Sunday, March 18, 2018

MovieMonday: Journey's End

Here we have an engrossing movie set exactly one century ago, in March of the final year of the First World War. 

Based on a popular 1928 play by R.C. Sheriff, an English veteran, most of the film is set in an English artillery trench 60 yards from a German trench in northern France.

The story is launched when an idealistic young 2nd lieutenant, Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), asks to be assigned to the company of Capt. Stanhope (Sam Claflin, excellent here) an older classmate whom Raleigh admired in school.

"You'll find he's changed," Raleigh is warned. Indeed, Stanhope has grown frustrated and bitter, drinking to salve his conscience as he dutifully leads solders into situations they do not understand and he cannot justify.  

As the unit begins a week of trench duty, the senior officers are told to expect a German advance within days and not to expect backup support when the advance arrives.  If the news is dire, they understand they must "stick at it, the only thing a decent man can do."

They are decent men, including their older leader, Osborne (Paul Bettany), a schoolmaster.  In a letter to his wife, he writes, "These youngsters do not realize who they are, so new are they to their very existence."

As events proceed, Raleigh's idealism is tempered with empathy and Stanhope personifies the cumulative cost of the Great War on England's soldiers and the country itself.  

The theme here is not upbeat because it cannot be upbeat.  World War I involved no particular cause, but seems to have been sparked because the warring countries had large militaries and and thin-skinned rulers who were ready to fight.  Cynical commanders sent armies of loyal soldiers into lacerating battles that left thousands dead but resolved nothing.

Even before the war ended, it had spawned a literature of disillusion, mistrust and fury --  messages that resonate to this day.  

"Journey's End" is a very good movie whose story is as relevant now as it was a century ago.

Modern War

War historians generally agree that the American Civil War was the first modern war.  The Industrial Revolution provided better armaments, telegraphic communication and rail lines for logistical support.  The result was more, and more efficient, bloodshed.

Fifty years later, World War I was Europe's first modern war.  Countries used all the Civil War innovations, and added others:  machine guns, hand grenades, barbed wire, poison gas, fighter planes and aerial reconnaissance photos for pinpoint bomb targeting.  During the course of the war, gas masks, metal helmets and tanks were refined and added to combat arsenals.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Equal Justice Under Law?

Pediment, US Supreme Court Building
Any child of five has a well-developed sense of "fairness." If you give his sister two cookies and him only one, you will hear loud complaints until the situation is rectified.

So it is with democracies.  The expectation that citizens will be treated equally is right up there with "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" for Americans.

If only it were so.  In the last two weeks, the press has reported on the resolution of three cases of financial mismanagement.  It is hard to square the results with the concept of equal justice.  

Elizabeth Holmes

Holmes, 34, founded Theranos, a Silicon Valley company devoted to a great idea -- that a single drop of blood gathered by the prick of a pin could be used to perform 90 percent of the blood tests done by traditional medical laboratories.

In 2013, she claimed she had the machines to do it.  

For a while, Theranos was a big, big deal.  Investors poured $700 million into its stock.  Its board included former US secretaries of state, former senators and corporate and legal luminaries.  Thereanos' valuation climbed to $9 billion.

Then it all went south.  A 2013 contract with Walgreens ended with the drugstore company suing Theranos.  The company's 2014 revenues of $100,000 came in 1,000 percent shy of its $100 million forecast.

The whole thing was a fraud.  The company did not have the technology.  The tests it processed were done on other firms' machines.  Holmes and the company president leveraged good press, fudged documentation and many lies -- and perhaps the appealing story about a woman-led tech unicorn -- to keep things going as long as they could.  

But it was not to be.  By mid 2016, Theranos was described as a "zombie company."  It is limping along at the moment, but basically Theranos is over.  If you invested, you were sold a bill of goods.

What distinguishes Theranos from the many other failed Silicon Valley startups is the level of outright lying and fraud that were employed to raise money and suspend disbelief as it failed to deliver on its early promise.  

Holmes has left the company, of course.  The Securities and Exchange Commission has fined her $500,000 and told her that she may not be an officer of any public company for 10 years.  

