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Mason’s 12 Favorite Movies of the 2014

02.17.15

This is my third year running, but you wouldn’t know it because the blog in which I wrote the previous entries is down. I’ll try restoring those at some point. Until then, take my word for it that this follows a similar format: I hate “best of” lists, so these are just the movies I personally loved, for various reasons, the most last year. They are also not in any particular order because the only thing I dislike more than most “best of” lists is being forced to rank them.

Without further ado, let’s go against what I just said and start with what is truly my favorite movie of the year:

Whiplash-kep1

This blew me away. From the opening scene to the final cut to black, no other movie since GRAVITY has had me so riveted. In fact, as soon as the final, destined-to-be iconic scene ended, I shot up out of my seat and exclaimed “Holy SHIT!” with a huge grin on my face. When’s the last time you’ve done that?

The plot of WHIPLASH is simple: a talented drummer at a top music conservatory endures the torturous teaching methods of the top instructor in order to achieve greatness. But what you’re there to see is a tour-de-force performance by both JK Simmons (who should win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar in a landslide) and Miles Teller – whose ability to play the drums convincingly is an underrated reason why this movie works as well as it does. So often it’s painfully obvious that the actor isn’t even holding the instrument properly despite their character supposedly being a virtuoso. Or the camera lingers on the actor’s face and then obviously cuts to a stand-in performer doing the actual playing. Not so with Teller — and it makes all the difference. Writer/director Damien Chazelle displays masterful talent in his feature-film debut. I never imagined I would ever be that stressed out watching someone play the drums. I hope for amazing things from him in the future, but at the same time, if this is is peak, it’d still be a worthwhile career.

BlueRuin_Quad_ArtLR

It’s been a while since I’ve seen this one now, but if you’re looking for a sparse yet tense indie thriller, BLUE RUIN is fantastic. Macon Blair gives a captivating performance as a broken man who, years after his parents’ murder, is given an opportunity to exact his revenge. As you can imagine with these sorts of yarns, it doesn’t go quite as planned.

What I find interesting is how both BLUE RUIN and WHIPLASH elicit similar levels of narrative suspense, creating sequences where you find your entire body tense and rigid in anticipation on small budgets, without big name actors (unless you count Devin “Buzz McAllister” Ratray, who is fantastic in BLUE RUIN, actually), and with stakes that are enormous for the characters involved but not remotely “the world is going to end” in scope. Give me movies like this any day, which then should be no surprise that several of the movies on this list fit that description.

under-the-skin-poster

This is a truly haunting cinematic experience with the most disturbingly gorgeous imagery captured on film this year. Writer/director Jonathan Glazer stripped down Michel Faber’s eponymous novel into a bare examination on what makes us human, by following the creepy actions of Scarlett Johansson’s female alien as she hunts men in the Scottish hillsides. This is heady sci-fi that’s more interested in emotions and existential ideas than specifics on the alien’s biology, technology, or native world. And like the best in sci-fi, UNDER THE SKIN uses this conceit as a way to explore ourselves, specifically how we dehumanize each other for our own personal needs and how our perspective on this can all change, viscerally, once someone does that same thing to us.

Much was written about Johansson’s full-frontal nudity, but unlike other films where she would be relegated to being merely the focus of the film’s male gaze, she’s not depicted in such a gratuitous way here. It’s necessary for her character and the story. Balancing it out — which is virtually unheard of in mainstream cinema — she’s outnumbered by the number of males shown in similar bare fashion. (Granted, this isn’t exactly a true Hollywood picture, but it does feature a true Hollywood star and got plenty of buzz despite not being a traditional Hollywood movie.) Not unlike how the main character stalks her prey, UNDER THE SKIN will follow you long after you’ve stopped watching.

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Damn, this was a good time at the movies. I saw it again over the holidays with family and thoroughly enjoyed it on a second go-round. It’s smart, it has a strong female lead, it has Tom Cruise being every bit the movie star he’s had a tougher time being since the whole Oprah couch fiasco — but most importantly, it’s just plain fun and satisfying.

To sum it up, it’s GROUNDHOG DAY meets INDEPENDENCE DAY: we follow Cruise’s cowardly PR officer as he’s thrown into a futuristic D-Day that he ends up reliving over and over until he can find a way to beat the alien foe that has taken over the world. It may seem silly, but there’s almost a sports-movie feel to this as you root for Cruise’s character to learn how to fight in an ALIENS-inspired mech suit, complete with a laugh-out-loud-and-cheer montage scene. It won’t win any major awards – nor was it even nominated – and it didn’t light up the box office either (which is a shame), but when you’re in the mood for some good old fashioned escapism and have a blast at the movies, EDGE OF TOMORROW is what you hope to see.

