Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Putin On The Ritz

Vladmir Putin wasted no time closing down an art gallery that exhibited work that made fun of him.  To be expected. After all this is the guy who had a provocative rock group put in jail. Apparently the world's most powerful homophobe, who loves to prance about in public, shirtless, has no sense of humor. Pictured here are Mr. Putin and his bff Dimitri Medvedev. Then again, have we heard from Dimitri lately?

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Film Pairings — True Crime Brought To The Screen

Sissy Spacek, Martin Sheen in Badlands

For those who watch crime films about serial or mass murderers for the “kill” moments, Badlands and Zodiac will disappoint.  And I’m betting I’m not the only viewer to feel that both films are tremendously well done and worthwhile, yet unsatisfying because they convey only the senselessness of the acts. There is no answer to the question, why? Because of this, I suspect they more honestly convey the sad truth of it all.

Director Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) takes us back to the 1950s to tell the story of real-life spree killer Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old girlfriend — outcast and naive romantic.  The beauty of this film certainly isn’t the story, nor any powerful lesson one can learn from it.  It is the way the story is told. There is a great deal of quiet, minimal dialogue and powerful cinematography. We are there with them, sharing their isolation, their connection with each other and their disconnection from the world.  The Starkweather role is played intentionally and effectively with shades of James Dean by a very young Martin Sheen. I’m not sure anyone but Sissy Spacek could have convinced us that a smart sensitive young woman could overlook cruelty for so long, despite the charming package that contained it.   In any event, the audience might find itself lost in time and suspended in a place where only the two characters exist.
While Badlands is kind of a gritty fantasy, Zodiac, (2007), despite attempts to market it as a “thriller,” is neither fantasy nor thriller. It is as close to a documentary as a scripted, acted film can be. Directed by David Fincher, Zodiac takes us back to 1969 when a killer began to focus his senseless killings in and around San Francisco.  We are witness to the inevitably gruesome aspects to remind us of the level of the horror, but we are given much more information on how the killings affected those – the police, the media and their families and the entire city — who are drawn into and for some, destroyed by the madness.  Here, detail is important and the filmmakers get it right.  We are inside the city’s Hall of Justice where investigators feel the immense pressure of a city scared out its collective wits.  We are inside the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle to witness its internal struggles and moral dilemmas. And we, the audience, never know more than was known as the story unfolds.  Expert casting: Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, Robert Downey, Jr. and Anthony Edwards. Brian Cox also appears as San Francisco’s legendary lawyer, Melvin Belli.  The film was based on the book by Robert Graysmith.

As an accompaniment, beer strikes the right mood for Badlands.  So, to bring San Francisco into the picture, go for Anchor Steam.

Monday, August 19, 2013

All Rant, No Raves: Opinion – Threats Against Journalists

Congress, reluctantly, it seems, is taking up shield law legislation — that is putting in place protection for the media that allows reporters to protect their sources and ward off such charges as “espionage “if they reveal information the government believes is secret. The U.S. Constitution provides for broad interpretations of free speech, but also identifies the media as having a special role in the checks and balances system to guard against a government or branch of government that over reaches its charge.

If the Bernard Manning debacle didn’t alert us to the problems of making just about anything the government does secret — putting the powerful beyond anyone’s reach — then the Edward Snowden affair has put the issue on the front burner.

His vilification is a lesser issue than the threat it poses to press freedom, or, if you like free speech.  His case will be resolved, one way or another.  But what about other whistleblowers? And what about the reporters who see to it someone hears the whistle?

According to a story in The New York Times and a post in the The Huffington Post and as recently as Saturday, friends and associates of Guardian reporter Glenn Greenwald, who is the primary teller of Snowden’s adventures, have been hassled — detained and interrogated. Saturday, agents invaded Greenwald’ personal life.  The reporter’s partner of several years was stopped at a London airport, kept there for six hours, and had his personal belongings confiscated. All this is being justified, say reports, under various terrorist laws.

Talk about the chilling effect on reporting the news honestly. Worse, one of Greenwald’s professional cohorts, as reported in this last weekend’s Times Magazine, is a victim of government harassment. Laura Poitras is an investigative journalist who makes documentaries often scrutinizing government power. As such, Laura Poitras has been subject to the kind of secret agency intrusion one expects to find only in the movies like The Bourne Identity.  People who made themselves available for on-screen interviews for her film were hassled as well, some even more harshly.  Agents broke into a former NSA official’s home, guns drawn on him, his wife, and children. He wasn’t charged, but his computer and other items were confiscated.

Yet there is debate about providing a shield law for reporters, many of whom go up against the mightiest security forces in the world to make sure we know what’s really going on.  But even those politicians who pretend to want freedom of the press really only want to preserve its sacred appearance.  They are more interested in their own status, their own shield of secrecy.  Head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Dianne Feinstein knows she cannot be against it, but cannot bring herself to fully support freedom of the press either.

