre voices, it is always a pleasure to hear real singers perform live and this is a great example of two generations of exceptional talent giving fans a nice summer treat.

Enjoy the video below.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Book Reviews: Brothers in Arms

Brothers in Arms
by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Anthony Walton
It's not as widely known as it should be but former NBA great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (KAJ) is something of a Renaissance Man. He's not just a former player and coach but also an author, actor, film producer, essayist and historian. It's this last which is important for this review. KAJ's father was one of the first black NYC transit cops. The elder Alcindor's good friend was Leonard Smith, also one of the first black NYC transit cops. Smitty, as he was called, was a godfather/uncle figure to KAJ, watching out for him in the NYC concrete jungle and making sure that KAJ did not get in any trouble, legal or otherwise. One night in the Lincoln Center, KAJ was in the audience to watch a documentary about the 761st Tank Battalion, a predominantly black unit, which after being attached to General Patton's Third Army, was the first black armored unit in WW2 to see combat. KAJ was modestly involved with the film, rounding up veterans to speak of their combat experiences. KAJ's father was a veteran though he saw no combat. So KAJ was shocked to accidentally run into Smitty at the event and completely flabbergasted to learn that the oft humorous, optimistic and self-effacing Smitty was a decorated combat vet of the 761st. He had served as a tank gunner and loader, won a Bronze Star and seen action in numerous battles in five countries, including the Battle of the Bulge. However Smitty had never mentioned this to Al Alcindor or to his son KAJ. KAJ learned a lot watching the documentary but was disappointed by some quality and factual errors. KAJ decided that he would tell the tale about the 761st Tank Battalion and by extension, all black combat veterans of WW2 ,before it was too late. This 2004 book was the result. Most of those veterans have long since departed this vale of tears but Brothers in Arms remains a fitting testament to their struggles, failures and ultimate triumphs. I have often written that I don't know how people of my parents' generations managed to live through all of the racism, segregation and violence which they did, let alone people of my grandparents' generation, such as Leonard Smith. My maternal grandfather was a WW2 veteran though I don't know if he saw combat or not while a paternal great grandfather was a WW1 veteran who did see plenty of combat while attached to the French Army. As the story goes he was was a true terror to deal with upon his return to the US. Some people say he was scarred by his experiences whiles others claim he was already a very hard man before his combat days. So I wanted to read this book to better understand the challenges faced by black people from that generation.

Brothers in Arms is a meticulously footnoted and extremely detailed book which focuses primarily on three members of the 761st, obviously including KAJ's "uncle", Leonard Smith. It starts out explaining some of the member's hopes and dreams and why they wound up in the 761st. Smitty, for example wanted to be a pilot. But as the Army Air Corps did not accept blacks as pilots, Smitty's recruiter told him the next best thing was to be a tanker. So that's where Smitty went. Many other soldiers had similar stories.

The Army of the mid forties had an officer corps which was disproportionately white and southern and completely uninterested in having black troops in any role other than non-combat and/or janitorial. Black officers were rare and enjoyed little protection against intense disrespect and violence from white soldiers, enlisted or otherwise. And black officer and enlisted man alike had to tread very carefully in the 1940s era South, which is where most of their initial training took place. Insults, beatings and even murders for any reason or no reason at all were not at all uncommon. White citizens were often particularly incensed by the sight of black men in uniform and went far out of their way to belittle and harass. After one murder the 761st was barely prevented from loading up in their half tracks and tanks to invade the local Louisiana town. Initially the officer corps for the 761st was predominantly white. Most of these men viewed being assigned to the the 761st as a demotion and negative comment on their leadership potential. Many of them took this out on the battalion via unending racist talk or deliberate indifference to the well being of their men. This would not have been tolerated in a white unit. I knew that future baseball great Jackie Robsinson had made a reputation for standing up for himself but I didn't know that the incident which saw an almost successful court-martial of the young lieutenant occurred when he was a member of the 761st. Other black officers memorized the rules books backwards and forwards in order to refuse the extra-legal MP enforced rule that black officers could not carry their weapons off base. Things started to change for the 761st as more black officers arrived and the new white commander, Lt. Col Bates, proved to be someone who wasn't interested in race as much as he was interested in his men's performance and safety. As the war dragged on and casualties mounted the Army was sorely pressed to put every available man into combat. 

