Saturday, July 30, 2016

Book Reviews: Kill 'em and Leave, Lovecraft Country

Kill em and Leave
by James McBride
This was a short book. It wasn't a biography of the late James Brown as much as it was a series of stories about Brown and the impact he had, good or otherwise on the people he interacted with in his life. Brown likely never saw himself as a victim and would (and did) reject anyone who tried to view him through that perspective. But as McBride points out much of Brown's early life was heavily influenced by poverty, familial strife and of course Jim Crow in all of its forms. Some people who worked with Brown claim that his deepest emotion was fear of white racism. This could be expressed in a number of different ways, not all of which were positive. In some respects this is a sad book. Although Brown died a millionaire he didn't have as much wealth as he should have had. Brown's inability to trust very many people, dislike of banks and chaotic business dealings led him to hide cash all over the place. Some people stole this money. But the book's primary vitriol is resolved for the South Carolina good old boy political and legal network that used Brown's family strife to throw out a clear will and trust after Brown's death. This led to a decade long and ongoing court battle in which the money that Brown intended to be used for the benefit of impoverished children in South Carolina and Georgia instead flowed to the pockets of well connected attorneys, judges and accountants, all of whom were determined to prolong court proceedings until the very last penny was extracted from Brown's estate. Money can make even the best person greedy. Some of Brown's children sued him for royalties for songs he had ghostwritten in their names when they were children. At one point Brown became so reclusive and upset that he insisted his children and grandchildren make appointments if they wanted to see him. That may have been Brown's way of screening out people who just wanted money. This book is no hagiography. This book argues that Brown was at various times a distant father and husband, a tyrannical boss, and a horrible businessman. Brown also had substance abuse issues late in life. This is something which the workaholic and temperamentally conservative Brown always despised in others. But McBride also takes pains to point out and document all the ways in which the recent Mick Jagger produced film on James Brown (reviewed here) got things wrong, sometimes deliberately. McBride is also a musician. He provided some interesting insights into the differences and similarities between funk and jazz. Some very talented jazz musicians spoke of being unable to perform to Brown's expectations even though in some aspects jazz is more advanced music than funk.

McBride also put into context all of the ways that a musician can be ripped off. McBride interviewed many other musicians about Brown. Not all of these people had great love for Brown, either as a man or as a musician. But most conceded that Brown was, pardon the pun, instrumental in directing them to a higher level of musical performance. Brown's unchecked ego was a dangerous thing. There is a thin line between practicing a band until it is damn near perfect and calling grueling all night practices after a three hour concert because the second guitarist made a minor mistake on the intro to "Get on the Good Foot". Brown crossed that line too often. Despite his habit of referring to his employees and band members by their surnames he had no problem making it clear that he was the star, not them. He flew in a plane. His employees had to take the bus. If they didn't like his treatment they could leave. Over the years many of his bands did just that. It was very difficult to work for Brown and maintain your self-respect. Brown was obsessed with keeping his employees financially and professionally dependent upon him. He also wasn't above sabotaging opening acts if he thought they were getting too popular or taking too much time. Of course if you were a bandleader who must deal with musicians of varying talents and temperaments, crooked promoters and radio DJ's, dangerous criminals who want a "loan" from you, lawyers who will rob you blind with just a pen and paper, politicians who want to use your image, and IRS agents who just love making examples out of people like you, you also might put up a harsher front than normal. But for all of Brown's egomania and paranoia he could also be a kind man albeit a quite sensitive one. When Bill Cosby sent a plate of collard greens to Brown's room as a (presumably well meaning) joke about Brown's southern origins and funk exemplar status, Brown wasn't amused and had to be physically prevented from attacking Cosby. Brown took a fatherless Al Sharpton under his wing and taught him a great deal about show business. It was Brown who shamed Sharpton into helping Michael Jackson during the child abuse allegations. Brown was there with financial help for Isaac Hayes when Hayes was going through bankruptcy. McBride also investigates Brown's long term platonic relationship with one of his female employees, who over the years probably gave Brown more emotional support than most of his wives. Some of Brown's short fuse dealings with his bandmembers came from an inability/unwillingness to speak openly. Sometimes a Brown firing or fining was not to be taken seriously.

As mentioned this is a very short book (less than 200 pages). The title comes from a James Brown quote about leaving immediately after a show. The deeper meaning refers to Brown's refusal to share his true thoughts or his personal business. During his heyday and for most of his life Brown refused to be seen in public unless he was at his best. Brown considered the kind of salacious details or familial stories that sell magazines and books today to be private and none of your damn business. So although the book's subtitle is "searching for James Brown", most of the people who really knew Brown are either dead or reluctant to say too much to McBride. McBride details his distaste for the leeches and bottom feeders that surrounded Brown in life and death while struggling with the question of whether he isn't doing the same thing. McBride is adamant that as much praise as Brown received for his musical genius, he probably deserved more. I liked this book. And you will too if you want to know more about Brown and his influences on culture, music and performance. One interesting note about the book is that one of the people with whom I went to grade school is referenced within because of a news story he wrote about James Brown. I will have to reach out to this fellow on Facebook if he's there. Small world.

Lovecraft Country
by Matt Ruff
H.P. Lovecraft was one of the most influential horror writers of all time. He was also a racist of the most vile sort who always believed that black people were subhuman. Lovecraft's racism wasn't just incidental to his work. His work could not have existed without it. But sometimes flowers grow out of s***. Although ironically, Lovecraft wrote most of his best work during the Harlem Renaissance he seems to have been utterly unaware of that movement. The idea that blacks could actually create worthwhile literary or musical works would have been confounding and probably greatly amusing to Lovecraft. In his novels and short stories blacks were dumb savages for the most part. At best they might be submissive and silent servants. At worst, well never mind. There's not much you could reasonably expect on that front from a writer who was initially supportive of Hitler. Anyway this book imagines a Lovecraft setting except with black protagonists. This takes place in the early fifties. The supernatural elements of the story are less important than the everyday racism which impacts all of the characters. It's not discussed as often as it should be but although the South made a fetish of separating and subordinating blacks in exquisite legal detail the North often did so in less formal matter via housing discrimination, police harassment and of course Sundown towns: neighborhoods or cities in which blacks were legally or extra legally required to be out of town by Sunset. Or else. In order to know ahead of time which areas were safe, which hotels, motels or gas stations were black owned or at least black friendly and which areas should be avoided at all costs, black travelers before 1965 or so often relied on a travel guide which collected shared experiences. It was titled the Negro Motorist Green Book. It is fictionalized in this story as the Safe Negro Travelers Guide. The Green Book went out of business once desegregation became the law of the land but based on some ongoing incidents I imagine that the function of the Green Book if not its format will continue on in blogs and websites that cater to black travelers. There will be more on that in another post I think. Anyhow this story opens up with Black Korean war veteran Atticus Turner, who works for his uncle George as a researcher for the Safe Negro Travelers Guide, returning from his journeys across the South and lower Midwest to his uncle's home in Chicago. Turner has had the normal share of run-ins with racist and hostile police and other whites who don't like his looks or his seeming success. Turner's father, Montrose, who is open about his disdain for racist whites (and whites in general for that matter) has disappeared into New England, leaving behind strange clues as to what he's up to. Strangely enough, considering the elder Turner's views, he was last seen in the presence of a white man. Well there's nothing for it but for Atticus, George and Atticus' friend Letitia to take a road trip to New England to find and/or rescue Montrose Turner. It doesn't help matters that Montrose Turner and Atticus Turner aren't overly fond of each other.

