The Soft and The Hard (Part I of II)

On the road to maturity, you quit playing with toys and you start playing like you are someone else. They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Well, it’s not really that. Its just adaptation, trying to fit in. That’s the next stage of development. But let me introduce you to one of my higher-class old friends, Josh Hopkins, a guy I still (very remotely) keep in touch with. It may surprise you, but at no point was he a loser. He was, however, a kid with a lot to learn (aren’t they all?)

Josh and I seemed to think alike. I was proceeding like an ogre through high school and Josh was entering his first year as a small fish in the big pond of freshmen high-schoolers. Josh was Jewish, very short, standing almost 5’5. He was very small-framed, long-legged for a short guy, a frizzy-haired dude with loads of book smarts. His trademark was that he always wore a baseball cap because he was so insecure about his hair.

Josh had the reputation of being a pip-squeakish player, a manipulator, and he was. But that pip-squeakish-ness was soon to vanish. He muscled up quite well over my last year of school. Josh had so much going for him. It was like his two divorced parents that could never get along had no effect on him. Josh had a spend-a-holic mother with a temper whom he seldom got to see, and a dad who ran a successful chain of flower shops and made his son manage his allowance money like a banker. Josh had to buy his own car and some of his own food with his allowance. That dad of his was never too liked by anyone, not even his neighbors. But today, Josh is a very successful bank manager in the Austin area, thanks to dad.

But early on, unlike his business-minded father, Josh had a creatively young and rebellious streak in him that, like a bad cold, had to run its course. He went until he hit the breaking point. Along with me, here was another of your typical “tough guys,” one more kid who hasn’t found himself yet but thought he had.

The only thing a doing-good-in-school, preppy kid like Josh and I had in common was that we were both imaginative and loved to talk ourselves up. I was the self-professed badass brawler and he was the innocent-looking parent-fooler, who looked like “such an angel,” but was “a devil inside.” My mother saw right through him from square one, but we had this way of talking ourselves up to each other so as to re-convince ourselves that we were bigger and badder than we really were.

We talked a big game, we did. Serious stuff came from our mouths, like how we were both “criminal minds” who “could kill someone easy and then never have nightmares about it.” We rehearsed how we would kill someone on one cloudy afternoon as it began to rain on our way to get the usual caffeine fix at the local Diamond Shamrock. Walking to get slurpies and Big Gulp sodas was our life since neither of us drove at that point.

We’d get home from school, throw our book bags onto my living room couch and hit the hot garage for a wrenching, two-hour workout. Then, we’d head out to the backyard and jump on the trampoline and sport some flips and martial arts maneuvers like we saw Bruce Lee do. When we were tired, we’d go inside and make six cups of buttery-as-fuck rice and scarf it down with some Tyson chicken patties cooked in the microwave. We’d eat a shit-load of food and still have energy again just an hour or two later. Truly, those were the good days. Really, it was our goal to be in the back section of the last issue of FLEX magazine for 1992, in the section for amateur weightlifters. Josh muscled up well. “Little tank” was what he came to be called.

And then there was Glenn. Glenn was a sharp guy, bone-thin, a kid who looked anemic, almost like a zombie. He had blonde-hair and a very long face. The kid couldn’t fight his way out of a wet paper sack, but could do academically anything he wanted and could work on anything with his hands. But Glenn “experimented” with trouble like a conflicted, turtle-neck-wearing euro-punk with his sexuality. He would make mischief, whether it be starting a small fire in a classroom or speeding in a parking lot and nearly hitting a pedestrian. Nothing big, just little bouts of random mischief.

Glenn was up for anything, like spending insane amounts of money “souping up” cars to go fast. His dad died and left him a freaky fortune, which he would always end up spending on hotrods to fly around and impress people on the streets and down at the track. It was just what he did.

…And I loved it. I loved to ride in some of the cars he drove, like his 1992 Eclipse GSX Turbo and his highly modded Firebird Formula 350 with 485 horsepower. The thing breathed like a dragon and ran a 12.5 second quarter mile! So fucking awesome to be in a car topping off at 185 in a 40 mph zone! Oh, the tickets we almost got!!! Oh, the wrecks we almost had!!!

So Glenn modifies these cars and then eventually blows them up making them too fast for their own good by racing them to death. He honestly did. Research says 95% of all tire-marks in San Antonio were made by Glenn Westenberg!

But one hot, breezy afternoon with an overcast sky, Glenn’s deviously fickle mind gets the idea to drive into a neighborhood where a bunch of lame old people live. They entered the community. It was “St. James Heights Retirement Community.” About a minute after they arrived, a gray-haired military man pulls up next to them in his boat-shaped caddy: “Keep it slow, guys. Speed limit is 20 miles an hour.” Then he drives away.

