Saturday, January 24, 2015

Curiouser and Curiouser


Joni "Get Your Bread Bags On" Ernst
Someone go buy Joni Ernst a pair of new shoes, preferably ones that won't lose their luster in the rain, so she won't need a pair of bread bags to put over them.  Turns out the Ernst family wasn't quite as poor as Joni made them out to be, as her extended family received close to a half million dollars in farm subsidies.  Much of these subsidies came after her heart-tugging childhood years on an Iowa farm, but if true it means that Reagan's America wasn't all it was cracked up to be.  Joni is only 44, not 84, which she sounded like in this pre-recorded speech.  Joni was just one of several Teabaggers to tank in their Post-State-of-the-Union speeches, making it tough for Jon Stewart to decide who to award his annual "Implody" to.

The Republicans have yet to get this SOTU retort right, but in all fairness the Democrats haven't been very good at it in the past either.  It seems it is better to just let the President have his night and go after him on the talk show circuit.  What makes the matter worse is that ever since Marco Rubio's infamous water gaffe the GOP has pre-recorded its "rebuttals," so these speakers are not actually responding to the speech.  Not that they ever did before.

It is more an attempt to get an alternative message out, but when the President takes up close to an hour of air time, who is going to stick around for a rebuttal except die-hard Republicans, who probably skipped his address in the first place.  The Democrats can scoff the next day, which they have done, especially over Joni's stale bread bags.

One-Eyed Harry
But, it wasn't just Republicans who were disgruntled with Obama's SOTU speech.  One-Eyed Harry Reid wants no part of Obama's "fast-track" trade plan, which seemed designed more to appeal to Republicans than to Democrats.  Fast-tracking would allow the President to negotiate international trade agreements without congressional amendment.  Harry wants all international trade agreements to come through Congress, where they stall due to partisan bickering.  Of course, Harry is thinking of the future when we might end up with a President not sympathetic to Democratic interests, as we know Barry only has the best interests of the Democrats in mind.  Wink, wink.

It seemed Harry was no longer relevant until the new Congress broke into pandemonium over an attempt to attach a tax hike to the notorious anti-abortion bill being pushed through the House, revealing a lot of division within the Republican ranks, notably among newly elected women representatives, who felt their male counterparts had gone too far with their pro-life rhetoric.  Now, these GOP women have come under attack from their own right wing.

A slightly less draconian bill ended up getting passed by the House, which could run into trouble in the Senate, where it needs 60 votes.  The Republicans are five votes short.  Unfortunately, Harry seems more concerned about the sport manufacturer of the exercise equipment that nearly put out his eye, considering a law suit against the company.

Bibi Almighty
Making matters worse, the Republicans decided to invite Israeli PM Bibi Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress without informing fellow Democrats or the White House.  I guess they plan this as their ultimate rebuttal to Obama, principally over the sanctions the new Republican Congress wants to levy against Iran over the President's objection.  Even Mossad has come out against the sanctions, much to Bibi's chagrin.

You might recall Bibi's infamous "red line" speech at the UN in 2012.  Iran still doesn't have nuclear weapons.  Obama is hoping that diplomacy will bring Iran to the table, not another round of sanctions, which he highlighted in his SOTU address.  Falling oil prices seem to have hit Iran hard enough as it is.

However, the President might have the last laugh, as Pope Francis has decided to take up Boehner on the invitation he extended to him last March to speak to a joint session of Congress.  After the Cuba deal negotiated by the Vatican, the Pope is no longer quite so revered among Republicans, dumbstruck by his "socialist" agenda.  No doubt Boehner would have liked to retract that invitation, but fortunately for the GOP Francis is not due in America until September.

John Bayy-ner
It's really hard to figure where this new Congress is going.  It appears to be striking out in all directions, hoping to counter Obama in some way that resonates with the people.  Their attacks on the Affordable Care Act have fallen flat, as several red states, most recently Idaho, have not only adopted health insurance exchanges, but have been very successful with enrollments, making any attempt to undercut the program a potential nightmare for the GOP.

More and more it seems that last November was a pyrrhic victory for Republicans as they find themselves boxed in by their own negative rhetoric on a number of issues  that have proven popular with the electorate.  This doesn't bode well for GOP Congressional and state candidates in 2016, much less would-be presidential candidates, forcing them once again to script rebuttals to the State of the Union Address.  Practice makes perfect.


Friday, January 23, 2015

The World of Wes Anderson, Part I

The Stamp Collector



You would probably never know it but Wes Anderson is from Houston, Texas.  It was at UT Austin that he met Owen Wilson and the two teamed up to create Bottle Rocket, which die-hard Anderson fans still regard as his best movie.  Almost 20 years later, Wes is in the running for Best Director and his film, Grand Hotel Budapest is up for Best Film.

It seems that he has finally reached that rarified air of Hollywood, yet he released the film back in March so that it would be available for the spring film festivals, not Oscar consideration.  But, then came an unexpected Golden Globe win for best comedy film, as well as numerous awards for best screenplay, and this film became the talk of Tinseltown. 

His films have been nominated for Academy awards before, largely for his scripts which are the cornerstone of his productions.  You don't see much great writing today in Hollywood.  Films tend to rely largely on actors' performances, case in point Silver Linings Playbook from 2012.  But, there is something special in all of Wes' films as he explores new terrain each and every time, yet finds a way to make it intimately accessible.

I think this is largely because his films grow out of childhood fantasies, even Grand Hotel Budapest, which is more how a young American would imagine the old Austro-Hungarian Empire than it is how it was.  He based his script on the stories of Stefan Zweig, but this is mostly Wes re-imagining the world Zweig lived in, giving it a rich sense of color and absurdity that has become the hallmark of all his films.


Leafing through Wes' monograph from a couple years ago, you see an auteur who reveled in sea monkeys, scale models, and stamps as a kid.  This comes across in his movies as well.  This book takes you up to the making of Moonrise Kingdom, which is essentially a children's story for adults.

Wes's films have traditionally dealt with misplaced youths, which may have been the way he felt growing up in Texas.  The Royal Tenenbaums is probably the closest thing to an autobiography, as he deals with divorce and its aftermath, which presumably reflects to some degree the divorce of his parents when he was eight years old.  He echoes a similar theme in The Darjeeling Limited.   Both are very serious films, although he doesn't lose sight of the humor in many of the situations he sets up.

Films can become a form of therapy for some directors.  This is how Alejandro Jodorkowsky describes his work.  You get the sense that Wes Anderson goes through a similar catharsis in his movies, even an ostensibly children's story like The Fantastic Mr. Fox.  The film takes the classic Roald Dahl story as a jumping off point for much larger themes, using humor to disguise the pathos of his characters.