This starts a multi-year adventure in which the Turners and their friends are manipulated by and battle against a shadowy cabal that has plans for the world that might not be all that wonderful for humanity. This group is linked to the Turners via America's original sin of slavery. The big bad of this group is not a fire-breathing bigot. He's rational and calm. He likes to position himself as a rational man as compared to some of his more traditionalist and irrational compatriots. All in all he would rather make deals and appeal to people's self-interest than to openly threaten people.Of course if he's pushed to extremes he might behave in a different manner. One of the more interesting ways that this man can seduce some of the black protagonists is to give them gifts which remove the stigma of their race. One woman finds it tempting to temporarily live life as a white woman. Another man finds that a car that deflects police attention is very useful. Thematically this book reads more like a collection of short stories than a novel. Each little adventure is complete in itself though the reader also knows there is more to come because smartly Ruff doesn't explain every little thing. I was reminded less of Lovecraft and more of Twilight Zone. I thought that Ruff did his research on how race was lived and experienced in 1950s America. From a thriller/horror perspective this is solid but not awe-inspiring work. There are a lot of the normal tropes and cliches employed: vicious dog packs, hostile small towns, teleportation to different universes, strange things locked in basements, haunted houses, crusty old wizards. It's not a overly or overtly violent book all things considered. There are some well drawn female characters who are arguably the book's centerpiece.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Movie Reviews: Green Room

Green Room
directed by Jerry Saulnier
Ok, first things first. If you are a person who is very sensitive to apparently realistic cinematic depictions of violence then this is most definitely not the flick for you. People are threatened, slashed, beaten, shot, stabbed, bitten, bludgeoned, spat at, choked, cut open, punched, kicked and otherwise harmed. Gender, age or formerly pacific nature is no protection from harm and no predictor of violent capacity. Anyone can get got and does. This movie is mildly transgressive not so much in its violence but in its unspoken assumption that despite their loathsome political and racial views and glorification of violence, white supremacists, white nationalists and Nazis are human too. I DEFINITELY don't mean this in any sort of goofy let's all find each other's humanity and love each other way. Only a masochist would love someone bent on their destruction. No rather, like any other group of humans, the bad guys here make mistakes and have internal romantic and business rivalries. They have a Bell Curve population distribution of leaders, followers, cowards and people who will go along to get along with whoever appears to be in charge. Just like Hitler loved his dog, a Nazi dog-handler is greatly dismayed anytime someone harms or misuses his animals. New information or a new perspective can make someone who was previously determined to kill you become an ally. This also works the other way, obviously. There may or may not be a world beyond our own but this world already has plenty of angels and devils in human form who are far more depraved or beatific than anything we could dream up. And some of them probably work and live right next to you. The Ain't Rights are a gritty punk rock band who haven't exactly fallen on hard times, because apparently they've never had too many good times. The only positive thing you could say about them is that they usually earn just enough money to make it to their next gig. Barely. Sometimes, well more frequently than they like, they have to steal (siphon) gas from other vehicles to make it to their shows. Tiger (Callum Turner) the singer, Reece (Joe Cole) the drummer, Samantha (Alia Shawkat) the guitarist, and Pat (the late Anton Yelchin) the bassist, drive their own van, set up their own gear and evidently aren't even well known enough yet to have groupies. That seems like a pretty crappy lifestyle for a band-no money, no roadies and no groupies. It doesn't help matters when one of the sleep deprived musicians falls asleep at the wheel of the van, leaving the engine running. 

But that's the life they've chosen, and they still love it. They are apparently young enough not to have spouses nagging them about getting a real job or needing to worry about children's college costs. But like the Albert King song Born Under A Bad Sign goes, if it wasn't for bad luck, they wouldn't have no luck at all. A gig that was supposed to bring them "big money" (i.e. hundreds of dollars each) is not as lucrative as promised, netting each member about $6. The magazine interviewer who was going to help break the band's music to a larger audience neglected to mention that he just got fired from his job. So the interview won't run. But never fear! He has a cousin who knows someone who can arrange The Ain't Rights a better paying opening act gig in a town near Portland, Oregon. The only drawback is that the audience will probably tend a bit more overtly right-wing than the band is used to drawing. But beggars can't be choosers, right? Right-wing money spends just as good as anyone else's. As long as The Ain't Rights keep their mouths shut off the stage and stay away from any overtly left-wing political statements they should be ok. After all they're all part of the punk scene. The band arrives at the club. The good thing about this gig is that the bouncers and managers are more professional about the money, the time and the sound. The bad thing is that the bouncers, managers and apparently all of the audience are white supremacist neo-Nazis. The style of dress, signs and graffiti all make it clear that this club is a no go zone for anyone who is non-white and/or to the left of George Wallace. As a joke and as a middle finger to the audience the band opens with an anti-Nazi Dead Kennedys song but swiftly moves to other material once the audience becomes a bit unruly. But music can soothe the savage beast. Before long everyone in the club is peacefully grooving to the music, or rather doing whatever passes for grooving in the Pacific Northwest. After all, this is an area that, Ray Charles, Quincy Jones, and Jimi Hendrix notwithstanding, is not exactly known for funk or soul. 

The band finishes their set to applause. They get paid and start to leave. All's well that ends well. That is everything is just peachy until Sam realizes she left her phone charging in the green room, where the headliner band is preparing for their set. Pat runs back to retrieve the phone but has the misfortune to see something that everyone agrees he would have been better off not seeing. Hearing his dismay the other band members come running and also become witnesses. With that the ambitious head bouncer Gabe (Macon Blair) locks the band in the green room until he can decide what to do. Or rather he locks the band in the green room until he can contact his boss Darcy (Patrick Stewart) and Darcy can decide what to do. Locked in the room with the band to keep an eye on them is the large, physically intimidating and armed bouncer Big Justin (Eric Edelstein). Also in the room is Amber (Imogen Poots), a woman who constantly says she's not a Nazi though she may be a girlfriend of a Nazi. Amber is someone you want to watch out of the corner of your eye. As you might expect Stewart does a good job with a limited role that might otherwise have been cartoonish. His dulcet baritone and obvious leadership status makes you and some of the people inside the room want to believe that everything can be worked out. Obviously Darcy means that everything can be worked out for him. He couldn't give a **** about most of the people in the room. He has some ideas he'd like to try. And if nothing else his ideas will give some of his more dangerous followers a chance to get in some practice. The light and sound was realistic throughout this film. I was impressed. Often in movies like this the sound levels can vary and drown out dialogue but that wasn't a problem. The tension feels very real in the film. There are a few surprises judiciously spread throughout the movie. The acting is strong. This is a horror movie but without anything supernatural. The monsters are all human. There are a few plot holes and people doing stupid things to move the plot along but much fewer than you might expect. The plausibility of much of the movie is what gives it its edge. Well, it's the plausibility and Patrick Stewart. If you can appreciate siege films or movies where one slip up changes everything then you'll enjoy Green Room

Friday, July 22, 2016

Ailes Out at Fox News

Once a year everyone in my company has to complete online training on how to prevent or not engage in sexual harassment. It's painfully obvious stuff. You don't have to believe in or accept 100% of the most radical feminist worldviews to understand that putting hands on someone without their permission, commenting on their body parts without invitation or God forbid making their promotion, continued employment, assignments or pleasant work environment contingent upon them having sex with you is illegal and something which could cost you your job and your employer a lot of money. Some of the examples which are used in my company's yearly training are so over the top that I couldn't believe that even the densest rockhead out there wouldn't already know that this stuff is out of bounds. But there's always someone out there who thinks that the rules don't apply to him. The latest example of this was former Fox News Boss Roger Ailes, who was accused by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson of long running virtual textbook sexual harassment over several years of her employment at Fox News. You can read some of her complaint here. Among other things Ailes allegedly asked Carlson to turn around so he could look at her bottom and told her that she should have had sex with him a long time ago in order to help her career. Ailes' alleged statements to and activities around Carlson are exactly the sorts of things which I thought were so obviously sexual harassment as to not be worth mentioning in a corporate CYA training video. Now to be fair there are a fair number of married people who meet each other in a work environment. And I don't think that one pass is grounds for harassment. But Ailes was Carlson's boss. That alone should have made Ailes keep everything above board. Apparently Ailes' bosses, Rupert Murdoch and his sons, decided that Fox News could get along without Ailes. Ailes "resigned" with a reported $40 million payout. If someone "suggests" that you resign or be fired, resigning is probably the smart move, right? According to some reports the Murdoch sons and Ailes were never overly fond of each other. Ailes chafed at having to report to the younger Murdochs. Some other women, most of them anonymous, claimed to have been harassed by Ailes over the years. But what may have flipped the switch was alleged confirmation by Fox News' top star Megyn "Jesus is White" Kelly, that Ailes sexually harassed her some years ago. Kelly is the future of the network. Presumably the Murdochs want to keep her happy and around. It puts more money in their pockets.  

