Monday, December 31, 2012

Review: Les Miserables

When I was 15, I went to see Les Miserables on Broadway with a big group of people.  I have vague memories of the show itself, mostly involving the music and performances.  I recall thinking that I loved the music, the performances, and the overall production values, but I never was able to follow the story of the show.  Maybe my youth played a role in that - at the time I thought Speed was one of the best movies I'd ever seen - so ever since I saw the musical production I'd wanted to see a film version of the story, hopefully so I'd understand the actual course of events better.

I'm aware there was a version made in 1998 with Liam Neeson and Uma Thurman in a non-musical adaptation of the novel, but I have never seen it.  I was very interested in seeing this new musical film version, especially if there was as much singing as there was in the Broadway production.  To my surprise somewhat, the film is a musical start to finish, with only a few scant lines of actual dialogue scattered about the film.

Now that I've seen the musical film and have a much better understanding of the actual story of all the characters, I'm going to make a relatively bold prediction: Les Miserables is going to win Best Picture at the 2013 Academy Awards.

The overarching story is fairly well-known: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is paroled from prison on the provision that he meets with his parole officer every year thereafter upon his release.  He decides not to visit his parole, and has Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe) pursues him for years while he is on the run.  Several years after his escape, Valjean hides under the fake persona of La Mer and runs a business where the young Fantine (Anne Hathaway) works.  Valjean wants to help Fantine care for her daughter Cosette, eventually taking Cosette as his adopted daughter while still on the run from Javert.

Let me start with talking about the performances.  Jackman and Hathaway are both excellent in their roles, giving arguably the best individual performances of their careers to date.  Hathaway is only in the film for 30 minutes or so, but her performance where she had to sing "I Dreamed a Dream" is one of the most moving scenes in any film I've ever seen.  She sings the entire song in one continuous take with the camera focused on her face the entire time, leaving the audience to feel every note and heart-breaking tear along with her.

Jackman is equally gut-wrenching during his solo songs, especially "Who Am I".  Even the first number of the film where he is in prison, Jackman is barely recognizable as a super lean, disheveled, and broken man.  He looks and sings as an incredibly exhausted man, so it's almost a relief for the audience to see him several years later even though he's on the run from Javert.  His "Bring Him Home" is a fatherly and emotional prayer for Marius (Eddie Redmayne, in another great performance) to come home safely once Marius and Cosette fall in love.

Les Mis's technical side needs to be discussed in detail too.  I don't often talk about things like editing, cinematography, or set design in my reviews, but they all bear worth discussion.  The editing in this film is probably something most film audiences won't think about, but during the song "One Day More" we cross cut back and forth from Valjean, the revolutionists, Javert, and Cosette throughout the number.  It's my personal favorite sequence in the entire film, though it's so climactic I almost wish the film had more of a break in the music before the next song started up less than a minute later.  The audience could have used another moment or two to breathe before the action continued.

Still, my one quibble is very minor.  Director Tom Hooper did a masterful job in weaving all the story lines and characters in a much more coherent fashion than the Broadway play.  The film medium is probably better suited for the audience to identify with all the characters so we can see their faces, and Hooper made sure all we can see is their faces during their individual songs.  He only keeps the actors' faces in focus in the foreground, and everything in the background is out of focus as they sing.  It's really the reverse of seeing it on Broadway, since most audience members can't see the actors in the theatrical production, and it works to the film's benefit.

Les Mis is the best film I've seen in a long time, even better than Ben Affleck's Argo from a couple months ago.  I don't really have any interest in who wins Best Picture or other major awards at the Oscars anymore, but I'd be pretty shocked if it doesn't win some of the big awards come February.  It definitely needs to be seen on the big screen to take advantage of its photography and scope.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Fallout From Sandy Hook, Part 2

In my last post on the Sandy Hook shooting, I talked all about the reactions people have had to gun laws in our country.  There's another side that's gotten a lot of attention in the last few days, that being some of the radical Christian right's views on the subject.  Well-known Christian figures such as James Dobson have shared their opinions on why this tragedy occurred, and Dobson's thoughts in particular have led to some angry blowback.  Here's a brief except from him on Sandy Hook:

"Our country really does seem in complete disarray. I’m not talking politically, I’m not talking about the result of the November sixth election; I am saying that something has gone wrong in America and that we have turned our back on God.
I mean millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist, or he’s irrelevant to me and we have killed 54 million babies and the institution of marriage is right on the verge of a complete redefinition. Believe me, that is going to have consequences, too.
And a lot of these things are happening around us, and somebody is going to get mad at me for saying what I am about to say right now, but I am going to give you my honest opinion: I think we have turned our back on the scripture and on God almighty and I think he has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on."