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I’m surprised, too, that this made my list. No one is talking about DOM HEMINGWAY this awards season, but after watching it at home on Redbox while sick one day months ago, I haven’t been able to shake it from my memory. Jude Law plays an absolutely crass human being, a safecracker who we meet as he’s getting out of prison having served 12 years because he didn’t rat out his criminal employer — a man who he feels owes him for his time segregated from society. (Can you blame him?) As you can imagine, they don’t necessarily see quite eye to eye on this and, well, I won’t say anything more.

Hilarious in a holy-shit-he-actually-said-that kind of way, there’s also genuine tension as well as a bit of heart to it as we get to know Dom, who is endearing in a way that you could only handle by seeing him on a screen, never in real life. It culminates in something that the rest of these movies on this list also possess: a memorable final scene. (Nothing can top WHIPLASH in that category, but I’m notorious for not remembering how movies end, either because I relate more to the characters’ journeys than destinations or many films just don’t offer finales worth remembering; I’m not quite sure. So that makes these films all the more impressive, in my mind, that I remember their endings.) It was a crowded field for Best Actor this year, but, for my money, I think Law deserved this nomination far more than Cumberbatch (more on that later).

birdman

This movie had all the makings of a gimmicky, over-praised pretentious mess: a meta-narrative with Michael Keaton playing an aging actor who once played a superhero (get it?); the whole movie being shot in seemingly one continuous take (take that Orson Welles); extremely dour filmmaker Alejandro G. Inarritu tackling comedy for the first time (if you don’t count BABEL, heyo!); all set in one main location: a Broadway stage (time to take ourselves realllly seriously).

Somehow, it works.

Granted, I’m a giant fan of Michael Keaton (who isn’t?) and will watch just about anything he’s in (except the new ROBOCOP, which I had to turn off because even he couldn’t elevate that to the level of being watchable). But it wasn’t just Keaton’s incredible performance. It was Edward Norton brilliantly playing the version of himself that everyone already believe he is: a talented actor who is a total prick and impossible to work with. It was Emma Stone and Naomi Watts stealing scenes left and right. And it was the magical realism and overt commentary on fame and filmmaking that oftentimes, in other movies, tend to pull me out of the cinematic experience, but instead, here, felt all part of the whole. If it wins Best Picture, you’ll hear no complaints from me.

Boyhood-poster-quad

What an achievement. You’ve already heard all about how writer/director Richard Linklater shot this in two-week bursts annually over the course of 12 years, giving it a wholly original feel in a non-documentary film. It’s not flashy. It’s not melodramatic. If you keep waiting for that big, tumultuous event, you’ll be disappointed. Instead we get the simple yet engrossing treat of watching all these actors age in real time along with the characters their portray, an average family of four navigating the life of divorce, re-marriage, and adolescence.

Ethan Hawke is his usual steady self, but Patricia Arquette steals the show with her fully realized and human portrayal of a (more often than not) single mom trying to do her best to raise her two kids. Would love to see her win Best Supporting Actress. I must admit that I find myself thinking about this movie the least of all on my list. And while I don’t like recommending a movie based on pure novelty, BOYHOOD elicits more than enough genuine emotion to elevate it beyond a mere gimmick.

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The plot lends itself to being another forgettable Hollywood drama-thiller: a man’s wife goes missing and he’s the number one suspect even though he didn’t do it – probably. If this had been 1995, it would’ve likely been turned into a grimy Joe Eszterhas spectacle. Thankfully times have changed somewhat since then since Gillian Flynn wrote the script herself, based on her own novel.

Still, some saw the film as being misogynistic. Others quite the opposite. Many somewhere in the middle, including myself. A movie can propose misogynistic ideas without actually endorsing them, even if the main character is guilty of those ideas. The reality is that the onus isn’t on the filmmakers to spell it out and tell us exactly how we’re supposed to feel; that’s up to us. And director David Fincher masterfully rides the line between pulpy entertainment and controversial commentary on the roles men and women play in relationships to make our job as the audience that much tougher – but also that much more satisfying. There’s much in GONE GIRL to discuss and dissect, and that’s why it’s one of my favorites of the year. That and Rosamund Pike’s performance. Damn.

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As I look at my list, I realize that this was the year of the fun movie. What makes it so is that the filmmakers didn’t sacrifice quality for the fun; in fact, the quality is inherent to what makes them so enjoyable. If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that big dumb action movies needn’t be dumb any more. Not when this crazy movie — based on a comic book that was obscure even for comic book fans, starring the goofy guy from Parks and Rec, Colombiana, a wise-cracking raccoon, and a sentient tree who can basically only say his own name — ends up being the second-highest grossing film of the year, beating out the latest installments of TRANSFORMERS, CAPTAIN AMERICA, X-MEN, SPIDERMAN, and THE HOBBIT. (Not to give too much credit to box office as a signifier of quality, but it’s still worth noting.)

