Mike Kueber's Blog

April 12, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #147 – 21 Grams and Fury

Filed under: Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:26 am
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21 Grams (2003) is a nonlinear movie – i.e., events are not presented in chronological order – about the lives of three individuals (Sean Penn, Naomi Watts, and Bernicio del Toro) before and after a horrible car-pedestrian accident. This artsy movie was directed by artsy Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who recently won an Oscar for Birdman.  Although I almost gave up on the movie early on, I stuck with it and ended up finding it very satisfying.  All three lead actors did a good job, and two of them – Watts and del Toro – received Oscar nominations.  The Rotten Tomatoes scored the movie at 80% and the audience liked it even better at 86%.  I’m not that generous and give it three stars out of four.  Incidentally, the title of the movie comes from the scientific theory that a body loses 21 grams when it dies, and some have suggested that this is the weight of a soul leaving the body.  Interesting.

Fury (2014) is a violent WWII movie about a group of guys in a tank trying to survive the last few weeks of the war.  The Rotten Tomatoes consensus:

  • Overall, Fury is a well-acted, suitably raw depiction of the horrors of war that offers visceral battle scenes but doesn’t quite live up to its larger ambitions.”

I’m not sure what those “larger ambitions” are.  The acting is good (Brad Pitt, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Logan Lerman, Jon Bernthal), and so is the production, but none of the characters is worth caring about.  The Rotten Tomato scores are almost as good as 21 Grams, with 77% from the critics and 85% from the audience, but I give it only two stars out of four.

Grumpy, old men

Filed under: Retirement — Mike Kueber @ 1:22 am

I have a die-hard conservative friend on Social Security who is majorly depressed to see the American government drift toward Europe’s level of social welfare.  Like Romney, he is concerned that the looters have taken control of our democracy and will continue on their merry way until they run out of other people’s money to spend.  America’s landing, he fears, will be hard.  On bad days he says he hopes he isn’t around to see the ugly ending, but on his good days he says he is looking forward to see the looters get their just deserts.  Let’s call him a grumpy, old man.

A couple of days ago, I had a long conversation with another old friend who is approaching Social Security.  He started by complaining about the management of large corporations, with their focus on selfish objectives instead of the general good.  From that complaint, he pivoted toward young people and their disdain for the Protestant work ethic and old-fashioned integrity.  On each of the subjects, I cut off the discussion by noting that since my retirement six years ago, I have almost no exposure to the management practices of large corporations or the work ethic or integrity of young people, and therefore am poorly qualified to have an opinion.  And even more relevant to our conversation, I didn’t care about the answer.  What difference does it make whether the values that I have are becoming more or less prevalent?

As I thought about my position of apathy, I wondered if I had become the grumpy old man described in the first paragraph above or perhaps my philosophy has become more like the Serenity Prayer:

  • God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.

While pondering that question, I recalled that when I ran for Congress and the SA City Council since retiring, I ran against a couple of whippersnappers (in their early 30s) whom I criticized severely for running for office at such a young age.  But then it occurred to me that I ran for my hometown school board when I was still in college and for the Minot City Counsel when I was in my early 30s, and it never occurred to me then that I was too young to be running for those offices.

Grumpy, old man, indeed.

April 9, 2015

The Walter Scott killing in SC

Filed under: Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 6:50 pm
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I had a Muslim friend who, whenever she heard of a terrorist incident, first hoped that the terrorists weren’t Muslim.  I confess to feeling the same way when hearing a report that a policeman killed an unarmed person – i.e., I hope the policeman wasn’t white and the deceased wasn’t black.  Well, this week in South Carolina, the policeman Michael Slager was white and the deceased Walter Scott was black.