I'm really confused over what homosexuality and abortion have to do with Adam Lanza.  Homosexuality existed long before the United States was ever formed, so claiming one had something to do with the other is absurd.  But bigger picture-wise, why exactly does Dobson have to turn this horrific event into a political issue?  How are these words supposed to bring comfort and peace to the families of those who lost loved ones and children last Friday?

I'm quite ashamed to be even marginally associated with James Dobson right now.  There was a time when I actually respected him, and I saw several of his videos when I was younger.  He always struck me as fairly soft-spoken in his views, but also acted in the best interests of Christians across the globe.  I never thought of him as someone who delved much into politics or intolerance.  

While I am morally opposed to abortion, I see no distinction between killing unborn babies and killing 20 first grade children.  Both are equally abhorrent in my view.  But a law passed 40 years ago does not have any direct correlation or connection to a school shooting now.  If Dobson is going to be that arbitrary, why stop there?  Why not say that repealing Prohibition was what led to Sandy Hook?  What about lowering the voting age to 18?  I guess citing those two constitutional amendments would make a man sound out of his mind if he drew a connection between them and a tragedy like Sandy Hook.

And then there's - sigh - the Westboro Baptist Church.  I feel like I'm wasting valuable time, energy, and thought into writing about the WBC and Fred Phelps because a.) it gives them free press, and b.) I could spend the time working on other much more rewarding things.  Still, they stuck their collective noses in places where they don't belong, so I suppose it merits discussion.

When news broke of the Sandy Hook shooting, Fred Phelps and his brainwashed sheep - er, parish - immediately praised God and proclaimed He had sent Adam Lanza as some kind of warrior angel to kill these kids because...wait for it...Carrie Underwood is a Christian and supports gay marriage.

You can't make this stuff up.  I honestly think if I wrote a script for a movie or TV series based off the WBC and its wacky statements, studios would laugh at me because they'd say audiences wouldn't believe it.  Part of me wants to laugh at the Phelps family for making such an absurd statement at all, but then I'm immediately reminded of the horrific shootings in the first place.

At this writing, members of the WBC have apparently arrived in Newtown in order to picket the funerals of the Sandy Hook victims.  Members of the surrounding community are planning on blocking out the picketers in order to pay proper respect to the deceased.  No word on just how long the WBC folks plan on staying in Newtown in order to make their presence known though.

Here's what confuses me about the WBC more than anything else: They arbitrarily target only military funerals and funerals of heinous shootings like Sandy Hook.  Why not gang-related violence victims or car accident victims?  The answer is, of course, obvious: It's because they know they won't get their name in lights if they show up at a funeral of someone who was shot in a gang-related incident.  In fact, they might even be accused of racism if they picketed such a funeral.  They know the kinds of targets they want to seek out.  Still, if they had any real guts they'd picket just about every funeral across the country.

But I have to ask the same kind of question of them that I would pose to James Dobson: Why only cite homosexuality and/or abortion as the sources of evil in this country?  The Bible also says in Ephesians 5:8 we shouldn't drink to the point of excess, so why don't they claim that repealing Prohibition is a reason for why our country is doomed in their eyes?  

The sad thing is there isn't a whole lot of legal action that can be taken against the WBC.  In fact, most of their budget they use for traveling to picket funerals comes from lawsuits they file against cities and individuals who have stood up to them.  Legally, they are within their rights to make the kinds of statements they like, despite being intentionally hateful and enraging.

Just as I am disappointed and upset to being tangentially associated with James Dobson, I am even more so when it comes to the WBC.  I went to Baptist churches for close to 15 years before switching to nondenominational.  I never went to any church that spread the kind of hate the WBC does, and I'd even question their faith in doing the kinds of things they do.

The irony to the WBC in particular is how remarkably small the church is.  There are less than 100 members, in the church, most of whom are direct family members of the head pastor Fred Phelps.  How they've managed to operate and sustain themselves for several decades I'll never fully understand.  

The easy thing to say is to ignore such a hateful group like the WBC when they make public appearances.  That's a much more difficult thing to do in practice, especially in the context of Sandy Hook.  I can only hope the victims' families can concentrate on their own lives and grief while the WBC tries picking another fight.  Not that there's any time of the year when such a tragedy could be called convenient, but given that Christmas is next week, I doubt there's a more difficult time of year to handle this kind of grief.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Fallout From Sandy Hook

Since the horribly tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, there's been a surge of demands for stronger gun laws to prevent tragedies like this one from happening again.  President Obama appears committed to finding something to take action, especially after giving a heartfelt address to the families of the victims Sunday night in Newtown.  Yesterday, other area schools around Newtown reopened for the first time, but Sandy Hook itself is still closed with no word as to when it will reopen.