The director of the SEC's San Francisco Regional Office said this to a Bloomberg reporter.

 “Innovators who seek to revolutionize and disrupt an industry 
must tell investors the truth about what their technology can do today, 
not just what they hope it might do someday.”

All true, but so far there has been no move by the Justice Department to press criminal charges.  Maybe there is no appetite to prosecute a fallen tech icon who happens to be a woman and who has powerful friends. Or maybe it's a San Francisco thing.


Across the country in New York City, prosecuting outrages is a spectator sport.  Two prominent politicians -- Rudy Giuliani and Eliot Spitzer -- launched their careers by prosecuting financial executives.  In addition, the city must have more news bureaus than anywhere else in the world, which tends to amplify the volume. 

Two much-publicized prosecutions were wound up in the city in the last 10 days.


Martin Shkreli

This is an arrogant guy with a famous smirk on his face.  He started two hedge funds that did not do well and, to pay back investors, he opened a pharmaceutical company, Turing, that acquired the rights to manufacture a little-used pharmaceutical drug called Daraprim.  Overnight, he raised the price of the drug from $13.50 a pill to $750.  

Shkreli, now 34, was condemned nationally for this, but what he did was legal.  And, strategically, it was smart.  Daraprim, a generic drug, is prescribed so seldom that it made no financial sense for another manufacturer to go through the not-trivial FDA approval process to gain the right to manufacture its own Daraprim and perhaps compete on price.

(Valeant Pharmaceuticals used the same business plan on a much greater scale -- acquiring drug companies and manufacturing rights and then marking up prices to extremes, typically for much more broadly used drugs.  Another company, Mylan, used its exclusive auto-injector rights to bid up the price of EpiPens by 500 percent; no one knows how many people rely on EpiPens, but the number of Medicare patients is more than 200,000, which suggests the affected patient population is very large indeed. These companies' price increases cost the healthcare system much, much more than Shkreli's did.)

Shkreli ultimately did right by his investors, all of whom made money.

But then there was that obnoxious smirk.  So federal prosecutors went after the guy for shifting money around among his funds.  There was an expensive trial on eight charges; the jury acquitted on five and found Shkreli guilty of three.

He has been sentenced to seven years in prison; in federal prisons, paroles are not awarded until 80 percent of a sentence has been served.  He also was assessed more than $8 million in fines.

Maybe that'll wipe the smirk off his face.  Maybe that was the point.

Billy McFarland

McFarland is a good salesman who likes celebrities.

He and a rap star partner decided to throw a fancy multi-day music event, called the Fyre Festival, on an empty island in the Bahamas.  The idea was that the whole thing would be super-deluxe and attract a more upscale crowd than, say, Coachella.

If you ever have thrown a large dinner party, you would shrink from organizing such an elaborate event.  The logistics of food, water, lodging, power supply, sound systems, star bookings and whatnot would challenge even the most experienced event planner.

McFarland, 26, probably never had thrown a large dinner party.  His family is prosperous but not wealthy, and his parents no doubt saw to such matters when he was growing up.

In addition, his previous project, Magnises, had not gone so well.  It was an elite black metal credit card, priced at $450 and pitched to upscale millennials.  By last year, the price had been reduced to $250, the metal had been switched out for plastic and the promised access to exclusive events had not materialized as advertised, prompting complaints from cardmembers.  

Given all that, it's surprising that New York investors, thought to be a savvy bunch, ponied up money for this newbie's first rock festival -- that they didn't examine his financial documents or his business plan with greater skepticism.  But they did not.  Caveat emptor and all that.

Fyre was a flop, and a very prominent one because many celebrities were burned.  It was covered by virtually every publication and internet site in the country and no doubt by international news media as well.  

McFarland was jailed, bailed and charged.  In a plea deal, he admitted to two counts of wire fraud.  In exchange for this, the federal prosecutor cut the prison recommendation from a potential 40 years to between 8 and 10 years.  (I have read that a typical fraud sentence is closer to two years, except for Bernie Madoff.) 

Plus McFarland must pay his creditors $26 million.   


Let's be honest.  None of these three deserves a citizenship award, but a true justice system should deal with them in a manner proportionate to their offenses. 

