Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Reviews: Birth of a Nation, The Sillymarillion, The Ceremonies

Birth of a Nation
by Aaron McGruder and Reginald Hudlin
This is an older satirical graphic novel that asks what if questions about the 2000 election. My cousin let me borrow it. I am grateful to her. As you may remember there were irregularities in that election which even before the Supreme Court decision came down, helped to make the election much closer than it otherwise would have been. A number of people who should have been able to vote were prevented from voting. Certain companies tasked with providing voting machines or records of votes turned out to have partisan connections to Republicans. US and world history would have been very different if George Bush had not been selected President in 2000. McGruder and Hudlin imagine a world in which the response to that election was very different indeed. Make no mistake though, although the election is the catalyst to the events in this book, McGruder and Hudlin turn their gleeful and irreverent viewpoints on a wide variety of topics including but not limited to black (dis)unity and identity, hip-hop, international capitalism, climate change, religion, race, racism, gender, the military and politics. The book is helped immensely by the fact that Hudlin grew up in East St. Louis, the setting for most of the story. As Hudlin explains in the introduction, some events depicted (city residents putting their garbage on roofs to prevent dogs and wildlife from getting at it during a sanitation strike) really did take place. The title obviously refers back to the racist D.W. Griffith film of the same name. Given the book's events it's another play on words/inside joke. The deeper question which this book examines in both a very humorous and not so humorous way is what does it mean to be a black citizen of the United States of America. What does integration mean and is it something that is truly desirable or even possible? Is it better to strive for inclusion or are Blacks better off building their own institutions--including nations. McGruder and Hudlin don't have the answers. I don't think anyone really does. Those are questions which have been asked in different manners for generations. But don't be afraid to read this book. It's hardly sober and didactic. Much the opposite. You will be laughing out loud more than you might think.

Fred Fredericks is the young dashing Mayor of East St. Louis. Despite living in what even residents describe as a segregated dump, Mayor Fredericks is an inveterate optimist. He's a can do type of guy who is full of energy. Mayor Fredericks is the sort of man who says "If it is to be it's up to me" ten times before he brushes his teeth. He picks up constituents' garbage in his own vehicle to take it to the waste dump. The mayor and the citizens of East St. Louis head to the polls to vote for the (presumably Democratic) vice-President only to find that they've all been mysteriously purged from the voting rolls. When they refuse to leave state police attack. By the time they're released from jail the election is over. Their guy lost. Their missing votes would have made the difference. The new President is a Texan of incurious nature with a talent for mangled syntax. Still believing in America, the telegenic Mayor files suit which ultimately reaches the Supreme Court. And he loses. It looks like things are over until Fredericks, who is nothing if not an idealist, decides that if the United States will not recognize the people of East St. Louis as citizens of equal standing, then East St. Louis will secede from the United States. The (Bush) Administration doesn't really take this seriously at first. The Administration, with the notable exception of a choleric Cheney caricature, decides that to respond immediately with violence would be a serious pr mistake. They decide instead to just pull all federal/state funding and services. The Administration looks forward to enjoying the spectacle of the new nation of "Blackland" coming crawling back to beg for readmission to the United States. This doesn't happen both because of Fredericks' stubbornness and the financial assistance of Fredericks'  occasionally reliable friend, the black billionaire John Roberts. Roberts has plans to make East St. Louis a hub of international banking. Of course Roberts is less motivated by outrage over the stolen election and more by the opportunity to make more money. He's not sharing all his plans with Fredericks or anyone. As the novel progresses the Administration starts to realize that it might have to take more drastic steps..

Did I mention this book was hilarious?  Hudlin and McGruder send up everyone and everything. The new nation has a picture of a white Jesus on its flag because older black churchgoers are the only people who bother to attend committee meetings on flag designs. The national anthem is sung to the Good Times theme. The local gangsters, led by a shady fellow named Roscoe, look for ways to enrich themselves. A group of young would be Afrocentric revolutionaries plot for ways to help save the new nation, that is when they aren't eating cookies supplied by their host's supportive white mother. Paranoid hackers, CIA spooks and loons of all kinds make their way to Blackland. Fredericks will have his hands full trying to maintain independence and his optimistic nature. The book slows down a little in the end as things really become serious. I think Hudlin and McGruder might have started to run out of ideas but this story is sanguine to the end.

The Sillymarillion
by D.R. Lloyd
As you might suss out from the title this book is a parody (a short one) of J.R.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, reviewed here. Whereas The Silmarillion is majestic and full of pain, joy, epic love and hate, The Sillymarillion is all about pure fun and mockery. It is VERY funny. Literally every single page is full of all sorts of jokes, puns, tricks, satire and wordplay. It is not necessary to have read the The Silmarillion to enjoy this parody. It helps but so much of the humor is so broad and over the top that even people who wouldn't read Tolkien on a dare will be able to enjoy this book. Reading this is like reading a combination of the works of Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, Mark Twain and Piers Anthony. Silliness abides. Tolkien's The Sillmarillion clocks in at just under 400 pages. Tolkien's work is light on dialogue and is ponderous reading if you're not in the mood for that sort of thing. This parody is about 160 pages. It is written in a much more inviting style with plenty of dialogue. Like most over the top parodies this will not appeal to people whose sense of humor is only vestigial or who feel that making fun of the source material is blasphemy worthy of death. An example of the prose found within is "Finger would have perished then had not his sons arrived with great numbers to chase off the enemy and rescue their father. As they bore him back to the camp at Minimum he bade them stop for a while to light a small campfire and rest by it, for his wounds grieved him. And his sons asked him if his insurance policy was paid up, and he said "Of course it is! Why do you ask?" When Finger's sons returned alone to the camp at Minimum, no one questioned the story that their father had succumbed to his wounds and that the evide--er ahem--his body had spontaneously combusted upon his death." 

If you like this sort of humor then you will enjoy this book. Elven kings insult dwarvish smiths before belatedly realizing that they forgot to bring along their bodyguards. When he's unable to convince his fellow elves to go after the big bad Mostgoth because of the theft of the Siliputi, Finger tells everyone that his enemy has weapons of mass destruction. That does the trick. Squabbling TV reporters inadvertently reveal the plans and positions of the elvish and human armies to the enemy. One elvish stronghold survives only because the orc Irk troops are overtaken by laughter watching the one handed elvish warlord trying to shoot a bow. And so on.

