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Posted by on Jul 10, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Politics | 0 comments

“Chasing the Moon” is a Blast [Review]

 

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Now approaching the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space mission, get ready for a bombardment of well-intended but predictable homages and historical remembrances to humanity’s greatest technical achievement.  However, one documentary towers above the rest.  The latest episodes “American Experience” on PBS take a familiar story you may think you already know and add some unexpectedly compelling twists and turns — making this the best documentary of the year.  In short, watching “Chasing the Moon” is a blast.

 

Chasing the Moon is a three-part television series running this week on PBS stations all over the country.  It’s the latest offering from American Experience, the typically outstanding weekly documentary which has run for 31 straight years (and counting), yet it somehow still manages to stay fresh with every new episode.

This latest series divided chronologically into three parts at two-hours each (six hours, total) might be the most compelling of what’s been an extensive historical canon, which is really saying something given that American Experience has aired 337 episodes, to date.  Rarely have we collectively watched such an authentic, unabridged, behind-the-scenes story told with such a perfect balance of accuracy and entertainment.

So, what else makes this show so good?

Try this — brutal honesty.  Most, if not all previous documentaries on America’s space program treat the subject with jingoistic reverence.  The astronauts are heroes.  The United States beat the Soviet Union in the race to the moon.  Each successive space program — Saturn, Gemini, and Apollo — represented a concoctive triumph of American ingenuity.

Each one of these points is undeniably true.  Yes, the astronauts were heroes.  Yes, the USA did beat the Soviet Union in the space race.  And yes, Apollo 11 was indeed justification for worldwide celebration — the glorious equivalent which had not seen before, nor since.

Chasing the Moon, made by Robert Stone, extends far beyond what’s been a standard fluffy newsreel-driven, school-classroom interpretation of American history, both in terms of which stories are told and how they are portrayed.  It’s far better than a Tom Hanks’ movie.  It’s even better than the wonderful CNN-produced movie on the space program released earlier this year, which I saw and enjoyed.  This series takes that concept, then digs much deeper.

If you think you already know about the space program and the remarkable story of Apollo 11, consider just a few eye-opening, jaw-dropping facts purveyed from the first episode titled, “A Place Beyond the Sky,” which covers the early period of the American space program, roughly years 1957 through 1963:

FACT #1 — Americans landed on the moon (first) because we got the smarter Nazis.  We were lucky.  After World War II and the downfall of Nazi Germany, the East and West divided former-Nazi scientists who had been the first to develop advanced rocket technology.  Ugly pasts were scrubbed.  Old associations were buried.  History was forgotten.  This story isn’t exactly new, of course.  But it’s told in this documentary with refreshing candor that lends to credibility for other controversial aspects of the film.

FACT #2 –— America’s space program had absolutely nothing to do with the pursuit of scientific progress, at least in terms of attracting popular support.  The NASA space program was all about one thing only — winning the Cold War.  Early on, America was losing that crucial battle.  1. The Sputnik satellite in 1957, followed in short order by 2. Laika the Dog’s orbit (the first living creature in space), and 3. Yuri Gagarin’s manned-space mission, 4. the first woman in space, 5. the first multiple manned mission,  and 5. first spacewalk outside the capsule — ALL these Red Scare triumphs scared the hell out of most Americans, who thought the United States was falling behind the Soviets.  This fear (recall the phantom  “missile gap”) probably swung the outcome of the 1960 presidential election, resulting in John F. Kennedy’s election.  The average American wasn’t/isn’t interested in science.  He/she wants to be better than the other guy.

FACT #3 — We forget just how dangerous early space flights were for the astronauts who boarded those rockets.  At least a dozen test-rockets blew up on the launching pad.  Each disaster is shown here on film, in astonishing clarity.  It took someone truly special, with “the right stuff,” to strap himself into a tin can with enough high-octane fuel and explosives underneath the seat to blow up ten city blocks, trusting one’s fate entirely to engineers.  Moreover, let’s also remember the astronauts were civil servants.  They didn’t earn much money.  They were expected to look and act like celebrities, on the salary of a mid-grade military officer, with a growing family.  The financial burdens of being an astronaut are explored here for the first time on film.

FACT #4 — President John F. Kennedy gets most of the credit for the success of the space program and mission to the moon (six years after his death).  But it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who twisted arms of reluctant senators and drove the budgets through Congress.  LBJ got things done.  Kennedy gave great speeches and pontificated his dream of sending a man to the moon.  It was Johnson who actually made it happen, politically speaking.  Unfortunately, our perceptions do not reflect reality.