So Ailes will have to face Carlson's lawsuit on his own. Fox News is of course, depending on your POV, famous or infamous, for transparent desks, thigh level camera POV, and women who show off expanses of cleavage and legs. So all in all I'm not surprised that the man who created a sexually charged work environment allegedly sought to benefit from same. For most people it's usually a bad idea to get your honey where you get your money. And it's always a bad idea to tell someone to give it up or get out. Allegedly....

Jon Stewart and Late Show: Donald Trump

Jon Stewart has a special talent for the describing the phenomenon which is the Donald Trump campaign for President of the United States. Below is his appearance on the Late Show where he goes in on the double standards that the conservative media uses when discussing President Obama and the birther running for President, Donald Trump. I liked what Stewart had to say about conservatives not owning America. It's a point worth repeating over and over again. A lot of Trump's support comes from dismay with or fear of THOSE people. This fall election is going to be very interesting from a blogging perspective, regardless of who wins.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Melania Trump and Plagiarism

Donald Trump has run a deliberately disruptive and occasionally amateurish campaign for President. He's gotten as far as he has by breaking or ignoring the normal rules of political decorum. You can't argue with success I guess. But one rule that Trump and his team probably shouldn't ignore is that you use your own words to tell your own story. Doing otherwise goes against a major theme of Trump's campaign: that he's the only candidate who's honest enough to tell it like it is. Trump's wife, Melania Trump, seemed to violate that campaign focus last night when in her speech, which she claimed to have written herself, she used not only the same theme found in a previous speech by First Lady Michelle Obama, but several of the exact same words and phrases. It was something that was pretty obviously lifted from Michelle Obama's speech. Plagiarism is not only dishonest but it's lazy. In this day and age where anyone and everyone can look up what was said previously, plagiarism is also pretty stupid. The whole point of a wife's convention speech (I guess at the Democratic convention it will be the husband's speech) is to humanize the candidate. The spouse theoretically knows the candidate better than anyone else, so he or she can explain to the world exactly why the candidate is the right person for the job. That's it. It's not rocket science. The speech doesn't have to be anything too personal or intimate. And it can't be something where everyone thinks that the spouse had to have his or her arm twisted to say something positive. All it has to be is something in the spouse's words that make everyone feel good about nominating his or her better half to be their Presidential candidate. Unfortunately for the Republicans, the Trump organization couldn't meet that admittedly low bar of competence. Although the plagiarism scandal is not in truth all that important compared to other world events it is humorous to me. As the saying goes,"If I can't trust you with the small stuff, why would I give you greater responsibility?". Why should Americans vote for a candidate who brings in an immigrant wife to steal American speeches? And if Trump's lady is going to steal speeches why would she steal from the Obamas? I thought the Trumps hated the Obamas? 

Since presumably Trump is not going to fire his wife (not yet at least) I would imagine that after a round of blameshifting and denials, someone is going to have to face the axe. Someone in the Trump campaign presumably had the job of ensuring that Melania's speech was grammatically correct, fit in the allotted time slot and wasn't lifted in whole or part from other speeches. Whoever that person was needs to be unemployed today. Trump is trying to sell people on hard work, authenticity and taking the country back from THEM. That's a hard sell when your wife is cut and pasting swaths of Michelle Obama's speeches. But maybe I'm wrong. Maybe as one of my cousins sarcastically noted on Facebook, "Word is your bond" is a phrase found as much in Slovenia as on the South Side of Chicago...

Ms. Trump, Monday night:
“From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily lives. That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son. And we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow. Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Mrs. Obama, in her 2008 speech:
“Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values: that you work hard for what you want in life; that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do; that you treat people with dignity and respect, even if you don’t know them, and even if you don’t agree with them. And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generationBecause we want our children — and all children in this nation — to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.
Ms. Trump:
“I was born in Slovenia, a small, beautiful and then-Communist country in Central Europe. My sister, Ines, who is an incredible woman and a friend, and I were raised by my wonderful parents. My elegant and hard-working mother, Amalija, introduced me to fashion and beauty. My father, Viktor, instilled in me a passion for business and travel. Their integrity, compassion and intelligence reflects to this day on me and for my love of family and America.
Mrs. Obama, in 2008:
“And I come here as a daughter — raised on the South Side of Chicago by a father who was a blue-collar city worker and a mother who stayed at home with my brother and me. My mother’s love has always been a sustaining force for our family, and one of my greatest joys is seeing her integrity, her compassion and her intelligence reflected in my own daughters.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Book Reviews: Monster Hunter International

Monster Hunter International
by Larry Correia
I had heard different things about this book. Judging by some of his blog posts the author seemed like an optimistic sort though we certainly wouldn't agree on very much politically. Correia has said that this book and the resulting series was inspired in part by his love for classic and cheap horror movies, the kind that come on late night or on Saturday afternoons. This book's premise shared some themes with the Supernatural tv series. So I decided to give this older book, Correia's first and initially self-published novel, a chance. It was an okay read. I liked the opening. I didn't like some of Correia's right-wing swipes at his political betes noires. But compared to some authors (cough* Stephen Hunter* cough) for the most part this book didn't have too many political statements. The characters' behavior is itself an explicit political statement. People tell aspiring writers to write what they know. I guess Correia took that advice. The story protagonist is a Correia avatar in terms of looks, attitude, career path, size and politics. Owen Zastava Pitt is a huge (6'4"+, 300lb+) recent college graduate who works as an accountant. Owen has an interesting family background. His Green Beret father was a disciplinarian survivalist. Owen's father insisted that his sons learn to handle weapons and protect themselves. Owen may be white collar but he can fight, thanks not only to his father's training but also to Owen's past employment as a bouncer and underground cage fighter. When pushed Owen has a bad temper. However in the corporate arena the size of your paycheck means more than your physical size. And Owen doesn't make much money. He's under the thumb of a boss who can charitably be described as an a$$hole. Owen doesn't care for his boss. And the feeling is definitely mutual. One night while Owen is working late with no one else around, his boss calls him into the office and explains that he never did like Owen. And then the boss shifts form and tries to eat Pitt. Yes you see the boss is a werewolf. But Owen is not a man who runs from confrontation. More importantly, he can't outrun a werewolf. dies easily. A knockdown, drag out no holds barred fight ensues. It doesn't help Owen's chances that a werewolf can almost immediately heal itself from most wounds. This was both an exciting fight and something that was almost satire. Long story short, Owen manages to throw his boss out of a 14th story window. Even a werewolf can't regenerate from that. Owen is severely wounded and technically briefly dies. 

