erik lundegaard

Friday November 21, 2014

Movie Review: A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The central joke in “A Million Ways to Die in the West” is how the main character, Albert (writer-director Seth MacFarlane), is really a 21st-century man stuck in the American West of the 1800s. It’s not a time travel movie. Albert just reacts to everything around him as if he were, you know, Seth MacFarlane, born in 1973, raised in relative safety and security, allowed to get soft on TV and pop culture. He can’t shoot a gun, doesn’t have much courage, mopes around a lot. He doesn’t hate where he is so much as when he is.

His vernacular is 21st century but his surroundings are 19th. A big block of ice crushes a man transporting it. “Oh, that went South so fast!” he shouts. When he gets a song stuck in his head (the inspired “Moutache Song”), his friend, Anna (Charlize Theron), tells him to think of another. “How?” he says. “There’s only like three songs. And they’re all by Stephen Foster.”

At one point he says, “I’m not the hero. I’m the guy in the crowd making fun of the hero’s shirt.” Which is true. Basically he’s the moviegoer or the TV watcher. He’s us, suddenly stuck in the movie.

That’s the central conceit, the central joke.

A Million Ways to Die in the WestWhy doesn’t it quite work?

I laughed out loud a lot, sure, but then we’d get some scatalogical bit that would just make me wince. Or the plot would pick up unnecessarily and transport us to the obvious place.

The story has a classic, dull structure:

  • Boy loses girl (Amanda Seyfried) by chickening out of a gunfight.
  • Boy is nursed back to health and some semblance of courage by hotter girl (Charlize) and Native American mysticism.
  • Boy gets girl (Charlize) by winning gunfight.

The movie, in other words, still buys into the wish-fulfillment fantasy, and blah for that. Did Woody Allen, in his early films, have his character, his schlemiel, become “brave”? Did Woody’s movies begin as parodies of the genre only to buy into the tropes of the genre? When is Hollywood going to stop doing this? You’d think MacFarlane at least would know better.

At the same time, I still thought the movie would be popular. The trailer was funny, MacFarlane (“Family Guy”) has his rabid following, his first feature, “Ted,” grossed $218 million two years earlier. Instead, “West” was one of the summer’s biggest box-office bombs: More than 3,000 theaters, a Memorial Day weekend release, but only $42 million total.

Because?

Because the West, I assume. Because we don’t know Westerns anymore. Because we don’t care for them. The title is about the million ways to die in the West but its box office showed us the million-and-first.

Posted at 07:13 AM on Nov 21, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Thursday November 20, 2014

John Doar (1921-2014)

John Doar, Medal of Freedom, with Pres. Obama

John Doar being presented with the Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012.

John Doar died on Veterans Day, Nov. 11. He was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force during World War II but history will remember him—or at least I do—for his service in another war: the war between the states, part II. Or X. Or XXIII. Called “the Civil Rights Movement.”

The New York Times has a good obit here, but the better tribute is Taylor Branch's civil rights tome, “Parting the Waters: American in the King Years: 1954-1963,” which I read in the spring of 1989. A lot of memorable characters in there: Bob Moses, John Lewis, Bayard Rustin ... and John Doar.

He was a kind of Gary Cooper-type hero. He didn't say much, he wasn't flashy, but he had courage and commitment. He called himself a Lincoln Republican. Branch introduced him on page 331 thus:

John Doar was lanky, taciturn, and plainspoken. In 1960, still building a general courthouse law pratice, he counted it as a small step of success that a client paid him to go all the way to California to work on a paternity suit. He was there when Harold Tyler, chief of the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, tracked him down by telephone.

Attorney General William Rogers had hired Tyler for the express purpose of stepping up the enforcement of the 1957 and 1960 Civil Rights Acts. It was a sign of the times that not a single politically connected Republican, nor any friend of Tyler's, expressed interest in the high-ranking position of first assistant in the Civil Rights Division ... [So Doar got the nod.]