FACT #5 — The three primary focal points of NASA’s space program were/are in Florida, Alabama, and Texas.  This was not a random occurrence.  The high-tech space sites were not chosen for any geographic advantages.  Each location was nothing more than a political payoff to swing key senators and congressman to vote for the most expensive high-tech program in history.  Furthermore, most of the country (about 60 percent) was AGAINST funding the space program, at least in the early years.  The documentary reveals how the opposition turned into supporters.

FACT #6 — Initially, ten astronauts were picked for the space program.  Make that — ten WHITE, MALE astronauts were chosen for the space program.  Certainly, this lineup was a reflection of the time.  However, in the second phase of the program, Robert F. Kennedy (then, Attorney General) pushed for the inclusion of at least one Black astronaut.  Later, a Black Air Force fighter pilot was chosen — Ed Dwight (not to be confused with counterpart Ed White).  He successfully completed all the grueling astronaut training and passed the tests, along with his colleagues.  However, Dwight was eventually relegated to a remote assignment and never made it into space, largely due to the despicable treatment received from so-called American hero Chuck Yeager, who comes across horribly in this documentary.  The Kennedy Administration, which actually did so little on civil rights, failed to push for Dwight’s inclusion in the program.  Three years later, during the Johnson Administration, Robert H. Lawrence, Jr. became the first to break NASA’s color barrier.

FACT #7 — Here’s a historical fact you’ve likely never heard before.  JFK was uncertain as to whether he could fulfill his 1962 pronouncement at Rice University about putting a man on the moon.  He secretly agreed to a collaborative deal with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev that the two countries would work together on the space mission.  However, JFK was shot and killed before the joint international venture was initiated.  Then a short time later, Khrushchev was ousted from power.  Hence, the demise of these two men derailed what might have been the most unlikely of cooperative efforts.

FACT #8 — Cape Canaveral, Florida (later re-named Cape Kennedy) exploded by 300 percent in population, due entirely to the space program.  New homes had to be built for workers.  That meant a boom, but also higher prices and even some resentment from older natives.  The documentary focuses on how those communities changed with the influx of astronauts, government workers, and tourists.

FACT #9 — Astronauts are unwaveringly portrayed in a positive light, as loyal and faithful men devoted to country and family.  While this is somewhat true, it’s not the whole picture.  Let’s also remember the astronauts were good-looking, age 30-something, strong virile men who were national heroes, who were used to living their lives on the edge.  They were more popular than movie stars.  And, they loved to take chances.  They liked being in the limelight.  High-risk behavior was in their DNA.  It’s why they were chosen.  The documentary touches on NASA having to do some “clean up” on the astronaut’s behavior.  Hey, let’s not kid ourselves.  They were remarkable men, but they were also human.  Bars.  Women.  Work hard.  Play harder.  Bravo to this program for revealing who these men really were, instead of the icons we often associate with their acts of bravery.

FACT #10 — All these incredible events and achievements in outer space took place during a period of revolutionary change, racial upheaval, and intense division within America.  Incredibly, some of the astronauts even confessed they had intense feelings of guilt for being involved the space program while many of their military colleagues in the were fighting in battle, and some were even shot down in Vietnam.  This emotional reaction to being an astronaut and a national hero wasn’t something I’d heard, nor considered before.

FACT #11 — What does a TV network do if the rocket explodes in mid-flight?  Remember, the earliest space missions were highly risky.  No one knew how the public might react to seeing a man die on national television, in an explosion on a rocket.  Television networks and the White House didn’t know if the launch should even be covered live.  What if the space capsule exploded?  Remember, this was 1962.  The viewing public wasn’t used to seeing dangerous, cutting edge, live events broadcast on television.  This is one of many reasons we often see crowds of people crowding around television sets.  It all seems surreal now.  But this was a difficult possibility to ponder, back then.

FACT #12 — Even a bigger problem for CBS, NBC, and ABC — what does a national network show for hours at a time during the coverage?  Relay technology didn’t exist back then.  There were no cameras of the space capsule after a few minutes of taking off.  One executive was interviewed who said, “60 million people were basically watching nothing but live radio broadcast.  There was absolutely nothing to show the public.  We winged it.”

