Archive for the ‘Crime’ Category

American Animals

June 25, 2018

American Animals is a semi-documentary fictional film that tells the true story of the attempted heist of an enormously book from the Transylvania University library.

Spencer (Barry Keoghan) is an art student at Transylvania University. He feels dissatisfied with his life. He believes that he hasn’t experienced enough of the world to be able to produce good art. He tells his friend, Warren (Evan Peters), about a rare book of Audubon prints in the university’s special collections library, a book that is reputed to be worth millions of dollars. Warren is a restless and disaffected youth who is bored with his suburban existence. He talks Spence into a plan to steal the book. They eventually enlist two other people, Erik (Jared Abrahamson) and Chas (Blake Jenner), to help them with their plan.

Never having carried out a robbery before, they decide to learn by watching heist films. In one scene, we see them watching The Killing. The irony of this moment is telling. The Killing depicts a carefully planned robbery that gradually unravels due to a series of unforeseen circumstances. Although they don’t know it, the film foreshadows what will happen with their own plan. In another scene, Warren assigns fake names to everyone, mimicking a scene in Reservoir Dogs. An example of life imitating Hollywood.

It is perhaps a further irony that their own story is eventually made into a film. American Animals is a thought-provoking and deeply moral film.

3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets

July 1, 2015


3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets is a documentary about the 2012 murder of Jordan Davis and the subsequent trial of his killer, Michael Dunn. Dunn shot and killed Davis after the latter refused to turn down his car radio in a gas station parking lot. Dunn also shot at the other three people who were in the car with Davis.

This film largely consists of interviews with Davis’s parents and with his friends, as well as scenes from Dunn’s trial. Davis is portrayed as a good kid, who was well liked by his friends, even though he wasn’t very good at playing basketball. It’s the trial scenes, however, that are the most interesting. Dunn’s lawyer does a good job of cross-examining the prosecution’s witnesses, but he makes a crucial mistake when he puts Dunn on the witness stand. (Perhaps he felt he had to call Dunn because there were few witnesses, and because Davis’s friends seemed credible on the stand.) The prosecution catches Dunn in a lie, which undermines his claim that Davis had a gun. In spite of this, the jury dead-locked on the question of whether Dunn committed first degree murder. They did find him guilty of three counts of second degree murder, for shooting at Davis’s friends as they were trying to get away from him.

Dunn’s lawyer tells the jury that the trial is not about race. There is no evidence that Dunn used racial epithets at the time of the shooting. Yet one can’t help but wonder if he would have shot at three white boys playing loud music. I would have liked to learn more about Dunn: his background, his political beliefs, etc. At the end of the film, he shows no remorse for what he did, and he even claims to be the “real victim” in this case. Dunn kept a loaded gun in his car, and I suspect that he was secretly wishing that he would one day have an excuse to use it. He was an accident waiting to happen.

Kill the Messenger

November 16, 2014


Kill the Messenger, directed by Michael Cuesta from a screenplay by Peter Landesman, tells the story of Gary Webb, the journalist who reported on contra drug-dealing in the US, and who was blacklisted by the news media for his efforts. The film follows Webb (Jeremy Renner) as he gradually uncovers the story and then writes about it for the San Jose Mercury News. The article causes a sensation, but then it immediately comes under attack from major news outlets, such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times. Webb then struggles to defend the article, as well as his reputation.

An interesting question here is: why was Webb’s article so controversial? I remember during the 1980’s hearing rumors that the contras were running drugs. A Senate committee eventually confirmed this as true. So why did Webb’s revelations upset so many people? I can only guess it was because Webb drew an explicit connection between the contras and the crack cocaine epidemic that swept South-Central Los Angeles in the 1980’s. I remember at the time, some journalists expressed fear of “black anger” as a result of Webb’s article.

This film suggests another possible motive: reporters at major newspapers were incensed that they had been scooped by a mid-size paper. Webb was, in that respect, a victim of the news media pecking order. What this movie also makes clear is the extraordinary vindictiveness of these people: even after the CIA admitted that Webb’s story was basically true, he was unable to get work at any newspaper.

Kill the Messenger is a tribute to a courageous reporter.

Against the “Don’t Vote” Argument

November 8, 2014


Over the past few days, I have read a number of articles that have posited various reasons for why the last election turned out the way it did: low turnout, Republican gerrymandering, the weak economy, the stupidity of the Democrats, etc. I think there is some truth to all of these arguments. What I would like to address here, though, is an argument that some of my leftist friends made, which is that we shouldn’t vote. I can understand why people would feel this way, since our political system is such a scam. Yet I think the argument is seriously lacking in some ways.

