James Franco Dies in the End

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Title: This Is The End

Rating: 2 Stars

The end of the world (ie the Book of Revelations) occurs in the midst of a James Franco house party.

The party itself is probably the highlight of the movie. The buddies trying to survive actually got a little tiring at the end. Jay and Seth redeeming each other at the end was cloying.

The actors are clearly having fun. Michael Cera in particular embraces his role as essentially Neil Patrick Harris from Harold & Kumar.

The Kevin Hart / Aziz Ansari scene is pretty hilarious as Aziz tries to save his life and Kevin is having none of it.

Emma Watson is great taking on the men with an ax.

Danny McBride is an acquired taste that I haven’t had an opportunity to acquire.

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Is Tarantino Finally Revenged Out?

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Title: The Hateful Eight

Rating: 2 Stars

The entire movie essentially takes place in two sets, the stage coach and Minnie’s Haberdashery. With the verbal pyrotechnics typical of Tarantino, it seemed like I was watching a play instead of a movie.

As typical with Tarantino, it makes heavy use of the ‘n-word’. A fellow moviegoer expressed misgivings at this, which I share. Tarantino seems to think that he’s a honorary black person or something like that which makes it OK for him to use it, but I think that it’s wearing thin.

Also, as is typical with Tarantino, the denouement comes with buckets, no gallons, of blood.

The N-word overuse and the buckets of blood are now officially overused. Hopefully between Django Unchained and Hateful Eight, he has exhausted these ideas and is ready to try something different.

Like with Pulp Fiction, he plays slight narrative games and makes it slightly non-linear. Not to the extent of Pulp Fiction, but after we’re more than halfway through the movie, he plays back how this situation actually developed.

I had to sit in the front row due to the fact that we had had minor chaos getting to the theater on time. Not a bit deal, but it did make for uncomfortable viewing.

All in all, it was a good movie. It did not leave me enthralled in my seat like Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Basterds.

Risky Business in Inglewood

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Title: Dope

Rating: 4 Stars

Imagine Risky Business taking place in Inglewood. A geek and his two geeky friends just want to survive their tough neighborhood and go off to college.

A girl enters the picture (as usually happens in such movies) which ends up greatly complicating matters. Malcolm ends up with a gun and a bag full of dope that he has to get rid of without being arrested and/or killed.

Hijinks ensue. There are happy endings all around.

The dialog was clever. The slippery slope bit was worth the price of admission all by itself.

Placing this plot in this setting is a great concept for both cinematic and political reasons. Unfortunately, I don’t think it made a lot of money but hopefully it made enough to allow production / distribution companies to takes risks on movies like this so that there can be greater diversity in released movies.

Idiot America – Um Yeah…

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Title: Idiot America

Rating: 2 Stars

My lovely wife bought this for me for Christmas because it sounds like something that Chuck Thompson would write. Although predominantly a travel writer, Chuck does write like an angry but yet amusing liberal crank.

Idiot America is definitely in that style, but the humor is significantly more heavy-handed than Chuck, thus less engaging. It’s the classic dichotomy of the left thinking that everyone on the right are mooing morons while the right thinking that everyone on the left are evil. This certain furthers that divide, which is the main reason that I downgraded it on GoodReads.

It was written in 2008, so it was dated but a couple of the chapters were a good reference back to incidents that had receded in my mind.

I’d forgotten exactly how insane the Mary Schiavo case was. In a hospice, where so many people were dying and preparing to die and the staff was doing everything in their power to make the transition as peaceful as possible, they were under siege. News vans were outside and protesters were outside 24×7. They had to hire full time off-duty police for security.

In the meantime, people with absolutely no involvement with the family were throwing their opinions in regarding her quality of life and how brain dead she really was. The Senate majority leader, Bill Frist, a doctor for fuck’s sake, was making a diagnosis via a heavily edited video of her. The Congress, I shit you not, issued a subpoena for a brain dead woman to appear before it.

