Black Widow

[Amazon Link]

Amazon helpfully tells me that I bought this book back in July 2008. Yes, that's my backlog for some books in the to-be-read pile.

In this entry in the beloved Doc Ford series, Doc is trying to be the good godfather to Shay Money, about to marry into a politically elite family. The problem: Shay and her bridesmaids got a little—ok, a lot—naughty on a Caribbean last-fling vacation. And now she's being blackmailed.

This leads Doc down to the same island, where he works to uncover the sophisticated blackmailing ring. It turns out to be much deeper and more powerful than he imagined, and (of course) he finds himself in mortal danger. He meets a number of colorful characters on both sides of the conflict. There are also entries in Doc's continuing backstory: investigating the death of his parents, his relationship with his biological offspring, the ever-present comic relief of Tomlinson, who's always alternating between drug-induced brain damage and deep insightfulness.

A lot of people make comparisons between the Doc Ford yarns and the (sorely missed) Travis McGee series from John D. MacDonald. This one hits that target a little more squarely than the immediately previous entries, I think.

One mini-gripe: at one point the normally super-competent Doc makes a dumb mistake that even I saw coming. C'mon Doc!


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A Matter of Life and Death

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

More commonly known in America as Stairway to Heaven, but (not to be confused|nothing to do) with that Led Zep song. We'll go with the original British title here. This movie was made shortly after World War 2, and it's pretty bizarre for the era. Or, in fact, for any era.

David Niven plays Peter Carter, an RAF pilot trying to get his doomed bomber back to Old Blighty with one engine on fire and the surviving crew punched out over the channel. He gets on the radio with June (Kim Hunter), and there's something about his classically British stiff upper lip and her warm American voice that makes them fall in love. On the radio.

After saying ta-ta to June, Peter jumps from the plane before it crashes and—against all odds—survives, getting washed up on the beach. He finds June, they get married, live happily ever after.

Just kidding! It turns out that Peter was supposed to die and his survival was due to an extremely rare slipup by the heavenly powers-that-be. Up in the realm of the angels there's much consternation about what to do; the books are out of balance. Peter's summoned to make things right, but he declines; with June he has too much to live for. The resulting conflict brings him to trial. Raymond Massey plays the prosecuting lawyer! (Chosen because of his presumed anti-Brit sentiment: he fell victim to a Redcoat in 1775 Boston.)

There are a lot of movies that revolve around the interaction between the here-and-now world and Heaven. Only in this one is there an effeminate fop who was beheaded during the French Reign of Terror. (He's in a pretty good mood about it though.) Only this one has a ping-pong match between June and a doctor, who's trying to diagnose Peter's "hallucinations" about said fop who's trying to get him Upstairs. Only this one has a camera obscura that the doctor owns as a hobby (seen once, not mentioned again). Only in this one does the good doctor die so that the script can place him as Peter's defense attorney in the Great Beyond. As I said: bizarre.

All kidding aside: there is a lot of dull scenery-chewing speechifying during Peter's trial. Could have done without that.


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The Wolf of Wall Street

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A bit of Pun Salad trivia: watching this movie means I watched all nine nominees for the Best Picture Oscar for the past year. (Haven't managed to do that since 2010.) The IMDB raters have it (as I type) at #124 on the best 250 movies of all time! I don't know about that, but it was pretty good. Mr. Martin Scorcese directed, and I doubt if he remembers how to make anything other than a good movie.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jordan Belfort, and this is the story of his rise and fall in the corrupt world of Wall Street. He breaks in as a lowly phone salesman in a "respectable" (but, in fact, not very respectable) brokerage. And he does OK until the 1987 market crash wipes him and his firm out. Then it's over to an extremely disreputable penny-stock operation, strictly in business to transfer money from gullible customers into brokers' pockets.

Belfort is a master salesman, a charismatic leader, and his appetite for money is unbounded. He quickly strikes out on his own, playing the same sleazy game with a more upscale clientele.