What finally gave the 761st its chance was when maverick General George Patton, starved of fighting power, temporarily put aside his doubts about black competence to request that the 761st be attached to his Third Army. This proved to be the chance that the 761st needed to make its mark, though by all available evidence General Patton didn't really change his opinion about black soldiers, apparently viewing the 761st as an anomaly. In any event the 761st, aka The Black Panther battalion, primarily made its mark under Patton's command but also served with distinction under other commanders. The book is as mentioned very dense. This is sometimes a drawback. It gives you a "you were there" feeling about the experience of combat. I probably could have done without knowing that soldiers used their helmets both to boil water and to relieve themselves or that people wore clothes until in some cases they literally rotted off.  One minute you're grabbing a bite to eat and in the next minute you're trying to crawl out of your tank because a German artillery observer has called in an all too accurate shelling. One 761st soldier, having learned that his best friend was killed, goes on a near suicidal war long rampage to try to kill every German he sees. Smitty took a very long time to lose his sense of adventure. For the longest time he seemingly didn't process that people were trying to kill him. War is hell, it is said. This book certainly brings that across. It also brings across the stupidity of racism. Some wounded white soldiers objected to black medics rescuing or treating them. With a few notable exceptions most white units were not exactly happy to see the 761st at first. For most people this changed after the experience of fighting together. But for some it did not. As I mentioned in the review of the film Fury, the M-4 Sherman, the most common US combat tank, was severely outgunned by and less protected than the German Panther and Tiger tanks. But outgunned or not, the men of the 761st lived up to their battalion motto and "came out fighting!". If you are a history or war buff you should read this book. I'm sorry it took me so long to get to it but I'm glad I did.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Movie Reviews: Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four
directed by Josh Trank
When the director tweets out (and later deletes) that the final film product is not what he originally intended or indeed created it's not the best sign. This could be a good old fashioned case of CYA and blamestorming. Or it could be God's honest truth. The best thing one can say about this film is that it is indeed quite not as bad as some of the more vitriolic responses have indicated. Nevertheless it is a bad film. It is not emotionally engaging in the slightest bit. It is a summer blockbuster based on a comic book which was never one of my favorites. But even by the low standards of "comic book" movies this film was flat. It was so flat that I don't want to spend a huge number of paragraphs explaining why. It's not worth my time, which has lately become scarce. And you would be bored before you got halfway through. If films like The Dark Knight, Sin City and 300 show that the best comic books or graphic novels can reflect timeless myths that come to amazing life on the big screen and compare favorably with literary prose, films like Fantastic Four show that weak source material combined with bad casting and worse direction can produce a film that is going to have to peddle itself furiously overseas to have even a remote chance of making its production budget back.

The Good (this will be short)
Some of the special effects were good, particularly Johnny Storm (The Human Torch) and Ben Grimm (The Thing). They actually looked real. You could feel the horror in being a rocky malformed well...thing, who will never know the ability to physically love a woman again. Sue's initial inability to control her access to the visible spectrum actually had pathos.
Reg Cathey's work as Dr. Franklin Storm, father of Johnny and Sue Storm, is worthy of note. Cathey brought an admirable intensity to a role that was more than a bit hackneyed. I remember him from The Wire. Unfortunately in Fantastic Four he had little chemistry with either of his children but I blame that more on the writing than on him. And that's about it for the good that I saw in this film.

The Bad
Where to begin? Well I could go on for a while here but as mentioned I want to be concise. 
I know this is supposed to be an origin story/reboot but the whole point of the Fantastic Four is that it's a family. Johnny Storm and Ben Grimm are feuding frenemies. Reed and Ben are best friends. Reed and Sue are a romantic item. Sue and Johnny are siblings who are extremely protective of each other. None of that came across in this film. Maybe all the acting in front of the green screen has limited some actors' abilities? I don't know but none of the four leads evinced any real chemistry with each other. You could see them trying sometimes but it just never came across. They looked and sounded like they were on lithium drips throughout the film. That was the film's biggest flaw. I was never ever ever ever able to lose myself in the film's reality. So if the actors didn't care, why should I? I know that Michael B. Jordan can provide better acting than he did here as Johnny Storm. Kate Mara can as well, for that matter. If Jessica Alba's Sue Storm was too brassy and offkey then Kate Mara's version too often fades into the background. I don't need to see another so called strong woman who beats up 30 men who are twice her size but in this film Sue Storm didn't have a whole lot to do. I suspect that much of that has to do with the source material but there are still things the writers and producers could have done to make the actress' story a bit more engaging. For example, a few "remember whens" between the Storm siblings might have helped.
Again I understand the origin story. I get that this film was based on a slightly different version of the Fantastic Four but dorky or not, Reed Richards is still supposed to be a leader of men. I couldn't buy the baby faced Miles Teller as any sort of leader of anyone. If he got into anyone's face it would probably just be to beg them to give his lunch money back.
Doom(Toby Kebbell) had the arrogance and analytical nature of Victor Von Doom down pat but his reasons for turning to the Dark Side as it were were hackneyed at best and downright dumb if you want to be frank. I'm not a Fantastic Four comic book geek. Perhaps this is how it went down in the original source material but if so then they should have changed it for the big screen. Jamie Bell does ok as Ben Grimm but it's nothing to write home about. Basically there are no characters you care about. The story is one you've seen a million times before. And the film doesn't even try to hid the fact that monetary considerations were infinitely more important than any story it was trying to tell. This is a film you can safely skip seeing in the theaters. I wouldn't even advise seeing it on VOD or DVD. Wait until it's on for free and you have nothing better to do. There are one or two scenes of violence that would be more appropriate for a horror movie but most of the violence is well, comic book like. No sex and no cleavage IIRC. But it's not that any of that would have changed my opinion on this film. With the miscast Teller and bad chemistry among the cast, this film just didn't do much for me. I think the Fantastic Four story which was relatable in the sixties doesn't resonate today as it did then. Tim Blake Nelson slums as a oleaginous government doctor with a hidden agenda. Are there any other kinds? The ending is rushed and the big battle feels well, fake from beginning to end. Fantastic Four, with a few exceptions, was subdued and almost lifeless. Too much time was spent with heroes in the lab and not enough of them doing heroic things.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Donald Trump and Megyn Kelly: Period Politics