Two kids with baseball caps riding in a Firebird? They aren’t going to race now, are they? Naaaawww! Yep. That’s what they were there for, to show some old people how to live again! But Glenn’s mischievous thinking that day would start a fire that wasn’t to be easily put out. There is pride before a fall…

“The old guy left his golf clubs in the back of his car. They look like they’re worth a lot to me. Let’s snag ‘em.” they said. The old guy who told them to keep slow when they entered the neighborhood, it was his house and car. They thought about it only briefly, but they didn’t hem and haw long before deciding to grab this huge brown satchel of golf clubs and take off in that fast, sleek, Knight Rider-styled black sports car.

But the old guy wasn’t through emptying his car. There was still a bag of groceries inside, along with the clubs. The guy came back out to get them just as they took off with the clubs. Being spotted, the man called the police and reported that “fast, sleek, Knight Rider-styled black sports car” that happened to be damn easy to recognize. They barely made it past the drive-in at the front of the property. All that horsepower couldn’t outrun the radio. Lights and sirens greeted them to the side of a busy road with well-trimmed and cut grass, next to a pretty stone wall separating the community from busy West Avenue. The sign on the wall said something like, “No worries. You are home.”

It was true. Josh and Glenn were about to get a new home for the next 10 hours. Ordered out of the car at gunpoint, both kids emerged. Glenn was smart enough to calmly comply while showing no signs of anything but a relaxed disposition. He wasn’t crying. Poor Josh, he was already crying before he even got out of the car, crying like a fucking one-year-old come diaper-changing time, and the worst was yet to come.

The two are speechless…errrr…well, Josh wasn’t so speechless. After apologizing and crying, and apologizing and crying, and doing more of the same, he was booked and thrown in the pin. He may have been seated right next to Glenn, but those on the other side of him were the ones to be worried about. One man must have been 350 pounds, a biker dude, with a jeans jacket and tiny-framed glasses nearly ready to break while stretching across that extra-fat face. He reeked of alcohol and his knuckles were bloody.

Sitting across from them was a drunken Mexican man with messed-up hair and a cut under his left eye. He was making “pussy” gestures with his hands as he smiled and nodded his head, his eyes half-closed while his thumbs and index fingers did the talking to the boys for him.

Lining every wall were mean offenders, gang-bangers, lined up and sitting according to ethnicity. Their eyes were on the “fresh meat” of two young white kids who were just tossed in with them. Damn kids were so scared that they could only stare down at the floor lest they make eye contact with some bastard who decides to lead the raid to sodomize them.

You are probably wondering how I know all this not having been with them that day. I know because two days later, Glenn is back over at our house telling the whole story, loaded with all the juicy details. Glenn might as well have talked. Josh was in so much trouble that he couldn’t break free from home for a month. When he could, he still couldn’t talk about the experience, and would say so: “I’m not going to talk about it, guys! Shut up about it! It’s over!” He got real defensive every time it was brought up.

I should have put 2 and 2 together from the first year I knew him. Josh cried when he got chewed out by his dad for stealing a Low Water Crossing sign put out by the city during a flood. Then, he bailed on my brother in a brawl. He didn’t get his ear chewed off, and he wasn’t outnumbered. Nope. It only took one well-dressed black dude to say: “Get back, bitch!” Josh was never a “tough guy.” Like me, he didn’t have the heart for it. And it took ten hours in a gray and green cell with some real mean fellas for him to realize that he wasn’t one of them.

But that’s what childhood is about—finding who you are. You don’t automatically know. You shed a hundred skins until you get wise enough to see the handwriting on the wall and find the one that’s yours. Life makes you, or, you could say, just keeps putting you in situations until you realize who you are and what it is you are in a position to do. Life keeps throwing up patterns for you to see, as though to say what John Connor said to the T800: “Are we learning yet?” Sometimes it takes a lifetime to find the answers. Sometimes it takes just one plop down in the backseat of a squad car to see what it is you are not. And some never learn.

Back in 2005, at my brother’s wedding, I got a chance to chat with old Josh. He’s still a “little tank” and never stopped hitting the weights (or wearing a cap to cover the hair he's still insecure about), but it’s obvious that he now knows who he is. I brought up the incident at St. James Heights Retirement Community and his response was: “Oh yeah, that…like most kids, I thought I was a bad-ass until I knew better.” With beers in hand and more shots of Jack Daniels on the way, we both got very, very drunk that night and talked about old times.

(JH)

James Cameron Struts His Stuff in “Avatar”

Movie Title: Avatar (2009)
Spoilers: No

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In Avatar, James Cameron has shown that his directorial brilliance is still where it used to be. There is gold to be had in the seemingly empty mines of science fiction. Cameron creates not only a story that will stay true to your heart, but also an entire alien ecosystem that will stay in your mind. With almost the care of an entire team of scientists, Cameron constructs for us an alternate world with new types of aesthetically pleasing life.