Also unbounded: Belfort's appetite for sex and drugs. One wonders how all his money didn't wind up in the hands of pushers and pimps, but somehow he had plenty left over for a mansion, a Ferrari, a yacht, and a copter and … well, every crass symbol of multimillionairedom you can think of. And who knows how long he could have kept it up, because the SEC was blind to his misdeeds. But there's FBI Straight Arrow Agent Patrick Denham (played by the canonical Straight Arrow, Kyle Chandler) standing in his way.

(There are a bunch of great actors here in addition to DiCaprio and Chandler. Jonah Hill, Matthew McConaughey, Jean Dujardin, etc. I didn't recognize Christine Ebersole until I saw her name in the credits, then zipped back to one of her scenes. "Oh, yeah.")

The movie is (whoa) three hours long, and probably could have used some judicious cutting. The rating is R, and the MPAA reasons are: "sequences of strong sexual content, graphic nudity, drug use and language throughout, and for some violence." If anything, that's understated. You have never seen such over-the-top debauchery and graphic depravity (unless, of course, you get invited to Hollywood parties).

It's also extremely funny. This is probably why it didn't win Best Picture.

True fact: after his prison stint, the real-world Belfort is still around, giving presentations ("Learn The Truth Behind Jordan Belfort's Business & Wealth Success") and you can shell out up to $1999 (at the door) for the "Platinum Experience". But if you're the type of person who would even think of doing that, I think you are not the type of person who would be reading this.


Last Modified 2014-09-14 11:32 PM EDT
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Ernest & Celestine

[3.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I wanted to like this better. I probably should have liked this better. And (if you like animation, and you aren't averse to "kids" movies) you will probably like this better too. Maybe it was an off night, but it was pretty boring.

Ernest & Celestine is set in a world where bears are the dominant species, and mice huddle in various underground niches. There's a certain amount of friction, no doubt because mice are a perfectly acceptable part of a complete ursine breakfast. Celestine is a very cute young mouse (aspiring dentist) on an undercover operation in the bear world, when she's forced to sleep in a trash can. Ernest is a starving musician when he lumbers into Celestine. After a brief flirtation with one eating the other, they quickly become good friends. But the rest of the world does not accept their forbidden love!

Or perhaps I should say: Ze raist of ze world does not accept zair forbeeden rapport! It's foreign (French/Belgian), but is expertly dubbed into English by a host of fine voice talents (including Lauren Bacall, in one of her last performances). The animation looks as if each frame was lovingly hand-painted. (But wasn't: You can watch a video about the animation process here.) It was nominated for an Oscar (best animated picture)


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URLs du Jour — 2014-09-08

  • So it's (non-presidential) Primary day in New Hampshire tomorrow. Let me share an appropriate quote from Robert Heinlein, expressed as one of the aphorisms of Lazarus Long:

    If you are part of a society that votes, then do so. There may be no candidates and no measures you want to vote for...but there are certain to be ones you want to vote against. In case of doubt, vote against. By this rule you will rarely go wrong. If this is too blind for your taste, consult some well-meaning fool (there is always one around) and ask his advice. Then vote the other way. This enables you to be a good citizen (if such is your wish) without spending the enormous amount of time on it that truly intelligent exercise of franchise requires.

    More from Mr. Long here. (I also posted this as a comment up at Granite Grok.)

  • Speaking of which, former UNH students Nicholas Mignanelli and Jordan Prince Osgood point out an Inconvenient Truth about former UNH Dean Dan Innis (current hopeful for the GOP nomination to oppose my CongressCritter/Toothache Carol Shea-Porter). From this morning's edition of my local paper, Fosters Daily Democrat:

    It is common knowledge that Republican candidate for Congress Dan Innis voted in the 2012 Democratic state primary and donated money to gubernatorial candidate Jackie Cilley in the last election cycle. While such actions arouse suspicion of opportunism, it would be unfair to dismiss his candidacy on what one might categorize as a mere mistake or an act of friendship.

    What is more telling, however, is his action (or perhaps inaction) when he was in a position of power at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

    In December of 2011, when the university administration held a forum lauding the Occupy Wall Street Movement and criticizing capitalism, where was Business School Dean Dan Innis to insist that free markets have alleviated more poverty than any other economic system in human history?

