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Friday, March 23, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

Have You Been Paying Attention? That's the question I ask every Friday as the week-ending category for my topical trivia game. Test yourself right now at HarrisChallenge.com!

Movie Review: "The Death Of Stalin"

The death of a world leader is an odd subject for a comedy, particularly when the man in question was a brutal dictator who ran his country with an iron fist. But that's what Armando Iannucci, who also created the HBO series "Veep," gives us with "The Death Of Stalin."

The movie is a satire about the scramble for power by the higher-ups who wanted to replace Josef Stalin after he suffered a fatal heart attack in 1953. The two main rivals were Nikita Khrushchev, played by Steve Buscemi, and Lavrenti Beria, played by Simon Russell Beale. They are supported by Jeffrey Tambor (as the dopey second-in-command who rises to the top temporarily) and Michael Palin (a member of the committee who had been marked for assassination by Stalin but gets a reprieve), among others. The mostly British cast makes no effort to speak Russian or even a bad Russian accent a la Jennifer Lawrence in "Red Sparrow," so there's very little need for subtitles.

Buscemi is simply great as then-minister-of-agriculture Khrushchev, and has real chemistry with Beale as his adversary, the head of the secret police. The rest of the committee comes off like a Keystone Kops version of a Greek chorus.

There's some sharp satire in "The Death of Stalin," as well as some silliness. There's a very funny sequence with Paddy Considine (star of the wonderful but under-seen 2002 Jim Sheridan movie "In America") as the director of a broadcast of a live classical music concert that goes fairly smoothly until Stalin himself calls and asks for a recording of the show -- which doesn't exist. And you wouldn't want to be one of the doctors called in to examine Stalin's corpse because to declare him dead might be akin to signing your own suicide note. Much of the comedy is very dark, indeed, with slapstick scenes played out in the foreground while people are brutally shot or tortured in the background.

I have mixed feelings about the movie. While I loved the cast and Iannucci's sometimes-breathless pacing, I felt like I'd fallen into a British farce that was missing a few slamming doors and curious butlers. I can't quite recommend that you spend money to see "The Death Of Stalin" in its arthouse run, but you might want to add it to your Netflix queue or find it on DVD, where it should be available in a few months.

I give "The Death Of Stalin" a 5 out of 10.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

As I Tweeted

  • Questions I haven't heard anyone ask in the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica story: if Trump is so concerned about saving and creating American jobs, why did his campaign hire a British firm to help with his election campaign? Aren't there companies in the US that can unethically access user data?

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is A Bullet Took Them Down. See if you score enough points to earn a bonus category at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

I'm Lying, But Please Sign Here

I was headed into the public library when a guy outside asked, "Sir, are you a registered voter?" I knew where this was going. He had a petition or two he'd like me to sign.

I had recently added my name to the list of Missourians who want to legalize both recreational and medical marijuana, and to another that would raise the minimum wage. Getting enough signatures on any petition wouldn't be enough to turn it into law, but would get it on the ballot for a public referendum later this year.

The library is a common place for these petition requests. I told the guy that yes, I am a registered voter, and asked what the petitions were for. He replied that one of his petitions was "to preserve historical monuments" and the other was "to protect freedom of speech at work."

Those one sentence summaries sounded like pure right-wing bullshit, but I wanted to take a look at the wording on the clipboards, just to be sure.

The petition "to preserve historical monuments" reads:
Do you want to amend the Missouri Constitution to require that certain historic memorials of any age on public property, such as statues, names of schools, streets, bridges and buildings named or dedicated in honor of any historic conflict, entity, event, or figure, may not be removed, renamed, or otherwise changed in certain ways unless provided by law?
What it doesn't say but really means:
We have statues and stuff named after leaders of the Confederacy, and we don't want anyone to take them down or rename them, as they have in many other cities and states, regardless of how offensive they are. We're proud of our racist past -- and present.
The other one, "to protect freedom of speech at work," has nothing to do with your First Amendment rights and everything to do with yet another attempt to hurt unions. It reads:
Do you want to amend the Missouri Constitution to provide that the freedom of speech protects every worker from being forced to join a union (labor organization) or pay a fee to a union in order to gain or keep a job?
This is part of the conservative Right To Work agenda that has set unions back tremendously in this state and others. It seeks to allow workers to reap the rewards of collective bargaining without having to contribute to the organizations that negotiate them. Those pushing this as a "freedom of speech" issue are deflecting from the true agenda -- corporate America and billionaires trying to gain even more of the power in the workplace by conning working women and men into believing it's in their best interests, when it clearly isn't.