Indeed, America’s space program was “winging it.”  Astronauts.  Engineers.  Politicians.  Television networks.  Everyone was winging it.  No one really had much of a clue what they were doing.  No one had ever done anything like that before.  Everyone looked to the heavens.  Everyone took a shot in the dark.  Thanks to some genius, long hours, trial and error, and even a little luck — it all worked.

This is the remarkable message and story of Chasing the Moon.  It’s an astonishing collection of unearthed footage and facts.  It’s real history.  It’s incredible entertainment.  It’s must-see television.

Lest you think this review has been a spoiler — these highlights are my recollections just from Part 1.  There’s so much more to learn and enjoy in Parts 2 and 3.  Trust me.  Seek out this remarkable program and watch.  Please — aim high.  Chase the moon.  This is what great filmmaking and storytelling are all about.

Here’s a short preview:

 

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Posted by on Feb 24, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Movie Reviews, Video 1 | 2 comments

Lights, Camera, Action! Our 2019 Academy Award Predictions [Video]

 

 

Some time ago, I ran into one of the smartest and most successful sports handicappers in Las Vegas at a party.  His moniker is, to no surprise, “Las Vegas Cris.”

Let’s call him “LVC” for short.

I discovered that LVC loves movies.  He goes to see at least a couple of films each and every week.  LVC purchased one of those monthly passes where you can practically see as many films as you like for roughly the price of what two tickets would regularly cost (around $24).  So, he goes to the movies and ends up seeing lots of very good films, and also comes across some real clunkers.

LVC and I share a lifelong love of movies.  We thought it would be a fun project to film a video and discussion of our picks for the best and worst in movies over the past year, along with our Oscar picks.  We planned on shooting a one-hour pilot, but got wound up and went kinda’ long.  Let’s call this the lengthier “Director’s Cut.”

If you want to skip the fluff and go straight to the Oscar picks, fast forward to the 26-minute mark.  Also, the last 20 minutes or so is pretty good where we hand out our worst movie awards.

Special thanks to Andrew Geber for the production and Jack Gramley for supplying some of the technical equipment.

Note that I’ll probably shift to a podcast format shortly and invite several guests on to discuss a variety of topics.

Thanks for LVC for some great insight.

“Couch Potato Critics” sounds about right……

 

 

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Posted by on Feb 17, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Politics, What's Left | 0 comments

Prosecute Jussie Smollett to the Fullest Extent of the Law

 

 

Why is there any sympathy for Jussie Smollett?

The television star’s incendiary allegations that he’d been the victim of an ugly racial attack imploded yesterday.  His story fell apart.  It was apparently, all an act.

Smollett had claimed he was assaulted on a downtown Chicago street by pro-Trump racists wearing red MAGA hats while walking late at night.  His allegations sounded implausible from the start.  That’s the reason so many of us sympathetic to the victims of hate crimes took a “wait and see” approach to the alleged incident.  Not that racially-motivated and homophobic attacks like the one described by the TV actor don’t happen in America.  Yes, they do.  It’s just that so many pieces of Smollett’s case didn’t seem to add up.

Admittedly, I’d never heard of Jussie Smollett until this controversy.  He’s the co-star of a popular hit television show, Empire.  Based on a persistent and often feisty social media presence, Smollett, who is a gay Black man, has been described as an outspoken activist.

Investigators now believe the attack on Smollett was a fabrication.  It was staged.  If this proves to be true, he’s about to become the new Tawana Brawley.  Recall, she’s the despicable young girl who accused multiple police officers of a brutal gang rape thirty years ago, sparking national outrage.  Eventually, a thorough investigation found that she made the whole thing up.

Although there are clear parallels in the two cases, there are also significant differences.  Brawley was a poor Black girl with little education.  Not that she deserved any slack but let’s also remember:  Brawley was a minor, just 15 when she claimed she’d been raped by four men.  At least there were grounds for understanding what happened in the Brawley case.  The girl lived in an abusive household, feared severe punishment for staying out late one night, and made up her story as an excuse.

Smollett has no excuses for fabricating his criminal conspiracy.  He’s a relatively affluent, seemingly intelligent man, with a highly-successful career and — until this moment — a very bright future.  Inventing such a far-fetched story makes absolutely no sense, nor has any justification whatsoever.