This is a rare case of something truly great also capturing a zeitgeist amongst the general population. It harkens back to the heydays of when Indiana Jones and Han Solo first graced the silver screen. Depending on my mood on any given day, this could surpass WHIPLASH at the top of my list. Baby Groot forever.

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The world didn’t need another vampire movie. But then Jim Jarmusch came around with this and proved everyone wrong. Perfectly cast, Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play immortal vampires and in true Jarmusch fashion, don’t get up to all that much. Yet it’s all so mesmerizing and entertaining, employing some of the best camerawork of Jarmusch’s long career. Of course, it didn’t hurt that it was shot and set mainly in Detroit and has Hiddleston portraying a depressed musician who prefers to steal blood from the local hospital rather than killing anyone. Again, another movie with a memorable final image leaving you with that indelible sense of joy. Albeit, mischievous joy, in this instance.

JohnWick 2

The “Year of Fun” is complete with JOHN WICK. What a surprising and refreshing, indie actioner that was sheer delight the entire way through. You all know that I’m an unabashed fan of Keanu Reeves. But even with that bias acknowledged, I have no qualms about saying that this is his best performance since THE MATRIX. Defying everything we know about time, Reeves looks no older than he was during that 1999 mega-blockbuster, despite being 50 now. Arguably, he’s even better now since he’s able to kick and punch and shoot (countless bad guys in the head) with just the right touch of self-awareness.

JOHN WICK has the most basic of action movie premises: a mysterious man with a secret past gets yanked back into a violent underground world of the Russian mob to avenge the death of a loved one — it’s almost identical in plot to Denzel Washington’s THE EQUALIZER, which also came out last year, and yet was completely forgettable. Unlike JOHN WICK. The best way I can describe it as the entire world of the film feels alive. It’s a slightly parallel universe to our own (not to say that it’s sci-fi, because it’s not), but feels entirely organic. The plot points are there but masked with instantly memorable characters and ridiculously fun action. I can’t say enough good things about this one. Just see it.

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Last but not least, we have NIGHTCRAWLER, with Jake Gyllenhaal giving a career performance as Lou Bloom, a bonafide psychopath with a dream. Quick aside: I hadn’t really given too much thought to Gyllenhaal’s career prior to this film. I’ve always been a fan, ever since DONNIE DARKO blew my 19-year-old brain away with its time-travel brain scrambled plot and 80s music that trumped its silliness. But he never came up in conversations about the next big movie star or serious actor. (Making PRINCE OF PERSIA probably didn’t help but even the greats have their missteps.) It’s not like he hasn’t been acclaimed, having received an Oscar nomination for BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN — but even that was overshadowed by what was deemed the more powerful performance by costar Heath Ledger. But after this year, he’s firmly rooted in my mind as one of the better and more versatile actors of his generation.

Combining elements of NETWORK, TAXI DRIVER, and PEEPING TOM, this dark comedy/thriller follows Bloom, an antisocial loner who stumbles upon the ethically questionable profession of filming crimes and accidents as they happen in order to sell the video footage to TV outlets for their outrageously sensationalist nightly news. As you might guess, Bloom takes things a bit overboard. A commentary on our society, on how the news is more about ratings and entertainment than informing the viewers, on the American Dream, and on the perils of unchecked ambition, NIGHTCRAWLER is funny, disturbing, suspenseful, and, dare I say, important.

GUILTY PLEASURES

LET’S BE COPS/22 JUMP STREET

What can I say? These movies were hilarious. LET’S BE COPS felt like it was written in 1998 with Martin Lawrence in mind to star. Naturally, being a huge fan of BLUE STREAK, this movie was right in my wheelhouse. It’s not a good movie. It’s ridiculous, implausible, and the bad guys do all those things that you know they wouldn’t do in real life, blah blah blah. It made me laugh and that’s just all that you need sometimes. 22 JUMP STREET: more of the same from the first one, only way more meta-jokes about doing the same exact thing over again. But it works.