As totally predictable, the autopsy performed after her death revealed a heavily atrophied brain and she received such excellent care that not even one bed sore on her body could be found.

The second case that I’d forgotten about was the Dover school board. This was the case where a suit was filed to force Intelligent Design to be taught as part of the science curriculum. It’s bad enough that a city actually thought that it’d be a good idea to elect board members who think that religion should co-exist within a science class in the year 2004. Teach the controversy.

I remember they had a Republican judge and people were concerned that this might be the wormhole that would allow this. The book quotes extensive from Judge Jones, who thankfully enough was a rational, serious jurist who proceeds to demolish their attempts to disguise the religious nature of ID.

What makes it kind of sad for the city is that they had ID lawyers who told them that they would do this at no cost to them. What they did not explain is that often the losing side has to pay the court expenses of the other side, so that town, thinking it was getting a free ride, actually got to foot the bill.

Favorite quote from one of Dover’s ministers: “We’ve been attacked by the intelligent, educated segment of our culture”.

Other chapters discuss climate change and the tragedy of the War in Iraq.

In other parts of the book, he hearkens back to Ignatius Donnelly, he of Atlantis fame, as a ‘good’ example of an American crank. His thesis is that, primarily due to ubiquitous mass media, we’ve allowed cranks, those Americans who have a fringe part to play in the canvas of American discourse, now have a very profitable front and center role. With that is a loss of analysis / reasoning capabilities to broad swaths of the country.

 

Spotlight

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Title: Spotlight

Rating: 4 Stars

I’m guessing that they won’t be showing this movie down at the local parish anytime soon (assuming it hasn’t gone bankrupt).

This really is a horrible story. For a church to cover up literally thousands of cases of abuse over a span of decades is horrifying in every possible way.

They did a good job of trying to create an action movie out of it. It’s a little difficult since the action consisted of reporters interviewing people and getting copies of court documents; and the villain, although in fact is quite villainous, is a fairly opaque organization that actually hasn’t overtly tortured anyone for at least a couple of hundred years.

Mark Ruffalo was a little over the top, as he often is, in my opinion, but fairly good jobs otherwise.

It told a compelling story on a vitally important subject that needs to stay in everyone’s mind.

Justice, Shmustice

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Title: Making a Murderer

Rating: 5 Stars

Wow. I just spent the past couple of days powering through this. It’s a 10 part mini-series about what appears to be a tragic miscarriage of justice. Steve Avery just might be the hardest luck case of all time.

The Avery’s are clearly the white trash of the area. They’re not all that smart and certainly not educated.

Steve has some run-ins with the law and apparently pisses off people connected to the police force. A leading citizen of the town is sexually assaulted. It appears to be the case that one of the officers artificially created a police sketch based upon Steve’s profile and got the victim to agree to that description. They then ran the photo array with Steve’s mugshot, which naturally enough the victim picked out. They then put Steven in a police line-up, and again, naturally enough, the victim picked him out. That’s all she wrote. He’s convicted and off to jail

Ten years into the sentence, the real rapist is caught in another county. The arresting detective calls another officer in that county to let him know that they might have the wrong guy. Absolutely nothing happens. Several years after that, an innocence project gets involved and with improved DNA technology, they conduct a test that not only proves that Steven is not the rapist, but the man that the detective from a different county had called about actually was the rapist.

Amidst much hoopla, Steve is freed. After about two years of freedom, he files a civil suit against the county. His lawyers begin to depose the officers involved, and it does not look good for the county. Three weeks after that, a woman goes missing. Her car ends up in Steve’s junkyard.

A couple of months after that, there is a shocking press conference where the prosecutor announces that Steve’s nephew has confessed and has also implicated Steve. In the ensuing days, a key is found belonging to the victim’s car in Steve’s bedroom, her charred bones are found in a burn pit outside his house, the bullet with her DNA on it is found in his garage, and his blood is found in her car. That’s all she wrote.

But is it? Steve has no money, but he does have the large civil suit pending. The county agrees to a $400,000 settlement. He promptly hires the two best lawyers that he can.