I can't begin to imagine the heartache parents and other family members of the victims must be going through right now.  The entire ordeal is utterly senseless, one where there will always be more questions than answers.  I read online earlier today that the FBI investigated the computers and home of Adan Lanza, who had walked into Sandy Hills with three guns to commit the murders he had planned out.  Lanza had supposedly smashed all his computers at his house before he had left for the school in order to limit the amount of information people could find out about him later.  The FBI still expects to retrieve at least some of the data stored on Lanza's computers in order to eventually find out Lanza's motivations for his actions.

What I really wanted to talk about was the demand for stronger gun laws from the general public in light of this horrific event.  I don't own a gun myself, and frankly I hope the day never comes when I feel interested or compelled into buying one.  I think it's in the best interest of this country for private citizens to have the option of buying guns, particularly as a means of self-defense.  I also realize that it's human nature to react with feelings of anger and fear when people like Adam Lanza show up in an elementary school with several guns in hand, looking for targets.

Right now you're probably wondering where I'm going with all this.  My point is I don't think the general American public has much idea of the kinds of gun laws we already have in place, much less what kinds of new laws that could be passed to prevent people like Adam Lanza in the future.  I don't deny that the system is clearly in need of a shake up, considering Lanza got a hold of the guns he had in hand.  But consider this: What do you, dear reader, know about American gun laws?  What could the American government realistically do to strengthen the gun laws that already exist?

Full disclosure: I didn't even know very much about gun laws prior to researching them online while putting together this post.  In reading them over, it's pretty clear the U.S. government already has some strict federal laws in place to monitor and control which private citizens can own a gun in this country.  The first thing most pro-gun advocates like to cite is the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:

"A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed."

Okay, so the Government cannot infringe upon the people who want to buy and keep a gun in their houses.  I think it's about there where most Americans think gun laws end.  The ever so small sample size of the friends I have on Facebook showed me over the weekend that Americans think people who are mentally handicapped or emotionally unstable can buy a gun without much to stop them.


The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed following the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King, Jr.  The act was specifically designed to curtail the sale of firearms to certain individuals.  The following excerpt is probably the most pertinent text:

"(d) It shall be unlawful for any person to sell or otherwise dispose of any firearm or ammunition to any person knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that such person - (1) is under indictment for, or has been convicted in any court of, a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year (2) is a fugitive from justice; (3) is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance (as defined in section 102 of the Controlled Substances Act (21 U.S.C. 802)); (4) has been adjudicated as a mental defective or has been committed to any mental institution; (5) who, being an alien - (A) is illegally or unlawfully in the United States; or (B) except as provided in subsection (y)(2), has been admitted to the United States under a nonimmigrant visa (as that term is defined in section 101(a)(26) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (8 U.S.C. 1101(a)(26))); (6) who (!2) has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions; (7) who, having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced his citizenship; (8) is subject to a court order that restrains such person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner of such person or child of such intimate partner or person, or engaging in other conduct that would place an intimate partner in reasonable fear of bodily injury to the partner or child, except that this paragraph shall only apply to a court order that - (A) was issued after a hearing of which such person received actual notice, and at which such person had the opportunity to participate; and (B)(i) includes a finding that such person represents a credible threat to the physical safety of such intimate partner or child; or (ii) by its terms explicitly prohibits the use, attempted use, or threatened use of physical force against such intimate partner or child that would reasonably be expected to cause bodily injury; or (9) has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence."

Based off that, here's the types of people we can cross off the list who can legally buy guns: People convicted of crimes punishable by jail terms of over one year; fugitives from the law; drug addicts; anyone who had previously been a patient in a mental institution; illegal aliens; people dishonorably discharged from the military; anyone who had a restraining order placed on them by a spouse or significant other; or someone convicted of a crime involving domestic violence.

There's more, though.  The Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 prohibits individuals from carrying firearms around areas clearly marked as school zones.  Of course, Lanza clearly didn't let this law stop him from carrying out his plans, and he wouldn't be the first violator of this law either.  Short of something like metal detectors being installed in schools across the country, I don't know how society would be able to put a stop to all schools preventing any gun showing up on any campus.  If the day ever comes when such a thing is necessary, we'll all be living in fear versus freedom.

One other federal law is worth mentioning.  The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act took effect in 1994, and it requires federal background checks to be conducted on all purchasers of firearms from licensed dealers across the country.  It also prohibits the shipment or transportation of firearms by people under similar conditions to those who also apply to the Gun Control Act, meaning people who are drug addicts, fugitives from the law, illegal aliens, and the like cannot transport or ship weapons that have been purchased.

