The Place Beyond the Pines

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

We can get one thing out of the way: the title refers to Schenectady, New York. The city's name, according to Wikipedia,

…is derived loosely from a Mohawk word for "on that side of the pinery," or "near the pines," or "place beyond the pine plains."

So there you go. If you watch this movie, you won't have to wonder about that, like I did.

The movie is an epic, played out over the span of 15 years or so. But it begins when Luke (Ryan Gosling), a carny motorcycle stunt driver, becomes aware that he's the father of one-year-old Jason. Jason's mother, Romina (Eva Mendes), is trying to raise the boy with the help of current boyfriend Kofi and her mother.

Luke tries to do the "right thing". He quits the carny and its nomadic ways, and tries to settle down with an honest job. But (surprisingly enough) his motorcycle stunt skills do not translate smoothly into the mainstream Schenectady job market. So (ironically, I guess) he tries Career Plan B: professional Schenectady bank robber.

Unsurprisingly, this does not go well. Luke's clumsy efforts to horn in on the increasingly stable domesticity of Kofi and Romina go sour. His partner in crime gets cold feet, and their relationship goes south too. Eventually,… well, no spoilers here, but the other male star in this movie is Bradley Cooper, and when he shows up, playing a beat cop, the movie takes an unexpected (for me) turn.

The movie is noirish, skillfully acted and executed. Not for those looking for tales of redemption and triumph, though.

Trance

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

Well over four years ago, Pun Salad opined: "I'm not a violent person, but there's something about James McAvoy that makes me want to give him a good slap." Guess what? McAvoy gets slapped around, and much worse, in this movie. It's almost a feelgood romp for me.

In Trance, McAvoy plays art auctioneer Simon. His company is auctioning off Goya's Witches in the Air (which is an actual famous painting), when a well-planned heist springs into operation. Simon attempts to execute the standard plan: grab the most valuable thing being auctioned (the Goya in this case), and get it to a chute which will whoosh it into a secure time-locked safe. But the head crook (Vincent Cassel), confronts Simon before that happens.

But then … something happens. It's not clear what. But nobody knows the fate of the painting. The bad guys don't have it. The good guys don't either. Simon has suffered a serious head injury (yay!), and he doesn't remember what he did.

Soon, Simon (after more physical abuse) is off to beautiful Elizabeth, a hypnotherapist, in hopes that her hypnoskills will allow the painting to be located. What happens instead: a twisty web of betrayal, violence, sex, and unexpected revelations.

Oh yeah, the MPAA says: "sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, some grisly images, and language." If you can stand that, it's a very competently directed (Danny Boyle) crime thriller.

V is for Vengeance

[Amazon Link]

Well, at last I've caught up with Sue Grafton's alphabet-based Kinsey Millhone novels, now that I've read V is For Vengeance! …

Oh, wait a minute. Make that almost caught up.

Anyway: this book has a short prologue where a cocky, albeit stupid, young man goes to a loan shark to finance a Vegas gambling trip. Things do not work out well for him, and he gets tossed off the roof of a parking garage.

Fast forward to "today" (Where "today" is 1988.) Kinsey's in a department store and notices something the store cops don't: two women are busy shoplifting expensive stuff. She alerts security. One woman is apprehended, the other escapes, but not before nearly running over Kinsey in her Mercedes.

Normally, that would finish things for Kinsey. But once the captured shoplifter makes bail, she is found deceased, having apparently jumped from a tall bridge. Or was she, like the doofus in the prologue, tossed off? I know which way I'd bet. Her ex-boyfriend hires Kinsey to investigate. Soon she's up against the loan shark and a hostile cop.

Kind of a below-average outing, the characters Kinsey meets aren't very sympathetic or interesting, but that's OK.