Owen wakes up in a hospital regarded cautiously by unfriendly government agents who inform him that if he should tell anyone of his experiences he will disappear, likely permanently. Owen is also greeted by a chain smoking man of indeterminate age who introduces himself as Earl Harbinger and a beautiful serious young woman whose name is Julie Shackleford. Earl and Julie run Monster Hunter International (MHI). MHI is a private company licensed to capture or kill monsters-vampires, werewolves, ghouls, etc. All of these things exist. All of these creatures have various government bounties attached for hunters. MHI gives Owen a check for the werewolf he killed. The fact that Owen was able to kill a werewolf all by himself and hasn't had an emotional breakdown or gone insane means that he's exactly the kind of person that Earl and Julie want to hire. That is,they want to hire him if he's got the stones. Well, stones Owen has in abundance. He will join MHI for the money, the camaraderie, the excitement, the training, the guns and the chance to get next to Julie. She's just Owen's type. There's just a few problems. (1) The enigmatic Earl, Julie's relative, warns Owen that if Owen ever hurts or disappoints Julie, Earl will be displeased. (2) Julie already has a boyfriend with whom she appears to be content. Owen and Julie's man, a MHI supervisor, take an immediate dislike to each other. (3) Although Owen isn't afraid to mix it up physically with any one at any time and is something of a smarta$$, he gets tongue tied around Julie. Either he can't find the words to say to her or stupidly blurts out too much information at exactly the wrong time. But Julie doesn't have time for Owen's goo goo eyes. MHI has new teams to train. They've lost good people chasing monsters. They need to get the new recruits up to speed as soon as possible. Atypically some master vampires have started working together. MHI can't figure out why. But Owen thinks he knows why. Since his short "death" he's been having visions and warnings from a ghostly WW2 era Eastern European Jewish hunter. This hunter knows what's coming and intends to get Owen ready to fight it. And only all existence is at stake.

I thought the book was too long. The description of the swamps and caves where much of the action takes place is excessive. Correia, along with being a former accountant, is also a former firearms instructor and gun dealer. So there is a lot of information about guns. There's endless exposition on choosing the right gun for a particular person or job.  Correia likes guns. YMMV on this. Unlike some of Stephen Hunter's later work though, none of this knowledge is transmitted with a sneering exclusionary "I'm a real American and you're not" tone. MHI rushes from one crisis to another. Some family secrets are revealed. Owen has a self-deprecating sense of humor, most of which revolves around his massive size. The main thing I didn't like about this story is that Owen is too often a deus ex machina when his team gets into a tight fix. That damaged my ability to care about some of the characters. The humor carries this book through some of the (from my POV) leaden political statements or people occasionally doing stupid things to advance the story. All in all I'll probably read the rest of the series. Although the book is in my opinion too long it rarely drags. There's a lot of action. Hijinks and narrow escapes occur on almost every page. I liked Owen's run-ins with the laconic federal agent Franks, who is about as big as Owen and to Owen's dismay MUCH faster and more skilled at fighting than Owen.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Miko Grimes and Anti-Semitic Statements

I was raised to believe that no matter what your family should be united against the outside world. So this means that if your brother gets into a fight with the local college football team you jump in to protect him even if he started it and was utterly in the wrong. If he gets his behind kicked then you'd better be right there on the floor taking the beating with him. If someone calls your sister stupid or otherwise insults her then you rise to her defense even if you think to yourself that the person making that statement may actually have a point. You can cuss out and fight with your relatives later. But if someone else bothers them then that someone else has a problem with you. And this would obviously go double for your husband or your wife. After all you took a vow which, depending on when you were married, probably included some language about forsaking all others, honoring, obeying, and/or protecting your spouse in sickness and health, in good times and bad until you are separated by death. That's not just boilerplate. It's pretty serious stuff. You're taking an oath, after all. None of these ties and bonds, whether familial or romantic, mean that you are always going to like your family or your nookie providers or agree with them. You may well believe that a relative had to have been dropped on their head as a child to be so dumb or idly wonder if your spouse will indeed bequeath an unpleasant trait to your children. But it's your right to have and express those beliefs, no one else's. I'm not going to publicly criticize or distance myself from family even if I think they are 100% offbase. I'll have a discussion with them in private about what I think they're doing wrong. I'm not going to criticize family because an outsider says I should. But I am not married to Miko Grimes, who has a history of statements and actions which would sorely test my commitment to handling family business behind closed doors.
Miko Grimes, the wife of former Miami Dolphins and current Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Brent Grimes, blasted Miami brass on Monday, using anti-Semitic language that she later tried to clarify. In a tweet referencing Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and executive vice president of football operations Mike Tannenbaum, Miko Grimes tweeted:

Gotta respect ross for keeping his jew buddies employed but did he not see how tannenbaum put the jets in the dumpster w/that sanchez deal?

Reached by the Tampa Bay Times, Miko Grimes remained adamant that the insult was only directed at two people and that no one else should be offended by what she said. "What would I have against Jewish people?" she wrote to theTimes in an exchange Monday afternoon. "Why is this the first time I'm being called anti-Semitic, as big as my mouth is, if I really have an issue with Jewish people? Is anything I said false? Do Jewish, Catholic, Christian and frat brothers, etc. hire their own people? … I was intending to offend the Dolphins, specifically Stephen Ross and Mike Tannenbaum. Anyone else that chooses to dive in front of those bullets is their own fault."

Asked about the insinuation that someone would get a job only because of religious ties, she did not back down from her stance. "If you are a GM in the NFL and you happen to be Jewish, nine times out of 10 you will get another job if fired because the majority of the owners are Jewish and 'rumor has it' Jewish people take care of their own," she wrote. "I'm actually quite envious of them. I think it's dope!" The comment was picked up by several national sports sites and ESPN, and the nature of the "Jew buddies" comment has relevance with the Bucs because the Glazer family, which has owned the team since 1995, is Jewish. Bucs co-chair Bryan Glazer last year donated $4 million to a new Jewish Community Center in West Tampa that will carry his family's name. The Bucs were aware of the comment Monday but had no immediate response.

Leaving aside the substance of Miko Grimes' comments for now, statements attacking alleged Jewish excessive clannishness are indeed often meant and experienced as anti-semitic insults. There's no way that an adult does not know that in 2016. And even if Miko Grimes didn't mean it that way and (insert eyeroll) was just trying to start a serious conversation about (ahem) having a more diverse hiring profile in the NFL, using the term "Jew buddies" isn't the way to go about that. This is especially the case when her husband's new bosses, the people who sign his checks, happen to be Jewish. This isn't the first time that Mrs. Grimes has had some outrageous stuff to say. Her self-described big mouth is part of the reason her husband now works for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers instead of the Miami Dolphins. But this is the big leagues. Racial comments and slurs are not exactly unknown in professional football, in the locker room or out of it. NFL owners and for that matter players can be quite tolerant of bad behavior or loose talk provided they believe that a player can help the team win. Just ask Riley Cooper.  However Brent Grimes is on the downside of his career. He's not as quick or as fast as he used to be. He will likely soon transition out of the NFL. While I wouldn't say Grimes is a marginal player I would say he's at the point where a team might think twice about adding him and his loose cannon wife to the payroll. The competitive benefit might not outweigh the off field headaches. I don't think that the NFL or the Bucs can or should fine Brent Grimes because of what his wife said. She's her own woman. She doesn't work for the NFL. But NFL or not, making public derogatory comments about your spouse's new boss's ethnicity or religion is just not a very smart move in any business setting. Now every relationship is different. We don't know if Miko is speaking for herself or if she's saying things Brent wishes he could say. If I were Brent at the very least I would probably have a short blunt conversation with the wife on things we don't say in public.

What's your take? Should people be responsible for their spouse's statements?