HONORABLE MENTIONS

  • LOCKE – Tom Hardy is such a beast. Even watching him literally just driving a car for 90 minutes is captivating.
  • NOAH – Darren Aronofsky is such a beast. Not the masterpieces that THE FOUNTAIN and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM were, this still was better than it had any business being.
  • OBVIOUS CHILD – Jenny Slate is a beast. This is the anti-JUNO and it was everything I hoped it would be.
  • INTERSTELLAR – Hans Zimmer is a beast. Were it not for his epic musical score and Christopher Nolan’s sound design direction, this would’ve been a laughable mess. As it is, some scenes still are. But overall, the great scenes were great enough to make up for it.
  • FURY – Brad Pitt is a beast. This band-of-brothers WW2 tank movie gets a bit manipulative and obvious at times, but ended up being harrowing, tense, and moving. Also, I didn’t hate seeing Shia LeBeouf on screen. That’s saying something.
  • JOE – Nicolas Cage can be a beast — and was in this case. What an odd guy. Goes from iconic performances in RAISING ARIZONA, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, and CON AIR to making putrid direct-to-video, cookie-cutter action schlock to this: a excellent indie drama about a loner who gets involved in a young boy’s tumultuous family life.
  • SELMA – David Oyelowo is a beast. He gives an incredible performance of Martin Luther King, Jr., in this fact-based story of how the brave people in the civil rights movement changed the country by making sure the Voting Rights Act was passed. The film is flawed, superior to a message-movie-of-the-week, yet not quite a masterpiece. But the parallels to 1965 and today are simultaneously hopeful and depressing, making it definitely a film worth seeing.
  • THE SKELETON TWINS – Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader are on their way to becoming beasts. They’re much more than comedians and that’s evident more than ever here in this dramedy about a couple of estranged siblings who come back into each other’s lives after one attempts suicide. It’s not as dark or pretentious as it might sound based on that synopsis. It’s actually quite touching.
  • CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER – Robert Redford is a beast. The fact that he’s still making movies at 88(!) would be reason enough; but this is the guy who played The Sundance Kid and created the Sundance Film Festival. I know he’s not why you’ll rent this movie, but I couldn’t quite give beast-credit to Chris Evans just yet. All that aside, the high acclaim this movie received was quite deserving. A thinking man’s conspiracy thriller disguised as a comic book action movie. Enjoy.

FLAWED YET GLAD I SAW

  • DEAR WHITE PEOPLE – too heavy handed to be fully immersive, this satire by writer/direct Justin Simien owes as much to Spike Lee as it does to Wes Anderson. With an interesting plot, fantastic set design, and can’t-believe-this-could-easily-still-be-happening-in-this-day-and-age moments, unfortunately it’s brought down by characters mostly consisting of archetypes to be commented on rather than fully realized people. That said, the commentary derived is smart, biting, and necessary. I think I would prefer the discussion with friends after seeing it to the movie itself.
  • SNOWPIERCER – I wanted to like this more than I did, and I honestly did like it more at the time than I do now. But I’m glad this exists as I’m a sucker for interesting sci-fi even if it doesn’t quite end up being as memorable as I’d hoped. That said, Tilda Swinton is absolutely incredible here, to the surprise of no one who has been watching her over the years.
  • PREDESTINATION – I nearly turned this movie off about 35 minutes in. I know that’s not high praise, but I am glad that I stuck it out. I won’t ever watch it again as it’s more of a puzzle that you don’t actually care about enough to be invested in the characters; you just want to know the answer to the riddle. It took way too long to get things rolling – even though the information relayed was vital to figuring out the finale. A case of not finding the best way to get across necessary exposition outside of two people just telling each other things.

NOT NEARLY AS GOOD AS PACIFIC RIM BUT DID WAY BETTER BOX OFFICE

GODZILLA – Give me kaiju and jaegers any day over Godzilla and Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s oaky performance. It did have some good moments and concepts – the opening conceit was great. It just wasn’t nearly as fun as PACIFIC RIM.

HIGHLY ACCLAIMED BUT DIDN’T DIG

  • THE IMITATION GAME – There are always one or two movies that get massive critical acclaim and you just cannot understand why. This is one of those. I’m a fan of Benedict Cumberbatch, especially in Sherlock, but I couldn’t ever shake the feeling that I was watching him act rather than seeing him lost inside the character. To top it off, the script was sneakily weak, masked by an incredible score by Alexandre Desplat and solid cinematography. In the hands of lesser filmmakers, this script could easily have been a History Channel original.
  • THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL – I go back and forth with Wes Anderson. I love RUSHMORE, THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, and THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX. I hate MOONRISE KINGDOM and THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL, with the latter being, by far, my least favorite of them all. I couldn’t even finish it. I was bored to tears and just so tired of all the Andersonian trappings that people either love or hate. Although I don’t think it’s quite that simple. His camera flourishes, meticulous set design, and quirky casting choices work when the story works. But, to me, they don’t elevate it when the story doesn’t. Here, I unfortunately couldn’t even connect with even one of the myriad stories he tried to weave together.

HAVEN’T SEEN YET BUT NEED TO

Always so many that I wanted to see but didn’t get around to in time. This is that list:
American Sniper
The Theory Of Everything
Top Five
The Immigrant
The Drop
Foxcatcher
Wild
Inherent Vice
Virunga
CitizenFour
Last Days in Vietnam
Leviathan
The Babadook
A Most Wanted Man
Calvary
St. Vincent
The Raid 2
Force Majeure
Jodorowsky’s Dune
Ida
Beyond the Lights
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Chart Of The Day

09.28.14

Ryan Mason:

“So it seems that the theory behind trickle-down economics has been empirically refuted: its impact has been overwhelmingly trickle-up. It is also quite clear by now that huge tax cuts do not remotely pay for themselves – and the recent experience in Kansas only adds a final coda to this. And yet the GOP shows absolutely no sign of absorbing these facts, or having anything to say about the dangerous political instability of huge social and economic inequality and crippling debt that are their consequence.”

