Monday, February 25, 2019

The Green Book




Spike Lee looked like he swallowed a lemon when Green Book won best picture and tried to escape the Dolby Theater only to be turned back by ushers.  It wasn't so much that he didn't win best picture himself, but Spike like many other critics thought The Green Book tread too lightly over the Jim Crow South -- a Driving Miss Daisy with roles reversed.  This too was a sore point for Spike, as he was beat out by the 1989 dramedy as well.  For now, Spike will have to content himself with an Oscar for best screenplay, his first.

It also doesn't help that Peter Farelly was the producer and director.  Past movies include Dumb and Dumber, There's Something About Mary and Shallow Hal, not exactly Oscar-caliber stuff.  But, he hit the jackpot on this one.  Kind of like the way Robert Zemeckis won everyone over with Forrest Gump.

Green Book wasn't my first choice.  It was a light film with plenty of cringe-worthy moments like the time Tony Lip gets Don Shirley to try Kentucky Fried Chicken and schooling the concert pianist on rhythm and blues.  I can see how that would get some people's goat, as Farelly treated segregation as a backdrop for a "buddy movie."  But, this was a true story, at least to some degree.

It could have been worse, much worse, had not Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen lifted the movie beyond the level of tripe with great performances.  Farelly did provide some great moments of his own, like the scene in which the Cadillac overheats in front of a cotton field and a group of sharecroppers watch as Tony Lip gets out to put water in the radiator while Don Shirley sits in the back of the limo.  No words were spoken because none were needed.

Not too many persons even knew what a "green book" was before this movie, so Farelly did shed some light on the era.  It was also a very interesting role reversal in Tony Lip driving for Shirley and serving as his bodyguard in a deeply segregated part of America.  Lip had to overcome his own prejudices along the way, which I suppose is why it appealed so much to Academy viewers.

If Farelly had tried to delve too deeply into the segregated South he probably would have only gotten into more trouble.  This after all is a very touchy subject and few have escaped the wrath of critics when trying to deal with it head on.  I suppose what galls critics is that when someone does try to tackle it in a more serious manner, the Academy has shunned his or her efforts.  This was the case not only for Spike but for Ava DuVernay a few years ago with Selma, arguably the best movie of 2015, but it fell to Birdman.  And even when a notable movie by a black director does win the Oscar, the director does not, as was the case with 12 Years of Slave.  Steve McQueen lost out to Alfonso Cuaron.  Oddly enough, Justin Chang who thought Green Book was the worst best picture winner since Crash, thought the world of Gravity, in which we watch Sandra Bullock drift listlessly in space for nearly two hours.

Anyway, the Academy tried to right itself last night by awarding Oscars to multiple black actors and movies.  Mahershala Ali took home Best Supporting Actor and Regina King won an Oscar for her supporting role in If Beale Street Could Talk.  Black Panther won multiple awards and Spike finally got his coveted Oscar for his screenplay for BlacKkKlansman.  Since Farelly wasn't even nominated for Best Director, Cuaron won his second directing Oscar for Roma.  Spike probably wasn't too happy about this either, but at least showed some humor.

What's odd to me is that Green Book wasn't even nominated for Best Score, despite the wonderful score by Kris Bowers.  If Spike really wants to gripe, Terrence Blanchard should have won the award for his score for BlacKkKlansman, rather than Ludwig Goransson for Black Panther.

The thing with the Oscars is that it's a crap shoot.  You have over 8000 members of the Academy who all have the opportunity to cast a ballot.  It has been widely reported that many don't even watch the nominated movies and some hand over the ballots to their kids to fill in.  So, it usually comes down to which movies are getting the best buzz during the week the ballots are collected.  Yet, for some strange reason we put so much weight on an industry whose only business is to reward itself.

It's Best Picture category is generally reserved for English-speaking films so it was a surprise Roma was even nominated in this category.  Typically, big studio productions are the norm.  You see very few independent movies unless they were picked up by a major distributor and were breakout films during the year.  As a result, many great films and performances are overlooked completely.

