Spade & Archer

[Amazon Link]

Aficionados of the private eye genre will probably have read, if not memorized, The Maltese Falcon, the 1930 novel by Dashiell Hammett that birthed the tradition of the hard-boiled PI. And no doubt watched the 1941 movie version, with Humphrey Bogart playing Sam Spade.

But how did Spade get there? What was the deal with Archer, the partner Spade so clearly despised? And not to mention the, um, complex relationship between Spade and Archer's wife, Iva? How did he get his sassy secretary, Effie Perrine? With approval of the Hammett estate, Joe Gores wrote this prequel to answer these questions and more.

It spans a number of years in the 1920's, mainly set around San Francisco and environs. No bridges, so the only way to get to Sausalito or Oakland is by ferry. (But who wants to go to Oakland?) Spade is equally at ease in poolroom dives and swanky gentlemen's clubs. He's especially good and handling delicate situations without involving the cops, a fact that invites the ire of some cops. While on his cases, Spade becomes aware of his Moriarty, a shadowy figure who's willing—nay, eager—to brutally murder anyone who might get in his way.

There are a number of amusing nods to Hammett readers. We get the full Flitcraft story. When Spade needs a nom de plume to investigate some shenanigans down at the docks, he picks "Nick Charles". (Of course. What else would he pick?) When visiting the Bohemian Club with a client, he notes a bird statue on top of a bookcase; "A falcon?", he asks. Nope, an owl.

The book is clearly a labor of love for Gores, a writer I've liked for quite a while. It's the result of meticulous research and respectful insight into Spade's character.


Last Modified 2013-08-26 6:18 AM EDT

Mud

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

Ellis and his friend Neckbone (really) are two Arkansas kids, living near (or, in Ellis's case, on) the river. Life is far from perfect: Neckbone lives with his goofy Uncle Galen, while Ellis's parents are on the verge of splitsville. Their families make their living from the river, and nobody's getting rich doing so.

But that doesn't mean kids can't do kid things. Specifically, they've found an abandoned boat storm-stranded high in the trees on a Mississippi River island. Cool! But their explorations uncover a guy (Matthew McConaughey) living on the island, dirty and uncivilized. His name: Mud. Mud provides them more adventure than bargained for.

Mud's goal is to run off with the once-lovely Juniper (Reese Witherspoon). Complicating things is that Mud is a fugitive wanted for killing Juniper's abusive boyfriend, so he's hiding both from the law and the boyfriend's rich and lawless family.

After two movies that were totally predictable, it was fun to see something different, with complex and sympathetic characters. There's an unexpectedly violent climax.

Michael Shannon plays goofy Uncle Galen, but does not once demand to be Kneeled Before.

The Big Wedding

[1.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A request by Mrs. Salad, who failed to note the poor IMDB score and the lousy reviews. (A stunning 7% on the Tomatometer.)

The previous movie we watched (Trouble With The Curve) was an example of how good actors can save a mediocre script.

Even Robert De Niro can't save this one. But, to be fair, he doesn't try very hard.

So the plot is: Don (De Niro) and Ellie (Diane Keaton) are long-divorced, and Don has a long term, but non-marital, relationship with Bebe (Susan Sarandon). Don and Ellie's adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) is getting married to Missy (Amanda Seyfried). This causes Alejandro's siblings Jared (Topher Grace) and Lyla (Katherine Heigl) to also appear. (To add to the amusement: Jared is a thirty-year-old virgin by choice; Lyla's relationship with her husband is strained because of her difficulty getting pregnant.)

Let's see, what else? Oh yes: Alejandro's bio-mom (Madonna) is coming up for the ceremony, accompanied by daughter Nuria. It's assumed bio-mom is a big traditional Catholic, so Don and Ellie must pretend to still be married. Nuria is kind of a slut, who immediately starts hitting remorselessly on virginal Jared.

And Robin Williams plays the officiating priest. Christine Ebersole and David Rasche are the bride's bigoted parents. (Filmmakers: "Maybe people will laugh if we put enough actors in the movie who were funny in the 1980s.")

It's about an hour and a half of stupid sex jokes, dialog that no human being would ever say spontaneously, and heavily contrived situations. I think I laughed once. (Robin Williams: "Hell it is, then.")

IMDB helpfully points out that De Niro and Diane Keaton have appeared in the same movie only once before: The Godfather: Part II. This movie would have been helped immensely by sudden murderous violence.