Based on those facts, the New York Times was prepared to immediately jump to conclusions.  According to its editorial board:

  • The case underscores two problems that have become increasingly clear since the civic discord that erupted last year after the police killed black citizens in New York, Cleveland and Ferguson, Mo. The first, most pressing problem is that poorly trained and poorly supervised officers often use deadly force unnecessarily, particularly against minority citizens. The second is that the police get away with unjustly maiming or killing people by lying about the circumstances that prompted them to use force.  The shooting death of Walter Scott on Saturday would have passed into the annals of history unremarked upon had a bystander not used a cellphone to document what happened after Mr. Scott encountered the police officer, Michael Slager, after a routine traffic stop.”

Let me count the ways the editorial board in incorrect:

  1. The shooting in SC is dramatically different than the deaths in NY, Cleveland, and Ferguson, and the prompt criminal charges in SC reflect that.
  2. Poor training and poor supervision have nothing to do with the SC cop shooting a fleeing man.
  3. Police lying, just like any other variety of lying, must be exposed by conflicting evidence.
  4. The killing in Ferguson didn’t “pass into the annals of history unremarked” even though there was no video evidence, so why would the Times suggest that the Walter Scott shooting would?

As I read some of the hundreds of comments to the editorial, most readers scoffed at the suggestion that the shooting resulted from poor training and poor supervision.  Then the next day, NY Times columnist Charles Blow shied away from the training and supervision issue, but joined the growing consensus that this issue of white-cop/black-victim was systemic and would have escaped detection without the video:

  • This case is yet another in a horrifyingly familiar succession of cases that have elevated the issue of use of force, particularly deadly force, by officers against people of color and inflamed the conversation that surrounds it.
  • What would have happened if video of this incident had not surfaced? Would the officer’s version of events have stood? How many such cases must there be where there is no video?
  • But I would argue that the issue we are facing in these cases is not one of equipment, or even policy, but culture.

I suggest that the editorial board and columnist Blow should keep their powder dry until two unreported facts are developed:

  1. Resisting Arrest. The incidents in NY and Ferguson involved victims who resisted arrest, and one of the Lessons Learned that was noted in passing was that it is never a good idea to resist arrest.  In SC, we have been told that the incident was a routine traffic stop, and then the video picks up with a fleeing victim.  Apparently, a witness saw the cop and the victim fighting on the ground.  This missing link seems like an important component of the story for me, but the media seems to have minimal interest.
  2. Racial animus.  After the cop in Ferguson, Darren Wilson, was cleared by state authorities, the feds attempted to prove a civil-rights claim by checking the cop’s history for any evidence of racial animus.  The same thing should be done here before concluding that this was a race-based shooting in SC.

Incidentally, the Charles Blow column included some interesting information about the Ferguson shooting that I was not aware of:

  • One of the most disturbing features of the Department of Justice’s report on the killing of Michael Brown by Darren Wilson was the number of witnesses who said that they were afraid to come forward because their version of events contradicted what they saw as community consensus.”

April 8, 2015

John Saunders is rooting for the home team

Filed under: Culture,Media,Sports — Mike Kueber @ 9:41 pm
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This week on The Sports Reporters, John Saunders’s “Parting Shot” consisted of his lament that there were no black coaches in the Final Four and only one in the Sweet Sixteen. According to Saunders, this development is not a mere aberration. Rather, it is a reflection of a disturbing trend in college basketball – i.e., the return of racial discrimination. How else would you explain that during the last decade, the percentage of black coaches decreased from 25% to 22%? (Maybe the fact that blacks comprise on 13% of America has something to do with that.) How else would you explain that twelve black coaches had been fired this year alone? (Maybe they didn’t win enough games.)

I don’t begrudge a black man for rooting for black coaches. I was rooting for Wisconsin because it started four white guys while the other three teams had none, and I wanted the Wisconsin players to show that white men could play winning basketball. I considered the Wisconsin players to be underdogs, and I suppose Saunders continues to think of black coaches as underdogs, too, even though they have had and continue to have plenty of opportunity to prove their merit.

If I were famous, however, I suspect that my rooting for the white team would be challenged by many as racist, whereas Saunders’s statement sailed by without any concern.