Still, you want to see your favorite film win so that you can claim bragging rights at the water cooler the next day.  Green Book may not have been very many persons' first choice.  There were those desperately wanting to see Bohemian Rhapsody or A Star is Born win.  However, it is certainly not the "worst best picture winner since Crash."  Looking through this list, there weren't very many memorable winners since 2005, or even before for that matter.  Green Book is as good as most of these best pictures, and had an interesting story to tell.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Feel the Bern




With Daddy Starbucks already old news, the Bern prepares himself for a second coming despite the fact there is a load of talented, progressive younger candidates to choose from among the Democrats.  His campaign claims to have already generated $6 million in the first 24 hours of his presidential bid, making him the front runner for now. 

The Bern is asking voters to turn a blind eye to all the diversity in the Democratic field and pick a crotchety old man who may or may not be able to survive a full term in office.  Like Trump, he claims he has been blessed with good health, noting that he was a long-distance runner in high school and has the energy to be a full-time president.

At this point, the only thing he has going for him is name recognition, but that will change once we get to know the other candidates.  Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Amy Kobuchar,  and Cory Booker all have prominent positions in the Senate, and given the number of hearings we will see in the coming months will each see a lot of exposure.  That's a lot of free advertising.  Meanwhile, Bernie will do what he does best -- grumble.

If the Democrats want an old white man that would be Joe Biden, who blew away the field in a South Carolina straw poll recently, but his popularity would wane quickly should he choose to run.  The same will happen with Bernie.  Remember that Hillary was polling double-digit leads over all potential Republican challengers this far out of the 2016 general election, and a 40-point lead over Bernie.

So, why does Bernie bother?  His issues have all been co-opted by the other candidates, not that he had any copyright on them.  Progressivism runs deep in the Democratic Party, and Liz was pushing the very same issues when she first ran for her Senate seat in 2012.  Ditto, Kamala and Amy.  There will be no battle this year at the Democratic convention over what issues to adopt.  The Democratic Party has gone back to its roots and we can expect to see a very progressive platform.

Bernie's success in 2016 was largely predicated on all the animosity toward Hillary.  He gained a huge number of crossover votes in the open primaries and cleaned up in the caucuses, where his organization did a better job of coordinating supporters.  No big surprise that so many Berniecrats crossed over to vote for Trump in the general election.

So what is Bernie this time around?  Another spoiler or does he really think that we live in a color and gender blind society that will recognize him as the best choice because of his self-professed purity of vision.  There is no one to really hate this time around except Trump.  The Democratic electorate will wait to see how the field shakes out come next February when the first primary is slated.  I'm sure it will be a smaller field of candidates.

With California pushed up to Super Tuesday, Kamala will get a big chunk of delegates early.  If Beto should choose to run, he would mop up in Texas.  Liz would most likely take Massachusetts.  Where does that leave the Bern?  The only state he can be guaranteed on Super Tuesday in Vermont.  Then come the Midwest states, where he will be challenged by Amy Kobuchar.  You look on down the list of primaries and caucuses and Bernie will have other tough challenges.  However, Bernie has never been one for delegate math.

Of course anything can happen and usually does.  All we can do is speculate at this point, but I know one person I've crossed off my list and that's the Bern!


Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Take your eyes off the Wall

Much greater damage is being done




If there is anything we have learned about this president it is that he doesn't like to be confronted with facts.  Frustrated by the Playboy reporter who threw him a hardball, Trump demanded that he sit down but Brian Karem held his ground.  This seemed to throw the president off his stride, riffing on his chances of getting the Nobel Peace Prize, which Shinzo Abe nominated him for last year, saying he has done much more than Obama ever did for his prize.  All this points to an incredibly insecure man, but we all know this as well.

Trump may have finally buried himself in declaring a national emergency, especially when he freely admitted there is no national emergency.  He just wants to speed things along given he didn't make much effort to push the wall his first two years in office.  Why wasn't he attaching the wall to the Republican tax cut package if it was so important to him.  Republicans were literally giving away trillions of dollar, surely they could have added a rider for $25 billion to fund his beautiful wall?