In the last election, Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all voted to legalize marijuana. Massachusetts passed a paid sick days law. Denton, Texas, outlawed fracking. Here in California, voters passed Proposition 47, which reduces many non-violent crimes, including drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors. This is a major blow against what the late Alexander Cockburn called “the prosecutorial state” – in other words the warehousing of human beings who committed petty crimes. This vote indicates there has been a huge shift in consciousness since the 1990’s, when Californians passed the god-awful “Three Strikes” law, which resulted in people being sentenced for life for such trivial offenses as stealing a slice of pizza. People are beginning to realize that mass incarceration is not only not the solution to our society’s problems, but it actually makes them worse.

Should you vote? I would argue it depends on the circumstances and what’s on the ballot. Yes, we have a terrible political system, but we should take advantage of what little room to maneuver that we have.

American Hustle

January 21, 2014


American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell, is loosely based on the Abscam scandal of the 1970’s. This resulted from a sting operation in which the FBI developed the methods of entrapment it uses today against Muslims.

Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) are a couple of swindlers who are caught in an FBI sting operation led by Richard DiMaso (Bradley Cooper). DiMaso tells them that he will not press charges provided that they agree to help him catch white collar criminals, which they reluctantly consent to do. The three of them eventually set their sights on a powerful New Jersey politician, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), who wants money to build casinos, which he believes will revive the state’s economy. They hook Polito up with a phoney sheikh (Michael Peña), who promises him money. The scheme begins to involve more people, including Victor Tellegio (Robert De Niro), one of the most powerful figures in organized crime. Meanwhile, Rosenfeld comes to believe that Polito, although somewhat corrupt, is basically a well-intentioned person, and he begins to regret the fact that he is setting him up. Rosenfeld’s woes are exacerbated by the erratic behavior of his wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who nearly blows his cover.

American Hustle is an amusing comedy that benefits from strong perfromances (although Louis CK is not quite convincing as DiMaso’s boss). I have never been keen on Chirstian Bale in the past. His performances have struck me as either too operatic (The Fighter) or too understated (The Dark Knight Rises). In this movie, he strikes just the right balance, playing a character who is sleazy, but not totally devoid of empathy. And it’s fun to watch Jennifer Lawrence playing a character who is the human opposite of the one she plays in the Hunger Games films.

American Hustle questions whether the FBI’s sting operation actually accomplished anything. People have asked similar questions about the FBI’s sting operations against Muslim “terrorists”. (I have written about one of these cases here.)

Jordan Belfort: “The Wolf of Wall Street”

December 29, 2013


Martin Scorsese has a new film out titled The Wolf of Wall Street. It is based on the memoirs of Jordan Belfort, who in the 1990’s ran a brokerage firm called Stratton Oakmont that did illegal “pump and dump” schemes that got Belfort thrown into prison. I’m debating in my mind whether or not I should go see this movie. I found Scorsese’s last film, Hugo, dull and over-long. The Wolf of Wall Street clocks in at two hours and forty minutes. This doesn’t look promising.

One person who did see the movie was Christina McDowell, the daughter of Tom Prousalis, one of Belfort’s business partners at Stratton Oakmont. She has written an open letter to the makers of the film, in which she states:

    Belfort’s victims, my father’s victims, don’t have a chance at keeping up with the Joneses. They’re left destitute, having lost their life savings at the age of 80. They can’t pay their medical bills or help send their children off to college because of characters like the ones glorified in Terry Winters’ screenplay.

    Let me ask you guys something. What makes you think this man deserves to be the protagonist in this story? Do you think his victims are going to want to watch it? Did we forget about the damage that accompanied all those rollicking good times? Or are we sweeping it under the carpet for the sale of a movie ticket? And not just on any day, but on Christmas morning??

    I urge each and every human being in America NOT to support this film, because if you do, you’re simply continuing to feed the Wolves of Wall Street.

Another argument against seeing this movie. The L.A. Weekly has an interesting article about Belfort. In it, we learn that Belfort has only paid $11.6 million of the $110 million he owes his victims.

I’m told that Belfort now works as a motivational speaker. What kind of advice can someone with his background give to people? “Don’t start a company that fleeces people out of their life savings”? Out of curiosity, I looked at Belfort’s website. On the home page, it says:

    Right From The Smash Blockbuster Movie, “The Wolf of Wall Street”…
    Can You Really Use The Wolf of Wall Street’s Sales Tactics To Ethically Persuade People And Make Money?

So, Belfort is using his criminal past to promote his motivational business. How ethical.

According to the above-mentioned L.A. Weekly article:

    Five years ago, the Weekly accompanied Belfort to one of his first speaking gigs, with the Young Entrepreneurs of Los Angeles. During the Q&A following his talk, Belfort had a stock answer whenever anyone questioned the morality of what he had done to his investors. “Hey, at least no one got killed,” he said several times.

