Justice in Venezuela

Anti-government protests and counter-protests in Venezuela – which have resulted in the arrest of the country’s most prominent opposition leader, for “formenting unrest”  - resulted in the deaths of three protesters last week. Not surprisingly, each side blamed the other for inciting the violence:

Amid swirling rumors of an impending crackdown on dissent, Venezuela’s two political camps traded blame for violent clashes Wednesday that began when a group of pro-Maduro vigilantes roared up on motorcycles and fired guns at a small crowd of demonstrators who had been sparring with police.

[...]

Lopez’s allies blamed the blamed the violence on the government. They charged that security forces acting on the president’s orders stood by while pro-government militia members attacked the small group of student protesters, who lingered downtown after thousands of other Maduro opponents went home after a demonstration.

The pro-government demonstrator killed has been identified as Juan “Juancho” Montoyo – not to be confused with Juan Montoya – who led a Chavista mob that “patrols” the streets of the January 23 neighborhood in Caracas.  In turns out he was interviewed by Al-Jazeera (that notoriously radical right-wing, pro-American TV network) last year, and he had some interesting things to say about peaceful resolution of political disputes:

As insecurity continues to plague Venezuela, collectives such as Juancho’s Tupamaros are set to play an increasingly important role in defending the “Bolivarian Revolution” inspired by former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

“Violence is a tool,” Juancho, a leading figure in the Marxist group, told Al Jazeera in an April interview following a Tupamaro meeting in Caracas. “It’s going to be seen as something good or bad depending on your interests.”

With fierce, yet strangely kind eyes, Juancho discusses acts of harsh political violence with a calm, almost soothing matter-of-fact demeanour.

“If the opposition had won the last election by a small margin, we wouldn’t accept that,” he said of the campaign led by Henrique Capriles against now-President Nicolas Maduro. “If the opposition wanted to set up an office here in January 23, that would be impossible,” he said, as members of his group would use force to stop them.

[...]

The goal of the Tupamaros is no longer a full blown insurgency in the short-term, Juancho said, but a strategic alliance with the government. They represent Maduro’s left flank, as the government looks to keep its core support base, while trying to find new allies - even reaching out to its sworn enemy, Uncle Sam, during a recent Organisation of American States summit.

Increasingly tight elections show that crime, corruption and inflation are alienating the government’s initial middle class supporters and even some of the poor.

To continue winning elections, most observers believe Venezuela’s government needs new foreign investment and tighter monetary policy to combat inflation.

Those policy goals clash with the Tupamaros’ ideological agenda, but in the near term the government is likely to continue relying on them, former security officials said, as it needs the grassroots political muscle.

As men with pistols bulging from beneath their jeans watch Juancho talk, he gives a clear message about deepening the Bolivarian revolution with further and faster nationalisations of private property.

He saves particular scorn for the “red bureaucrats” - officials close to the Socialist Party - who have become wealthy from high oil prices and government largesse during the Chavez years.

“I hope they are enjoying drinking their Scotch now,” he said with a wry smile. “As we get closer to a true revolution, their time will come.”

Stephen Harper can’t blow his nose without being accused of turning Canada into a fascist dictatorship.  And yet, the same people who scream the most about the Canadian government are downright enthusiastic about what’s happening in Venezuela.

Interesting, that.

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Explaining the Dunn non-verdict

One day in November 2012, a white man named Michael David Dunn got into an argument with four black teenagers over the loud music they were playing.  Dunn says one of the youths threatened him with a gun, and in response he grabbed his own weapon and fired in self-defence – killing one of the boys.  He then continued to fire at their vehicle as they drove away.  Police later found no weapon in the boys’ possession.

Dunn was charged with one count of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder.  Last night, after a lengthy period of deliberation, a jury found him guilty of attempted murder but could not reach a verdict on the murder charge, resulting in a mistrial.

Jurors deadlocked on whether Michael David Dunn, 47, murdered 17-year-old Jordan Davis or shot him in self-defense. Judge Russell Healey declared a mistrial on the murder charge.

Jurors did convict Dunn of the second-degree attempted murders of Tevin Thompson, Leland Brunson and Tommie Stornes, and also convicted him of a fourth count of firing bullets into the vehicle all four teenagers were in.

[...]

Dunn was arrested in November 2012 the day after he fired 10 shots into the vehicle Davis was in with three friends. Davis died at the scene while the other three teenagers were not hurt.

