Tuesday, August 31, 2010

GOD, Man, And Glenn Beck

Now that I've had a chance to sit down and study Glenn Beck's entire weekend speech, please allow me to follow up on my earlier post.

I found a lot to like in Beck's speech. As I said previously, he gave an inspiring and emotional address. Yet if this was the same Glenn Beck that was on the radio and television every day, I wager he would not be the divisive figure he has become. I know his right-wing/libertarian politics make him an automatic target in our hyperpartisan society, but I also know he's made several verbal missteps, like calling President Obama a racist. He says he regrets that, by the way.

The address played out much like a sermon, with Beck repeatedly calling on us to turn to GOD, or turn back to HIM. He asked us not to wallow in our mistakes. "Pick up your stick!" he challenged us, referring to Moses and his staff. "It has nothing to politics; it has everything to do with GOD," he said. He did not attack the president or anybody in the administration. He did not attack liberals. He did not attack Muslims. He said we must defend ourselves against smears and lies, but we must defend those we disagree with who are "honest and have integrity."

That's a tall order for a lot of us. Beck didn't call out anybody for smears and lies; that wasn't the point of the rally. We know that it happens, however, across the political spectrum, and we just can't stop doing it. That stick we're told to pick up is used to beat others over the head.

I found Beck's point on truth intriguing: "It only matters when you tell the truth and you know it's going to hurt you. It's not going to help your side!"

Would Beck and conservatives be willing to accept that they don't have all the answers? Would they occasionally admit that a Democrat came up with a good idea now and then, or simply say dismissively and derisively, "Democrats and liberals have no good ideas. That's why we're right!" Left wingers, you're not off the hook either. Would you please stop treating "family values" as some ancient relic and toss your vision of conservatives as oppressive hyper-Puritans? (Even Puritans weren't all puritanical, as I have found.) Putting it simply, would more of us admit we're wrong when we are? "The truth will make you miserable first, by it will set you free," Beck said.

"We are all Americans," Beck said. I gather that includes President Obama, notwithstanding the dismaying rumors abut his citizenship and his religion that won't go away. Even if a camera were to broadcast Obama kneeling in church every Sunday, I suppose we would still have people claiming he's a closet Muslim because he's not conservative enough for them. As Simon and Garfunkel once sung, "A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest."

I could have done without Beck's shots at "the media." On the size of the crowd: "If that's coming from the media, GOD only knows how many [people are here]." On his remarks: "And I know the media will make that into 'And the most crazy thing he said.'" Fine, Mr. Beck. Keep on bashing "the media," lumping all press types together as the boogeyman without drawing any distinction between those reporters making an honest living for peanuts and the political wonks. It's chic, it's hip, it's the in thing to do. By the way, with high-rated talk shows on television and radio, you're a part of "the media" too.

A final word about prayer: while I admire Beck for encouraging us to pray on our knees, you shouldn't feel you're less of a Christian if you bow your head while standing or sit on the floor, holding your Bible with head nodded. JESUS taught us praying is not about making a spectacle of ourselves before GOD (Matthew 6:5-8) but coming to HIM in privacy and in honesty, because GOD knows what's on our mind already, before your knees even hit the floor. JESUS also says, if you seek GOD in prayer, HE will answer you, sitting or standing (Luke 11:9-10).

Be Blessed!

Monday, August 30, 2010

Glenn Beck's Dream

I will admit to you up front I did not watch any of Glenn Beck's rally in Washington over the weekend for the same reasons I don't listen to any talk radio nowadays. To review those reasons: one, I would prefer to research and form my own opinions rather than have somebody tell me how to feel. Two, talk radio hosts are in the business of making money for sponsors and stations, not leading a nation. Three, James 1:19-20. Given that, you may freely dismiss the following thoughts.

I experienced a "yeah, sure" moment when Beck said the timing of his rally and Martin Luther King's "I Have A Dream Speech" anniversary was mere coincidence. It would take a gigantic amount of cluelessness to overlook that, spread out over Beck and large amount of staffing and planning needed to put this event together. You may not like Glenn Beck, but he is not clueless.

Taking a look at the presentation, Beck admirably included a tribute to MLK as part of the gathering. He called for unity. He gave an emotional speech on bringing America back to its founding values and shed a few tears. I won't argue that America has fallen away from faith and honor. I've written about the honor part a lot on this blog. Both MLK and Beck have dreams all right, but here's the difference: MLK was serving GOD above everyone. Beck is serving GOD, but he also has his listeners and his sponsors, and I cannot help but wonder what proportion he's serving them, too.