In the future, mankind is exploring new worlds. It takes years to reach Earth’s newest planetary find, the planet Pandora. The crew is kept in a cryogenic state until they arrive. Pandora is home to the Na’vi, a tribal race of giant, blue humanoids who become known for their use of a deadly neurotoxin on the tips of their arrows.

With their own language and culture, the Na’vi are intelligent and spiritual, very connected with their planet. And it is their planet that has something that the humans want, a precious mineral found under the ground. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is the one in charge of heading up the operation. The funding for the Pandora mission must be obtained from the riches found under the planet.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is the paraplegic war vet and brother of a deceased researcher. In place of his brother, he is selected to go to Pandora. His mission: to take on his brother’s genetically pre-matched Na'vi body and learn the Na’vi’s ways to persuade them to relocate so that the humans can get what they came for without a fight. The scientific findings of the mission are under the direction of an always attitude-y Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver).

Avatar is a beautiful blend of heavy, novelistic science fiction, with enough visually stunning details to satisfy the geekiest. Here lies a cheese-less sci-fi story that makes sense and is appealing in doing so (and better yet for some, leads to serious action!) You get more than enough of what you need if you watch to view another world and other types of life that operate not unlike we would expect them to. It’s nearly too much, but it’s also a lot of everything else that most of us want in a movie. Pandora is beautiful, much more beautiful than any planet would be. That is what you expect when a human mind artistically creates their own world—it is always much more gorgeous than one nature can provide.

There are so many spiritual connections, allusions to Native American animism and mysticism. Except for the younger viewers, it’s hard to miss this eco-spiritualism when the Na’vi speak of “a network of energy that runs through all living things. All energy is borrowed, and one day, you have to give it back.” That’s not new talk. It’s New Age talk, and regardless of how you regard New Age philosophy, it’s a better religious philosophy than the more traditional ones our world is bombarded with that spread hate propaganda and fuel the flames of war.

That brings us to the inherent intellectual superiority of the film. I was at first confused why, when Jake became known to the Na’vi, that he was referred to as one of the “sky people.” The Na’vi had been in contact with humans before, but why not call them gods, “sky gods”? I didn’t pick up on it at first, but then found out why.

As it comes to be known, “A’wa” is “Mother Nature.” The Na’vi saw all of their planet (and presumably the universe) as one unit of God. There were sacred places to pray and “holy” things to do, but the role of “The Great Mother” was to preserve balance and interact with everything. As far as we know, there was no waiting for a heaven or dreading a hell, just a giving and a taking of energy. That is a very Native American idea. And of course, the Na’vi unabashedly represent the Native Americans, those who need nothing but to be close to and love their planet.

The humans, in contrast, are the traditional “blue-eyed devils,” all of them white and all of them with the attitudes of redneck space pirates who shoot first and ask questions later. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), is a no-nonsense military overachiever who just can’t wait to pull that trigger. He takes loss personally. He calls the cavalry out and back. He’s one of the cooler villains since Inglorious Basterds’ “Colonel Hans Landa.”

From the start, it isn’t hard to predict where things are headed. You would think an advanced earth culture would go the way we are going now, with great concern for all forms of life—much more when we are speaking of alien life and ecosystems that can tell us so much about ourselves. But we get none of that. There is apparently no Star Trek-like “Prime Directive” in dealing with aliens. These humans don’t care about the beings or the environment, and certainly not the trees, as they spend the entire movie literally trying to destroy them to get to their loot.

These trees are more complex than our brain’s neural pathways, and a bunch of bucktoothed, knot-kneed hicks are trying to destroy them. If only the Na’vi knew about the old earth and about the legends of man doing the same thing to his fellow man and home planet for ages. They do find out, and the film wastes no time telling us how the humans “have destroyed their world.” Now, man’s greed in search of a new type of gold has him traveling the galaxy doing the same. No, the message isn’t flattering. As in District 9, we are the bad guys, and I believe if we did come across an alien race, we’d help ourselves to anything they had that we wanted. I’d like to disagree, but I can’t.

Nevertheless, it’s your job to decide when it’s time for a movie to shut the fuck up with its moralistically preachy and jackhammer-driven messages of “Save the planet!”, and it’s my job to determine whether or not such a movie can still be called worthy.

Avatar is a little too long and a lot too militant in it’s “down your throat” environmentalist message. Some of the characters are over-the-top, but do hit their marks. Avatar is nonetheless immensely rich - visually, artistically, and emotionally - making it a fair cap-off of a hit in a year with mostly mediocre movies.