The GOP is more of a religion than a reality-based political party. It’s one thing to adhere to dogma when it comes to things that cannot be disproven, like what happens after you die, but it’s quite another when there are decades (or more) of empirical data supporting concepts like trickle-down economics doesn’t work at all, or evolution is real, or tax cuts don’t pay for themselves, or climate change is real and greatly influenced by humans. No surprise then that many Evangelicals are also Republican. Both require blind faith in the face of contradictory evidence.

Originally posted on The Dish:

Income Distribution

Drum flags the above one – and it is truly staggering:

The precise numbers (from Piketty and Saez) can always be argued with, but the basic trend is hard to deny. After the end of each recession, the well-off have pocketed an ever greater share of the income growth from the subsequent expansion. Unsurprisingly, there’s an especially big bump after 1975, but this is basically a secular trend that’s been showing a steady rise toward nosebleed territory for more than half a century. Welcome to the 21st century.

Jordan Weissmann chimes in:

Through mid-century, when times were good economically, most of the benefits trickled down to the bottom 90 percent of households. Then came the Reagan era and actual trickle-down economics. Suddenly, the benefits started sticking with the rich. Since 2001, the top 10 percent have enjoyed virtually all of the gains.

This isn’t a totally new story. But…

View original 180 more words

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Obama’s Wealth Redistribution-Based Fiscal Policy: Rob From Poor to Give to Rich

02.13.11

Already looking ahead to 2012’s fiscal budget, President Obama is proposing a major cut to heating subsidies for the poor to help aid them against rising energy costs.

This is just infuriating. It’s hard to argue against the fact that our country is further becoming a plutocracy when the top one percent of earners control nearly 34 percent of our nation’s wealth and when even the Democrats cut programs that help the poor while continuing to extend tax breaks to the one group of Americans who were hit the softest by the economic recession.

I still don’t get how anyone can swallow the rhetoric that the rich needed a tax break while we have a surging debt and deficit in the trillions. Sure, everyone would love to pay less in taxes; but it was passed off as if it would be un-American to do otherwise under the guise that if you give more money to the rich, they in turn create new jobs for everyone else. It’s a wonderful thought that many of the rich love to taut, but there is plenty of evidence to the contrary.

And now here we are.

Why isn’t it un-American to let families freeze in the winter because they have to choose between food and heat? Why are both parties so quick to throw the poor under the bus while ensuring that the rich keep even more of their money? Is $2.5 billion – which amounts to merely 0.21 percent of this year’s federal deficit – going to make us more fiscally solvent to the point that it’s worth affecting millions of lower-income families? And that’s more important for our economy – and our people – than raising taxes on the richest two percent of Americans by under five percent?

While the Obama Administration points out that these cuts reduce the budget back to 2008 levels; which sounds respectable and all but with average gas prices higher for the month of February 2011 than they were in February of 2008, energy costs are on their way up while unemployment stays above nine percent. Not a great climate to justify cutting assistance for rising energy prices.

I’m sure there are also plenty of other costs that will be added to our bottom line by cutting this $2.5 billion. The added stress on families coupled with either going without heat or going without food for some who simply cannot afford both could add to health care costs as the toll on their bodies makes them more susceptible to illness or injury. And with less assistance for their necessities (which just goes to the energy companies anyway, not directly out into the backbone of our economy that is supposedly built by small business) that’s less money going into the economy for local businesses and vendors. I’m sure that’s always the case when people have less assistance; however, it’s worth looking at to determine just how financially prudent this cut is when it only affects poor Americans in the midst of a deep recession that disproportionately affects poor Americans.

Not to say that the rich always have to foot the bill for all things. Don’t misunderstand this as me being in favor of taxing the rich every time the rest of the population wants something. This is about fairness. And when the rich enjoy billions of dollars in tax relief while basic necessities like providing adequate heat are taken away from the poor, that’s wrong. That’s un-American.

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Why Cutting Public Funding for PBS Harms Poor Americans More than Rich

02.12.11

In an effort to cut our national deficit, House Republicans are introducing legislation to cut even more spending, this time focusing on totally ending funding for NPR and PBS.

Just for those keeping track at home, our national deficit this year is roughly $1.17 trillion. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget is $420 million, making it roughly .036 percent of this year’s shortfall.