People who enjoy talk radio say they listen because the hosts echo their beliefs, not the other way around. Glenn Beck knew he had to deliver for them, and he had little trouble doing it. He's preaching to his choir, and although the message may be inspiring, it's also theatrical. At the risk of sounding snarky, I wonder how many people took bets on whether Beck would end up crying at the end?

Beck said he was looking at "the next George Washington" somewhere in the crowd. I hope he's right. I believe we have a principled leader out there who can stand strong for this nation and serve as an excellent president. But that person isn't running for office. That person wants nothing to do with D.C. politics, partisanship, or all the ills surrounding it. They would rather serve GOD in a way that does not risk destroying them.

George Washington thought political parties were a bad idea. If Glenn Beck truly saw Washington somewhere out there, why did he not have the boldness to clearly tell people to get away from the Democrats and Republicans, to leave those parties behind and start embracing GOD above the donkey and elephant? That's a bold, risky message that Gen. Washington might have admired. MLK would have, too.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Reel To Reel: Takers

Yo! Go get yourself some.

Going Rate: Worth matinee price.
Starring: Matt Dillon, Idris Elba, Tip "T.I." Harris, Chris Brown, Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Heavy gunfire, language, brief partial nudity, one scene of brief sexuality in a pool

Takers is a hip-hop twist on the formula bank-heist caper film. More specifically, it's a twist on The Italian Job, minus the Mini Coopers. All through this film, I had the sense that I really wasn't seeing anything new. Only a scant bit of research and review of other critical opinion confirms my suspicions. Perhaps it's best described by another Francis Movie Equation: Takers = Ocean's Eleven X Heat + The Italian Job / Four Brothers.

Over nearly two hours we see elements re-mixed from other pictures into an entertaining if largely unoriginal blend. You have the ace gang of criminals, the relentless detective more focused on catching crooks than being a family man, the spurned crew member looking for payback, the last "big job," and all the planning and setup going into it. The big job in this instance is an armored car heist on the streets of Los Angeles, in broad daylight, using an inventive method to trap the vehicle so it can be robbed in a controlled yet chaotic fashion.

I won't delve into a plot synopsis because you've likely constructed it already. Not to say you won't be surprised along the way by a few random outbursts of violence, including a gunfight towards the end which will have you counting both bullets and pillow feathers. It's there, slowed down and set to contrasting music, because someone thought it needed to be.

Takers isn't a bad movie, even if you've seen all the better films that inspired it. But beyond that, I gather it will be one of those movies that, in five years, I will have forgotten completely save for this review, which I admit hasn't told you very much except to endorse film escapism, if you're into that sort of thing.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Hung Up

I haven't determined whom I'm voting for in November, but I'm just about ready to institute this rule: if you phone my home with one of those "robo-calls," you're disqualified.

Automated pitches during the primary spammed up my answering machine by day and interrupted many a quiet morning time of prayer and Bible study -- or sleep. I fear they will only get worse as we move into the home stretch, with Democrats fighting to hang on to seats and Republicans licking their chops. Every vote is going to count more than ever, which means you and I are targets for a barrage of campaign calls.

This is on top of the other spam calls I deal with every day: from banks (wondering if I want to take another credit card), from finance companies (relentlessly looking for another person who owes them money, when said person hasn't been at my phone number or address for at least 6 years), from the local fishwrap (who either wants me back as a subscriber or inexplicably wants to know if my paper has arrived), and from the occasional insurance agent doing cold calls.

The "Do Not Call" list is ineffective against these annoyances. It does not apply to debt collectors, even errant ones, nor will it stop political phone banks. Campaign reform does not extend to your Trimline, and a batch of automated calls cost less than a 30-second TV spot during the news. Caller ID is worthless against them because they come in labeled as a disembodied city name. I have fallen back to the ancient-but-reliable technique of screening calls through the answering machine. If you're a real person -- not a computer or misdirected skip tracer -- I'll gladly pick up, and I apologize in advance for making you wait. Otherwise, talk to the chip. Many of these phantom callers won't even identify themselves after the beep.