I wrote before that Donald Trump is incredibly thin skinned for a man of such immense wealth. This was not any great insight on my part by any means. It's so obvious a blind man could see it. Trump does not take criticism well, sees slights everywhere and very quickly gets in beefs with folks over the most asinine things. Of course he or his supporters would say that someone who takes criticism well tends to get a lot of criticism. From this POV the best thing to do is to attack immediately and set expectations. I think Trump tries to live by the Office Space lawyer's advice passed on from his imprisoned client to "kick someone's a$$ the first day or become someone's b****." The other thing about Trump is that rather than attack someone's argument or theories he always attacks the person's intelligence, wealth, appearance or immutable characteristics. Trump did this most recently with Fox News personality and Republican debate moderator Megyn Kelly. In an interview with CNN's Don Lemon Trump made a dismissive reference to Kelly's period as a way of explaining what he saw as her undue aggression. He also retweeted a reference to Kelly as a bimbo. These comments, tweets and retweets all obviously caused some current and former Fox News personalities to attack Trump. Other conservatives have rescinded invitations to Trump to speak. I am loving this. It's amazing and amusing to me that a right wing movement that has said far worse things about the President, the First Lady and their children is now up in arms because of what Trump says about Megyn Kelly. Republicans already take it as an article of faith that President Obama is a man with no class. Heck, during the Democratic 2008 debates President Obama came under some criticism from fellow Democrats (wrongly in my opinion) for merely telling rival Hillary Clinton that she was "likable enough". I don't think the President would have been elected or re-elected if he were on public record telling anyone that the only reason some woman was attacking him or doing something else to annoy him was because she was on her cycle. Time will tell if these comments damage Trump's brand among conservatives. But they show that whatever else he is Trump is not a deep thinker or a man who is able to or willing to make intelligent arguments when faced with opposition. So maybe he is the perfect candidate for a Republican base that is increasingly filled with know-nothings.

I am reminded of that passage from The Return of the King, where Sam and Frodo, hiding from an Orc patrol, witness two Orcs arguing before one murders the other and runs off. Emerging from hiding, Sam cynically remarks if this sort of friendliness would spread around Mordor, half of the good guys' problems would be over. But Frodo cautions otherwise:

"But that is the spirit of Mordor, Sam; and it has spread to every corner of it. Orcs have always behaved like that, or so the tales say, when they are on their own. But you can't get much hope out of it. They hate us far more, altogether and all the time. If those two had seen us, they would have dropped all their quarrel until we were dead."
Once this little intramural Republican sexism kerfuffle is over I am sure the Republicans won't have any new interest or understanding in changing how they talk about women or so-called women's issues. Fox News will continue to remain a bastion of barely repackaged racism and proud ignorance. And Kelly will continue to be a champion of that. It is what it is. After all, should Trump win the nomination, I am certain that Fox News will champion him against his Democratic opponent. Whoever comes out of the Republican gauntlet as winner is very likely to be hostile to some values which I hold dear. But for now, I am just sitting back and shaking my head. Ironically if Trump had taken the high road (LOL) and provided some reasons to support the argument that Fox News was trying to take him down, this whole controversy could have been avoided. But if Trump did that he wouldn't be Trump. One wonders exactly how Trump would know if or when Kelly is having periods. Does he have a special spidey sense for such things? And ultimately Kelly takes orders from Roger Ailes, like everyone else at Fox News. Will Trump go after Ailes?