This was particularly true in Bottle Rocket, in which Owen Wilson gave his most convincing performance as a two-bit hood unable to confront his own insecurities.  I think Anderson appeals more to Gen X'ers than he does Millennials, which I suppose is why he is finally getting the attention he deserves.  After all, Gen X'ers now form a significant portion of the body of the Academy, and so we see more films to their liking making the cut.

It also helps that he is drawing actors as diverse as Bill Murray, Angelica Huston, Adrian Brody, Ed Norton, Frances McDormand, Bruce Willis, Willem Dafoe, Tilda Swinton, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel and Ralph Feinnes to his movies.  Everyone wants to be in a Wes Anderson movie these days, and his growing cavalcade of actors was on full display in Grand Hotel Budapest, which was fitting given films like Hotel, which similarly had all-star casts back in the 1960s.


Thursday, January 22, 2015

Sadr City Blues



It seems that American Sniper is now a cultural phenomenon, hitting a huge target audience much like Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ.  Only this time Hollywood gets to rake in the cash as this is a Warner Bros' production not an independent project like Passion was.  Hollywood would have nothing to to do with Mel's "passion play."

Matt Taibbi tees off on American Sniper, which the Rolling Stone resident movie critic, Peter Travers, did not.  Seems Pete bought into all the hokum, whereas Matt sees the film as a "well-lit fairy tale with the nutritional value of a fortune cookie."  Matt goes onto note how such films deflect attention from the real story behind these wars, noting how the plethora of Vietnam War movies in the 80s focused on the hardships of returning soldiers rather than the mess we left behind in Vietnam, much less the motivations that led to the war.  Here we are 30 years later doing the same thing once again, extolling the virtues of our men in uniform without pondering for one moment the sad reality in places like Sadr City, where much of the action in this movie took place.

One of the few movies to capture the tragedy of Vietnam was Full Metal Jacket, which similarly dealt with a sniper, this time on the other side.  A group of American soldiers were literally pinned down by a lone Vietcong sniper in a painful ordeal that really made you wince.  You still come out of the movie feeling more for the American GIs than you do the teenage girl sniper, but at least you aren't left gushing, as has been the case with American Sniper.

It helped having Michael Herr write the script for Full Metal Jacket.  His Dispatches from Vietnam are widely regarded as the best reporting to come out of the war.  He also helped write the script for Apocalypse Now.  Unfortunately, neither Chris Kyle nor Jason Hall, who adapted the autobiography for the screen, are up to Herr's level.  Whereas Chris regaled in his many kills and other brazen acts, Hall shapes the sniper's exploits into a traditional narrative broken into four parts (coinciding with each of Kyle's tours) that have Chris pitted against the opposition's top sniper, Mustafa.


As Taibbi notes, there is virtually no backstory here, at least in regard to the war.  Instead, we get domestic fillers, somewhat like Homeland, that are meant to show the difficulties Kyle has adjusting back into civilian life.  These scenes are so weak that you want to fast forward through them, as they serve nothing more than to accentuate Kyle's "humble" nature and further elevate his stature.

Clint dodges all the hard questions, making this film into a generic Hollywood production meant to make audiences feel good about themselves.  This is a shame, because Clint is usually able to at least hint at the dark side, but the murkiest scene you get in this film is toward the end when Chris and a small squad find themselves pinned down on a roof top with an approaching "desert storm" that forces them to scramble for safety as they were outgunned by a swarm of enemy combatants.

Kyle finally seems forced to confront the reality of the war, but instead of spending time reflecting on it, he drowns his sorrows in a bar, not yet ready to face his family.  Clint spends no time on the events that led to Kyle's death.  He assumes the audience knows what happened, fast forwarding to the memorial that was held for the fallen hero at Dallas Cowboy Stadium.  We now have the death and transfiguration of Chris Kyle into an American icon, as only Hollywood can do.

The movie has also been handsomely rewarded by the Academy with six Oscar nominations, including Best Film and Best Actor, and Clint has earned a Directors Guild nomination for Best Director.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Turning the Page



It seems the Republicans aren't the only ones reacting to President Obama's annual State of the Union Address.  Russian officials took exception to it as well.  Obama did mention the impact sanctions were having against Russia, as well as note how the Republican naysayers felt Putin had gotten the upper hand on him diplomatically.  However, the bulk of the speech was about American domestic policy, not foreign policy.

The President offered some very tempting proposals, notably covering the first two years of community college, echoing the GI Bill from 1944.  With so many Americans forced to make readjustments, he felt that the nation should follow in the steps of Tennessee and Chicago in covering initial academic costs.  He used Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis as his prototypical family forced to rethink their situation in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis, comparing America to "a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times."

Obama has often used a selected American family as the base for his speeches on domestic policy, inviting them to Congress to hear his speech.  It helps to bring his points home, but not everyone identifies with his SOTU speeches.  This year's opposition voice was Joni Ernst, the incoming Senator from Iowa, who Republicans felt would resonate with their base.

She took a softer tone than past junior senators.  However, she responded less to the speech than she did the "mandate" she felt Republicans won in November.  She added quite a bit of personal history, telling us of her hardscrabble life in Iowa.  At least, she outshone Ted Cruz who went for a live response on Youtube that backfired terribly.

We are less than two weeks into the new Congressional session and the Republicans are still trying to shove the Keystone pipeline down our throats, despite historic low gas prices that further call into question the merits of such an endeavor.  Obama tried to encourage the Republicans to think large, and work with Democrats to improve American infrastructure as a whole, but it seems that the GOP is more indebted to its Super PACs than it is the American people.

The theme that resonated trough out Obama's SOTU address was that of "middle-class economics."  He clearly wants to expand opportunities for the working class by increasing minimum wage, providing sick and maternity leave, offering better health, education and welfare benefits, and easing their tax burden.  To do this he called for a tax increase on the rich and on capital gains, spread out over 10 years.  It is an ambition plan, but one not likely to gain much traction in Congress.  However, as John Cassidy notes, is sure to set the stage for the 2016 elections.

Obama knows all too well that the initiatives he outlined aren't likely to be heard by the Republican majority in Congress, but he went a long way in setting the narrative for the next election.  Something the Democrats have failed to do in the recent past.  In the meantime, he will continue to use his executive authority to carry out as much of his agenda as he can, to the chagrin of Republicans who now view him as an emperor-in-chief.

What struck me the most was the President's positive tone.  He looked more comfortable in front of an audience than he has done in years.  He even joked with his adversaries and got the last laugh.  You get the sense of a President running the last lap of a grueling race and seeing a way to end his administration on a high note.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Wasted Away Again in Bubbaville




Mike Huckabee seems to believe there are two worlds -- Bubbleville and Bubbaville.  As you might imagine, the real people live in Bubbaville, while those out of touch with reality live in "Bubbles" like New York and Washington and Los Angeles.  Jon Stewart was surprisingly patient with the Reverend Huck until it came to the matter of Beyonce.