According to police and court documents, Davis and Dunn argued over the loud music in the boys’ Dodge Durango. Dunn had pulled his Volkswagen Jetta into a Gate gas station next to the Durango while his fiancée, Rhonda Rouer, went into the convenience store to purchase a bottle of wine and some chips.

Dunn asked the teenagers to turn down their thumping rap music. Thompson, who was in the front seat of the Durango, complied.

But Davis cursed and told Thompson to turn the music back up.

An argument ensued, and Dunn testified Davis threatened to kill him and had a shotgun. He said Davis was getting out of the car to kill him when he defended himself with his own gun from his glove compartment.

The other teens in the SUV and several witnesses in the parking lot said Davis never got out and didn’t have a gun. They said Davis cursed at Dunn but never threatened him.

One witness in the parking lot said Dunn screamed, “You can’t talk to me like that” before pulling out his gun and firing it at the Durango. Dunn testified he said, “You’re not going to kill me.”

After Dunn opened fire, Tommie Stornes backed the Durango up and fled into a connected plaza parking lot to get away. Dunn continued to fire, hitting the back of the Durango with three shots.

After about three minutes and realizing Davis had been shot, the teenagers returned to the Gate and 911 was called.

Attorneys for Dunn argued that the weapon Dunn said he saw could have been disposed of by the friends while in the adjacent parking lot. Police did not search the plaza parking lot that night. Prosecutors said police didn’t know to search it because Dunn fled the scene and didn’t tell his story to police until the next day when he was arrested.

Prosecutors have already announced that Dunn will be re-tried for murder, and he will almost certainly spend the rest of his life in prison on the lesser charges.  But it seems to defy logic: how could he be convicted for the attempted murder of the boys he missed, but not for the murder of the one he killed?

Hopefully, we’ll soon find out how the jury voted and why they deadlocked.  Because of questions put to the judge by the jury, it’s assumed at least one juror accepted the self-defence claim for the murder – but it’s possible that they disagreed over the distinction between manslaughter and murder (the former requires intent to harm, the latter intent to kill) or between first-degree and second-degree murder (the former requires premeditation, the latter does not).

More importantly, I understand that the distinction between the charges arises from the first volley of shots fired by Mr. Dunn, when the SUV was parked, and those he fired after the vehicle drove away.

In order to claim self-defence, Dunn had to argue that he feared for his life, and that he felt his actions were necessary to defend himself.  Although no weapon was found in the boys’ possession (or at the scene, which was not searched until several days later) it’s theoretically possible that Dunn legitimately believed Jordan Davis did have one, and that he was about to shoot.

By contrast, when the boys drove away, Dunn kept firing.  By that point, the claim of self-defence was no longer feasible – they were leaving the scene and could not be considered a threat.  Hence, his conviction on the other charges.

We still don’t know how the jury (which consisted of eight white people, two African-Americans, one Hispanic and one Asian) broke down, either.  If the whole jury accepted the self-defence claim, Dunn would have been acquitted.  But if just one juror accepted self-defence to this charge and would not be moved, that’s all you need for a hung jury.

There was, of course, a racial aspect to the Dunn trial – just like the George Zimmerman trial from 2013, a white Florida man was on trial for shooting an unarmed black teenager.  Even the prosecutor, Angela Corey, was the same.  I’m under no illusions about the gross racial disparities in the American and Floridian justice systems – see the case of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing a warning shot at her estranged husband, after a jury deliberated for only 12 minutes.  (The conviction was later overturned on appeal, and Alexander is free on bail pending her new trial in March.)

But from a legal point of view, it’s possible to make a distinction between the shots that killed Jordan Davis and those that didn’t kill his friends, and Dunn’s mindset at the time each was fired. Hopefully, his retrial for murder will leave no questions unanswered.

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Coincidence?

1989:

2014: “Sinkhole at National Corvette Museum Swallows Eight Historic Vettes”

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What’s wrong with anti-bullying laws? A lot, actually

While politicians across Canada fall over themselves to hastily pass “anti-bullying” legislation, one Alberta MLA is bucking the trend:

If a Calgary Conservative MLA has her way, Alberta will not be enacting any more laws to combat bullying even though she knows many desperate parents want exactly that.

Sandra Jansen, an associate minister tasked with investigating what the provincial government should do to combat bullying in schools, public places and cyberspace believes more legislation won’t deter bullies or help their victims.

She prefers an approach that treats bullying as a “mental health issue” for both the bully and the victim. Education programs, intervention and treatment are far more effective than simply punishing offenders, Jansen recently told a Calgary audience.