Doar arrived in Washington in July 1960 and plunged immediately into the two bureaucratic struggles that would mark his career. The first one pitted legal thinking against political calculations. ... [The second was] a sluggish FBI.

Throughout the early 1960s, Doar prosecuted voting rights cases in the deep South, was a witness to the brutal assault on the freedom riders, including John Lewis and Jim Zwerg, in Montgomery, Ala., in 1961, and was the escort to James Meredith as he tried to register at Ole Miss in 1962 but found his way barred by Gov. H. Ross Barnett. 

But the main reason I remember Doar is for an incident that occurred in Mississippi in the summer of 1963.

Medgar Evers was the field secretary there for the NAACP, and in the early morning of June 12, at the end of the Birmingham demonstrations and just hours after Pres. Kennedy's famous speech in favor of civil rights, Evers was shot and killed outside his home in Jackson. After the funeral, a small segment of the crowd, hundreds of mostly young people, began to take to the streets; they were met by policemen with shotguns. 

The temperature was 103 degrees. Some of the Negroes shouted, “We want the killer! We want the killer!” These were the young movement people ... Even on Flag Day, June 14, pairs of them had been arrested off the streets for carrying little American flags, as Jackson's white officials allowed Negroes no public display of any kind. The police ... brought up pumper trucks and dogs, and they charged when some of the young marchers began to throw rocks at them. They had clubbed several and arrested nearly 30 when, suddenly, the man who talked like Gary Cooper appeared in a showdown scene from one of his movies ...

Doar walked into the flashpoint of a riot, hands raised above his head “with bottles and bricks crashing around him.” Shouting his name, he told them this was not the way, and the very sight of him stilled the crowd so that he could be heard. ... “My name is John Doar!” he yelled. “D-O-A-R. I'm in the Justice Department in Washington. And anybody around here knows that I stand for what's right!” He walked forward, calling out the names of Dave Dennis and other movement leaders he knew and how many times they had been arrested, saying they too wanted the crowd to disperse. Miraculously, they did. 

Doar would go on to prosecute the federal case against the killers of Goodman, Chaney and Schwerner in 1964, helped draft the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and was tangentially involved in the Selma march in 1965. He was also Chief Counsel for the United States House Committee on the Judiciary during the Watergate scandal. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Pres. Obama in 2012. 

Lincoln Republican? My kind of Republican.

John Doar, Jackson, Mississippi

Doar in Jackson, Miss., in the summer of 1963.

Posted at 05:42 PM on Nov 20, 2014 in category U.S. History
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Wednesday November 19, 2014

What's Wrong with the Peanuts Movie Trailer?

It's the laughter.

First, everyone laughs because Snoopy plugs Woodstock into a socket? And he keeps getting lit up? As if electrocuted?

Then everyone laughs because Charlie Brown dumps a bucket of popcorn on his head? In “Peanuts” of old, yes, everything went wrong for good ol' Charlie Brown; but when the other kids laughed at him, we didn't think it was funny; we didn't identify with the other kids; we identified with Charlie Brown.

Plus the titles are too spread apart. “NEVER STOP” comes at 0:19, “DREAMING BIG” at 0:30. By which point we're wondering, “Wait, what about dreaming big again?”

Christmas 2015, apparently. Directed by Steve Martino, who directed “Horton Hears a Who.”

Really, this just makes me sad. They're obviously try to revive the series with the same sounds for Snoopy and Woodstock, and with the Sopwith Camel, but they miss out on the most essential element.

Posted at 07:19 AM on Nov 19, 2014 in category Trailers
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Tuesday November 18, 2014

Weekend Box Office Numbers Recall Goebbels Quote

Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas

With a poster like this, how could moviegoers resist?

I think I’m the only one who thought about Josef Goebbels after seeing this weekend’s box office numbers. I hope so anyway.