However, this tax bill is coming back to haunt him as well.  Instead of much anticipated refunds this tax season, Americans are finding themselves able to claim fewer deductions and as a result paying additional income tax.  Meanwhile, the National Debt topped $22 trillion last week, as the Trump administration has added $2.1 trillion in his first two years in office.  Remember, this president vowed to eliminate the national debt in two terms.

Like so many of his 2016 campaign promises, they have turned to dust.  While he may be able to negotiate some funding for the wall by tapping into the defense budget, much of his funding will be held up in court as 16 states filed lawsuits against him this week.  Trump's reaction was to pat himself on the back for predicting this.

All this tough talk didn't seem to satisfy his formerly ardent supports.  Ann Coulter called Trump the real national emergency, a sentiment shared by many Democrats right now.  Odd to see Ann Coulter and Nancy Pelosi on the same page.  Whether he knows it or not, Trump opened a Pandora's box by declaring a fake emergency.  Nancy noted that a Democratic president could one day do the same on guns.  What then?

To hear Stephen Miller, the President's remarks were taken out of context.  The President waited for Congress to act and failing to do so did what he should have done much earlier, call the border crisis a national emergency.  Miller was a little better at handling Wallace's facts, but nonetheless calling this a national emergency is quite a stretch, and will be seen as imperial overreach on the part of the president.

It is important to note that Trump is not calling the shots here.  His advisers are.  They probably watched Vice and learned about this little thing called the unitary executive theory that allows the executive branch extraordinary powers in times of crisis and war.  Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld used this effectively in the aftermath of 911, pushing through wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that greatly extended executive powers.

The president already enjoys more power than he deserves thanks to our ongoing military efforts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, but these are subject to Congressional oversight.  By declaring a national emergency on the border, Trump essentially gave himself carte blanche to raid the coffers to come up with as much as he needs to get the border wall and there is nothing Congress can really do to stop him.

However, this White House wants much more power than this.  They want to gain complete control over the budget so that they can redirect money where they see fit.  We are literally one step away from the autocracy Dick Cheney played with back in 2001.  With a full budget now approved by Congress and signed by the President, the White House has trillions to work with.  They're flush!

The wall has never been anything more than a diversion.  Those behind Trump are looking to raid the budget for huge sums of money after all their years of backing Republican administrations.  We've already seen quite a bit of this in the first two years, particularly in the Dept. of Interior where Ryan Zinke presided over one of the biggest private land grabs in history.  Similarly, the Dept. of Education has been diverting money toward charter and private schools, where Betsy DeVos and others have vested interests.  Basically, this administration wants to gut the budget so that many of these social programs wither up and die on the vine, as Newt Gingrich proposed more than 20 years ago.

Trump is just a front man, as was Ronnie back in the 80s or W at the start of this millennium.  He may be more crass but he is furthering the same agenda laid out by Nixon's acolytes many years ago.  Probably the best thing you can say for the recent movie, Vice, is that it charts this course of action through Dick Cheney, as well as Sam Rockwell's pitch perfect portrayal of W.

The problem is that we are spending way too much energy arguing over the wall when there are far greater crimes being committed by this administration.  The new Democratic House can rein in some of the administration's actions, especially in regard to deregulation, but they can't stop the Trump White House completely.  We've seen whopping deficits in each of the past two budgets and can expect even higher deficits in the next two years, thanks to the enormous tax cuts.  The National Debt may swell to $25 trillion by 2021 when the next president steps into the White House with very little in the way of revenue to overcome this enormous deficit, at which point the federal government may indeed go bankrupt.

This has been the Republican strategy all along.  They never cared about fiscal responsibility.  St. Ronnie presided over the largest percentage increase to the national debt - a whopping 186% - since the Depression.  Each Republican president in turn has added substantially to that debt.  Obama was left with an annual budget already $1 trillion in the hole when he pushed for a stimulus bill to try to stem the spiraling unemployment left by W.  At best, Obama was able to bring the annual deficit back down to around $400 billion, which the Trump administration has blown back up to over a trillion.

