Blu-Ray review: “Snake and Mongoose”

[originally posted to Blogcritics]

In the late 1960s, a new era of motorsport began on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, the Lotus Formula One team turned its cars into rolling billboards for Gold Leaf tobacco, while in America, Mattel made a deal with drag racers Don “The Snake” Prudhomme and Tom “The Mongoose” MacEwen to promote a new line of toy cars called Hot Wheels.

Today, racing cars at almost every level are covered with advertisers’ logos – and the drivers stay in luxury hotels instead of cheap motels, and never have to worry about race promoters stiffing them for a hundred bucks. And thanks mainly to Prudhomme and MacEwen, drag racing became a pretty big deal – not F1 or NASCAR big, of course — but popular enough for huge corporate sponsors and worldwide television deals.snake and mongoose

Snake and Mongoose tells the story of how these legendary racers became friends and business partners off the track, and dedicated rivals on it. Sadly, while the film is actually produced by the National Hot Rod Association, it probably could have used more corporate sponsorship. The filmmakers had only a limited budget, and it shows in almost every scene.

“Snake” was already one of the top drag racers in southern California when MacEwen adopted the nickname “Mongoose,” directly in response, complete with a cartoon mascot. That set the tone for their respective careers: Prudhomme would go on to become the most successful drag racer in history, while MacEwen – himself a formidable opponent on the track, and often the only man who could mount a serious challenge to Prudhomme – was a genius at marketing and promotion. The deal with Mattel was his idea, and many young boys were thrilled to find Hot Wheels Snake & Mongoose racing sets under the Christmas tree.

Mattel (represented here by a slick executive played by ER’s Noah Wyle, probably the most recognizable actor in the film) ultimately decided to move on, however, and the Prudhomme/MacEwen partnership broke up in the early ’70s. But they eventually patched things up and maintained a friendly but fierce rivalry, culminating with their legendary race at the 1978 U.S. Nationals – just days after MacEwen’s young son passed away from leukemia.

Leads Jesse Williams and Richard Blake have the charisma to play these larger-than-life characters, but they’re stuck with some truly leaden dialogue. Director Wayne Holloway uses actual drag racing footage from the period, and strangely enough, that’s the best and worst thing about the movie. There’s no effort to make the newly filmed scenes blend seamlessly with the old movies, and the constant cutting back and forth is jarring.

The movie is filled with distracting anachronisms – music, fashions and corporate logos much newer than the time period in which the scenes are set – as well. Worst of all, much the movie was obviously filmed in just one location, meant to represent drag strips all over the country. Footage of one brutal crash is immediately followed by a scene meant to show the immediate aftermath, but filmed in an area that physically looks nothing like the track where the crash occurred, with only a handful of extras instead of the massive crowd that attended the real race.

Dedicated race fans should enjoy Snake and Mongoose and its portrayal of late-sixties car culture, but the film’s deficiencies may unfortunately keep it finding a wider audience. This is a great story that deserves a better movie.

Technical notes: these engines and screeching tires sound fantastic, but the video is somewhat grainy, and some of the old racing film looks incomprehensible when formatted for a modern TV. Special features are sparse: a behind-the-scenes feature, and that’s about it.

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TV Review – “Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine”

[Originally posted at Blogcritics]

The new president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, has started some promising steps toward reform, but for that country’s religious leadership, old habits die hard. The “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently tweeted this:

Khamenei might be uncertain, but history is not, even as research about the Holocaust continues. Forensic archaeologist Dr.Caroline Sturdy Colls, for one, received permission to dig at the site of Treblinka, one of the Nazis’ mass-murder factories on Polish soil. This expedition, and the dark history of Treblinka, are the subjects of Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine, premiering this weekend on the Smithsonian Channel.

Active from 1942 to 1943, Treblinka was an important site for putting Hitler’s industrialized genocide – millions of people being murdered in for the crime of being Jewish or otherwise undesirable. At first, the Holocaust was carried out with firing squads, but the pace of execution was slow and psychologically difficult even for hardened SS killers.

The solution: large gas chambers, cruelly disguised as bath houses, in which thousands of Jews could be murdered by gas in just 25 minutes. The use of Zyklon-B gas would come later; for now the Nazis used carbon-monoxide from tank engines, which worked so efficiently for their “euthanasia” program.

Even the delusional Nazis knew the end was near by late 1943, and that the noose awaited them once evidence of their crimes was brought to light. So they razed the Treblinka death camp to the ground, frantically destroying and burying as much as possible before the Allies showed up. The camp commandant fled to Brazil, where he lived in peace until Simon Wiesenthal tracked him down in 1970.