I wasn't in the mood to argue with the guy, so I told him I'd pass and handed the clipboards back to him. Then I made a mental note to write about this as a heads-up to others who might blindly sign the petitions because they are fooled by the language, which is right out of the Frank Luntz playbook.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Best Thing I've Read Today

Remember those geniuses who said having two outlet malls in the valley wouldn't sign a death warrant for Chesterfield Mall? The place is almost a ghost town, and is now up for sale -- at a discount. This single paragraph in Brian Feldts piece in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch piece says it all:
Chesterfield Mall has an appraised value of $12.4 million, according to research from Trepp, a provider of data to the securities and investment industries. The appraisal is down drastically from $286 million in 2006. The mall has an appraised value on file with St. Louis County of $36 million.

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is Food Fight. See if you score enough points to earn a bonus category at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Facebook Tarnished

Facebook has been in the crosshairs of critics for quite a while, and the news this week of a Trump-connected behavior-modification firm getting its hands on private details of fifty million users hasn't helped. Mark Zuckerberg and his team have a lot to answer for, including how Facebook was used by Russian organizations to manipulate public opinion before -- and after -- the 2016 election. Aside from the political outcries, there is probably some shareholder scrutiny for the company to endure.

I'm not what you'd call a power user of Facebook, but I've noticed other problems with the service.

In the last few months, I've received more Friend Requests than ever, and many of them are obviously bogus. FB seemingly makes no effort to verify that its accounts belong to real people (or companies), which is why you should always dismiss its claims to have two billion users, or whatever the latest number is. I have no objection to it counting product marketing accounts, like those for Oreo, or Lowe's, or Greetabl. The problem comes in when the accounts some Friend Requests come from are clearly not what or who they purport to be.

I know a middle-aged guy who is single, good-looking, and dates younger women. His Facebook friends list is littered with dozens of very attractive females. I was impressed that he knew them, even casually -- until I started getting Friend Requests from many of them, too. There's always a photo or two of a woman, always showing cleavage, often in a bikini or other skimpy wear. Sometimes her picture is accompanied by a photo of an iconic place like the Taj Mahal (she's never in the picture, of course). I've even gotten Friend Requests from different accounts that had a picture of the same young woman! That's because these aren't real Facebook account holders. The photos come from free stock image companies -- their credits are in the file tags of the photos.

In each instance, her "friends" are all male, and there is no information about the woman -- no hometown, no occupation, no job -- or if there is, it's always from someplace I've never heard of that likely doesn't exist. Sometimes, the woman's name also has a man's name under it, or a different woman's name in parentheses. No real human does that.

It's nearly impossible for this person-likely-to-be-a-bot to have any interest in me, so I always deny the request and report it to FB as spam. Even if I accidentally accept their Friend Request, I'll never see anything they post, because I don't follow them (or pretty much anyone, except close friends I know in real life). But that doesn't stop them from coming, every single day.

The other bot problem I've encountered is the automatic posting of comments that lead you to spam sites. For instance, last week, I casually mentioned the movie "Black Panther." As soon as I hit the Post button -- and I mean immediately! -- there were comments from bots offering links to sites where you can illegally download or watch the movie for free. I didn't click on any of them, but tried deleting several, only to have new ones pop up instantly, like a game of Whack-A-Bot.

Facebook got its original boost from college students and other young people freely posting about their lives online. It was a brilliant idea that inverted the idea of using websites to gather information. Instead, Facebook users are the ones providing the content, which the site then re-purposes to its other users, whose data it gathers and sells to third-parties including advertisers.

That's all well and good, but in doing so, Facebook should have taken more responsibility for monitoring who was using its resources, and how. And don't hand me the excuse that it can't possibly manage the content and usage habits of hundreds of millions of accounts. That's the whole Facebook business model.

Oh, and the younger demos that kick-started Facebook's early success? They're long gone, ceding the site to their parents' and grandparents' generations. Millennials have moved on to Instagram and Snapchat (though the latter has lost a lot of luster after Rihanna and Kylie Jenner, both major influencers, dissed it publicly and suggested their followers stop using the app entirely)

Facebook is going to have to get control of how its vast reach is being abused, and soon. I can't be the only Facebook user who runs into these problems, and yet the company doesn't seem to be making any effort to deal with the persistent infestation of bots. Or if it is trying, it is failing miserably.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is They Died In March. See if you score enough points to earn a bonus category at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Concert Review: Graham Nash

Graham Nash may be 76 years old, but he still looks great (with a silver mane of hair) and sounds great, too. He's able to hit the high notes that a lot of other rockers can't at his age. When he brought his Intimate Evening Of Songs and Stories to the Pageant on Sunday night, my wife and I were both glad we went.