Alberta’s Education Act already has some of the toughest anti-bullying provisions in the country and was among the first to address bullying in schools. But Jansen doesn’t want to go any further with anti-bullying laws such as those recently adopted in Nova Scotia and by municipalities in Alberta and across the country.

She recalled a case in a Calgary school that involved a grade school student who was extremely disruptive and menacing. When the school’s police resource officer and social workers began investigating they discovered a home with a younger child who exhibited the same behaviour and a mother who could barely get out of bed because of severe depression.

And there was no food in the house.

The mother received help for her depression and the children, who remained at home, were provided with counselling and other social supports.

“Those boys are now doing really well in school and playing hockey,” Jansen said. “Punishment would not have solved anything.”

Read it all.  Nova Scotia’s anti-bullying laws, the toughest in the country, have already been deployed against a teenager accused of “cyberbullying” a member of the legislature.

Via Chris Selley on Twitter.

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Escape from East Germany

Via Reddit, an extraordinary video taken not long before the Berlin Wall came down (and more evidence, as if any were needed, that the Wall was meant to keep people in, not out).

A Redditor responds: “I grew up in Slovakia, just on the border with Austria (I can see Austria from my window). At that time it was the Iron Curtain, the most protected border in the country, with all-day armed patrols. Just getting close to the border could get you in serious troubles. Getting a permit to visit Austria was insanely hard…Some 30 years later I’m able to do my day-to-day shoping in Austria, crossing the border without any kind check, without any kind of passport, using the same currency….Blows my mind every time.”

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Blu-Ray review: The Jungle Book – Diamond Edition

[Originally posted to Blogcritics.org]

Released ten months after his death, The Jungle Book was the last feature-length animated film produced under the tutelage of Walt Disney. I suspect he was more than satisfied with the result. Finally available on Blu-ray February 11The Jungle Book doesn’t quite rank with Disney’s greatest masterpieces, but it’s still tremendously entertaining.

jungle book

Loosely based on Rudyard Kipling’s stories, The Jungle Book begins with Bagheera the panther finding a little “man-cub,” Mowgli, in the wreckage of a boating accident. He leaves the little guy with a family of wolves, who raise him as one of their own for ten years. By then, Mowgli feels at home amongst his animal friends, but trouble is brewing: the fierce tiger Shere Khan is back in the neighborhood, and the panthers decide that Bagheera must accompany his friend back to the “man-village.”

Mowgli has no interest in returning “where he belongs,” and resists at every turn, taking up with bumbling Baloo the Bear and King Louie of the apes. Bagheera tries to keep him on the path to his fellow humans, while fending off the devious python Kaa, who thinks Mowgli would make a tasty brunch.

Do I even have to tell you that Shere Khan eventually shows up, and is beaten – with the help of four decidedly Beatlesque vultures – in the nick of time? And that Mowgli finally warms to the idea of joining the man-village when he spies a lovely girl-cub gathering water?

At only 78 minutes in length, The Jungle Book’s plot is pretty thin, and the characters aren’t as well developed as those in other Disney features. Shere Khan, in particular, has it out for humans because…well, he just does, okay? The tiger was the obvious predecessor to Scar in The Lion King– Jeremy Irons undoubtedly found inspiration from George Sanders’ sinister vocal performance – but the latter is a much more fully fleshed out character.

That’s the kind of thing that separates a really, really good Disney film, like The Jungle Book, from one of the best, like The Lion King. Still, the movie looks absolutely breathtaking. The lush Indian jungle was rendered completely by hand, giving The Jungle Book a warmth rarely seen in today’s computer-aided (or fully CGI) animated features.

The musical numbers are the best thing about The Jungle Book. The Oscar-nominated “Bare Necessities” is a classic, but my favorite was “I Wanna Be Like You,” sung by the legendary Louis Prima as King Louie. The cleverly animated “Trust in Me” sequence, in which the devious Kaa lulls Mowgli into a trance, is also a standout. The python stretching and contorting himself to keep Mowgli sleepwalking brings to mind the famed Looney Tunes short “Homeless Hare,” in which a dazed Bugs Bunny navigates a skyscraper under construction.

This “Diamond Edition” release includes the Blu-ray of the movie, the DVD version, and a digital download. The Blu-ray looks sensational; in many scenes, you can even make out the strokes of the animators’ pens, but the DTS-HD High Res Audio is mixed in a way that makes the characters’ dialogue difficult to hear in some scenes. Disney didn’t skimp on the special features, though: making-of documentaries, deleted scenes, a storyboarded alternate ending, audio commentary from animators who were inspired to get into the business because of this film, subtitled “karaoke” versions of the songs, and a featurette plugging Disney’s Animal Kingdom park in Florida.

