Shall We Dance

[2.5
stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Back in 2009, we watched a perfectly charming and funny Japanese movie called Shall We Dance? This is the American remake. (Consumer note: according to IMDB, there is no question mark at the end of the title of the American version, even though the people marketing the DVD seem to think it should be there.)

Richard Gere plays John Clark, powerhouse estate lawyer; outwardly, he seems to have realized the American dream: hot wife (Susan Sarandon), nice house, nice car, nice kids. But there's something missing! He's been noticing the forlorn Paulina (Jennifer Lopez) staring out the window of Miss Mitzi's Dance Studio as he passes by on his commuter train. On impulse one night, he hops off the train and enters the studio, and is immediately taken in by the world of… ballroom dancing!

He encounters a number of colorful characters: not only Paulina, but Miss Mitzi (Anita Gillette, Liz Lemon's mom) and his fellow students. (Lisa Ann Walter, Stanley Tucci, Bobby Cannavale, and Omar Benson Miller. Where have I seen that guy before? Oh, yeah: CSI:Miami!) He keeps his activities secret from Mrs. Clark, but she's no dummy: she hires a private eye (the great Richard Jenkins) to determine what's going on.

Everyone involved seems to be having a good time, the acting ranges from good to very good, and everything's professionally done, and the movie is not without laughs, but it pales in comparison with the Japanese version. The original's Japanese setting and characters offered an interesting cultural contrast with the thoroughly-Western activity of ballroom dancing; that's missing here. And I got a nebulous feeling that the chemistry between the characters was lacking.


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:30 AM EDT

The Return of the King

[Amazon Link]

About 10 years ago, I resolved to read the Tolkien paperbacks I'd bought as a college student about 40 years ago. I read The Hobbit sometime around 2003, The Fellowship of the Ring in 2005, The Two Towers in 2007, and now, finally, The Return of the King.

To be honest, at a lot of points in this series, I found myself wishing for a "just the good parts" abridgement. Because there's an awful lot of walking, descriptions of geography, eating, drinking, poetry, … Tolkien built his own world, and darned if he wasn't going to show it to you. At times I felt I was reading the King James Bible, and not the interesting or inspiring parts either.

But there's also, of course, a powerful and wonderful story involved, with great characters, a lot of lovely scenes, a lot of excitement and suspense. (If you can pretend you didn't already see the movie.)

Which reminds me: one rap on the movie version was the long running time after the climactic scene on Mount Doom between Frodo, Gollum, and Sam. Guess what: the book goes on even longer. But it's some of the best writing of the series, as the four hobbits unwind their adventure, only to come back to a Shire that's not as they remembered or expected. Most of this was totally missing from the movie (for good cinematic reasons, certainly).

So: I'm glad I read the books. Also glad they're behind me.


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:30 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2011-08-28 Update

[phony baloney]

The Hurricane Irene edition! Hope I can get this up before the power goes out!

[Update: I didn't. Which is why the August 28 update is actually appearing August 29. Hit counts current as of 8/28.]

A lot of up-and-down motion in the phony standings this week. Paul Ryan took himself out of the running, leaving us with nobody named Paul meeting our arbitrary inclusion requirement of 4% at Intrade. I'll try to contain my disappointment at that.

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2011-08-21
"Rick Perry" phony 6,640,000 +950,000
"Michele Bachmann" phony 6,370,000 +230,000
"Sarah Palin" phony 4,640,000 +30,000
"Barack Obama" phony 2,700,000 -4,180,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 2,650,000 -2,960,000
"Jon Huntsman" phony 1,080,000 +30,000

  • Ed Morrissey does a fine job of cataloguing the week's "Obamateurisms", of which phoniness is often a component. My favorite this week: "Gripes that Congress hasn't passed trade deals he hasn't sent them." For more on the sad state of affairs, here's the New York Times article. Even the NYT can't spin this convincingly:

    Bottom line: Mr. Obama is not technically correct when he says that Congress is fully able to vote on the bills, as his administration has not sent them there in the first place.

    Translation from NYTese into English: Mr. Obama is lying.

  • Mitt Romney visited the other side of the Granite State this week, and Philip Rucker, a Washington Post reporter, cornered one Lucy Opal, age 83, for her reaction:

    "I liked his smile," she said. "He came through human-like."

    Apparently that was Lucy's primary concern. Back in 1969, she'd met George Romney, Mitt's father. She and Mitt reminisced.

    "My dad was the real deal," Mitt Romney told her.

    Wistfully?

  • At Cato, Gene Healy declares himself fed up with "phony federalism". He takes particular aim at Rick Perry, but notes that—um, well—on at least one issue, Perry sounds pretty good:

    "If you don't like medicinal marijuana and gay marriage, don't move to California," Perry writes. He complains that the Raich case made clear that "the federal government has the full prerogative to intervene in your private home if you are engaged in any activity that has some minimal relationship to the exchange of goods." He calls the medical marijuana movement "a movement I disagree with, while appreciating the desire of Californians to decide for themselves."

    But then Healy immediately takes it back:

    Would he stick to that? I'd bet not -- it took him all of a couple of days to perform a Romney-style double-axel backflip on gay marriage. As I note in my column, his campaign is already backing off of what the Governor wrote about Social Security.

    What Perry says about federalism and enumerated powers sounds sincere. Of course, Obama made all the right noises about civil liberties before he was elected. Is this sort of thing just cultural signaling to constituent groups?