The Ceremonies
by T.E.D. Klein
Recently George R.R. Martin both caused some consternation and received some support when he announced that he would not have the next book in his A Song of Ice and Fire series finished before the sixth season of HBO's Game of Thrones commences in April. Martin won't say and claims he actually can't say when the next book will be done. He said he's never responded well to deadlines. Every writer is reacting to different stimuli in his or her life. Some writers (Stephen King) are able to produce high quality prose at a regular rate over long periods of time. Others like Martin, take their own sweet time getting things done. One writer who makes Martin look prolific and speedy is T.E.D. Klein, who if memory serves correctly, has written about two novels and a handful of short stories in a career spanning about forty years or so. Well ultimately I guess it doesn't matter though. I think quality is more important than quantity. And The Ceremonies, written way back in 1984 and built off an extension of the Klein short story "The Events at Poroth Farm", is a quality horror story. I read The Ceremonies much earlier and only recently read "The Events at Poroth Farm". That short story was in a collection of Lovecraft inspired short stories. I was then inspired to go back and reread The Ceremonies. Whereas a lot of modern horror is only an excuse for the author to immediately go for the grossout either in terms of violence or outre sexual desires, The Ceremonies is a slow burn of a Gothic novel which is hugely influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, Arthur Machen (who himself influenced H.P Lovecraft), Bram Stoker and Clark Ashton Smith among others. This book is probably a little too languid at times but as I mentioned, Klein is not a man who likes to rush anything. The 500 page book is padded out significantly from the short story. The horror is very subtle throughout most of the book. Unfortunately I think the book suffered a bit by giving us the point of view of the bad guy but no one is perfect. Judging by the available scientific evidence it appears that modern humans emerged somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. But our planet is believed to be 4.5 billion years old. Civilizations thrive and die. Our institutional memory doesn't really last that long. Recorded history only goes back 5-6000 years or so. So there's a lot that happened in the past that today's humans just don't know about. What if thousands of years ago a meteor bearing some sort of alien life form inimical to humanity struck the place we call Delaware. This thing is dying. But it holds on to a half-life waiting for the right time and the right human it needs to complete the first part of its mission. When it finds this human, a European settler boy, it kills him, raises him from the dead, dies and is itself somehow partially resurrected within this no longer human child. This child, who will grow up to become known as The Old One (but you can call him Rosie), has plans for humanity. Not good plans.

Jeremy Freirs is a wimpy English lecturer who needs to get away from NYC for the summer and work on his thesis and his studies. He's going to be reading and reviewing a number of fantastic gothic tales. In a strange coincidence he finds that the Poroth couple, Deborah and Sarr, who work and live on a New Jersey farm, are looking for a summer lodger. The thing is though that the Poroths are highly religious people (members of the Brethren of the Redemeer-think Amish/Mennonites) who eschew electricity and telephones and glory in hard physical labor. It's not a given that the slightly pudgy Jeremy will be a good fit into the Poroth's home or the community of the Brethren. It doesn't help matters that the massively muscled Sarr is also a college graduate who is ALWAYS on the look out for any hint of condescension from Jeremy or that Jeremy finds himself attracted to Deborah. The first time Jeremy sees curvy Deborah he thinks about what she'd look like with her hair down and in the right clothes. Of course Sarr notices this and doesn't like it. Like any couple, Deborah and Sarr have their own marital issues, which become more apparent to Jeremy over time. Sarr is the more religiously devoted of the couple but Deborah wonders if Sarr is overcompensating because of his hidden doubts. With Deborah obviously unavailable Jeremy takes up with a young shy inexperienced grad student named Carol Conklin who is vacationing in the area. What almost no one realizes is that none of these meetings are coincidences. That is, almost no one except Sarr's mother, who is in the same line of descent as the being known as The Old One and has the sight. And she doesn't like what the omens are telling her about The Old One and his plans. This book very slowly builds a sense of dread and unease. You know that The Old One is up to something but you don't know what. Things gradually go wrong as the summer progresses. And you feel for all of the characters within. There are rituals which must be followed before The Old One's master plan can be completed. Ironically, most of these rituals are found within the books Jeremy is studying. I liked that not everything is explained in this book. It is interesting that humans have many of the same myths and ceremonies that crop up in different cultures and religions across time. You may look at those things a little differently after this book. I liked how the author captured both the beauty and the creepiness of the outdoors. And cats. Creepy cats.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Michael Bloomberg and the 2016 election

I do not like Michael Bloomberg. I think his enthusiastic embrace of "stop-n-frisk" tactics in NYC was not only something that violated the Fourth Amendment but was also emblematic of his larger approach to life. Bloomberg seems to prefer that people live according to his rules and sees few if any issues to using government force to make sure that they do. He is quite dismissive and oft contemptuous of opposing views. While this is admirable when it comes to such public goods as clean drinking water and auto safety it's perhaps not so great when it comes to private decisions on how much sugar or fat a person should be ingesting. Perhaps irritated by the rise of Trump and shocked by the fact that at the time of this post Sanders is giving Clinton more of a fight than he was supposed to, Bloomberg has floated a trial balloon about running for President this year as an independent candidate. As Bloomberg is anywhere from four to ten times as wealthy as Trump, Bloomberg would not at all be pressed by the costs necessary to build a national campaign at this late date. I don't doubt, Republican or Democratic protests and shenanigans aside, that if Bloomberg really wanted to get on the ballot in all 50 states he would have the money and moxie to make that happen. The question though is that in a time when the Republican and Democratic parties have accepted and enforced ideological purity it's not clear from which party and in which state Bloomberg would take more votes.

Bloomberg is certainly acceptable to much of the Democratic base on the sexual politics (gay rights, feminism, abortion rights) which take up so much energy in today's political arena. Bloomberg is no socialist. He's a believer in what is called free trade. He likes immigration and wants more of it. He's to the right of people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on economic issues. As much as any one person can be, Bloomberg is the Wall Street Establishment. On economic and gun control issues, Bloomberg could well appeal to that well educated moderate Republican voter who in an earlier era was known as a Rockefeller Republican. The problem though is that that sort of voter is not that common outside of some pockets of the Northeast. Certainly not many conservatives in the South, West or Midwest will vote for someone who's best known for visceral hostility to gun rights. Bloomberg simply can't win 270 electoral votes. And I can't see too many Black voters picking Bloomberg over either Clinton or Sanders. If Bloomberg does run I don't see him winning a single state. The only impact he might have is to make a few Northeast states competitive for Republicans. And I would bet that he knows that. But if Clinton should lose in the upcoming Iowa and New Hampshire contests, Bloomberg might see himself as the last chance to prevent a choice between Sanders and Trump. And who knows, there just might be enough establishment Republicans out there who think that they can deal with Bloomberg instead of Trump. But it's really really difficult to imagine that there are millions of thirsty desperate voters out there, yearning for the chance to vote for Bloomberg. I don't see it. The 2016 election is going to be about a repudiation or continuation of President Obama's legacy. It's not going to be about bloodless management, which is what Bloomberg offers. Well he offers that along with stop-n-frisk for everyone. You need to offer a message. Trump's message is America's losing. Vote for me and make America great again. Sanders' message is the rich have screwed you over. Clinton's message is it's time for a woman to lead. Bloomberg's message would be what exactly? What is the passion to make someone vote for Bloomberg? Ultimately, I think any Bloomberg Presidential campaign would be rooted in pure vanity.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Bronx Subway Brawl Beatdown