The Jungle Book may not quite make it into the top tier of Disney’s animated canon, but even a “second-tier” Disney release still makes for essential viewing.

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Blu-Ray review: At Long Last Love – Director’s Definitive Edition

[Originally posted to Blogcritics.org]

Before At Long Last Love, director Peter Bogdanovich was the man who could do no wrong. AfterAt Long Last Love, he became the man who could do no right. Well, that’s not completely accurate; Bogdanovich, who directed the classics The Last Picture Show, What’s Up, Doc?, and Paper Moon in quick succession, suffered a flop with Daisy Miller in 1974. But it was At Long Last Love, his ambitious attempt to make a musical with stars singing Cole Porter songs live on camera instead of lip-syncing, that torpedoed his career.

Critics (who had been looking for a reason to take Bogdanovich and his leading lady/girlfriend Cybill Shepherd down a peg) savaged the film so badly, you’d think he had directed the Dnepropetrovsk maniacs video. The director himself apologized for it after its release, complaining that 20th Century Fox had recut the film against his wishes, but his career – and his personal life – went into a tailspin: two bankruptcies, the end of his relationship with Shepherd, the murder of his subsequent girlfriend Dorothy Stratten (and later marriage to, and divorce from, her sister), and except for 1985′s Mask, a strong of box-office and critical failures.

The new millennium has been kinder to Bogdanovich, however; he won raves for his performance on The Sopranos, and his cachet as a film historian had risen to the point that he provided a commentary track for the Citizen Kane Blu-Ray release. Even some of his “flops,” like Noises Off!and They All Laughed, have gained cult followings and critical reappraisal.

So it was inevitable that a “Director’s Definitive Edition” of At Long Last Love, long unavailable in any home video format, would make its way to Blu-Ray. And you know what? It’s not bad. In fact, it’s quite entertaining.

At Long Last Love features a Depression-era love quadrangle between broke heiress Shepherd, playboy Burt Reynolds, Broadway diva Madeline Kahn, and Italian gambler Johnny Spanish (of course) played by Duilio Del Prete in a rare English-language role. Kahn breaks up with Del Prete and hooks up with Reynolds, Shepherd meets Del Prete but then winds up with Reynolds, Kahn and Del Prete get back together while trying to get back Reynolds and Shepherd, et cetera. There’s also Shepherd’s acerbic wingwoman (Eileen Brennan) and her pursuit of Reynolds’ long-suffering chauffeur (the hilarious John Hillerman, who would go on to play Higgins on Magnum, P.I.).

It’s not much of a plot, but it’s all you need for a series of musical numbers, featuring the characters singing the incomparable songs of Cole Porter. The sorely missed Madeline Kahn is wonderful, of course, but even Shepherd – who really bore the brunt of critics’ anger when At Long Last Love was released – acquits herself pretty well. Reynolds can barely carry a tune, alas, but he has enough natural charm to get past his limitations as a singer.

Because the actors were singing live, the musical numbers are shot in lengthy, unbroken takes that must have taken many, many tries to get right. At one point, Shepherd and Reynolds sing while swimming, and early in the film there’s a particularly striking shot where Reynolds performs while standing on the running board of his moving limousine. (I said to myself, “that’s obviously in front of a blue screen” until the camera panned back and showed the car really moving.)

At Long Last Love isn’t close to a perfect film – it’s a bit too long, and while the actors deserve points for singing live, as a result some of the musical numbers aren’t as elaborate as they could have been. (Shepherd and even Reynolds were better singers than dancers, it turned out.) But it’s a gorgeous looking film, thanks to some stunning sets and costumes and the great Laszlo Kovacs’ cinematography, and it certainly doesn’t deserve the scorn heaped upon it in the mid-seventies. As of this writing At Long Last Love has only a 4.8/10 rating on IMDb.com, but as more people discover Bogdanovich’s brave musical experiment, that should get better with time.

The lushly orchestrated musical numbers sound wonderful in DTS 2.0 sound, but the picture – especially the darker colors – looks somewhat grainy. Unfortunately, except for the original theatrical trailer, there are no special features on this disc. Too bad there’s no retrospective documentary or commentary from Bogdanovich, because even though the movie is better than its reputation, the story of how its making and its very public rejection would be more interesting still.

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