(JH)

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Grade: A- (4 Stars) Recommended!
Rating: PG-13
Director: James Cameron
Summary: A paraplegic marine dispatched to the planet Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.
Starring: Sam Worthington “Jake Sully,” Zoe Saldana “Neytiri,” Sigourney Weaver “Dr. Grace Augustine,” Stephen Lang “Colonel Miles Quaritch,” Michelle Rodriguez “Trudy Chacon,” Giovanni Ribisi “Parker Selfridge”
Genre: Action / Adventure / Sci-Fi / Thriller
Trailer

A Little Too Wholesome

Movie Title: The Blindside (2009)
Spoilers: No

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I feel stupid stating that America (and not just America) has come a long way in race relations. The majority has gone from unleashing packs of dogs and turning fire hoses on African-Americans to welcoming “them” in “our” schools and homes. And if The Blindside is to be imitated, non-blacks should have a production made of this progress.

The Blindside is the true story of Michael Oher, a homeless, African-American boy adopted by a well-off, white family who goes on to become a college football star, and from there, a pro NFL player. The film is based on the 2006 book by Michael Lewis titled: The Blindside: Evolution of a Game.

Once adopted, Oher (Quinton Aaron), whose mother was a drug addict and whose father was a victim of murder, has a whole new set of challenges in his new home. Among them is getting his grades up so that he can play college football. But he has the help of a loving, conservative Christian family at his side.

Moving and heartwarming, The Blindside is magnetically appealing at every point. You pay full attention because such innocent compassion is so seldom found on the big screen. The film can brag about its fine writing. It was the employment of white guilt that didn’t sit well with some.

There is such a thing as white guilt. It comes out in conversations when there is an argument about race. You might recognize it in the things people say like, “I’m not racist. I have [insert ethnicity: black] friends.” It has become a culturally ingrained reaction for great numbers of white families, in an almost paranoid attempt at getting across to the world: “I may be white, but I’m not racist. Look, I’ll prove it...”

The Blindside is a well-acted and wonderful family film, with wonderful characters that are tantalizingly likable. Bullock has finally stepped up to her potential and has dropped the quirky bimbo roles for something better. She plays Leigh Anne Tuohy, Oher’s always-resolute, adoptive, firecracker of a mother. And though it wasn’t the intent, she looks hotter than ever, in a sophisticated and successful “southern bell” way.

Kathy Bates is “Miss Sue,” Michael’s tutor and a professing democrat (the Touhys seem to have been just tolerant enough to be willing to hire her in spite of that latter fact).

In made-for-TV-movie fashion, The Blindside is appropriate viewing for the whole family. Its message is as wholesome as a student bringing an apple for a teacher. In fact, it’s a bit too wholesome, which is one of several small but back-setting flaws.

Nearly everyone in The Blindside is portrayed as a single-dimensional set-up of a stereotypical character type. The Christians are staunch, white, church-going republicans who boast about being card-carrying NRA members and “packing” accordingly. Even the teachers are cookie cutter country bumpkins. The blacks are down-on-their-luck apartment-dwellers facing eviction, if not gang members or street thugs. The film would have been even better had the stereotypes been downplayed or else eliminated. But it's not like there's banjo music playing in the background or anything.

You are supposed to like them, everyone. You are obligated to like them. In fact, it’s hard not to like them. They are as undeviating and as direct as you would expect from a creation aimed at pleasing the most conservative of Bible-believing families or mainstream viewers.

My only other gripe with this excellent and lovably entertaining film: It’s an inadvertent step backwards for race relations, as though to say: “We’re southern and we’re Christian, and that means we help unprivileged blacks.” Why the need to broadcast the innate sense of charity that all rationally healthy and benevolent humans are capable of exhibiting?

(JH)

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Grade: B+ (3 ½ stars) Recommended!
Rated: PG
Director: John Lee Hancock
Summary: The story of Michael Oher, an homeless and traumatized boy who became an All American football player and first round NFL draft pick with the help of a caring woman and her family.
Starring: Sandra Bullock “Leigh Anne Tuohy,” Tim McGraw “Sean Tuohy,” Quinton Aaron “Michael Oher,” Jae Head “S.J. Tuohy,” Lily Collins “Collins Tuohy,” Ray McKinnon “Coach Cotton,” Kim Dickens “Mrs. Boswell,” Adriane Lenox “Denise Oher,” Kathy Bates “Miss Sue”
Genre: Drama / Sports
Trailer

Funny Name, Serious Atheism


Salvatore Pertutti is the creator of this video and Atheists-in-Action.com (click here for the English version of the site.) The Frenchman's talents include attacking religion by humor and satire (check out his YouTube profile page.) See if you can appreciate his uniquely militant atheistic stabs at religion.

(JH)

Jack Was Back!

Working at a bus station will put you in touch with hosts of people, most of them you would rather not meet. You go on only hearing that such people exist, like the sickos you hear about on the news…like a Rastafarian man who walks up to a random woman he does not know and says: “What’s your favorite position, baby?” You hear that they exist, and then you see them for yourself, the hordes of mostly waste-of-skin losers who depend on public transportation. I lost track of the buses I saw coming into my station to drop off or pick up passengers and how many gang signs written in permanent marker covered the windows.