Philando Castile, Dallas, and Blowback

On July 6th, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, local police stopped a car driven by school cook Philando Castile. Castile was a black man. Also in the car was Castile's girlfriend Lavish Reynolds and Reynolds' four year old daughter. According to Reynolds the police demanded that Castile produce his license and registration. Although I'm not sure he was legally required to do so Castile allegedly informed the officers that he was a licensed gun permit holder and had his weapon with him.  An officer, allegedly Jeronimo Yanez, then shot Castile multiple times as Castile reached for his paperwork as directed. The police yell and and freak out as Castile slumps in his seat, dying. Reynolds was prescient and calm enough (with guns pointed at her and her daughter) to livestream the post-shooting events to Facebook. You can watch it here if you want to do so. The police ordered Reynolds out of the car. They handcuffed and detained her. Reynolds broke down later. To literally give the devil his due we don't see the events that occurred before the shooting. But we do know that Castile was legally entitled to have his gun. We don't know when and why the officers unholstered their guns. The lawyer for Yanez stated that the traffic stop was initiated because Castile resembled a robbery suspect because of his "wide nose". Reynolds stated that they were told they were stopped because of a malfunctioning tail light. But that doesn't really matter. Castile is just as dead. His crime? Being black and following instructions. Problematic doesn't even begin to describe this. Because Castile had no felony record the normal post death smears to his reputation won't be as easy to do. However the lowlifes who do things like that are even now poring over Castille's and Reynolds' social media accounts to find something to justify Castille's death. Some mental midgets were stating that Reynolds must have stolen her cigarettes. 

I would love to believe that if I just did A, B and C then I and people who look like me would be safe from police violence. But that's just not the case. You can have a pristine record, be entirely innocent, follow the officer's instructions (legal or not) to the letter and still wind up insulted, brutalized, humiliated or dead. Police initiate negative contact with black people, especially black men, at higher rates than they do with white people. If you are black the officer is more likely to search you or your vehicle, regardless of probable cause or reasonable suspicion. Anything other than instantaneous abject compliance can cause the officer to resort to deadly violence. And as Castile and Reynolds found out, even compliance isn't enough. 

These incidents would be bad enough if officers who broke the law or violated departmental regulations were punished when the evidence supports punishment. But generally speaking they aren't. A cop can be caught on video unlawfully beating or killing someone, but it's still a good bet that s/he won't be charged. It's a big deal if an officer even loses his job. Officers are rarely charged and even more rarely convicted of crimes against black citizens. Local district attorneys work with police and greatly value that relationship. The FBI isn't any better because it investigates itself and to my "great surprise" (LOL)  always finds shootings by FBI agents to be justified. Judges are often former district attorneys. Black people are underrepresented in jury pools. Segregated housing tracts and deformed voting registration patterns produce jury pools which are not only whiter on average than the country's population but also may lack first hand experience with police who are not the Officer Friendly stereotype. Officers can, as is their right, avoid jury trials. And if all that fails and against all odds a police officer somehow finds himself on trial he can pull out his ace card and say "I feared for my life." That pretty much trumps everything. Going to prison for murder or manslaughter is not a normal outcome for killer cops.

This is a problem. It's not just that police commit needless violence against black citizens. It's that too many people of all races have come to believe that the justice system won't or can't do anything about it. The reason we have a justice system is so people won't take the law into their own hands. But it appears that police are above justice. So what is the logical next step once you have the firm belief that the justice system can't be fixed or reformed? It's violence. It's what we saw in Dallas on July 7th when an Army Reserve Afghan war veteran, one Micah Xavier Johnson, allegedly murdered five white police officers. Supposedly his rationale for doing that was because, like many other black people he was upset about the cycle of black death at the hands of police. Johnson felt justified in reaching out and sharing this pain. People tend to get very upset when anyone points that out. People say violence is never the answer and so on. Well, let's be real.This country was founded on violent revolution. The Founding Fathers didn't engage in sit-ins, talk about loving and forgiving their enemies or claim that God would make everything ok at some unspecified future date. They started shooting the British. They continued shooting the British until the British decided that keeping the American colonies wasn't worth it. This country expanded via application of superior violence against the indigenous inhabitants. If you live in the US you live in a country that had one of the most successful genocidal conquests in history. Many of the very same people who are demanding we weep for the cops murdered in Dallas will turn around and claim that the elimination of Native Americans is nothing to be ashamed of. Stuff happens, you know. Slavery was only ended via violence. Our movies, books and other entertainment constantly lionize the hero who takes matters into his own hands defeats or kills his enemies. There is a fundamental strain in American politics and culture to dismiss people who can't or won't fight back. It's seen as weakness and viewed with contempt. Very few people in any position of power have any respect for the man who follows Jesus' advice during the Sermon on the Mount to "resist not evil." and "turn the other cheek." Maybe we'd all be better off if we did heed such words but the truth of the matter is that as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin (H. Rap Brown) pointed out a long time ago, "Violence is as American as cherry pie". If you won't stand up for yourself in this world no body else will. It's only when Black people turn to violence that the larger society's outrage over violence becomes palpable. We actually have someone suing the President and other black men for inciting racial hatred. Think about this for a moment. People on the right have called the President and his family monkeys and apes and subhuman and everything but a child of God. They have prayed for the President's death, depicted his death and threatened his life. They've claimed that he's not American. They've said nasty things about his mother. Many have it made it crystal clear via vile jokes and plain direct statements that they hate black people. Now some fellow travelers of these yahoos are suing the President for inciting racism. If this wasn't so serious you'd just have to laugh.

I could condemn people who kill innocent police officers and police officers who kill innocent civilians but too often many police in this country refuse to acknowledge that there even is such a thing as an innocent black civilian. There are just blacks they haven't gotten around to frisking or arresting yet. Some police shoot first and ask questions later. While politicians and police are falling over themselves to share their sympathies for the murdered police officers in Dallas, you will never see an outpouring of police support for murdered black citizens. The best you might get is a bland statement about process. Often you'll get callous indifference. At worst you see jokes, glee and even celebration. Politicians, district attorneys and media pundits will sneer that the murdered black citizen's family is only out for money. Some will claim that hey this dead black (wo)man was no angel. 
So if this country in 2016 is still unwilling to charge and convict police officers who kill black citizens then it should prepare itself for more Micah Johnsons. There's only so much that people can take before they finally realize that they aren't the only ones who can bleed. Everybody bleeds. If we want to stop more shooting of police officers then we need to stop police shooting of black civilians. We're at a crossroads in American society. We've tried retraining police, marching, praying, boycotting, begging, pleading etc to no avail. This is not about individual good or bad cops. This is about a systemic institutional framework that views black people, especially black men and boys, as threats to be monitored or eliminated. This is a problem which impacts all black people, regardless of class, wealth, status, sexuality, gender, political stance or other characteristics. Conservative South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, with whom I disagree probably 75% of the time has stories to tell of being racially profiled and harassed, even as an elected official. How do we fix all of this? I don't know. Black people were never supposed to be citizens in this country. But I do know that we can't have any more Tamir Rices or Aiyana Stanley-Jones. I have loved ones in New York and other cities with aggressive combative police. If something happened to them and a police officer walked free I would be hard pressed to sing kumbyah. I love my kin just as much as the family members of the slain officers in Dallas loved theirs.