This is not a free-speech issue. I wholeheartedly support your right to campaign and work up support. Plant as many signs, buy as many ads, mail as many leaflets as you want, but please leave my phone out of it.

A Classy Exit

J.D. Hayworth gets props from me for his concession speech Tuesday night. He went out by reminding his supporters the voters have spoken, like it or not, and you have to respect their decision.

"The time for derision in a campaign is beyond us," he said after hushing boos from his supporters at the mention of Sen. John McCain. "It is time for others to move forward with their visions of the future based on what the voters have told us tonight."

"We need to understand the result," he went on to say, "and the fact is, our fellow Arizonans do believe the incumbent will be a better custodian of their goals and desires, and we earnestly hope that will be the case."

Here's the full speech, courtesy C-SPAN:

Hayworth had plenty of time to rehearse this speech. Aside from an early surge, he failed to give Sen. McCain a serious challenge. Even conservative-leaning polls left him running to catch up. Two things killed his chances: 1) McCain's sizable war chest and 2) that doggone infomercial.

Hayworth ended up running against himself. Was he the consistent conservative, or the TV "huckster" (or "Huck-sta" as McCain's TV ads seemed to pronounce it) for a shady deal offering free government money? Voting for somebody who pitched a handout and yet promised to rein in government spending just didn't smell right.

McCain's ads wouldn't have cut so deep if Hayworth had the cash to fight back. Eventually he did, but by then it was too late. Thus another lesson of hardball politics is demonstrated: when you go up against the big guns, you can't carry a pistol.

Yet Hayworth forced McCain to move back to the right and recapture some alienated conservatives. He may claim he's not a "maverick," but maverick is as maverick does, and mavericks know how to gravitate back to their base and win when necessary.

Now with a higher profile, Hayworth can step into the role of conservative cheerleader, much like Sarah Palin, and keep his campaign going.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

I'll Take The High Road

The clans of We Make History gather in the high country for dance and celebration, a few jigs, and inspiration...

Color daugherrotypes by Mr. M. Cynecki
(Click any to see a larger version!)

"HUZZAH!" I cry with my sword raised above my head, scampering to meet fellow compatriots gathered on the lawn outside the ballroom. The air is cool and calm in the fading August sunlight with not a trace of Scottish dampness. I charge forth in my Stewart tartan and weskit, at the moment a warrior but soon a dancer.

I glance to my right, expect to see my companion Madame, but she has displaced herself, traversing the stone path laid out by others.

"I take the hill and she takes the sidewalk," I quip as we reunite and greet our friends.

Several months have passed since last we danced together -- too long, in my mind. An emptiness shall be filled tonight, a desire satisfied. The stress of life in the workplace has worn me down, and though GOD has seen me through, I greatly cherish the opportunity to forget about the rest of the world for awhile.

Waves of clans wash onto our green shores among the pines. I see many, many Highland lasses are joining us tonight in their colorful tartan gowns and bonnets. Hugs and handshakes blossom among old and new friends like wildflowers in a clearing. We pose for many pictures, smiling and reminiscing.

"Someone here offered to teach me a proper Highland Fling," I recall.

A lass shows me how it is done, demonstrating the proper positioning of the feet and arms, pointing her toes perfectly as she capers and hops and changes balance from foot to foot. She can compete with the best of the dancing Scots while I can only watch and clumsily imitate. My calves would rather tangle than jaunt around each other, and my sword weighs me down.

Our beloved leaders and hosts, Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora MacDonald, welcome us all and gather us together for the charge... into the ballroom.

The Bonnie Prince has assembled a great company of musicians for us: Bonnie Prince Charlie's Angels. "They fight crime," he says, "and they play a mean jig."

But we will begin with a tribute to our nation, a reminder of the freedoms that Scots and Englishmen fought for together -- freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom to dance! We recite our Pledge of Allegiance and sing the anthem of America, united in everything, past and present.

A simple procession about the ballroom leads us into a twisting path and then a circle where Our Beloved Prince takes turns honoring the Highland Lasses and Lads, clans and subclans, calling them to the center for a brief jig: "All those from Maricopa County!" "All Those From Wickenburg!" "All those from Tucson!" "All brunettes!" "All blondes!" "All those over six feet tall!" "All those under five feet tall!"

"How many of you are new to this form of dancing?" the Bonnie Prince inquires. Many hands rise. He reassures them all shall be well as he explains the first set dance.