Trouble With The Curve

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

Here's my semi-cynical take: There are only three or four reasons to see this movie, and they are: Clint Eastwood, Amy Adams, Justin Timberlake, and (arguably) John Goodman. Replacing those folks with equivalently-aged lower-downs on the Hollywood totem pole, say Rod Taylor, Alyson Hannigan, Simon Helberg, and Dan Aykroyd (talented as they are), and you've got a straight-to-Lifetime-Network movie. Or maybe the Hallmark Channel. Either way, the only way I would watch it would be if I were bedridden, and I couldn't get to the remote.

But there's a reason those folks are big stars. Because they make this outstandingly lame script work pretty well, even as you're realizing how lame it is.

Mr. Eastwood plays Gus. He's a cranky widower, and a baseball scout for the Atlanta Braves, devoutly protected by his boss, Pete (Mr. Goodman). But all kinds of trouble is coming Gus's way: his eyesight is deteriorating, and young asshole whippersnappers in the Braves organization have watched Moneyball too many times, and think they can just crunch the stats and compute which players to draft; no need for the old geezers like Gus to actually watch them play.

Pete's concerned about Gus, and importunes Gus's semi-estranged daughter Mickey (Ms. Adams) to visit while he's on tour in North Carolina, evaluating a prospective young hitter. Mickey is a hard-charging lawyer, and her visit puts her long-desired promotion in jeopardy. Gus's and Mickey's interaction is tempestuous, and things are further complicated by Johnny (Mr. Timberlake), the scout assigned to evaluate the same player. He quickly develops a Thing for Mickey. (And who wouldn't? It's Amy Adams.)

Everything is extremely predictable. Personalities are taken straight from Richard Scarry's Big Book of Stereotypes. The only surprising thing: the ending is driven by a deus ex machina so completely coincidental and fortuitous that Dickens himself probably would scoff at it.

Still, I had a good time. Because: Eastwood, Adams, Timberlake, Goodman.

What Money Can't Buy

[Amazon Link]

Now and then I pick up a book by someone on the Other Side. Maybe I'm trying to demonstrate, at least to myself, that I have an open mind. Or maybe I'm trying to figure out what makes the Other Side tick. In this case, I was spurred to pick up What Money Can't Buy from the University Near Here's Dimond Library by this Reason book review by Tom Palmer. Palmer's review was very negative, so (in this case) I was also wondering: could it really be that bad? The book's author, Michael Sandel, is a famous Harvard philosophy professor, after all.

I was wrong to doubt Palmer. Sandel's book really is that bad.

I asked the Google's Autocomplete to weigh in:

what google says money can't buy

But (as it turns out) Sandel's book isn't about that at all. The subtitle is "The Moral Limits of Markets". A more accurate title would have been What Money Shouldn't Be Able To Buy. Even more on-target: What I Don't Think Money Should Be Able To Buy. But nobody asked me.

Sandel is disquieted by a number of things. For example, in the book's final chapter, he reminisces about getting Harmon Killebrew's autograph (for free) when he was a kid and attending Game 7 of the 1965 World Series at Minneapolis's Metropolitan Stadium for $8.

But nowadays, the Twins play at the corporate-named Target Field. The Mall of America now stands on the gravesite of Metropolitan Field. A kid can probably find a ball player who will give a free autograph, but that's not the way to bet. And the Twins haven't been in the World Series since 1991, but if they somehow ever do again, a ticket would set you back more than $8.

On the other hand, by all accounts, Target Field is a much nicer place to watch and play baseball than Metropolitan Field or its successor, the HHH Metrodome.

But I digress. But so does Sandel. Sandel bemoans corporate intrusion and big money into all aspects of life: stadium names; skyboxes for the fat cats who can afford them; big athlete salaries; the explosion of the sports memorabilia market; even how the economic analysis of baseball player quality has resulted in longer at-bats, more pitching changes, fewer base-stealing attempts, resulting in a less-interesting game. And more.

[He doesn't mention the "Amica Pitch Zone" on the NESN Red Sox game broadcasts, an automated computer-generated replay of where a pitch fell in relation to the strike zone. Don and Jerry probably utter that phrase 20-30 times in your average game.]

And that's just in one chapter. It's almost like listening to some old codger reminisce about the good old days, and how these modern times are just no damned good.

Generally speaking, Sandel dislikes what he sees as the encroachment of markets and money into areas where they were previously less common. He views this encroachment as corrupting, corrosive, crowding out non-pecuniary values. To a lesser extent, it can also be coercive, when a person is "forced" into the marketplace (selling a kidney, for example) when he has no better alternatives.