Of course, Saunders has a history of this. A few months ago, he was euphoric over a Chicago little-league team, Jackie Robinson West, winning a national championship because it was all-black. Again, this is rooting for the underdog. Unfortunately, the team was stripped of the title a few months later because of illegal recruiting.

No one will accuse Saunders of being politically correct, but, of course, he is.

April 6, 2015

Real men don’t get offended

Filed under: Culture,Law/justice — Mike Kueber @ 2:36 am
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Unfortunately, the big news following Wisconsin’s upset of Kentucky last night hasn’t been the game, but rather the post-game conduct of the Kentucky players and fans. Although post-game riots are usually the province of the winning team’s fan, in this case it was the sore-loser fans in Lexington.

But the Kentucky players were even worse sore losers. Three of the players walked off the floor without the traditional handshake and one of them during a press conference responded to a question about Wisconsin star Frank Kaminsky by uttering under his breath, “Fuck that niga.”

Not surprisingly, the utterance did not result in a media firestorm. Instead the media quickly moved past the incident and pivoted first to Andrew Harrison’s apology and next to Kaminsky easy acceptance of the apology.

Kudos to Kaminsky. As argued in a column that my brother Kelly recently posted on Facebook, real men don’t get offended.

As for any consequences to Harrison, Kentucky coach Calipari was asked if that were being considered and he responded with, “Nah.”

And when a Yahoo columnist Dan Wetzel pondered the incident, he quickly concluded that this was a racist incident:

  • “Harrison’s comment, while a racial slur, likely wasn’t rooted in racial anger anyway. This was immaturity and embarrassment. He wasn’t creative enough to put Kaminsky down any other way, so he fell to the lowest rung on the ladder, a rather absurd one too since, as noted, Kaminsky is white.  Still, apologies should count, so let that one. If Kaminsky said he’s good with it – not that the victim here usually has much choice – then so be it. Turning Harrison into a piñata for varying forces on acceptable racial language doesn’t seem reasonable either. This really wasn’t about race.”

It seems that a black person won’t be accused of racism unless there is compelling, direct evidence, but a white person, like the Ferguson cop, will be exonerated of racism only after a comprehensive investigation of his life history fails to discover any utterance or action of a racist nature.

I understand the double standard regarding the use of the word “niga,” but I don’t think there needs to be a double standard for judging someone a racist.


Saturday Night at the Movies #146 – Beyond the Lights and Imitation Game and Sunday Book Review #156 – 41 by George W. Bush

Filed under: Book reviews,Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 1:32 am
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Beyond the Lights (2014) is a low-budget romantic drama about two young adults who are being pushed toward achievement by their ultra-ambitious single parents. Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker are the kids – a successful singer and an aspiring politician, respectively – and Minnie Driver and Danny Glover are the single parents with big dreams.

I previously saw Mbatha-Raw in Belle, a period drama in which she played a mulatto, and she is even more attractive here.  She starts Beyond the Lights by attempting to commit suicide, and flashbacks never fully reveal what precipitated her action. Parker does minimal acting, but the former college wrestler likes to take his shirt off.

Like Belle, the Rotten Tomato critics (81%) and audience (80%) enjoyed the movie. Me, not so much. I give it only two and a half stars out of four.

Imitation Game (2014) is another of this year’s Oscar nominees, and I found it much more satisfying than some of the other artsy films that were nominated – e.g., Whiplash, Birdman, and The Grand Budapest Hotel. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as a math genius who helps Great Britain break a German code during World War II, but this idiosyncratic war hero is also afflicted by his then-illegal homosexuality in flashbacks and going-forward scenes.   His co-stars are a bit jarring to me because Keira Knightley is not convincing as a math genius and his two other co-stars, Allen Leech and Matthew Goode, play characters nearly identical to the roles they played in Downton Abbey Season Five. The Rotten Tomato critics score the movie at 89% and the audience is a bit more favorable at 92%. That’s about right. Based on Cumberbatch and the fascinating story, I give it three and a half stars out of four.