    Probably! In these phony times, are we to assume the candidates will do the exact opposite of what they're promising? I'm gonna have to reconsider my voting strategy…


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:25 PM EST

1491

[Amazon Link]

A few months back I checked out a book about ancient America; written by an academic historian, I found it pretty heavy going, but interesting. Also available at the library of the University Near Here was this book, 1491, obviously covering some of the same ground. And its author, Charles C. Mann, is more of a journalist than an academic. (He also has a couple writing credits at IMDB, one for an episode of Law & Order.) 1491 won the 2006 NAS Keck Award for best book of the year.

So, yeah, it's good. If you have enough of an interest to read one book about pre-Columbus Americas, this is probably it. Mann colors his text with stories about his own explorations to archeological digs all over both North and South America. He also, when he feels like it, contradicts the book's title by slipping in more recent history. He's especially good at discussing some of the controversies and new discoveries in the field. As you might not expect, there's a lot of controversy, and the disagreements between academics can be intense and bitter. Pass the popcorn.

I am not even a dilettante in matters historical; I'm mainly looking for good stories and provocative ideas. Mann provides a lot. His overall themes: there were a lot more Indians in the Americas than was thought even a few decades ago. Their societies were unexpectedly complex. Far from the caricature of the Indian in harmony with nature, they engaged in environment-altering practices, transforming both the landscape and its flora and fauna.

Some examples: Mann investigates the origin of maize; where and when the original Indians came from; the rise and fall of Cahokia, a huge city just east of current-day St. Louis; how the Haudenosaunee traditions of individual freedom and limited government influenced the European colonists.

But it wasn't all fascinating. The story, set in the Yucatan of 682 AD, of how B'alaj Chan K'awiil disguised himself as the god Ik' Sip to overthrow and kill his brother, Nuun Ujol Chaak, only to be the target of a coup… I pretty much forgot that immediately upon reading. As another quibble, Mann quotes the leftist loon Ward Churchill in support of a couple points; I wouldn't trust Churchill to get the color of the sky right, if it conflicted with his rabid anti-American theology.


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:28 AM EDT

Wagon Master

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

A 1950 John Ford western (missing John Wayne); the Netflix algorithm thought I'd like it more than I did.

Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. play Travis and Sandy, respectively, who are trying to eke out a semi-honest living as horse traders in the Frontier West. By coincidence, they meet up with a group of Mormons, en route in covered wagons to lush valley land they want to farm. Travis and Sandy get hired to guide the wagons through perils both natural (deserts, rivers, mountains) and anthropogenetic (Indians, a murderous gang of outlaws, a stranded performing troupe selling quack medicine). Interactions between all these colorful characters are often played for laughs, occasionally successfully. The soundtrack has a number of songs performed by the Sons of the Pioneers, but nothing memorable.

Trivia: John Ford recycled a number of actors from The Grapes of Wrath here: Both Pa Joad and Ma Joad are in this, playing older Mormons on the trek. And Ward Bond, who played a cop in The Grapes of Wrath is one of the Mormon elders.

Also, James Arness plays one of the gang, a speechless goon. Not at all what you expect from Marshall Dillon.


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:29 AM EDT

Case 39

[2.5
stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Consumer note: Originally filmed in 2006, released to US theatres in late 2010, but probably not one near you. It bombed. But it really does star Renée Zellweger, Ian McShane, and a pre-Hangover Bradley Cooper. So if you're in the mood for seeing one of those people, this DVD will do the job.

Ms. Zellweger plays Emily, an overworked social worker dedicated to investigating cases of child abuse. She's assigned the case of Lilith Sullivan, who keeps falling asleep in school. She can't sleep at home, because she's afraid her parents will do her in. And she's correct about that.

Emily rescues Lilith in the nick of time, and in an unusual move, takes Lilith into her own home. End of movie? Nah, we're only about 15 minutes in. As it turns out—spoiler coming—little Lilith is kind of creepy, and Emily begins to understand where her parents were coming from.

I don't want to gripe overmuch: this is a pretty standard and predictable horror thriller. Only one scene has any notable special effects. (I also watched the DVD's deleted scenes; they left another on the cutting room floor.)

Although Lilith has evil supernatural powers, their origin and limitations are left kind of murky. But doesn't the mere existence of evil supernatural powers necessarily imply that good supernatural powers must be around somewhere too? That insight never occurs to anyone in this movie, and they remain devoted to (mostly inadequate) secular solutions. If it were me, I'd take the Exorcist route and call in the God Squad.


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:37 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2011-08-21 Update

[phony baloney]

Our phony lineup changes once again. Murmurs that Paul Ryan might enter the race have bumped him above our arbitrary 4%-at-Intrade threshold (5.0% as I type); in turn, this has pushed poor Ron Paul, with 3.5%, off the chart.

Michele Bachmann's hit count last week was ephemeral; President Obama reclaims his rightful lead:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2011-08-14
"Barack Obama" phony 6,880,000 -70,000
"Michele Bachmann" phony 6,140,000 -8,060,000
"Rick Perry" phony 5,690,000 -290,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 5,610,000 -950,000
"Sarah Palin" phony 4,610,000 +160,000
"Paul Ryan" phony 2,680,000  
"Jon Huntsman" phony 1,050,000 0

In other Intrade news, President Obama's re-election chances have (as I type) dipped below 50%.