That proved the be the Nazis’ final gift to their Holocaust-denying followers, who argue that Treblinka was just a “transit camp” for Jews being deported. (Deported to where, they never tell you.) After their work is done, however, Dr. Colls and her team leave no doubt about what this site was used for.

Despite the Germans’ best efforts, they couldn’t erase all evidence of their crimes, and the archaeologists turn up jewelry, hair combs and false teeth; tiles from the gas-chamber with Stars of David imprinted on them, to fool the condemned prisoners that they were being taken to a Jewish ritual bath house; building foundations, showing that the camp was even larger than previously thought; and even a young child’s jaw bone, a find that leaves Dr. Colls overcome with emotion.

Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine also features disturbing video – some of it in color – from the camp and the doomed Warsaw ghetto, and eyewitness accounts from the few people who were lucky enough to survive. Perhaps the most shocking moment comes when we hear the words of one of the Nazi top brass, who described his own death camp as a literal Hell on Earth. Alas, instead of making his question what he was doing, this convinced him to “streamline” the extermination process.

There have been so many documentaries about the Nazis’ “final solution” that some people speak of “Holocaust fatigue.” Surely, by now, we know everything there is that can possibly be told about Hitler’s genocide, right? Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine shows that we still have much more to learn. You want more “research” into the “alleged” Holocaust, Supreme Leader Khamenei? Well, here it is.

Treblinka: Hitler’s Killing Machine premieres on Saturday, March 29, at 8:00PM Eastern on the Smithsonian Channel.

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Book Review: “New Law, New Rules” by George Beaton

[Originally posted, with a few editorial changes, at Canadian Lawyer]

New Law, New Rules, by its very nature, shows how much the practice of law has changed. It is dubbed “a conversation about the future of the legal services industry,” and while Australian consultant George Beaton is billed as the author, it’s really a collaboration from dozens of lawyers, professors and analysts from around the English-speaking world.

The logistics of putting something like this together even ten years ago would have been daunting. However, Beaton and his collaborators compiled enough material for a book after months of stimulating debates and discussions carried out over their blogs, twitter feeds and other social media platforms.

The result is a rather informative and thought-provoking e-book that should make every lawyer reconsider how they’re running their practices. The past decade-and-a-half has seen many alternatives to the traditional law firm arise – virtual firms, where much of the work is done outside of a central office; firms using fixed fees, as an alternative to the traditional billable hour; even companies like LegalZoom (co-founded by Robert Shapiro, best known for his position on O.J. Simpson’s “dream team”) which prepare forms and some online guidance for people who wish to represent themselves.

Beaton uses the term “NewLaw” to describe these developments, and notes that a “NewLaw” firm – Axiom Law, whose employees work remotely to keep overhead low – is on pace to become the world’s largest law firm by 2018 – even though the company would bristle at the phrase “law firm.”

New Law, New Rules explains how companies like Axiom are much more reliant upon technology than the traditional firm, which may be more likely to balk at the cost. And they’ve thrown out the traditional partnership model, instead relying upon outside investors and shareholders. (In Britain, where new legislation has opened the doors to outside ownership of law firms, commentators have invoked the name of that country’s largest supermarket chain to discuss the rise of “Tesco Law.”)

And yet, if the NewLaw business model was so obviously superior to the way traditional “BigLaw” firms are run, the latter would have been run out of town years ago. But the law firm as we’ve always known it isn’t going away any time soon – in fact, several of the contributors to New Law, New Rules passionately defend the “old-fashioned” model.

The larger firms still continue to attract the top graduates from the most highly regarded law schools, and they still have the resources to navigate the most complex international transactions. And after the Great Recession, they’ve proven to be a safe haven for those who aren’t sure they want to try out a newer, more innovative but less established legal service provider.

Still, there’s no doubt that things have changed more in the past few years than they did in the previous few decades. It’s reflected in my own practice – I do quite a bit of my own legal work from my home office or on the road, and the internet has opened a wealth of affordable (or even free) legal resources that let me access texts, journal articles and case law without having to open a book. It used to be that only the larger firms had the largest law libraries; now, the playing field has been leveled.

At the same time, I’ve been reluctant to adopt other NewLaw practices, such as flat fees. I can estimate how much it may cost to handle a hotly contested divorce from start to finish, but until the matter is well under way, I can’t say how cooperative the other party will be, or whether there will be a dramatic change to the parties’ living arrangements (say, a child decided to leave Mom’s house and move in with Dad).