I’m so glad I don’t work there anymore. The pedophiles, the perverts, the crack heads, the pill-poppers who sell their prescription medications in the restroom for quick cash…it’s enough to make you want to escape to a different planet. I hate knowing that I breathe the same air as them. I was only there 5 months, but I saw enough to last me a lifetime. I feel like I understand now what every cop who ever “tuned up” a low-life piece of trash felt. I’m not a good enough man to be a cop. If God existed, I’d say God bless the brutal ones.

But there at the bus station one balmy, uneventful night, I got to meet an old friend. It was one of those situations where you see someone many years later, and despite their changes, you recognize them right off. He was always a short man, a facially stubby, bigheaded man, almost of a bone-thin frame. He was short even as a kid. Only now, he was covered in tattoos…of anchors, crosses, skulls and crossbones, thorns and roses, hearts, and fancifully decorated girls’ names that he dated. He had scars on his shoulders and forearms and even a few on his jaw. Some of those I don’t remember him having.

I saw him coming from a distance. I recognized him as soon as he was within 30 or so feet. I was talking to someone else when my eye caught him approaching. He looked at me and then looked away. He didn’t recognize me. I broke off the conversation I was having and approached him. “Jack Napier?” I said. He stopped in stride, shocked that I knew his name. He was actually nervous and hesitant to give an answer of any kind. I guess he had a lot of enemies. He finally said: “Uh…no.”

“It’s alright, man. I know who you are. I’m no one to be scared of. Don’t you remember me from Live Oak, our old stomping ground? I was best friends with your brothers, Jimmy and David.” He relaxed to the point of letting out a sigh. His bloodshot eyes began blinking again and he was comfortable. We started talking about old times, about the fun we had at the Live Oak swimming pool where we used to go, and about how his kid brothers and I combed the drainage ditches like a search team, looking for clues to a mystery.

Jack was a friend mostly indirectly, through his two brothers who were our age. We three were best buds from nine years old through at least fourteen. Jack was much older. He was in high school by the time I was in sixth grade. Jack and I only hung out at the pool, but he was a cool dude who taught us all sorts of new cuss words and funny stories about his “tripping” experiences using drugs. Jack was the initiator of all kinds of forbidden knowledge to us. No, he wasn’t a high-class guy, but an older delinquent kid? How many average dudes wouldn’t find that cool?

Jack and I stood there, nearly oblivious to everyone else around us. I asked what had happened to everyone and I was told; Jimmy and David got sent to boarding school and then later graduated high school. Jimmy was a computer techie now, and David – of all things – a Sheriff for Bexar County. Dad had died of stomach cancer in ‘99. And Jack himself—he got hooked on cocaine and got busted selling a kilo to an undercover cop. He did five years in the pen and had just gotten off of parole. Now I was caught up!

It was amazing hearing how little Jack remembered, like how we weren’t always friends. Jack was the bad-ass of his family, not only older than us kids, but tougher. Unlike so many wannabe tough guys, Jack was a real tough guy who knew his limits and wasn’t afraid to talk about them.

There was so much about him to respect, like how he would admit that he lost more than half of the fights he was in, and how he could show you scars on his body from the big, senseless brawls he got into (having a beer bottle broken atop his head, getting thrown face-first against plate glass windows, etc.). The additional scars he got were from jail. He was once attacked by five guys on the way out of his cell. He survived, “but it’s rough in the big house.” he said.

The mark of a real tough guy is that they aren’t afraid to admit that they aren’t the baddest of bad-asses. They are confident in their bad-ass-ery. They have no need to talk themselves up. And Jack never did talk himself up, but when he needed to, he opened up a can of "whoop-ass."

Little David and I once swapped video games. We had traded when I decided I didn’t want it anymore, so I started into David, telling him of the beating he was going to get if he didn’t reconsider our deal. Bad move. The next phone call I got was from Jack with some words for me…

“Hey, motherfucker. I fucking hear you’re fucking threatening my fucking little brother. You don’t fucking threaten my fucking brother or I’ll fuck your shit up. Hear that, motherfucker? I’ll come over there right now and kick your fucking ass. I don’t give a fuck.”


A long conversation ensued with Jack doing almost all of the talking, but I can remember saying this: “Uh, uh, uh, OK. I’ll back off. Can you and I get along?” To which he replied: “Sure we can, as long as you quit fucking with my fucking little brother, motherfucker!” That was enough for me. Jack didn’t have to actually be there to intimidate. This “motherfucker” was bad enough to send in his words as good credit on what he said he would do because what he said he would do…he would “fucking” do!

Peace was made, but I was still afraid of the guy. When you were around him, you laughed at his jokes because they were funny, but if they weren’t funny, you laughed anyway just to stay on his good side. He wasn’t that much of a bully, but I can remember walking to school and thinking: “I wonder if Jack’s around? Will he be in a good mood?”