It has a little something to do with this quote from Cinemas of the World by James Chapman:

Triumph des Willens represented the high point of Nazi propaganda: it enshrined the 'Hitler myth' so completely that no further films of the sort ever needed to be commissioned. Goebbels, for his part, was firmly of the opinion that feature films should provide escapist entertainment for the masses and that direct propaganda should be confined to the newsreels.

The reason this came to mind were the three movies battling it out for the top spot. No other movie came close to these three:

  1. “Dumb and Dumber To”: $36.1 million
  2. “Big Hero 6”: $34.6 million
  3. “Interstellar”: $28.3 million

Fourth place? “Beyond the Lights” with $6.2 million.

But so what, right? Escapist entertainment is almost always in the top slots. At least this weekend we went to see “Interstellar,” which, now and again, made you think about important matters such as global warming, textbook revisionism in Texas, and the downward trajectory of Anne Hathaway's career.

Except it’s really the two movies with the weakest per-theater-average for new movies that led me back to the Goebbels quote.

Jon Stewart’s “Rosewater” finally opened and ... didn’t do particularly well. At first I noticed its gross ($1.1 million), thought “Oops,” but then realized, “Well, it only played in 371 theaters.” But then I noticed its per-theater average: $3.1K. That’s not good for a new release. Not at all. (“Foxcatcher,” in comparison, opened in six theaters this weekend with a per-theater average of $45K.)

Anyway it made me wonder: This weekend, did any new release do worse, per theater, than Stewart’s film about a journalist held captive in Iran?

Yes. Kirk Cameron’s “Saving Christmas,” which opened in 410 theaters and grossed only $992K for a per-theater average of $2.2K. P.U. Maybe someone needs to make a new movie: “Saving ‘Saving Christmas.’”

I’m not calling either of these movies ‘propaganda,’ by the way. It’s just that Kirk Cameron is on one side of the cultural divide, Stewart’s on the other, and most moviegoers split the difference and went straight for the escapist entertainment. Because that’s who we is, Charlie.

After all this, knowing little about “Saving Christmas,” I checked out its trailer (ick), then its IMDb page, where it’s currently enjoying a bottom-of-the-barrel 2.5 (out of 10) rating. Then I went a step further, to the Message Boards, where the nom-de-IMDb “comrade-newski” asks, “When can we get a good Christian Film?” and lambasts all the ones that have come out this year. It’s a good rant. Truly. But one of the responses comes from someone named “johnsmithbattlenet,” who writes:

when jews evaporate from hollywood

Classy. So we begin with Goebbels and end with Goebbels. L’Chayim. 

Posted at 06:14 PM on Nov 18, 2014 in category Movies - Box Office
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Movie Review: Interstellar (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Here, in no order of importance, are some of the big questions we ponder while watching Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar”:

  1. Will our heroes find a sustainable planet in time to save the human race?
  2. Will Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) make it back to Earth in time to see his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy)?
  3. Why is Brand (Anne Hathaway) such a bitch?
  4. Who’s the “they” that are leaving mysterious messages for us, as well as opening up wormholes?
  5. Did anyone in the audience trust Dr. Mann (Matt Damon)?
  6. What’s causing the dust storms that are making Earth uninhabitable in the first place?

Here are your answers: 1) Yes; 2) Yes, but she won’t be Mackenzie Foy; 3) Bad writing?; 4) Us; 5) No; 6) Global warming, one assumes, but Nolan never says.

“Interstellar” is an epic ride but a bloated disappointment. McConaughey is good but the others aren’t, particularly. I figured out way too early who the ghost was, and that Mann wasn’t trustworthy. The science and cosmology went way over my head while the plot points were way too telegraphed. I knew where the movie was going but not the reasons for our getting there.

Then that ending. “I don’t care much for this pretending we’re back where we started,” Cooper says, sitting on his porch with a beer. “I want to know where we’re going.” That’s why I think the daughter storyline was a mistake. It was the lifeline back to Earth we didn’t need. We just needed to go.