Indeed, it is quite simple: marching forward and back, changing sides with our partners, forward and back again, changing sides again, passing shoulders around in what those future Scots would call a "do-si-do," and turning our partners before the top couple of the set gallops down to the bottom. (Describing it, dearest reader, is more difficult than executing it!) This dance sets the pattern for the others, adding or subtracting or re-arranging steps. We would rather dance than learn ornate footwork, shouting "HUZZAH!" after each round to thank our accompanists.

My dancing companion Madame fully understands my duties as a Highland Nobleman, that while I shall not neglect her, I greatly desire to dance with other lasses in need of a partner. She gives her full permission and encouragement for me to seek one out.

Walking to the edge of the great hall, I find two before me, both beautiful, beaming, and unaccompanied. The challenge before me is to make a choice in such a way that no one is left offended or hurt, so I turn to an old method of lot. I cover my eyes with my left hand and extend a pointing finger out in front of me while twirling like a top. The idea is that when I stop and uncover my face, I shall see one of the two ladies before the tip of my finger.

When I lift my hand away, however, a gentleman stands before me, grinning as if he had planned it.

I try again, and this time the maneuver is successful, as I bow to the Highland Lass in front of me and ask if she will afford me a dance. She accepts, and we are soon dancing "Sterling Castle," in which we turn each other by the left and right palms and prance up and down the set with joined hands over the heads of our fellow dancers in the set. Bonnie Prince Charlie's Angels play longer than we expect, and we are joyously winded and perhaps a bit dizzy at the end.

As I suspect, the lass who attempted to teach me the proper Highland Fling is summoned to show the gathered clans. She tells us Highlanders once danced it on their targes. I find dancing it on a wooden floor enough of a task. Again she performs it perfectly, missing not a pointed toe or step or change of balance.

The Bonnie Prince invites others to join her, and my feet can not hold back, so I step towards the center, beginning my poor imitation -- left-foot, right-foot, swing one foot around the other, swing the other foot around the other, raise one hand, raise the other hand, raise both hands, twirl about.

Just as I am gaining my cadence, our musicians suddenly halt. "Why'd ye stop?" I ask.

It is merely a pause to allow others to join us in the fling, or jig, or whatever we desire to call it. A few more Highlanders answer the call.

HUZZAH! HUZZAH! I make it through, still standing.

"You have the basics," the lass who taught me observes. The basics, this evening, are all that I need.

Highland Punch and water flow freely as we all catch our breaths and mingle about. In an evening with many jigs and reels yet to come, pacing is everything, and I labor not to sit out a single dance. It would break my heart if I am unable to rise to the occasion, and... where is Madame?

She has taken another detour. Perhaps on a special mission from the Bonnie Prince? Out to spy on the British? I seek her out and find her in the cool of the evening outside the great hall, conversing and perhaps ministering to a young lass. Madame, I realize, is carrying out her mission, one from GOD.

"Come inside!" I offer to them, not wanting them to miss any more reels or jigs. They do return in time for "Flora MacDonald's Reel," named for the lass who helped the Bonnie Prince escape Scotland in a time of defeat. I have the honor of dancing in the same set with Miss Flora, as our newcomers learn the secret of reeling: turning their partners and then turning the next person of opposite gender in the line before them, working down the set to the merry rhythm of the orchestra. Many easily take to the new and potentially confusing move, and those who don't enjoy our generous encouragement and clapping nonetheless.

We hear more encouragements and words of thanks: from a couple who wed after meeting at a previous Highland gathering and from a lass who is choosing to devote her life to GOD in a convent. Three of our musicians share the story of a brave piping Scot who gave comfort to his compatriots and his life to liberty on the shores of Normandy and play a tune in his honor.

Our Beloved Prince does not hesitate to remind us of why we are all here, and what we are here to do. He implores us once again to use the skills and talents that GOD has given us so that our time in this world will serve purpose. As he is concluding his remarks, my friend Madame steps forward to offer one more tribute... to the Prince himself.

Her voice is strong with passion and thanks as she praises him for all he has done to uplift others. "I spent many years in art classes," she says. "But I realize all the art around me, I've lived!"

Some people demand praise in everything. Some labor through life hearing nary a compliment. And others who deserve them, perhaps don't realize how deeply they are loved until someone tells them, and it becomes the spark that reignites the celestial fire within their hearts.