Laura Poitras, Documentary-Maker — Shoestring?
A real reporter, declared Feinstein during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, is “a salaried agent” of a media company like the New York Times or ABC News, not a “shoestring operation with volunteers and writers who are not paid.”

The sheer snobbery of the extremely wealthy Senator’s remarks should be enough to provoke outrage for those who believe in freedom of speech and the importance of an informed electorate.  But the comment is even more telling.  This is the same mental contortion that led to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.  Money is speech, they said.  The more money you have the more speech you are entitled to, it appears.  Mega-Media corporations like The New York Times and ABC News have significantly more rights than some poor “shoestring” operation. And Feinstein wants to protect the powerful, not the people who need the protection.  Very clever and very cynical.  Damn those volunteers.

Shouldn’t we be more worried about the corporate ownership of our representatives — Senator Feinstein, are you listening? — than a dedicated reporter of an obscure blog spilling information that embarrasses our bureaucrats?  In fact, powerful media are much less likely to need a shield law than altruistic truth-sayer — volunteers possibly.

By the way, the only one caught lying in this whole affair is the head of NSA.  He lied to Congress without consequence.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Film Pairings — Two By Dahl: You Kill Me And The Last Seduction

For as long as I can remember, I’ve tried to imagine the lives of strangers. These are people I’ve seen on the streets or in restaurants. I have always been curious about what went on inside the house I just passed as I walked my dog or behind the glass of the apartment window as the train on the Chicago’s “L” rolled between the high rises.  What’s with the guy sitting alone at the bar for hours, or on a park bench?  Sometime I make up exotic stories about them. Most likely, they have average lives, caught up in a routine, paying the bills, getting by.  Or they might be damaged, seemingly heartless, perhaps even unknowable characters who somehow get inside your mind and cause trouble.  They might live in a world created by film director John Dahl, in which case the lives aren’t ordinary or routine.

Ben Kingsley
In one of Dahl’s worlds, Ben Kingsley plays a Polish hit man in the film You Kill Me.  Aside from a little problem with alcoholism, he lives a quiet, solitary, one might say empty, life in a rundown but livable house in a blue-collar neighborhood in Buffalo.  He considers himself a professional with standards. But a botched hit renders him unemployed and steals the last bit of self-respect that alcohol hadn’t already stolen.  His former employer — an uncle who aside from family allegiance still needs his skills — sends the hitman off to California to dry out.  “What?  They have nothing to drink in San Francisco?” Kingsley asks.  In San Francisco, the disoriented hitman finds himself interacting with other slightly off-kilter characters, and life gathers meaning.  This is Kingsley’s movie, but the supporting cast is stellar, with fine performances by Téa Lioni, Luke Wilson, and Bill Pullman. And how could you go wrong with and the late, great Dennis Farina?

Linda Fiorentino
If The Last Seduction were made in the 1940s — and it would have fit right in — Lauren Bacall would have been a perfect seductress.  As it was filmed in 1994, Linda Fiorentino has to be the only choice.  She is the neo-noir girl. Sexy, tough, amoral and merciless.  She hooks up with a shady doctor-to-be (Bill Pullman), deciding, when the opportunity presents itself, to rip him off for $700,000 and leaves him to be savaged by loan sharks. But the doc, rather than tending to a broken heart and broken bones, decides vengeance is good for what ails him.  She decides to hide in a small town for a while, but Pullman tracks her down.  The seductress finds a more gullible young man (Peter Berg) to play with, to satisfy her sexual appetite and to eventually help her get rid of her pursuer once and for all. Here Dahl deftly blends both a plot- and character-driven drama.  This is an especially good film.

To accompany the films and taking the lead from Mr. Kingsley’s character, sip a little Chopin, one of Poland’s prime vodkas.  Your choice, spirits made from wheat, or rye, or potatoes. 

Sunday, August 11, 2013

On Writing & Publishing — On Paper And On Screen, Who Has The Content And Who Can Deliver It?

Jeff Bezos

I’m not the first person to say it and, in fact, many who said it earlier have moved on. But in the book, film and news/information business, it will all boil down to content and delivery. This is why the purchase of The Washington Post is so stunning. Whatever Jeff Bezos’ original intent, we may never know. Maybe he just likes a challenge, doing what some deem as impossible.  It would be a hell of an accomplishment. Of course, owning a newspaper like the Post gives him prestige and significant influence in D.C.— though there is no indication that he is driven politically. Given his unconventional, often criticized creation of Amazon, my bet is that what will come out of this is another major transformation in the digital sweep of business and culture. 

It should be noted that the Post purchase wasn’t made by Amazon, but by Bezos personally — change from the penny jar on his chest of drawers.

For now, the publishing world is in a tizzy.  This is another tizzy.  If the big book publishers and big box booksellers got caught with their technological pants down, so too the newspaper owners.  Bezos, giant slayer, has to be scaring those pants all the way off people who deliver the news the same way they did in 1940 — on huge sheets of paper that have to be printed, cut, folded, stacked and physically delivered.  The newspapers eventually responded, by putting their papers online.  It was a defensive, reluctant and largely thoughtless conversion. Not one of them have been able to successfully monetize their hastily-crafted web sites to the extent needed for them to pay for the actual getting of the news.  Conventional wisdom confirmed the original diagnosis: Death.