Plan A is to TOS as Plan B is to DS9
“Contact” did this, too, didn’t it? Jodie Foster traveled across the universe just to find Daddy again. Here, Cooper goes into space, through a wormhole into another galaxy, down onto several inhospitable planets, and into the heart of a black hole, only to find ... his daughter. Or himself. He’s the thing that sent him on the mission. He’s the ghost in Murphy’s bedroom. It’s like everyone in Hollywood has read too much e.e. cummings:

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) 
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea

The movie opens with the Earth in a dustbowl, crops dying (there goes okra), and Major League Baseball surviving by barnstorming (I like the “World Famous” in front of  “New York Yankees”). During a parent-teacher conference, Cooper finds out Murph has gotten into fights for insisting that, per her daddy’s book, not to mention her daddy, we actually did land on the moon in the 20th century; it wasn’t a hoax as the official Texas textbooks insist. (Another favorite moment. Cf., this.)

Murphy, a sensitive child, is also teased for insisting there’s a ghost in her bedroom behind the bookcase. Christopher Nolan's InterstellarHer father, a man of science, insists that there’s not, but encourages her to accumulate the data. Later he says this: “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.” Immediately you pick up on “ghost.” Shortly thereafter, the other shoe drops: “If he’s the ghost as a parent, then is he the ghost in the ... Right.”

A message left in the dust in binary code leads Cooper to coordinates which turn out to be the remnants of NASA, the outfit he worked for before it all went bad. Guess what? They’ve been sending scientists into space on the sly. Its mission? To seek out new planets for new civilizations; to quietly go where no man has gone before! And now they want to send Cooper. He’s perfect for the role—the last great astronaut. Although one wonders if he was so perfect, why they didn’t seek him out on their own. He was just down the road.

That’s Plan A, by the way: seeking out new planets for new civilizations (TOS’s storyline, basically). Plan B is a space station (DS9’s storyline). Except, well, the man who’s running the whole program, Prof. Brand (Michael Caine), later admits, on his deathbed, that he lied his way through the whole thing. He doesn’t have the data to make Plan B work. And Plan A? They’re never coming back. Combine Brand with Dr. Mann, the cowardly, sweaty schemer, and scientists don’t come off looking too good in this thing, do they?

Anyway, amid many tears, many promises to return, and many version of Dylan Thomas’ “Do Not Go Gently Into that Good Night,” the team—Cooper, Brand, Romilly (David Giassi), and Doyle (Wes Bently from “American Beauty”)—go into space in a 1960s-style Apollo rocketship, dock with the spaceship Endurance, and spin their way into the wormhole on the other side of Saturn. And the grand adventure begins.

That’s the part I liked best—when I was reminded of a slower, grittier, less fantastic version of “Star Trek,” the original series, season one. That sense of going down to a planet and not know what you’d find. On this planet, time speeds up—an hour is seven years—and that mountain in the distance? That’s a wave. (Probably the coolest moment in the movie.) On that one, our great man, Dr. Mann, awaits in stasis. But is his data trustworthy? Is he? (Cue: creepy TOS music. Then cue battling TOS music.)

I probably wasn’t truly bored until Brand, female version, started talking about love love love. She’s been battling with Cooper from the get-go, she just caused the death of Doyle by moving too slowly in the face of a mountain-wave (not to mention the loss of an extra 15 years, Earth time), and with two planets left to check out, she insists on going to the one with Edmonds, who is her lover, rather than the one with Mann, the most respected of the scientists, who has sent back positive reports about his planet. “Love is not something we invented,” she says. “Love transcends dimensions of time and space.” Blah. Thankfully, she loses the argument, they go to Mann’s planet, but of course Mann (a symbolic name?) makes it all go bad.

So apparently we should follow our hearts. Or something.