Here’s the thing: we need to fix our budget. But it’s beyond insulting to give the top two percent of earners a massive tax cut that costs taxpayers $68 billion for the estate tax cut alone. Throw in another $81.5 billion for the tax cuts to families making over $250,000 and we’re looking at $149.5 billion in spending (which is one percent of the debt — or 356 times as much as what we spend on the CPB) that only benefits a tiny fraction of the population while wanting to slash funding for the programs that go to the middle- and lower-classes who make up an overwhelming majority of the population.

There are a number of reasons why the GOP is embarking on a witch hunt for NPR and PBS, one of which is that they’re making it all about ideology to rile their base, not because they’re being fiscally austere. Only someone who had no clue about budgets and numbers in general – or blinded by rhetoric – would miss the absurdity of adding $149.5 billion to the deficit at the same time as fighting to cut $420 million all while claiming to be budget hawks. It’s like taking out a massive loan on a brand-new home in Malibu and then putting your foot down on selling your 10-year-old Dodge Caravan to cut down on spending.

Speaker John Boehner and Sen. Jim DeMint both argued for cutting CPB because since our government is broke, we cannot afford to be spending money on left-wing programs that Americans don’t agree with. Surely some feel that way. But what’s so left-wing about Sesame Street? Or NOVA? Remember Wild America and Reading Rainbow? Unless learning about science, nature, and reading is left-wing all of a sudden, it’s just more of the same ideological fantasy world where Glenn Beck is a moderate and anyone else to the left of Beck is considered a radical leftist — a stance that has even extended to other popular conservative pundits. It feels like just political battle against Democrats but the only losers will be us Americans who actually value public broadcasting – regardless of our politics.

For those who defend the Republican Party vehemently against those who think that the GOP is the party for the rich, it’s hard to feel otherwise when conservative congresspeople stand firm on tax cuts for the rich while also arguing that we can do without funding for PBS. Perhaps they’ve forgotten since they’re making well over $100,000 a year as civil servants that for poorer families who have to cut costs to stay solvent in this economy don’t always have access to the plethora of channels available via cable television.

Not to say that people with cable don’t watch PBS or listen to NPR even if they have Sirius, but I remember growing up as a kid, we didn’t have enough money to splurge on cable when we already had standard TV via an antenna on the top of our house. And since my parents didn’t want us only watching crap, we watched a lot of PBS: Reading Rainbow and Square One TV were after-school mainstays for years.

We can’t just keep cutting everything that keeps a support net for underprivileged Americans while avoiding the big issues that were the true culprits in this financial fiasco. You might disagree with me on the worth of taxpayer money funding NPR and PBS, but no one can argue that their budget is a key component to our ballooning deficit. It’s barely a drop in the bucket. A fraction of a percentage of our overall debt.

Cutting this spending will not right our ship, will not come close to balancing our budget. If the rich can get massive tax breaks, the rest of us should at the very least get to keep our free TV that offers more substance than Charlie Sheen making light of alcoholism, promiscuity, and a total lack of commitment nightly in half-hour chunks.

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Doubling Down on Ignorance: Arabic Classes Axed From Texas School Curriculum

02.10.11

In another case of knee-jerk decision making, the Mansfield school district in Texas quickly ended their curricula that would teach Arabic language and culture in K-12 classes because local parents raised concerns over the spread of Islam.

The notion behind this is absurd – that if we teach children about something, they’ll then take that knowledge and use it only for horrible things — or that if we don’t teach them about it, they won’t learn about. Because some people are promiscuous and catch diseases or get pregnant from unprotected sex, let’s just not teach our kids about it at all in school! (We know how well that works out.) Same goes for the Middle East, apparently.

But it’s just beyond ridiculous. As if kids don’t already learn about sex from other sources – usually completely false crap from their friends like you can’t get pregnant if it’s your first time and other random nonsense. And as if kids aren’t going to learn something about Arabic cultures through the news. Newsflash: we’ve been at war with two Arabic countries for the past decade, roughly the entire lifespan of your average fourth grader so I think they may already have gleaned a thing or two about those peoples. (And depending on which news source you frequent, it might not be the most accurate things, either.)

But do they know that Iranians aren’t Arabs, they’re Persians? Or that Iraq has inner turmoil between warring factions of two different sects of Islam – Sunnis and Shiites – as well as Kurds? Or that there are even small groups of Christians in the mix in both countries, too? Does teaching them that terrorists only compromise a minute fraction of a percentage of the overall Muslim population of the world endanger them in some way?

Cindy Henderson, the mother of a fifth-grader in that district, said:

“We don’t want to discriminate against the entire Middle East, but [9-11] is hard to forget. They said they aren’t going to teach religion, but I don’t see how you can teach that culture without going into their beliefs.”

It’s just plain old bigotry and ignorance wrapped up to look like a genuine concern for safety. Should we not teach them about Ancient Greece because it’s impossible to teach about their society without talking about their religion? No more learning about the Parthenon, kids, since it was built as a temple to the goddess Athena.