I intend to be in this business for a long time, so I have to do a lot of thinking about how I’m going to conduct my practice in the years to come. New Law, New Rules, available in electronic formats only, from retailers including Amazon and Smashwords, can be a hard, buzzword-heavy read at times, but it helped me see which way the winds are blowing.

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Blu-Ray review: ‘Homefront’

[originally posted, with a few changes, to Blogcritics]

Jason Statham and James Franco are front and center on the Bluray box for Homefront, but for me, the real attraction was the screenwriter: Academy Award nominee* Sylvester Stallone.

Stallone, it turns out, adapted Chuck Logan’s novel into a screenplay a few years back, with the intention of taking the lead role himself.  But by the time the project came together, he was too old for the part – so he drafted his Expendables co-star, Jason Statham, to take over.

As a former DEA agent (a few INTERPOL cards are seen, which presumably explain why the very British Statham is working in New Orleans) Phil Broker decided to retire after a drug bust that led to a young biker – the gang leader’s son – being shot about 10,000 times.

A widower, he packed up his young daughter (Izabela Vidovic, actually quite good) and relocated to Ray, Louisiana, the kind of small southern town where every home is known as “the old [Blank] property.”

Unfortunately for Broker, his new community has also been hit pretty hard by the meth epidemic, and before long he’s clashing with a perennially angry, unnervingly thin tweaker (Kate Bosworth) whose bully of a son was beaten up by Broker’s daughter on the playground.

After her wimpy husband is quickly put in his place by Statham, she drafts her meth-dealing brother (Franco) into exacting revenge.  The brother is named “Gator Bodine,” which is by far my favorite thing about any movie released in the past year.  Before long Broker’s past has been discovered, and the biker gang is rolling into town for a final showdown.

If you’ve seen one Jason Statham performance, you’ve pretty much seen them all.  That’s good and bad – his charisma and fighting skills more than make up for the fact that you can barely understand any of his dialogue.  (Like The Sweeney, a British action movie I reviewed a few weeks ago, you might want to turn the English subtitles on for this one.)

Fortunately, the supporting cast is mostly very good – especially Franco, who gives his character much more depth than one would expect from a Louisiana meth-cooking villain named “Gator Bodine.”  (When – SPOILER ALERT! – his meth lab gets done blowed up, Gator actually looks hurt more than angry.)  Bosworth and Winona Ryder, as Franco’s girlfriend, are both almost unrecognizable and do pretty well playing against type.

Directed by Gary Fleder (Kiss the Girls) and beautifully shot by Theo van de Sande, Homefront does everything that’s expected of it and not one bit more.  You want Jason Statham kicking ass for 100 minutes, and you get Jason Statham kicking ass for 100 minutes.  It’s the kind of movie you find yourself watching on a Saturday afternoon, enjoying it and then forgetting about it the second it’s over.

On Blu-Ray the Louisiana scenery looks absolutely stunning, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound is great, though still not quite good enough to make you understand what the hell Statham is saying.  There’s also a DVD and an Ultraviolet download, but special features are sparse – just an extremely brief featurette and a few deleted scenes, some of which still feature the green screen behind the actors.

*Rocky, 1976. You were expecting Driven?

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The story of a little prick

The country’s highest court has ruled that if your partner consents to sexual intercourse with protection, and then you tamper with the condom in some way, you are guilty of sexual assault:

The Supreme Court of Canada has dismissed an appeal by a Nova Scotia man who was convicted of sexual assault for poking holes in his girlfriend’s condoms.

The case involved Craig Jaret Hutchinson, who was sentenced to 18 months in jail in December 2011, after he admitted damaging his former girlfriend’s condoms in an attempt to impregnate her so that she would not end their relationship.

While the Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the appeal was unanimous, the seven justices were divided into two camps in their reasons for the decision.

The majority ruled that Hutchinson’s decision to sabotage the condom exposed his girlfriend to an increased risk of pregnancy and constituted fraud.

“We conclude that there was no consent in this case by reason of fraud,” the judges wrote in their decision.

The three other judges wrote that the question in the case was not whether the girlfriend’s consent was “vitiated,” or invalidated, by fraud, but whether the girlfriend had consented to “how” the sex had taken place.

[...]

The court was also clear that merely deceiving a sexual a partner — for example, by lying about one’s marital status – would not be enough to warrant a sex assault conviction.

The justices writing for majority noted that their decision recognizes that not every deception “that induces consent” should be criminalized.

“To establish fraud, the dishonest act must result in a deprivation that is equally serious as the deprivation” in this and similar cases, they wrote.