We've talked before about the seeming modern phenomenon of women assaulting men and the internal moral conflicts which such actions can cause. Really though, such actions are probably not modern at all. It's just that we're better able to capture such assaults on video. Ronda Rousey or Laila Ali notwithstanding if you see a man really going all out on a woman, chances are quite high that the woman will badly lose the physical confrontation. So most civilized men are taught from early on to refrain from hitting a woman-often even in situations of self-defense or instances where another man would have already caught several fists to the face. Unfortunately this cultural expectation of male physical restraint has led to some women deciding that they can initiate a physical confrontation with a man without suffering any consequences. They, and indeed much of society, are actually outraged if a man under attack decides to defend himself. My personal belief is that a gentleman should never hit a lady but neither should a lady ever strike a gentleman. In other words--no hands. Period. Make sure that whatever you do to someone is something that the person is going to like. Because there's an excellent chance that he or she will respond in kind. And gentleman or not, we all have the right and duty to defend ourselves. Recently a man in NYC got into a dispute with a woman on a subway train. Allegedly she was too heavy to fit into a seat next to this man. So someone else got the seat. Words (and elbows?) were exchanged. After a period of mutual insults and threats the woman hit and spit on or at the man. Now that was the wrong thing to do. Is there any worse sign of utter contempt? But the target of her ire was evidently something of a chivalrous sort. Being unwilling to hit the woman, this fellow decided to beat the dog**** out of her husband. So I guess we should all be happy right? There was no violence against women. The problem with holding a man accountable for his wife's or girlfriend's actions is that by doing so we are giving women the moral standing of children. And that's no good. The whole point of being an adult is that we take responsibility for our own actions instead of passing the buck to someone else. Bottom line however is that one man got beat up and another is wanted for assault, all because no one knew how to act. Anyway the video is below. I am happy that I live in an area where I don't use public transportation. I have enough hassles in my life. This is why before you marry someone you might want to make sure that they are not the kind of person who will let their mouth write a check that your behind can't cash. I guess the husband had time to think about his wife's poor cognitive abilities while he was on the floor getting beaten like a rented mule. Love is grand isn't it?

On the two train , this lady was too big to sit in a small space next to the guy, he instead let his smaller coworker sit next to him. She then got upset , they threw insults back and fourth. She then began to get into his face. She spit at him , it missed. She spit at him again and he began to beat up her boyfriend because he didn't wanna hit her.
Posted by Belle Porter on Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Part two !!!!
Posted by Belle Porter on Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Even her in-laws say she’s out of her mind. The instigator of a videotaped subway brawl that left her husband battered on the floor of a Bronx train is nothing but bad news, according to one of her spouse’s aunts. “She’s mentally ill!” the aunt shouted Friday at her Brooklyn apartment. “She’s beating everybody up all the time. She fights everybody.” The Wednesday afternoon beatdown on the No. 5 train began when the victim’s batty bride started a screaming match with a male straphanger over a seat aboard the fairly crowded subway. The woman began spewing obscenities at the man, who shouted back but refrained from getting physical — even after she put her hands on him and pushed her cellphone into his face.LINK

Monday, January 25, 2016

Flint Water Crisis: For a Few Dollars More

We are amazed but not amused By all the things you say that you'll do
Though much concerned but not involved With decisions that are made by you
But we are sick and tired of hearing your song Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong
'Cause if you really want to hear our views You haven't done nothing
"You haven't done nothing"- Stevie Wonder

Unless you have been completely cut off from the news over the past 90 days you have heard about the crisis in Flint, Michigan. In 2013, the State of Michigan took control over Flint and forced a change from the Detroit water supply to the local water supply from the Flint river. The problem with this decision was that the Flint river water was too corrosive for older untreated pipes. Lead and other contaminants soon started leaching into the water supply. There is no amount of lead in drinking water which is considered to be safe. People consuming or using the water immediately noticed bad colors, foul smells, wrong tastes and acidic reactions to metals. When all of this was brought to the attention of the emergency manager,the state officials responsible for water safety, and other state appointees and politicos they ignored the concerns of the citizens, mocked them, slow walked or tried to "fix" water quality tests, viciously attacked any scientist who raised alarms about the Flint water, lied and said the water was safe, and worked assiduously behind the scenes to figure out a way to blame anyone except themselves. I really don't have a lot to say about this both because (1) I need to create shorter posts due to increasing work responsibilities and (2) the actions of most of the people involved are obviously beyond reprehensible. They shock the conscience. It is just barely defensible for the state to take over financial operations of a city that is unable or unwilling to pay its bills. It is never defensible for anyone to poison people to attempt to balance the books. And yet that is precisely what happened in Flint.

As has been pointed out over and over again during the past few weeks if ISIS or some other foreign terrorist group had poured lead into the drinking water of a US city there would be national, even international, outrage both at the perpetrators as well as the incompetents who let it happen. Both drones and DoJ prosecutors would be immediately dispatched. A lot of the criminals involved would end up dead or in prison. But Flint is a majority black and mostly impoverished city. So instead we have the spectacle of the National Review claiming that the Republicans in charge aren't to blame. We have local Michigan Republicans claiming that the lead in water problem is overblown. We have EPA administrators not doing their job. We have Republicans claiming that the Feds are the true villains, which given the usual Republican viewpoint on states' rights and regulation, is like a bank robber claiming that the FBI is responsible for his crime wave. After all they should have stopped him sooner. There is an excellent examination of the timeline here. You can also hear what the whistleblower scientist, Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, had to say here at 2:59. People didn't like what she had to say but fortunately she had the courage of her convictions and the knowledge that her research was correct. As she points out, the problem may be even worse than we realize.