  • Reported at (of all places) ABC News:
    At his rural economic forum in Iowa Tuesday, President Obama exhorted the need to boost the manufacturing and export of U.S. cars and trucks to create jobs.

    "We've got folks in America driving Kias and Hyundais. I want to see folks in Korea driving Fords and Chryslers and Chevys," Obama said, drawing applause.

    "I want to sell goods all over the world that are stamped with three words: 'Made in America.'"

    But it turns out the president's new custom motor coach comes stamped with a brand that's located someplace else: Canada.

    Gotcha.

  • Headline in the Deseret News: Friends say Mitt Romney not as stiff or robotic as media portrays. Whew, that's a relief! One classmate of Mitt is quoted:
    "There is this notion that he's phony -- some say his wife looks like a Barbie doll and he's the ken doll-- so, there is a perception that he looks and acts too corporate or too polished or like he's putting up a phony persona," Barlow told the Deseret News. "That is clearly not the case, when he was in a formal setting, casual setting, or even on vacation at the Cape (Cod) in swimming trunks out in the water, there was just a natural articulate polish to his style -- its not a front or formality or a public persona to seem impressive, he's just an intelligent, articulate person who is polished in his nature."
    Which made me wonder: where did the phrase "Methinks thou dost protest too much" come from? Turns out to be both a misquote and misunderstanding of Queen Gertrude in Hamlet.

  • This is somewhat of a trend, people going out of their way to mention a candidate's non-phoniness. Al Hunt found someone to vouch for Michele Bachmann:
    She's the real deal, there's nothing phony about her," says former Representative Tim Penny, a Minnesota Democrat turned independent. "She's smarter than most people give her credit for."
    Which made me look up "damn with faint praise"; turns out that was Alexander Pope.

  • OK. But how about Rick Perry? Is he also the real deal? Find out the answer in this column by Roland S. Martin in the Paragould Daily Press: "Gov. Rick Perry is the real deal":
    Perry's entrance into the race will also show a tremendous contrast with Romney, who is even less appealing on the campaign trail than Vice President Al Gore. Perry will hit the stage in his Texas cowboy boots, flash the smile that suburban Republican women pine for, and succeed like a madman at retail politics. And while he'll be vibrant and charismatic, Romney will look as if he's stuck in place.
    Arguing that Perry is the "real deal" because he's a bigger dreamboat that Mitt? Quite frankly, if I were a suburban Republican woman, I'd be kinda offended.

  • How about Jon Huntsman? Is he the real deal? Howard Dean thinks so.

  • I don't believe any of the other candidates have a book devoted to the Realness of their Deals:

    And talk about a real deal: you can pick up this book for $0.38 (used, plus shipping) at Amazon! Tell them Pun Salad sent you.

  • And how about that Paul Ryan guy? Is he the Real Deal? Friends, I can tell you that many, many, many, many, many blog commenters believe this to be true.


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:25 PM EST

Ah, I See Him. Right There.

[Wall·E]

  • A few days back I noted that the WaPo's Greg Sargent was ticked off by a Mitt Romney quote: "I believe in the Constitution -- and I believe in the greatness of America." Why? Because Romney was "clearly insinuating that Obama doesn’t."

    At the time, I guessed that Sargent would not apply that test impartially. And now, Jonah Goldberg brings attention to "what many believe will be [Obama's] re-election theme: “Country first.”

    By the Sargent Rule, this means that President Obama is "clearly insinuating" that his opponents aren't putting "country first", right?

    Is Sargent calling Obama on this smear? Not so much. Instead he recycles his bile about the GOP. Sargent's a hack who doesn't even pretend to use consistent standards in his criticism..

  • Peter Kirsanow posts "questions for the President" every now and then, and today's are particularly good. In fact, I've asked them myself, and have fantasized asking them of any pol or pundit who blathers about "asking the rich to pay their fair share of taxes":
    During your bus tour this week you repeatedly called for “shared sacrifice” and for the “wealthy” to pay their “fair share” in order to reduce the federal deficit and debt. According to the latest IRS data:
    • The top 1 percent of income earners pay 38 percent of all federal income taxes. They earn 20 percent of all (adjusted gross) income.
    • The top 10 percent of income earners pay 70 percent of all federal income taxes. They earn 55 percent of all income.
    • The top 25 percent of all income earners pay 86 percent of all federal income taxes. They earn 67 percent of all income.
    • Approximately half of U.S. households pay no federal income taxes whatsoever.

    From which of the above categories do you want more “shared sacrifice?”

    Or: "What do you want those numbers to look like instead?"

  • In a related note, the WSJ looks at the Strange Case of the Missing Millionaires. (To see the article, it will probably suffice to Google "Millionaires Go Missing" and click on an appropriate link.)

    Their key table shows the changes between 2007 and 2009 in the number of high-income earners and the taxes they paid:

    [tab]

    Fascinating. The paper generates some similar numbers as Kirsanow's:

    The millionaires who are left still pay a mountain of tax. Those who make $1 million accounted for about 0.2% of all tax returns but paid 20.4% of income taxes in 2009. Those with adjusted gross income above $200,000 a year were just under 3% of tax filers but paid 50.1% of the $866 billion in total personal income taxes. This means the top 3% paid more than the bottom 97%. Yet the 3% are the people that President Obama claims don't pay their fair share. Before the recession, the $200,000 income group paid 54.5% of the income tax.
    Again, President Obama: what do you want those numbers to look like instead? But the real bottom line is:
    It's an old story: The best way to produce income equality is to destroy trillions of dollars of wealth. Everyone loses, but the rich lose relatively more than the poor and the middle class. By that measure, if few others, Obamanomics has been a raging success.