    During the 2008 and 2012 election seasons, when the Obama campaign flagrantly disregarded university policy prohibiting solicitation on campus and the objections of the UNH College Republicans fell on deaf ears, where was Dan Innis to ensure that university rules and regulations were enforced without regard for political conviction?

    Indeed, is it not telling that Professor Innis never attended a College Republican meeting nor expressed his support for the group’s activities until he wanted the support of its membership?

    While no one can disparage Professor Innis’s professional accomplishments, one has to wonder how it is that he plans to stand up to President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, and the special interest groups that bankrolled their rise to power when the academic left in Durham proved too intimidating for him.

    The letter, by the way, is headlined "Vote for Innis" on the web and in the dead-trees edition, so Fosters doesn't read these too carefully.

  • Liberty-loving registered GOP NH voters who haven't made up their minds yet might want to check Liberty Ballot which has a sample ballot for each different ballot in tomorrow's primary with their recommendations.

  • A very good article on the state of Higher Education from Harvard Prof Steven Pinker: "The Trouble With Harvard".

    It seems to me that educated people should know something about the 13-billion-year prehistory of our species and the basic laws governing the physical and living world, including our bodies and brains. They should grasp the timeline of human history from the dawn of agriculture to the present. They should be exposed to the diversity of human cultures, and the major systems of belief and value with which they have made sense of their lives. They should know about the formative events in human history, including the blunders we can hope not to repeat. They should understand the principles behind democratic governance and the rule of law. They should know how to appreciate works of fiction and art as sources of aesthetic pleasure and as impetuses to reflect on the human condition.

    On top of this knowledge, a liberal education should make certain habits of rationality second nature. Educated people should be able to express complex ideas in clear writing and speech. They should appreciate that objective knowledge is a precious commodity, and know how to distinguish vetted fact from superstition, rumor, and unexamined conventional wisdom. They should know how to reason logically and statistically, avoiding the fallacies and biases to which the untutored human mind is vulnerable. They should think causally rather than magically, and know what it takes to distinguish causation from correlation and coincidence. They should be acutely aware of human fallibility, most notably their own, and appreciate that people who disagree with them are not stupid or evil. Accordingly, they should appreciate the value of trying to change minds by persuasion rather than intimidation or demagoguery.

    Yeah, that would be nice. But Pinker notes that Harvard is doing a lousy job of that. And if Harvard has that problem, what about us?

  • NBC newsman Chuck Todd took over Meet The Press yesterday; Language Logger Mark Liberman presents a persuasive case that he should have already been fired. (Maybe Todd was boggled by President Obama's brazen lies.)

  • And your tweet du jour is from the immortal Harry Shearer. (But you'll need to click through for the joke):


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The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

[Amazon Link]

Expecting to like this better. It is by Swiss author Joel Dicker, but it's set in the USA, specifically in my beloved New Hampshire.

Accentuating the positive first: the plot is good, in a twisty way. It's 2008, and acclaimed writer Marcus Goldman has a serious case of writer's block, totally unable to get any purchase on the followup to his first book. Worse, his equally famous mentor, Harry Quebert, is in trouble, for the corpse of a 15-year-old girl, Nola Kellergan, has been discovered, long-buried on Harry's property. Nola's been missing since the fall of 1975, when a neighbor lady reported seeing her being pursued through the woods by a madman. (And the neighbor lady is murdered herself a few minutes later.)

Casting suspicion on Harry is the inconvenient fact that he and Nola had a totally inappropriate relationship back in 1975. (Not quite on the Lolita scale—the relationsip is unconsummated, and Lolita was younger—but close.) The original manuscript of Harry's blockbuster novel was buried with her, together with an incriminating inscription!

Marcus decides to travel up to Harry's home in the quaint seacoast village of Somerset, New Hampshire to offer support to his old friend. He quickly decides to start his own investigation, which (it turns out) will unwrap a very sordid onion of perversion, corruption, and violence. The book shifts (mostly) between 1975 and 2008, revelations piling up in both time periods.