And they discover:

  • Brendan’s confession is horribly coerced. He’s clearly eager to please and has limited intelligence. The big held back fact (that the victim was shot in the head) was fed to him by a detective. Brendan’s first lawyer is only interested in getting a confession so that he can work with the prosecutor to get Steve convicted. It’s shockingly obvious that the confession is stage managed.
  • The car key is found out the open in Steve’s bedroom after the room has been searched / videotaped seven or eight times. It’s found by one of the detectives that was depositioned in Steve’s lawsuit.
  • The bullet is found in the garage after the crime scene team has thoroughly gone over it. Again, the detective that was depositioned was in the garage at the time it was found.
  • From his earlier case, Steve’s blood samples were drawn. On video, that sample was retrieved. The evidence seal of the evidence container was broken. There appears to be an obvious hypodermic hole in the blood vial which clearly indicates that it was at least tampered with and strongly suggests that the blood was removed from it.

Obviously, being a compressed documentary of a situation that covers months and years, not everything is shown. There is an obvious slant. However, a very strong case of reasonable doubt is shown.

Shockingly enough, Steve is convicted. Although Brendan’s confession is knowingly wrong / obviously coerced, Brendan is convicted. As of this writing, both are still in jail. Steve will probably die in jail. Brendan will be in jail until his 50’s.

The larger point here isn’t so much the actual guilt of Steve or Brendan (although clearly it is to them). To me, the larger point is the absolutely asymmetric power relationship between the state and the defendant. If Steve did not have funds, he would have been convicted without a trace and we would have never known of it. How many poor people have been railroaded into a conviction? How many innocent people have knowingly plead guilty to crimes that they did not commit to get a lesser sentence just to avoid getting completely railroaded?

The fact that this happened in some small county in Wisconsin just makes it that much more obvious how stacked the judicial system is against those without means.

As one of the defense lawyers say, you can try never to commit a crime, but what can you do to prevent from being accused of a crime?

I’m Not Dead Yet

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Title: A Distant Mirror

Rating: 5 Stars

Summary

The 14th century was a disaster. European society essentially comes apart at the seams as a series of disasters destroy it, leaving it depopulated and its people cast adrift without effective leadership or religion.

Themes

The hundred years war

Two sets of nobles fight for no general purpose except for vainglory and the acquirement of temporarily held lands for over a 100 years.

Madness of long lived kings

The whole myth of the divine rights / nature of kings is laid bare here. Where are Plato’s philosopher kings? Kings are still in power long after they’ve lost the ability to rule.

We have Charles VI of France, who starts off attractive and feckless but ends up spending the last 30 years of his reign in increasingly longer fits of madness.

We have Henry IV of England, who has successive mental breakdowns again leading to regime breakdown and civil war.

We have Edward III of England, who has a glorious early reign but by the end is senile and incapable of leading.

We have Wenceslas, the Holy Roman Emperor, who can’t stay sober long enough at a conference with Charles VI, who can’t stay sane long enough, to address the threats of a Turkish invasion.

Incapable of learning from mistakes

At Crecy, in 1347, we have the French launch a bold chivalric attack against the English, who unleash their longbows against them and defeat them decisively.

At Poitiers, in 1356, we have the French launch a bold chivalric attack against the English, who unleash their longbows against them and defeat them decisively.

At Agincourt, in 1415, we have the French launch a bold chivalric attack against the English, who unleash their longbows against them and defeat them decisively.

The plague and the embrace of death

In some major towns, population was reduced by over 50 percent.

Small towns in some cases cease to exist.

Some monasteries have a 100 percent death rate.

With the plague and the 100 Years war, there arose in culture an embrace of death (danse macabre).

Brigandage, taxes on the poor and their rebellion

During the 100 Years war, the soldiers learned to pillage the land to feed themselves. During the periods of time when there was no ongoing war, the soldiers still banded together and scoured the countryside as brigands. This was another source of horror to the peasants during the 14th century. Occasionally, rulers would effectively invent foreign conflicts and/or crusades for the purpose of leading these soldiers out of their country and depositing them in another.