Unfortunately there is probably not much recourse for criminal prosecutions under Michigan law. It appears at first glance as if the public actors may be generally protected from criminal charges under the Emergency manager provision. We shall see. Civil cases are a certainty. There may be room for criminal charges under Federal law. But that is of course up to the President and Attorney General. I don't know the relevant laws. I will say that if we can't arrest a public official for poisoning an entire community then the law is a joke. It's unlikely that Governor Rick Snyder will be impeached as Republicans have majorities in both the Michigan House and Senate. Previous recalls have failed. At this time Snyder has said he's not resigning. As a final kick in the teeth the state is requiring that people pay for the poison water they consumed. If that is not evil I don't know what is. Please note that with only a few exceptions no Republican running for President has had anything to say about this issue. It's just not something they seem to care about. Everyone has to prioritize which issues they find important. But the next time someone wonders aloud, in good faith or otherwise, why black Americans albeit diverse in income, wealth, political views and other characteristics, tend not to vote for Republicans, please point them to this story. A party that shows depraved indifference to people based on skin color and/or class tends not to get their votes. Ironically though this horror might be the catalyst for less partisanship in Michigan as a right wing militia has assisted in distributing clean drinking water. The militia is also making noise about armed self-defense. So there's that. Ultimately no matter your race, gender, age, sexuality or other marker of identity, you don't want lead in your water.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Music Reviews: Wet Willie, Lee Michaels

Keep on Smiling, Do you Know what I mean
I am a child of the seventies (and eighties too I guess). So I appreciate a lot of the music that was created back then. Like many people I am partial to the music I heard when I was younger and more impressionable. I would argue, not completely tongue in cheek, that music was more soulful back in the day. Of course I suppose 20 years from now people will be talking about how they just don't make singers of Justin Bieber's status any more. Anyway during the past week, I heard these two songs over the cafeteria radio during my lunch break. They brought back good memories. Well mostly. The Lee Michaels song "Do you know what I mean" briefly reminded me of someone who is better forgotten but I guess we all have people like that in our past, don't we? The Wet Willie song "Keep on Smilin'" is a fun optimistic tune. No matter what is going on in our life it is probably better to find something positive on which to focus. That doesn't mean that you have to be a Panglossian idiot who mindlessly repeats that this is the best of all possible worlds but it does mean that wallowing in negativity rarely helps matters. Both musical groups were probably one-hit wonders (definitely so in Lee Michaels' case, somewhat less so in Wet Willie's case). Sometimes you just catch magic I guess. Anyway I like both of these songs a lot.

Book Reviews: The Dragon Factory

The Dragon Factory
by Jonathan Maberry
I hadn't read anything by Maberry since his vampire trilogy a while back. I liked it even though I felt it was a bit stretched out. So when I was checking my home library for something to read during my ever shrinking lunch breaks I decided to give another Maberry book a try. I am very happy that I did. Let's get a couple of things out of the way first. This book is second in a series but as with many such entries, The Dragon Factory more or less stands alone. There were only a few instances when I thought that I should have read the first book first. Maberry sketches out many of the important story points so that you're not completely in the dark while at the same time leaving past events vague enough so that you'll go back and read the first book-- which is what I'm doing now. So don't be afraid to read The Dragon Factory if you're into the genre. At just under 500 pages this book is not short by any means but neither is it a chore to read. It's fun to read. Things zip right along. You won't want to put this book down once you've gotten into it. The plot is more important than most of the characters, but I wouldn't call the characters flat. Maberry has done a tremendous amount of research into such areas as biology, genetics, diseases, homeland security, intelligence agencies and the military, history and martial arts. And it shows. It also probably helps that Maberry is a martial arts expert, black belt, and former bodyguard and bouncer. The characters may not be super deep but they feel real. The other thing I appreciated about this book, especially after having just finished some Stephen Hunter works, is that the author doesn't beat you over the head with his politics. After reading this work of fiction I have no idea of Maberry's political leanings. And I liked that. So what's the book about? Hmm. I don't want to say too much because I've been accused recently of giving away spoilers. Of course some people who say that think that plot description of any kind is a spoiler. I disagree with that. Still,with this book in particular it's essential not to reveal very much. So I will attempt to do that. Imagine 24 mixed with some Michael Crichton stirred with Homeland blended with some Jim Butcher and F. Paul Wilson topped off with some Contagion with just a little Stephen King and Ian Rankin added for taste.

We know that after 9-11 everything changed. There was a shift away from civil liberties and the rule of law towards safety and pragmatism. One agency which was created as part of this upheaval was the Department of Military Sciences (DMS). The DMS, unlike every other agency or grouping (FBI, DEA, DoJ, CIA, Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, etc..) is top top secret. Very few people even know of its existence. Headed by a taciturn deadpan man known only as Mr. Church, the DMS handles threats other people either can't fix or don't even know about. One of the top agents (and recent recruit) in the DMS is Captain Joe Ledger, a veteran and former Baltimore cop with rage issues. Joe is visiting his former girlfriend's grave when he gets an urgent message from Mr. Church. While the President recovers from surgery the Vice-President has ordered the rest of the national security apparatus to turn against the DMS. DMS agents are being attacked and arrested all over the nation. Ledger will have to do his best to stay free (and hopefully not kill anyone) while Church finds out who's behind the Vice-President's attack on the DMS. Maberry introduces us to two competing and related sets of evil scientists who have their own malign plans for the DMS and for the world. Some of their plans have already been put into action. Others are proceeding on schedule but can't be fully actualized until the DMS is taken down. Both groups are evil but one is exponentially worse than the other. Ledger and his cool kicka$$ girlfriend, Englishwoman Major Grace Courtland, will have to ascend or is it descend to new levels of ruthlessness to survive and defeat these bad guys. If you can handle or are interested in the idea of conspiracy theories, mysteries wrapped in riddles, espionage, evil that survives decades and possible worldwide catastrophes then you just might enjoy this story. Although a few of the events and ideas in The Dragon Factory are way out of left field, the majority of them are extrapolations from reality. People really have done nasty things with genetic and other scientific research. Maberry works the mystery element in this story so skillfully that even when he finally reveals the identity of the big bad, there's still a chance you didn't see it coming. Joe opens the book trapped in a room, badly wounded and almost out of ammunition while something (actually a whole bunch of somethings) tries to beat the door down. The story then jumps back and forth between the past and present as well as Joe's first person POV and the author's third person POV of other characters. Joe is a hero, but he's not a flawless one. And Mr. Church remains suitably mysterious throughout the tale. His only seeming concession to human frailties or vice is a constant desire for cookies. One set of evil villains had a bit too much sneering for my taste but I guess that is par for the course after you've graduated from Evil Overlord Academy. This is a fun techno-thriller stuffed full of action and mystery.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Movie Reviews: Sicario, What Love Is, Crime Story

