Saturday, January 29, 2022

Movie Reviews: The Many Saints Of Newark

The Many Saints Of Newark
directed by Alan Taylor
The Many Saints of Newark (TMSOM)
is a prequel to the HBO crime drama series The Sopranos. The Sopranos creator, David Chase, produced and wrote, but did not direct this film. With prequels, unless there is some undetailed and exciting narrative that improves the original story, audience interest can flag.

The audience already knows what happened to the major characters in the original story. Skilled creators can find ways around that.  
Instead of examining the young adult Tony Soprano who will become the intimidating (and depressed) boss of the DiMeo Crime Family, TMSON focuses on Tony's mentor, his uncle by marriage, Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), whose translated surname provides part of the film's title and serves as a indicator of the struggle between good and evil that lives in his heart. 

Less successfully TMSON also tries to say something about race, by introducing the character Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr). A Black gangster who was a high school schoolmate (and football teammate?) of Dickie's, Harold now works for Dickie overseeing numbers and gambling rackets in inner city Newark. And I do mean "overseeeing". 

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Email Spam and Lottery Win

In the past sometimes friends or loved ones sent me email which I didn't see either because I wasn't online or more likely because the email went to my spam folder. 
After a few unpleasant conversations that could (wrongly) end up with the person believing that I didn't think that they were important, I changed all of my personal email filters so that certain ids were automatically sorted into the appropriate non-spam folders. 
I didn't do this with my work email because there I think there are indeed many emails and senders that aren't that important. Still, from time to time, on both work and personal email accounts, occasionally stuff winds up in the spam folder that really isn't spam and really is worth my time to read and respond. So far such items have never included a notification of a $3 million lottery win but you never know right?
Jan. 21 (UPI) -- A Michigan woman checking her email spam folder for a missing message made a far more surprising discovery -- she had won a $3 million lottery jackpot. Laura Spears, 55, of Oakland County, told Michigan Lottery officials she bought a ticket for the Dec. 31 Mega Millions drawing on
"I saw an ad on Facebook that the Mega Millions jackpot was getting pretty high, so I got on my account and bought a ticket," Spears said. "A few days later, I was looking for a missing email from someone, so I checked the spam folder in my email account."
Spears said a message from the Michigan Lottery caught her eye.
"That's when I saw an email from the lottery saying I had won a prize. I couldn't believe what I was reading, so I logged in to my Lottery account to confirm the message in the email. It's all still so shocking to me that I really won $3 million," she said.  

Health Care Costs Continue To Rise

Because many people who supported the PPACA, both popularly and derisively known as Obamacare, did so from moral fervor and political partisanship (as did many opponents, often with the added fecal nugget of racism dropped in) they were utterly uninterested in any epistemological or evidence based evaluation for the claims that Obamacare would lower premiums, deductibles, and health care costs. 
Supporters took it as an article of faith that Obamacare would do all of those things. And if you questioned that belief or wondered if there were a better way of lowering health care costs, lemming like supporters squealed that you were a dummy, a useful idiot for Republicans, or worst of all some sort of hateful right-wing conservative cretin misogynist misandrist who just wanted people to die.
Silence heretic!!!!

Movie Reviews: Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard

The Hitman's Wife's Bodyguard
directed by Patrick Hughes
This is a sequel to the film The Hitman's Bodyguard. While you might argue that the first movie had some Odd Couple comedic points to be made about learning how to get along with people who don't share your world view, personality, or sense of professionalism, this film downplays those points to ensure that you know that the actress Salma Hayek has very large and very firm breasts. 
Now I was already aware of that factoid but if you didn't have that piece of information floating around your skull, I guarantee you will remember it after you have finished watching this movie.
I am certain that the male audience will like this. Even so, I thought it was a little over the top; it was even called out by the character which the actress was playing. 
Although exaggerated for comedic effect I didn't think the cleavage display was degrading or sexist. It was similar to some classic Hammer movies from the fifties thru the seventies in which much appears to be exposed but not that much is actually seen. But other viewers may see things differently. 
This was a movie sequel that, like many such, didn't really need to be made. The story, such as it was, had been completed. 