The Bonnie Prince calls for seven brave volunteer lads and lasses. I heed the call and he reveals to us it is time for the "tag-team" jig, known as the dance where the volunteers begin the dancing and others tap them on the shoulders to relieve them. We step to the center.

"I feel many eyes upon me," I observe.

The cloud of the fateful fall two years ago is dispersed, but not the constant vigilance. Another couple has taken a mild spill earlier this evening during the "Race To Edinburgh," but they bounced right back up and kept on dancing. Scotsmen always get up!

The jig begins and I am once again dancing my weak imitation of the Highland Fling. Others cut in and cut out, including the Bonnie Prince himself. I am mindful not to show off; it is what doomed me in the first place. I need to save something for later. As I am wearing out, a lass taps me on the shoulder, and I am relieved to sashay off the floor.

I pause to recapture my breath and take notice of the happy Highlanders, including a spirited lass... lifting her skirt out of the way to show a wee bit of ankle! Yes, she is only mindful of her safety, but no, no, I cannot allow it. I avert my eyes, and when I am ready, I dash around to her and tap her in kindness to allow her a graceful exit.

"What are the Highlanders known for that strikes fear in the heart of the English?"

"The Highland Charge!" I answer.

And so we charge straight into a pile of shoes left by the lasses to determine our next dancing partners. I prefer the flanking maneuver. It achieves the same result with diminished risk of bodily injury. As the lads dive for the ghillies and slippers, I step around them to the side and tactfully pluck a shoe from the pile.

The night would not be complete without a favorite reel. Virginia might be thousands of miles away from the Highlands, but it is always within our hearts, especially in tribute to the brave Scot Hugh Mercer who gave his life for liberty in George Washington's army.

So with that, the Bonnie Prince cries, "Ladies and Gentlemen, choose your partner for the Virginia Reel."

I know I want Madame to dance it with me. She has accepted an earlier invitation without knowing she is about to dance the Reel, something that has challenged her in the past. She would not dance it if I was not there by her side. I spot her crossing herself, and she is not a Catholic.

The Bonnie Prince examines his timepiece. Perchance this may be one of our marathon reels, one that lasts twenty minutes or more. We shall soon know.

Long lines forward and back... the same again... top lad, bottom lass honor... bottom lad, top lass honor.... right hand turn.... left hand turn.... two hand turn.... back to back... now reel the set! Madame is unsure, but we all help her through it, weaving down the lines, turning the lads and lasses and meeting back in the middle to turn our partners.

"Reel it till you feel it!" cries Our Beloved Prince.

Indeed, she is feeling it, still a wee bit unsure, but she's there and persevering through it all, as she does so often, and in so many ways. She fears very little, and less if I am by her side. She crosses herself again. The dance concludes just before we are all left exhausted beyond renewal.

For the final slow dance, Madame and I share something more stately: not a jig, not a reel, but our own version of the minuet. Others waltz, but we turn stately about each other until she inquires of me: "Do you know a box?"

She means the waltz step. I show it to her the way a young lass has taught me long ago, dragging my inside foot behind me as we move in a square. It is graceful and proper, but not reflective of the joy I wish to express. As such, we once again think outside the box and are back to our minuet, with the turns and circles, a march forward and back, and hands held high in exuberance.

A bit showy? Perhaps. Yet this is who we are. This is something of our own, inspired by history but rooted in imagination, carried out by two souls wistful for the grace not found in this world.

More pictures from a weekend of Highland merriment here.

NEXT: Celtic Cowboys And Western Wranglers

Friday, August 20, 2010

One Final Fling

For our big finish before the Highland Ball, we take you to the dancing segment of the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo 2010:

Now that's a finale!

See ye in the Highlands...

Thursday, August 19, 2010

It's Pronounced "Kay-Lee"

We call it the Highland Ball, but true Scots might prefer the term "ceilidh." Banana, ba-nah-nah. You take the high road, and I'll take the low road. But we'll all end up dancing like these merry lads and lasses at a Burns Night celebration:

Sometimes these parties get big, like this one outside St. Andrew's Castle:

And perhaps before the evening is done, we'll dance the Gay Gordons... which you can learn right here:

And dance again here:

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

I'll Meet Ye Out Back

My dearest dancing friends, I have intimidated you long enough. Not all Scottish Country Dances are complicated. Watch as the Hopalots perform the Cumberland Reel during a private party in someone's backyard.