Full decision here.  The ruling makes sense to me – in this case, while the woman consented to sex, she clearly had not consented to it being carried out in such a potentially harmful manner.  (She became pregnant, chose to terminate the pregnancy and then wound up with a uterine infection.)

The question is, if this were the other way around – if the female partner somehow tampered with the condom, in the hopes of surreptitiously getting pregnant – is there any reason why she wouldn’t be guilty of sexual assault?  What if she said she was unable to have children, or lied about being on birth control?  What if the male partner lied about being sterile?  It will be interesting to see how this case is applied.

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When bad lawyers happen to good people

My favorite legal journal, Cracked, lists “the 5 most blatantly corrupt lawyers in history.”

In 2002, four little girls lost both their parents in a car crash. Attorney John Milton Merritt stepped in and did what any good public servant would do in that situation: He sued the shit out of those responsible for the tragic accident — namely, a “tire manufacturer” and an “auto maker” — secured the girls a settlement that would make Charles Dickens proud, and … then he freaking stole it. Let’s say that one more time: He stole a fortune from four little orphan girls.

On three separate occasions, Merritt went to the bank in which the trust fund was deposited, presented a counterfeit court order directing disbursement to him, and walked out carrying large sacks with dollar signs printed on them. Then he promptly spent the blood money on his firm, presumably on avant-garde coffee mugs made out of human skulls. By 2007, two years after his first “withdrawal,” the account was empty. Merritt, however, told the orphans and their grandmother that there was still “several hundred thousand dollars” left before laughing maniacally and making his merry way to his secret volcano lair for a comfortable retirement spent alternately wringing his hands and stroking an unamused lap cat.

Once you descend that far into stereotypical villainy, though, it’s really hard to stop, as evidenced by the fact that four years later Merritt stole $130,000 from the trust account of another client of his — a boy injured in an automobile accident — because apparently caviar tastes sweeter when it’s purchased with bills soaked in children’s tears. Oh, and in the time between burglarizing the orphaned children and the injured one, he stole an additional $3 million by fraudulently setting up lines of credit, falsifying income-tax returns, and forging another attorney’s name on other settlement checks. All at the same fucking bank. Would a little oversight kill you, Quail Creek Bank?

It’s cool, though, because he said he was totally going to give all the kids’ money back — until the federal investigation into his illicit deeds interrupted his plan. Those bastards!

By the way, that wasn’t number one, even though the lawyer not only stole from orphaned children, but he also had the same name as Al Pacino’s character in Devil’s Advocate.

Still, in the end, karma is going to get you:

Patrick Coulton’s lawyers ripped him off to the tune of $275,000 and left him to rot in prison.

But Coulton is getting payback: He now lives in his former lawyer’s home — a three-bedroom house in Miramar that he will eventually own as part of a court-ordered punishment of the two misbehaving attorneys.

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The case for – and against – Trinity Western law school

The latest issue of Maclean’s has an interesting piece about the controversy surrounding Trinity Western University’s proposed law school, the pledge its students must sign, and how it may to an “American-style” conservative legal movement in Canada:

The controversy around Trinity Western University’s application to create Canada’s first private law school based on Christian foundations has centred on a covenant the school requires of its students. The school, located in Langley, B.C., mandates that its students and faculty pledge to abstain from “sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

While the school does not explicitly exclude gay students, the pledge has sparked accusations of discrimination. The Federation of Law Societies and B.C.’s Ministry of Higher Education has approved accreditation for the school. But provincial law societies, which set the standards for admission to the profession, are under pressure from critics to reject the school’s potential graduates.

Beyond the covenant controversy, however, the application for Canada’s first Christian law school raises another question: What role would a Christian law school play in broader Canadian society in which controversial social issues are often decided in the courts? In the U.S., a new wave of Christian law schools have become more than places to train lawyers—they are players in a growing conservative legal movement that is shaping American law and politics.

[...]

The movement has had an impact on secular education as well. Last year, Stanford University opened the first legal clinic in the U.S. focused on religious liberty issues, helped by large donations from conservative foundations. “The 47 per cent of the people who voted for Mitt Romney deserve a curriculum as well,” Lawrence C. Marshall, the associate dean for clinical legal education told the New York Times at the time. “We ought to be committed to ideological diversity,” he said.