For someone who says that Beyonce is not his biggest concern, he sure spends a lot of time talking about her.  Jon noted the hypocrisy in calling out the pop diva when Huck likes to hobnob with the Nuge, who isn't exactly the most wholesome of celebrities. But, Huck wasn't going to be deterred.  In his mind, Beyonce represents a far more pernicious influence since she is so popular among impressionable teenage girls, notably the Obama daughters.

Huckabee, like other conservative pundits, has been actively criticizing the Obamas' parenting skills as of late, believing that they are failing their children as badly as they are failing the country.  It has become a full fledged culture war drawn along political lines, as he hasn't been as outspoken about Britney Spears, who has shown her support for conservative leaders like George Bush.  No mention of how she might have perversely affected conservative daughters with her questionable antics.

Jon tried to point out that we all live in our "Bubbles" -- worlds that we create for ourselves, often oblivious to the broader context, but for Huck the East Coast elite just doesn't get the folks of his "Bubbaville."  He means to set the record straight with his new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, although he might have thought about adding Greed.  

It seems he is in the business of selling images just as much as Madison Avenue, although his are homespun ones that he thinks will appeal to religious conservative voters across the country as he prepares for a presidential bid in 2016.  Why else would he even have agreed to go on The Daily Show?

For six-and-a-half years he has been cultivating this image on Fox News, after his failed bid in 2008. Huck thought about running in 2012, but I guess didn't think he had the wellspring of support he needed to battle Romney a second time around.  After all, it takes big bucks to mount a presidential campaign.  With religious conservatives clamoring for one of their own this time around, Huck thinks he's the one.  After all, the other "anointed" ones like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul went to Harvard and Duke, which would be elitist "Bubbles" in his mind.



In case your curious, Huck graduated from Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas.  He attended a theological seminary in Fort Worth, Texas for one year before joining televangelist James Robison.  He blended religion with politics seamlessly,   He served as Lt. Governor of Arkansas for 3 years, and with the help of Dick Morris won the Governor's seat in 1996, which he served until running for President.

You get the sense that what might be really driving him is resentment, as he doesn't get the recognition of his predecessor Bill Clinton, who graduated from Georgetown, another one of those "Bubbles."  But, if there is anything Huck learned from all his years preaching to the faithful is never to show that resentment.

He held his own against Jon Stewart even if his argument that Beyonce is little more than a glorified pole dancer fell flat.  I wonder what he would think of the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, who have long held Bubbaville boys' imaginations?  I guess that's OK, since these boys don't aspire to be cheerleaders but rather to bag one like they would a prize deer.

One could get into the whole idea of "trophy wives," which is pervasive in Bubbaville, but I doubt that Huck covers this theme in his new book.  Instead, he relishes in the homespun homilies that have become his staple of conversation.   He knows to keep it light, just like on Dallas, Dukes of HazzardDesigning Women, and any number of other television shows set in Bubbaville over the years.  Sorry, Huck, we know all about Bubbaville.  There isn't anything new you can tell us.


It's the Economy, Stupid!

The "TurtleBrag" Economic Theory



After six long years of sitting on the sidelines and claiming that Obama has been taking the economy to hell in a hand basket, the Republicans are now trying to claim that their stunning takeover of Congress in November was all it took to reverse the numbers.  This bold gambit initiated by the new Senate majority leader is falling flat but don't expect the GOP to let it go.  Now that they "are in charge" you can expect a whole lot of undeserved credit being meted out to themselves.

The conservative narrative remains that Obama is a failure.  Rep. Andy Harris claims that the President doesn't understand the economy with his latest proposal to soak the rich, finding a friendly audience at Fox.  Meanwhile, the the Republican House, with 20 or more Democrats in tow, passed a bill to ease banking restrictions, exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.  It may clear the new Senate by the thinnest of margins but it is unlikely to survive a presidential veto.

Sadly, the Republicans are up to their same old tricks, trying to push for even broader tax cuts in the wake of state fiscal crises like that in Kansas, which saw their "tax-free zone experiment" fail miserably.  The amazing part is that the overall economy has managed to improve despite so many states lagging behind.

This is in large part due to the active involvement of the Federal Reserve, which the Obama administration has worked with to continue to provide stimuli long after his signature Stimulus Bill ran out in 2011.  This economic recovery has absolutely nothing to do with Republican policies on the state level, which have seen Draconian budget cuts fail to alleviate the shortfall in state revenue due to tax cuts.  In fact, states like Kansas have had to rely on Federal assistance to cover their growing debts, essentially making them debtor states.

That doesn't stop the Republicans from trying to set the narrative once again.  They rely on an audience that is oblivious to economic reality and is gullible enough to buy into their rhetoric.  The GOP hasn't changed its message since 1980, still believing in Reaganomics despite the huge economic disparities it has left in its wake.

Since Republicans refuse to work with Democrats on meaningful economic reforms, the Obama administration has to resort to executive actions coordinated with the Federal Reserve to keep the economy moving.  Never has their been such a shortfall in federal revenue in relation to expenses, yet somehow this administration has managed to bring down the annual budget deficit significantly since it first assumed a roughly one trillion annual deficit in its first year due to TARP and the Stimulus Bill.  For whatever reason this goes largely unreported.  Many persons still believe there is an exploding national debt, when it has been managed the best it could be managed given the lack of tax revenue.

Republicans had been willing to work with Clinton in his second term to reduce the budget deficits and spur the economy, which proved beneficial to them in the 2000 and 2002 elections.  But, here they are still bucking the President, determined to present self-defeating legislation that in all likelihood will lead to a stunning electoral reversal two years from now.

As the old adage goes, you can fool all the people some of the time (in a midterm election year where less than 40 per cent of the electorate voted) but you can't fool all the people all the time (in a presidential election year where 60 per cent of the electorate is expected to vote),  McConnell can say what he wants but this is an economy recovery despite Republican best efforts to the contrary.



Friday, January 16, 2015

You're so vain



It has really been amazing watching the backlash to the Charlie Hebdo shooting.  It brings to mind Carly Simon's classic song from the 70s, You're so vain.  You would think the shooting took place at the Harvard Lampoon Building, given the strange sense of intimacy American television pundits have with the incident.  I don't think it is because they have any special sense of camaraderie with the French.  After all, the French didn't stand behind us when we went to war in Iraq, supposedly to rid the world permanently of such acts of violence.

Here we are 12 years later and we've come no closer to ridding the world of petty despots, much less terrorist cells in our midst.  If anything, the danger is now much more diffuse and harder to contain than it ever was before, given the number of homegrown jihadis who the news media has covered, such as Jihad Jane, apprehended in 2009 and finally sentenced to 10 years in prison for joining al Qaeda.