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Movie Reviews: The Undercover Man

The Undercover Man
directed by Joseph Lewis
This 1949 film is more of a crime drama than a noir film.
Although Eliot Ness and his high profile raids are popularly linked with the downfall of Chicago Outfit head Al Capone, it was actually the more anodyne work of IRS accountants/tax agents like Frank Wilson that actually resulted in Capone's conviction and imprisonment on tax evasion charges.
This movie is loosely based on Frank Wilson's story. 
The film deviates from noir storylines by avoiding the true bleakness of real life events.
In real life although Capone was convicted and later sent to Alcatraz, the organization that he inherited and built thrived without him, growing to wield national influence, including in Hollywood and Las Vegas. 
Capone's conviction did not prove that good would win over evil. It just showed that mobsters needed to pay their taxes and keep a lower public profile, a valuable lesson that Capone's successors took to heart. 
Nevertheless The Undercover Man still effectively used noir elements of claustrophobic corruption and frustration with the law. Although everyone at the time would have recognized the Capone story, this movie set its tale in an unnamed city. As Tolkien did with Sauron, the film keeps its Big Bad (Capone) off screen for 99% of the story.

Ferris State History Professor Goes On Rant

Occasionally I had some eccentric teachers throughout educational career. Some instructors had little interest in the subject matter, didn't like me or for that matter any of their students, or were clearly just playing out the string until they retired, married someone rich or won the lottery, which ever came first. 
That's life. But I don't recall any of my teachers (and most of them were indeed decent men and women) ever losing it quite like Ferris State University History Professor Barry Mehler recently did. To be fair, evidently the good professor was a little peeved by the University's insistence upon holding in person classes at a time when the Covid pandemic is not subsiding. 
I can understand this frustration. My employer is making unpleasant noises about ending working from home options. If you force people to choose between their money and their life you might get more responses like this. 
BIG RAPIDS, MI – A Ferris State University faculty member has been placed on administrative leave after he reportedly went on a profanity-laced rant about the coronavirus pandemic during a class lecture video that was posted online.

Barry Mehler, a history professor in Ferris State’s humanities department, called his students “vectors of disease” and blamed the university for holding in-person classes amid the COVID-19 crisis during an introductory video posted to his YouTube account on Jan. 9, 2022.

Saturday, January 8, 2022

Movie Reviews: Venom: Let there Be Carnage

Venom: Let There Be Carnage
directed by Andy Serkis
This is the sequel to the previous Venom film. If you didn't watch the first film it doesn't matter because this stands alone. This film is not about impressive characterization or complex storylines. It's about special effects. The Venom movies are modern reworkings of the werewolf legends. 
Imagine that a mild-mannered schlub had a monster inside of him, one that was virtually immune to harm, needed human flesh and blood to survive, and was almost all id with nothing to moderate or channel its impulses. 
Or think about being the host for a alien parasitic life form that told you that it had your best interests at heart but was actually insidiously reworking your body for its own mysterious purposes. There are some serious horror movie vibes to either of those situations but the sequel doesn't go down those paths. Despite a fair amount of well, carnage, this movie's violence is neither that explicit nor impactful.
Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) is a journalist who shares his body with the alien symbiote Venom (also voiced by Hardy). Venom, like all of his species, can't survive for long on this planet without being bound to a human body. And not every human body will do. There must be, as with any relationship, the correct chemistry. However, lately Eddie and Venom are increasingly at odds. Venom sees no reason to hide.  Eddie wants Venom to stay hidden as much as possible.