This is not 1920s America. You'd be foolish to believe that. I don't live in the same world my great-grandparents inhabited. But there's still too much today that would be bitterly familiar to them in terms of police behavior and the larger society's refusal to hold police accountable. Typically, conservatives have sought to blame the messenger, though there are a few conservatives who recognize that there's a problem and have some ideas about what to do next. As NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick wrote, "This is what lynchings look like in 2016".  Either we rebuild the system to reduce the possibility of police violence and punish unlawful police violence as severely as we do that of other citizens or we all get guns and start shooting back. No one wins but black people won't be bleeding alone.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Movie Reviews: 10 Cloverfield Lane

10 Cloverfield Lane
directed by Dan Trachtenberg
This film tries and succeeds in having it both ways. It  could be a sequel or even a reworking of the 2008 movie Cloverfield and a film that stands completely on its own. The events in Cloverfield are only obliquely referenced if at all. In fact for the vast majority of 10 Cloverfield Lane the events of the previous film do not matter. As the previous film came out 8 years previously 10 Cloverfield Lane would have to be its own film anyway. This movie is mostly a psychological thriller. If you are the sort of person who has a low tolerance for violence this film is generally safe to watch as violence doesn't occur very much. There are only three primary characters in the entire film. On the other hand the film definitely uses a variety of techniques to make you think that violence is imminent. And when the violence does happen it's not cheap or played for laughs. It actually has a purpose. You care about the people it touches. The film regularly ratchets up and relieves tension or makes you think that it relieves tension. Although the film touches on the weird and the abnormal mostly near the ending of the film, everything else that has happened prior is really the meat and potatoes of the movie. The comedian Louis C.K has a thoughtful little bit about how weird, strange, and wonderful it is that women ever go out with men at all considering that men can pose significant physical dangers to women. Humans do not have the greatest sexual dimorphism in mammalian species but our average sexual size differences are great enough that most people would cringe at the idea of a woman fighting a man. I was reminded of Louis C.K.'s bit watching this movie. There is a strong argument to be made that this entire film is actually a parable about domestic violence. 10 Cloverfield Lane puts me in mind of some old Tales From The Crypt or Twilight Zone episodes. This movie is an example of how a low budget and limited sets need not harm a movie if the acting and writing are good, as is the case here. Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is a tall but slightly built woman (5-8, 120-130lbs?) who just had an argument with her boyfriend, She hits the road. But she doesn't get too far before she's sideswiped by a truck and forced off the road. Her car tumbles and flips.

She's hurt and blacks out. When Michelle wakes up she's chained to a wall in a basement somewhere. Her cell phone doesn't work. The man who brings her food is the hulking (6-2, 250lb+) Howard (John Goodman). Howard claims to have found Michelle at the accident site and brought her home to his underground bunker. He doesn't explain why he chained her to the wall. Howard may or may not have sexual interest in Michelle. The movie keeps that ambiguous. Is Howard looking for a daughter surrogate or a sexual surrogate or a friend or some whacked out combination of all three. We don't know. What's isn't ambiguous is that Howard is both a lonely man and a domineering one. Although he eventually unchains Michelle he won't let her leave the bunker. Howard says that there has been some sort of big attack. The air is unbreathable and radioactiove. It could be the end of the world. A former military man, Howard has been waiting and preparing for just such an occasion. That is why he has a bunker and little ameneties like backup generators, air purifiers, toilets and showers that share water and everything else your friendly neighborhood survivalist could possibly want. Howard thinks that it could be a year or more before it's safe to leave the bunker. Michelle may as well forget about any friends or family she has. They're dead. Michelle should be very thankful to Howard as far as Howard is concened. And if she's smart she'll let Howard know how grateful she is. As Howard outweighs Michelle by over 100 pounds, is apparently a few fries short of a happy meal and is never without his revolver, Michelle finds that agreeing with Howard is usually the path of least resistance. But she has plans and questions. She haltingly shares these with the other bunker resident Emmett (John Gallagher), a handyman who believes at least some of Howard's story. Howard doesn't seem to like Emmett very much. Howard only reluctantly let Emmet into the bunker. Howard definitely doesn't want Emmett talking too much to Michelle. Over time this group of people slowly learns to live together. But Michelle finds too much that is odd or questionable about Howard's story and for that matter Howard himself. Howard's need for emotional and physical control makes for an unstable living arrangement. Just do what I say and don't make me hurt you is not an ethos which adds to domestic tranquility. Michelle is too smart to ignore logical inconsistencies for long. The viewer will enjoy watching Michelle pick up on things in Howard's story that bother her or contradict evidence of her own senses. There's a lot of gaslighting going on in this story. That technique is actually Howard's go to weapon. Howard also notices more than he lets on and is much smarter than some people realize.

The vast majority of this film takes place in very small areas. This adds to the claustrophobic feel of the movie. Goodman is very impressive here. He is self-pitying without being whiny. He can give off dangerous vibes just by asking simple questions. If you have ever seen or lived with emotionally volatile people Goodman's character of Howard will be familiar.  Michelle and Emmet each have a vested interest in reading Howard's moods and trying to figure out his thoughts ahead of time. An angry Howard is a dangerous Howard. Michelle is realistic in that she uses the tools she has to attempt to discover what's truly going on. There is also some foreshadowing put to good use. Howard compels Michelle to do something for his benefit that can only be done by her, not realizing that the canny Michelle will later do this same thing for her own purposes. All in all this was a good movie. But don't watch it if you are expecting butt-kicking babes, tons of special effects or loads and loads of violence.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Professor Nagel Sires 22 Children

A little over a decade ago the film director Spike Lee made a movie which was titled She Hate Me. Among other things this film depicted the plight of a desperate biotech executive who, running into political, racial and financial problems at work, starts a lucrative side hustle of being the sperm donor for (primarily) lesbian women looking to conceive and carry a pregnancy to term. The movie's hook was that the executive and many of his clients preferred that the actual impregnation occurred in the old-fashioned face to face "hands-on" way. Well it wasn't always face to face strictly speaking (snicker) but no turkey basters, laboratories or other artificial methods were involved, thank you very much. I watched this movie mostly for Dania Ramirez, Monica Bellucci and Kerry Washington, all of whom are as far as I'm concerned, good enough reasons to watch most movies. Critics generally panned She Hate Me as dumb, unrealistic and of course "misogynistic". All the "serious" critics and sexuality "experts" told us that such a thing would never happen. Lesbians would never ever ever do such a thing. After all, by definition lesbians are not interested in intimate or romantic contact with a man, right? This film was just fevered sexist fantasy no doubt inspired by male fears over the rightfully lessening cultural and economic importance of masculinity. The movie was not only a critical flop but a financial one as well. And beautiful actresses not withstanding I would have to admit that the movie was not Lee's best work. Not by a long shot.  It was actually a film that made me think that I should probably wait to see what lots of other people thought of a Spike Lee film before I spent money or time on it. Well sometimes life is just as strange as fiction. In New York, some folks who apparently watched She Hate Me a few times too many have shown that the central premise of Lee's film actually does work for some people. 

On a busy night last week at the Target on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, Ari Nagel, 40, emerged from the men’s bathroom looking a little flushed and quite pleased with himself. “It’s better when it’s fresh,” he told them. “It” is Nagel’s semen, and it’s in demand. The 6-foot-2 CUNY Kingsborough math professor has served as a sperm donor for dozens of locals, siring 22 kids over the past 12 years with 18 women of various backgrounds. For lesbian couples and single ladies looking to have a baby without the expense of going through a sperm bank (which can run in the thousands of dollars), he’s the No. 1 dad. “This isn’t time-consuming, and I’m doing it anyway,” he says of his hands-on hobby. “It’s very easy for me to do.” His oldest child, now 12, was conceived with a woman he was in a committed relationship with, but all of his offspring since, he says, have resulted from his donations.
About half the time, he provides his seed the old-fashioned way. Sometimes, a lesbian looking to conceive will have her partner in the bed for moral support while she and Nagel engage in intercourse. “She’s never slept with a guy before, so the partner’s in bed, holding her hand,” Nagel explains. “Sometimes, it could be a little painful, then after a few times, they’re comfortable to do it on their own.” Other times, he supplies his goods in a cup, which he prefers. And Nagel’s seed-sowing isn’t a drain on his love life. He doesn’t make a point of mentioning it on dates, but when it comes up, ladies typically don’t mind. “Never underestimate the desperation of a single woman on the Upper West Side,” he says.