  • Where's Wall·E? Took me way too long, but it was fun looking. How many of those other guys do you recognize?


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:43 AM EDT

The Spiral Staircase

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

Consumer note: contains hammy acting even by 1945 standards. But a decent little thriller.

Omaha's own Dorothy McGuire stars as Helen, servant girl to rich, crazy, old Mrs. Warren (Ethel Barrymore). Mrs. Warren is bedridden, given to uttering semi-deranged warnings to Helen, and hurling churlish insults at everyone else. She's the head of a very dysfunctional family occupying a very spooky old mansion.

To add to the drama, there's a serial killer about. He's concentrating on (as we would say in this more enlightened time) differently-abled women: one with a limp, one "simple-minded", and … oh, did I mention that Helen can't speak, due to a psychological trauma incurred years ago?

Others occupying the mansion are two stepbrothers, one a professor, the other a ne'er-do-well just returned from abroad. The ne'er-do-well has the hots for Blanche, the professor's assistant (and who wouldn't, as she's played by Rhonda Fleming). There's a caretaker (Rhys Williams) with a wife (Elsa Lanchester) who's a little too fond of the basement brandy. A local doctor is smitten with Helen, but not enough to hang around when she finds herself in danger.

Movie quiz: since her muteness is psychological, do you think Helen might regain the ability to speak at a crucial moment?

  1. Yes.
  2. Of course.
  3. You'd have to be an idiot to say no.
  4. But in an ironic twist, she goes blind at the same time!
  5. Just kidding. There's no ironic twist.

Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:38 AM EDT

The Man From Nowhere

[2.5
stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

According to the Netflix algorithm, I was supposed to like this a lot more than I did. I may just not have been in the mood, and if I'd hit it on a different evening, I would have been more caught up in it. But I'm not a Professional Movie Reviewer, I don't even consider these blog posts to be "reviews", and (as always) your mileage may vary.

That said: it's a Korean violence-fest, and the plot seems clichéd. (Even though I can't point to a similar one.) Cha Tae-sik is an ex-cop-of-some-sort, turned into a recluse by the death of his wife and unborn child. A cute precocious little girl, So-mi, intrudes into his self-absorption; unfortunately—and ain't it always the way—So-mi's mom is involved with drug trafficking, and decides to do a little freelancing. That doesn't work out well for mom, and So-mi is kidnapped by some very bad guys. Cha Tae-sik must (of course) rescue So-mi, and it involves getting in the midst of a Korean gang war, evading the cops, and piling up a whole bunch of bodies.

The climax, unfortunately, involves some gunplay that even I (who knows close to nothing about guns) am pretty sure wouldn't work as shown.


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:31 AM EDT

The Phony Campaign

2011-08-14 Update

[phony baloney]

Ames fallout: (1) A big phony bump for Michele Bachmann this week; (2) Intrade agrees with T-Paw that he is a very long shot for the GOP nomination; (3) Ron Paul is the beneficiary, as his Intrade probability shot up from around 2% to (drum roll, please) 4.6% (as I type), entitling him to return to the phony poll, and he's showing as a big-time phony:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2011-08-07
"Michele Bachmann" phony 14,200,000 +9,540,000
"Ron Paul" phony 12,300,000 ---
"Barack Obama" phony 6,950,000 -40,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 6,560,000 +3,490,000
"Rick Perry" phony 5,980,000 +3,960,000
"Sarah Palin" phony 4,450,000 -40,000
"Jon Huntsman" phony 1,050,000 -10,000

In the phony news this week:

  • At Le·gal In·sur·rec·tion, William Jacobsen's headline was irresistible: "President Phony to attack Mitt Romney as phony". Jacobsen quotes a Politico story, which in turn quotes a campaign consultant:

    "There's no way to hide this guy and hide his innate phoniness."

    That happens to be a Democrat talking about Romney. It could equally well have been a Republican talking about Obama.

  • Mitt Romney's reaction to the story? According to the Washington Post's Greg Sargent it was "transparently phony outrage".

    […] Romney and his advisers are the last people on earth who have any right to complain about out-of-bounds attacks on Romney's bio and/or identity, and I hope folks covering their current phony outrage will recall their own record on this score.

    Phony outrage in a campaign is as common as stones in Jerusalem, and it's kind of cute to see a hack like Sargent get upset about it so predictably. One of Sargent's high-quality professional arguments:

    […] Romney has also said: "I believe in the Constitution -- and I believe in the greatness of America," clearly insinuating that Obama doesn't.

    Clearly? Whenever a candidate says "I believe X", is it always "clearly insinuating" that his opponent doesn't? Does Sargent apply that test impartially? I don't think so.

  • An article in Politicker NY covered an Obama fundraiser, originally stating:

    Before leaving, Obama likened himself to one more figure. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    "I think that we forget when he was alive there was nobody who was more vilified, nobody who was more controversial, nobody who was more despairing at times," he said. "But what he understood, what kept him going, was that the arc of moral universe is long but it bends towards justice."

    Sharp-eyed folks began to observe the utter narcissism this revealed. Pretty quickly the article was amended the first paragraph:

    Before leaving, Obama likened himself to referenced one more figure. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    The reporter's initial impression, however, fits the quote better. At least the website is honest enough to show the "correction" explicitly. I wonder how many angry calls from the Democratic National Committee it took to get them to make it?

