“Shadow World”: how American businessmen get rich selling arms to our enemies

Shadow World”, directed by Johan Grimonprez, written by Andrew Feinstein, based on his own book (“Shadow World: Inside the Global Arms Trade”) , chronicles the underbelly of corporate contractors (especially defense contractors) which allegedly sell to the enemies of the US and the west.

A highlight of the film concerns Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi, who was kidnapped in 2007 and who had been arrested at least twice by US forces.  The scene where he throws shoes at president George W. Bush at a December 2008 press conference in Baghdad becomes a centerpiece of the film, which for the most part is a collage of speakers with short narratives about secret dealings.

The film mentions American support of Iraq and Saddam Hussein during the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.  That caught my attention because Keith Meinhold, one of the early sailors to challenge the gay man the US military (even before “don’t ask don’t tell”), had claimed he was the “best submarine hunter in the Navy” when he served on Orion planes patrolling the Straits of Hormuz – in the days that oil supply really mattered.  (It still does.)

The film does cover some of the misleading rhetoric about Saddam’s phantom WMD’s that serves as a justification for the war in Iraq (I remember watching the accounts at the Bryant Lake Bowl in Minneapolis when the “shock and awe” started in March 2003).

There is also coverage of selling arms to Saudi Arabia and to countries who have implicitly supported terror.

But selling arms simply becomes a big business career for a lot of people, making them rich.

The practice is particularly disturbing as it could have contributed to the NSA tool leaks that led to an outbreak of ransomware in some companies and hospitals last spring.

The film aired on PBS Independent Lens on Nov. 20.

Wikipedia collage pictures of Baghdad.

Name:  “Shadow World
Director, writer:  Johan Grimonprez, Andrew Feinstein
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  PBS Independent Lens, 2017/11/20
Length:  90 (84 on PBS)
Rating:  NA
Companies:  PBS Independent Lens, Louverture, Tricoast Films
Link:  PBS

(Posted: Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2017 at 12:15 PM EST)

 

Beau Biden’s tragic death of cancer and Joe Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad”


Joe Biden’s memoir, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” intermixes the most productive years of Biden’s vice-presidency under Obama, with the tragic loss of his son Beau Biden in 2015 to an aggressive brain tumor.

The book narrative is often out of sequence, starting out on vacation and then shifting to his vice-presidential home near the Naval Observatory, before taking off with competing narratives.

Beau had served as Delaware attorney general, and had been quite supportive of progressive causes, including LGBT marriage equality. The family’s Catholic upbringing did not lead to any personal moralizing on the social issues.

Biden first notice symptoms around 2010, which went away until about 2013 when he was diagnosed with an aggressive glioblastoma. His genetics made the cell type particularly aggressive.  The physicians (including MD Anderson in Houston) tried a novel approach of engineering a live virus that would attach itself to the tumor cells and stimulate an immune response.  In the end, it seemed promising for a while but Biden suddenly deteriorated and died with family present on May 30, 2015.

I had an uncle who apparently died at age 60 of a similar tumor in 1976.  Even with genetic causes, its actual appearance is unpredictable.

Biden discusses his foreign policy work, especially with regard to ISIS, Russia, and Central America. He covers the second Obama term well, a history that took a shocking deadend with the election of Trump. He wrote the book just before we have a real understanding of the Russian “fake news” campaign and of the way Trump would be able to resurrect tribalism within “the proles”.  Biden is quite specific in his account of Putin’s cruelty with rebels in Ukraine and other former Soviet republics.

He also talks about infrastructure, and his work on improving natural gas lines and other critical infrastructure, some of which he says is made of wood. He does not seem to particularly oppose pipeline developments and on may economic and industrial policies he may have been more conservative than Obama.  But he would have supported aggressive policy on climate change (picture above: damage in Florida keys from hurricane Irma, my visit).

But he also talks about the depth of the financial crisis of 2008, and of the need to make work pay better in relation to capital.