If you can do this -- and you know you can -- you're ready for the Highland Ball!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Sword Play

All right, okay. Real Highland warriors perform real Highland dances. Ye ask, ye get.

But tell me this -- kin ye top this lass in the sword dance?

We know the French supported the Scottish Jacobites as they fought to restore the English throne to the House of Stewart. Perhaps that was the inspiration for this curious mashup of sword dance and can-can. Sorry, lasses, you will not see any high kicking.

Ye probably won't see me doing this at the Highland Ball, but perchance, if somebody were to put down a couple of broomsticks, who knows what might happen?

Yes, that might happen... again. Not if I can help it.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Czech Out These Lads And Lasses

Scottish dancing is both infectious and international. So as we approach the Highland Ball, let us journey outside the highlands to a place you would not expect to find jigs and reels: Prague.

As this micro-documentary by Jeremy Cooke explains, you need not have a drop of Gaelic blood in ye to prance about in a kilt.

(I ask your patience. The video actually starts about 30 seconds into the clip.)

A wee bit further east, the Russians are also in the spirit of the dance, performing the Scottish Lilt:

Here is another one from the Moscow Scottish Dancing school -- a beautiful couple dance called "You And Me":

Sunday, August 15, 2010

I Know What You Danced Last Summer

Aye, the Highland Ball is less than a week away! As is tradition, all week I shall treat you to some fine samples of joyous Scottish dance.

For starters, let us head to school -- specifically, the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society summer school from earlier this month in St. Andrews. Here you see a demonstration team show off a jig and a strathspey:

I consider Scottish dancing much more challenging than its English counterpart because of the numerous figures and formations, which are much more complex. I learned that quickly when I tried it myself in May 2009. Often these dances are much more enjoyable to watch than perform, at least for those a wee bit new to it all.

For those who long to hear the sounds of the pipes while cavorting about, here is the MacLennan Scottish Group dancing at the 2010 Europeade:

Let me reassure you there will be nothing this complicated at the Ball... but it will still be lively!

Reel To Reel: The Expendables

Hail! Hail! The gang's all here!

Going Rate: Worth full admission.
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews
Rated: R
Red Flags: Intense violence and gore, heavy language in a couple of scenes

The Expendables is the All-Star Game of action pictures, bringing together a huge cast of action figures into an brisk ensemble flick that shoots, kicks, and blows up as much as it can get away with. Who's got time for backstory or characterization? Let's just bomb the whole place. Sylvester Stallone co-wrote and directed this picture, which plays like a throwback to his Rambo days. But unlike the 2008 Rambo film, which was an atrocious and grotesque end to the franchise, Stallone seems to realize madness needs more method. It's still big and dumb, but that's what people want in a shoot-'em-up film.

As Barney Ross, Sly leads a gang of mercenaries who bum around a tattoo parlor when they're not shooting and exploding things like a gang of pirates in the film's opener. We don't know if they're ex-military, ex-assassins, reformed terrorists or what, but that's not the point. If you've got a job, and the money's right, forget about the A Team; you need these guys.

Like all well-oiled wrecking crews, you've got action stars matched with their specialties. Ross is good with just about anything, even in his aging body. Ditto for Lee Christmas (Statham), who is refreshingly less profane and also the only character who reveals some semblance of life outside the job. Ying (Li) is the martial-arts specialist, no surprise. Gunner (Lundgren) is big, unstable and dangerous. Hail Ceasar (Crews) likes to shoot big guns and look cool. Tool (Rourke) doesn't get in on the action, but he does get to play the film's equivalent of Obi-Wan Kenobe, providing a workable moral compass inside a grizzled old soldier turned tattoo artist. He's the only character allowed to have multiple dimensions, and that's all the film needs.

Ross is hired by a mysterious "Mr. Church" (Bruce Willis in a memorable cameo) to take out General Garza (David Zayas) the dictator of a fictional South American country, a job passed over by another suitor (Arnold Schwarzenegger in another memorable cameo). Lee and Ross head to the island and meet up with the compulsory action film element of a key girl. This one's named Sandra (Giselle ItiƩ), who has an inside line to the top. She should: she's his daughter. However, we learn Garza is really the puppet of James Munroe (Eric Roberts), a smarmy ex-spook who's there to cash in on the country's cocaine supply while walking around in a tailored suit acting like a movie villain caricature.