  • Rick Perry is Officially In. Back in 1988, he was Texas Campaign Chairman for… Al Gore. But somehow I don't think Al's going to reward that early show of support, given Perry's recent thoughts on his old buddy and global warming:

    Al Gore's ego must have taken a tremendous bruising in the aftermath of the 2000 election, when he was so close to victory he could taste it. As time passed, we began to see the real Al Gore — not the contrived version that ran for president in earth tones, but the liberal extremist who took a hatchet to President Bush in front of the MoveOn.org faithful. Gore found something more satiating to his ego than the presidency. He found a global cause, and he became the prophet who could protect us from Armageddon. Soon he took his PowerPoint presentations around the glob, raising concerns about melting icebergs and undersized polar bears. The Left embraced him like never before. Hollywood toasted him as their hero. The Nobel Committee gave him a peace prize. He won an Oscar And it's all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight. Al Gore is a prophet all right, a false prophet of a secular carbon cult, and now even moderate Democrats aren't buying it.

    Gosh, that's pretty strong stuff. Here's hoping that's the Perry that makes it out on the campaign trail, or at least that he brings along the same ghostwriter.


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:25 PM EST

Hearts of the West

[4.5
stars] [IMDb Link] [IMDB Rating: 6.2] [Amazon Link]

Let me bore you with yet another story from my youth. Back in the mid-70s, in our part of New Hampshire, the movie selection was poor. There were a mere handful of screens, and many of them specialized in second-run fare.

So when we got a movie-seeing urge that couldn't be satisfied locally, my sweetie and I would head down to Danvers, MA in my little blue '65 VW bug. (Often taking to side roads to avoid the 25-cent NH Turnpike toll.) And one evening in 1975, we saw Hearts of the West, a little comedy starring Jeff Bridges.

Ever since, it's been on my short list of movies I wanted to rewatch. It never made it to my Blockbuster. It's not available from Netflix. But, in one of those modern age marvels that I hope I never start taking for granted, it showed up as an on-demand selection at Amazon. And, since I am an Amazon Prime member, the cost for a viewing was $0.00.

It's set in the early 1930s. Jeff Bridges plays Lewis Tater, a (very) naïve Iowa farm boy with big dreams of becoming a writer of Westerns, like his hero Zane Gray. He enrolls in a correspondence course at the University of Titan, located in Titan, Nevada. And, faced with the scorn of his family, decides to visit the campus.

Unfortunately, Titan is a mere whistlestop and its University is an even bigger scam than your normal University: just a set of post office boxes overseen by a couple of crooks. A merry mixup sends Lewis on the lam, unwittingly in posession of the scammers' ill-gotten gains. Wandering deliriously in the Nevada desert, he runs into a band of cowboys.

Except they're not actual cowboys: they are actors shooting a Western. Lewis gets swept up in 1930s show-biz, without losing his dreams-teetering-on-delusion. But the bad guys remain in pursuit.

Andy Griffith has a great role as one of the movie studio's stable of cowboy extras; it's easy to forget how good an actor he was. Alan Arkin is the screwball auteur in charge of cranking out reel after reel of cowboy action. And Blythe Danner plays a hard-boiled studio employee, melted by Lewis's sweet character. (For youngsters: she's Gwyneth Paltrow's mom.)

I don't want to oversell this movie, but I still laughed a lot, even given the thirty-six years between the first time I saw it and the second. If you have Amazon Prime, and 102 minutes to spare, you might enjoy it too.


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:39 AM EDT

The Secret Knowledge

[Amazon Link]

David Mamet, well-regarded playwright, screenwriter, and director, made kind of a splash a few years back with an essay in The Village Voice titled: "Why I Am No Longer a 'Brain-Dead Liberal'". This book is a fuller explanation of those views. (The library at the University Near Here bought it without me even asking. Good for them.)

It's a collection of relatively short chapters/essays. He lists his inspirations in the acknowledgements: Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Whittaker Chambers. (This last via a gift of a copy of Witness from Jon Voight.) Also the radio voices of Dennis Prager, Hugh Hewitt, Michael Medved, and Glenn Beck. Those are—gosh—pretty good choices.

And if you want to check out what happends when those guys inspire an insightful, colorful, world-class writer, this book is it.

I have quibbles. Mamet attributes the notion of the "constrained" or "tragic" view of the world (as opposed to the "unconstrained"/"anointed" view) to Hayek; I'm pretty sure it should be Sowell.

Mamet is fond of broad and aggressive generalization in support of his arguments. This is red meat to folks like me, and maybe you. Fence-sitters might not be persuaded. For example (page 77):

What is Big Government but the Executive's cocaine dream, an activity devoted solely to jockeying for position, in which he may find license for malversation and may take the company treasury and direct it toward those people who will support his continued incumbency— it is within the law.
… I know what he means. Someone else may look at that "solely" and dismiss the whole point, or worse, the whole book.

I'm particularly fond of this anecdote in one of the later chapters:

My daughter had an heiress in her elementary school class.

The two were discussing their various bedtimes. And the heiress said that every evening, at ten o'clock, she went to the small refrigerator in her room, and took out her usual snack: fresh berries and organic yogurt dripped with honey.

My daughter asked, "Who puts it there?"

The heiress paused for a while, and said, "… I don't know."