Here's a quick comparison of the results of the three cases.  If you can justify the relative "fairness" meted out in these situations, please drop me a line.

Elizabeth Holmes Martin Shkreli Billy McFarland
Charges No admission of wrongdoing Five acquittals, three convictions Guilty pleas, two wire frauds
Loss to Investors $700 million No  loss $26 million
Fines $500,000 $8.36 million $26 million
Prison sentence  No sentence 7 years 8-10 years


Sunday, March 11, 2018

MovieMonday: The Death of Stalin

Face it -- a serious movie depicting the moral rot of Soviet leadership in 1953 would be unbearable to watch.  By the time Josef Stalin died, his regime had killed as many as 20 million people, including land-owning farmers, Politburo grandees, prominent generals and ethnic minorities.  

So why not make a farce instead?

That is what we have here.  "The Death of Stalin" observes top Russian officials playing the angles and angling over succession after Stalin suffers a stroke and then dies.

Weird as it sounds, the movie is hilarious.  

It takes its story from a French graphic novel of the same name.  The director, Armando Iannucci, is known for projects that cast a cynical eye on politicians, most recently in the HBO series "Veep."  He co-wrote a script that made the members of Stalin's inner circle look ridiculous, each in his own way.

The action involves highly placed Soviet ministers who have presided over executions and other terrible acts but who are so concerned for their personal safety that they hesitate to speak until they know which way the political winds are blowing.  All decisions, including whether to call a doctor to attend to the paralyzed Stalin, are made by unanimous committee votes.  This black humor is the heart of the story.

The acting is excellent, and the cast includes these well-known performers:  

-- Comedian Jeffrey Tambor as Georgy Malenkov, a vain and silly man who moves up from the Second Secretary to replace Stalin as First Secretary and is steamrollered within weeks by cannier political operators.

-- British stage actor Simon Russell Beale as Lavrentiy Beria, head of the notorious NKVD secret police; early in the movie he is instructed by Stalin to execute a man and his wife, who specifies that the man be shot first while his wife watches. 

-- Steve Buscemi as Nikita Khruschev, a frustrated politician who makes his wife keep notes on which of his jokes have drawn laughs from Stalin.

-- Monty Python alum Michael Palin as Vyacheslav Molotov, who is such a thorough yes-man that he puts up no fuss when his wife Polina is sent to prison, effectively for being a Jew. 

-- Jason Isaacs as war hero Georgy Zhukov, a pompous commander and buddy of Stalin who doesn't mince his often intemperate remarks. 

The whole thing is worth seeing, and possibly worth seeing twice.  


The film opened last September in the UK, where it has been very popular.  It was "dropped" in only four US theaters last weekend.  Long-term prospects may be in question because the film rewards viewers who know at least a little history and because the dialogue is more literary than the usual American fare. On the other hand, skepticism about politicians runs pretty high here.  We'll see.


"The Death of Stalin" has been banned in Russia because of its "extremism."  That country is run by a strongman who does not kill millions of his citizens but who seems to have ordered the poisoning last week in London of a Russian spy and the spy's daughter, both of whom remain hospitalized in critical condition.   Previously, other enemies of Vladimir Putin have been killed in the UK.


If you have the time and and want to know more about this subject, you could do worse than to pick up a copy of "Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar," an excellent piece of history by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  

Thursday, March 8, 2018

A Short Walk in Homeless Town

This afternoon I walked out on an errand in my Santa Monica/Venice neighborhood in Southern California.  It's a nice location, not far from the beach.  

Within two blocks, I saw the following.

1. A bicycle chained to a street rack.  Only the frame remained.  Thieves had taken the wheels, saddle, handlebars, brakes, chain, derailleur and pedals.

2.  Another bicycle chained to a street rack.  This was a less desirable bike, apparently, because the thieves had taken only the wheels and tires. 

3.  Yet another naked bicycle frame.

Bicycle theft is an entrepreneurial thing with certain members of the homeless communities in Southern California.  

I turned at the corner and, one block later, I came upon this:  A dozen or more bicycle wheels and tires, and other assorted parts, plus several bicycle frames.  All were chained securely to a metal traffic sign post.