This is nothing new.  Back in the 70s there were similar high profile cases such as Patty Hearst, who joined the Symbionese Liberation Army and went by the code name Tania.  The SLA had adopted the "Black Power" ideology, funding itself through bank robberies.  There were the Weathermen too, who likewise identified themselves with the Black Power movement and opposition to the Vietnam War.  Several of the members blew themselves up in a Greenwhich Village apartment trying to make a homemade bomb.  They were apparently preparing to bomb a US military installation.

You never really know how dangerous these groups are.  Some of the situations, like that of the notorious shoe bomber, seem like SNL skits gone bad.  Richard Reid didn't get off as lucky as Jihad Jane, serving a life sentence in "supermax" federal prison in Colorado.  Others like the Charlie Hebdo attack are ruthlessly executed, so you have to prepare yourself for the worst, which is why there has been a massive crackdown on suspected terror cells across Europe.  I imagine right-wing pundits would love to see similar raids in the United States.

What stunned me was the reaction by many conservative pundits and politicians to President Obama not attending the march in Paris this past week, with some going so far as to brandish him as "Hitler" for taking a pass.  Rep. Randy Weber has since apologized for his reprehensible comment, but of course that didn't stop CNN from castigating the White House for not sending a high ranking official in the President's place.

The Paris March was a spur of the moment thing with mostly European leaders in attendance, although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to come after being expressly asked by French President Francois Hollande not to come, afraid the outspoken Israeli leader might fan the flames of violence with an unwanted speech.  Well, the American press is doing a pretty good job of that, claiming Muslim nations are not doing enough to denounce violence.

Hamas has denounced the attack on Charlie Hebdo.  There was also a rally in Ramallah on the West Bank in unity with the Paris March.  But, this doesn't suit the American narrative.  We have taken the Charlie Hebdo attack as if it was committed on our home soil, with right wing calls for an even greater police state.  Former New York Gov. Rudy G. even called for police presence inside all Muslim places of worship.  Mind boggling!

In the conservative American mind today, all Muslims are one in the same, including those with Muslim names like our Commander-in-Chief.  He moreso than anyone is not to be trusted, as Rep. Randy Weber made perfectly clear, and it is up to the new Republican Congress to reign him in before he makes any more outrageous executive orders that would threaten our national security.  It would be comical if these lunatics didn't take themselves so deathly seriously.

No, Rupert, this shooting wasn't about you!  But, if there is one thing the old geezer of tabloid news knows, there is a lot of media copy to be sold in the wake of this tragedy.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Clint Eastwood's America, Part IV

Everyone Loves Clint


Clint and Frankie Valli on the set of Jersey Boys
We can only hope that American Sniper isn't Clint's final statement.  One of the problems with doing a biopic on a figure that is a right wing icon is that you have to keep pretty much to the story.  There wasn't much room, nor does it appear much attempt, to place Chris Kyle within a larger context.  He remains an "American hero."  Clint seems perfectly fine with that.

Just the same, Clint is being lauded for his efforts with a Director's Guild nomination, and an Oscar nomination for the movie.  Everyone loves Clint.  Pauline Kael is no longer around to call his motivations into question, although Amy Nicholson makes a game effort in her review for The Village Voice.

We seem to need Clint almost as much as we need these war movies.  He has become an American icon himself, as witnessed in 2012 when he was called on to give a speech at the Republican National Convention.  It didn't turn out very well, but just the same his presence lent an air of nobility to the event that was otherwise lacking.

Even though he has never strayed very far from his conservative roots, he is as much loved on the left as he on the right of the political spectrum, with Bill Clinton honoring Eastwood for his lifetime of achievements in 2000.  Donald Sutherland was on hand, reminiscing of the time they worked together on Kelly's Heroes back in 1970.  Probably the best tribute was that of Jim Carrey a few years before at the American Film Institute.

It is easy to forget just how many projects Clint has worked on over the years.  I remember Thunderbolt and Lightfoot from 1974.  This was Michael Cimino's directorial debut.  Cimino had written the script for Magnum Force and was considered a budding young talent.  The action flick also featured a young Jeff Bridges as Clint's sidekick.  It's interesting in that it is one of the few times Clint was a "bad guy."

He doesn't show any signs of slowing down.  He did two films this year, although most have already forgotten Jersey Boys.  It seems he has laid his quintessential characters to rest.  Pretty hard to top Unforgiven, and we certainly don't need anymore reprises of Dirty Harry.

He appears to enjoy working with Hollywood's A-listers today, as they do working with him.  J. Edgar didn't seem to quite work out.  It was like he was trying to find something inside the notorious FBI director that we all missed but it was pretty much a costume drama.


It would be better if Clint stayed away from the biopics.  It really isn't his thing.  His best characters are long and lean, drifting on the edge of the great American frontier, leaving it to our imagination to fill them out.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Charlie Hebdo and a society of perpetual violence



It will probably take much longer to sort out the motives of the gunmen who brutally assaulted Charlie Hebdo than it has to hunt them down.  Of course, some news agencies haven't wasted any time coming up with motives and issuing a call to arms as fear spread quickly of similar attacks in the United States.

Not like the US has been immune to such attacks.  The Boston Marathon bombing was eerily similar, even if the loss of life was substantially less.  It created an even greater panic with the city essentially shut down for a week, as police combed everywhere in the greater metropolitan region for the Tsarnaev brothers, gunning down one and eventually finding the other holed up in a boat in the backyard of someone's house.

By contrast, the manhunt for the Kouachi brothers was much faster and efficient.  French police just didn't factor in another pair of extremists wreaking havoc in the city, holding up a kosher market that led to a bloody shootout, which left four more Parisians dead, in addition the killer of a police woman the day before, who was purportedly demanding the release of the Kouachi Brothers in return for the hostages.

I think that in the end we will see that these deeply disturbed persons were driven more by delusions of grandeur than some great plot against the Western world.  Of course we enjoy our conspiracy theories, so the media will indulge in them for weeks if not months to come.

It reminds me a lot of Dostoevsky's Demons, a novel set in late 19th century Russia, where an Anarchist cell plots similar terror activities.  In fact, this whole radical Islamic movement has much less to do with Islam than it does with old fashioned Anarchy, fostered in countries like France, Russia and the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, using questionable imams as "spiritual leaders," when in reality all they want is to create chaos in the world and hope to impose their archaic political will on failed states like Afghanistan.

If the motive was to shut down Charlie Hebdo, the Kouachi brothers failed miserably as more persons have become interested in the French satirical magazine than ever before.  Their cartoons are all over the Internet and publications will soon follow.  The magazine itself boosted next week's circulation from 60,000 to one million copies, a whopping 17 fold.  Back issues will most likely be made available to the broader public as well.  Wolinski's daughter, Elsa, summed it up best when she said it was her father that was killed, not his ideas.

Of course, you can say the same for these extremist individuals, regardless of their religious or political creed, as the same nutcases remain on the fringe waiting for their moment to strike terror into the heart of society.  We have seen this time and again in the United States, going back to the Anarchist movements, but more recently in the Oklahoma City bombing that left over 150 persons dead.  This brazen act was carried out by Christian fundamentalists who said they were avenging the ATF seige of the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, that left over 70 persons dead.