Women troubles
To be honest, the daughter was such an unforgiving character, and Brand such an awful character, that I began to backdate Nolan movies. Does he have a problem with women? Are his female characters either haunting presences forever out of reach (“Memento,” “Inception”), or are they in-your-face and in love with someone else (Rachel Dawes)? Here, Murphy is the ghostly, disappointed presence, Brand the shrill one.

And what was the point of all that drama back in Texas? The fight between Murphy and her older brother (Casey Affleck)? That plot leads nowhere.

The movie begins to spin out of control about the time the Endurance does—into a black hole—and Cooper winds up floating in some vague physical representation of time, on the other side of his daughter’s bookcase, trying to get his message across. After that, he wakes up in Cooper Station, revolving around the late, great planet Earth. Plan B has worked, thanks to the data he sent his daughter via wristwatch, and outside the hospital they’re playing baseball again. He sees his daughter on her deathbed (cameo: Ellen Burstyn), and sees his home as museum piece. Then he has his moment with the beer on the porch. So off he goes to find Brand. But hopefully not to set up a sequel.

I had hopes for this one, but too bad. The lesson, one last time, Hollywood:

For wherever we go (into the blackness of space) 
Let’s find something more than our own stupid face

Posted at 07:50 AM on Nov 18, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday November 17, 2014

Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The story’s about what the movie is.

As sports agent J.B. Bernstein (Jon Hamm) and Major League Baseball attempt to tap into an underutilized region of the world (India) in “Million Dollar Arm,” so with “Million Dollar Arm” Walt Disney Pictures attempts the same. Bernstein wants Indian pitchers, Major League Baseball wants Indian fans, Disney wants Indian moviegoers.

Or, to put it another way, they all want Indian dollars.

None of them succeeded particularly well. Just don’t tell the movie that.

Bucks for Bucs
It’s a feel-good movie, soft around the edges. Early on, Bernstein, down on his luck, is watching TV with his assistant Aash (Aasif Mandvi), and cricket comes on. Bernstein rattles off a few reasons why it’s not a real sport; Aash just stares and sputters. I wanted to hear why it was a good sport. A smarter movie would’ve given us those reasons in the same amount of time but “Million Dollar Arm,” despite being written by Tom McCarthy (“Station Agent,” “Win Win”), isn’t a smart movie. Million Dollar Arm with Jon HammIt’s a warm bath of a movie.

You see where things are going early on and the movie takes its time getting there. Bernstein loses the big client, the creditors are nipping at his heels, then switching back and forth between Susan Boyle on “Britain’s Got Talent” and a game cricket, he comes up with a scheme. “How fast do they pitch in cricket?” he asks Aash. “Fine. How fast do they bowl in cricket?”

Apparently it’s based upon a true story. In reality, it became a reality show in India: “The Million Dollar Arm.” In the movie, it’s more grassroots. Bernstein travels from Indian city to Indian city with a sleepy scout (Alan Arkin, who could do the role in his sleep), a shrugging, bureaucratic Indian assistant, Vivek (Darshan Jariwala), and an over-eager Indian assistant, Amit (Pitobash). They find two handsome kids who can throw in the low 80s, Rinku and Dinesh (Suraj Sharma and Madhur Mittal), and Bernstein brings them back to the states to train under Tom House (Bill Paxton). That’s the first half.

The second half is equally transparent. As the boys need to become better players, Bernstein needs to become a better person. In the manner of Hollywood movies, these coincide. I.e., the boys are only able to display their true talents once Bernstein cares enough to let them. Once he tells them to just “have fun,” once he allows Amit to give the inspirational speech, once the tryout becomes a real tryout (on a ballfield before a few scouts) and less sideshow (in a parking lot, before cable-TV cameras), then they flourish.

Well, “flourish.” They throw in the low 90s, are signed to minor league deals by the Pirates, and ... that’s the end. The movie would have you believe signing kids to minor league deals saves a sports agency. Nope. The kids don’t bring in the bucks until they make the Bucs.