The problem is that this promising plot is explicated with cardboard characters, plastic dialog, and leaden prose. I am not a high-standards fiction gourmet by any means, but I found everything except the plot to be embarrassingly bad.

Part of the problem may be the translation from the book's original French; kind of like a wonderful Chinese movie getting ineptly dubbed by idiots who don't understand either Chinese or English very well. The book was apparently a "#1 international best seller", and the front matter has a lot of quotes from European sources attesting to its wonderfulness. So maybe.

Not that it matters, but I couldn't help but notice: the New Hampshire setting is very fictional. There's no "Somerset", and the geography described in the book doesn't seem to relate to any actual place. Some of the book happens in Concord, which is an actual place, and the book locates some state offices on Hazen Drive, true enough, but—bzzt!—puts Hazen Drive in the center of Concord, which it isn't.


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All Is Lost

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

An artsy film starring 70s heartthrob, Robert Redford. He's gotten all craggy, and can no longer flash the kilowatt smile, but does a fine job carrying the movie.

And he has to carry it, because he's the only one in it. He is billed as (honest, this is what the credits say) "Our Man". An opening monologue tells us he's in trouble, and he regrets (I think this is the gist) the hubris that led him to his current situation. Which is: stranded in the vast ocean without hope for survival.

What brought him to this pretty pass? An eight-day flashback tells the story: Our Man is sailing solo across a remote region of the Pacific, when a cast-off shipping container rams the side of his boat. This causes some flooding, which knocks out his electronics, and sets him on a slow-motion disaster course. He is resourceful and tenacious, and you could learn a lot about handling yourself in a maritime crisis just by watching this movie. The only real question is: will he make it? No spoilers here! The movie is artsy enough to leave it in doubt.

I stayed awake, which is high praise for a movie with close to zero dialog and not a lot of scenery.


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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

This movie was an attempt to reboot the "Jack Ryan" franchise, but it bombed at the box office, and there's no indication of any more movies about the Tom Clancy hero in the pipeline. It also receives a mediocre score from the IMDB raters.

I, on the other hand, enjoyed it quite a bit. After a steady diet of comedies, animation, comic-book sci-fi, "respectable" dramas, and documentaries, I was probably starved for a present-day action thriller.

Jack's character (played by Chris Pine) is established masterfully in the first few minutes: he's patriotic, brave, brilliant at establishing connections on sketchy evidence. Unfortunately, he also nearly gets killed when his helicopter is shot down in Afghanistan. While in rehab he meets his bride-to-be, Cathy. (The young Anne Archer is played by Keira Knightley.) He's also sought out by CIA honcho Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner) who's impressed with his record. And he's hired as a covert operative, working at a Wall Street firm, tracking financial movements that might foreshadow a terrorist attack.

And of course, he finds one, masterminded by the shady Russian oligarch Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh). Also, of course, Jack is the only one who can suss out the additional information about the scheme, and he's sent off to Moscow. And—I'm not sure Tom Clancy would have approved of this—Cathy, clueless about Jack's secret life, manages to tag along. She will play both a damsel-in-distress and invaluable ally in the upcoming action.

Now, in the cold light of day, much of the plot and most of the action is semi-ludicrous, but that didn't stop me from having a good time watching. Chris Pine makes a fine addition to the I-played-Jack-Ryan club, other members being Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, and Ben Affleck.


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With Friends Like This, Frank Guinta Doesn't Need Enemies

One of the decisions I have to make in our primary a week from tomorrow is whether to vote for Frank Guinta or Dan Innis to oppose my current CongressCritter/Toothache, Carol Shea-Porter. I've been getting negative mailers for both: Innis trashing Guinta, Guinta trashing Innis. I can't imagine what Pun Salad Manor's mailbox is going to look like for the next few days. (I wish I had easy access to a scanner, so I could stick the ugly-ass things somewhere you could see them. Trust me.)

But based solely on the mailers, I'm leaning toward Innis.

Guinta (actually "Friends of Frank Guinta") tells me:

DAN INNIS & CAROL SHEA-PORTER. ONE IN THE SAME.