Oblivion

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

OK, so Tom Cruise may have some wacky religious beliefs. OK, so he's had some problems maintaining a stable marriage. OK, so he turned Mission Impossible from a cat-and-mouse espionage thriller into yet another big dumb action franchise. OK, so he's not tall enough to play Jack Reacher. Quibbles aside, the guy chooses some pretty good movies, ones that probably wouldn't have gotten made without his star power behind them.

Here he plays Jack Harper, living in a remote tower high above a ruined Earth, with his lover/co-worker Vika. His job is to fix drones, which prowl the surface looking for "Scavs". The Scavs are the remaining aliens from the Earth-destroying war; they are trying to sabotage the terraforming of Titan, which requires most of Earth's water to be sucked up and transported off-world.

Or at least that's what Jack thinks is going on. That's not what's going on at all. It takes most of the rest of the movie to unwind the actual situation. (His and Vika's relevant memories have been wiped, so there's a clue right there.)

The true situation is revealed in such a way that it sort of makes sense, but I had a hard time trying to figure out the reasons for the deception. Maybe I missed something. Otherwise, it's got something for everyone: a twisty plot you have to actually think about, amazing special effects, intense action, romance, sacrifice... Good job, Tom.

Oz The Great and Powerful

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

It's kind of a neat idea: a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, showing how the Wizard made his way to the enchanted land. (A remake of the original would be kind of sacreligious, I guess. Millions of Judy Garland fans would bitch and moan about whoever played Dorothy, for one thing.)

James Franco plays the future Wizard. His humble beginnings are as a Kansan carnival magician/con artist, and his highest ambitions are to make some semi-dishonest cash and have his (PG-rated) way with a lot of women. (As in the original, these real-world scenes are monochrome; they're also in 4:3 aspect ratio.)

An outraged husband causes Oz to (literally) take flight in a handy circus balloon: a good plan until he runs into the inevitable Kansas tornado, which whisks him to Oz, where things are colorful and widescreen. There he meets the good and evil witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams); he has a hard time telling which are which, though. He also picks up a couple of travelling companions: China Girl (a talking doll) and Finley (a flying monkey, but a nice one). An epic struggle develops between the forces of good and evil over control of the Emerald City.

The movie is directed by the great and powerful Sam Raimi, so it's not bad. It was a 3-D production in the theatres, and there are a lot of visual gags that came off flat (heh) on my exceedingly normal home TV. There are a number of clever homages to the original movie, but intellectual property rights apparently limited the links that could have been made. (No Scarecrow, Tin Man, or Cowardly Lion backstories, sorry.)

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

[Amazon Link]

A recommendation from my lovely and literate daughter, available at the library of the University Near Here.

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is sort of a geek mystery. The protagonist, Clay Jannon, is unemployed in the Bay Area when the book opens. He was working as a web designer for the bright startup company, NewBagel, an effort by ex-Googlers who "wrote software to design and bake the platonic bagel: smooth crunchy skin, soft doughy interior, all in a perfect circle." Unfortunately, the market yawned, the ex-Googlers soon did too, and Clay started looking for work.

He happens upon the unlikely shop in the title. He is taken on as the store's second employee: Clay, Mr. Penumbra, and the other guy work 8-hour shifts, every day. The store has a smattering of normal books, but it soon becomes clear that the real purpose of the store involves the volumes on the impossibly tall shelves, a library from which a series of oddball customers return and check out volumes every so often.

Clay's curiosity gets the best of him; against the rules, he starts trying to make sense out of the special tomes. This turns out to be a life-changing quest, involving Clay's friends. (One of whom has made a small fortune with CGI software to realistically render the female bosom; he is, Clay confides, "the world's leading expert on boob physics.") We are very soon confronted with a mysterious worldwide cult/corporation, which operates in the nexus between typography, cryptography, and immortality.

The book is unusually technically accurate on some geeky details. For example, Clay is a whiz Web programmer, and his language of choice is "Ruby". Which (yes) is an actual thing commonly used for Web development.