Having said all that, there are a few things to bear in mind here.  First, these are all federal laws, so state laws will probably vary a little bit from one another.  In Maryland, the Maryland State Police keeps a registry of all legal handguns sold in the state, and anytime any gun in that registry is sold, a ballistics database keeps track of who owns which gun.  Interestingly enough, Connecticut already has some of the strictest gun laws in the country according to this graph.

Second, all these laws are great in logic and theory, but there are still thousands of illegal arms sales conducted across the country.  Gangs, drug dealers, and other criminals still find ways to transport and obtain guns illegally, so the system is hardly perfect.  It's a sad but honest truth that the FBI can't stop everyone.

Lastly, people like Adam Lanza will still find a way to get a gun.  From what little has been established about him thus far, he did not suffer from any diagnosed mental illness, so he could very possibly have legally purchased whatever guns he had in his possession.  Nothing has been confirmed - to my knowledge at least - whether Lanza's mother knew he had those guns.  

Does any of this mean we should keep things the way they are?  Of course not.  Twenty children and six adults didn't have to die this past Friday, and the terrible event showed the system we have in place isn't working (especially when you take into account the shooting in Denver during a midnight screening of The Dark Knight Rises in July as well).  However, I also don't want to live in a country where malls, schools, movie theaters, and stadiums all have metal detectors at each entrance either.  There has to be a happy medium somewhere in between, while still allowing the majority of citizens the option to purchase a gun if they choose to do so, but also preventing other atrocities like Sandy Hook from happening again.

There's another angle to this tragedy which I'll talk about in a separate post.  The talk of stricter gun laws is only one side that has people worked up after the Sandy Hook shooting, and the other side is just as emotionally charged.  For now, I hope anyone who reads this post realizes the government has taken steps to control the sales of firearms for quite a while now.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Rob Parker: Douche Bag

Every now and then, I come across a story online that really gets under my skin.  Sometimes, my blood reaches its boiling point over something incredibly stupid or insulting.

And then I read this story.

If there is something above furious, that's my reaction to this story.  But to get proper context, I had to find a video clip of Rob Parker's quotes.  Just in case reading that article didn't anger you, watch this clip:

I....I...I just....I don't even know where to start with this one.

I guess I will start by asking what exactly the hell Parker means by Griffin not being "down with the cause."  What cause is he referring to?  Is he implying that because Griffin is engaged to a white woman, Republican, and Christian, he can't relate to the common black man in America?  And what "issue" does Parker think Griffin has exactly?

Hey, Rob!  Maybe Griffin has an issue with people like YOU putting unfair and inaccurate labels on him.  I won't dare speak on Griffin's behalf, considering he could easily respond to your insipid and offensive remarks if he wanted to.  On the other hand, if he chose to reply to your comments, that would actually mean what you had to say meant something to him.  Every interview I've seen him in thus far shows him to be an educated, intelligent, classy, and well-spoken young man.  He's above giving you the time of day, much less actually get into a war of words with you.  He'd end up tearing you to shreds if he did.


Let me see if I get Parker's words straight here.  He seems to think that any young black man who falls in love with a white woman and proclaims to be a conservative Republican actually sets back the black community as a whole.  Does anyone else see the irony to his words here?  Doesn't questioning Griffin and his beliefs and choice of woman in his life set society as a whole (not just the black community) back, and not Griffin's actions?

Just who the hell does Parker think he is questioning Griffin in who he dates and who he votes for?  If he really wants to make this a political issue, then what does he have to say to the likes of Herman Cain, Peter Boulware, Lynn Swann, Clarence Thomas, and J.C. Watts?  Are those men all equally unable to relate to the modern American black man because of their political affiliation?

I won't even bother getting into his comments about Griffin's braids in his hair.  Such a statement is so incredibly stupid, I am shocked and appalled that Parker even had the nerve to bring Griffin's hair into the equation.

Once I had read Parker's comments and watched his video clip, I was immediately reminded of the backlash Rush Limbaugh got on ESPN in 2003 for his comments on Donovan McNabb.  In case you don't remember, here's the complete clip of his remarks:

Oh, the irony.  On so many levels.