You never know when these demented persons are going to strike.  You can keep track of suspected extremists, as the US did with many of the persons who took part in the 911 attacks, and as the French had the Kouachi brothers, but until these "demons" physically do something against the state you can't apprehend them.  The key is not to lose sight of them.  According to Richard Clarke in his book, Against All Enemies, the Bush administration had similarly dropped the ball on the persons who were involved in the well-organized attack of 911.

Yet, the right wing of American politics takes this assault, as they have other attacks in the past, as a condemnation of liberal values, even going so far as to call for more militarization in our society, as if we haven't seen enough already in Ferguson, Missouri.  It just makes you wonder who benefits most from these attacks, as right wing conservatives see such attacks as a call to arms.






Friday, January 9, 2015

Clint Eastwood's America, Part III

Melodrama in B flat



Every once in awhile the old cowboy could lay his hat down and play a more sensitive role or indulge in a personal project like Bird, the story of Charlie Parker.  Eastwood has a genuine passion for jazz music.  His son Kyle is an accomplished jazz bassist, leading his own band.  Kyle has even helped score some of his father's movies, including Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, and was featured in the "Stork Club Band" in J. Edgar.

Clint plays piano himself, and did the segment "Piano Blues" for Martin Scorsese's PBS documentary on The Blues.  He had previously produced a documentary on Thelonious Monk, built around the great pianist's signature song, Straight No Chaser.  Unfortunately, Clint wasn't as successful with Bird, choosing to indulge in Charlie Parker's slow decay as a result of his heroin addiction, morosely played by Forest Whitaker.

The venerable actor came into adulthood after World War II, growing up in the San Francisco Bay area and spending a brief time in Seattle before being drafted into the US Army.  He was stationed stateside during the Korean War.  He did find himself in troubled water when the bomber he was riding in went down off the coast of Port Reyes, and he and the pilot had to swim 3 miles to shore, according to biographers.


Play Misty for Me was set in Carmel-by-the Sea, which he had made his home. It was Clint's first directorial effort, the same year he unveiled Dirty Harry.  While the film has a way of lulling you to sleep in what appears to be a romance between a dapper disc jockey and a young woman (Jessica Walter) he meets in a bar, it took on a more sinister tone when Evelyn reveals a personality disorder that soon became quite menacing.  "Misty" serves as the haunting refrain.

I suppose Clint needed a heightened dramatic angle for his stories.  He wasn't content to let them simply play out in three-quarter's time.  He did try in The Bridges of Madison County, but it was an abysmal failure.  He had very little to work with here as the book was so threadbare.  Rather than add to the story, Clint chose to reduce it even further, resulting in a great void that not even Meryl Streep could fill.  Maybe if she had gone schizo in the end it might have helped.

Clint finally seemed to hit his mark in Mystic River.  The movie was a very dark drama built around a murder that pits three childhood friends, who have taken very different paths, against each other.  It has the investigative quality of his early cop films, allowing him to navigate familiar terrain, but the focus is principally on the relationship between the three friends and how it ultimately comes undone.


He is at his best when exploring dark characters, which helps explain why he chose to explore the dark side of Charlie Parker, rather than the charismatic side which most people know.  He won his second Oscar for Million Dollar Baby, which gave us a pair of washed-up boxing coaches looking for one last shot at redemption in a young woman fighter.  Critical approval wasn't unanimous, and you got the feeling Clint got the Oscar more because he had been overlooked for Mystic River the year before, but he found himself up against Lord of the Rings.

Is this darkness a director's conceit or does it represent the dark world he imagines the United States has become?  This looks to be what he depicted in A Perfect World, with his cinematic heir apparent Kevin Costner in the lead role.  All the talismans are there from Clint's past, with a young boy to soak it all in like a great life lesson.  Clint suitably provides the role of law and order in Sheriff Red Garnett

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Clint Eastwood's America, Part II

The Dirty Harry Years



Sergio Leone once said Clint Eastwood had two expressions, "one with the hat, one without it."  He apparently meant it as a compliment but it helps to distinguish (if we can call it that) his move from "the man with no name" to Dirty Harry.

Essentially, they are one in the same character, except that his lead character now has a name to go with the face and is planted firmly on the side of justice.  Of course, you can make the argument that Clint represented "Good" in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but there was far more ambiguity to Leone's classic western than there was to the Dirty Harry series, which gave us the quintessential "badass cop."

Clint took over the Dirty Harry project when Warner Brothers failed to get the actor the studio initially wanted for the role.  Eastwood insisted on a leaner meaner Harry Callahan, clearing out all the excess baggage studio bosses imagined in the film.  To make the character "complex," Harry was a bit of a rogue cop.  He did things his way, defying petty regulations, like Miranda rights, as he went after the bad guys with his 44 Magnum, which he subsequently made famous.

The bare bones dialog of the character further endeared him to audiences, much as had John Wayne's similarly limited vocabulary.  You can say both rewrote Teddy Roosevelt's famous maxim, "walk softly and carry a big gun."  Harry was The Enforcer, which was the title of the third installment.  Pauline Kael called the character "fascist," saying the initial movie was nothing more than a "right wing fantasy."  Her bitter review earned more scorn from reviewers than did the movie.  However, she was spot on.

She was even more harsh in her critique of Dirty Harry in the second installment, Magnum Force, saying that Clint had further removed any human feeling from the action melodrama, making it an "almost abstract exercise in brutalization," even though his principal targets were vigilante police officers (not much unlike himself) who act as a modern-day "Untouchables."  He was even regarded as a "hero" by one of the young officers played by David Soul, who would go on to star in the television series Starsky and Hutch.

Whether Clint intended Dirty Harry to be a political statement or not, he became one.  Clint would revive the role four times over two decades, and one can argue that his character, Walt Kowalski, in Gran Torino, is just an older version of Harry Callahan.  Clearly, Clint is comfortable with this role, saying he was doing a picture about the plight of the victim.

The success of the franchise allowed him to bankroll other projects closer to his heart like Play Misty for Me, but it was still Clint without a hat.  Even in his comedies he remained the same weather-beaten cowboy in a beat-up old truck, as was the case in Every Which Way but Loose, but it was nice to think he didn't take himself too seriously.

While many regarded Unforgiven as a "shift" in Eastwood's ouvre, questioning the machismo that had so dominated his earlier efforts, that bravado seemed tempered by age more so than introspection.  He wasn't that far removed from his "Dirty Harry" persona as seen in his follow-up film, In the Line of Fire, hunting down an elusive assassin, played by John Malkovich, which was pretty much the same plot as in the initial Dirty Harry 22 years before.