Hell, that's not just an anecdote, that's a f'n parable. Sorry, I'm beginning to type like a Mamet character might talk. But aren't we all, as 21st century USAians, kind of like that little heiress, too many of us forgetting how the berries and yogurt got into our refrigerators?

Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:41 AM EDT

Source Code

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

I initially thought this would be 90 minutes of Jake Gyllenhaal reciting snippets of C, or discussing the inner workings of the Linux kernel. But no. As near as I can tell, no actual source code is shown or referenced. It's nevertheless a pretty decent movie.

Jake plays Captain Colter Stevens, whose last memories are of his service as a chopper pilot in Afghanistan. He suddenly finds himself on a Chicago commuter train, being chatted up by an attractive woman (Michelle Monaghan), who appears to know him. This is, of course, confusing to him.

I think I yelled at the screen: "Dude, it's Michelle Monaghan. Just go with it, see what happens!"

Unfortunately, what happens is that the train blows up. And Stevens finds himself in some sort of capsule, even more disoriented, talking to a high-tech anti-terrorist team. And this is reality: the explosion has already happened, but thanks to some very impressive pseudo-scientific verbiage and handwaving, Stevens' conciousness can be beamed into one of the victims' heads shortly before it occurs. His mission is to discover the culprit, and prevent an even more dastardly deed in the works. He chooses to take on two additional tasks: to find out the reality of his situation and (seemingly hopeless) to save the train and its passengers.

Definitely an above-average science-fiction thriller. It's directed by Duncan Jones, who previously directed Moon a couple years back.


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:35 AM EDT

Captain America: The First Avenger

[5.0
stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Mrs. Salad disclaimed any interest in seeing this; I suspect that she may be a sleeper HYDRA agent. But I didn't let that niggling detail stop me from heading off to the Cheap Theatre to check it out.

And it was awesome. Also, it was good.

A perennial worry with these movies is that they're going to traduce my early-70's comic book memories, making something violently at odds with my perceived fictional reality. And they didn't do that. Two thumbs up.

After a brief present-day prologue (that any Captain America fan will recognize), we're into Cap's origin story; in a parallel thread, we follow the evil Red Skull, aiming (as usual) for world domination. The Skull makes his initial Nazi allies look like wimps.

The cast is fine. Chris Evans was kind of insufferable as Johnny Storm, but does a good job here, projecting a straightforward all-American heroism. Tommy Lee Jones is wonderful as Colonel Phillips, initially skeptical about Cap's usefulness, eventually to be won over. Stanley Tucci has a small but vital role. Toby Jones—well, he's born to play either Truman Capote or Dr. Zola; guess which one he is here?

And, of course, Hugo Weaving is a perfect Red Skull.


Last Modified 2013-02-17 6:10 AM EST

The Phony Campaign

2011-08-07 Update

[phony baloney]

Almost 2 million Google hits mysteriously vanished for Mitt Romney, dropping him to a milddling fourth place in our phony poll:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2011-07-31
"Barack Obama" phony 6,990,000 +140,000
"Michele Bachmann" phony 4,660,000 -210,000
"Sarah Palin" phony 4,490,000 +10,000
"Mitt Romney" phony 3,070,000 -1,840,000
"Rick Perry" phony 2,020,000 +20,000
"Tim Pawlenty" phony 1,150,000 -440,000
"Jon Huntsman" phony 1,060,000 +77,000

  • Don't look now, but the Intraders judge President Obama's chances at re-election at (as I type) 52.7%; they were as high as 70% in early May, post-Osama.

  • We don't pay much attention to Newt Gingrich any more, but he's still officially running. And this week it was reported that most of his Twitter followers are fake.

    Yesterday Newt Gingrich laid out a new argument for why he should be the GOP presidential nominee: He's got the most Twitter followers. But according to a former Gingrich staffer, he bought them.

    If you read the story, they don't actually know that. The "former Gingrich staffer" is conveniently anonymous. And the Gingrich campaign has denied everything.

    On the other hand, a company named PeekYou claims to have analyzed Newt's followers, and deemed only 8% of them to be "human". They don't break down the 92% non-human further. How many Klingons?

  • Patrick M. Byrne, CEO of Overstock.com, got burned by Jon Huntsman, and wrote about it this week in Politico.

    In mid-2004, Jon Huntsman, who was running for Utah governor, sat in my Salt Lake City living room and asked about my political beliefs. I only care about one state-level issue, I told him: school choice.

    "Vouchers are my main issue, too!" Huntsman replied. "Vouchers are the reason I am running for governor." He waxed enthusiastically, "I want to go down in history as the voucher governor." (These are direct quotes, to which I have two witnesses.)

    But once Huntsman was governor, his voucher ardor quickly cooled. A few years later, Byrne contacted Huntsman:

    I sent word, asking, "I thought that this was your 'main issue', and 'the reason you ran for governor'?" Huntsman replied with only a text: "Campaigning for vouchers is outside my comfort zone."

    Byrne now considers a President Huntsman to be "unthinkable."

  • Steve Chapman looks at GOP candidates and finds their Constitutional devotion to the 10th Amendment to be phony. The candidates, Chapman notes,

    … support the 10th Amendment except when they don't. When New York legalized same-sex marriage, Perry first said, "That's New York, and that's their business, and that's fine with me." But he soon reversed course, endorsing the Federal Marriage Amendment, which says marriage "shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman."