directed by Denis Villeneuve
Denis Villeneuve also directed Prisoners. And Sicario has more than a few of the same questions about moral lines being crossed or even drawn that were posed in that film. Both because of space and spoiler concerns this review of Sicario needs to be shorter than normal. I will say that although the marketing may have led one to believe that this film is yet another entry in the now overdone trope category of "slight woman beats up or intimidates men twice her size" that is quite deliberate misdirection. And that's no spoiler. This is a very serious movie with a lot of moving parts and gray areas. As we have discussed before there are a few people who will not let moral concerns get in the way of what they think needs to be done. Although many of us describe those people as "evil" it's not always that simple. If for example you are on a secret military mission to kill or capture say Osama Bin Laden and a child sees your team approaching the compound what is the correct decision to take regarding that child's life? Do you let that child survive and give a warning which will result in the slaughter of your team? Decisions, decisions.
The film's initial "heroine"and arguably its moral center is FBI SWAT team leader Kate Macer (Emily Blunt). You could use the cliche that Macer is tough as nails but that's not quite true. She's as tough as she needs to be but like most people she has bosses to whom she has to answer, people who could easily destroy her career with the click of a mouse. She's not so tough with them. Macer does believe in doing things by the book, a characteristic that is not necessarily shared by anyone in the FBI hierarchy besides her partner and second-in-command Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya). Both Macer and Wayne are gung-ho for their work but are young and considered idealistic by their bosses. We open the movie with Macer leading a SWAT takedown of what she believes to be a kidnapping situation. It turns out to be something much much worse. Afterwards, Macer is picked by her boss Jennings (Victor Garber) and a happy-go-lucky Department of Defense official named Graver (Josh Brolin) to assist in an interagency takedown of the people responsible for the atrocity that Macer discovered. 
And those responsible people are the bosses of the Juarez Cartel in Mexico. The cartels are not only transferring drugs to the US; they're setting up shop. Graver is a real jokester and rarely seems to take anything too seriously. But like some people I've known with that persona you wonder if he's just throwing the jokes out there to see who laughs because he's a boss and who is smart enough to know why he's telling bad jokes. I liked what Brolin did with this role. It could have been very heavy-handed but Brolin keeps it light. You never know right where he's coming from until the movie smacks you in the mouth with it. Graver wants Macer for this job. He doesn't want Wayne, although eventually Macer brings Wayne in on the action. The stated goal is to arrest big shots of the Juarez Cartel and use the resulting disruption to move up the chain and get the real leaders. However Macer soon realizes that the mission statement of the task force isn't reflected in what's actually happening on the street. How she deals with this is an important theme throughout the film.
One person who isn't shocked by the chasm between goals and actions is Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), a dilatory cipher of a man who doesn't seem to report to anyone on the task force, sleeps through status meetings and is very sparing in his speech. When challenged as to what he actually does or who he works for he responds "That would be like trying to explain to you how a watch works. For now let's just look at the time." And that statement could well be a motto for this entire film. There's a shift about two-thirds of the way thru which alters the viewer's perspective and places a new person at the film's center. It's a measure of the film's skill that it's able to pull off this shift in perspective with grace. Let's be clear here without spoiling anything. This is a dark dramatic film. The violence, although rarely as explicit as Tarantino's work, is never far from the narrative. Even things that happen offscreen or are only shown in brief moments have huge impacts on the story and the viewer.  If you're someone who prefers films about bunnies, strawberries and butterflies, this is just not the film for you. Del Toro did wonderful work in this movie and may have stolen it. Winston Churchill said that "In wartime truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Nietschze wrote that "He who fights monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze for long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you." Both of those quotes were quite relevant to this film and to the larger War on Drugs which this film examines. You could make an argument that everyone in this film acts in accordance with their training and experiences. You could also say that Macer represents the American people. It's ironic because both Blunt and Kaluuya are British.

What Love Is
directed by Mars Callahan
What Love Is is an older silly romantic comedy directed by someone who at one point was going to be the next big thing in Hollywood. Unfortunately he ran into health problems and had to do other things besides directing films. Stuff happens. This is an ok film. Although it has a very limited setting, (most of it takes place in one home) it still has some interesting things to say about men and women and relationships. Actually, since one of the characters is gay, I suppose that the film's insights are not necessarily limited strictly to heterosexual duos.  The writing doesn't quite live up to the cast but again this isn't really a movie that you're supposed to think too deeply about. Because the settings don't change and the director is also the writer, this film feels like a play. People speak very quickly and always have rejoinders. Maybe you're in the mood for this sort of thing and maybe you're not. Tom (Cuba Gooding Jr.) is a successful man who is, after a great deal of time and supposed passive-aggressive actions from his girlfriend Sarah (Victoria Pratt), finally ready to settle down and pop the big question to the love of his life. He thinks the timing is perfect. He's happy in his career and guess what it's Valentine's Day. What better day to propose? Tom has thoughtfully invited over several of his and his soon-to-be-wife's friends to enjoy the big moment. Tom is just bursting with love! He's got the world on a string pal! He's ready to give sweets to the sweet

There's just one problem. Tom gets home to discover that his girlfriend has gotten tired of waiting for him to commit. She doesn't love him anymore. She tells him just that in the letter she has ever so thoughtfully left behind. She's already moved out all of her stuff but will be back later that evening to pick up the last two suitcases. Tom is devastated. When the party guests arrive they initially try to cheer up Tom but of course this doesn't really work. Many of the men and women have different ideas on what Tom did or didn't do wrong, what his next moves should be and who really has the upper hand in the eternal war of the sexes.  After some initial interaction both gender groups retreat to separate sections of the home and share war stories about the other gender. Some of the party guests are unattached or like to pretend that they are. Some of them show some interest in each other. Supposedly some guests want to wait until Tom's girlfriend returns just to give Tom emotional support while others want to give the girlfriend a piece of their mind. This is a very explicit movie in terms of subject matter and language. The actors/actresses featured include Anne Heche, Sean Astin, Mars Callahan, Andrew Daly, Gina Gershon, Matthew Lillard, Tamala Jones, T.C. Carson, Shiri Appleby and Jud Tylor. This is a decent film with a well hidden sweetness but not necessarily worth going out of your way to watch. There's too much dialogue. I liked Anne Heche's character. You'll laugh but this is not a super memorable film.