It's a lot of fun, and (for UNHers) I've returned the library's copy, so you can snap it up.

Would that make Hanauer and Liu the New McCarthyites?

Open Source = Communism Nick Gillespie of Reason points out a recent commentary from Nick Hanauer and Eric Liu at Bloomberg View titled—get ready—"Libertarians Are the New Communists".

Really.

Gillespie, of course, does a fine takedown, pointing out how fact-challenged and generally awful the Hanauer/Liu effort is. The effort to link libertarianism with the blood-soaked history of Communism would be despicable if it weren't so transparently bogus.

But: Hanauer and Liu. Haven't I seen those names before?

Oh, right! Back in 2008, they wrote a book called (honest) The True Patriot, and advertised it in (of all places) National Review. (A bold move, but I guess NR was happy enough to take their money.) It was a progressive effort to co-opt the "patriotism" label away from … well, patriots. And, operating under the delusion that their policies were "patriotic", they didn't waste a minute in drawing the logical conclusion that anyone who disagreed was "unpatriotic". It was an admitted effort to slap together a "civic religion" around progressivism. But they only managed to implement the worst stereotypes of religiosity correctly: the smug, self-satisfied imagined righteousness of the True Believers; the shrill finger-pointing damnation unleashed upon the heretics who dare dissent from the Holy Writ.

Pun Salad looked at The True Patriot and its shoddy reasoning back in 2008.

But the funny part is the five-year-old ad, which I downloaded and saved here. Here are three of their rhetorical questions meant to question the patriotism of the "far right". (By which, of course, they meant conservative Republicans and the then-current Bush Administration.)

IS IT PATRIOTIC — or even conservative — to support an aggressive expansion of government power to eavesdrop?

IS IT PATRIOTIC — or even conservative — to support tax and fiscal policies that let the wealthiest off the hook, put more burdens on the middle class, and create a massive debt and deficit for the next generation to clean up?

IS IT PATRIOTIC — or even conservative — to throw America’s great military into wars and nation-building adventures that have flimsy justification and no definable end?

Now, I ask you, five years later: given this, this, and this, were Liu and Hanauer presciently questioning Barack Obama's patriotism?

I echo Gillespie's conclusion: if Liu and Hanauer exemplify the best arguments that libertarian critics can come up with, there's every reason to be optimistic about the prospects for liberty.

42

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

This is the second baseball movie we've watched in less than a month, and the second in a row dealing with the racial bigotry of decades past. Occasionally the Lords of Netflix deal out the DVDs that way.

As you probably know, it's a Jackie Robinson biopic, concentrating on the late 1940s when Brooklyn Dodgers owner, Branch Rickey, brought him out of the Negro League Kansas City Monarchs into the Dodger organization. Rickey was looking not just for baseball talent, but for a thick skin: knowing that the first black player would endure humiliation and abuse, he needed someone who would endure it, and prevail over it.

And that's pretty much what happened. The script leans toward hagiography, but that's excusable. Solid acting throughout and a very authentic 1940s atmosphere. (Whoa: there's Ebbets Field.)

Relatively obscure actors play Jackie (Chadwick Boseman) and his wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie). Harrison Ford plays Branch Rickey, and it's OK with me if he gets an Oscar for it. A lot of hey-isn't-that roles: Christopher Meloni as Leo Durocher, Alan Tudyk as a nasty bigoted manager, Hamish Linklater as teammate Ralph Branca, John C. McGinley as announcer Red Barber. Best of all: Max Gail as Burt Shotton; although IMDB shows that he's had an active career, I don't think I've seen him in anything since he played Detective Wojciehowicz on Barney Miller way back when.

(Which led me to check: is Abe Vigoda still alive? You bet.)

The Sapphires

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

This is a nice Australian movie, some serious stuff, a considerable about of funny stuff. The broad plot is standard: "disadvantaged but talented kids succeed by pluck and perseverance." But it's different enough that it kept me interested and even involved.