Stallone and Statham's characters can kill enough people between the two of them to fill Forest Lawn. But when they put the team together... oh man. We get a big, loud, brutal takedown at Garza's palace, where seemingly nothing is left alive or undemolished. It's the over-the-top ending people want to see in an action film, and Stallone knows it. And at one hour and 43 minutes, the film economizes.

You can look at The Expendables as a torch-passing -- or maybe grenade-passing -- film where Stallone, Willis and Ah-nuld officially realize their testosterone days are over and they gladly hand the legacy over to the next generation of action heroes while going out on just one more mission. It's heartwarming in a gutsy way, for those guys who love ripping people's guts out.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Cocktail Music For Those Who Drink Heavily

I stumbled across this film of Spike Jones' "Cocktails For Two," and it brought back memories of hearing this on Grandfather Francis' stereo. In fact, he made me a tape of the album it came from: Spike Jones Tests Your Hi-Fi, now sadly out of print, but likely out there in a used record store somewhere.

The same album also featured another classic Jones song: "Wyatt Earp (He Makes Me Burp)," featured in the last portion of this mix:

Yes, that is the voice of Tony The Tiger you hear among the cast -- the late Thurl Ravenscroft.

A tip of my tricorn to The Moderate Voice for bringing this clip to me.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The Public Option

As Tucson kids go back to school, I have to make this declaration:

I gained my education in public schools, and I'm not ashamed of it.

My knowledge accumulated through the staff and facilities of Robinson and Southwood elementary schools in Raytown, Missouri; Raytown South Middle School, and Raytown South High School. I have a Bachelors of Journalism degree from the University of Missouri.

True, I grew up in a different time and place, before schools needed metal detectors and D.A.R.E. PTA meetings would fill the cafeteria. My mother even did a stint as PTA treasurer. Back then, principals backed the teachers on a grading decision. Politicians and interest groups kindly kept their noses out of lesson plans. And believe it or not, the principal of Southwood let a representative of the Gideons come in and pass out mini-Bibles. I still have mine to prove it. Actually, I have two.

It disappoints me when I hear home-schooled friends of mine, or parents in home-schooling families, take cheap shots at the system. One person I know once referred to them as "government schools." He could've pronounced it "gub-mint schools," like the kind of person who thinks fluoridated water is a communist conspiracy.

Another who home-schools joked about the history education kids were getting in public schools.

"I was educated in public school," I mildly protested.

"We're re-educating you," he smiled. I know he wasn't putting people down, but still I felt a bit hurt.

We know the shortcomings of public schools -- the budget and accountability struggles, the sturm und drung over curriculum, safety concerns, morale issues, parent apathy, dumbed-down courses, and teachers who end up being social workers. But I will argue this: if you're the parent, and you instill within your kids the value of an education and hold them to it, they'll rise above these problems. Having a mother as a teacher made a huge difference in my educational life. She made it clear that without schooling, you couldn't even get a job at a 7-Eleven.

I would love it if all parents could either home-school their children or afford to send them to the best schools, but that's not the world we live in. Many parents don't have the patience, smarts, time or financial stability to be home teachers. Many can't afford the cost of private or Christian schools. Those of you who dump on public schools, would you also dump on the working poor who don't have those options? And what of tuition-free charter and magnet schools? A couple of the technology-focused ones here in Tucson look so cool it makes me wish I could back up and go through high school again.

I'm a strong believer in school vouchers. The argument that they hurt schools is exactly the point. If a school isn't educating children, then why keep on pouring our tax money into it? At the same time, collectively dismissing "gub-mint" schools because of all they've done wrong ignores all they do right as well as the students who thrive in them and go on to lead successful lives just like their home-schooled and private-schooled brethren.

Some Things Never Change

Here's something to consider as you hear talk about dumping the 14th Amendment to end the "anchor baby" problem: our Congress couldn't muster enough votes to add a Constitutional amendment banning flag burning, something that enjoyed much broader support.

Progressives often talk about our Constitution as a "living, breathing" document, which is true if you disregard the tall hurdles needed to change it. Our framers rightly set the bar high to keep it from being polluted by the whims of current politics and politicians. With the exception of Prohibition, they have succeeded. Court decisions and executive branch actions ripping up the Constitution are a different issue.