Sandel's examples are interesting, but too often his critiques are fuzzy handwaving to people (like me) who don't share his values. In fact, Sandel never bothers to deal seriously with the fact that there are people who don't share his values. And he doesn't seem to recognize the problems inherent in non-market systems for allocating goods and services.

He (probably wisely) avoids specifically advocating any legislation to limit the commercialization and commodification he deplores. But one can't help but think that's just around the corner from all the moralizing.

A Wanted Man

[Amazon Link]

So I'm stuck in the Kansas City International airport, waiting for the flight back to Boston, and I've only brought one book with me (Sacré Bleu) which I've finished. I'm phobic about getting caught without reading material.

So I go to the airport newsstand and break my rule about reading series in publishing-date order. I get A Wanted Man (cover screaming "a JACK REACHER novel") by Lee Child, skipping over about six intervening Reacher novels. It probably doesn't matter. Because it's the same Reacher we know and love.

And (once again) Reacher finds himself dragged into a situation simply because he's hitching a ride. This time, on an I-80 exit in the middle of Nebraska. Reacher wants to go to Virginia for some reason. (He doesn't make it, at least not in this book.)

Reacher attracts violence and trouble like a magnet. I imagine I could hitchhike for years and never have anything interesting happen to me. Not Reacher. Every damn time, it's mayhem, duplicity, and murder.

His new fellow travellers are two nondescript guys and a woman. The guys are telling him stories that don't add up, obvious lies. And the woman doesn't say much, seemingly cowed and frightened.

Meanwhile, down the road, local law enforcement has a grisly murder to deal with at an abandoned irrigation pumping station, seemingly committed by a couple of nondescript guys. The cops are pretty good, and put out roadblocks to stop any car with two guys. But (hah) that won't include the car Reacher's riding in, because it now has three guys and a woman.

Reacher novels have a common thread, worth keeping in mind: things are not what they seem. (If they were what they seem, the book could have been a couple-three hundred pages shorter.) You can try to figure out the story on your own, or you can wait until Reacher tells you what he's figured out. At this point, I'm going with the latter strategy.

Robin Hood

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

We missed this when it came out in theatres in 2010, and didn't even manage to pick it up when it first came out on DVD. But it worked its way to the top of the Netflix queue, and guess what? Not bad at all. Russell Crowe in the title role. Directed by Ridley Scott.

I can see being disappointed, as some viewers were. That's a Gladiator combination, and… well, this is no Gladiator. Still, taken on it's own terms, it's fun.

Oh, it also makes hash of the Robin Hood mythology and known history. That's probably acceptable, given the historical haziness of the legend. Here, Robin is a skilled (of course) archer fighting in the Crusades under Richard the Lionheart. Sick of war, he just wants to get back home to England. But a series of mishaps directs him to Nottingham, where he assumes the identity of a local nobleman. Nottingham, like the rest of the country, is cruelly oppressed by the arbitrary thievery of King John, who's assumed the throne in Richard's absence. (The Sheriff of Nottingham doesn't have much to do here; he's not much of a villain, just a fickle nebbish. The real baddie is a guy named Godfrey, played by Mark Strong.)

Most of the plot is driven by political intrigue, as English unity falls apart and a French invasion threatens. (One of the problems: too much political intrigue, not enough action.)

Cate Blanchett plays Marian, very well. A minor good-guy role is played by William Hurt, and I didn't recognize him under his beard.

The Infinite Resource

[Amazon Link]

Another win for the Interlibrary Loan system of the University Near Here: they were able to snag a copy of this book from the Shapiro Library of Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. (The UNH Library also decided to buy the book.)

I decided to read the book based on an author interview and a book review at Reason.

In the first part of the book, Naam points out the various imminent challenges that confront humanity: the greenhouse effect, running out of crude, aquifer depletion, fishery depletion, overpopulation, drought—basically, the whole litany of environmental disaster.

But remember, Naam is endorsed by Reason, so that's not the whole story. In the remainder of the book, he provides plenty of reasons for optimism, because he is a believer in the "infinite resource" that is human innovation.

So: we will deal with global warming by slapping on a carbon tax and transitioning to solar/wind/nuclear sources of energy. Advances in desalinization and smarter commons management will give us plenty of fresh water and fish to swim in it. Biotechnology will provide plenty of cheaply-produced food. And, basically, if we manage to avoid utter disaster, the planet's population will stabilize and most of the earth's inhabitants will live far better than today.

The book is an easy read, written in what I think of as USA Today style, self-conciously chatty. It would be accessible to a bright high-school student, so if you have one near you, push this book upon him.