Movie Reviews: Idlewild

directed by Bryan Barber
This 2006 film was a  messy mishmash of genres and therefore didn't do too well when released.
I think the big problem was that it greatly underestimated its probable audience's intelligence and patience and used far too many anachronistic music performances, language, and attitude. 
It's as if the director, producer, and writers started out to do their best to make a African-American magical realism/musical in the vein of Chicago or Moulin Rouge before losing their nerve and deciding to include too much foul language or needlessly explicit violence aimed at the rap audience. 
Still, upon rewatching this movie, I realized the film has a lot of sentimental melodrama in the best sense of the term.  
I dare say a viewer might even shed a tear or two if they are not careful. Although some of the characters are not particularly well drawn the actors generally excel at making the viewer care about them. 
Idlewild also has a strong message  hidden within. Just so no one misses it the film uses Cooley High as a touchstone.  
I am not sure if the creators specifically named this movie after the real life Michigan lakefront town of Idlewild that was a Black run resort area during the harshest days of segregation. 

Movie Reviews: The Laws of Gravity

Laws of Gravity
directed by Nick Gomez

There are many movies about desperate, conflicted, bored, and impoverished young men looking for a way out. 
Regardless of race, class, religion, ethnicity, these movies tend to have the same themes, dramas, and battles. Male behavior is apparently pretty similar no matter where you are. 
This low budget early nineties movie had as its most obvious antecedent Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets but I am sure that there are several other films/directors that could claim to have some influence on Laws of Gravity

I thought that the ending was unsurprising but this movie wasn't trying to be shocking or subvert expectations, though it does so once or twice. The film felt like a documentary that was shot with the participants being unaware of the camera. I was impressed with the acting. 
I think we all know some people, who despite having some skills or intelligence, never really made it to the level of success that we thought that they would. Laws of Gravity examines how that works. 
Sometimes it's bad luck. Sometimes it's self-sabotaging beliefs or behavior. And often it's a combination of all of those factors. 

Movie Reviews: TNT Jackson

TNT Jackson
directed by Cirio Santiago
This 1974 movie was an ambitious mix of blaxploitation, kung-fu, and pre-Charlie's Angels jiggle-vision. 
And by ambitious I mean that this movie was ambitious in exactly the same way someone pedaling a go-cart thinks that he's going to win the Daytona 500. 
It's okay to dream big but if you don't have the basic tools for success you're just wasting your time. 
This movie ran for a little over an hour but that was too long. 
With a better screenplay, better budget, better direction, and better special effects, this would have been more entertaining but then it wouldn't be the movie that it is.
Diana "TNT" Jackson (Jeanne Bell, one of the earliest African-American Playboy centerfolds) learns that her brother is missing and presumed dead. 
Discovering that her sibling was mixed up in the drug importation business, TNT (so called because of her dynamite looks and her kung-fu skills) traces her brother to Hong-Kong. 

Non-Citizen Voting In NYC

New York City recently made it legal for non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. 
This will include legal immigrants on green cards/visas and illegal immigrants with DACA status or who can otherwise show residence in NYC. 
When I first heard about this I thought it was a joke or some deliberate conservative lie, but no in fact, this was indeed the case.
New York City became the largest city in the country to allow noncitizens to vote in local elections after the City Council on Thursday overwhelmingly approved legislation granting the right to more than 800,000 legal residents.
The move places New York City at the forefront of the debate over voting rights, serving as a stark contrast to some states that have moved to add voting restrictions, including explicitly barring noncitizens from voting.
The legislation was approved over the objections of Mayor Bill de Blasio, who questioned whether the City Council has the power to grant voting rights to noncitizens. Legal experts expect that the bill could face a legal challenge. 
Noncitizens would be able to begin to register to vote a year from now. They could begin voting in local elections as of Jan. 9, 2023, according to the City Council.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Not All Superheroes Wear Capes: Sixth Grade Boy Saves Two Lives On Same Day