By bankrupting federal government, all government for that matter, Republicans can return monetary and regulatory control back over to the private sector, essentially re-creating the oligarchy of the 1920s, which they see as the Golden Days of America, before there were any marginal tax rates on the rich or a vast public education, welfare and health care sector like we have today, not to mention banking and environmental regulation. 

It's not just the usual suspects -- the Waltons, Murdoch, and the Koch Brothers.  Other seemingly progressive corporate barons will greatly benefit too.  Zuckerberg, Tim Cook and Jeff Bezos enjoy the low tax rates and monopolistic holds they have over their markets as well.

Who better to preside over the bankruptcy of the United States of America than Donald J. Trump, famous for all the bankruptcies he presided over in the private sector.  There will be no more talk about the wall at that point.  The federal government will be little more than an empty shell.



Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Boy Named Trump




This is the indelible image of a boy named Trump, who attended the State of the Union Address as the special guest of Melania Trump.  He became an overnight sensation, but not for the reasons Melania or her darling husband imagined.  The boy simply couldn't make it through the third longest SOTU address in history, as Big Chief Trump sputtered his words out in a Marlon Brando drawl for maximum effect.  He wasn't held up by very many canned applause, until the white ladies all stood up to cheer his proclamation that more women than ever before or part of the American workforce.  He admonished them to remain standing as he appeared to take credit for so many new women in Congress, although he added it wasn't supposed to be that way.  Cheers gave way to guffaws.

Despite the numerous lies, or truthful hyperbole, as he likes to call it, no one shouted out "you lie," as Joe Barton did in one of Obama's early SOTU addresses.  Instead, we had Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez refusing to stand for his introduction.   Pelosi also made the internet chatter with her snarky clap at one point, which many interpreted to be "throwing shade." 

The best came last with Stacey Abrams delivering a response for the ages.  She not only called Trump out on his numerous lies and petty conceits but gave a rousing speech centered on American values that even had Laura Ingraham congratulating her, unlike the hopeless young conservatives the Republicans trotted out in response to Obama.  This woman has a very bright future.

Conservative pundits think Trump struck the right chord for Republicans in 2020, but his appeal to women fell woefully flat and one wonders if even more Democratic Congresswomen will fill the chamber in 2021.  Who knows, maybe even a women president?

For the most part the SOTU address was a real snoozer.  Trump failed to energize the crowd, much less his base, which is still steaming over his capitulation on the wall.  Even if he calls a national emergency in the coming weeks to seek emergency funding, it will do little to alter the fact he was unable to bully Congress into signing onto his wall.  Even Lindsey Antebellum seems to understand the gig is up.  Trump blinked and now Nancy rules the roost.

As for the boy named Trump, he's likely to catch a lot of flack from his friends for falling asleep on the president.  Good thing his mother is home schooling him now.  Most likely the whole thing was one of those social media grabbing events that Big Chief Trump relishes, organized by some conservative political action committee.  I call "fake news."


Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Shallow




The lead song sums up the movie well.  The lyrics alone are enough to make you gag, much less the two of them singing it on the curb of a convenience store parking lot.  Bradley Cooper tried to bring the 1976 version of the classic story down to a guttural level but it only makes you feel like you have been left in the gutter after an all-night drinking binge.

For all the angst over whether Lady Gaga could pull off the role of Abby, it was Cooper who seemed out of his element in this movie.   He plays this role with a kind of morose sentimentality that has become the staple of Clint Eastwood movies, to whom he seems to owe a debt of gratitude for ceding the directorial duties to him.  Clint had other fish to fry.

This turgid affair starts in the most unlikely of places, a drag bar in LA where Ally sings along side her drag friends, putting on an Edith Piaf imitation that makes it look like she is in drag herself.  If Cooper had his usual sense of humor, he might have played this latest version of the film as Victor/Victoria, but the drag queens were just a way to show what a great sport Jackson Maine is, unlike the irascible John Howard from the earlier version.  Even when Jackson gets angry later in the film, he comes off as a grumbly teddy bear, profusely apologizing afterward.  You might call it a #MeToo version of A Star is Born.