My best guess was that some bicycle thief, or group of thieves, had stashed their most recent haul in plain sight to be picked up later.

In an effort to be helpful, I phoned the local police precinct. I figured the police could collect  the stray parts and, if their true owners could not be found, could discard the lot.  If this were done on a regular basis, I reasoned, it might discourage thievery.  

Alas, it was not to be.

On my first call, I was directed, in English and Spanish, to hang up and call 911 if my situation were an emergency (which it was not) or to wait to talk to a police employee.

So I waited.  The phone rang and rang and rang.  After five minutes and as my cell battery started wearing down, I hung up and continued on my errand.  

A few blocks on, I passed this.  I believe a homeless person had liberated a shopping cart and chained it to another traffic sign post in order to keep someone else from taking it.  (Other local denizens convey their goods in baby strollers, which I do not think are purchased at the Caro Bambino store on Main Street.)

But I digress.

When I got home, I phoned the precinct again.  This time the line was busy; an automated voice told me to call later and then hung up on me. 

A few minutes later I called a third time.  The phone rang and rang and rang again.  I put the line on speaker and did some household chores.  After a long time, I gave up and hung up the phone.   

This was probably just as well. 

The police here take homelessness as a given. They seem more hostile than helpful in dealings with the street population, but they don't seem concerned with misdemeanors.  Smoking methamphetamine on the sidewalk in front of boutique, which I observed on a midday stroll last week, no longer raises an eyebrow among pedestrians, let alone the police.  


There have been homeless people near the beach for 40 years or more, but locals seem convinced that the numbers have increased in recent years. 

The face of homelessness in this neighborhood is young, able-bodied white guys.  On occasions when I have talked with them, they have seemed reasonably well educated.  Yes, they want cash or your doggie bag from the restaurant, but they are mostly rational when they are not drunk or high.  

Honestly, this seems anomalous at a time when national unemployment is at its lowest level in 18 years, a situation that economists describe as full employment.  


Below is a much-watched 2017 video tour of homeless encampments along an Orange County bike path.  The bicyclist who comments on the tour said recently that he regretted what he said -- at least the tone of what he said -- but his observations are distressing: bicycle chop shops, people tweaking (using meth) in the open air, children living in tents.   

The camp was cleared a few weeks ago for an infrastructure project, and a judge ordered the city to house all the campers in motels for some period.  Newspaper reports quoted one woman who had lived there for 12 years, and clearly many other people were long-time residents as well.

This puzzles me.  Twelve years is a long time.  It's long enough to enroll in college and to earn a BA, an MA and a PhD.  It's long enough to get a job and save enough money to move someplace where rents are much less expensive than in Southern California.  

This tent city is not the only one.  There are others along streets in downtown Los Angeles and under freeway bridges across the area. Tent hamlets spring up overnight in various neighborhoods and then relocate, sometimes after weeks and other times after years (a topic for a future post.)  As many as 75,000 people are believed to be living rough in Los Angeles and Orange counties. 

After the camp's homeless population, numbering in the hundreds, was relocated, cleanup crews collected mounds of garbage, more than two tons of excrement and 14,000 syringes.


The term "homelessness" is singularly unhelpful because it encompasses a variety of situations and individual people with problems that are unique to each one of them.  Governments here address homelessness with "services" that may be well-intentioned but which treat the homeless as an undifferentiated mass.  Not surprisingly, these programs have almost no effect. 

More about this later. 

Sunday, March 4, 2018

MovieMonday: Red Sparrow

The title character of this movie is a young Russian woman, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) who just wants to continue in her simple life -- caring for her crippled mother by day and dancing as a prima ballerina by night.

The movie opens nicely, with two parallel action events that upend her plans and set the plot in motion.

In one, Dominika suffers a career-ending injury during a performance at the Bolshoi Theatre.  In the other, a Moscow-based American spy has a late-night rendezvous with a Russian mole in Gorky Park and comes to the attention of Russia's SVR, successor of the KGB. 

These two meet up later, but the in-between is pretty detailed.