And now, all these years later, I stood next to Jack, a man I’m now much, much, much bigger than and I recounted to him the story just mentioned. He had no recollection of it. He said: “I don’t remember that, but that’s something I would have done.” His poor brain, racked with years of bong resin and near-lethal doses of every other drug you could name, was shot. I was surprised he was as sharp as he was. As much trouble as he got into through the years and as much pain as he faced (most of it brought on by himself), he still submissively smiled as we talked about the “good old times.”

He went his way with a promise to see me again, and he did see me again. A week passed, and there he was, smelling of cigarettes and vodka, nearly stumbling as he walked in a heavy buzz. I will never forget that day. He had the saddest look in his eyes. He was suicidal or very close to it. I could feel it. His bloodshot eyes had such a broken look to them. I know that look. We talked some more and he shared with me how hard it was being a felon and trying to get work. He had a cheap apartment he was about to get kicked out of. He had only $58 to his name.

He started to cry right in front of me and pulled out a picture of a girl and said: “She’s all I have now.” I took the picture from him and looked at it. It was a picture of a large-proportioned, pretty Mexican girl sitting on her rocker. “She’s pretty,” I said, handing him back the picture. He quit crying and we talked about life and the meaning of it all. He’d heard the religious bullshit in prison with the evangelists that pushed it on him, but he never went for it. I shared with him that I was an atheist and how I walked away from the empty comforts of religion, and then we talked about how everything was bullshit.

“Life is only as valuable as we can make it,” I said. “When it ceases to have value, it’s not worth living any longer. Sounds like you‘ve got a lot to think about. Only you can decide if life is worth living, but if it is to be, you must make it so. The main thing is to think and try to find what makes you happy. And even then, it may never come. That's the truth, old friend.” The comforts of religion are delusional, total horseshit. There was nothing there for him. He wanted honesty instead, and I gave it to him.

His bus arrived, the brakes squealing as it stopped. He talked some more about his girl. His eyes seemed to light up at those moments in the conversation when he mentioned her name. “She’s waiting for me in South Dakota. That’s where she is. There’s work for me there. I’m leaving here. I’m starting over. I don’t know if I can make it, but I’m leaving.” I wished him well and told him to look me up online or call. He has done neither. If he waits to get his happiness in the grave, I hope that girl of his gives him some.

The story of Jack is the same core story as that of the 2004 film Crash. It was the best movie of that year. What it did was put every character in each others' situation. Criticize your fellow man in his predicament all you want, but it may soon be yours! Jack was once a guy I looked up to, a guy I thought was tough. Well, he was tough. Now, he was a sobbing man, a broken man with nothing but straw-grasping hope that tomorrow will be the beginning of a better day. And now, I was the “tough guy,” the guy who had him spooked, the guy who had the edge. Now, he listened as I lectured.

Jack saw so many changes as he was in and out of boarding schools, in and out of trouble with the law, lost his father, fell out of favor with his mother, got addicted to drugs, went to prison, was beaten, and then discarded as an unwanted reject of society with a lingering alcohol problem that he’d tried to beat but couldn’t. I look at Jack and I look at myself. My life is changing too. Where will I be 20 years from now?

Will I even be in one piece? Will I be under the ground? Maybe some medical professional will be examining my remains in front of a large university medical student audience. Maybe I’ll be fish food. Maybe I’ll be a bum, sleeping on the streets, begging for charity. Maybe I’ll be crying in an old friend’s arms at some bus station, hoping for something better on the horizon. I’d like to think I will have jumped off a building by then. I won't even bother to foresee the good things. Nobody fucking knows. Fuck this life and what it does to people.

(JH)

The Little Ninja's Room

Movie Title: Ninja Assassin (2009)
Spoilers: No

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James McTeigue’s Ninja Assassin, featuring Rain as Raizo and Naomi Harris as Mika, is a 2009 film about…get ready for this…ninjas. If you went ahead and took a wild guess that these ninjas kill people, you’d be right. Have a cookie. But don’t assume Ninja Assassin is a remake of those 80s ninja flicks. It isn’t.

It isn’t any better, either. The plot is more substantive than the action. Instead of having ninjas in attention-getting suits moving around in broad daylight as done in the infamously cheesy-but-still-cool-for-its-time American Ninja series, the story is accurate in identifying what ninjas were—they existed in history as elite assassins that lived in isolated clans. They were infiltrators, fighters who worked under cover of darkness.

In the film, the work of nine ninja clans is uncovered by investigator Mika Coretti (Naomi Harris), an international Europol agent. This secretive society of assassins does not take kindly to snooping around. Mika’s snooping leads her to cross paths with the wife of a KGB official who was a victim of these cloaked killers, and it won’t be long before Mika will be the target herself. The situation connects her with Raizo (Rain), a young and formerly devoted ninja-in-training, who has forsaken his former clan, the Ozunu clan.

