03 October 2017

Brunch Movie Review: It

Based on the novel by Stephen King.
Directed by Andy Muschietti
Adapted by Chase Palmer
                    Cary Fukunaga
                    Gary Dauberman
To see the full cast and crew go here.

It is a story of Derry a haunted town, and a town that is a haunt. It is also the story of the seven brave kids who decide to confront the evil that stalks through Derry’s Norman Rockwellian facade.
It is an undeniably well made and mostly well written movie. The acting is all very good the production values are all very high. The film is filled with disturbing images and, sometimes, very often in fact, dense brooding atmosphere. There are even some very worthy jump scares.1 Most of the characters from King’s novel are on screen. They come very close to feeling right. It is appropriate that Stephen King’s name isn’t on the poster though. The film feels like only a dim recollection of his novel. The experience of watching it, reminded me of seeing a high school student crash and burn on a book report they had only skimmed the night before in a desperate attempt to eke out at least a C-. The general outline is there, but the film as adaptation, like my imaginary book report,  feels deflated, and skeletal.

If you are a fan of the novel, I suspect this adaptation won’t work for you. It didn’t for me, a fact that made me incredibly sad, because this is a film I really wanted to like. I first read Stephen King’s It in the eighth grade, in the year 1987 (i had to wait for it to come out in paperback). In the intervening thirty years, I’ve read the novel through at least five times and have re-read bits and pieces here and there, to probably, if we are being generous, add up to a sixth reading. In some way or another, since that long ago year of 1987, It feels like it has been with me. To this day if I see a sewer drain,2 or see clown, or see kids, obvious friends, riding bikes to parts unknown, It sends some signal to my frontal cortex for reflection. The geography, and dark character of Derry, its villains and its heroes form easy recollections. After 1987  Bill, Ben Stan, Bev, Richie, Mike, Eddie, (seven is a strong number the turtle would have noted) even Henry Bowers and dread Pennywise itself have traveled with me.

When I could make myself forget about the source material I could appreciate the craftsmanship (generally quite good) of the film. Sadly the source material kept reasserting itself and ruining my ability to immerse myself in the film. The source material wasn’t alone. It was joined by the impossibly good and much better adapted 1990 tv mini-series starring Tim Curry. The book and that mini-series crowded in, over and over again demanding that my mind make comparisons, always to the detriment of the new film. Netflix’s masterpiece Stranger Things often joined in when it really shouldn’t have. However Muschietti and his writers elected to set part one of It 1983. Thus the kids and the feel constantly evoke Stranger Things. This is too bad, given that the latter, owes so much to King’s dark novel. I think the decision could have worked in the absence of Stranger Things, but in that series' afterglow it looks too much like copying. This comparison is not helped by the presence of Finn Wolfhard who played Mike Wheeler in Stranger Things. Finn’s Richie Tozier is on the mark, and remarkably different from Mike Wheeler, never the less, comparisons, for me at least became unavoidable.

I’m not necessarily a purist about adaptations. I thought Phillipa Boyens, with Fran and Peter Jackson, gave viewers a wonderful adaption of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings in their film trilogy. I didn’t always agree with their choices, but I thought, for the most part they captured the essences of both story and the characters.The goal in that adaptation was to attempt, as often as was possible, one to one correspondence with the book. It works. Or consider the adaptations faced by the comic book movie adapters. The kind of one to one correspondence Jackson et al did isn’t nearly as possible. Writers have narrative history spanning decades, and fans across generations. Here what is important are writing true to the characters and being true to the essences of the stories you want to adapt. Bryan Singer understood this when he tackled Marvel’s X-Men. The story had to be both new and old, but the characters had to be true. Wolverine couldn’t be suave and sophisticated and Charles Xavier couldn’t be a tap dancing kung fu master. So I get it. Movies aren’t the books they sometimes adapt and viewers should be able to set the two in different places. The two media do different kinds story telling. The adaptation has to be true though, and for inexplicable reason, the writer’s of this iteration of It, fail that the trueness test, thus as an adaptation worthy of the source material It also fails.

That is a long preface to the following conclusion. If you aren’t as attached to the novel, love scary movies and don’t mind a few horror movie tropes (these tropes were not present in the novel) you will probably really like It. 4 If you are attached to the novel, my guess is that the movie won’t work for you, and it won’t work in a big way. I could be wrong on either count, so you should definitely see the movie and decide for yourself. Tell me your thoughts in the comment box below.

Verdict 1: It as straight horror film: 8/10 or if you prefer the old, and very forgiving Ebert method 3/4 stars.
Verdict 2: It as adaptation 6/10 or 2/4 stars Ebert scale.

SPOILERS BELOW do not continue unless you don’t mind spoiling spoilers. 
Okay, you were freakin’ warned.

As a straight horror film, It works fairly well. There is a lot of brooding atmosphere. In an early scene, one of our heroes Bill asks his younger brother Georgie to go down into the basement to get some paraffin to finish a paper boat. Its a pretty fine example of what the film does well in the first two acts. It builds its dread, with admirable patience. Its on old basement, dirt floors, not well lit, the lights don’t work, and the rain that has caused record flooding is backed by a dark gray sky and the basement’s tiny ground level windows don’t provide a strong light against the dark basement. Its stellar stuff. The film manages to keep it smart like this throughout. At the beginning of the turn toward the film’s conclusion though, the writers start introducing some stock horror movie contrivances, and the contrivances of bad or rushed writers everywhere.