Crime Story
created by Michael Mann
This mid eighties television series was created by Michael Mann, who also created Miami Vice. While Miami Vice became a fixture in American culture and spawned a film of the same name, Crime Story has not at this point inspired a movie. Nor has it as far as I can see become part of the American zeitgeist.  It only lasted two seasons, in part because NBC made the mistake of scheduling it against ABC's Moonlighting.  Each season ended on a cliffhanger. However Crime Story did provide a springboard for the great character actor and former Chicago police officer Dennis Farina to go on to bigger and better things. Crime Story was set in early sixties Chicago. Given Farina's strong Windy City accent it's inconceivable that the series could have been set anywhere else. Crime Story was one of Farina's first long running lead roles. You could see him grow into it. Of course given Farina's previous job, you also wonder if playing an irascible police officer occasionally struggling to contain his worst impulses was that much of a stretch. Farina's Lieutenant Mike Torello was very comfortable intimidating bad guys, lying on the witness stand or pointing a baseball bat at a sensitive part of someone's anatomy.  With what we know about the Chicago Police Department I am sure that Farina could have told some stories. And I'm equally sure I probably wouldn't have wanted to hear some of them. However if you're flying straight Mike Torello is on your side, no matter your race, creed or nationality. But if you're crooked, God help you because you'll need God's help once Torello takes a negative interest in you. Torello is head of Chicago's Major Crime Unit (or MCU), sort of a mini Untouchables/FBI within the CPD. As its name suggests MCU is the organization designed to deal with the worst criminals in Chicago, psychopathic killers and Outfit hoodlums.
Torello becomes aware of a rising force on the street and within the Outfit. That force is Ray Luca (Anthony Denison-seen here with a pompadour that makes Elvis and Ike Turner look bald). Luca is Torello's evil twin. Like Torello, Ray Luca is Italian and grew up rough in The Patch. Like Torello, Ray Luca doesn't suffer fools gladly and occasionally loses himself in temper tantrums. Like Torello he doesn't back down from confrontation. Like Torello, Luca can be singleminded and ruthless in pursuit of what he considers to be a worthwhile goal. Unlike Torello, though Ray Luca has no problem with murder, or a whole host of other scummy behaviors. Torello has trouble pinning anything that will stick on Luca even as Luca transforms from street thug to mob member to mob leader, casino mogul and international criminal with connections in the US Federal government. Torello's obsession with Luca will cost him his marriage, friendships and more.  Crime Story used a number of actors who were relatively well-known at the time but also obviously used up and comers who would go on to greater fame and fortune, including but not limited to Ving Rhames, Julia Roberts, David Caruso,  Kevin Spacey, David Hyde Pierce, Christian Slater, Michael Madsen, Michael Rooker, Lorraine Bracco, Gary Sinise, and many many more. Pam Grier had a recurring role as did Stephen Lang. Jazz legends Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis had cameos. John Santucci, a real life mob associated thief who played Ray Luca's number two, Paulie, had actually been arrested by Farina. This series was one of the first police procedurals to use recurring storylines, show the costs of police work and ponder that there might be more similarities between cops and criminals than either side would like to admit. It was a little before its time but was also harmed by not being on cable, where it could have pushed the envelope like its descendants The Wire and The SopranosIf nothing else I enjoy this show for the clothes and cars. Everyone here is just as cool as they can be. And all the girls are crazy for a sharp dressed man.

Ned Stark Misses the Big Picture: Loras Tyrell

Ned Stark was a good father, brother, husband and son. But he was a maladroit political strategist. Even when he tried to plot his sense of honor and morality made him value other people's interests as highly as his own. Martin seems to be telling the reader that this is not only a mistake but is also on some level immoral, at least as judged by utilitarian standards. And an utilitarian approach, at least in part, might appear to be necessary for leaders. Rulers and leaders can't afford to live by rigid personal standards of honor. Unlike almost everyone else in King's Landing, Ned simply doesn't put his own well being first. That is an excellent characteristic for a traditional family man. It's not so good for a wartime political leader. Tywin Lannister sends The Mountain (Gregor Clegane) and crew raiding, raping, robbing and pillaging throughout the Riverlands, Catelyn's family's realm. Clegane and his dogs aren't under Lannister banners but The Mountain is so widely known and feared that everyone realizes it's him. Tywin's actions are a direct challenge to Ned's and therefore Robert's authority. Tywin wants to make it clear that Catelyn Stark's kidnapping arrest of his son Tyrion is not a cost free action. We learn later than Tywin intended for Clegane to capture Ned and trade for Tyrion. Ironically if this HAD happened Ned might have survived Joffrey's crowning since he wouldn't have been in a place where Littlefinger Joffrey could have ordered his execution. The canny Tywin would have recognized that a living Ned (even with a released Tyrion and crowned Joffrey) was more valuable to his family's interests. Perhaps war wouldn't have broken out as captive Ned would have been unable to complete his clumsy detective work and learn of the Lannister incest. Even if war erupts a living Ned means that Robb doesn't declare himself King of the North. If Ned (and Arya/or Sansa) are traded for Tyrion and/or Jaime the Starks would have been in a much better position. But of course Ned couldn't lead the excursion against the Mountain. Ned had a lame leg. So Ned sends the majority of his personal guard after the Mountain. Ned is actually upset that he can't lead the party as being a macho man of the North he won't ask anyone to do what he won't and so on. 
But Ned had other choices.
Loras asked Ned in front of hundreds of witnesses to lead the expedition to capture or kill Gregor Clegane. Ned refuses because as Loras is only a little older than Robb, Ned has trouble seeing Loras as a grown man. Loras lacks experience. Ned correctly perceives that Loras is motivated more by personal glory and revenge against Gregor Clegane than by honest outrage over lawbreaking and atrocity. Ned thinks that Loras would simply get himself killed. Instead Ned orders off most of his household guard and you know the rest. Ned just didn't think this through. Ned has already been attacked in public by the Lannisters and received no help from the City Guard. That's a pretty strong indication that neither Ned's status as Hand (although technically he wasn't Hand when he was attacked) nor the fact that he's Robert's best friend and Warden of the North deter the Lannisters. So Ned's first move should be to keep his remaining retainers very close as they are the ONLY people he can trust in King's Landing. Ned has no other allies at this time.

Ned may or may not know about the sexual relationship between Renly and Loras (I can't recall myself) but he must know that they are good friends. Ned also must know that Loras is Mace Tyrell's favorite son, albeit not the heir (in the book). Ned didn't know the depth of Stannis' and Renly's dislike for one another. Ned didn't know yet about the Lannister incest. Ned would have been much wiser politically to send Loras. If Loras is able to capture or kill the Mountain, then Ned gets credit for giving Loras the chance to shine. A happy Loras means a happy Renly and Mace. If events still occur later as they originally did then Renly might even help Sansa and Arya get out of King's Landing rather than only looking to save himself. 
If, as is much more likely, The Mountain makes Loras his hand puppet and kills him in a particularly gruesome and painful way both the Tyrells and the Renly faction of the Baratheons are out for blood. Renly is thinking less about crowning himself King and more about revenge against the Lannisters. If he still leaves King's Landing he doesn't waste time dillydallying with tourneys and games but immediately starts war. Even if Renly still decides to crown himself and is still murdered by Stannis, the Tyrells simply wouldn't join with the Lannisters afterwards. Even if it makes political sense it's almost impossible to do. The Tyrells probably just go home or (less likely) swallow hard and reluctantly support Stannis. So at the Battle of The Blackwater there is no Tyrell-Lannister joint attack. This means Stannis takes King's Landing. Heck without Loras to whisper sweet nothings into his ear (mostly an invention of the show) there's an outside chance that Renly doesn't declare himself king. Stannis and Renly remain unified. If Stannis declares himself earlier then Robb Stark never accepts the King in the North title. Because he's aligned with two of the most powerful Southern families and isn't seeking to secede, Robb doesn't need Greyjoy allies. He never sends Theon home which means Winterfell isn't burned nor are his younger brothers believed dead. Bolton and Frey don't have the guts or the inclination to start acting up because the Lannister position is MUCH weaker. Heck, Lysa might decide (or have it decided for her) to join the likely winning side and commit the Arryn legions to the Stark-Baratheon-Tully-Tyrell group. Even Tywin would have had to sue for peace.