Yes, that last bit is in red and manages to botch the cliché "one and the same".

Innis's crimes? Well, he's a "liberal professor". (Eek!) And, back in February, he was willing to (hypothetically) vote for the "clean" debt ceiling increase then under consideration. (Only 28 Republicans voted for that, which was just enough to squeak it through.) He (allegedly) supported a gas tax increase.

And, Guinta claims, Innis fails to support a "Balanced Budget Amendment".

Whatever Innis's other sins, this last bit sticks in my craw. A Constitutional amendment to mandate a balanced budget is a real stupid and phony idea. If Innis doesn't support it, good for him.

Why? You may remember from civics class the process for getting a balanced-budget amendment: Two-thirds vote from both houses plus ratification from 38 state legislatures.

But the procedure for getting a balanced budget is: a simple majority vote in both houses. (With maybe a two-thirds vote to override any veto.) Much simpler.

A BBA-advocating politician, especially one running for Congress, is basically promising to evade his or her own responsibility for keeping spending in line with revenues. Why would you vote for anyone like that?

[Innis's official proposals on taxes and spending can be found here (PDF). Modulo the usual campaign vagueness, they look OK to me. Guinta, on the other hand, is short on specifics. His tax proposals are OK, if pretty standard.]

Not that Innis's mailer's are a lot better. Actually, they're not from Innis, but the "American Unity [Super] PAC", and they are careful to state: "Not authorized by any candidate or candidate's committee." This PAC was established by billionaire hedge fund manager Paul E. Singer, who is conservative and gay. And the PAC is pretty much organized to support gay and gay-friendly conservatives. And Innis is both.

Anyway, the mailers are even less issue-oriented than Guinta's: each points out the stunningly obvious: Dan Innis is neither Frank Guinta nor Carol Shea-Porter! Who, together, have represented our Congressional district for the past eight years. "Seems longer!"

There's a hint of cleverness: on one mailer, portraits of Carol and Guinta are labelled: "Mrs. Been There" and "Mr. Done That." Heh!

My fearless prediction: Guinta will trounce Innis next week, with or without my vote. And (in any case) I will hold my nose as much as necessary to vote against Carol Shea-Porter in November. Polls show a tight race, so in addition to holding my nose, I'll also have to cross my fingers.


Last Modified 2014-09-01 2:32 PM EDT
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Standing in the Shadows of Motown

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

The story of the "Funk Brothers", studio musicians that played on Motown records between 1959 and 1972. You know what that means, my friend? It means that they were part of the magic combination that produced wonderful music to which people will listen centuries from now, if not millennia. (Am I exaggerating? I don't think so!) As they note right up front: the Funk Bros. "played on more number ones hits than the Beach Boys, the Rolling Stones, Elvis and the Beatles combined."

The documentary is a combination of archival footage, present-day (well, 2002) interviews, and some dramatic re-enanctments. It's narrated by Andre Braugher. And, best of all: a 2002 live concert with the surviving Brothers backing up performances of the classics by folks like Joan Osborne and Ben Harper.

They came from diverse backgrounds. Some arrived in Detroit from the South as part of the mass African-American post-WW2 migration. Others were natives. Some were classically trained musicians (keyboardist Joe Hunter notes his admiration of Rachmaninoff), others were largely self-taught. They were gathered together by Berry Gordy, harvesting them out of Detroit jazz and blues clubs. (Another shocker: a couple of white guys.)

Like a lot of musicians of that era, a depressing number of Funk Brothers are no longer with us. (But only one was lost to heroin addiction, as near as I can tell.)

I don't want to overstate this: the Funk Brothers were a sine qua non part of the mix, contributing a solid collaborative genius to the Motown magic. And it's a documentary about them. But if I had to quibble: the movie gives pretty short shrift to the headliners, backup vocalists, songwriters, and producers. I'm not sure if anyone has the overall combination of brilliance and luck to assemble such chemistry today. Or ever again?

I ordered the soundtrack. So should you.


Last Modified 2014-09-08 2:52 PM EDT
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