But it’s not all sunshine and babies. The first five women he worked with successfully sued him for child support, and nearly half of his paycheck is garnished for his offspring. “I don’t know what’s more surprising: that five sued or that 17 didn’t,” Nagel says. “They were all well aware there was no financial obligation on my part. They all promise in advance they won’t sue.” Crystal, a Connecticut woman who has two sons, 6 and 7, by Nagel, says she wasn’t aware of any such arrangement.

The 45-year-old mom, who took Nagel to court for child support, says that she was expecting to co-parent with him and that she didn’t know of his plans to father an entire baseball team. Nagel’s progeny isn’t limited to the tri-state area. He has kids in Florida, Illinois, Virginia, Connecticut and Israel. Some he sees once a week, some he sees once a year, some he’s never met.

I don't really care how people live their lives. And I don't care about how many children any person has or doesn't have. That is a personal decision. If you have the time and resources to raise and support your children go for it. As the song goes, it's your thing. Do what you want to do. I can't tell you who to sock it to. But one thing that is worth mentioning is that Nagel and the women with whom he's interacting are deliberately depriving the children of a parent or at least of a father. There are consequences to running around and being irresponsible that don't just impact the adults who are involved. At the extremes this sort of behavior raises the chances, however slightly, of accidental incest as there are a number of half-siblings created who will not know each other or grow up together. Ugh. But even putting that aside I've always thought that it's just a crappy thing to do to bring a child into the world when you lack the ability or desire to build a parental relationship with that child. And it turns out that Professor Nagel is still married. So you can throw adultery into the mix as well. We've written before about men who acted in good faith as sperm donors for lesbians or single heterosexual women. Some of these men later get sued by the state or the women for child support. In many of those cases the men had either a written agreement or verbal understanding with the women that they would not be a father in any sort of way. The women changed their minds or the state big footed its way into what was a private relationship. In those cases I do think the men got a raw deal. But in Nagel's case I think he's just a fool. He deserves whatever comes his way. As far as the women are concerned I think it is amusing and a little sad that in a time where women complain loudly and incessantly about men who impregnate them and disappear, several women are lining up to be impregnated by a man who will disappear and not be a father to the resulting children. I guess it all depends which men are doing the pumping and dumping. There are apparently a lot of desperate and yet picky women out there. People are strange.

Though she has yet to actually meet Nagel, Simmons has no qualms about the notoriety of the man comedian Chris Hardwick recently called “Johnny Peopleseed.” She says, “I’m OK with [Nagel’s newfound fame]. I’m OK with people knowing who my child’s father is, because I know he’s a great man.” Blandine Rodney, a 43-year-old Brooklyn nurse who wants a child with the college math professor, agrees. “He’s handsome, he’s a genius. I’d be proud to have my child say Ari is his father.” The divorcĂ©e, like all of the other women The Post spoke to, is black (Several of Nagel’s 22 children have black mothers). “Someone said [to me] he’s trying to whitewash the black community,” says Rodney. “It’s not whitewashing! More white men should give sperm to women who need it.”

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, July 2, 2016

Movie Reviews: Free State of Jones, 13 Hours, Cell

Free State of Jones
directed by Gary Ross
Alright, alright, alright. This could have been a better movie. Maybe if this were the seventies or eighties some of the critical reaction to this movie would have been both more accepting and more vitriolic depending upon the critic's race and politics. It seems incredible now but remember that some white critics actually attacked Spike Lee's eighties film Do The Right Thing for raising the chances of massive race riots against white people because of a fictional depiction of a character throwing a garbage can through a window. Apparently millions of black Americans were just one film away from running amok. Those were silly, even hysterically (and historically) stupid criticisms. Now some black critics are attacking Free State of Jones because (1) it doesn't place black people at the center of a true story about a rather extraordinary white man or (2) show to their satisfaction the exact levels of heroic resistance which Black Americans attempted in a losing struggle against post-Civil War state and individual white terrorism and disenfranchisement. I think the second criticism is fair. It can be argued at least. There were post Civil War pitched battles between white racists intent on strangling black freedom in the cradle and desperately outgunned and outnumbered newly freed black citizens trying to exercise their political rights. Most of these battles and massacres are forgotten today. But the first criticism is sour grapes. If you go to the theater to watch a movie touting itself as the Ray Charles story would you expect that the entire film will center on the importance of Charles' friend, country star Buck Owens? Probably not. Although there is understandable resentment to fictional white savior stories I would argue that Free State of Jones is not such a film. Newton Knight really did put his life on the line in opposition to slavery and white supremacy. He really did lead a resistance movement in Civil War Mississippi. So complaining that a movie about his exploits puts him at the center of the story seems unwise. I want to see movies about black heroes as much as anyone else. I'm looking forward to the Nat Turner movie. I'd like to see a film about Toussaint L'Ouverture or Antonio Grajales. I don't need made up white savior films. But Newton Knight was real. There are valid and torrid criticisms that can be made about this film. I'll mention a few below. But its mere existence isn't one of them. 
If you want to know more about the real Newton Knight, you can read the book about his life story which we reviewed here earlier. The short version is that a poor white anti-slavery pro-Union Mississippi farmer joined the Confederate Army under protest and duress to avoid conscription, provide for his family and watch out for similarly situated friends and relatives. Knight regularly deserted and finally left for good to protect his family and friends from Confederate tax collectors and draft officials. Tax collectors were then, as they are today, utterly indifferent towards a family's particular hardships. Knight fled to the local swamps where he built an interracial force of freed slaves, Confederate deserters, unionists, draft dodgers and tax protesters. These guerrillas defeated Confederate forces in a few irregular skirmishes and swore allegiance to the USA. But nothing good lasts. With the war's end and the later cessation of Reconstruction, most whites who had rallied to Knight's side suddenly rediscovered their disdain for Knight's racial equality convictions and his interracial polygamy. Racial hatred and contempt proved stronger than appeals to religious or class solidarity. Using murders, mutilations and beatings to intimidate black citizens and their white supporters, conservative whites reimposed what amounted to slavery and apartheid throughout the South. Black people lost almost all citizenship rights for the next century or so. And a few disruptive or violent actions by Knight could not stop this. Knight remained in Mississippi all of his life. He became so closely identified with the black community that he was counted as black in later census surveys.

Matthew McConaughey effectively and almost effortlessly conveys Knight's intensity but the film goes sideways from the start by not grounding Knight's political beliefs in his strong Primitive Baptist religious convictions about the equality of all men. Both Knight and his father despised slavery, something that presumably made his branch of the family the (ahem) the black sheep at family gatherings. Certainly Knight didn't inherit any slaves or property from his grandfather. The film doesn't mention any of that back story. So Knight's backwoods Jesus musings about race and equality don't appear as something based in Knight's church and family history but something that Knight started believing after eating too many mushrooms of uncertain origin. You'd follow McConaughey's Knight into battle because he's cool as f***, but you'd also want to keep an eye on him in case he suddenly orders people to bring virgins to him or starts demanding in his drawl that everyone drink the Kool-AidSo does this film work as historical documentary? No it does not. But it wasn't designed to do so. Does the film show the tragically forgotten struggle of the transgender feminist bisexual biracial illegal immigrant in 1867 Mississippi? No I can't say that it does. It is not meant to be all things to all people. Does it work as somber entertainment which attempts to shine a light on an ugly part of our history? Well, mostly it does. 