If the film is weak anywhere in its first two acts it is in the very underwhelming way in which it brings its protagonists together. Its also not terribly effective at demonstrating the deep almost mystical rapport of childhood friendships, which is the very heart of King’s novel. It brings the kids together I suppose, but it is all pretty perfunctory. Our heroes are Stuttering Bill Denebrough, Eddie Kapsbrak, Richie Tozier (who were friends before Georgie died), Ben “Haystack” Hanscom (he is the fat kid), Beverly Marsh (a working class girl with no real friends), and Mike Hanlon (in this film a black farm kid who lives with his weirdly dickish granddad). They call themselves the Loser’s Club. With exception of Richie Tozier, and Beverly Marsh, none of them feel terribly well fleshed out. I’m not even sure Richie and Beverly are all that well fleshed out, but they have some good lines, delivered by good actors. They are flat in a way they were not in the novel. They don’t have any real interests, so its hard to buy into their connections with each other, when we don’t feel connected to them. The Loser’s Club is opposed directly by Henry Bowers and his gang of knuckle dragging trouble makers, Victor “Vic” Criss, Belch Huggins. In the novel Henry attracted a couple of other high school psychos and kids who would rather hang with the bully than be one of his victims. The Loser’s Club is also opposed by It or its alter ego Pennywise the dancing clown. The town of Derry seems against them in many ways too. I hope I am not boring you with this summary, but its important ground work, and the film gets a C at establishing these players. It isn’t terrible for a standard horror film but it doesn’t work as an adaptation of It. 

Bowers and his friends terrorize the Losers here and there in mostly convincing ways. The Losers score a big victory when they defend Mike Hanlon from Bowers, who is increasingly demonstrating a willingness, even an eagerness to take his bullying too far.  At the edge of a creek in Derry’s pine barrens he seems ready and willing to empty Mike’s skull of brains with a large rock. The Losers have numbers and lay waste to Henry and his friends, driving them away and picking up another friend.

The film establishes that our heroes are fairly smart kids (that it seems to want to be both high school age and middle school aged). It doesn’t explore their interests, or explore their motivations very much at all, but more about that later. What we can conclude is that are not dumb kids. For some reason though, they start doing a great many dumb, dumb, dumb things. In their first confrontation with Pennywise, they march into its lair with no clue how to fight it, no clue whether they can fight it, despite the fact that they know it has been around for a very, very long time. But no, they just walk into monster’s house. Characters in dumb horror films are allowed to do dumb things. Characters in films that spend a lot of time setting a higher bar don’t later get to go under it with out commentary from the likes of me. Our heroes stupidly allow themselves to get separated. They get their asses kicked pretty good, which at least makes some sense. Then what follows is the trope of the sundering friendship. After getting a thorough drubbing from Pennywise, Richie Tozier does a riff on Private Hudson from Aliens. 

Bill concedes that Richie indeed grasps what just happened and suggests they try again. He suggests weapons next time, that they really-really not get separated next time. To which Richie, says, and I paraphrase, “whoa, whoa, fuck that noise.” Richie follows this reasonable stance up with some unreasonable and incendiary things, an insensitive reference to Bill’s missing, and likely dead brother Georgie being among them. Fight ensues. Bill and Bev plead, but the others are like, “nah, I’m out” and only two remain, Beverly Marsh and Bill Denebrough. What they decide we don’t know because the scene cuts away. Its all uncomfortably remeinsceint of the fight in Stranger Things and all uncomfortably foreign to the source material.

Not to worry the fellowship of The Loser’s Club reassembles about 15-20 minutes later. Pennywise kidnaps Bev (Bev, prior to her kidnapping, killed her dad..i think?). Stuttering Bill happens upon the scene of a big fight in Bev’s house, sees her dead prone on the floor, the tile below his head a growing pool of dark red. Pennywise has left Bill a message on the ceiling of Bev’s bathroom. “You’ll die if you try!” Bill is unimpressed and immediately Bill calls his friends (not paramedics I noticed) and with out any question they join in on the Beverly saving quest. The Losers coming back together is supposed to be a triumphant moment in the film. It almost was for me, but I also didn’t like the useless manipulation of the friendship fight trope.

It is at this point that the film hits cruise control all the way to the finish. The Losers Club goes back to the lair, this time with a sheep puncher gun and some spikes from a wrot-iron fence. They vow not to get separated. They get separated. Pennywise has recruited Henry Bowers to help. Henry almost ruins the Losers ill conceived plans but takes a fall down a well at the hands of Mike that has to function like a kind of eraser for Bowers himself. The Losers get confronted with their fears, they save Bev, and then beat the shit out of It with impact weapons. The Loser’s Club drives It away with bats, rebar,  and other improvised clubs. I’m not sure how that could work, given that earlier one of them drove a three foot make-shift spear through Pennywise’s skull, but, yeah, sure. Together they went medieval on its ass. There are some nice lines, and the action is pretty good. as I’ve said elsewhere, I probably wouldn’t have minded except...

....except for the depth and wonder of Stephen King’s epic novel.

The film lacks all of the depth of the novel. In the book the first fight the Losers have with it took place between 1957-1958.  Why set it in the 1980s? Why high school(wish)? Why ignore the racial animus the Bowers feel toward the Hanlons? Why aren’t the Bowers also farmers, with a lesser farm than the one run by the Hanlons? King wanted to say some thing about the false world of the fifties  with It, but by setting it in the 80s, the writers lose a lot of depth. Why do the kids have no real personalities? Why do they have no interests? Ben has an aptitude for engineering, Bill is a great story teller, Tozier is funny, imaginative and talented at making people laugh. Stan is logical and sharp, and Eddie is a great friend, Mike was an outsider even among outsiders in Maine in 1957. He knows a lot about Maine, so does his dad. Why the kill off Mike’s parents? Why make Richie fear clown instead of werewolves?

The movie completely ignores the kids process of figuring out how you fight a creature like It. It becomes what you fear. In the book the kids find that It is afraid of them, in a daring sweatlodge, they sort of find out why. They go to the library and learn about Chimera, they surmise that by becoming what they fear, It also is makes itself vulnerable to their beliefs about those feared monsters. It was powerful but it played by rules. They embark on a sweatlodge, they...they do things to be able to beat the monster. They don’t just pick up improvised impact weapons and beat the shit out of Pennywise.  They use Richie’s powerful fear werewolves to attack Pennywise, with the weakness of werewolves, silver. Its wonderful, insightful and sometimes sad novel from which writers could have plumbed deeply. With It as their starting point they could have given us a piece of art that did more than was merely an adequate and often good genre piece. They could have given us a film like Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, a film that left genre behind. They could have given us just a great film.