41 (2014) is George W. Bush’s paean to his dad, George H.W. Bush. Although I admire Bush-41, I still expect a book to include provide me, if not with any great insights, at least with some interesting information. In that regard, this book fails. There is virtually nothing in the book that I hadn’t already read somewhere else.

April 5, 2015

Saturday Night at the Movies #145 and Sunday Book Review #155 – Downton Abbey

Filed under: Book reviews,Movie reviews — Mike Kueber @ 4:19 pm
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Downton Abbey (2010-2015) is a BBC series that was imported to America by PBS. It recently finished its fifth season and announced that its sixth season will be its last. As with Pride & Prejudice, it is about the landed gentry in Great Britain, but it occurs in the early 1900s, while P&P occurred in the early 1800s. Another similarity with P&P is that both involve a family of daughters, which means that the family will lose its “entailed” estate to a distant male relative. A dissimilarity is that P&P focused almost exclusively on the family and its neighbors while Downton Abbey focuses as much on the lives of the servant class and its interaction with the gentry class.

What I love about Downton Abbey is the writing (so witty) and the acting (superb). Some of the DVDs include special sections that describe the wonderful production values. The Rotten Tomato critics score the five seasons at 95%, 100%, 78%, 69%, and 80%. The audience is a bit less erratic – 93%, 94%, 86%, 76%, and 83%. I loved all five seasons with four stars out of four, but Season Three with Matthew and Mary was the best.

Based on my earlier fascination with Pride & Prejudice, I went on to read an annotated edition of Jane Austen’s book and Deborah Moggach’s wonderful script for the 2005 movie adaptation of the book. Since then, I have become just as fascinated by Downton Abbey, and was fortunate to find both the script and definitive annotations for Seasons One and Two in two books in the San Antonio Public Library. A similar book for Season Three is scheduled for publication later this year in December.

These script books contain the definitive annotations because they are provided by the series’ creator and writer, Julian Fellowes. He explains not only historical context, but also why the characters act as they do and say what they do. It is also interesting to learn about how filming deviates from the script and how the actors have as much control over character development as the creator and writer of the series. Not as interesting are the numerous references to incidents in Fellowes’s life that prompted him to create similar incidents in the series.

Downton Abbey is special to most people because of the characters and their relationships, and these books are invaluable in bringing greater depth of understanding to the viewers and readers.

April 4, 2015

Diversity in the Final Four

Filed under: Culture,Issues,Law/justice,Media,Politics — Mike Kueber @ 9:00 pm
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A couple of days ago, USA Today published an article captioned, “Wisconsin doesn’t hide from ‘white guys’ reputation.”  In the article, the writer attempted to explain why the Wisconsin basketball team has four white starters while the other three Final Four teams have none. The suggested explanations:

  1. The system
  2. The demographics of Wisconsin
  3. The university

Of these, only the first makes any sense. There are a plethora of examples that reveal that the composition of a nationally competitive sports team has minimal connection with the demographics of a state or the university.  But the system at Wisconsin is considered to be a slow-down game with a heavy emphasis on fundamentals, and white basketball players seems to be more successful is that system as opposed to up-tempo playground basketball.

Regardless of the reason Wisconsin has four white starters, I think it is just as interesting that the other three Final Four are non-diverse in the other direction – i.e., all black starters – and I made the following comment on my Facebook account:

  • According to USA Today, the starters on the basketball teams in tonight’s Final Four are among the least diverse in all of major-college basketball. Good thing for these teams that they were selected on the basis of merit instead of political correctness. Contrary to current propaganda, I suspect that diversity creates challenges that these teams have decided to avoid.

As part of the progressive propaganda, Americans are continually bombarded with messages explaining that diversity makes businesses and organizations more effective because of the varying viewpoints and perspectives. While there is something to be said for that position, I’ve always suspected that it was driven by political correctness instead of hard analysis of the countervailing friction that is caused by diversity.

Increasing diversity is inevitable and, therefore, something that we all need to learn to manage, but let’s not lie about it.