    Bachmann has made a similar exception. Asked about same-sex marriage in New York, she said that "the states have the right to set the laws that they want to set." Then she threw herself behind a constitutional amendment to repeal that right.

    Pawlenty? Romney? More of the same. The conspicuous exception is Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, who has a weirdly consistent respect for the principles of federalism.

    Pun Salad adds: Gary Johnson, too.


Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:25 PM EST

Dick Harpootles Haley

[Nikki Haley]

"Harpootle" is a word I just invented. Its rough definition is "to attack someone in a way that reveals the attacker as foolish, petty, vile, and/or stupid."

It's named after Dick Harpootlian, whose previous claim to fame was having his name relentlessly mentioned by professional humorist Dave Barry during the 2008 New Hampshire Presidential Primary. (See here; here; here; here; here.)

Dick (or as his friends call him, "Dick") has since become chairman of South Carolina's Democratic Party.

The SC Dems are in pretty sad shape: they are a solid minority in both houses of the state's legislature; both of the state's US senators are Republicans; Democrats hold only one of SC's six US House seats. They nominated last year's most (um) unusual candidate to run against Senator Jim DeMint, Mr. Alvin Greene.

And, despite the previous GOP governor having spectacularly self-immolated, Democrats also failed to win the state's gubernatorial election last year. The current governor is Nimrata "Nikki" Randhawa Haley, elected with considerable help from Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.

Which makes her a target for Dick Harpootlian.

"Well," I hear you saying, "that's his job, right?" Sure, but Dick has a history of going well beyond normal interparty bickering and cheap shots. He's flung the word "retard" at his political opponents; he called SC Senator Lindsay Graham "light in the loafers"; when he ran for office decades back he famously said: "I don't want to buy the black vote. I just want to rent it for a day."

But his most recent harpootling (last week, when everyone else was concentrating on how fast the US should be going broke) was aimed at Governor Haley. Some enterprising Democrat snoops were able to pry out her 2001 voter registration application from the state. And—omigod—it lists her race as W! As in White!

And as you can tell from her picture up there,… Um, well, as you can probably tell from her full name, Governor Haley is of Indian origin. (Specifically, both her parents are immigrants from India.) Dick harpootled Nikki in the pages of USA Today:

South Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Dick Harpootlian said the 2001 document the party unearthed shows the 39-year-old Haley plays on her race for political convenience.

"She can't even tell the truth about her racial heritage," Harpootlian said.

Now, how bad does it look to have an old white Southern Democrat pol outraged because he thinks someone with other than a pure European bloodline is trying to "pass"?

Dick was also quoted in Charleston's Post and Courier:

"Haley has been appearing on television interviews where she calls herself a minority -- when it suits her," Harpootlian said. "When she registers to vote, she says she is white. She has developed a pattern of saying whatever is beneficial to her at the moment."
Harpootlian, on the other hand, has developed a pattern of saying whatever pops into his head at the moment, no matter how silly.

It was not "beneficial" to Nikki Haley to have that "W" appear on her voter registration. It didn't get her a free ride to the polls or a coupon for a Big Mac. South Carolina is simply one of those states which, due to previous bad behavior, has to report racial classifications under the Voting Rights Act. Her "W" was just fed with millions of others into a statistical stream analyzed by Your Federal Government to somehow guarantee there was no race-based vote-denying going on.

There are some details at the linked stories about the uncertain provenance of that "W": Was it automatically fed from Haley's driver's license data? Did she answer that question differently in the past? Curious, race-obsessed minds want to know!

But I don't need to know.

Odious as it is, Your Federal Government has an official document on racial classification. It recognizes five Official Races that must appear on any categorization: "[1] American Indian or Alaska Native, [2] Asian, [3] Black or African American, [4] Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander, and [5] White." There are two Official Ethnicities: [1] "Hispanic or Latino" and [2] "Not Hispanic or Latino." These categories were derived not from DNA analysis or rigorous social science, but intensive political negotiations.

The "Asian race" category is pretty much a catch-all, roughly "descended from anyone on that end of the world". ("A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.") So, it would have been technically OK with the Feds if Haley wanted to pick that "race" for herself.

But she (apparently) didn't, and (most importantly) didn't have to. Because even the official document says:

[S]elf-identification is the preferred means of obtaining information about an individual's race and ethnicity, except in instances where observer identification is more practical (e.g., completing a death certificate).
Get that, Harpootlian? Governor Haley is free to classify herself anyway she wants.

I found this New York Times anecdote about Nikki's early life in Bamberg, SC kind of touching:

As a girl, her parents -- the first Indian immigrants this small, working-class town had ever seen -- entered Nikki and her sister in the Little Miss Bamberg pageant. The judges of the contest, one that crowned one black queen and one white queen, were so flummoxed that they simply disqualified Nikki and her sister, Simran -- but not before Nikki, about 5, sang "This Land Is Your Land."
That was over 30 years ago. Then as now, people seem a lot more concerned with Nikki Haley's "racial heritage" than she is.

Cowboys & Aliens

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

There seems to be an intensely bi-modal affection distribution for this flick. Or: people either love it or hate it. I was willing to bet that given (1) cowboys, (2) aliens, (3) Harrison Ford, and (4) Daniel Craig, I would be in the former group, so we set out on a rare expedition to a theatre.

(Where we live, we pretty much have a choice between the Expensive Theatre and the Cheap Theatre. We splurged on Expensive.)