I say this a lot in my blog reviews, and I thought the past twenty years of movie history had finally driven the message home. Apparently my message hasn’t gotten to everyone. Source material is key and king. When it is ignored, or not honored a film adaptation is likely to go sideways. Adapting a big book, or even a small one (I’m looking at you Hobbit) is a tough task. The source material will often be a tragedy, for the adapter at any rate, of wealth. Adapting a good book must be a process or trimming. What gets cut and why? Can the writer’s combine events and characters? Do you cut and give a fan service reference? These are all tough spots for the writers adapting material, but the process should be one of what is absolutely necessary to tell this story, what events are too important to ignore? Pick the format, write a script that fits that format, and then rewrite until you have a movie that both fans of the novel will enjoy and that honors the material while grabbing new viewers unfamiliar with the source material . Also, when writing, have some faith in and respect for your audience. Marvel Studios, Peter Jackson and others have shown that if you write a good script, the audience will follow even if your hero is a talking raccoon spaceship pilot, or an Amazon warrior fighting Germany in World War I. We also see what happens over and over again, when filmmakers think they know better than the source material. Fox Studios abysmal Fantastic Four film is a wonderful example and by wonderful I mean awful. Michael Bay continues to produce fresh outrages  of this sort with his direction or producing of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Transformers “films." The same happened in both G.I. Joe movies. The filmmakers essentially gave a giant middle finger to the source material and thought they knew better. Audiences, or critics and sometimes both gave the films their own middle fingers critique.

Andy Muschietti’s It, doesn’t quite get as bad as the above unmentionables, it is a well made film after all.  However, it is hard to deny that he and his team of writers have failed the audience by electing to ignore the novel far too often and do their own thing. This is too bad. They had a great plan. Break the book into two films. That should have given them (had they aimed for longer films, say 2 1/2 or even 3 hours) all the room they need to make not only a decent piece of horror film making, but also produce two great films, filled with nuance, and depth. They settled, and it seems we have to as well.

Read more »

06 June 2017

The Enduring Utility of Mythology

The other day, a guy I like and admire for his sharp mind, Sean Faircloth if you must know, posted a critique/complaint on his social media about the fact that blockbusters almost always tend to overshadow films of nuance, depth and reality. His jumping off point was Wonder Woman. He thought it was being oversold as a feminist track given that the film is full of explosions, and people hitting one another, and generally found superhero films to be not terribly engaging.

“I got to see the great movie everyone's been waiting to see this weekend. You know, the movie about heroism, respect for different cultures and a reckoning with women's rights. I, of course, refer to The Lost City of Z (film), in which real people face real problems heroically and with compassion in a story based on real life. No superpowers, no tiara, no tight-fitting outfits. It'd be great to have magic powers, and comic book movies do make reliably big bucks for the studios, but I tend to prefer stories about actual humans, particularly flawed yet admirable humans like in The Lost City of Z.”

-Sean Faircloth

On another thread, in response to the push back from friends, Sean added the following.

“Well. It's just about a movie. so no big deal. and I don't think the people who disagree with me are stupid (like I said I know I'm the minority on comic book movies) -- but it fascinates me that the marketing department of a large corporation has convinced a huge swath of liberals that it is a "feminist statement" to buy tickets to a movie in which 2.25 hours of 2.5 hours is people hitting each other and blowing stuff up. It's good to have more women directors and stars, and were I these women, I'd be more than happy to have the opportunity (and the mega-cash), but it's like if the CEO of Exxon is a woman. It's not whether you are a woman. it's what you do in the job. I liked the director's other big movie, Monster, much more. and I think it was actually much more feminist. It was a real story dealing with real life. great movie.”
-Sean Faircloth.

In some ways this is simply part of an older debate about the superiority of the high brow to the low brow. The Lost City of Z is literature, whereas Wonder Woman is to be found in other sections of the bookstore, with the low brow offerings in Fantasy, or Science Fiction. These discussions also, and obviously, center on matters of personal taste. Some people can watch and enjoy a film like, The Constant Gardner, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Some people cannot. It probably isn’t fair to extrapolate from one’s own taste about trends in film, or get too declarative about merit. Plenty of big and small films are made every year. The high brow and the nuanced have always been smaller films, and, with sharp exceptions, lesser box office producers. The small films tend to be the winners of critical praise and dominate the film awards unless the initials of the awarding body begin with M, T and V. The big films tend be the winners of the summer, when younger viewers dominate. I’m not sure there is anything to complain about in this. In our entertainment, we have always valued the entertainment. We live in the real world every day. We see its nuance, its grays, and its Hobbesian unpleasantness. Escapism is useful for sanity.

I also think there is a failure of imagination at play on the part of people who hold Faircloth’s position. This is probably not a huge danger in our consumption of entertainment, and critiques of said, but it remains a persistent one. Such criticisms often, too often in fact, miss the utility of mythology and the idealized case. As it is in science, perhaps so it is in entertainment. The simplified model may help us better understand the phenomena in question. In addition to this, the simplification of mythology has real literary utility. Tolkien, who was quite harsh on allegory, referred to this utility as applicability. One reason his Lord of the Rings cycle has endured is precisely because it sits outside any specific time and place and isn’t a precise allegory. It is about themes in human nature, and not about specific places and people. Perhaps counterintuitively, The Lord of the Rings then becomes about all people, at all times and in all places. His vision of Middle-Earth in its time of conflict was no doubt inspired by time in which he was living, and the conflict World War I in which he fought, but he was writing about larger themes.

