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12 Years a Slave

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There's nothing subtle about 12 Years a Slave.  There doesn't need to be.  

There's a certain amount of "it couldn't possibly have been that bad" in our collective understanding of American slavery.  It persists in things like the Lost Cause point of view for the Civil War, and the fact that we conveniently share our Founding Fathers' bling spot with regards to slavery's original ensconcement in the Constitution.  There's a recognition of the inhumanity of slavery, but simultaneously an inability for us to really grasp just how awful, dehumanizing, and corruptive slavery was for our nation.

The best rebuttal for this kind of historical revisionism is the truth.  That's what 12 Years a slave brings us, pure, unvarnished, and lacking any kind of justification.  It lets the behavior of our forefathers carry the story.  As difficult as it is to watch, it's a necessary movie. 

It really was that bad.

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30 for 30: Big Shot

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This is the reason I watch the 30 for 30 series.  Some schmo whose worth is measured in thousands instead of millions maneuvered to purchase a hockey team?  And he almost got away with it?  What the hell?

There's a reason that we should be skeptical of the claims of the one percent, their justifications for inequality.  The truth is, not only did this guy almost manage to pull it off, he fooled banks, the old team owners, and even the vaunted New York media for months before it all started to unravel.  He actually owned and ran the team for a while, despite having no real financial capability to speak of.  And he did it all by pretending he belonged, and the good-old-boys club of the upper echelon of first Texas, then New York, welcomed him with open arms.  This is why it's so inexplicable to pretend that these people aren't made by circumstance.

It's a really neat film, and it even gets an interview from Spano himself, who comes across as unapologetic and arrogant, but not that much worse than the other members of sports ownership.

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30 for 30: No Mas

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The No Mas fight is more infamous than famous.  Why did Roberto Duran, a toe-to-toe slugger and the winner of the last fight, quit?  Was it really the fact that Sugar Ray Robinson was clowning and winning?  Was it really because Duran was out of shape?  Was there foulplay involved?

This documentary is pretty missable.  The big thing around it is getting Sugar Ray and Roberto Duran together to have a talk about the No Mas fight.  It's a cheesy constructed reality TV moment that, predictably, fails to generate anything out of the two boxers beyon what they have spoken about repeatedly every time they've been asked since the fight.  It is interesting to see the two as they are now, Duran in Panama and Sugar Ray in his mansion in some gated suburb, but it's not interesting enough to carry the whole film. 

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30 for 30: Free Spirits

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The ABA!  Dr. J! Blue, red, and white basketballs!

The Spirits of St. Louis were one ABA team, and one of only two that didn't get absorbed into the NBA when the ABA folded.  Why is kind of murky, possibly because the league didn't want to have a franchise in St. Louis where they had already tried a franchise and failed, possibly because the NBA didn't like the Spirits freewheeling style, built around the extremely talented and extremely unruly Marvin Barnes.  Whatever the reason, the owers of the team fought with the NBA, and secured an agreement where they get 1/7 of the money from the TV rights of each of the four teams that entered the NBA from the ABA.  This has proved extremely lucrative.

The film isn't a single great story, it just happens to have an intersection of a lot of interesting stories.  The crazy antics of Marvin Barnes, the early career of Bob Costas, the roughriding and innovative ABA, and the intricacies of sports executive management are all present.  It provides an interesting window into something that's fading from memory.

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The Mahabharata: A Modern Rendering, Vol 1

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Much has been said about the Mahabharata by people much smarter and much more familiar with it than I. It's an enduring tale, a prodigious tome, and one of the foundational texts of one of the largest religions and one of the largest nations in the world. It's obviously a powerful story.

On the recommendation of a friend, I spent much of my reading time this year on this bad boy. It's brought me to a deeper understanding of some of the assumptions of Indian culture, and it's given me more than just the embarassingly basic knowledge of Hinduism that most Westerners get.

Having done so, I'd hardly qualify it as a must read, any more than the Bible, the Iliad, or Beowulf are must-reads. However, it is one of the easier portals to learning more about Indian myth, and definitely serves a purpose if you want to come to greater understanding of world culture.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at

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The Artist

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Usually the Oscar voters and I agree, but I had no patience for this movie.  The choice to make a black and white silent movie about black and white silent moviemaking is as boring as it sounds.  I spent much of the time during this movie bored and uninvolved with the movie, kind of like if I had just spent two hours watching reruns of Degrassi, but without juicy Canadianness.

I can only presume that the Academy voters were swayed by the fact that the movie was bout their industry, and everything made in black and white deserves Serious Consideration.  They ended up giving the award for Best Movie to an interminable bore.

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Captain Phillips

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Action movies can be smart?  What is this?  Where's my mindless explosions and skyscrapers getting run into by supervillains or giant robots?

Captain Phillips is an incredibly welcome relief from the comic book and sci-fi blockbusters that have dominated action movies over the last decade or so.  It's a smart movie, thrilling in a manner reminiscent of those Tom Clancy movies of the 1990's, only better.  This movie happens to be about Somali pirates taking over a freighter as it goes around the horn of Africa.