In Canada, by contrast, law schools have been publicly funded and secular. Conservative legal scholars say this has bred homogeneity and conformism in thinking. “I think there is a lack of diversity in the Canadian legal academy and Canadian legal institutions and that manifests itself in all kinds of ways,” says Bradley Miller, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario. Another result has been conservative and Christian students leaving Canada for American institutions. “They go and tend to stay. We don’t tend to get folks back once they’ve made the leap. It’s a big problem,” says Ian Brodie, research director at the school of public policy at the University of Calgary, former executive director of the Conservative Party of Canada, and a former chief of staff to the prime minister.

Canadian expat Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow in constitutional studies at Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington who was involved in the group’s legal challenges to President Barack Obama’s health care reform, agrees. “I see a lot of conservatives and libertarians from Canada here. We joke we are here for ideological exile—or at least we did before the Obama administration,” he says.

He says that the Canadian conservative movement, “could and should develop a network of like-minded students, professors, and thought leaders of various kinds.”

Janet Epp Buckingham, a political science professor at Trinity Western who is a proponent of the law school project, says she has had students leave for U.S. law schools such as Pepperdine University in California, Baylor in Texas, and Indiana’s Notre Dame in search of faith-based legal education and Christian teachings on legal ethics. “I have had quite a few express to me that there is very little room in the current secular law schools for faith and it’s not considered a serious topic for law school or even an appropriate topic for law school,” she said.

(Via Amy Sakalauskas*)  I suspect at least some of the opposition to TWU Law arises from a fear that it may train radical right-wing legal gunslingers who will storm the courts and carry out Stephen Harper’s Hidden AgendaTM to turn Canada into a fascist police state.

The thing is, if Trinity Western is planning to create a distinctly conservative, Christian faculty of law, I actually think that’s an argument in its favor.  In Canada we tend to think our courts and legal system aren’t as nakedly politicized as those of our neighbour to the south, and it’s certainly correct that our system isn’t as nakedly partisan.  It’s not as easy to tell how one of our Supreme Court Justices will rule on a hot-button issue, compared to, say, Scalia or Sotomayor.

That said, anyone who thinks politics (as opposed to partisanship) don’t already play a role in our system is fooling him- or herself.  Show me a Justice – or a lawyer – who approaches a case without some ideological or philosophical assumption about how it should be handled, and I’ll show you a robot.

That extends to law school education in Canada, as well.  At most schools you might have a token right-winger teaching business law, but more likely you’ll have something like the mandatory week-long feminist perspectives seminar I had to attend at UNB.  Not to say there’s anything wrong with having this as part of your curriculum (personally, I found it much more interesting than I had expected), but if a law school will teach its students from that perspective, TWU should be allowed to teach from its own perspective, and prospective students should have a choice.  Let a hundred flowers bloom, as Mao said.  (Mao didn’t actually believe this, but that’s another story.)

So, in an age where a mildly satirical video clip of President Obama can be considered a “microaggression” requiring sensitivity training, I’m all in favor of TWU having a conservative Christian law school – to a point.  Unfortunately, I just can’t get around these words:

In keeping with biblical and TWU ideals, community members voluntarily abstain from the following actions:

[...]

sexual intimacy that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman

This is where the school is running into trouble, particularly here in Nova Scotia.  And while I have no doubt the Trinity Western administration are sincere in their beliefs, the message is inescapable: sex is for married men and women only.  If you’re gay you can come to this school, but only if you don’t actually act gay.  (A pledge that students abstain from premarital sex, full stop, would be less problematic, since that no longer automatically excludes Canadians in same-sex relationships.)

True, no one is being forced to attend TWU.  But we’re at a turning point in the debate over whether religious rights should trump the rights of gays and lesbians – witness Arizona governor Jan Brewer’s recent decision to veto a proposed law that allegedly would have allowed business owners to discriminate against homosexual patrons.  It seems like discrimination against same-sex relationships is quickly going the way of discrimination against interracial relationships – which were, it turns out, once discouraged at other Christian universities, most notably Bob Jones University in South Carolina.

Does that mean Trinity Western’s law school shouldn’t be accredited? To be honest, I’m torn about the issue.   I’m in favor of giving prospective students greater choice of where and how they want to study the law, and I fear setting a precedent that could lead to people with socially conservative views, regardless of where they earned their law degree, being kept out of the profession.  Plus, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled in favor of TWU’s education program, though the court is certainly free to revisit that 2001 ruling.

But until the school ends its requirement that law students sign this pledge, a TWU Law degree will have a big asterisk next to it.

*UPDATE: Sakalauskas responds, “I tweeted the article, but don’t share the concern. I have written about my own, completely separate ones” – as set forth in this National Post piece arguing against accreditation.

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