Comic books have provided cinema with a new mythology to plumb. And as it was with the generic action heroes of the 80s and 90s, or the Westerns that preceded them, there are endless approaches to using the new mythologies to explore timeless human themes in an idealized way.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is as good an espionage thriller as Three Days of the Condor. It is also a great action film. In addition to all this, it has a lot of important things to say about the rule of law, and of standing on principle. Should we act pre-emptively to threats? This will become, as it was in Winter Soldier, an increasingly fraught question, because our digital footprint is allowing intelligent algorithms greater and greater predictive power. Currently this technology is effectively manipulating you to buy more than you need or really want, or spend more time on social media, or on certain apps. It could be used more nefariously. In the film, the good guys develop an algorithm capable of predicting future behavior. One of our heroes, Nick Fury, is so satisfied that it can predict future bad actions he is prepared to sign off on its implementation and essentially drone strike people who are going to, sooner or later, become threats to justice. Captain America is, hopefully the viewer’s surrogate self, and his reasonable, rule of law objections, kick off an investigation that uncovers the equally dark twin side of the algorithm. If it can predict bad actors, it can also predict people who would stand opposed to more fascist and authoritarian styles of power and the weapon could be used just as well against good and decent people, or people who will find themselves opposed and taking a stand. There are deep questions being asked by Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And all the while there are, for fans, wonderful character studies, and arcs to eat up along the way. We get the crushed Natasha Romanov, when she realizes Nick Fury, doesn’t trust her enough with what he discovers. He goes, not to her, his right hand, but to Rogers, who opposed the program. She is also unsettled by Rogers’ distrust of her. It is a rough thing to have the mirror reveal unpleasant things and Johansson’s acting choices as Natasha Romanov in response to each emotional reveal is more or less brilliant. I would argue this is fine filmmaking, and on par with much more somber espionage pieces like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, (which I found incredibly soporiphic) or the splendidly tense film Breach, starring the incomparable Chris Cooper.

Superhero films, like mythology, can be incredibly self-referential, involved in furthering character and story and still say a lot about principles and human nature and be worthy of one’s time. In this way they are very like the films of Wes Anderson, which are as far from reality as any comic book movie, but still manage to convey very real observations about human nature.

Not everyone can open themselves up to such fiction and allow the immersion that fantasy requires. Some people just find certain genres unappealing. That is okay. It would be nice though, if those who can’t or don't could see, at least in principle, why others do find the fantastical useful, as well as why it endures.

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31 May 2017

An excellent breakdown of Gaeshi Waza by the great Kashiwazaki.

Judo some times doesn’t always seem like it should work in the Brazilian Jiu Jitsu context. But I think just about every thing Katsuhiko Kashiwazaki does is BJJ appropriate. Here are a bunch of his Gaeshi variants.  Enjoy.

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26 May 2017

Seth Myers Nails Paul Ryan.

Seth Myers is on fire here.

Greg Gianforte: Symptom of American Failure

Greg Gianforte is by any account, an American success story. He and his wife made a fortune on a tech company, RightNow Technologies. They made a larger fortune selling that company for over a billion dollars. He had an unsuccessful run for governor of Montana, no criticism there. He had a successful run as Congressman, being elected yesterday in a Montana special election.

It was only in the last day when Gianforte became an example of what I am calling American Failure.

A reporter for the BBC asked Gianforte to comment on the Congressional Budget Office’s latest report on the Republican Congress’ American Health Care Act. Not many Republicans in Congress want to discuss the CBO analysis because it fairly damning of the AHCA, and makes the efforts to push it through by Republican held Congress look as cynical as they probably were. This is why Ben Jacobs, of the BBC, thought it would be a good idea to ask Gianforte, then only a Republican contender for Congress, his thoughts on the bill in light of the latest report. Here, courtesy of the Atlantic is a transcript of the attack. If you follow the link you can also listen to the audio.

Ben Jacobs, a reporter for The Guardian: ...the CBO score. Because, you know, you were waiting to make your decision about health care until you saw the bill and it just came out...
Greg Gianforte, the congressional candidate: Yeah, we’ll talk to you about that later.
Jacobs: Yeah, but there’s not going to be time. I’m just curious—
Gianforte: Okay, speak with Shane, please.
[loud scuffling noises, an even louder crash, repeated thumping]
Gianforte: [shouting] I’m sick and tired of you guys!
Jacobs: Jesus chri—!
Gianforte: The last guy that came in here, you did the same thing! Get the hell out of here!
Jacobs: Jesus!
Gianforte: Get the hell out of here! The last guy did the same thing! You with The Guardian?
Jacobs: Yes! And you just broke my glasses.
Gianforte: The last guy did the same damn thing.
Jacobs: You just body-slammed me and broke my glasses.
Gianforte: Get the hell out of here.
Jacobs: You’d like me to get the hell out of here, I’d also like to call the police. Can I get you guys’ names?
Unidentified third man: Hey, you gotta leave.
Jacobs: He just body-slammed me.
Unidentified third man: You gotta leave.

In the immediate aftermath of the alleged assault, Gianforte spokesmen blamed the “incident” as being the result of an aggressive reporter. Neither the written exchange, nor the actual audio of the attack (I can think of no other word) support the idea that the reporter was aggressive. Nor does the eye witness testimony of a fox news crew. The FoxNew crew describe the event as follows.
"During that conversation, another man — who we now know is Ben Jacobs of The Guardian — walked into the room with a voice recorder, put it up to Gianforte's face and began asking if he had a response to the newly released Congressional Budget Office report on the American Health Care Act. Gianforte told him he would get to him later. Jacobs persisted with his question. Gianforte told him to talk to his press guy, Shane Scanlon.  
At that point, Gianforte grabbed Jacobs by the neck with both hands and slammed him into the ground behind him. Faith, Keith and I watched in disbelief as Gianforte then began punching the reporter. As Gianforte moved on top of Jacobs, he began yelling something to the effect of, "I'm sick and tired of this!"