If Ned still has his houseguard (assuming he still foolishly warns Cersei of his intentions and he probably would) there's a slight chance that Sansa and Arya get out of KL and a better chance that Ned WINS the showdown in the throne room. If that happens and Ned has Cersei and her children at his mercy Tywin would have to proceed much more carefully. Full war might never have broken out. It would still be tense though as Ned would not want the Lannister kids killed no matter what while Renly and especially Stannis would be very much in favor of that. Maybe Joffrey is sent to the Wall while Myrcella and Tommen are fostered in the North somewhere? Of course although Littlefinger wanted war and got it, Varys didn't want it yet. So who knows what moves they would have made to counter this. So small decisions like who to place in charge of a military expedition have huge consequences. Obviously no human can see how all the dominoes will fall, not even Littlefinger. You can't blame Ned for not foreseeing all that would happen. But even if Ned didn't appreciate the political wisdom of cynically binding the largest House to his cause, he should have understood the personal benefit of keeping his guardsmen close. So it goes.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Movie Reviews: American Ultra, The Gift

American Ultra
directed by Nima Nourizadeh
This is a fairly predictable action-comedy movie made more so by the fact that the film's main twist is revealed in the first ten minutes. The other twist, which I won't mention here is also not exactly hard to figure out. So your enjoyment of this film will depend on how engaged or amused you are by the conceit that small town convenience store clerk, artist, slacker, stoner and nebbish Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg), who has the musculature of a wet noodle and all the intense machismo of a neutered chihuahua, is in fact an extremely dangerous CIA killer. The hook is that Mike doesn't know any of this at first. All Mike wants to do with his life is get stoned and make love to his girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). Phoebe is very patient dealing with all of Mike's fears, paranoia and quirks. Even so, there are a few times when she wishes that Mike would evince more typically masculine behavior patterns. But Mike is who he is. And Mike loves Phoebe. Mike also loves drugs, which are provided with a side of urban attitude and paranoia by the friendly hyperactive local drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo). So life is pretty good for old Mike. This all changes when CIA agent Victoria Lassiter (Connie Britton) learns that her sexist energetic younger rival and boss, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace) has decided to take all the credit for his successful version of an Agency hitman program known as Tough Guy. Like most bosses Yates wants to scrub from existence all similar previous programs which he didn't oversee. In this case that means getting rid of the unsuccessful Ultra program overseen by Lassiter. And there's just one survivor from the Ultra program, Mike. So as far as Yates is concerned it's goodbye Mike. Yates is moving up the CIA ladder. He has no time for failed projects. Yates has all the restraint of an irritated rattlesnake and is about as venomous. Get in his way and he will make you regret it.

As Lassiter and Yates truly despise each other, Lassiter decides to throw a monkey wrench into Yates' plans by reactivating Mike. This will give Mike a chance to live and give Lassiter time to publicly expose Yates' wrongdoing. But Mike doesn't realize what happened. He has no memory of his past and doesn't understand why he's suddenly able to do remarkable things. And he's scared. Of course when people are shooting at you, you don't really have time for deep introspection. So this kicks off a series of setpieces in which Mike is horrified, surprised and intrigued to discover all manner of previously hidden talents. Both Lassiter and Yates try to take each other out, bureaucratically and legally if possible, violently otherwise. And in the down time when he's not being shot at, beaten, arrested or stabbed Mike tries to figure out who else in his life has been lying to him. This was an okay film but nothing special. Leguizamo's character irritated me, You'll see the twists and ending coming a mile away. The special effects are decent. Walter Goggins, Lavell Crawford (Huell from Breaking Bad) and Bill Pullman have roles. American Ultra does not contain anything near the ultraviolence of a Tarantino film. But it is bloody. However, with a few exceptions, I didn't think that the film's violence and comedy mixed that well. I've seen worse but I've also seen better. If you can just turn off your higher thinking capabilities for a while, the movie is entertaining enough.

The Gift
directed by Joel Edgerton
Unless you happen to have a really interesting and furiously energetic private life, two is company but three's a crowd right? Aretha Franklin sang "I don't want nobody always sitting around me and my man." BB King sang "I don't want a soul hanging around my house when I'm not at home." Those emotions are often shared to a greater or lesser extent by most people in pair-bonded relationships. They do things together which aren't done with other people. Exclusivity is key to monogamy, especially when it comes to sex, time and emotions. Well what happens if someone else tries to attach themselves to that dyad? Usually it's nothing good. The Gift is a very well written, acted and directed psychological thriller that uses some classic film techniques to misdirect the viewer as to what's going on in the story. It also does this without reliance on violence or nudity, which is somewhat rare these days.  We open with a married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall) who have just moved from the Chicago suburbs to the Los Angeles area. This is where Simon grew up and went to high school though he hasn't been back for decades. The Callums are well paid yuppies. Simon is a technology security sales executive who is on the verge of a promotion to a national position. Robyn is an interior designer who's going to try her hand at working from home part-time/online as she recently had a miscarriage. Simon is supportive of her in every way but still feels that he's primarily responsible for earning their keep. The two are very much in love. When they're at a high end store picking up some items for their new gorgeous home they have a chance meeting with an old high school classmate of Simon's, Gordon "Gordo" Moseley (Edgerton). Now from the very first you can tell that there's something a little off about Gordo. But you can't quite put your finger on it. 

Anyway Gordo is very friendly but he's friendly in the the manner that someone who has just read a book about being friendly is. It's clear that Gordo's elevator doesn't go to the top of the building. Simon claims not to remember much about Gordo, and quickly hustles Robyn away. The couple makes vague promises to stay in touch with the apparently needy Gordo. But it's obvious that for Simon at least such assurances are those polite lies you say to extricate yourself from an awkward situation. Simon wants to look forwards, not backwards. But the next day a gift from Gordo, complete with smiley faces and self-deprecating prose, shows up on the couple's doorstep. Well although the couple is a little concerned about how Gordo got their address, politesse requires that they invite Gordo to dinner. And the next thing you know Gordo is finding all sorts of semi-valid reasons to show up at their house when Simon's at work. Simon doesn't like this one bit even though Robyn initially finds it cute. Simon's attitude is "Get your own woman and stop hanging around mine!" At first Robyn is somewhat flattered by Gordo's attentions. After all Simon is away from home for ten hours or more each day. Some of Simon's reactions and tells make Robyn start to wonder if there's something else going on between the two men. The Gift has a lot of long silences, awkward moments and slow reveals that really amp up the dread, though as mentioned there is virtually no violence or sex. The couple's home has a lot of glass windows and doors which are used to heighten the sense of vulnerability. This film has a lot of surprises. It's not just your usual home invasion story. There are a lot of questions raised about what would you do to succeed or survive. What happens when someone outside a marriage steps, accidentally or otherwise, on a live wire within that marriage. I liked the three leads in this movie. I can't remember the last time I saw Bateman play someone who wasn't the frustrated straight man. So it was fun to see him do something miles apart from his work in Horrible Bosses. Bateman is not necessarily a tough guy in The Gift but he is serious about protecting his wife, his home and his career. The film is far from predictable. All of the people reveal some things about themselves that are to the say the least, unpleasant. Edgerton nails it as the occasionally sympathetic and oft creepy Gordo. This was a delicious little treat of a film which you should watch. You'll never know quite what's happening until the end of the movie. 