Here's the story: Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of nowhere, with most of his memory missing, but with an unexplained bracelet that he can't get off. It becomes apparent that he remembers how to defend himself, though, as he's near-immediately required to defeat a bunch of murderous scalp- and bounty-hunters. He makes his way to a small town, where he gets on the wrong side of a spoiled, violent brat who happens to be the son of an ill-tempered cattle magnate (that's Harrison Ford). But he catches the eye of a pistol-packing mysterious babe (Olivia Wilde).

And then the aliens show up in flying ray-gun-firing people-grabbers, causing destruction and chaos in their wake. The human adversaries put aside their petty disagreements to fight the alien menace. This all takes place before even H.G. Wells, so the humans are pretty confused, never having seen even fictional extraterrestrials.

I had a good time. In addition to the principals, there is a pretty good supporting cast, including Sam Rockwell, David Carradine, and Clancy Brown. The filmmakers were obviously trying to make a commercial summer blockbuster; the standard approach is to go Big, Loud, and Stupid. But they went the extra mile, giving sly respect to both genres they're pilfering, and provided three-dimensional characters. (In—yay—a 2-D movie.)


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:34 AM EDT

Cedar Rapids

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

When I was a kid, my sister and I talked about jobs we wouldn't do. And my top-of-the-list job was: insurance salesman. Icky poo!

I'm here to tell you: I was a jerky little kid. This movie convinced me of that. Here's the protagonist, Tim Lippe, explaining his career choice:

I lost my dad in a sawmill accident when I was six years old.… But the insurance agent fought like a tiger with the sawmill to make sure my mom and I were taken care of, and we were. And I remember thinking, when I was a kid, I was just like: "This guy is a hero." I gotta say, I think insurance agents get a bum rap.
That quote is delivered absolutely straight, without a speck of mockery, or even meta-mockery. And it made me feel guilty about a smart-ass remark I made decades ago.

Anyway: Tim is played by Ed Helms, and he's a decent, if slightly naïve, guy, just fine with being an insurance guy in Brown Valley, Wisconsin. He's carrying on a torrid affair with an older divorcee—she used to be his social studies teacher when he was in seventh grade!—but it's pretty clear his intentions are honorable.

Due to an unfortunate-but-sordid fatal accident befalling his superiors, he's picked at the last minute to represent the agency at the big shindig in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

The gathered insurance agents treat Cedar Rapids as if it were Las Vegas, an occasion for drunken partying and shenanigans. Tim (of course) tries to stay above that; he's blissfully clueless when approached by a Cedar Rapids hooker, and inept at dealing with Joan Ostrowski-Fox, an agent from Omaha looking to sow a few wild, but well-insured, oats.

But things eventually get wildly out of hand. (As the MPAA says, it's rated R for "crude and sexual content, language and drug use.") It's a lot of fun to watch. Ed Helms was a brilliant choice.

Consumer note: not actually filmed in Cedar Rapids. IMDB says: Ann Arbor, Michigan. So, they couldn't call it Ann Arbor?


Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:33 AM EDT

Pegasus Descending

[Amazon Link]

This 2006 book is James Lee Burke's 15th novel featuring the intrepid Cajun detective, Dave Robicheaux. As usual, it features incidents buried in Dave's checkered past reverberating back up to the surface in sordid and violent ways, described with writing so good it will bring tears to your eyes.

Back in the 80's, when Dave was drinking, he failed to aid Dallas Klein, a friend getting held up in an armored car heist; Dallas wound up dead. Maybe Dave couldn't have stopped it even if he'd been sober; but the possibility has weighed on his mind for those many years.

But in the present day, Dave is doing his detective job with the Iberia Parish Sheriff's Department. There's "Crustacean Man", a months-dead unidentified corpse discovered in a coulee by a highway, so named because his body is covered with crayfish when he's extricated; his injuries don't seem to be consistent with a normal hit-and-run. Also: a lovely young woman is an apparent suicide victim; although as far as anyone knew she was intelligent, sensitive, and virtuous, her body is full of drugs and booze, and there's evidence of multiple recent sexual partners.

And Dallas's now-grown daughter, Trish, has also appeared. And it looks like she's out to remove some money from casinos owned by the guy who was suspected to be behind the armored car heist. And (somehow) she hooks up with Dave's best friend, private eye Clete Purcel.

It doesn't seem like these things could be connected. But Dave has a feeling they are.

I really enjoy James Lee Burke's writing. See if you agree. Here's his description of the scene of the robbery, Opa-Locka, Florida:

Opa-Locka was a gigantic pink stucco-and-plaster nightmare designed to look like a complex of Arabian mosques. In the early a.m., fog from either the ocean or the Glades, mixed with dust and carbon monoxide, clung like strips of dirty cotton to the decrepit minarets and cracked walls of the buildings. At night the streets were lit by vapor lamps that glowed inside the fog with the dirty iridescence that you associate with security lighting in prison compounds. The palms on the avenues were blighted by disease, the fronds clacking dryly in the fouled air. The yards in the neighborhoods contained more gray sand than grass. Homes that could contain little of value were protected by bars on the windows and razor wire on the fences. Lowrider gangbangers, the broken mufflers of their gas-guzzlers throbbing against the asphalt, smashed liquor bottles on the sidewalks and no one said a word.
This is not going to get the author hired by the Opa-Locka Tourist Bureau, but I like it.

Last Modified 2012-09-25 11:33 AM EDT