The film starts on a battlefield and tracks Knight's movement from medic to deserter to guerrilla warlord. As discussed, the director chooses to make most of these transitions based on personal, not political stances. When Knight meets the man who will become one of his best friends, Moses (Mahershala Ali), an escaped slave, their friendship is not initially based on Knight's opposition to slavery but shared experiences. Kerri Russell is Knight's white (legal) wife, Serena; Gugu Mbatha-Raw is his black (common-law) wife, Rachel. The film uses Rachel's character to show the viewer, albeit thankfully offscreen, the capricious sexual violence of slavery. Serena is a cipher. We don't know if she shares her husband's political beliefs or not. We never know what she thinks of sharing her husband with another woman. And speaking of motivations, we see that when whites recruited by Knight join this previously all black group of runaway slaves, many do not drop their racism. But we don't learn what the black people already living in the swamp thought about these arrivals. Surely they must have had their own resentments and doubts about the influx of whites into their group. Even whites who didn't own slaves still worked as overseers, auctioneers and slave patrollers. For many whites the existence of slavery provided a sense of status. No matter how bad off they were, at least they weren't black. So if you were a black person who had run away from enslavement would you warm up to these people? Would you trust them with your life? With the exception of Moses and Rachel, few of the black characters get any sort of agency/individuality. The film doesn't bother, however briefly, to examine things from their POV. And it's weaker for it.

There are a few intense battle scenes. These are balanced with humor as Knight matches wits with an arrogant and not too bright Confederate tax official. We know that Reconstruction ended in betrayal and horror. So the film tries to avoid ending on a down note by skipping forward to a Mississippi court case in which a descendant of Knight's is accused of miscegenation. But the film doesn't successfully give the viewer any emotional involvement in that case. Free State of Jones correctly shows that slavery and white supremacy were primary motivators for the South's rebellion. Southerners didn't start the KKK after the war because they were pining for low taxes and deregulation. The newspapers and white politicans of the time were blunt in describing their dedication to maintaining Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-Celtic superiority by any means necessary. Knight learns to his dismay that race trumps class in Mississippi politics. A sizable proportion of the white working class had no desire to ally with black people no matter how much sense it might make economically. For a brief moment Knight's leadership showed what class and racial solidarity might have looked like. But it didn't last. It never does in American politics.  This wasn't a great movie. It was good. On balance I'm glad I saw it. It runs a little long at 2 hours and 20 minutes.

13 Hours

directed by Michael Bay
We live in a world where increasingly people live in their own truth bubbles. This is not something that is a partisan failing by one side or the other. People on whatever side of a controversy you care to mention will quote you chapter and verse proving that they are the calm rational ones while those overly emotional dunderheads on the other side believe in things that just aren't true. Folks have their own sets of facts. The attack on the US compound in Benghazi is thus, depending on whom you talk to, either an excellent example of what happens when heartless short sighted conservatives cut security outlays or an all too predictable illustration of what occurs when you have incompetent soft-hearted rookies in charge who blame America first. The release of dueling House Committee reports on Benghazi won't change anyone's mind on this. Smartly recognizing this the director Michael Bay mostly eschews political commentary, which isn't his strong suit anyway, for a gripping deep dive into the nuts and bolts of exactly what happened before, during and after the attacks on the American diplomatic compound and CIA outpost in Benghazi. The character details are really not very important to this story. It's a battle. No one is going to be sitting around talking about their feelings or any nonsense like that. What is relevant is that Ambassador Stevens (Matt Letscher) is going to be taking up residence in a lightly protected diplomatic compound in Benghazi. He doesn't expect any trouble. But as Sollozzo told Tom Hagen, Stevens is not in the muscle end of the family. He doesn't really know the signs of impending violence. Some of the people who do know what to look for are the ex-military private security guards attached to the CIA outpost. These folks positively reek of testosterone, aggression and competence. They've been places and done things. They think that the American buildings are not well protected. They don't think they have enough men or enough heavy weapons. And they don't like it. But the CIA station chief  (David Costabile-- Gale from Breaking Bad) makes it clear that he doesn't much care what the hired help thinks about things.  He didn't hire them to think. There's a hierarchy here and he's at the top. So all these bearded bada$$es can have a nice warm cup of shut the f*** up!  If they don't the Chief will cancel their contract and put them on double secret probation!

The Chief's job is to gather intelligence and schmooze with people. The Chief and his agents, including the winsome Sona Jilliani (Alexia Barlier) and the arrogant Freddie Stroma (Britt Vayner) can't do their jobs if the musclebound morons are constantly interrupting important business for security reasons. There might be some revenge of the nerd resentments playing out here also. The Chief is obviously not a former athlete. He and his people generally attended the best Ivy league schools, not rinky dink state colleges. And the Chief will remind anyone of this should they have the temerity to question his decisions. New team member and former Navy SEAL Jack Da Silva (John Krasinksi) barely has time to arrive in Benghazi, joke with his friend and team lead Tyrone Woods (James Dale) and skype with his wife and kids before things go from bad to worse. Well when the stuff hits the fan you send for the man. Ignoring the chief's orders, the team leaves the CIA outpost to try to save the Ambassador. Nothing goes as planned. No one even agrees on what the plan should be. This is a really good action movie which also shows the perfect storm of red tape, incompetence, bureaucracy and bad luck that afflicted the Americans that night.  It doesn't deal in partisan finger pointing or political conspiracy theories. Sometimes people get caught with their pants down. I liked how the film showed that close attention to details can mean the difference between life and death. 13 Hours also depicted the frustrations of modern urban warfare. A US security guard, soldier or mercenary may know beyond a reasonable doubt that the seeming non-combatant watching him from across the street is actually using a cellphone to obtain and pass along the GPS coordinates for the American position. But that American can't necessarily do anything about it. Stylistically this film is a descendant of various depictions of The Alamo or movies like Assault on Precinct 13. If you like action movies, this film can be enjoyed regardless of your political views provided you turn them off for a while.

directed by Tod Williams 
Have you noticed how everyone today spends so much time on their cell phone? I mean people seem to think that each and everyone one of us is a Master or Mistress of the Universe who is so important that we must be in contact with the internet or with other people 24/7. People check their email while they're walking on the street. People text each other incessantly. People stand still on escalators updating Instagram photos. Folks check their blog while they're driving. Family members have the nerve to get upset when I calmly explain that my cell phone is for emergencies that I have. It's not so that people can call me anytime something pops into their mind. The chances are quite good that whatever someone thought was so critical that they needed to speak to me right now, actually wasn't that important. Cell, based on the story of the same name by Stephen King, opens with one of the more inventive premises I've seen in a while. In Boston's Logan Airport, as graphic artist Clay Riddell (John Cusack) returns home, something happens to everyone who is using their cell phone. This something turns people into dangerous and possibly cannibalistic zombies. Clay has to use his wits and improvised or abandoned weapons to escape the mayhem at the airport. It's a very close call. The scene of everyday people suddenly going berserk is something to see. It takes a while for people who aren't impacted to make the connection (LOL) that it's the cell phones which are causing the transformations. A few particularly dumb unfortunate souls try to call 911. Just barely making it out of the airport, Clay hooks up with a train conductor Tom (Samuel Jackson) and one of his neighbors Alice (Isabelle Furhrman). As Tom apparently has nothing better to do or no family of his own, he decides to join Clay on his trek across New England to find his son and estranged wife. And since Alice lives close by she tags along too.
And that pretty much explains the first 10 minutes and only remotely exciting or interesting part of this movie. The rest of this movie was boring. It was something to watch at 2 AM if you wake up and can't get back to sleep. Do not waste your time or money on this film. You will regret it if you do. Cusack and Jackson lend this film more credibility than it deserves. But with a few exceptions they're just going through the motions. There's a message about the loss of individuality which was probably better explained in the book. In the movie it's muddled. The special effects aren't very good. Clay's connection to the outbreak makes little sense. Tom is alternately sarcastic and selfless but always flat. The ending was horrid. Yuck.