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Hiroshima: War, Peace and Memory

"When you got an all out prize fight, you wait until the fight is over, one guy is left standing and that's how you know who won." -Al Capone from The Untouchables.
Today is the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. A few days later will see the 70th anniversary of the subsequent atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Each bombing immediately killed as many as 80,000 people in each city by most estimates. There would be many other people who would die later from wounds, radiation and cancers. The bombings finally convinced the Japanese Emperor Hirohito to drop most of his terms for surrender (over the vociferous objection of the military although like most so-called royalty being self-serving Hirohito requested to retain royal prerogatives). The other three conditions for surrender which the Emperor and the military leadership had previously insisted upon were (1) no military occupation of Japan (2) Japan would try its own war criminals (3) Japan would disarm itself. These conditions were obvious non-starters to the US though I would argue that the ensuing occupation was much easier than Japan had any reason to expect.

In any event the idea that one bomb could destroy one city made a huge impact at the time and obviously in the decades since then. There were some people at the time of the atomic bombings who thought that they were unnecessary if not criminal in nature. These weren't just people outside of the military either. Whether for moral or other reasons some leaders within the military and political establishment weren't sure that the use of the atomic bombs was justified. Others saw no problem with using the new weapon. Surely it was no different than the first person using a gun against an overconfident swordsman. If you're at war and have superior technology you use it. The Japanese surrender made a US invasion unnecessary and thus saved American lives. Before the atomic bombings, the Battle of Okinawa lasted almost 90 days and saw unbelievably vicious fighting and atrocities by both sides, including rape and deliberate targeting of civilians. The US lost around 14,000 marines and soldiers while the Japanese lost at least 77,000 troops. From this battle, both sides took the lesson that the invasion of Japan would be something close to an exterminationist undertaking. Now counterfactuals are always just that. No one can say for sure what would have happened. Some people have accepted the narrative that the atomic bombings were war crimes for which the US should be ashamed. Others say that we must work to rid the world of all nuclear weapons.

A very very very long time ago I used to think that the atom bombs were indeed criminal and likely racist in their application. But that was before I read Slaughterhouse-Five and researched the firebombing of Dresden. And later on (in my dissolute youth I was a WW2 buff) I learned all about the firebombing of Tokyo. More people died in the Tokyo bombing than died in Hiroshima. Does it really make a moral difference if someone is immediately turned to ash by a nuclear device or is incinerated or suffocated by a non-nuclear bomb? I don't see that it does. And certainly a nation that committed the Nanking Massacre has no room to point fingers about civilian casualties. The decision of moral import is whether or not to bomb a largely civilian area (though there were a high number of soldiers in Hiroshima). Once that decision has been made, everything else is just details. War, particularly total war, can and does often devolve to starkly utilitarian considerations. If you can break the enemy's morale and destroy his industry you can prevent well armed and supplied motivated soldiers from showing up at the front. If the enemy has no vehicles or communication or oil or gasoline then he can't effectively fight. More of his soldiers die or surrender and more of yours stay alive. That's the theory anyway. After the war it was discovered that aerial bombing of civilians had less of an strategic impact than many people had assumed. It just terrorized people and made them angrier. Nevertheless the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have been the exception that proved the rule. Fear broke through the insane Japanese military code. Hirohito finally saw reason and surrendered, thus saving countless lives. 

The atom bombs were horrible events. We should work to make nuclear weapons unthinkable. The US needs to stop its addiction to war and cease its arms exports. Everyone on this planet should work for peace whenever possible. But in 2015 the US has no reason to think of Hiroshima or Nagasaki as criminal actions. Japan started it; the US finished it.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Reviews: Mob Boss