Jacobs scrambled to his knees and said something about his glasses being broken. He asked Faith, Keith and myself for our names. In shock, we did not answer. Jacobs then said he wanted the police called and went to leave. Gianforte looked at the three of us and repeatedly apologized. At that point, I told him and Scanlon, who was now present, that we needed a moment. The men then left."
Most importantly from the Fox News Report, "To be clear, at no point did any of us who witnessed this assault see Jacobs show any form of physical aggression toward Gianforte, who left the area after giving statements to local sheriff's deputies.  

The American Failure of which I speak is the fact that for too many Americans, Gianfortes frustrated, impulsive action seems like character. No one was surprised when Montanans elected Gianforte to congress. Most news outlets predicted he would likely still win, or at the very least his performance would be unaffected by news of the alleged assault. Indeed Montana Republicans were, according to exit polling, unswayed. Some, in NPR interviews, even suggested that it was good what now Congressman elect Gianforte did. Voters favoring Gianforte thought it showed character. A friend of mine said, Understanding consequences and standing up for what you believe in is a quality behavior. This man has been repeatedly attacked by the alt left media and stood up for himself and his ideology. For that I applaud him and make no apologies for doing so.” My friend further, said, “Play stupid games when stupid prizes.” He isn’t alone in his opinion. Though it is an opinion that seems to be untethered to the facts, so far, in this particular case. The conservative opinion seems to dramatically expand the definition of attack in the process of defending what just ten years ago would likely have been indefensible. Ben Jacobs, simply asked Gianforte, for his position on the AHCA, in light of the CBO report. Gianforte had been hedging on his support until that report. His reaction doesn’t follow citation of principles. The assault doesn’t follow aggressive action by Jacobs. It looks like nothing more than what it was, a frustrated, perhaps tired, man lashing out at a reporter asking him questions.  Lets reflect a moment on what those actions appear to have been. In response to two questions, Gianforte grabbed a BBC reporter by the neck with both hands, forced him to the ground and began punching him. The “stupid game” and the “attack” my friend and his fellow conservatives refer to is the act of a reporter doing his job.

Words aren’t violence. If the response to uncomfortable words is going to be physical violence, and if we are going to imagine that such violence is virtue, then I think the Enlightenment project that is the US is dead. Physically choking slamming someone who has just asked you a question doesn’t represent manly virtue. At best it represents the unenlightened first impulse of a frustrated tired man, having to address a bad bill on the eve of an election that shouldn’t have been as close as it was. At worst, it represents the first impulse of thug, with naked contempt for the press. There is no evidence of virtue in the assault on Ben Jacobs. Seeing virtue in it is an American Failure.

My friend went on to say, that “The good people of Missoula disagreed with me.” The implication here is that since majority have spoken the right position has been discovered, or the majority makes right.” Strangely this same person would balk at the majority who spoke in the last Presidential election, but I digress. The good people of Missoula may disagree with me, but there is a notable exception to this majority that is perhaps cause of hope-though perhaps hope is premature. Whether hope is premature or not, the exception takes the form of Greg Gianforte himself, who had this to say.

“Last night I made a mistake, and when you make a mistake, you have to own up to it,” Gianforte told a supportive crowd in his victory speech. “That’s the Montana way. Last night I made a mistake and I took an action that I can’t take back and I’m not proud of what happened. I should not have responded in the way that I did and for that I’m sorry.”

11 May 2017

The Looming Disaster. The Trump Administration: The Apotheosis of the Worst Trends in American Thinking.

It has been a rough week for the Trump administration, and it’s GOP allies. The cynicism of the Trump/Ryan push on the GOP health care bill, the American Health Care Act (AHCA) has already had a telling effect on GOP numbers. As reported by the Independent, Republicans who signed off on the AHCA are already seeing re-election chances fall. The hope of the GOP members of Congress is to present the illusion of success, while essentially giving the Senate a land mine. While claiming victory with no major legislation passed, they create an insurance policy they can point to should the Senate fail to do anything with the bill. “Well, we presented legislation, its not our fault the Senate failed to come up with a workable middle ground.” Trump sang the AHCA’s praises, even as its chances to pass, are fairly slim.  The Senate isn’t terribly satisfied with the bill. The Congressional Budget Office  report on the AHCA doesn’t help. Their summary, "CBO and JCT estimate that enacting the American Health Care Act would reduce federal deficits by $337 billion over the coming decade and increase the number of people who are uninsured by 24 million in 2026 relative to current law, makes a lot of people, lawmakers and constituents alike, uncomfortable. Of course, with Trump, it can get worse, and often does. His firing of James Comes, the sometimes controversial head of the FBI, generated massive, and predictable, except apparently to President Trump alone, backlash. According to the New York Times, some republicans have broken ranks with Trump to express dismay, with the firing of Comey, whom Trump once praised for Comey’s October surprise reveal of a continuing investigation into Clinton’s emails. The President, his press secretary, and various other conservative megaphones, have tried out using the former director Comey’s handling of Clinton’s investigation as a rationale for the firing. It isn’t convincing and, in any event, the rationale continues to evolve. The evolving rationales look more and more like mendacity with each ad hoc permutation.* (SEE ADDENDUM)

The optics of the Comey firing looked worse than it might have, given Trump’s meeting, almost on the heels of Comey’s termination, free of a free press, with Russian Ambassador Sergey I. Kislyack, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov. While Western Media may have been barred from the meeting, Russia’s state controlled press was allowed in. It doesn’t even take a paranoid mind to find that kind of move suspicious. In their New York Times article, Sense of Crisis Deepens, as Trump Defends Firing, Michael Shear, Jennifer Steinhauer, and Matt Fledgenhiemer, point out that Kislyack is a central figure in the FBI’s sprawling investigation of Russian meddling, and possible collusion with elements of Trump’s campaign. The pictures, released by Russian media, make the scene in the Oval Office seem almost celebratory. Who knows, maybe it was. We won’t know, because there was no free press present to record the event. If you were an ethical player in US politics, or even just a optics savvy one, would you meet with Kislyack in the absence of reporters? Or at all? And no where is there any of that saber rattling vibe that Trump’s Whitehouse and Moscow, both, seemed to have been trying to sell to the media a few weeks ago after Trump bombed a well warned Syrian air base. And, as if the optics could not get any worse, or the Nixon comparisons any easier, Trump meets with Henry Kissinger.