It is important to remember that in the midst of political strife, selfish behavior, and predictions of oncoming civil war, that human beings still have an urge towards selfless behavior that will appear at just the right time. Davyon Johnson is an example of the the best that humans can be.
On December 9 sixth grader Davyon Johnson saved a fellow student from choking to death by performing the Heimlich maneuver. 
Later on the same day, while his mother was driving him to church Davyon noticed a house fire and convinced his mother to stop. Davyon helped an older woman escape to safety. Would that we could all rise to the occasion when we are met with life and death challenges on our journey through this world.
Davyon Johnson, 11, couldn’t quite understand it: the pizza party, the accolades from the mayor of Muskogee, Okla., his picture in the newspaper and on television — and the word that had been linked to his name: hero. Why, the sixth grader asked his mother, was he being rewarded for doing the right thing? “I told him, ‘You saved two people’s lives,’” said LaToya Johnson, Davyon’s mother. “‘That is special.’” 
And so began a whirlwind December for Davyon, who lives in Muskogee, Okla., who loves wrestling, basketball, remote-controlled cars and Fortnite, and who was honored by his community this month for saving the life of a fellow student who was choking and an older woman who was escaping a house fire, both on the same day, Dec. 9. The Muskogee Police Department and Muskogee County Sheriff’s Office presented Davyon with a certificate on Dec. 15, naming him an honorary member of their forces. LINK

Monday, January 3, 2022

Movie Reviews: Profile

directed by Timur Bekmambetov

The director produced the similar themed film Unfriended 2: Dark Web, reviewed here. As with Unfriended 2 everything takes place on a computer or phone screen. 
Profile is based on a true story that examined the phenomenon of successful ISIS recruitment of young Western, i.e. white, European women. 

Theoretically, when examining this experience, people might have something to say about the thrill of the bad boy to some women, the possibility that the dying standards or rejected morality of one group will inevitably be replaced by those of another, whether immigration that places groups with competing historical grievances and incompatible cultural ideas in the same space is wise, whether people need examples of positive masculinity or femininity, and various other discussions that might make both feminists and traditionalists equally uncomfortable. 
Bekmambetov avoids those discussions. The director focuses, with one major exception, on whether one person (or both) will discover that the other person on the computer/phone screen is not who he or she claims to be. 
This is intermittently exciting but I think the movie would have been stronger if it included a few of the aforementioned issues. Instead, the film often made the lead actress look dumb. 

Even before Jeffrey Toobin got caught making himself happy on a company Zoom call, I think most people knew that it was smart to keep work and personal id's, phones, and computers separate. 

Saturday, January 1, 2022

Book Reviews: The Figure In The Shadows

The Figure In The Shadows
by John Bellairs
This is a sequel to Bellairs YA novel The House With A Clock In Its Walls, reviewed earlier here. As with the earlier book this is written for children's benefit while still having hints of issues and challenges that will resonate more with adults. 
Because this was a short book at about 150 pages I thought it would be fun to do a quick reread over the winter break and see if it still held up to my childhood impression of it. It did. 
Bellairs anticipated some of the current controversies over gender roles and how nature and nurture shape people.
And just for good measure there's something of a subtle shoutout to Tolkien and even Lovecraft. 
The story's protagonist is once again Lewis Barnavelt, who as in the first story, is an overweight shy boy with a very strong sense of cowardice (polite people would call it self-preservation). An orphan, Lewis lives with his uncle Jonathan Barnavelt. Jonathan's next door neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman, with whom Jonathan may or may not have a thang going on, also looks after Lewis. Jonathan and Mrs. Zimmerman are each powerful magicians, though Mrs. Zimmerman is more skilled.
Lewis has a new friend, Rose Rita Pottinger. 
Rose Rita and Lewis share interests. Rose Rita is in the same grade as Lewis despite being a year older. Rose Rita is a tomboy who never willingly wears skirts and blouses. Rose Rita enjoys rough and tumble sports and doing other activities that are socially unacceptable for girls. Rose Rita even considers getting a crew cut so she can fight without anyone pulling her hair.