At least no one got killed. That’s how low the bar is set in the business world.

A Few More Thoughts on the Trayvon Martin Case

July 16, 2013

The other night a woman told me she thought the controversy over the George Zimmerman trial was overblown. Mind you, she wasn’t defending what Zimmerman did. Rather, her argument was that with so many injustices in the world, it simply wasn’t right to devote so much attention to a single case.

This is a fair point. It seems to me, however, that this episode has struck a raw nerve with many people, not all of whom are black. Many of us have had that experience – on at least occasion – of being confronted by a hostile stranger. (The enduring popularity of the film, Deliverance, is due to the fact that it touches upon this common experience.) Many of us have had that sudden and unpleasant realization that one has angered, or perhaps simply attracted the suspicions of, someone for reasons that are not at all clear.

Such experiences are now even more disturbing because of the insane “stand your ground” laws that have been passed in many states. Thirty-one states have such laws. A stranger can shoot you for whatever reasons of his own and then tell the police that you “threatened” him. And chances are that he may get away with it. (Florida’s “stand your ground” law was a factor in Zimmerman’s acquittal.)

I love this country, but it’s increasingly becoming an uncomfortable place in which to live.

The System is Broken

July 15, 2013


We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this.
– Barack Obama

One way to prevent future tragedies like this is by putting vigilante nutjobs such as George Zimmerman in prison. However, it should be clear by now that the state of Florida was never really serious about doing that. They only brought charges against Zimmerman because of public pressure, then they blew the case against Zimmermann. The state of Florida is perfectly happy to have deranged people with guns killing innocent teenagers, provided that latter have a certain skin color.

It’s worth noting that the prosecutors in the Zimmerman case are also responsible for this travesty:

    Last Friday, Jacksonville mother Marissa Alexander was sentenced by a Florida judge to 20 years in prison for firing what she says was a “warning shot” into the wall after a physical altercation with her husband, Rico Gray.

    The case has set off yet another controversy involving the state’s “stand your ground” law, which is under intense scrutiny after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in February. Critics, including Congresswoman Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), are crying foul.

    How, they ask, could a 31-year-old woman in a relationship with a man who had a history of domestic violence, and whose actions did not result in any physical injury, be sentenced to two decades in prison while George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Martin, is out on bail?

A good question.

The system is broken. It is broken beyond repair.

Hotel California

July 8, 2013

California Prisons

California’s prison system is a disgrace. Today, prisoners at the Pelican Bay prison are going on a hunger strike to protest the fact that they have been in solitary confinement for years, and in some cases, for decades. At almost the same time, there have been revelations that between 2006 and 2010, the prison system sterilized almost 150 women:

    Crystal Nguyen, a former Valley State Prison inmate who worked in the prison’s infirmary during 2007, said she often overheard medical staff asking inmates who had served multiple prison terms to agree to be sterilized.

    “I was like, ‘Oh my God, that’s not right,’ ” Nguyen, 28, said. “Do they think they’re animals, and they don’t want them to breed anymore?”

Eugenics is alive and well in the Golden State. Ah, but that is not the only problem. Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated that he will not comply with a court order that he reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons, which are currently at 200% of their capacity. The courts have ordered the governor to reduce the prison population so that the prisons are at 137.5% capacity. That is, they are merely asking the state to make the prisons a little less overcrowded. Yet even that is too much for Gov. Brown, who wants to appeal the case to the Supreme Court a second time, even though the high court has already ruled that the state must comply with the lower court’s ruling.

Oh, and California is considered a “liberal” state.

Big Brother

June 7, 2013


The recent revelations about massive government spying on the American people should come as no surprise. Indeed, they merely confirm what many of us have suspected for quite some time now. It’s worth noting here that all this obsessive information gathering did not prevent the Boston Marathon bombings from happening. The reason for this should be obvious: no terrorist with half a brain is going to discuss his plans over a cell phone or over the Internet. Even the Tsarnaev brothers, who weren’t exactly the brightest bulbs, knew better than that.

So, how concerned should we be about this? As long as you aren’t doing anything illegal, you shouldn’t be too concerned. The government, however, keeps expanding the boundaries of what is illegal. (In New York state, for example, it is now a felony to annoy a police officer. During the time I lived in New York, I got the impression that the cops there were a bit touchy. I imagine it can’t be that hard to annoy them.)

The Internet is a useful organizing tool, but it clearly has its limits and it should be used with caution. Those who have argued that the Internet is the solution to all the Left’s problems should reconsider their position. It’s clear that the Left can’t rely solely upon the Internet.