Toward the end, he talks about the sudden decision not to run against Hillary Clinton, and about his reservations about superfund money in the Democratic Party primaries.

Beau’s story also reminds me of the narrative of Lee Atwater, who collapsed at a speech in 1989.

Somehow, I wonder about the “originality” of books by established politicians, who have made their names for themselves before taking up the pen.  Echo Hillary’s book.

Author: Joe Biden (Beau Biden)
Title, Subtitle: Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose
publication date 2016
ISBN  1250171679
Publication: Flatiron books, hardcover (airport purchase) also Kindle, 264 pages
Link: official

(Posted: Monday, November 20, 2017 at 10:30 AM EDT)

“The Skyjacker’s Tale” and left-wing terrorism

Jamie Kastner’s 76-minute documentary “The Skyjacker’s Tale”, while not exactly the Pardoner’s Tale (from Canterbury), is indeed a riveting account of the background of a political hijacking in the 1980s, New Years Eve 1984, to be precise.

Ishmael Muslim Ali aka Ishmael LaBeet got a gun onto an America Airlines flight from the Virgin Islands and demanded to be left off in Cuba.  The film has many snippets of the elder l:aBeet talking from Cuba today, saying he is respected in his neighborhood.  He sounds proud of what he did.  But as Obama normalized (somewhat) relations with Cuba in 2014, he could face extradition again to the US.

The background is that in September 1972, apparently about the time of the Munich Olympic attacks, LaBeet and a cadre of other black men stormed the Rockefeller owned Fountain Valley Golf Club in St. Croix, killing at least five white people.  The motive was at first thought to be robbery but soon began to appear to be race and class war.  There were stories that this was an armed insurrection intended to make the Virgin Islands a black country.  The film makes a lot of the rhetoric of the time;  in some circles around the Black Panthers, you could not remain moderate;  if you didn’t didn’t fight for them, you were part of the enemy.  For a time much of the Virgin Islands was shut down by the terror threat.

LaBeet and the others were eventually caught, and confessions were extracted perhaps with torture (“Extreme Rendition”).  LaBeet wound up serving about 12 years in mainland US prisons before legal tricks got him back to the Virgin Islands for retrial. When he was flown back to the states to return to prison, he pulled off his own heist.

Charlotte Amalie, wiki

Communist Party HQ in Havana, wiki

See also “American Heiress”, Jeffrey Toobin’s book. Nov. 9, 2016.

Name:  “The Skyjacker’s Tale”
Director, writer:  Jamie Kastner
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant Play, 2017/11/15
Length:  76
Rating:  na
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  official

(Posted: Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017 at 11:50 PM ESR)

“Almost Sunrise”: two Iraq war veterans walk across America to raise awareness of “moral injury” from combat

Almost Sunrise”, directed by Michael Collins, written with Eric Daniel Metzgar, aired on PBS Independent Lens and POV Monday Nov. 13.  The film depicts a journey of two Iraq war veterans, Tom Voss and Anthony Anderson, on foot, across much of the country (from Milwaukee to Santa Barbara), to raise awareness of veteran PTSD and suicide, and particularly with the psychological issue of “moral injury”. That concept refers to the idea that when in combat soldiers engage in behavior that would be criminal or otherwise morally reprehensible in civilian settings.

But of course one of the points of international terrorism (especially some associated with radical Islam) is to blur or eliminate the distinction and vulnerability between civilian and military combatants.

.

The men gather support, including from those who find that some veterans’ families don’t get full benefits, as after suicide.   There is a home with a family of an affected veteran with a “no media” sign on the front door.

In Colorado they reach an ashram run by an unusual Catholic priesthood.  They explore some other forms of spirituality. In Utah, they go through some of the familiar scenery.

The film was funded by Kickstarter.