What we do know is this. The FBI’s investigation into Russian meddling, and possible collusion between Trump campaign operatives and Russian elements was ramping up. The investigation had already damaged one Trump campaign member, then National Security Advisor Michael T Flynn so badly he was forced to resign. Before Flynn’s departure, Paul Manafort, a long time Republican operator, long time friend of Russian oligarchs, resigned, in part because of his own Russian ties. Manafort worked for the pro-Putin Ukrainian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, amid a swirl of ethical quandaries. From The Atlantic article:
"The Times reports on handwritten ledgers that list $12.7 million in cash payments to Manafort from Yanukovych’s political party between 2007 and 2012. While it isn’t clear from the records whether Manafort actually received the money, the documents, obtained by the Ukrainian National Anti-Corruption Bureau, sketch out some of Manafort’s many ties in the region:
Investigators assert that the disbursements were part of an illegal off-the-books system whose recipients also included election officials. In addition, criminal prosecutors are investigating a group of offshore shell companies that helped members of Mr. Yanukovych’s inner circle finance their lavish lifestyles, including a palatial presidential residence with a private zoo, golf course and tennis court. Among the hundreds of murky transactions these companies engaged in was an $18 million deal to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin."
As a political advisor, Manafort seems to have gravitated toward less than morally upright candidates. In addition to Yanukovych, Manafort also once worked with Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos. If Manafort’s forte is polishing generally terrible people for public consumption, what are we to make of his decision to seek out and aid Trump? That is, perhaps, question for another blog. The fact remains, though, Manafort, has ties, and extensive ones to Putin backed lackeys. In addition to Manafort and Flynn, Trump’s foreign policy advisor Carter Page, has significant financial ties to Russia’s state controlled oil company Gazprom.

Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, was caught lying, or at least misspeaking, , under oath about meeting with Kislyack in a way that, in previous, less partisan times, would likely have doomed any other AG candidate. We don’t live in less partisan times. Sessions in response to the revelation that he had, in fact, met with Russians, announced he would recuse himself from the investigation of Russian meddling. Remember that for a bit, it is a subject to which we will return.

Enter President Trump, and his business association. There is no shortage of ties between Trump and numerous Russian, pro-Putin business entities. To be successful in business in Russia is almost by definition to be pro-Putin. Trump once famously tweeted, by way of deflection, “I HAVE ZERO INVESTMENTS IN RUSSIA.” Having never released his tax returns, we of course can’t easily verify this. The statement of course is vulnerable to critical analysis. Is he being tricky with terms? He may personally have no investments in Russia, but what about his businesses? Related entities? Is he just lying? Whatever the answers to those questions are, they say little about how Russian entities might have invested in Trump himself.

As Time Magazine reporter Jeff Nesbitt eloquently puts it: 
"Most of the coverage of the links between Trump and Putin’s Russia takes the GOP presidential nominee at his word—that he has lusted after a Trump tower in Moscow, and come up spectacularly short. But Trump’s dodge—that he has no businesses in Russia, so there is no connection to Putin—is a classic magician’s trick. Show one idle hand, while the other is actually doing the work."
Citing the work of a multitude of reporters, Nesbitt asserts, with copious evidence to support him, that while Trump may not have businesses in Russia, many of his business holdings, are deeply entangled with Russian financiers that are "part of Putin’s inner circle.” Several of Trump’s advisors have had or continue to have deep business relationships within Russia. Trump’s brand can no longer get loans from US institutions, owing to his many bankruptcies, and in response sought out Russian investment. Nesbitt quotes, LA Times reporter Max Boot, "Trump has sought and received funding from Russian investors for his business ventures, especially after most American banks stopped lending to him following his multiple bankruptcies.” Many of Trump’s satellite businesses have been financed by a company called Bayrock. The company has been implicated in money laundering, tax evasion and connection to more serious criminal organizations. Trump Soho, was such a complicated mess, even the shady Bayrock was troubled, and its Finance Chief Jody Kriss, sued Trump Soho, because of what Kriss referred to as the magical appearance of funds from Russian sources whenever Trump Soho needed funds, Nesbitt notes.

Trump partnered with two Russian investors on his lavish Toronto hotel. We all, I assume, know how the story of Trump’s Toronto adventure ends, but if you didn’t, the words you are looking for are, disaster, and ignominy. Lawsuits, debt and bankruptcy seem to be Trump’s real business legacy. From NPR,

"Investors bought condominiums in the tower that could be rented out by the hotel. The investors claim they were promised sky-high occupancy rates and returns on their investment.
Toronto lawyer Mitchell Wine says those never panned out. Collectively, the investors lost millions of dollars. Wine represents 27 investors, and many are members of Toronto's Korean community who speak very little English."
Trump has bragged about meeting with Russian Oligarchs.

While Trump Sr likes to play down any Russian ties these days, Donald Jr., has been decidedly less reserved on the numerous and deep ties to Russian investment. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son, Donald Jr., bragged. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”

Trump has been touting his ties and interest in Russian business, according to the Atlantic, for nearly 30 years. It is only relatively recently that he has been talking out of both sides of his mouth on the Russian Question. I don’t think I’ve even been exhaustive on the links Trump and his businesses have to Russian entities. Click through the links. There is more to see and all of it is troubling.

I bring up all this because it casts a dark shadow over the abrupt firing of James Comey. I’m not here to defend Comey, who seems fairly capable of that on his own. I am not a person who ever called on Comey to resign, or be fired, despite the fact I think he has been, at times (can you say October Surprise constant reader) clumsy. He has had some very good moments too, standing up to politicians of both parties, doggedly pursuing a potentially explosive investigation, to name just a few. Comey has earned both his criticisms and his praise. 