Warren Buffett
But for all the fretting about the painfully slow and keenly observable death of newspapers, something doesn’t make sense.  Money-making Guru Warren Buffett is now gobbling up daily newspapers around the U.S. at a time when most financial experts think the newspaper business has as much future as pay telephones and VHS. None of Buffett’s 30 smaller metro dailies and 40 weekly papers have the stature or circulation of The Washington Post, but at the rate Buffet is going he’ll have those little tacks covering the entire U.S. map. There are some major papers for sale. Rumors suggest the Koch Brothers are flirting with a major newspaper purchase that could include the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Orlando Sentinel.  Some are claiming that billionaire NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg hates The New York Times so much he might buy it. “Not for sale,” say the Times owners.

In the ‘70s, rich folk sought respect by buying a Picasso. Now they buy dying newspapers?   Still with all these major players, something is going on. My take is that Amazon’s Bezos is the one to watch.

Half of the Koch Brothers
None of the others have the experience in content and delivery.  Amazon, don’t forget, is well more than a bookseller. It is a book publisher, a film and video distributor operating in a sophisticated but easily accessible environment. Amazon has also become a broad-based on-line retailer. How difficult could it be for the Washington Post, a highly respected newspaper firmly entrenched in our nation’s capitol, coupled with a company already connected to perhaps one of the largest paying data bases ever to set up the Post as our first true nation’s newspaper?

Our national newspaper (sorry U.S.A Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times) is ready each morning on our TV set or pad or phone where we have the option of reading the news in story form or watching it in video form or any way we want.  You choose.  Mix ‘em up if you want as you sip your coffee made with beans that arrived yesterday from Amazon.  Slip on the shoes FED Ex delivered last Friday and go to work.  Dinner will arrive late afternoon. When you get home, check out the Post for any updates, order that new Stephen King Book as well as a download of The Godfather for tonight.  When you’re ready, heat up Amazon’s Bistro dinner in the microwave and uncork a bottle of Bezos Bordeaux.

Amazon can deliver — anything.  The content not only exists, but if you’re worried, Amazon will see that is written, that it will be filmed or constructed or grown. And it will be delivered.  All systems are in place.

Disclosure:  Over the years my books, like hundreds of thousands of others, have been available on Amazon in a variety of formats. All of he above is pure opinion.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Film Pairings — The Swedes Are Taking Over, Long Live The Swedes

It disturbed me a little a few years ago when the whole Scandinavian crime book wave swept the genre.  There were a whole bunch of them suddenly, crowding out my vested interest in British and North American fare.  I’m not sure I have them in the right order, but with books and films came two different Wallanders and a Martin Beck.  They, and others from the cold corner of the planet climbed the charts. Then, at an insurmountable peak, there was that woman with the tattoo.  Just how much fascinating crime fiction could a relatively small country like Sweden produce?

Turns out, quite a bit.  I imagine that many of you are way ahead of me here, but if you’ve somehow neglected to watch Annika Bengtzon: Crime Reporter and Johan Falk, both Swedish imports, go back and take a look. In addition to the country of origin, they have quite a bit in common — high production values, an evolving but not intrusive backstory and a thriller rather than who-done-it structure.

Annika, Malin Crépin, is a devoted reporter, perhaps too devoted, who will do nearly anything to get the story before her competitors.  Her marriage is on the rocks and her husband, no saint, tries to make the case that the children deserve a more devoted mother.  The cracks in her character add to the realism of the drama.  And we can choose whether her obsession with the cases she investigates is based on mental deficit, pursuit of justice or empathy for the victims. What this reminds us is how similar an investigative reporter is to a private investigator. Both have professions that allow them some special access, but no real authority and both seem to have a confrontational relationship with authority. The series is based on novels by Liza Marklund.

Johan Falk, Jacob Eklund, is another in a line of seemingly thousands of troubled ex-cops as protagonists. He believes in good and evil and is generally demoralized by the corruption of the judicial system and, personally, how the system has treated him.   As we meet this specially trained tough guy, he is a member of the police force, but things change during the course of this exceptionally, deceptively smart series. The good thing here is that we don’t just have clash of good and evil, we are exposed to and scared of just how evil the world might be in stories we wish we couldn’t believe.

While Annika, the crime reporter, can handle herself with a gun, or a crowbar if necessary, Falk is the more, beat’em up, shoot’em up, car-chase, explosion-oriented series for those who like that sort of thing.  And I do. There are several episodes in each series and more to come. 

It is said that Sweden has become more European in its tastes, so recommending a fine wine accompaniment for the evening wouldn’t be wrong.  However, vodka is still the national drink.  You might want to skip Russian vodka for the evening, or forever, and enjoy the Vodka from Sweden — Absolut.