Accordingly, Jussie Smollett should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

The Chicago Police Department spent a countless number of hours on this case which began three weeks ago.  Law enforcement dedicated considerable manpower to their investigation.  Dozens of people were interviewed.  Businesses with surveillance cameras were summoned to provide any evidence of a crime.  Hence, police wasted considerable time and effort chasing an invisible rabbit down a hole.  These pointless efforts reduced the precious resources available that might otherwise have been allocated elsewhere in Chicago, which does have a serious crime problem.  If dozens of police officers were out rabbit hunting Smollett’s false claims, that’s less law enforcement on the streets, and by consequence, more incidents of unsolved crime.  Smollett has done a terrible thing, and now he should pay for it.

But the real victims of Smollett’s deception (if eventually proven), are all those people from lesser backgrounds with little money, fame, or power who must live in constant fear and have to endure pervasive racism and homophobia in their daily lives.  They don’t have Smollett’s easy access to media nor talent for playing the convincing role of a crime victim, so they won’t get on TV to tell their stories.  The casualties of this contrived canard are future victims of hate crimes.  Now, because of doubts and discord and the lingering impossible-to-ignore memories we all have, they’ll face even more doubts.  They must meet higher, perhaps impossible thresholds, to prove when racially-motivated crimes actually do happen.  The movement Smollett purportedly wants to help shall ultimately pay the highest cost for his blatant deception.

That’s the real crime.

If evidence is found to implicate Jussie Smollett in a conspiracy, then he must be prosecuted.  Then, if he’s found guilty — lock him away.  For a long time.

We must make an example in this case and send a clear message:  There’s more than enough racism and homophobia in America already, without having to make things up.

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Posted by on Feb 10, 2019 in Blog, Essays, Music and Concert Reviews | 0 comments

Matt Lessinger’s Annual Grammy Awards Analysis and Forecast [2019]

 

 

If you’re a regular reader and not yet up to speed on Matt Lessinger and his expertise on awards shows and analysis, then I’m not sure what else to say.

He’s been introduced here before.  Get with the program.

Let’s skip the usual preamble and get straight to Matt’s thoughts on tonight’s Grammy Awards.  For the record, I know nothing about this year’s music or ceremony, which will air tonight.  The Grammy Awards typically warbles between mesmerizingly great and train wreck awful.  I expect more of the same, tonight.

For those who appreciate the science of handicapping and value great analysis, I urge you to read his thoughts here, which should be valued as a terrific handicapping outlier.   You need not be knowledgable of the music nor interested in the Grammy’s to value the high level of this work — which is why I’m eager to share Matt’s contribution here at my site.

Matt’s e-mail to me reads as follows:

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Hi Nolan:
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Sadly, I’ve looked at the Grammy odds on three different sites, and the best odds were on Bovada each time.  You know the offshore sites are getting worse when Bovada has the best lines!  That’s unfortunate because they are only allowing a max bet of $125. on each category, and I have no idea how they came up with that number, but they are standing firm on that max.  I don’t have the time or the resources to scour for a site with potentially better odds and/or maximums, but if anyone can find one and they are willing to share that information, it would be most appreciated.  In the meantime, the odds listed here can all be found on Bovada at the time of this writeup.
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The most obvious difference from years past is that there are now eight nominees in each category instead of five.  That makes our job a little harder, but there’s still value to be found and money to be made.  The other difference is that the nominees lean way more in the direction of hip hop than in years past. If I had been forced to bet on who this year’s nominees would be, admittedly I would have gotten slaughtered.  For example, if you look at the category for Best Pop Vocal Album, which has six nominees (Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Camila Cabello, Kelly Clarkson, Pink, Shawn Mendes), I would have said that each of those albums could easily have landed in the Album of the Year category. Instead, NONE of them were nominated!  For Taylor Swift and Ariana Grande to not have been nominated in an eight-horse field for Album of the Year is downright shocking.  It may signal that the Grammys are going in a new direction.  However, until they prove that they are willing to change the way they hand out the actual winners trophies, we have to assume for betting purposes that they are still the same old Grammys.
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I’m going to list the categories in order of confidence, going from least to most.
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Let’s begin:
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SONG OF THE YEAR
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“Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper is the -300 favorite and will almost certainly win.  There are going to be two themes that repeat themselves throughout the categories.  The first is that there are no standout nominees in any category.  In my humble opinion, “Shallow” is not even a particularly good song, but it may be the best one in this weak field.  The second recurring theme is that we will summarily dismiss any hip-hop nominees, even though there are more than usual this year, until it is shown that they can win the open categories on a more regular basis.  With regard to this category, that eliminates half the field.  Out of the ones that are left, Lady Gaga is the only one with a winning Grammy track record, having won six of them in the past.  “Shallow” is the logical choice, but at -300 it is unplayable.  I’m going to take a complete flyer for a token wager on the longest shot in the field, “The Middle” by Zedd and Maren Morris.  Bombs away!  My simple logic is that it is the only other song in the field that would be considered pop.  On the one hand, the fact that none of the Best Pop Albums were nominated for Album of the Year signals a move away from pop music.  On the other hand, Grammys have always rewarded pop musicians in the open categories, most notably Taylor Swift and Adele in recent years.  “The Middle” might be the only upbeat song in the entire field, and it wouldn’t shock me if some voters gravitate to it just because it sounds uplifting in a sea of comparatively depressing music.
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My play: “The Middle” by Zedd and Maren Morris at 33-1, for a very small wager.  But if you’re willing to lay the heavy wood, you’ll probably win with “Shallow” at -300.
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BEST NEW ARTIST
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When the nominees were announced, my initial reaction was that Dua Lipa would be the odds-on favorite.  Instead, H.E.R. is the -110 favorite and Dua Lipa is +180, and it’s far back to the rest of the field.  Anecdotally speaking, H.E.R. is from Vallejo, CA which is a half hour away from me, and I listen to R&B music, and I had never heard any of her songs before.  Once I listened to her, I had to admit I liked her music quite a bit, and she has a recognizable talent such that she could certainly win.  But her resume doesn’t match up to Dua Lipa, who has already had a #1 song (New Rules) and international radio airplay.  At the given prices, Dua Lipa is definitely the better value play.  It’s hard to summarily dismiss the longshots – someone like Luke Combs or Margo Price could certainly be bombs away at 22-1 – but the problem in this category is that it’s hard to predict which longshot the voters would gravitate towards, so it’s easier to just stick with the proven commodity.
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My play: Dua Lipa at +180
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ALBUM OF THE YEAR
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Disclaimer: As much as I try to keep my personal musical opinions out of this process and stick to cold, hard analysis, sometimes that’s just not possible. This is one of those times.
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Kacey Musgraves is the +120 favorite. I am quite sure a country artist has never been favored in this category for as long as I’ve been following Grammy betting.  To me that signals the weakness with the other nominees more than it signals the strength of her album.  She could certainly win, but there’s no value there.  The 2nd and 3rd choices are the Black Panther album, which is essentially Kendrick Lamar, and then Drake.  Both are hip-hop artists, and so I’ll say the same thing I’ve said every year for the past 15 years: the hip-hop artists who have previously won Album of the Year are Outkast and Lauryn Hill.  That’s it, that’s the list.  If one of them becomes the third member of that list, more power to them, but at +250 and +350 they’re unplayable.  Cardi B and Post Malone are two more hip-hop artists that can even more easily be dismissed.  Brandi Carlile and H.E.R. are the two longest shots on the board, and justifiably so.  Out of the last four nominees I listed, Carlile is the only one who should have any shot at winning due to her career longevity, which is often rewarded in the AOTY category, but sometimes just being nominated is the reward, which is what this feels like.
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That leaves Janelle Monae, who is listed at 6-1 on Bovada, but I’ve seen her as low as 3-1 elsewhere.  Being completely honest, this is more of a hunch play than anything else.  It simply feels like it should be her time.  She is an R&B artist, which has historically been more successful in the open categories than either hip-hop or country.  She has had a musical career spanning almost 15 years, which is more than most of this field can claim.  Prince was an uncredited collaborator on the album, and assuming the voters are aware of that, his recent passing will certainly carry some weight. It was one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the year.  And finally, inserting my own two cents, this album deserves to win. At 6-1 the value is there.
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My play: Dirty Computer by Janelle Monae at 6-1.
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RECORD OF THE YEAR
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Despite the constant insistence that Song of the Year and Record of the Year are two distinct categories, the same song wins in both categories way too often to be a coincidence. “Shallow” is the -300 favorite for SOTY and will probably win.  So why is it the +160 second choice in this category, and “This is America” by Childish Gambino is the -150 favorite?  I tried to find a logical reason and couldn’t come up with one.  This is the best bet on the board.  I’ll include another token wager on “The Middle” in case it sweeps both categories, but it’s far more likely that Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper will get the scoop.
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My play (Best bet): “Shallow” at +160
Token wager: “The Middle” at 22-1
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Good luck to everyone this year!
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Cheers,
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Matt L
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