The film was accompanied by two shorts.  One of them, “Voices of Resilience: Insight from Injury”, by Veterans Trek and Pacific Islander.  The film presented a support group in Hawaii, where there seemed to be no VA hospital (Pearl Harbor notwithstanding). But there followed  panel discussion about the effect of a volunteer Army which almost seemed to beg the question of returning to conscription (including women, and making the now settled question about gays [don’t ask, don’t tell as repealed in 2011] and less settled issue of trans solders morally [aggravated by Trump’s tweets] relevant). The film said we have a warrior class of a small percentage of the people waging a war on terror of unprecedented length. It is also a problem that civilian citizens act as if military and foreign policy should not be their concern.

The program also presented a very short animated film “Tom’s War” where Tom visits the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC.

Name: Almost Sunrise
Director, writer:  Michael Collins, Eric Daniel Metzgar
Released: 2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  PBS POV 2017/11/13
Length:  98
Rating:  NA
Companies:  Thoughtful Robot Productions, PBS POV
Link:  official PBSofficial

(Posted: Tuesday, November 14, 2017 at 12 noon EST)

“The Square”: vicious satire that starts out as a sermon on radical hospitality

This Sunday, I thought that a local church had a special service showing “13th”. a film I’ve already watched twice (Nov. 14, 2016 review — then I later saw the showing is Nov. 19). So I went to the one daily remaining showing of “The Square”, the new “morality play” and vicious (conservative) satire by Swedish director Ruben Ostlund; and, expecting an exploration of Christian personal values about other people, expected that to become my sermon and church, on a lively Sunday morning at Angelika Mosaic in Fairfax VA (there is a church service there in a rented theater).

The title refers to an exhibit in a Stockholm museum, the “X-Royal” (for a reason), a bordered white space you could step onto as a safe space, a “sanctuary of trust and caring”.

The lead is Christian (Claes Bang), an attractive slender married heterosexual man in his 40s with two young daughters, who espouses a Leftist philosophy of ultimate charity for the needy, particularly for street panhandlers.  But like many on the Left, he is not above wielding power for its own sake, especially sexually over women, as shown in one confrontation where one of his partners challenges him about the time he went inside her. The movie starts precariously enough (after an initial anti-establishing shot of a homeless man on the streets of the perfect EU welfare state), as he is about to speak publicly, and another woman toys with his chest hair to attach a microphone.  In this movie, you notice these things.

As far as the space, I’m reminded of a huge maze exhibit at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain in late April, 2001, when I visited.  A young man from Brazil stood behind me in line and said that the whole point of this “sculptor” was to make you wait in line so you can “feel like shit.”

Very early in the film, Christian is robbed of his cell phone, wallet and cufflinks, in what seems like a setup confrontation in the streets.  (As I wrote this an fumbled my own iPhone its flashlight came on for the first time ever.)  Soon Christian is challenged to practice what he preaches. He inveigles his tag team hhsidekick Michael (Christopher Laesso) to support him, ultimately in a bizarre effort to hand deliver a letter to every family in a walkup apartment accusing them of the theft.

The film turns into a 140-minute sequence of skits, often with bizarre rhythmic sound effects, exploring the whole issue of how we personally treat people whom we perceive as weaker than ourselves. There is an experiment where museum visitors are challenged to prove they “trust people” by leaving their phones and wallets out in the open on the Square.

Whatever plot structure there is, gets driven by two attractive young male journalists (Daniel Hallberg and Martin Soder) who, in an early presentation, explain how you make content go viral, not only with original perspective but with some shock effect to get a visitor’s attention. So they come up with a video of a blond little girl holding a cat who gets blown up, with some Arabic warnings at the end. It seems that maybe this was hacked. But I was reminded of LBJ’s 1964 ad challenging Barry Goldwater with a mushroom cloud. That may cost Christian his job, which seems especially timely now.

But near the end there is a skit at a dinner, where attendees are challenged to do with “survival mom” type threats.  A man, his body completely waxed smooth (“thmooth”, he’s in the movie posters), comes into the dinner acting threatening, walking on all fours like a pre-human ape, with props. The guests are challenged to remain calm and inconspicuous so they can let somebody else take the threat (think about Las Vegas and Paddock Oct. 1)   But the scene winds up with attempted rape.