Mostly we learn about Dominika.  First, her Uncle Ivan, (Matthias Schoenaerts), a nasty big shot with the SVR, orders her to seduce one of his colleagues and steal the man's cellphone.  Actually, the plan is more devious. The colleague is assassinated as he is raping Dominika in a fancy hotel room.  

Then, with Dominika compromised, her uncle says the only way to keep her modest apartment and her mother's healthcare is for her to go State School 4, which will train her to be a "sparrow," a ruthless secret agent.

One question the film does not consider is whether a beautiful Bolshoi star really has no other options -- like teaching, coaching or becoming an oligarch's trophy wife -- at the end of her performing career.  

But this would mess with the plot, and the movie wouldn't be able to show us the degradation Dominika suffers in what she calls "whore school."  (Plus there would be fewer opportunities to see Jennifer Lawrence naked and in various states of deshabille.) 

Dominika's resentment and anger build and drive her behavior as the movie's plot spools out.

What the Russians most want is to know is the name of the American spy's contact inside the Russian government.  In school and at work, Dominika has demonstrated that she's really good at the spy game, and so she is sent to Budapest to cultivate the spy and get the information out of him. 

Along the way there are side plots and some torture-porn, and the whole thing gets resolved.

I don't want to be a jerk here because, prurient content aside, the movie is well made and handsomely photographed.  Its directors or producers managed to recruit a couple of veteran actors to appear:  Charlotte Rampling is the single-note cold-hearted Sparrow School administrator, and Jeremy Irons plays an upper-level SVR executive with the accent of an Oxford don.  

In fact, "Red Sparrow" isn't doing all that well, and it may indicate that the spy film genre is losing its credibility.  My personal view is that governments aren't all that efficient or clever, although my experience is limited to mundane functions like mail delivery, policing, schooling and zoning departments.  Maybe super-effective spies are being replaced by superheroes whose talents are broadly understood to be fictional at the outset.


I didn't watch the Academy Awards last night and don't have a point of view about who won or who wore which designer gown.

The Oscars started 90 years ago as a way to promote the film industry.  Now there are dozens of film award-awarding organizations in the US and many others around the world.

In addition, other groups give awards for their own reasons.  A publisher started the Mann (now Mann Booker) Prize to promote the book business.  Joseph Pulitzer inaugurated the Pulitzer Prizes to glorify newspapering.

The problem, for me, is the prizes don't reflect excellence.  They are the judgments of humans whose views are influenced by the reputations of studios or publications, and by the cultural winds of their given moments. 

We will know the best movies and books and reporting by what survives and is respected many years later.  I am content to wait and see. 

Saturday, March 3, 2018


verb:  1. let or make (something) fall vertically.  2. fall vertically.

noun:  1. a small round or pear-shaped portion of liquid.  2. an instance of falling or dropping.

Here we have a word in flux.  People use it all the time, but it has acquired a new meaning that can be a bit confusing.

Before we get to that, let me share my favorite "drop" story.  It concerns the city editor back in my newspapering days.  He was a frustrated fellow, and perhaps with reason. 

Every time the court reporter would file a story saying the local D.A. had "dropped charges against" some person, the city editor would get annoyed.  "Klunk!" he would say, imagining the sound of something falling on the previously indicted individual.  The editor tried many times to rewrite the phrasing to eliminate the klunky bit, poor guy, but he never succeeded.  

Now let us proceed to the present day.


This is a new project, a series of songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda, who who wrote, directed and starred in the musical, "Hamilton."  (I am a big fan of Hamilton, the man and the play.)

"Hamildrop," if I am using the term correctly, is several pieces based on themes from the play.  Or it could be that it is a group of "Hamildrops;" I'm not quite sure.

The first was a Benjamin Franklin song rendered by The Decemberists, which was okay.  Personally, I prefer the second, "Wrote My Way Out," a hip-hop number that came out in late January. 

The New "Drop"

Miranda, a man of his moment, has adopted a recent media/entertainment use of the word "drop," which is now a synonym for "release."