One of the best things about a Graham Nash show, other than his voice, is that you can understand all the lyrics, even in the songs you've never heard before. He played a few of those, sprinkled among classics from various stages of his career. From his partnership with Crosby and Stills, he opened with "Wasted On The Way" and "Marrakesh Express," then went back to that songbook later for the beautiful and haunting "To The Last Whale,” “Cathedral,” and "Lady Of The Island" (from their first album). He also touched on his years with the Hollies, singing "Bus Stop" and a medley of "On A Carousel" and "Carrie Anne." From other songwriters, he threw in The Beatles' "A Day In The Life" and, in the encore, Buddy Holly's "Everyday," sung in perfect three-part harmony with guitarist Shane Fontayne and keyboardist Todd Caldwell. Those were the only two musicians on stage with Graham (no drummer), which helped give the concert a more intimate feel, particularly in a 2,000-seat venue like The Pageant.

Along the way, Graham told the stories behind some of the songs, including how a stop at the US-Canada border at the end of a CSNY tour had led him to write "Immigration Man," and how his dope dealer in Hawaii had once bet him $500 that he couldn't write a song before heading to the airport for a flight to Los Angeles, where Graham was due for a recording session. The dealer lost the bet when Graham quickly penned "Just A Song Before I Go." Considering that two-minute tune became the highest charting song in CSN history, Graham explained that if he knew it was going to be that popular, he would have written a better song.

He has written plenty of great songs, including the simple tune he came up with while living with Joni Mitchell, "Our House," as well as the closer, "Teach Your Children," which he dedicated to all teachers, everywhere.

One last note. On the way in, there were a couple of people going down the line asking people to sign petitions to make medical marijuana legal in Missouri. This is an issue that, if they get enough signatures, may become a referendum on the ballot this fall. I hope these activists are doing this before every show at The Pageant, but this one seemed like an easy sell, considering the average age of Graham Nash fans. Most of us were smoking weed recreationally 40 years ago, but now that we've grown up, we need medical marijuana for all our Medicare aches and pains!

Monday, March 19, 2018

Today's Harris Challenge

The trivia category is Movies Based On Movies. See if you score enough points to earn a bonus category at my new site, HarrisChallenge.com!

Theater Review: "Born Yesterday"

Stepping into an iconic role is always risky. When the audience knows the original, there are bound to be comparisons. Judy Holliday became a star in 1946 with her powerhouse performance as Billie Dawn in Garson Kanin's "Born Yesterday." She reprised the role in the 1950 movie version, for which she won an Oscar, and woe unto any actress who has had to follow in her footsteps.

The good news is that the actress who plays Billie in the St. Louis Rep's production of the play pulls it off. Her name is Ruth Pferdehirt (I joked to my wife that it's a stage name -- her real name is Debbie Pferdehirt), and she ably fills Holliday's shoes as the character evolves over the course of two hours.

Billie is the girlfriend of Harry Brock, played by Andy Prosky, son of one of our favorite character actors of the last generation, Robert Prosky. Harry is a junk dealer who has built his business and become a self-made multi-millionaire, mostly by muscling aside the competition and steamrolling anyone and anything that gets in his way. Now he's in DC to bribe a senator and get legislation passed that will make it easier for him to continue amassing more wealth.

Harry has brought Billie along, but he's worried she'll say or do something wrong, so he hires a local journalist, Paul Verral (Aaron Bartz), to give her a little bit of culture. That turns out to be a big mistake. As Billie wisens up about the ways of Washington, she also falls for Paul, and that can't be good for Harry.

As played by Pferdehirt, Billie isn't stupid, she's ignorant -- she doesn't know what she doesn't know -- but she has a thirst for knowledge. Much of Pferdehirt's performance is lifted directly from Holliday's, including all the business during the classic gin rummy scene, when you can't take your eyes off her. Prosky is just as full of bluster as Broderick Crawford was in the movie, but Bartz isn't quite the stud that William Holden was as Verrall.

Still, the cast is solid, the laughs come regularly, and "Born Yesterday" still resonates with its talk of corruption and the power of the rich to run our government at the expense of the people.

By the way, if you haven't seen the 1950 movie, rent it and watch it with your daughter. I'm proud that mine enjoyed it so much she can quote from the script. For instance, when Harry yells, "Shut up! You ain't gonna be tellin' nobody nothin' pretty soon!" and Billie replies, just as loudly, "DOUBLE NEGATIVE!"