You may recall that Rush was fired from ESPN directly for his remarks.  I'm sure he didn't lose any sleep over it or anything, considering he's still as successful to this day nine years later.  But let's think about his words for a moment.  He said McNabb was an overrated quarterback who had mostly succeeded because the Eagles' defense got the team as far as they had gone up to that point (they had reached the NFC Championship game in two consecutive seasons by that point, and McNabb was in his fifth season in the NFL at the time).  At no time did Limbaugh ever say anything like McNabb stunk as a quarterback because he was black.  He said the media wanted him to succeed because he was black, and gave him more credit than he was otherwise due.  (Also, if you read the transcript of the clip, Michael Irvin noted more than once that Limbaugh had a point)

Compare Limbaugh's comments to Parker's.  Parker's comments are far more incendiary and offensive in nature than anything Limbaugh had to say.  Parker called into question Griffin's values, culture, and nature as a man based upon who he plans on marrying and his political views.  If Parker isn't fired by ESPN for his remarks, then I don't see how ESPN could make any claim of consistency in their actions.

Oh wait - I get it now.  Limbaugh is a white conservative and Parker is black.  It's totally okay for one black man to accuse another of being a fraud to the rest of the black community unjustly, but God forbid a white man to make any comment that has anything remotely to do with racial overtones.  We just don't know what we're talking about.

But you know, there's a bigger picture here.  I've come to believe that the concept of racism is a fallacy.  Blacks and whites aren't of different races at all; we are all one race together.  We're the HUMAN race.  Sure, there are hundreds of different cultures across the planet, and many cultures have a mixture of ethnic heritages within them.  Just because we may have different cultural and ethnic backgrounds doesn't mean we are separate races.  At what point did society decide that skin color defined one race apart from another?

Maybe once we all realize that we are all one race, people like Rob Parker won't keep setting us back.

Monday, December 3, 2012

In the Aftermath of Tragedy

Over the weekend, the NFL was rocked by the sudden murder-suicide of Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher and his girlfriend (and mother of his 3-month old baby) Kasandra Perkins.  It's a horrendous story, and if you haven't read much of the details you can read about it here and here.

The Chiefs had just over 24 hours from the time Belcher had shown up to talk to his head coach and GM before shooting himself to having to play Sunday afternoon.  How they managed to focus on preparing for the game I'll never know, but not only did they play the game, they also won.  But what was particularly noteworthy was after the game, quarterback Brady Quinn had some really excellent thoughts on his teammate.  Quinn's words are far stronger than anything I could have ever thought of:.

I've been guilty of some of the things Quinn talked about.  My phone is attached to me at all times, so much so that it's been more of a distraction than anything else.  I've never done something so blatant as text someone while holding a conversation face to face with someone else, but Facebook has been a vice of sorts for me for a long time now.  I've seen many posts on there with something as simple as, "UGH," and most times I don't do anything about it.  More often than not posts like that are meant to be attention-getters, so rarely are they truly indicative of anything.  In fact, lots of times when I've seen those posts there are very generic comments of encouragement with stuff like, "Keep your chin up!" or "You'll get through this!"

But every so often, there is a post I come across where someone is truly going through something awful.  A loved one could have suddenly passed away, they lost a job, a bad break-up, or some other kind of tragedy happened.  In cases like those, I do try to reach out and offer my ear and any kind of advice I can.  I can say from personal experience that something as simple as a telephone call, text message or an IM can go a long way to making a person feel better, knowing there's someone out there who truly cares about them.

I like to think I'm good at picking up on when one of my friends is really hurting about something.  There have been a bunch of times when I got an IM from a friend, and all they said was, "Hey how are you?"  Knowing how a lot of my friends normally talk over IM, I've responded with something like, "I'm good - what's wrong?"  On more than one occasion I caught a friend off guard by asking that, and more often than not my instinct was right.  In fact, people have even asked me, "How in the world did you figure out something was wrong just by me saying hello?"

I don't know what kinds of demons Jovan Belcher was fighting, but he allegedly shot his girlfriend 9 times before he killed himself.  If that were true, he clearly had some kind of rage built up against her for some reason, and we may never know what the source of that rage was.  The natural human reaction is to ask whether this tragedy could have been prevented, which is what Quinn talked about in his video.  I don't know if even the most intuitive person could have picked up on the battles Belcher was fighting, but Quinn's words are very honest and accurate in today's society of social networking.  We're all involved in each other's personal lives as the result of Facebook and Twitter, but we also don't want to get too caught up in each other's business for the most part.  

What's lost in this entire tragedy is that there's a 3-month old girl who will grow up without either of her parents to raise her.  From what I've read thus far, other relatives have been caring for her the last couple days, and the Chiefs will also provide financial support for her long term (which is a very generous offer and the right thing to do, in my opinion).  I doubt she'll know the truth about her parents until she's well into her teenage years, but I pray she will grow up in the kind of loving household that every child deserves.