Then there is all the two-bit philosophizing from Jackson and his much older brother, Bobby, that gets tedious to say the least.  The two were apparently a country-western duet at one point before Jackson broke out into rockabilly and became a big name.  Bobby is left to pick up behind his younger brother, dispensing all kinds of profound sentiments as one has come to expect from Sam Elliot.

Gaga comes from humbler origins.  Her father, played by Andrew Dice Clay of all people, is a chauffeur who imagined himself as Tony Bennett in his younger days and pushes his reluctant daughter to take Jackson up on his offer to attend one of his concerts.  Later, he plays back her surprise cameo stage appearance on youtube to his chauffeur buddies, which has gotten millions of hits, and hence a star is born.

The movie no doubt plays well to 13-year-old girls aspiring to similar youtube fame.  It isn't long before Gaga finds herself approached by a big name producer who wants to turn her into the next Beyonce.  There is some irony here, as this was the path Gaga took herself before opting for a more bare-bones approach to her music, but the irony is fleeting.  After all, this would sail over most young viewers' heads.

Oddly enough, I took my daughter to a Lady Gaga concert.  My little one was 11 at the time and we painted ourselves up like Gaga's little monsters for the show.  I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was.  If only some of that same energy had been brought to this movie.  Instead, Cooper oddly gushes over Gaga's nose, making her into some kind of little girl who needs approval, which she begrudgingly accepts.  Barbra would have never allowed herself to be treated this way.

When Jackson comes to the end of his turgid winding road, one only gets a sense of relief in that the movie is nearly over, but not before big brother Bobby has a few wise words to impart on us, telling us that all music is contained within 12 notes between any octave and all an artist can offer the world is how he sees those notes.  Wow!

Gaga pays her farewell to Jackson on stage, singing a song he had penned before he died, much like Barbra sang Kris's song at the end of their movie.   Unfortunately there is no emotional resonance because there had never been anything that really connected them in the movie.  They were just two passing ships in the night.

The story behind the movie is what seems to be selling it.  Bradley Cooper took a big gamble on Lady Gaga and it paid off.  Surprise!  Surprise!  No doubt he will join her to sing Shallow at the Oscars.  If he doesn't there will be a lot of disappointed 13 year-old girls out there.

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Daddy Starbucks




In a rather abrupt move, Steve Schmidt jumped the liberal ship MSNBC to serve as Howard Schultz' chief strategist.  Anyone who didn't see this one coming was wearing blinders, because guys like Schmidt never were interested in the Democratic Party.  They wanted to see a new Centrist hero emerge, and Schmidt and many other moderate Republicans and Independents think they have found him in Howard Schultz.  If they waited long enough they probably could have rallied around John Kasich, who is now a retired governor and has presidential aspirations of his own.  May still turn out that way.

Schultz embodies the Centrists' fever dream, which Paul Krugman calls "The Attack of the Fanatical Centrists."  In his op-ed piece, he lambastes this movement from the right, which wouldn't get any traction if they didn't label Democrats as lunatic leftists hell-bent on imposing a Venezuela-style socialism on America.  Schultz has played straight into this crowd, attacking Liz Warren's proposed 70% income tax rate on the uber rich and calling universal health care pure socialism.

Rest assured he wants the rich to pay their fair share of taxes and believes all the Affordable Care Act needs is a little bit of tweaking.  Like his huge lattes with just a single shot of espresso, he thinks a little coffee goes a long way.  He's built his business model by playing to the middle of social issues so as not to alienate anyone.  It hasn't always been successful.  He catches seasonal flack for his red holiday cups and his #RaceTogether campaign was a huge bust, but on the whole he has done well with his catchy marketing campaigns, as Starbucks has grown to become one of the largest coffee brands in the world.