Somewhere in the middle there is a skit about the ALS ice bucket challenge. They have no monopoly on this “chain letter” which doesn’t even need a refrigerator’s ice maker.

Wiki picture of the actual museum in Stockholm.  I visited the city in Aug. 1972,

Picture: Occupy DC, December 2011 (mine).

Name:  “The Square
Director, writer:  Ruben Ostlund
Released:  2017
Format:  1.85:1  in Swedish, subtitles
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax VA, 2017/11/12, Sunday morning
Length:  142
Rating:  R
Companies:  Magnolia Pictures
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2017 at 5:30 PM EST)

“Murder on the Orient Express” remake: Why are all these specific diverse characters on the same train?

A couple Sundays after president Clinton took office in 1993 (as the debate over gays in the military heated up) I drove 30 miles East to Annapolis to attend a regular church service at the Naval Academy. The pastor was a female (who at the time was by definition supposed to be straight) and her sermon had an interesting title: “Come and see.  Why are you here?”

The second question was one that Chris Hansen would pose to hapless visitors caught in his TV sting about a decade later (“To Catch a Predator”).

But the star and rich-people assemblage in the remake of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” posed the same kind of question.  Why were they on this particular train?  How probable is it, really, that every single passenger could be a reasonable suspect (or “person of interest”, at least) and possibly wind up complicit in the murder of an organized crime figure Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), after the train is stalled by an avalanche in the Carpathian mountains, or maybe it is the Alps.  (The word “orient” seems overused).  All this is in 1934, at the end of the Great Depression, before a lot of people see the Winds of War.

Kenneth Branagh, so proud of his work on Shakespeare in the past (along with the Mahler-ish score by Patrick Doyle) plays himself, so to speak, as the self-indulgent detective Hercule Poirot, who opens the movie obsessed with the symmetry of two boiled eggs at a continental breakfast. He politely refuses Ratchett’s job offer, and then that evening, after the train is derailed and stopped, we actually see a clown (Stephen King style, out of everybody’s sight line) racing away from Ratchett’s cabin.

There are better films set on trains.  First of all, how about Hitchcock’s own “Strangers on a Train” (1951).  I’ve seen Trans-Siberian, The Cassandra Crossing (1977, where a plague has to be contained on a train), Silver Streak, The Great Locomotive Chase (Disney, 1955), and, particularly, Snowpiercer (which was very political).

I remember one train ride a little like one of these movies. In the spring of 1999, I took a night train East from Berlin to Krakow, to visit Auschwitz the next day.  My novel “Angel’s Brother” starts with a meeting of two young men at the site, who had seen each other on the train, and wonder why they are both there.

I saw the 1974 film by Sidney Lumet shortly after I had moved into New York City.

Vinkovci, Croatia station (in the book), wiki.

Name:  “Murder on the Orient Express”
Director, writer:  Kenneth Branagh
Released:  2017/11/10
Format:  2.35:1   some backstories are in black and white
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, afternoon 2017/11/10, good crowd
Length:  115
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  20th Century Fox
Link:  Fox

(Posted: Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 at 10:30 PM EST)

“Thor: Ragnarok”: well, imagine a civilization built from landfill trash, among other things

I’m not an aficionado of comic plots or of Thor particularly, but it seems like “Thor: Ragnarok” (directed by Taiki Waititi) gives us a tour of the inhabited universe, where space travel takes us to ancient-like worlds of 50s Fox Ciinemascope spectacles (the film is from Marvel and Disney).  The director himself will play the voice of the fiery giant Korg at the end.

The Asgardian civilization resides on a planet I’ve seen before, with a huge spectacular harbor and a long “boardwalk” out into the sea for the spaceport.   I want a room in a Wyndam hotel with a harbor view.  Sorry, the spire palace will be destroyed.