Mob Boss
by Jerry Capeci and Tom Robbins
Everyone is the hero in their own life story. This hoary truism was very obvious reading the book Mob Boss, which detailed the life and career of the titular Mafiosi character, one Alphonse "Little Al" D'Arco. Despite the book's title, D'Arco was technically never the boss of the Lucchese Crime Family, a powerful criminal organization which dates back to at least the 1920s in its present form. But for a short time period D'Arco was indeed the acting boss while the actual boss and underboss fled underground to dodge arrest and trial. The underboss, Anthony "Gaspipe" Casso, put out his own story a few years back in a book written by late biographer Phillip Carlo. In that book, Casso depicted D'Arco as an initially loyal bumbler who let the authority inherent in the acting boss position go to his head, becoming greedy. However Casso was a stone killer and quite likely, though the term is overused, a paranoid psychopath. He had a very loose connection with the truth. Casso is currently serving thirteen consecutive life sentences plus 455 years in federal prison. Like D'Arco Casso became an informant but federal authorities decided that Casso was simply too evil and untrustworthy (they caught him in lies) to use as a witness. So it goes. So D'Arco tells things as he saw them in this book. Many people who could contradict him are either dead or in prison. For what it's worth, Capeci and Robbins, two mob experts of long standing, say that they never caught D'Arco in a lie. Every organization has youthful prodigies and shining stars who blossom into consistent top performers in later years. They very quickly become leaders who are well respected for the wealth and status they bring to the organization. Every organization also has people who fervently search for every opportunity to do the least amount of work possible. These people spend their entire career getting performance reviews that read "...has room for improvement....not fully invested in the company's program....needs to reverse current trends." If there are ever cutbacks these employees are immediate and unanimous choices for termination. And finally there are people closer to the middle of the bell curve who are rarely close to being fired but who certainly aren't on the fast track to status and power either. This last is the group to which D'Arco belonged. 

Although he had a decent mob pedigree (both his father-in-law and blood relations on both sides of his family were noted mobsters), D'Arco hadn't had a meteoric rise in the Lucchese Family. He wasn't made (formally inducted) until he was fifty years old, in part because some other members of the Family weren't too impressed with his criminal skills. For much of his career D'Arco earned more money from legitimate businesses such as restaurants, food trucks, real estate and burger stands than he did from such ventures as labor rackeetering, hijacking, burglary, gambling, extortion and loan sharking that made up the bulk of his criminal portfolio. He was also imprisoned for some time, including a sentence for drug dealing, which he claims was a faulty charge. Although he claims to have been mostly opposed to drugs he readily admits to other drug deals. D'Arco is just adamant that the particular drug charge that saw him imprisoned was bogus.

After his second release from prison things started to look up for D'Arco. He joined the same crew made infamous in the Goodfellas movie. One of his friends, Vic Amuso, rose in rank within the family. After the Lucchese Family bosses were convicted they made Amuso and his dangerous partner, Casso, boss and underboss. Shortly afterwards, D'Arco was promoted to captain. As the Mafia is at its base a pyramid scheme, D'Arco's income jumped dramatically. These good times didn't last however, as being captain meant that D'Arco had to deal directly with Casso and Amuso, who were both, to say the least, somewhat erratic and greedy. It's questionable as to whether Casso or Amuso was actually the dominant partner. What's beyond question is that each man had long standing grudges against other Family members. And now that they were running the Family they had the power and authority to indulge their worst instincts. They did just that. Going underground they used D'Arco as their primary contact to direct an internal purge against informers real and imagined as well as against mobsters who had offended them, or more often, simply had a business that the underboss and boss wanted for themselves. The duo broke a lot of rules in their reign of terror, including the dictate against threatening and assaulting relatives of members. D'Arco says his disgust was growing but it wasn't until he realized he was next on the hit list when he decided that the time was right to flip. I thought this book was interesting if a bit too long. Mob Boss explained exactly how labor racketeering and various other crimes (white collar and otherwise) work. D'Arco is an Army veteran. He sees his time in the Mafia as similar because in both organizations it was a mortal sin to disobey an order. When D'Arco was commanded to arrange the murder of a good friend or to ensure that a murder victim had their body mutilated he might feel bad about it but he'd follow orders. 

The Mafia's highest imperative is that money flows up to the bosses. And it's probably a violation of that directive that sealed D'Arco's fate. D'Arco describes a charitable act which Casso saw as theft. No good deed goes unpunished. No one wants to get yelled at by his or her boss. When your boss is dropping people all over the United States, you definitely don't want to be in his bad books. Look for a fascinating aside on how the Mafia uses certain black so-called civil rights organizations as fronts to shake down contractors and construction companies. The book brought home how utterly different the Mafia reality is from the fantasy. In fiction the boss gives a private order to the underboss or counselor who does likewise with a captain who repeats this process with a soldier who then recruits another soldier or associate to do the deed. No names, no witnesses, no teams, and nobody talks. In reality the boss meets with various people to order a criminal action or murder. If the boss is as stupid as Amuso and Casso were, he might even pester people at the lowest level for gory details. And everybody gossips about who killed whom, when, where, and why. The criminal life isn't worth it, and this story shows you why. Today D'Arco is somewhere in the Witness Protection Program. Maybe he's living next to you.