He had moved from the Nixon years to the end of the Reagan-Bush era with pretty much the same fixation on law and order.  Clint kept his politics relatively close to his sleeve, so reviewers were left to gauge how much of himself he put into his roles.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Clint Eastwood's America, Part I




With the release of American Sniper, Clint Eastwood takes yet another stab at a war movie, albeit of a different nature than Letters from Iwo Jima.  This film is closer to Heartbreak Ridge, his forgotten movie about the invasion of Grenada in 1983.  Clint can always be counted on to support the conservative cause even if there is a sufficient hint of ambiguity in his movies to make you think he is calling the motives into question.  The sad part is that he isn't.

From the accounts I've read he is providing a straight up version of Chris Kyle's autobiography of the same name.  Kyle is a contentious figure in that he is America's most decorated sniper with over 250 "probable kills" while serving in Iraq.  He was apparently known as the "Devil of Ramadi" for his body count and had a bounty put on his head, further endearing him to American conservatives.  Unfortunately, Chris got taken out by a young ex-marine, Eddie Ray Routh, at a shooting range in Erath County, Texas, which was an ill-advised move given Routh's mental state.

I don't know how deep Eastwood goes into Kyle's character and to be honest I don't really care because I don't regard Kyle as a hero and don't think a movie needed to be made about him.  He was a troubled man who probably needed psychological treatment himself but became embraced by the right wing media with a star-studded memorial held in Dallas Cowboy Stadium following his death.

America has developed a love affair with Navy Seals, who have been on the front line of the "War on Terror" since its inception.  We shouldn't expect Clint to call these special operations into question anymore than he did the faux war in Grenada, which he essentially used as a backdrop for a war buddy movie.  This is probably what you can expect from American Sniper.


Clint is a hard man to pin down.  He has worked the better part of his life making himself look inscrutable, whether in front or behind the camera.  Sergio Leone was the one to rescue him from B-movies like Revenge of the Creature and make him into an outlaw with no name in his "spaghetti westerns," culminating in The Good Bad and the Ugly.  What's ironic is that these films were made during the time of the Vietnam War and to some degree Leone was capturing that sense of moral ambiguity in his films, most notably Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he used Charles Bronson and not Clint Eastwood.

When Clint returned to the western genre in High Plains Drifter you might have been fooled into thinking that Eastwood had a similar sense of moral ambiguity about the times, but it was the character more than the broader themes that attracted Clint.  Once again he has no name, but he is clearly on the side of good this time, even if we can imagine a checkered past.  He would offer the same character again in Pale Rider.  It was only in Unforgiven that we might be tempted to think Eastwood was calling this nameless hero into question, winning an Oscar for direction.

For me, Unforgiven was a dark comedy.  I don't know if it was intended that way, but the idea of three such disparate gunmen coming together to rid a small western town of a corrupt sheriff, memorably played by Gene Hackman, had much more humor than pathos.  In fact there was very little pathos until Morgan Freedman's character was made an example by "Little" Bill Daggett for any man who would defy his orders.  Naturally, Clint's character carries out the requisite vengeance, needing no support, which makes you wonder why he had Ned and the Kid tag along to begin with.


I suppose a good sniper needs a good point man.  At least that's what we have learned from other movies about American snipers like Jarhead, which was based on Anthony Swofford's memoirs of the war in Iraq.  You would be forgiven if you don't remember him since he didn't become a right wing icon like Chris Kyle.  Swofford has drifted to the left politically, questioning the motivations of the ongoing "War on Terror" in this and other books.

It seems neither Chris Kyle nor Bradley Cooper, who bought the movie rights to the book, was going to let Anthony Swofford or Sam Mendes, who directed Jarhead, have the last word on Iraq, and so Brad and Clint have fashioned a movie that puts American muscle on full display, with Brad adding 40 pounds and an impressive set of abs for the role.  If you expect a hint of irony from Clint you will most likely be disappointed.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

So long, Bess



Bess Myerson had a life far beyond Miss America, which we won in 1945, just days after Japan surrendered to end World War II.  It is indeed rare that we have such transcendent figures in pop culture.  Bess was active in so many ways from her career as a concert pianist to her role as New York's first consumer affairs commissioner, with stops at "The Big Payoff" and "I've Got a Secret" along the way.  She also served three presidents, including Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.  Most beauty contestants talked about ending world hunger, Bess actually did something about it.

She ran for the Senate seat from New York in 1980, but lost in the Democratic primary to Elizabeth Holtzman, who would lose to Alfonse D'Amato in the general election.  Ed Koch brought her into his administration after she had actively campaigned for him, but scandal brought an end to her role as commissioner of cultural affairs -- the so-called "Bess Mess."  Sadly, it clouded an otherwise stellar career.

She even wrote a book, The I (Love) NY Diet, although it too came under attack for creating unrealistic expectations.

Many of us don't come to know these significant figures until their deaths.  She had been out of the public spotlight for decades, the subject more of trivia contests, being the first Jewish Miss America, than given credit for all the things she did. Bess was proud of her Jewish heritage, refusing to change her name for the Miss America contest.  She actively supported the Anti-Defamation League and raising money for the new state of Israel in the 1940s.  She was revered in Israel as much as she was New York.




Monday, January 5, 2015

R U Ready to Rumble!



2015 is shaping up to be a very contentious year as the new Republican-led Congress is sworn in.  Added to the melee are a majority of state governors and legislatures who vow to pass even more conservative legislation.  This is what you get when you decide to sit out an election year as many voters did in 2014.

Much hinges on the King v. Burwell case brought before the Supreme Court.  This is a case that should have been thrown out, as its premise relies on the literal interpretation of the Affordable Care Act in which only those who purchased insurance from state-run exchanges are eligible for subsidies.  This would rule out a significant number of persons who purchased their insurance through the federal health insurance exchange since most Republican states refused to set up their own exchanges.

This case illustrates just how low Republicans will go to defeat the ACA, as it has to be one of the pettiest cases ever brought before the USSC.  The vote comes down to Roberts or Kennedy, as you can bet that Scalia, Alito and Thomas will all vote the conservative line.  If the subsidies are voted down this will be a major strike against the ACA, and greatly encourage the Republican-led Congress and red state governments to try to drive the final nails into the coffin of "Obamacare," putting Obama on his heels as he desperately tries to salvage what is left of the federal program.

If the subsidies are upheld, Congress will have to shift gears and focus on immigration, which it has deferred for a year and a half.  Here we see strong divisions within the Republican party, as there are those who want to see meaningful reform and would likely work with Democrats to reach a compromise solution to the impasse over the Senate bill passed in June, 2013.  The major roadblock will be in the House, which is even more conservative than it was last year with none other than Louie Gohmert challenging John Boehner for House Speaker.

Best case scenario for the Democrats is that this infighting splits the Republicans in two or more parts making it difficult for Boehner and McConnell to lead their majorities.  The Republicans can no longer hold the White House hostage over a spending bill, so Obama would be able to continue using executive orders to carry through on his domestic agenda.  This would allow him to complete the "arcs" his administration set 6 years ago and leave a substantial legacy.