From a distance, the planet looks like an annulus, so the physics of it isn’t very probable. The planet seems tied closely to another planet where the entire civilization (even the big cities) is built from landfill  trash and toy parts.

The film is a vehicle for a lot of big stars. The centerpiece, not necessary deserving, is Chris Hemsworth as Thor.   He’s all fit for a centerpiece gladiator battle in an amphitheater that could come from Rome (“Demetrius and the Gladiators“) or maybe from “Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome”. That battle is with a new enemy, the Hulk (Bruce Banner) who in his other life is played by an aging Mark Ruffalo. But the arch enemy is the empress Hela (Cate Blanchett) who wants her fill of executioners.

There’s one scene, two-thirds the way through, where the maidenhead women prep Thor for his final battles by prodding his chest with hot irons to remove any hint of chest hair.  Such indignities for a man who will never be a 40-year-old virgin. But does he need to become a clone of Victor Mature?

The giant wolf appears on the boardwalk, without the loving care of Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

The movie is also grounded with some scenes in the Big Apple, like an earlier scene at a Bleeker Street bistro set up to look like La Poisson Rouge (one of my favorite haunts) and where Benedict Cumberbatch plays Dr. Strange, approprirately geeky and a seeming caricature of pianist-composer Timo Andres.  The people who made this movie have watched a lot of young stars rise.  The actual music score is by Mark Mothersbaugh and doesn’t seem that remarkable.

There is a piece by Ashkey Nkadi in The Root, shared on Facebook, “Why is society intent on erasing black people in fantasy and Sci-Fi’s imaginary worlds?” and she discusses the tokenizing of Idris Elba as Heimdall.  I’m not sure she accurately characterizes what goes on in comics or fantasy movies, but I need to be mindful of this in my own future writing.

Wiki of Yggdrasil and the nine worlds of Asgard .

Typical rocky extrasolar planet (wiki).

Name:  “Thor: Ragnarok
Director, writer:  Taiki Waititi
Released:  2017/11/3
Format:  2.35:1 Imax 3-D
When and how viewed:  2017/11/8 Regal  Ballston Quarter daytime small audience
Length:  130
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Marvel Studios, Walt Disney Studios
Link:  official 

(Posted: Thursday, Nov. 9, 2017 at 2:30 PM EDT)

“The Evolution of Digital Comics” (Guest Post)

The Evolution of Digital Comics” by Amy Boyd

One of the reasons why comic books remain popular is because of their appeal across ages. Not only do younger people appreciate these stories, but even older audiences as well. This is why even if comic books have already evolved over the years, they remain relevant.

These days, actual comic books are no longer that popular. You don’t see people flocking to magazine shops just to get the latest copy of a superhero story. This does not mean though that the culture is dead.

In fact, it is more alive than ever. The reason why it stays popular is because everything was brought to an entirely different platform. Digital comics or webtoons are now a big deal. They are a mix between reading from a real comic book and watching a video.

You are still reading the story, but you can see better images and you can also add sound effects. You need to scroll from one page to another just like how you to do it in a comic book. You can also read the content wherever you go, even if you don’t have Internet access.

The whole concept might seem like a step back from the idea of just sitting down and watching a video. However, a lot of people have become really interested with this concept and this paved the way for the popularity of webtoons.

In short, the comic book fever will remain for a very long time. Check out the infographic below and find out how digital comics were born.

The Evolution of Digital Comics

(Posted: Thursday, November 9, 2017 at 9 AM EST)

“A Good American”: The story of Bill Binney, whose metadata analysis system at the NSA should have prevented 9/11

A Good American”, directed by Friedrich Moser and based on his book, tells the story of (Bill) William Binney, a former technical director at the NSA, and of the metadata analysis tool he helped develop over several decades, which should have prevented 9/11.

The film opens with a woman calling her family from one of the hijacked planes, already knowing that other planes have been crashed. She may be on Flight 93. The film soon shows us the aftermath of the February 1993 truck bombing in the basement parking garage of the old World Trade Center, which had been intended to take out a load bearing abutment.