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Movie Reviews: The Hateful Eight

The Hateful Eight
directed by Quentin Tarantino
This is Tarantino's eighth directed film. It seems as if he's done more than that. This film has almost all of the stylings and quirks which you've come to expect from a Tarantino production. There are snarky one liners, sarcastic asides, wordplay, riffs on things that appear not to matter that much, black buddy/white buddy motifs, implied danger masquerading as excessive politeness and twisted sexuality. This film also impresses with the cinematography. The Hateful Eight was shot in Colorado and used widescreen Panavision. The effect is reminiscent of several old Westerns and classic seventies films. Tarantino loves film, and it shows. Even if you're not otherwise a Tarantino fan you might want to look at this movie simply for its visual feast. The colors are a treat. The film is broken up by title cards and even has a spot for an intermission. Legendary composer Ennio Morricone scored this film and allowed Tarantino to use previously unreleased tracks. So the film is also an auditory experience. The Hateful Eight features many actors who've worked with Tarantino before. This movie also finds Tarantino continuing his gleeful, irreverent and occasionally painful or offensive inspection of America's obsession with race and sex-particularly how those two baseline concepts intertwine. Thematically The Hateful Eight picks up after Django Unchained. It takes place in an undefined time period after the Civil War, probably the 1870s or early 1880s. But that's not really important. Although slavery has been outlawed and blacks are theoretically equal citizens, no one black or white, really believes that blacks have equality. The white conservatives of the time are openly hateful of the freed blacks while the liberals are just as prone to racist language and beliefs. Racial hostility suffuses the movie and is never far from the story. If you can't tolerate racial venom being expressed in fictional creations, this is not the film for you. Dialogue is very important in this film, occasionally more so than plot.

The Hateful Eight is Tarantino's tilted take on a locked room mystery. A number of people find themselves unexpectedly forced to share lodgings during a Wyoming snowstorm. Most of them don't know each other and those who do know each other don't appear to like each other very much. This group includes Joe Ruth (Kurt Russell) a bounty hunter known as The Hangman for his insistence for bringing in criminals alive so that they can face the noose. Ruth is a brutal if honest man. His idea of telling someone to shut up involves an elbow to the nose. His current bounty is Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) a foul mouthed murderer. He's taking her to the town of Red Rock. On the road Ruth runs into Major Marquis Warren (Samuel Jackson) a former US Army officer (there actually were a handful of black officers in the Civil War) and Civil War vet who now also makes a living as a bounty hunter. As Warren is introduced to the viewer sitting on a pile of corpses, it's obvious, as Warren later cheerfully confirms, that he prefers to transport his bounties dead. Less trouble and less backtalk. As Ruth actually knows Warren from back in the day he's willing to give the stranded Warren a ride to the next lodging. When Ruth runs across the stranded Chris Mannix (Walter Goggins) a former Confederate soldier and Night Rider/KKK terrorist, he's a little less affable (not that Ruth is all that friendly to Warren) but when Mannix points out that he's actually Red Rock's new sheriff, Ruth decides not to take the chance of leaving the new sheriff to freeze to death. These men and their driver arrive at Minnie's Haberdashery, a lodge offering food and shelter. But Minnie's not around. The current inhabitants of the lodge are Joe Gage (Michael Madsen) a taciturn cowboy who claims to be writing his life's story, Oswaldo Mowbray (Tim Roth), the loquacious English born Red Rock hangman, quiet former Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), and Bob (Demian Bichir), the man Minnie left in charge while she's off to visit her mother. All of these people, plus Ruth's driver O.B. (James Parks), must settle down for the night or as long as it takes the storm to pass.

As you might imagine the lodge's inhabitants very quickly notice things they don't like or trust about each other. A little thing like jellybeans on the floor can set suspicions aflame. Obviously a black Union soldier and two Confederates won't see eye to eye on very much. Tarantino effectively builds the tension in the lodge. I liked that the film did not (pun intended) whitewash the dedication to white supremacy which both animated the Confederate cause and flowed virtually unchecked through 19th century America. Nevertheless The Hateful Eight still has some deliberately anachronistic elements around race. The film also takes care to play with your perception of who the heroes are or even if there are any heroes. Ruth is presented initially as a good guy but has no problem putting hands or elbows or pistol butts on Daisy for any transgression, physical or not. Another character points out that women can kill you just as easily as men can but also die just as easily as men do. Not just content to dirty up the heroes a bit this movie also interrogates the techniques that black people use to avoid or survive confrontations with racist whites. Sadly, in the 19th century and today, it is often effective for a black person caught up in a confrontation to claim that powerful white people will be upset if anything should happen to him. Major Warren both upholds and subverts this trope. There are also shoutouts to previous Tarantino films, most uncomfortably Pulp Fiction's most disgusting scene. The film smartly avoids gore throughout most of its run time but lathers it on a bit too broadly near the end. This was a long film, almost three hours, but I didn't think it dragged much. I was a little irritated that the film explained some things I didn't think needed explaining and left some things a mystery which I thought were worth spelling out. Goggins really works the swagger while Jackson does the angry black man. Because Daisy is chained throughout most of the film and often threatened or beaten by Ruth for speaking, Leigh's acting is often quite subtle. Given that's she playing a crafty, racist but also somewhat stupid woman, this is a nice piece of work. It's never pointed out exactly who Daisy killed. If one were of a conspiratorial and/or feminist bent one might suggest that Daisy is being symbolically punished for violating traditional mores of femininity.  You could argue that in this one regard Leigh's work here hearkens back to her otherwise dissimilar role as Tralala in the excellent film Last Exit to Brooklyn. Despite her name, Daisy's no lady. And this lack of pedestal protection might well explain her fierce racist reaction upon encountering Warren. Why the hell is she in chains while this black man walks free? 

Ultimately I found the explicit violence over the top, but it's a Tarantino film. Who could expect otherwise? This is an amoral film without too much depth. Stuff happens. People die. Not Tarantino's best or worst work, this is an extremely well made and entertaining film that revels in a Grand Guignol ending. Channing Tatum and Zoe Bell also have roles. If you do see this you should do so in the theater. You'd be cheating yourself by waiting for VOD/DVD.