Director Comey asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for more funding to pursue the complicated question of Russian involvement in meddling, and potential collusion with members of the Trump campaign in shaping the 2016 election, among other things. We know that after that request Rosenstein and Sessions both sent word to Trump that he should fire Director Comey. Its hard not to view Sessions recommendation as both self serving (he has himself been implicated as a liar on the Russian question) as well as a violation of his stated recusal from the investigation into Russian infiltration of our politics. We know, that upon receiving these letters, Trump, who was deeply angry with Director Comey, did exactly what Sessions and Rosenstein suggested and he fired Director Comey.

Individually none of these facts would be all that remarkable. The aggregate, though, is more than troubling. It is alarming. The shape of these facts do more than just suggest that powerful people in Washington are trying to stave off a potentially administration shattering scandal, the likes of which we haven’t seen in US politics since June 17, 1972. These facts demand a thorough, and uncompromised investigation.

What scares me, and I think should scare you is this. The partisan era in which we live, and the fact averse society we have created, suggest that exactly what we need -an impartial investigation- will be an extra-ordinarily difficult undertaking. Paul Ryan, and many in the GOP in Congress seem to see Trump, more often than they do not, as useful idiot in producing their brand of ideologically driven policy. There is not, at present, a significant number of Democrats to drive such an investigation forward either. The chance that men like Paul Ryan would happily let things get worse, and American confidence in its government continue to falter, to achieve a very narrow set of political goals, seems very high to me. The righting of this ship, requires that the GOP see the Cyrillic writing on the wall. No. I take that back. They, except for perhaps the most naive among them, already see that writing. What is required is that they act accordingly, with integrity and resolve. Perhaps the truth will even allow them to keep their useful idiot. Or it may not. Regardless, a thorough, transparent examination of the Russian connections is absolutely necessary.

Shortly after I finished this piece, mere hours, a few new and shocking things came to light. The most damning permutation of President Trump’s rationale for his firing of James Comey came out in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. Michael Schmidt, of the New York Times, closes a long troubling article about Trump demanding loyalty from Comey at a dinner between the two men with the NBC quote.
Mr. Trump said in the NBC interview, “Regardless of recommendation, I was going to fire Comey.” “In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,” Mr. Trump said. I recommend you read the Times’ piece, In a Private Dinner, Trump Demanded Loyalty. Comey Demured. The article is linked in the text above.

But let us focus for a moment on the incredible quote, which must represent the most real rationale for Trump’s decision to fire Comey. There is nothing ethical to be gleaned from Trump’s words. He simply wants the Russian investigation to go away. “ ..Russia is a made-up story” He says. 

Whether he really believes he has done nothing wrong, or understands that he has, is immaterial to the massive ethical violation of his office demonstrated by his reasoning. Whether he is innocent of any wrong doing (can one be held too responsible for incompetence?) he serves the interest of the American people. The commitments to the American people are no less for AG “Mr. Let me recuse Myself” Sessions, and Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein. Of the people who form the heart of this article the only one who seems to have understood the nature of public service, for all his flaws, seems to have been former Director James Comey. Trump’s firing of Comey is an attempt, naked and contemptible, to close an investigation simply because it may make him look bad. The investigation into Russian meddling is an investigation demanded by the facts, and it is owed to the American people. Richard Dawkins, with an economy I think we all should envy, damned the whole affair in a simple tweet. 

It is nearly impossible to follow Trump, and his loyal tribe, and not make comparisons to Nixon or various Banana Republics. Trump’s own love of autocratic strongmen greases the wheels of  these comparisons. The ease of these comparisons makes the observation that neither Trump, nor his administration care about their duty to the public hard to dismiss.

Whatever Trump may personally think, his dismissal of the Russian story as “made-up” doesn’t align with facts. Even if he himself operated with no intentional collision, that wouldn’t mean members of his campaign did not. Or that he himself, or members of his campaign were not influenced by Russian attempts to influence both the American public, Trump himself, and his staffers. In fact, the Intelligence community has demonstrated that, even sans conscientious efforts at collusion, the Russian efforts to influence Trump and his campaign, and the American public worked to some degree. In what many are calling the most over looked news story of the day, that day being yesterday, the following exchange took place as the Senate continued its own investigation of Russian influence operations in the 2016 election.

Clinton Watts' testimony before the Senate may be the most troubling two minutes of testimony the US has seen in a very long time. Trump’s twitter account was targeted by fake news organizations operated by Russian elements. Both Paul Manafort and Trump and others in his campaign parroted these fake stories. Trump supporters were targeted by these propaganda organs of the Russian state.
This is what we know. I urge you to watch the video. It should unsettle you, and make you want to defend our institutions and our way of life even more.

My final note to this blog post:
I shared this post, in rough form, with several friends. They all offered their own feed back and observations, and various corrections. I want to say thanks to Alexandra, Jason G, and Jason C, and Dan.

One of my friends suggested that “apotheosis" was apt, but seemed to suggest that more accurately, the Trump administration represents the culmination, specifically, of Republican populism stretching back to and beginning in the Goldwater era in 1964 (though Goldwater himself wasn’t a simple populist). This same friend, who can name himself in the comments if he chooses, also suggests a twin culmination. Republican populism has a twin, ineffectualism in governance. I think my friend is on to something here, but I will leave my title as it stands.

24 February 2017

What I am Reading:

I’m almost always reading (at least) two books at once and working on comic books in between. Should you be reading what I am reading? I don’t know, but here is what I am reading currently or have recently finished. If it is finished, each listing will say so and offer a rating ??/10.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History
by Elizabeth Kolbert
$10.87 at Amazon
This is a book about one of the bigger environmental problems facing humanity today, mass extinction. The problem is intertwined with Climate Change, but climate isn’t the only problem. So far its fascinating if somewhat depressing reading.