And they didn’t. In real life, Dinesh Patel pitched a few games in the Gulf Coast league—the lowest rung of the minors—before returning to India. Rinku Singh stuck it out, made it to Class A ball for a few years, didn’t do poorly (overall: 10-6, 2.99 ERA), but was done by 2012. Not bad for a kid who never picked up a baseball until he was in his 20s, but he’s not saving anybody’s bacon.

This is just business
We get a few OK moments in the movie’s two-plus hours. Paxton is believable, Arkin—as I said—can do the role in his sleep, and Lake Bell, as Brenda, the doctor-in-training tenant next door, is refreshing. Her character seems like she has a life beyond the movie’s storyline. “She seems like a real person,” Patricia said as we watched.

I like a line of Vivek’s: “Don’t lose patience, J.B. You are going to need it in India.” I laughed out loud at a line from one of the scouts: “I’m sorry, but they’re not for the Mariners.”

Otherwise, it’s a squishy, sunset movie. It’s a multibillion-dollar business telling us that “This is just business” is a line bad people say ... after they take our money.

Posted at 08:09 AM on Nov 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Sunday November 16, 2014

Lancelot Links

Buck O'Neil at the Hall of Fame

If I could read Joe Posnanski on Buck O'Neil every day, I'd be a happier man. And a better person.

  • Mother Jones has a good, short piece on the Democratic candidate who didn't run from his record, Pres. Obama, or progressive ideas, and won in a cake-walk in what was supposed to be a not-safe seat: Al Franken.
  • Related: Charles P. Pierce at Esquire begins the “Al Franken for President” talk, writing, “The fact that this would cause Bill O'Reilly's head to detonate in a gorgeous orange fireball is merely a bonus.”
  • Linda Greenhouse on why the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to intervene in King v. Burwell, about how the fineprint in the Affordable Care Act limits (or doesn't) tax subsidies only to those who buy insurance through the state-run exchanges (which only 14 states have), is worse than its interference in Bush v. Gore. “It’s a basic principle of administrative law that when a federal statute is ambiguous, courts defer to the agency’s interpretation—here, the I.R.S. regulation that makes the tax credits available without regard to whether the exchange is state or federal,” she writes.
  • Related, from Vanity Fair: “Is the GOP Ever Right About Anything?” A breakdown of 30 years of GOP political arguments and their consequences. 
  • Normally when Ted Cruz makes an assinine comment about Pres. Obama, his supporters just nod their heads, shout some yee-has, and maybe shoot off their guns. But this week Obama came out for net neutrality, Cruz lambasted him in the usual reductive manner, and Cruz's Facebook supporters exploded in anger. Against Cruz.
  • The GOP may love Vladimir Putin, but the G-20 leaders do not
  • In the battle for licensing revenue, which superhero leads the way with $1.3 billion worldwide? Superman? Batman? Here's a clue: thwip!
  • You know those newspaper pictograms opposite the comics page where you're supposed to spot the (very very minor) differences between the pictures? That, according to Joe Posnanski, was what it was like choosing between Seattle's Felix Hernandez and Cleveland's Corey Kluber for the AL Cy Young Award. Kluber won in a photo finish: 169 (17-11-2) to 159 (13-17-0). I'd argue that Felix probably lost the award on Sept. 23, when, with the M's fighting for their first playoff spot in 13 years, he had his worst outing of the season: giving up 8 runs (4 earned) in 4+ innings. Not a “big-game pitcher” move. At the same time, for all the stats everyone considers (WHIP, ERA+, WAR), shouldn't we also consider this: Kluber got to pitch against the Seattle Mariners (1 game, 9 innings, 0 runs, 3 hits, 1 W, 1 CG), an advantage that year after year is denied to King Felix.
  • I swear, if I could read Joe Posnanski writing about Buck O'Neil every day, I'd be a happier man. And a better person.
  • This week, the MLB All-Stars (kind of) went to Japan and got no-hit.
  • Even worse? This. But at least it's still November. Because we have $216 million left on that contract. 
  • What does Stephen Hawking think of Eddie Redmayne's performance of Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything”? “At times, I thought was me.” Looking forward to this.
  • Via Washington Trails Association: Meet Honey Bee, the blind hiking cat. Don't worry, Jellybean; after reading the article I've decided not to try it with you.
Posted at 09:09 AM on Nov 16, 2014 in category Lancelot Links
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Saturday November 15, 2014