Ninja Assassin is less likable than Chuck Norris’ The Octagon (1980) or David Carradine’s Kung Fu series (1972-1975), but it gives us almost what those did, including noodles eaten with chopsticks and young warriors trained where bamboo and wooden huts are in the background. You see fight maneuvers and dance-like martial arts sequences that bring grace and seriousness to the cheap, 80s-tattered cliché of what the ninja icon has become. There were so many ninja flicks and shows in the 1980s that the video games made in their image were an improvement (think of Lee Van Cleef’s The Master (1984) and compare it to Bad Street Brawler and then tell me I’m wrong).

The paranoids shouldn’t see this, or they’ll think what the creator of the film wanted them to think—that ninjas are hiding behind everything, waiting to attack. The mark of someone hiding from ninjas is that they start being deathly afraid of shadows. They try to get rid of the shadows, but that’s a silly thing to do because ninjas are practically their own shadows.

These ninja clans have an almost demonic ability to kill, as well as to recover after fights. For the vast assortment of Saw-style, severing weapons used, if the ninja victim doesn’t die, they recover very quickly from deep lacerations and are ready to fight again with just a few hours rest. It’s like getting to the next level in Double Dragon; you enter a cave and when you come out the other side, your bars of energy are refueled and you’re as good as new.

Eerie music is used to successfully build suspense. The story consists of many Kung Fu-style reflections back to Laizo’s days of training and fighting off opponents, sometimes blindfolded, to give us the feeling of coolness that we haven’t had since the ninja movies of that great decade before the last. TV back then depended on our seeing those cool ninjas (if sprinkled with gross historical inaccuracies).

You see flashbacks to beds of rigorously disciplined boys sleeping next to each other on uncomfortably small cots with little space between them. Awake and asleep, you see them getting older. Watching that, my mind runs to what every sensibly honest middle-ager’s mind runs to: How the frick do these guys ever get the chance to nail the Chun-Li-looking Asian babes across the way, or else whip their skippys thinking about them without having some privacy???

Back to the cool ninja stuff…

It’s hard to explain why any secret societies, like these clans of ninjas, are not adapting to use more effective (and discreet) modern weaponry. They used the best weaponry from their own time a thousand years prior. Why not now? But I suppose a little use of the imagination to help things along isn’t a crime.

And it remains to be understood why roomfuls of task force soldiers armed to the teeth can’t bunker down in their own base to fight off a group of Asians in pajamas with thousand-year-old weapons. Entire standoffs happen with opposing factions keeping each other at bay by pinning their opponents down with gunfire, but these international task force soldiers can’t do it with the advantage of having gun-less opponents. They can’t even duck down behind shit to save their own lives! Hmm.

Not a one of the characters ever stands out because none are given distinction with the exceptions of the head ninja villain Ozunu (Shô Kosugi) and one young girl, Kiriko (Kylie Goldstein), Raizo’s would-be love, who found it in her heart to leave the clan. The rest you care nothing for. Rain has not even the emoting screen presence of a good background prop.

The battle scenes are bloody and swiftly constructed, but the flighty camerawork is such that it isn’t always easy to appreciate. There was very little hand-to-hand combat or showing-off of acrobatic skill, but there was the up-to-now-unknown ninja ability to run across rooms as a human blur so that you can dodge or hide or rush someone when they are in the same room as you. That skill comes in handy. It is also hokey as hell to watch.

The ninjas hunt partly by scent and can experience thoughts and glimpses from others. Sounds pretty cool, but it doesn’t equal an entertaining movie. The fighting is too specialized to have any comparable value to what audiences expected to see more of (like ordinary, Seagal-style ass-kicking). This is in exclusion of one very bloody bathroom brawl between Takeshi (Rick Yune), Raizo’s dead-even competition, and Kingpin (Stephen Marcus).

The plot tries to be touching with its subplot of the sanctity of the listened-to heart. Despite the attempt, you watch while being totally disconnected from it. Sadly, the nice choreography and seriousness with which it sets out to entertain is a near-total loss. It could be classed as a step behind some of the 80s ninja flicks of years past. Some of them did what they were set out to do. It doesn’t look like that be said of this one.

(JH)

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Grade: D+ (1 ½ stars)
Rated: R
Director: James McTeigue
Summary: A young ninja turns his back on the orphanage that raised him, leading to a confrontation with a fellow ninja from the clan.
Starring: Ben Miles “Maslow,” Naomie Harris “Mika,” Rain “Raizo,” Stephen Marcus “Kingpin,” Linh Dan Pham “Pretty Ninja,” Shô Kosugi “Ozunu,” Kylie Goldstein “Young Kiriko,” Rick Yune “Takeshi”
Genre: Action / Crime / Drama / Thriller
Trailer

Look Out for Dad! Look Out for Mom!