The other decoy issue to distract everyone from the real reason of prejudice against Arabs is that somehow it’s unacceptable that these Arabic classes were going to be mandatory. It’s not even clear that this was even the case. Per the Mansfield school district’s website, there’s nothing mandatory:

There are no “mandatory Arabic classes” as being falsely reported in the media.

Their emphasis.

But, Cindy Henderson seemed to think otherwise:

“I don’t think we should spend all our time on one culture,” she said. “I think we should spread it around and be fair. I don’t like it being stuffed down our throats.”

I mean, if that’s the case then everything from algebra to the alphabet is “stuffed down our throats.” But, it does bring into question of whether foreign cultures are worthy of being mandatory classes in our K-12 curriculum. I, for one, think that yes, absolutely they should. I also think that there should be options.

When I was in middle and high schools, we had to take language courses, with the options of Spanish, French, or German – and then a couple semesters were offered of Japanese. Considering we’re going to be intertwined with the Arabic world most likely for the rest of our lifetimes, providing the opportunity for students to get a start of their culture and language in secondary education can hopefully only help our diplomatic endeavors in the future, perhaps leading to less military intervention. Sure, that’s ridiculously idealistic and I know that we aren’t going to be changing the minds of any extremists any time soon; but, that’s not the goal. The goal is to shift our own culture away from bigotry, away from xenophobia, and away from reducing vast groups of different cultures into the lowest common denominator of terrorism.

Simply not teaching children about an entire region of the world, especially one in which our country is already so involved and full of such stereotypes and false beliefs, will not protect them or us from the dangers of the world. We don’t rid the world of ignorance and negativity through burying our heads in the sand; we do it by collectively raising all of our awareness, so that we don’t base our decisions on fear and prejudice.

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You Be the Judge: Two Online Video Foursquare Parodies Too Similar?

02.09.11

With the ability to cheaply and quickly create your own videos and post them online for all to see, the chance of two people tackling the same subject matter in a similar way at the same time with no knowledge of the other is most likely quite high. Still, it’s not hard to do a quick YouTube or Google search for what you’re looking to make to see what else is out there that people have already done.

Usually, it’s already been done but it’s either terrible or ripe for more riffs – meaning you can offer a fresh angle on it that allows both versions to live out there in the world fair and square.

Other times, though, there’s just plain old plagiarism; and determining which is just a similar riff on the same topic or creative theft can be difficult.

So, here’s your chance to take a look at some evidence and help decide whether CollegeHumor’s Original comic sketch “Foursquare for Sex” is merely similar to ThesePeople’s comic sketch “Whoresquare” or if it’s too close to be just a coincidence.

Exhibit A

CollegeHumor is an entertainment website that has provides both in-house and user-generated content. In their FAQ, they answer the question asking about what happens when an average user uploads content:

The key phrase to note: “[o]ur editors go through all of the submitted content…”

Exhibit B

The time that each video appeared on the site for the very first time should be looked at. Were the two videos uploaded roughly around the same time, it could mean something different than if one had already been online for some time.

ThesePeople’s “Whoresquare” timestamp:

CollegeHumor’s “Foursquare for Sex” timestamp:

Exhibit C

The videos themselves:

ThesePeople’s “Whoresquare”

Please visit CollegeHumor’s “Foursquare for Sex” to view their video as their embedding feature is not working on this WordPress site.

Conclusion

Based on the evidence, we can deduce that:

  1. ThesePeople’s “Whoresquare” video preceded CollegeHumor’s “Foursquare for Sex” video by nearly seven months, thus being the first of the two to hit the web.
  2. “Whoresquare” was also uploaded and accepted onto the site by the CollegeHumor team
  3. CollegeHumor states in their FAQ that they watch all content.
  4. CollegeHumor’s editors watched “Whoresquare” prior to “Foursquare for Sex” being added to the site.

We – myself and Matt Cassatta, who together made that ThesePeople video – brought all of this to the attention of CollegeHumor in an email. The gist of their response:

We want to assure you that CollegeHumor’s video was not copied from your video and that any similarities are mere coincidence and nothing more. CollegeHumor takes intellectual property very seriously and we would never take someone’s work and copy it for purposes of creating our own video. The writer of our video has not seen your video, either on CollegeHumor or YouTube or anywhere else. As you point out, the Foursquare app is ripe for parody, especially in a sexual manner, and any such parody would likely have bits about “checking in”, “tips” and “becoming Mayor” as those are well known parts of Foursquare. We don’t, though, find the videos as a whole substantially similar.

Having now watched your video, we appreciate it and enjoy it.

My emphasis.

Their stance is not only that the writer never saw our video, but that they’re not even similar. That last line even implies that the entire group at CollegeHumor only now saw the video, which seems to run contrary to what they advertise in their FAQ.