What Rupert Murdoch Thinks of the Gays

“This meeting [between up-and-comer David Cameron and News International CEO Rupert Murdoch] went better than Cameron's first encounter with Murdoch, in 2005, when Cameron is said to have trilled enthusiastically about the gay Western movie Brokeback Mountain without noticing the old man retching at the idea of anybody wanting ot watch two cowboys coupling.”

-- -- from Hack Attack: The Inside Story of How the Truth Caught Up with Rupert Murdoch," by Nick Davies. I know. I'm shocked, shocked. 

Brokeback Mountain

Hey—you wanna make Rupert Murdoch throw up?

Posted at 10:40 AM on Nov 15, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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Friday November 14, 2014

The Pepsi Challenge in Syria

Two Sundays ago, The New York Times Magazine ran a cover story on and by Theo Padnos, an American who was captured in 2012 by Nusra Front, a Syrian al Qaeda organization, tortured for months and months, and eventually let go this fall. He's writing a book about the experience. There are interesting sections throughout the piece, and I recommend reading it all, because we rarely get such firsthand accounts from the War on Terror, but the section below stuck out for me in trying to parse the difference between the various groups in Syria, and for the humanity on display:

I was curious about the futures of the five people now responsible for looking after me. What if they retired from military life, I asked, went home and promised to obey the Islamic State in the future? Would the group still wish to kill them?

Continue reading the main story

“Of course,” they said.

“Really?” I asked. “But why?”

“Because we are Jebhat al Nusra,” they replied.

I knew the answer to the next question but asked it anyway. “Your practice of Islam is exactly the same as ISIS — you admire the same scholars and interpret the Quran just as they do?”

“Yes,” they agreed. “All of this is true.”

“And it’s true,” I said, “that when you joined Al Qaeda, in the early goings of the revolution, ISIS did not exist?”

“Yes, this is so,” the fighters agreed.

“And now they’re hoping to kill you?” I asked.

They shrugged their shoulders. “Yes.”

“But the situation is absurd,” I said. “You’re like a guy on the street drinking a bottle of Pepsi. Along comes the Seven-Up salesman. ‘Wicked man!’ says the Seven-Up salesman. ‘How dare you drink Pepsi? You must die.’ Under the circumstances, it ought to be O.K. for you to reply: ‘I’m quite sorry, sir. But when I went into the store, there was only one brand of soft drink available. Pepsi. That’s what I bought. Where’s the problem?’ ” The foot soldiers, all in their 20s and early 30s, were regular cola drinkers and were happy I had put the matter in everyday commercial terms. Everyone laughed.

The real issue between the Nusra Front and the Islamic State was that their commanders, former friends from Iraq, were unable to agree on how to share the revenue from the oil fields in eastern Syria that the Nusra Front had conquered.

What lessons do we get reading this piece? Some of them: 1) People will find any way to justify any behavior; 2) we don't know how good we have it in the U.S.; and 3) everyone wants a Western girlfriend. Also this: 4) even when they say it's about religion, listen to Deep Throat: follow the money. 

Posted at 02:05 PM on Nov 14, 2014 in category Religion
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Quote of the Day

“The fact that this would cause Bill O'Reilly's head to detonate in a gorgeous orange fireball is merely a bonus.”

--Charles P. Pierce of Esquire encouraging Al Franken to run for President in 2016.

Al Franken for President, 2016

Posted at 12:39 PM on Nov 14, 2014 in category Quote of the Day
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