Movie Title: Precious: Based on the novel “Push” by Sapphire (2009)
Spoilers: No

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Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire is one hell of a movie as it is a title. It's as rich and as meaningful as this fancifully essay-ish title makes it sound. Masterfully directed by Lee Daniels, with Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry as executive producers, the film is served up like the finest of gourmet feasts—now if only you have a taste for what’s on the menu.

Originally, it was to be called “Push,” but since the title was taken by another in-production 2009 film, “Precious” was the close-second choice. As it turned out, that title was also taken, which is why the subtitle was added for clarification. Sapphire, the writer of the novel that the movie is based on, tells a confounding story of pain in the life of a sixteen-year-old girl from a poverty-stricken and irreparably broken home.

The story of Clarice “Precious” Jones (Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe) is as moving as it is painful each and every step of the way. Young Precious hates her life. She wishes she was dead most of the time, and you can’t blame her for that. She doesn’t give up, even with so much riding against her; she is poor, black, obese, illiterate, ready to steal to have a better quality of life, and a victim of physical and sexual (not to mention, verbal) abuse.

Her two kids (Mongo and Abdul) are from rape by her father, and the home life provided by her mother (Mo‘Nique) is nearly as criminal as dad’s animalistic tendencies. Pregnant and kicked out of school, Precious pursues a new path by enrolling in an alternative school. There, “Ms. Rain” (Paula Patton), an inspiringly patient teacher, and “Mrs. Weiss” (Mariah Carey), a thoughtfully caring social worker, sees potential in her to go with the pain.

Underneath its straightforward-sounding plot, Precious the film is as multilayered as Precious the girl. Daniels uses a heavily artsy style with Precious’ oft-made mental retreats anytime tragedy strikes. She retreats into a happier world where she is a star. Sometimes she’s a diva, sometimes a white girl who has things better.

Daniels’ artsy style doesn’t take long to get used to. Only during the first half of the film are there scenes that come close to being robbed of their intended emotional impact by this stylistic touch. It remains true that the material of the story is never handled with anything less than the utmost care, taking into account the seriousness of the subject matter.

With a movie of this theme, it is not difficult to see why it will make a number of viewers angry. Every black stereotype is tossed and rubbed in like lotion, ensuring that you hate whom you’re supposed to hate. Find the played-upon racial stereotypes offensive if you want, but remember that stereotypes exist for a reason—they identify those on the fringes of an in-group or out-group. Just because we love to hate them doesn’t take from the fact that they exist.

Precious’ world is a real world, one that many of us will only have this mind-blowing movie as a glimpse into. It’s real, though some of us would rather not know about it...or just not watch movies about it. Precious will make you think about it more than you want to, and some would say, more than you should.

If that’s how you feel, don’t watch. There is plenty of profanity, family violence, including brief rape scenes, and graphic sexual abuse that is described in such detail that the hostile critic might call it emotionally exploitative.

Is it right for writers to go digging for gold in the dank mines of abuse and bad homes for the sake of producing an emotionally charged film? Only you can decide. Partly, it might depend on your background. Some would contend that this raises awareness, others that this is a side of humanity that no one needs to see. But what do you do when you awake each day to a life that comes close to the one Precious lives? Shouldn’t her pain be expressed? If many of us woke up in her shoes, we’d take a header off a building before dinnertime.

Most beautifully, the film never caters to expected cliché. Precious is not some untapped black prodigy found on the streets who is given a chance by some benevolent, white Obama supporter who feels compelled to help out of the guilt of his prosperity. The film is not bent on paying its dues with the usual load of philanthropically poisoning liberal politics that are accompanied by that always-recognizable stench of white guilt.

The story of Precious is not about getting past racial barriers or promoting diversity, but about moving past the pain, about bettering one’s self, about choosing a new path. You cry as you sit in awe with the unfortunate chapters of a girl’s life unfolding before you. I had to recover after seeing it once, and then I went back and saw it again!

Mo‘Nique and Sidibe give Oscar-worthy performances. Carey’s “Mrs. Weiss” is unforgettable. The three make the characters their own in a way that outshines so many other attempts in film. Precious is, hands down, one of the best movies of the year.

(JH)

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Grade: A+ (4 stars) Recommended!
Rated: R
Director: Lee Daniels
Summary: An illiterate teen who is pregnant with her second child is invited to enroll in an alternative school in hopes that her life can head in a new direction.
Starring: Gabourey “Gabby” Sidibe “Precious,” Mo'Nique “Mary,” Paula Patton “Ms. Rain,” Mariah Carey “Mrs. Weiss,” Sherri Shepherd “Cornrows,” Lenny Kravitz “Nurse John,” Stephanie Andujar “Rita,” Chyna Layne “Rhonda,” Amina Robinson “Jermaine”
Genre: Drama
Trailer

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