Mind Over Muscle: Writings of the Founder of Judo
by Jigoro Kano
$14.60 at Amazon
What did Kano intend for Judo? Well read this book and find out. Kano was an innovator but also something of social activist, and he thought Judo could be a force for good, not just for self-defense and sport minded individuals, but for societies as a whole. 

Comic books:

Patsy Walker, AKA HELLCAT: Hooked on a Feline Vol. 1
by Kate Leth and Brittany Williams
$11.40 at Amazon
Finished 8/10

This I just finished and its a hoot. Not too serious and not silly, It hits all the right notes. Its the story of the former Defender Patsy Walker whose life has been fairly hard knock, but who manages to make the best out of bad situations by having great friends (and being one!).

Dragonball 3 in 1 edtion, Vol 1.
by Akira Toriyama
Finished 10/10

$12.28 at Amazon
I’m an extraordinarily late comer to the adventures of Son Goku, his band of adventurers and their quest to find the seven Dragonballs. Having finished the first volume of the 3-in1edition by VizMedia I can say better late than never. Its interesting having enjoyed some anime and manga that came after,  to see how far reaching Toriyama’s influence has been.

Thinking about the Star Wars Cinematic Universe: The New Canon on the Big Screen?

In the 1970s George Lucas, and his gifted team of writers, actors and other filmmakers introduced us to a galaxy far, far away and full of adventures that took place a long time ago. Since then the Star Wars universe has greatly expanded. To be honest it expanded once in a series of books, then contracted back to the original films (once the shape of Episode 7-The Force Awakens- coelesced), and what we now know to be the prequels (Episodes 1, 2 and 3 if you must ask). Now a new canon is emerging, with new books, movies, TV series and comic books (the comics are some of the best Marvel have produced in any genre) joining the back bone of the Star Wars Galaxy. I know many fans of the original expanded Universe, now published under the heading Legends, have been disappointed that that EU has been largely scrapped. But having read content from both, I have to say that the scrapping is for the best. Many fans won’t admit it, but the original EU produced moderately okay fiction generally, bad fiction often, but maybe only rarely (I think never) great Star Wars content. Not even Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy holds up particularly well. That isn’t to say that it wasn’t entertaining. It didn’t live up, I don’t think, to the promise of Star Wars.

Enter the animated series Star Wars: Clone Wars, (here after SWCW) and Star Wars: Rebels. The first series is a much richer exploration of causes, and players of the prequels, and actually gives sense making context the jumbled, mixed bag of Star Wars: Episode 2 Attack of the Clones, and Star Wars: Episode 3 Revenge of the Sith. SWCW gives us the Anakin that Obi Wan spoke of to Luke on Tatooine all those years ago. Great pilot? Check. Cunning warrior? Check. And most crucially of all, good friend? Big check. Clone Wars the animated series gave us the Anakin the prequels never did.

This blog isn’t really about the glory that is STCW, except to say that if you are a fan of the Star War universe and its ability to produce quality family entertainment that is both, fun and serious you should check it out. I will say it is often realistically violent (within the scope of its space opera rules). It takes war and its cost more seriously than most popular fiction. It constantly addresses the morals of using clones to fight a war, and creates deep characters of them.  So go watch it if you have not.

The deep question of this blog is mostly for fans of Star Wars: Rebels (hereafter SWR). For those who don’t know the show well (you should!) here is a brief fairly spoiler free synopsis. SWR is the saga of one tiny piece of the movement that would become the Galactic Rebellion. It tells the story of close knit group of friendly people trying to do the moral thing in a galaxy governed by gross immorality.  There is the ship’s captain, Hera Syndulla, a rebellion sympathizer, Kanan Jarrus, a former pad wan,  survivor of dread order 66, Ezra Bridger, a force sensitive kid, who has taken up the way of the Jedi under Kanan, even if Kanan insists he isn’t really a Jedi, Zeb a refugee, Wren Sabine, not exactly a refugee, but a Mandolorian outcast. Oh and the delightfully idiosyncratic astromech Chooper. Should any of the characters be featured in the new live action films of Disney? Keep in mind they have been hinted at. We know that the Ghost was at the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. We also know that Mon Mothma asked to see a certain General Syndulla. Many fans, myself among them believe this to be Hera Syndulla formerly captain of the Ghost.
the Ghost is in the bottom center left. 
Photo courtesy of Nerdist and Disney Films.

I think the crew of the Ghost and their story belong on the big screen. What do you think and who should play the stalwart heroes of SWR? I think the Rebels do belong on the big screen, but I confess, I don’t have any clue who ought to play them. Here is what I got (all this could change depending on when producers want to give us a big screen Rebels tale. I would suggest any SWR film should take place between the Rogue One and The Force Awakens.
Hera Syndulla: Tessa Thompson, though an older Hera could be excellent, as the gang at moviepilot.com suggest,  to see Rosario Dawson in the role.
Kanan Jarrus: Tom Hiddleston
Ezra Bridger: Tom Holland
Sabine Wren: Rila Fukushima
Zeb: Moviepilot.com suggested Hugh Jackman, and now that I’ve heard it, its hard to get it out of my head. But I also like Woody Harrelson, Andy Serkis, or if it is completely CGI, for voice quality, I really like the idea of John Goodman. Goodman could even do the MO-CAP.
Chopper: totally keep who ever is doing the voice for Chopper, but make Chopper, as much as possible a practical effect.
Rex:Temuera Morrison..obvs.

Ahsoka Tano: I like Rosario Dawson for this role too, probably more than for Hera. Mila Kunas would be great too. 

Agent Callus: Ralph Feines
Hondo Ohnaka: Wes Studi

Maul: Ray Park for the body, voice give to Sam Witwer, or  just give the whole thing to Witwer.

07 November 2016

Christina Rad seems to be back!

Christina Rad goes after Donald Trump. Enjoy.