However, you can bet that McConnell and Boehner will do everything in their power to make that as difficult as possible.  First on deck -- Keystone XL, which has been a Republican pipedream for six years.  Mitch is banking on enough Democratic turncoats to override a presidential veto.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Death and the Maidan




Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the movie theater, Uncle Ollie is planning another hard hitting mockumentary on an alleged CIA coup in Ukraine, which led to the downfall of Viktor Yanukovych.  Remember him?

Ollie was in Moscow interviewing the former president for a documentary allegedly produced by "Ukranians."  One can only assume these Ukranians are based in Donetsk, as Yanukovych is generally seen as persona non grata after fleeing the country in the wake of the protests in the Maidan Nezalezhnosti back in February, 2014.  One look at all the portraits to himself is reason to understand why he is held in such low regard.

He's been hiding out in Moscow, believing himself to be the president in exile.  Apparently, Viktor wasn't Ollie's first choice in subject matter, as he initially wanted to build his new documentary around Vladimir Putin.  You might remember from his Untold History of the United States, which was aired on Showtime, that Stone has a soft spot for Soviet and Russian leaders, long believing that the US pushed the Soviet Union into a corner and that American presidents should be held accountable for the Cold War, not Soviet and Russian leaders.

It all becomes quite amusing after awhile.  It is hard to believe there are many persons left who take Oliver Stone seriously.  He has been pushing conspiracy theories for decades, notably his take on the assassination of JFK.  He upped the ante ten fold (literally) in his ten-part series on the "Untold History" of America, which gave us the bleakest view imaginable of the country in the wake of World War II.  In his addled mind, the US with the aid of Britain has been undermining the free world for decades.  Our last best hope for salvation came with the ascension of Mikhail Gorbachev in the 1980s, who could have brought world peace, had not the Soviet Union splintered apart despite his well meaning Perestroika and Glasnost.

Accordiing to Uncle Ollie, "CIA fingerprints" were all over the sniper shootings in the Maidan that left protesters, cops and innocent bystanders dead.  The order to fire never came from Yanukovych, according to Yanukovych, and he fled the country because he felt he would have never gotten a fair trial.

One certainly can suspect the US had a role in the uprising, as Ukraine has been a post-Cold War battleground since the collapse of the Soviet Union.  Russia, the EU and the United States have been vying for the affections of the country, as it represents a major strategic position in this geopolitical world.  However, the main reason for the uprising back in the winter of 2013-14 was Yanukovych's decision to back out of a comprehensive trade agreement with the EU.

Vladimir Putin was too busy with Sochi at the time, staging the most expensive Winter Olympic Games ever held in an effort to showcase the economic and athletic might of Russia.  He pumped some $50 billion in the resort town, massively upgrading the infrastructure as well as building beautiful new venues for the games.  The last thing he wanted to deal with was an unruly Ukraine, but events in the Maidan forced his hand.

It would be interesting to get a non-biased account of what has transpired in Ukraine since November, 2013, when Yanukovych chose to back out of a trade agreement he had previously agreed to in principle, but it is doubtful that such a documentary will come from Oliver Stone.  Instead, you can expect the same overblown conspiracy theories that have long been his hallmark as a filmmaker.

Friday, January 2, 2015

He did it his way




I remember listening to Mario Cuomo's keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in 1984 and wishing he was running for President and not Walter Mondale.  I was sure he would run in 1988 and again in 1992, but Cuomo ducked out both times.  My father felt he had too many skeletons in his closet, but it seems that Cuomo preferred Albany to Washington.

His tenure finally ran out in 1994 when he was upset by George Pataki in what proved to be a watershed year for Republicans.  George Bush similarly scored a surprise victory in Texas over the well-liked Ann Richards.  They both had a great sense of humor about it, but I have to think that loss hurt.  His once formidable political clout was gone and he was relegated to a periphery figure in American politics.

It was his good fortune to father a son who would restore his dynasty in New York, but it isn't the same. Andrew is not the great speechmaker his father was and he struggles to place himself at the center of national politics, which Mario was.

Mario Cuomo was that rare political animal, one who had an inner being.  He took time to read, to digest information and form intelligent opinions, not just play off emotions the way most politicians do.  It is hard to say whether he would have made a good president but the way he was able to balance rival political interests in New York should serve as a model for any executive.

It is hard to think of him as a liberal, as he adopted many Republican concerns like spending cuts and a balanced budget.  I remember a Village Voice article commenting on whether he was a "Closet Republican."  Somehow, he managed to keep just enough social programs intact to make liberals relatively content while convincing moderates he was fiscally responsible.  Call it "progressive pragmatism" if you like but it was a  recipe that earned him three terms as governor.

One can't really say he will be missed, as his political career ended 20 years ago and he kept a relatively low profile since then.  He returned to law and authored a handful of books including Why Lincoln Matters.  Given the outcome of the 1994 gubernatorial election, one can't help but think he missed his moment in 1992, when he could have very much won the Democratic nomination.  Just the same, Mario Cuomo will certainly be remembered.

All's well that end's well



After a miserable election year for the Democrats, President Obama managed to salvage a good year by taking matters in his own hands the closing months.  He has forced the Republicans to address some real issues in 2015, notably immigration and reshaping American policy toward Cuba.  He also took unilateral steps on addressing climate change with China, as well as extending the length of visas to Chinese working and studying in the United States.

Of course, none of this sat well with Republicans after their resounding nationwide victories in Congressional and gubernatorial elections.  They seemed to feel they finally had the critical mass to overturn "Obamacare" once and for all, but now they find themselves having to deal with much more thorny issues they would have preferred to set aside until 2016 and beyond.

Immigration is a particular sore point.  Obama had held off on taking executive action at the behest of fellow Democrats who felt the issue didn't sit well in their Congressional districts.  As it turns out, it probably would have helped them if Obama had taken these steps earlier, as his approval rating has soared in the last two months, particularly among Hispanic-Americans, who had long been waiting for these measures.  

Polls consistently showed that Americans were for immigration reform, but in hotly contested red states the issue was a non-starter, and it seemed Democrats felt they could still hold onto a handful of Senate seats in Southern and Western states.  They failed to do so largely because of historically poor voter turnout in response to their lack of action.

It has surprised me that the Democrats have shown so little interest in their President since his re-election.  They have treated him as a lame duck ever since he was inaugurated for a second term in January, 2013, seeing Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in 2016 and therefore the person most likely to shape the elections.   For much of these past two years it seemed Obama was willing to take a back seat, but something spurred him after the humiliating 2014 midterms.

