Thursday, August 31, 2023

August Words of Wisdom

Keep your sunny side up, keep yourself beautiful, and indulge yourself! --Betsey Johnson
The question is not: will today be a good day?
Every day is a good day.
The question is: how much good will you get out of today?
--James Clear
Hearts are the strongest when they beat in response to noble ideas. --Ralph Bunche

True nobility is not about being better than someone else, but about being better than your former self. --Marcus Aurelius
Some people think I'm unhappy, but I'm not. I just appreciate silence in a world that never stops talking. --Unknown
Creativity is a wild mind and a disciplined eye. --Dorothy Parker 

Oftentimes, readers can relate more to your failures than to your successes, plus they're usually more entertaining. --Grace Ly

Never regard study as a duty, but as the enviable opportunity to learn. --Albert Einstein

The wound is the place where the light enters you. --Rumi

The Constitution is not a living organism, it's a legal document, and it says what it says and doesn't say what it doesn't say. --Antonin Scalia
The greater part of the population is not very intelligent, dreads responsibility, and desires nothing better than to be told what to do. Provided the rulers do not interfere with its material comforts and its cherished beliefs, it is perfectly happy to let itself be ruled. --Aldous Huxley

The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any. --Hannah Arendt
The longer I live, the more convinced I am that this planet is used by other planets as an insane asylum. --George Bernard Shaw

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

The Babylon Bee looks back on the Storm of the Century

Hilarious as always.

Failure of Hurricane Hilary to live up to expectations? Russian interference, of course!

Time to restore Los Angeles to its previous third world shithole status:

This would be funny if it wasn't actually true:

Monday, August 21, 2023

Storm of the Century

So Hurricane Hilary, the first tropical storm to hit Los Angeles since 1939, has come and gone. In my part of town, the result was almost non-stop rain, heavy at times, for a period of about twenty-four hours. I didn't notice particularly high winds, although it was breezy at times but that's not unusual for us. I've seen higher winds just out shopping on a nice day. And by lunchtime Monday everything was bright and sunny again, the previous day's doom and gloom an old memory.

Unfortunately, not all areas were as lucky as mine. Palm Springs got hit hard. In fact, most of the really serious issues seem to be centered mostly in the desert area, although it turned out that cancelling their Sunday game in advance was a good move by the Dodgers, whose parking lot is an unorganized living hell after games on a good day. Overall, California got a lot of much-needed rain with no loss of life.

But because the most-hyped weather in years just wasn't enough, we also got an earthquake! I was laying on my bed reading and felt a soft jolt. For a second I thought Sophie had jumped onto the bed, but when I didn't see her I thought, "Was that an earthquake?" I got up and felt a couple seconds of swaying, which confirmed my suspicion. Other than that, that was it. It was very minor where I lived. The quake turned out to be a 5.1 centered in Ojai, in Ventura County. And (in addition to some social media "What's next, Sharknado? jokes) apparently it created a new word:

Leave it to The Babylon Bee to get into the act:

And now, back to our regularly scheduled August weather.

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Double Feature: I go to the movies

Believe it or not, I haven't seen a first-run feature film in a theater since 2011, when my Mom and I (still dealing with the loss of my Dad) saw the massively disappointing Bridesmaids. Seriously, we both spent the whole time wondering when it was going to get funny. We needed cheering up, which is why we went to this movie. But I found it crass and unfunny, with an unsympathetic protagonist who's life was one big pity party.

Another thing that has kept me out of theaters is that so much of what Hollywood releases is crap, and even the good ones could usually stand to be 15-20 minutes trimmer. Not to say there haven't been a few I wish I'd caught in theaters - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and JoJo Rabbit immediately spring to mind. But there aren't too many others and over the years low quality, excessive runtime, and the high price of admission eased me out of the habit of seeing movies in theaters. Add to that how quickly they become available on cable and streaming, you have to be quick to catch them on the big screen. Blink and you'll miss. In fact, I first saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood on an airplane, on the flight back from Bouchercon Dallas in 2019.

It's not like I haven't been in a theater, just not for first run films. So far this year I've seen Casablanca and The Big Lebowski on the big screen thanks to Fathom Events, and will be checking out A Christmas Story in theaters in December. The Brother and I also went to a very cool Twilight Zone screening shortly after returning from the aforementioned Dallas trip. 

So it was a bit of culture shock for me to go to the movie theater not just once, but twice in the past week. But there were two that I just had to see in person, on the big screen.

First up: Sound of Freedom. I had discovered Operation Underground Railroad online a couple years ago and have donated ever since. Their work echoes a situation I had heard about in a class at Writers' Police Academy when the instructor mentioned how human trafficking skyrockets during the Super Bowl. Apparently traffickers descend on host cities in droves. The instructor mentioned that rescuing victims is just the beginning, that they need a significant amount of aftercare. You can't just send them home and expect them to pick up where they left off. OUR not only assists in rescue operations, but also provides aftercare.
Tim Ballard was an agent with Homeland Security busting lowlife scum for possession of child pornography when a fellow agent pointed out that while nailing consumers was fine, they weren't rescuing the victims themselves. This prompted Ballard to do so, and it began a journey that saw him make a career out of it. 