Between the brigands, the plague, the incessant taxes to fight noble wars for which they saw no benefit, the poor would occasionally rebel. This, due to their numbers, would terrify the nobles. The poor did not have the knowledge / organization that would allow them to actually accomplish their aims and improve their situation. Inevitably, either the nobles would crush them or would give them false promises and then crush them.

Random acts of violence

There were regular acts of simply extreme violence. There are regular accounts of notable historical figures taking action to assassinate their opponents. There are also examples of extreme actions taken as some kind of paroxysm of grief.

You get the feeling that there just wasn’t thought about consequences or even surface level of analysis. The responses were the pure emotional responses of savages.

The papal schism

In case the mass population did not have enough to worry about, for much of the century there were two rival popes, who of course would immediately excommunicate the followers of each other. Given that the people at that time had a much more literal view of hell, it can only be imagined how much additional suffering this placed upon people.

Star Wars Redux

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Title: The Force Awakens

Rating: 4 Stars

Well, at least it didn’t suck.

Actually, it was good. It was just basically the same movie as A New Hope (‘The’ Stars Wars movies for those of us old enough to have seen it originally in a theater). There’s a desert planet. There’s a young unknowing to-be warrior languishing on said desert planet. There’s a wizened veteran giving guidance to the to-be warrior. There’s something that looks suspiciously like a death star. There’s a desperate dog fight to destroy the death star like thing. This death star like thing seems to have similar vulnerabilities that the original death star had (does anyone learn anything in this universe?).

Let the Rey, Finn, and Poe action figure feeding frenzy begin!

I’m glad the movie doesn’t suck. But couldn’t they have been just a little less safe?

John Mulaney The Comeback Kid

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Title: The Comeback Kid

Rating: 2 Stars

This probably suffered from immediately following Jeselnik. Mulaney is a talented, competent comedian. In comparison to Jeselnik, he just seemed mundane and milquetoast.

I smiled and chuckled a couple of times. However, I didn’t get as much enjoyment as its reputation would have indicated.

Bardolatry in Full Bloom

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Title: Macbeth

Rating: 3 Stars

They got the setting right. You get the feel of desolate, beautiful Scotland. The medieval settings feel right. The characters are scarred and generally dirty.

The play stays true to the spirit of the play. Having said that, I think they treat the material in a too sacred manner. There are several scenes where it’s basically Fassbender uttering the words staring at the camera. It feels like a Shakespeare recitation at times. I don’t know Fassbender’s background, but I’ve seen actors utter Shakespearean lines in an utterly normal manner where you feel the poetry almost as an undertone.

All in all, this production felt portentous.

Contrast that to the version that I saw at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The stage exploded in drama and action. You felt gripped by the play throughout. It was probably a more irreverent presentation, but I think that’s important when staging Shakespeare. No one wants to go to a play and have it feel like church. In some ways, this movie felt like going to a Shakespearean service.

Speaking of which, many years ago I saw Anthony Hopkin’s movie treatment of Titus Andronicus. Again, it felt too reverent.

On the other hand, Coriolanus (starring Ralph Fiennes) and Cymbeline (Ed Harris) were both brilliant. They both took liberties, but in so doing, the plays seems more meaningful, relevant, and energetic.

I find the background to Macbeth to be interesting. By this time, King James I is a patron of Shakespeare’s company. It’s telling that this play turns on the horrible things that happen when someone takes it upon themselves to kill a king. Considering the recent history and the somewhat precarious position on the throne, this was probably an important message that James would appreciate.

Also, the survival of Banquo’s son and the witches promise of a long line of kings is meaningful because it was believed that James I is descended from Banquo. On top of that, apparently in Shakespeare’s source history, Banquo actually had a role in Duncan’s assassination. This was whitewashed to make sure that James I reign is untainted by even the hint of regicide.