I noticed it earlier this year when the the press was abuzz about a new, not particularly good Justin Timberlake song.  Since "drop" is a shorter word than "release," virtually all the headlines about the announcement used that word.  Examples:  

Billboard:  Justin Timberlake's New Single 'Filthy' Set to Drop on Friday!

Variety: Justin Timberlake Drops Futuristic New Video and Song, ‘Filthy’

CBS: Justin Timberlake drops new single and music video "Filthy"

US Weekly: Justin Timberlake Drops New Single ‘Filthy’ and Futuristic Music Video Justin Timberlake drops video for new single 'Filthy'

There were more, actually many more, but I think I have made my point.  

Since then I have noticed the word several times in non-headline contexts.  

-- One article talked about the 1970s comic book series that was the source material for the "Black Panther" movie; the article said the comics had been "dropped at a time when newsstands were still the primary mode of distribution for comic books."

-- Then an online writer mentioned early reactions to an article he had dropped earlier in the week.

-- Many entertainment sites now refer to trailers (once called "previews") being dropped for new films.

So "dropping" now can mean publishing, releasing or broadcasting.  It's a thing.  Watch for it.

Another Dropped Story 

In December 2017, a headline like this one, was flashed on entertainment news websites and publications.  

John Travolta's 'Gotti' Biopic Dropped by Studio 

Here, the d-word was used in its traditional sense, which appeared to be bad news for Travolta and his film.

From the TMZ website: "Lionsgate is dropping John Travolta's upcoming movie just 10 days before it's(sic) scheduled release date."

The speculation was that "Gotti" --  about a mafia boss who had people whacked but was devoted to his family and generous to charities -- might not hit the right tone in an era of #metoo and #theresistance.   

In fact, the story was wrong.  Lionsgate planned to place the movie in only a few theaters.  The company had sold its distribution rights to an investor with plans for Cannes and thousands of multiplex screens. 

So it is possible that "Gotti" will be dropped (ca. 2018) soon in a theater near you.  

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Movie Monday: Early Man

This is a fun movie, an epic story made in the stop-motion production style.

It opens with dinosaurs in the English countryside.  Then the dinosaurs are obliterated by an asteroid, which also creates a lovely valley where plants and rabbit-hunting cavemen thrive.  Then that idyllic life is interrupted by Bronze Age villains who rather resemble the Normans, who conquered England a millennium or so later.  Then comes an epic soccer match.

None of this has anything to do with real history, but so what?  It's very English in its humor, which even Americans can appreciate now that we all know that "football" means "soccer" across the pond.  It's also a product of the Nick Park Aardman team that gave us the Wallace and Gromit shorts and the "Chicken Run" movie.  

The movie's main character is Dug (Eddie Redmayne), who finds himself transported to the Bronze fortress whose overlord is the greedy, henpecked Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston).  Dug manages to get home after promising to return with a caveman football team to play against the Bronze all-stars. 

Turns out the cave people have some soccer history of their own, but their big break comes when Goona (Maisie Williams), rejected by the Bronze team because she's a girl, agrees to train Dug and the gang.  The ensuing match is most enjoyable. 

 As is usual in dramatic comedy, the good-guy characters here are not as interesting as the villains.  Nooth makes a fool of himself several times, including in his primitive text messaging -- via bird -- with his haughty wife. The Bronze football team are a pack of prima donnas  (primi uomini in Italiano) while the team-oriented cavemen are steadfast but less memorable as individuals.  

All appropriate for a nice outing of adults and younger people.


In a cinematic world of computer-generated imagery, the stop-motion filming of a movie like this is almost primitive.  (In film terms it IS primitive; the original King Kong was a stop-motion creation of 1933.)  The technique requires repositioning plasticene characters, shot frame by frame, to assemble the action.  Even with CGI background elements and a very large production team, "Early Man" was made in daily increments of only 30 or 40 seconds each.  

Happily, Wallace and Gromit have joined the classics of childhood cinematic literature.  I had an enjoyable conversation over dinner recently with two youngsters who were familiar with W&G and also Road Runner, Bugs Bunny and other characters in the Looney Tunes archive.  One scene that we all remembered fondly was the W&G battle with Feathers McGraw from "The Wrong Trousers," which won the Animated Short Oscar in 1994.