The Clintons failed to deliver key Congressional and gubernatorial victories.  Hillary no longer looks like the sure bet she did this summer, and Bill no longer the kingmaker he projected himself as by pushing young aspiring candidates like Alison Lundergan Grimes.  This left Obama to fill the void by pumping new life into 2016 Democratic aspirations by pushing the issues no one wanted to address during the midterm campaigns.

If the Affordable Care Act survives the latest challenge in the Supreme Court, the Republicans will have no other choice but to finally address immigration.  Obama made sure of that by issuing executive orders that put the ball squarely in the new GOP-led Congressional court.  A bill had passed the Senate way back in the summer in 2013, but the GOP-led House sat on it for over 400 days, too afraid to anger their deeply conservative base.  Republicans can only hope that the Supreme Court deflects attention away from immigration reform by striking down the subsidies which are a key part of the ACA.

However, the President went one step further by reopening diplomatic ties with Cuba and calling for a new foreign policy toward the island nation, which has haunted American politics for over fifty years.  Here again, Obama wanted to do this much sooner, but talks stalled back in February when the President felt pressure from all sides on the issue.  Now, the issue is front and center and like it or not the new Republican Congress will have to deal with it.


The other big move was reaching an agreement with China to reduce carbon emissions over the next 16 years.  Obama appeared to be stealing some thunder away from Russia, which had been working out its own bilateral agreements with China over a new gas pipeline and attempts to form a rival currency to the dollar.  Obama sweetened the deal by extending student and work visas for Chinese.  Again, the Republicans weren't ready for this and found themselves tripping over their own words in response.

These executive orders don't salvage what was a very bad year for the Democrats, but they do put the pressure on Republicans to do more than simply stonewall the President for the next two years.  They do not have a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, so Republicans will have to seek concessions, which has long been anathema among its electoral base.  This turned out to be the case in the latest budget bill.  The Omnibus bill left no one very happy, but it averted a government shutdown, which would have been an ugly way to start the new Congressional session.

Still, the executive orders finally show the President taking action, which he had promised at the beginning of the year, and set the stage for a much more proactive final two years of his administration than many of us would have imagined.  That in itself should light a fire underneath Democratic feet and get them thinking more positively about 2016.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Being Kim Jung Un




In the end, it looked like one big publicity stunt for what appears to be a very mediocre movie.  You almost wonder if Sony and Kim Jong Un were in on this together.  After all, the e-mail links were nothing more than a minor source of embarrassment, quickly forgotten in the big screen debut of The Interview.  Now that the cat is out of the bag, it is hard to see this movie rolling up big numbers at the box office, but who knows, there are those who enjoy Seth Rogen's peurile humor.

I don't know if young Kim is as big a movie fan as his father was, but I don't remember Kim Jong Il being particularly put out by Team America, which cast him as a puppet arch-villain bent on reducing the entire world to third world countries, which he would easily dominate.  The movie mocked Bush's war on terror more than it did Kim Sr, who had lured the Film Actors Guild (FAG) to Pyongyang to set up the necessary diversion for his nefarious scheme.  It was Team America to the rescue with more than a few distractions along the way, including this rather touching one.  Rogen and Franco don't hold a candle to Parker and Stone.

The Interview seems to owe more to the equally peurile The Dictator from two years back, which was nothing more than a short comic sketch you might have enjoyed on the old Ali G Show, but stretched out to 90 minutes was very short on laughs.  Since Sacha Baron Cohen didn't specify any particular leader, he didn't bring down the wrath of the Muslim world on him.

Young Kim claims he wasn't behind the cyber hit against Sony, and even went so far as to suggest the United States join him in finding the true culprit behind the act, but President Obama was having none of it.  North Korea briefly lost its Internet connection, as if it were a scolded child.  I'm sure North Korea has its outside agents who operate within the deep space of Internet to launch their cyber attacks.

All this would make a much more interesting and darkly comic movie.  Maybe something like Being Kim Jong Un, where people pay to get inside his head to see what it's like to be the Supreme Leader of  the repressed world of North Korea.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Kindly Robin



The Kindly Robin came from the pen of the Castell Brothers, who were also known for their picture books, like this one of Canada.  Can't find much more about them.  Giving alms is the true spirit of the season.  However, it wasn't easy to get assistance in early America.  You had to appeal to the local judge for assistance, who would deem whether you were worthy or not.  Best to remember Anne Frank's thoughts on the subject,

"No one has ever become poor by giving."

Friday, December 19, 2014

A Pirate Looks at 90


Cuba looks so small, yet it has loomed so large in American politics for decades.  From Colonel Lansdale's failed Operation Mongoose to Jesse Helms notorious Helms-Burton Act, Cuba has been able to thumb its nose at the United States for over 50 years.  As Stephen humorously noted on one of his last episodes of The Colbert Report, "the CIA was this close to taking down Fidel Castro with the deadliest weapon of all -- time!"

Fidel is 88, and while it is hard to guess how many years he has left in him, he no longer represents a threat to the United States.  Don't tell Marco Rubio that, who flew off the handle in his latest rant against the President, claiming that the deal to free Alan Gross has put a price on all Americans' heads, echoing the same reaction Congressional Republicans had to the deal Obama struck for the release of Bowe Bergdahl.  Remember him?

In case you're curious, Alan Gross was working for USAID at the time he was arrested, er abducted, for providing satellite phones and computer equipment to the Jewish community in Cuba without a permit.  Not like he felt he needed one.  He was part of a "democracy promotion program," initiated under the Bush administration, to provide communications equipment to break Cuba's "information blockade."  It was like one of those lamentable Lansdale schemes, doomed to failure, as Gross couldn't speak a word of Spanish and was an easy target for Cuban officials.  Maybe it was meant that way to divert attention away from other nefarious schemes.  Who knows and who really cares?  These subversive campaigns have gone on long enough and are no benefit to anyone, as I'm sure Cubans can get plenty of computer hardware and software through Latin America and Europe.  It's not like they are that isolated, although I suppose the satellite phones were meant to help offset the antiquated phone lines and Internet connections.

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba has been cultivating stronger ties with Europe.  The EU has slowly opened up relations with Cuba over the last two decades, with large strides made since Raul Castro took over for his ailing older brother in July, 2006.   Granted, Cuba has yet to renounce Communism, but it is a far more open country now than it was 10 years ago.  It has bilateral relations with Canada, including a joint venture in developing Cuba's recently discovered offshore oil reserves.  Something, American oil refineries have long coveted.

Cuba is a lucrative market in many ways, not just rum and cigars.  This is what led the US to take such an active interest in the 1950s, propping up a failed dictatorship for the better part of a decade so that it could exploit the island nation.  None other than Errol Flynn pointed this out in 1959.

We could have established relations with the new government in Havana, but instead chose to place Fidel Castro on the most wanted list, turning him into the biggest hero in Latin America since Simon Bolivar.  This political pirate has obviously gotten the last laugh and there are a lot of conservatives who don't appreciate the irony in it.