The movie is culturally nuanced, something which most action movies won't touch with a ten-foot pole.  The captain of the pirate skiff that takes over the freighter is clearly supposed to be the equivalent of Tom Hanks.  They're both middle managers caught between higher-ups and the crew, they're both have to deal with unruly behavior from that crew, and they are both wholly of the system that produced them.  In addtion, even though the pirates don't speak our language, we come to empathize with them.  They're just trying to make a living in an unfair system, one in which their best outlet is piracy.  They aren't shiftless neer-do-wells, they're just people.

One of the best action movies I've seen in a long time.

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Somebody made a movie about Jackie Robinson.  It's got Harrison Ford playing Branch Rickey.  It's okay.

This reminds me of that somewhat inexplicable burst of baseball movies in the 1990s, typified by movies like A League of Their Own, The Babe, and Sandlot.  Like those movies, 42 hearkens back to the golden age of baseball, and uses baseball as a lens to midcentury America.  It's sweet, verging on saccharine, and has a significant amount of "The Way We Were" about it.  It's also clearly supposed to be palatable for both adults and kids, something that, in this movie at least, takes away some of the effectiveness.

There are better civil rights movies, and better baseball movies.  Jackie Robinson was great, but there's better, more nuanced ways to learn his story.  Give this one a miss.

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30 for 30: Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau

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It might be hard to believe here in the middle of the continent, but surfing is a sport too, and is the focus of one of ESPN's 30 for 30 series, The Legend of Eddie Aikau.

Aikau was a surfer from a young age.  He was a native Hawaiian, and he traced his cultural lineage directly to the native peoples who invented surfing, long before it got popularized into what we know it as now in the 50s and 60s.  Aikau is now a mythic individual, a real person who is more than his biography, and is now a folk hero and a symbol.  He was the prototypical Hawaiian -- not only was he a surfer, but he lived the prototypical poor, aloof, and water-based life of the displaced native Hawaiian.  American power-hungry domineering grated on native Hawaiians, with good reason.  Native Hawaiians still smarted from profit-driven American businessmen taking over the sovereignty of the Hawaiians in a coup, as well as the statehood subsequently granted to Hawaii.  In this filter, it doesn't take much to find insult in a bunch of white-as-snow Californians appropriating the sport of surfing with no regard to native Hawaiians.  As the film documents, for many of the first big tournaments that took place once surfing hit the big-time, not a single native Hawaiian was even invited to compete.  It is no wonder that Aikau, the first native Hawaiian to compete in those large tournaments, has come to be a stand-in for Hawaiian culture.

The irony here is that white culture is well familiar with the hero sticking up for culture and principle against long odds.  It's not hard to find it in the myths we tell ourselves, whether it be Washington at the Potomac or Jim Bowie at the Alamo.  For us to find ourselves looking at the story from the other side is an unsettling transmogrification.

The coda to the Aikau story is his senseless death.  The movie does its best to play it off as yet more myth, but it really is a stupid, stupid risk.  Aikau, continuing his role as the public figure stand-in for native Hawaii, was taking off with the Hōkūleʻa, a vessel built in the Polynesian style that was built to provide proof-of-concept that it was possible to make long-distance sea voyages using methods known to ancient Polynesians, to refute historians that short-sightedly claimed that no native peoples could have possibly made the voyage.  The Hōkūleʻa got caught in a storm on the first day out to sea, and it capsized and quickly became useless.  The boat was outside of the normal shipping lanes and flight paths, and so rescue was less likely.  So, Aikau decided to try to swim 12-15 miles to shore.  Aikau, already fatigued from lack of water and sun exposure, died in the attempt, while the rest of the crew was rescued when they were spotted by a passing plane.  Setting aside the high-risk trip, the decision to send Aikau alone to swim to Hawaii was a foolish one.  It did, however, give Aikau a hero's death, and solidified his larger-than-life symbolism.

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I don't care how many times Jack Black gets typecast, I still have a real weakness for him.  Throw in a good director (Richard Linklater) and a couple of oddball actors (Shirley Maclaine and Matthew McConaughey) and you got yourself a movie that's worth watching.

This is a black comedy in the truest sense of the word.  Beloved local figure, Bernie, just so happens to fall into a relationship with an elderly widow.  This widow is truly horrid, and has managed to alienate just about all of her surviving family, as well as most of the town.  Nobody likes her, until Bernie comes along, and he is the only person who is nice to her.  Somehow, he gets past the initial hurts that she inflicts on everybody to keep them away, and soon she has hired him as a personal assistant.  Whether the relationship goes beyond personal assistant is left for the viewer to guess at.  Eventually, the widow is entirely dependent on Bernie, and Bernie is simulatenously dependent on her for his livelihood.  He doesn't have any space from her in his daily life, and eventually, he just up and shoots her.  Hilarious mockumentary-except-that-it's-actually-based-on-a-true-story ensues.

The acting in this is top notch.  Few of the characters in this movie are simple, and Black, particularly, carries his role off with a goofy earnestness that perfectly fits the real life character.  Matthew McConaughey as the small-town Texas District Attorney is also amazing.

This film, despite its star power, flew under the radar.  It's definitely worth looking for.

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