The film then gives us a retrospective biography of Binney, who enlisted in the Army into an intelligence program in 1965 to avoid drafting into combat.  One of my chess playing friends at GWU enlisted for Army intelligence for four years in 1967, so I remember this. Binney spent some time in Turkey spying on the Soviet Union (near a base that had been surrendered) after the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Over time, Binney worked on tools that would enable the military to predict enemy events based strictly on metadata that did not require identifying people. It was possible to predict the Tet offensive in 1968, although the tool wasn’t used adequately.  It was used better in predicting the Soviet action in Czechoslovakia.

The NSA did not do a particularly good job at first in shifting from analogue to digital intelligence (Edward Snowden would not appear for some time). But other terror events, like in 1998, and then the attack on the Cole in 2000, would have made it apparent just how determined Al Qaeda was to undermine secular American life.

During this time, there was a lot of internal politicking to get funds from Congress, and a revolving door of people who retired from the NSA and became contractors at SAIC.  Financial gain compromised good judgment, as the metadata tools could have detected 9/11 if deployed properly.  Important components of the system were Trailblazer Project and Thinthread.

Binney retired on Oct. 31, 2001, after 9/11 and a horrible sequence of anthrax attacks. But in 2007, the FBI raided his home, claiming he had compromised classified information as a whistleblower after he left.

William Binney has been active recently in retirement on the post-Trump-election and Russia-gate investigations, meeting with Pompeo, NBCNews story here.  The details are likely to evolve quickly.

Name:  “A Good American”
Director, writer:  Friedrich Moser
Released:  2015
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Netflix Instant, 2017/11/7
Length:  100
Rating:  NA (PG-13)
Companies:  Gravitas Venturas
Link:  official

(Posted: Tuesday, November 11, 2017 at 4:15 PM EST)

“LBJ”: Rob Reiner’s new film soft-pedals LBJ’s “accidental” presidency after Kennedy

I recall a drizzly late fall Election Day in 1964, after I had turned 21, when my father said, “Nobody can beat LBJ”.

And I remember the Sunday evening in Special Training Company at Fort Jackson, SC, March 31, 1968, a day I had cleaned a grease pit with a toothbrush, one of the lowest days of my life, hearing that LBJ would not accept a nomination for a second full term as “your president” in that year of “Medium Cool”.

LBJ” is a nice biopic by Rob Reiner, from Castle Rock Entertainment, with unusual distribution through Electric Entertainment.

The first half of the film walks through the day Kennedy was assassinated, with LBJ (Woody Harrelson) recalling earlier days in his career, when Kennedy needed him on the ticket in the 1960 election but then had to rein him in.   Johnson, while able to use the word “negro” with a bit of condescension, found himself moving toward Kennedy’s  (Jeffrey Donovan) thinking on civil rights, while fighting off powerful senator Richard Russell (Richard Jenkins), especially on deal to put a defense plant in Georgia and hire token blacks as engineers. Johnson also expresses his political cynicism to Robert Kennedy (Michael Stahl-David).  LBJ’s own experience with his own housekeeper helps shape his views toward progress, while Russell makes phony arguments about “freedom”.

The American public was not told of Kennedy’s death for 38 minutes, while LBJ mulled being sworn in immediately in Dallas on the plane, out of fear of a bigger conspiracy.

The film bypasses the Cuban Missile Crisis completely, and makes only brief references to Vietnam, which would heat up in 1965, after the time period covered by the film.

LBJ was capable of being quite crude in his talk, like about his clothes and tailor (“Sartor Researtus” indeed), and Ladybird (Jennifer Jason Leigh) covers for him, even in bed.

Name:  “LBJ
Director, writer:  Rob Reiner
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Regal Ballston Quarter, 2017/11/5, afternoon, good audience
Length:  98
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Electric Releasing, Castle Rock
Link:  official

(Posted: Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017 at 11:45 PM EST)