I don't expect the talk of repealing the 14th Amendment to get very far. Perhaps there might be a token vote, something only of value to a political resume or a defense in an ideological purity test.

My question is whether the Supreme Court will get into the issue if somebody brings an anchor-baby case. I have read that in United States v. Wong Kim Ark 169 U.S. 649 (1898) the high court didn't completely resolve the question of whether children born to illegal immigrants in the U.S. are legal citizens. With the high court likely to take up Arizona's SB1070, I wouldn't count it out.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

This Is War!

The 1992 movie Sneakers poses a tantalizing question: what if secret information can be cracked and thrown into the public limelight? The movie never goes there, but we're getting a taste of the answer through WikiLeaks, which is tossing thousands of documents on the Afghanistan war online in the name of openness and transparency. Ideology has something to do with it, but I also believe it's part of the old computer-hacker mantra that information should be free, which is the same mantra some use to justify software piracy and digital music theft.

The immediate comparison is to the Pentagon Papers, which revealed the U.S. had a deeper involvement in Vietnam than previously stated. The Afghanistan data dump, however, does not shed any major new light on the war other than to expose civilian casualties we didn't know about. Anti-war activists cheer. Conservatives grumble. Our soldiers keep on following orders, and they will remind you war is messy.

In an ideal war, the goal would be zero civilian casualties, but that isn't Afghanistan, and it won't be. We are not fighting on an isolated battlefield but on the streets and sidewalks. To expect our soldiers to eliminate civilian casualties when they are dealing with terrorist tactics and an enemy who will gladly sacrifice ordinary people is impossible. I don't understand what good can be accomplished by naming and shaming. It's as if our apologies and regrets for accidentally killing innocent people don't mean anything anymore, and international embarrassment is the new penance, a maneuver designed to make anti-war activists feel better. War crimes are a different matter, and I'm not excusing them, but we start re-defining "war crime" to simply mean the death of any civilian during the heat of battle, we're in for a world of hurt and discouragement among our armed forces. You do remember they volunteered for the job.

As a journalist, I have to tell you my thoughts are divided over the release of this information. In principle, I hate cover-ups. But this isn't a cover-up, which makes it easy for me to say that I wouldn't have released this information, not with American soldiers still fighting. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is Australian, not American, and we can't expect him to share American values. I do hope he would at least share some understanding of the nature of war.

Reel To Reel: Salt

You be cool, sugar.

Going Rate: Worth full admission.
Starring: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Fisticuffs, gunplay, mild language

The fun of Salt is not wondering whether or not Angelina Jolie's title character is going to get out of a situation, but how. So we have an action movie which requires only enough plot to transport us from chase to chase. The whole film essentially is one big ol' chase with a few twists and setups that aren't supposed to be evaluated critically, because that's not the point. The point is to watch Jolie kick everybody else's behind. And boy, does she do it well.

Jolie is Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who may or may not be a Russian mole. One day, close to quitting time, a "walk-in" Russian agent comes into one of the Company's front buildings with information about a Soviet sleeper cell trained in the mother country but living as Americans. It's a Boys From Brazil outfit that mashes up nicely in our heads with the recent arrests of Russian sleepers living in the U.S. The walk-in discloses they're out to kill the Russian President, which doesn't make much sense to the CIA interrogators. For the rest of us, it makes perfect sense if you figure there's more than a few comrades nostalgic for the glory days of the Supreme Soviet. Then, a-ha, he indicates Salt may be one of those sleepers. Now we're off and running.

Salt is a resourceful agent, the perfect equation of cool, body and brains, beautifully tough in all the right ways with a wicked streak. According to CNN and US Magazine, Jolie did most of her own stunts. I gather those include a breath-holding chase where she leaps from vehicle to vehicle and a biggie where she goes down an elevator shaft in much the same fashion. How is she still alive after making this picture? Don't bother trying to shoot her, much less tase her, after you see what she does to a cop with a stun gun.

We have a mostly disposable subplot involving Salt's German husband and a capture in North Korea, which don't do much except give us a chance to catch our breaths and provide a set-up for another scene. Love is not what motivates Salt, it's something else, but mostly it's the need to make another escape.

Salt is eating up box office cash. A sequel is already in the works, and Columbia Pictures would be insane to pass on it. Even the title Salt II has that retro-Cold War vibe, just like the current flick.