Major quibble: Naam is an anti-skeptic. In the first part of the book, there's not a single bit of environmental hysteria to which he doesn't enthusiastically subscribe. (Maybe you shoud also get that bright high-school kid something by Bjørn Lomborg too.)

And, on the flip side, he may be wildly over-optimistic about the potential panaceas—it's easy to believe he never saw a press release from a solar or biotech company that he didn't swallow whole.

But, since he is not an idiot, he's evisceratingly critical of the right things too: the corn ethanol boondoggle, organic farming, the anti-GMO folks, etc.

But he doesn't have to be right about everything; even if he bats .500 or so, he makes an impressive case for being optimistic about the future. (And that USA Today style can occasionally give way to a penetrating insight or a wonderfully on-target argument.)


Last Modified 2016-09-17 3:43 AM EDT

The Crazies

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

A decent, if somewhat predictable horror/thriller. It stars a pre-Raylan Timothy Olyphant, playing David, a sheriff in a small Iowa town near Cedar Rapids. Regrettably, some of its citizens are turning into homicidal maniacs. (I hate it when that happens.)

What turns out to be the cause—slight spoiler ahead, sorry—is a crashed plane transporting a biological warfare agent. (Spray an enemy army with it, and they turn into homicidal maniacs—good plan! What could go wrong there?) The government is anxious to contain this outbreak, and (above all) to also hush it up, because I bet this kind of thing is way in violation of a number of treaties.

So the movie is a combination of your standard zombie plot (more and more of your neighbors want to kill you) and your standard government paranoia plot (most civil servants want you dead too).

David must navigate this increasingly chaotic and violent situation, escaping with his wife and a small band of survivors. But, given the genre: you don't expect a lot of that small band is going to make it to the end of the movie.

This is a remake of a 1970 George Romero flick, which I have not seen. (As I type, it's IMDB-rated even lower than this one, so I'm not likely to.)

Mark Steyn For Senate!

Mark Steyn Says Parataxis Oh my goodness, what an insanely great idea: run Mark Steyn for the US Senate seat from New Hampshire, currently held by Jeanne Shaheen, who's up for re-election in 2014.

That is, unless she decides to resign rather than face Steyn. I would.

Background: this idea was floated Thursday night by talk show host Hugh Hewitt.

Comment: OK, he might not win. As he points out, as a writer on matters political, he has a long paper trail. Even considering that small cohort, he's unusually unafraid to offend, and he rarely (if ever) obfuscates. So opposition researchers would have plenty to work with.

But, unlike the establishment nebbishes the GOP is likely to nominate otherwise, he would be someone I could enthusiastically vote for. And (since I've seen him in action) I'm reasonably sure Steyn could out-argue, out-charm, and outclass Senator Shaheen in a one-on-one debate.

If you're unfamiliar with things Steyn, National Review maintains an archive of his stuff. Check it out.

I, for one, would get a kick out of a Senator who could come up with:

But don’t worry. Under Obamacare, if you like your penis, you’ll be able to keep your penis.

… and on his own. Without a speechwriter or teleprompter.

There is already a SteynForSenate.com website, where one can sign a petition to urge Mr. Steyn to take the plunge. I've already signed.

Sacré Bleu

[Amazon Link]

Or, as they say in Canada: Soccer Blue!

It's always a pleasure to read a Christopher Moore book. Like nobody else. Reliably funny, ribald, profane, demented, inventive. And I mean that in the nicest way.

And it's another unlikely subject: mostly set in late 19th Century France, and built around the lives of the Impressionists. A host of actual people appear: primarily Toulouse-Lautrec, but also Van Gogh (briefly), Monet, Pissaro, Seurat, Renoir,… It was enough to make me wish I'd paid more attention in Art History class. Oh, wait. I never took an Art History class. (Mr Moore has a chapter guide on the web to provide more background; his research is impressive.)

I don't want to give the impression that the book is overly intellectual and pretentious. It's fun, even if you're an ignorant philistine like me. Sacré Bleu is technically a profanity, but refers to the color associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus. The plot of the book turns around that particular shade of blue paint, available only from The Colorman. The Colorman is a disgusting little troll, and he's often in the company of a beautiful woman. They have a complex relationship, and a near-complete disregard for human life.

The hero of the book, Lucien, is a baker, but also a gifted painter. He is enraptured and inspired by Juliette, who poses for him, but also takes him on inexplicable mysterious jaunts during which time in the outside world seems to stop. Lucien becomes a detective (with sidekick Toulouse-Lautrec) to find out what's going on. And, as it turns out, it's an era-spanning tale, full of deception, violence, and art.