This film is life-changing. It's terrifying - and not gonna lie, hideously depressing - to realize how easily man's inhumanity to man comes to some people, and not just a few, and not even when children are involved. I couldn't talk after the film ended; I had to go into the restroom to compose myself. Tim Ballard is a rare hero and the world could use many more like him. 
Jim Caviezel gives a quietly solid performance as the heroic, driven Ballard, and while all the performances are solid, special props go to child actors Cristal Aparicio and Lucas Avila as the abducted siblings who prompt Ballard's journey. The film does a great job of not showing actual abuse of children, but inferring how they are groomed and abused. It gets the point across without becoming unwatchable. It also, unfortunately, shows how easy it is for these animals to find and take their victims.
Sound of Freedom should be required viewing for every man, woman, and child, regardless of political or religious bent. The film also pointed out a couple of horrifying stats: One, that criminals are increasingly choosing trafficking over selling drugs because drugs can only be sold once, while trafficking victims can be sold five times a day for a period of years (also mentioned in the WPA class), and two, that more people are enslaved by traffickers today than were enslaved back when slavery was legal even in otherwise civilized parts of the world. It's mind-boggling how widespread it is. 

Oppenheimer: I was a huge fan of the 2014-2015 WGN series Manhattan, which unfortunately only lasted two seasons (and season two ended just as they were getting ready to explode the first bomb), so I was looking forward to this take on the subject. Also, based on what I saw last night, both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor Oscars are locked up (Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey. Jr.)
Oppenheimer is the proverbial triumph of filmmaking. J. Robert Oppenheimer was a genius, a gifted physicist who was tasked with creating a weapon of horrifying power to be used against his fellow man. But any moral qualms (well represented in the film) he may have felt in creating the atom bomb were offset by the need to develop it before Nazi Germany did so. The film does a great job of balancing the need to outpace the Nazis with the decimating power of the weapons created by Oppenheimer and his fellow scientists in the Manhattan Project. The devastation the bombs inflicted was counted in the loss of thousands of lives, but had the Nazis triumphed and Oppenheimer and his team failed, one can only wonder what world we would be living in today.

In addition to the visual magic he's put onscreen to represent the science in creating the atom bomb and immense power behind it, Christopher Nolan has stacked this film with great actors. Murphy and Downey own the screen, melting into their characters, but there is an embarrassment of riches throughout the cast. Matt Damon shines as the Army general who recruits Oppenheimer to head the project. Others include Aiden Ehrenreich as a naive Senate aide who gets a sobering education in politics, a sinister Casey Affleck, Rami Malik in a deceptively important role, Tom Conti as Albert Einstein, Gary Oldman as President Harry Truman, Kenneth Branagh, Josh Harnett, David Dastmalchian, Dane DeHaan, James Remar, James D'Arcy, David Krumholtz and in a nicely ironic turn, Christopher Denham, who was in the cast of Manhattan, as an ominous member of Oppenheimer's staff.

Major female roles are sparse. Emily Blunt delivers an expectedly solid performance as Kitty Oppenheimer. Florence Pugh as Jean Tatlock is only really required to get naked and simulate sex; one has to wonder why she bothered with this role. On the other hand, the film does show how many women populated the Manhattan Project, although none of them feature heavily in this version of the story.
One thing that really affected me about Oppenheimer's experience was how badly he was railroaded by his own government when he tried to renew his security clearance post-Manhattan Project. Vile corruption in our government is a sad fact these days, but it was depressing to realize that it isn't a recent development, that it goes back at least as far as the 1950's. That a genius who was hugely responsible for America coming out of World War II on the winning side was so horribly treated is inexcusable. I'd expect it today, but it was kind of a shock to see it back then. Power does indeed corrupt, and apparently always has.

I highly recommend both of these films. In fact, I may need to go see both of these one more time before eagerly awaiting the DVD releases. I'd like to see Oppenheimer in IMAX, but the only two theaters anywhere near me with IMAX are both located at malls (The Grove and Del Amo in Torrance) and given the mob looting that's been going on at Southern California malls these days, I'm trying to avoid those places. But both films were well worth returning to the world of first-run films in theaters.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Prayers for Maui

The beautiful island of Maui has been hammered by wildfires. Three, to be exact:

The West Maui wildfire tore through the historic town of Lahaina last week. Historic Front Street was decimated. The pictures I've seen online make the place look like a war zone. The body count is up to 100 as of today, making it the most lethal fire in the U.S. in a century. Many people were caught with little to no warning to evacuate, and many in Lahaina have lost both their homes and places of employment.