The only thing we asked for in our email to them was recognition of our video. Not an apology, not a retraction of their content, just merely an acknowledgment that, indeed, we had gotten there first.

But perhaps we are wrong. Perhaps it’s all mere coincidence. Perhaps it’s just one of those things.

What do you think?

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Pharmacists Allowed to Deny Drugs to Patients Based Solely on Personal Beliefs

02.01.11

In Idaho, the pharmacy can simply choose to not fill your medicine even if you have a valid prescription from your doctor.

It’s called the conscience clause, meaning that if you go to a Walgreen’s with an Rx for Methergine – a medicine used to prevent or stop the bleeding in the uterus after childbirth or an abortion – that pharmacist is not required by law to fill the prescription.

This is exactly what happened to a Planned Parenthood nurse in Nampa, Idaho, who took it to the Board of Idaho Pharmacy and found that the pharmacy did nothing wrong:

But according to the Board of Pharmacy’s response, the Idaho Pharmacy Act does not require a pharmacist to fill a prescription. Even if the conscience law was used incorrectly, the pharmacist did not violate the Idaho Pharmacy Act by refusing to fill the prescription, the board found.

My emphasis. I’m sure there is a good reason to have that clause in the books. For example, if a patient has multiple doctors for many different ailments and they all prescribe drugs that, combined, could cause significant harm to the patient, the pharmacy should have the power to not fill prescription. But, in that sense, it’s for the sake of aiding the patient, preventing harm to them, not fulfilling some judgmental opinion on behalf of the pharmacist.

Quite the contrary. If the woman for whom the Methergine was prescribed needed the drug desperately to prevent massive bleeding, this ability to deny prescriptions to people would be doing the exact opposite: putting someone’s life into danger. Also, since the medicine is also used for situations of childbirth, it’s not certain that it was being used on a woman who had even had an abortion. How would that affect someone’s conscience knowing that they denied needed medicine to a woman who just gave birth?

It turns out that this particular pharmacist asked the nurse if the drug was being used for post-abortion care, to which the nurse denied a response since it would violate the patient’s privacy rights.

According to the Board of Pharmacy’s response, Planned Parenthood alleged the pharmacist’s inquiry violated privacy provisions of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which the board is not entitled to enforce. Under the Idaho Pharmacy Act, releasing such information would be a violation, but requesting it is not, the response states.

The danger in this type of questioning is that even though the nurse is bound by law to not respond, her denial could be interpreted by the pharmacist as a “no comment” type answer, essentially known as a “yes, but I don’t have to tell you so I’m not going to” response. Leading someone perhaps into feeling guilty about being a part of something they don’t want to be even if it’s not the case. Even now in this article, it’s never revealed why the woman needed the drug.

In response to Planned Parenthood’s assertion that denying the prescription could have placed the patient in grave danger, the board said no such danger was realized because the medicine was obtained elsewhere.

Well, that sure is easy to say now in hindsight since the woman apparently did get the drug. But, what happens when all of the pharmacies in the area cite the Conscience Clause, denying the medicine being filled, and the woman hemorrhages and dies? Would the board have found that last point differently?

Also, how is that even allowed to be a defense when there’s no way that pharmacist can know for certain that the patient would be able to obtain the medicine elsewhere in a timely manner enough to avoid any further complications? The only way to know if the patient would’ve been placed in grave danger would be after the pharmacist had already denied the prescription.

I find the whole conscience clause in general rather revolting. The notion that someone whose chosen profession it is to fill prescriptions can decide for themselves whether or not to then fill those legitimately ordered scripts based on their own personal beliefs infuriates me.  And why is this only limited to feelings about abortions and end-of-life care?

Why not about criminals? Or drug addicts?

Both are living lifestyles that some – or many, even – find wrong, immoral, unacceptable. What if a prescription came in for Methadone and the pharmacist refused to fill it because they didn’t think that it was right to give drugs to a drug addict even if it was to help them get off drugs? Or how about this: a gunman gets shot while in a gang fight and, while it’s not life-threatening at the moment, needs a blood-clotting agent to help his situation, but the pharmacist doesn’t agree with gang violence and doesn’t want to be part of helping a known criminal so denies the prescription. Why is that not allowed? Why would that be ridiculous? How is it so different?

Filling a prescription no more endorses the behavior associated with the treatment for whatever ailment necessitates that medicine than working at the local Walgreens endorses the behavior associated with whatever movie people decide to rent from the Redbox out front. When I go to rent a movie, I might want a recommendation from the guy behind the counter, but I surely don’t want to be judged for what I choose to watch by some stranger who thinks they’re so high and mighty when it’s perfectly legal for me to rent that R-rated flick no matter how trashy it looks.

Unless I’m breaking the law: just do your job, know that you had no part in my life choices, and let me do what I have my right to do.

Photo courtesy of Curtis Gregory Perry’s Flickr Photostream.

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