Daddy Starbucks is banking on Americans wanting a good ol' middle of the road president, who won't embarrass the nation with his every tweet.  Schultz has written a book extolling the Horatio Alger myth, which he calls From The Ground Up.  He's been telling anyone who will listen how his Starbucks business model will work for the nation, and it seems a fair amount of persons are buying it, including Matt Bai.

To read Bai's homage to Mr. Coffee, we didn't have coffee shops until Howard Schultz came along.  Starbucks has become so ubiquitous in America that we forget there were plenty of coffee shops spread across this fair land before Starbucks went global.  This is not a new invention by any stretch of the imagination.  Coffee shops have a rich tradition in European and American culture stretching back several centuries.  It wasn't so much that Schultz saw where the trend was going, as he capitalized on it the same way Ray Kroc did back in the 1950s with McDonalds.  Starbucks is the McDonalds of coffee shops.  Mercifully, we have many other hamburger stands and coffee shops to choose from.

So, why Schultz?  I suppose it is his rags-to-riches story that appeals to many Middle Americans.  To read his wiki bio, he grew up in a Bronx housing project.  He was the first in his family to go to college.  He went from selling Xerox copiers to Swedish drip coffee makers.  He discovered Starbucks while pitching coffee makers in Seattle and the rest as they say is history.  It's quite a story, and those who bought into Starbucks early on, like my godmother, have been enjoying a great windfall from the stocks they purchased back in the 80s.

But, the Pacific Northwest is loaded with coffee shops.  His was neither the first nor the best on the Pacific rim.  Peet's Coffee uses the same model and it started out 20 years before in San Francisco.  If you have had Peet's you sure as hell don't want Starbucks.  What set Schultz apart is that he quickly spread his coffee shop across the US, where the others stayed close to home.  Soon Starbucks were popping up everywhere, and they have now spread around the world, thanks largely to his catchy brand name that alludes to the great seafaring novel, Moby-Dick.

As Naomi Klein pointed out in No Logo, brand is everything.  If you can make your brand sing you can draw in clients around the world.  Daddy Starbucks is now hoping the same magic will make him the next President of the United States.  He will be a kinder, gentler Donald Trump.

He can only do this by demonizing the Left as the current president is doing, albeit in a softer language.  Well, not too soft.  He hasn't resorted to nasty nicknames, but he has cast Liz Warren and Kamala Harris as radical socialists with their tax and health care plans.  He even went so far as to call their plans un-American, which is an odd thing given the tax rate on the uber-rich was 70% not that long ago.  Under Eisenhower, the tax rate was 90% on the wealthiest Americans.  Over the decades, the high-end tax rate has been steadily reduced so that it now sits at 35 per cent.

Yet, you would be hard pressed to find any upper millionaire or billionaire who pays that much.  When Mitt Romney ran for president in 2012, he struggled to pay 12 per cent.  Trump apparently hasn't paid any income tax since the 1990s, spreading his losses from his Taj Mahal fiasco over successive tax returns.  Jeff Bezos declares his salary at $82,000 per year, despite being worth over $100 billion.  These guys find every way possible to disguise their income so as not to pay taxes.  In Bezos' case, he doesn't even want to pay full FICA, which is capped at $128,700.  I can't wait to see Schultz's return, if he chooses to make it public.

Krugman is spot on.  These so-called Centrists are happy with the status quo.  In fact, the only problem they have with Trump is his big mouth.  If he would just pipe down and let the economy run on its own volition, rather than shake it up with all his untimely pronouncements, everything would be hunky-dory.  Leave it up to the corporate tycoons to set wages and provide health care and other benefits for their employees.  We don't need the government intruding on business, even if Medicare covers fully one-third of all Americans in this country and is the largest health care payer.

For now, the mainstream media is letting Daddy Starbucks play both sides against the middle, content to see someone new shake up the political scene.  They've all but ignored the five women who have declared their candidacy and Julian Castro, the lone Hispanic to enter the race.  Big media is drawn to the paternalistic image of 65-year-old Howard Schultz, who will restore some kind of balance to American politics.  At least until John Kasich chooses to run.