My Mom and Dad lived in Kailua-Kona on the Big Island for years, and would take trips to other parts of Hawaii. Their favorite destination was Hilo, on the other side of the island, but they also went to Kauai, Pearl Harbor, and in October 2009 they visited Maui. Here are some pictures from that trip:


Mom in Lahaina Town.

One of three boats they saw on their trip that were sunk or run aground.

Haleakala Volcano:

Elevation 10,000' per my Dad's note on the back.


"Great shops!" according to Mom.

My Mom never met a fake cow she didn't like.

Note the cowboy boots.
Kahului Harbor:
Beautiful boat run aground in Kahului Harbor. Dad's note: "OOOPS again!"

Maui Ocean Center:

No note about where in Maui this was taken, but my Mom did note that it was the "Third ship we saw in trouble."

 Mom at what is described only as "a viewpoint":

There are not words to describe the devastation to this paradise. To make things worse, being an island, they're cut off from communications and assistance that people on the mainland could count on. I believe they did fly tourists off the island within the past couple of days. Right now we can donate and pray, and hope for the best for so many people who have lost everything through no fault of their own. And even if that's all you can do, it shows more care than some people have for this tragedy.

Friday, August 4, 2023

RIP Mark Margolis

RIP to the actor best known to me as Hector Salamanca on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Margolis died yesterday at the age of 83.
However, Margolis's career extended way beyond the Albuquerque crime world created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould. He studied under Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, and appeared in more than fifty Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. In the 1970's he began working in film and television and amassed an amazing resume over the years. Films he appeared in included Scarface, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, I Shot Andy Warhol, The Thomas Crown Affair, Requiem for a Dream, Hannibal, Gone Baby Gone, Black Swan, and My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2.

His television appearances are even more impressive and include Kojak, Crime Story, The Equalizer, Quantum Leap, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Law & Order, The Practice, Oz, Crossing Jordan, Californication, Blue Bloods, The Good Wife, American Horror Story, Elementary, Gotham, The Affair, The Blacklist, and most recently Brian Cranston's series Your Honor. Seriously, scroll through this guy's imdb entry - it's really amazing. Hell of a career.
In his Emmy-nominated performance as former cartel kingpin Hector "Tio" Salamanca in Breaking Bad, Margolis was playing a once-powerful man now confined, speechless, to a wheelchair, communicating through the dings of a bell. Then, about five years later, he appeared on Better Call Saul as a younger, able-bodied version of himself (despite being well into his seventies) leading up to the explanation of how he ended up a shell of his former self. Having to perform so much of Hector's existence with nothing more than a bell and twisted, frustrated facial expressions, he still gave a compelling performance that was summed up by a comment on the Deadline article linked above: 

Rest in peace, sir.

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Recent reading: "The Swans of Fifth Avenue: A Novel"

The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin

The Swans in the title are the New York socialites who befriended author Truman Capote back in the day and unfortunately trusted him enough to confide in him, especially Babe Paley, wife of CBS founder William Paley. The unfortunate part occurred when Capote published a short story in Esquire magazine that featured thinly disguised characters based on the Swans and even worse, the real-life dirty secrets they'd revealed to him.

This novelization of how this all could have played out is expertly portrayed by Melanie Benjamin. The lives and machinations of the socialites, Capote's bitchy takes on so many things, the hows and whys of the caricature he would become post-Swans, and the pain and unhappiness that was the underpinning of the lives of the Swans, who made an art of marrying and living well at the cost of their own happiness, is great fodder that Benjamin mines the heck out of.

Up front is Barbara "Babe" Paley, the daughter of a brain surgeon and a mother who trained her three daughters to marry up and marry well, which all three did. The unrelentingly glamorous Babe was the skilled artist of what today would be called her brand. After an unsuccessful first marriage, she married Paley and spent the rest of her life playing out the role of one-half of an elegant world-class power couple. This novel takes the tact that the great love that she didn't get from the chronically unfaithful Bill Paley was filled by her loving friendship with Capote. It doesn't necessarily sell in the novel, but does sell the idea that Babe's marriage to Paley was more of a partnership than love match, and therefore she could be driven to find a true love from a most unlikely person, even if it was a love that couldn't be consummated.

What Benjamin does really well is bring the period and everything about it to life. How it actually played out is anyone's guess, since - with the exception of the celebrity and publicity loving Capote - all the other people involved were never interested in the celebrity and notoriety that the story La Cote Basque 1967 spawned. 

After being shut down by New York society Capote went from being the heralded author of In Cold Blood to the Baby Jane Hudson version of Truman Capote that both I and Benjamin grew up with. He vastly underestimated how furious the women would be that he'd betrayed their trust. They cut him off from their lives, friendship, and society. In fact, although La Cote Basque 1967 was supposed to be part of a novel Capote claimed to be working on, he never finished or published another book after In Cold Blood.

Benjamin also does a great job of showing the world that the Swans inhabited in their heyday and also how America began changing in the late 1960's, making them relics of a society that no longer existed. It's just a terrific book and Benjamin does a fantastic job of bringing Capote, his Swans, and their world to vivid life.