Things start in 1960's Australia, where the aboriginal population is still widely discriminated against; if anything, it might be worse than the bad old segregated USA. A group of aboriginal girl singers crash a white-only talent contest; they're clearly better than anyone else, singing Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again". But the bigoted judges let a white kid win instead.

This outrages Dave, who's been hired as the Master of Ceremonies. He, like many Australians, is a drunken loser, but he knows talent. He offers to take over as the girls' manager. He demands that they stop doing their beloved country music, and start doing Motown soul. He changes their group's name to "The Sapphires". And before you know it, he and the kids are off to Vietnam, where they are to entertain American troops. What could go wrong? There is, of course, internal bickering and conflict. And it's Vietnam, so: boom.

There is social commentary, but it's not too heavy-handed. It's (very loosely) based on an actual group; Wikipedia has the details. (The article also notes that the DVD cover prominently features the Dave character over the girls—see above—and people got kind of upset about that.)

Where had I seen the actor playing Dave before? Oh, yeah: playing Kristen Wiig's cop sorta-boyfriend in Bridesmaids.

Masquerade

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

A nice epic historical drama, of the sort that Asians (in this case, South Koreans) seem to do so much better than we do. If you're up to reading subtitles for over two hours, and aren't averse to sorting out characters where everyone (sorry) kinda looks alike, check it out.

It's set in 17th-century Korea; the King, Gwang-hae, has a fine line to tread between contentious factions in his own country and the superior military power of China and Japan. He's extremely (and, it turns out, justifiably) paranoid about his personal safety.

Which leads him to assign his trusted advisors with a desperate task: to find a reasonable double, who can take his place in risky situations (like dinner, where the food could be poisoned). They find Ha-seon, a bawdy song-and-dance man employed at the local whorehouse. He's an obvious physical double, but nearly a polar opposite from the King in every other way: cowardly, impulsive, and, uh, not that smart.

But he gets hired, of course. (It helps that Ha-Seon doesn't really grasp what he's getting into, or his likely fate.) And there are some really funny bits as he gamely attempts to act royally.

But he grows in the role. When the King is mysteriously taken ill, everyone has no choice but to make the best of the situation. Surprising everyone, most of all himself, Ha-seon finds himself righting wrongs, fighting injustice, standing up for the nation: things that the King himself had failed to do. Which, of course, puts him in more danger.

It's also gorgeous. The men wear funny hats.

Cinnamon Skin

[Amazon Link]

One of my reading projects is near the end. Cinnamon Skin is the penultimate novel in John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series. I see the books are in the process of being reissued in paperback, with an introduction by Lee Child. And truly, I see some similarities between Child's hero Jack Reacher and Travis.

In the previous book, Travis's economist sidekick Meyer was deeply traumatized in the final showdown with the villain. He's still under a dark cloud here, morosely schlepping up to Canada to give a lecture series. But things get worse: Meyer lends his yacht, the John Maynard Keynes, to his newlywed niece, Norma and her husband Evan. Headed out from the slip to do some fishing, the Keynes blows up, obliterating all souls aboard. Soon afterward, a terrorist group takes credit for the bomb, revenge for Meyer's giving advice to Chile's dictatorship years previous.

So inept terrorists miss their target, killing some unintended victims instead. A neat story, but some little things about it nag Travis. Eventually he and Meyer get a bead on the actual baddie, trying to get on his elusive, murderous, trail. This takes them here and there: Texas, upstate New York, finally down to Mayan ruins near Cancún. Suspense builds, and there is a thrilling and satisfying climax.

Along the way, MacDonald expertly paints the locales and people they meet. Even minor characters come alive as actual people. Jeez, I miss him.

It's short: my book club hardcover from the mid-80s is slightly over 200 pages. Today's publishing contracts demand more, I think. But not better.

Hey, just a thought: Carl Hiaasen's next book should be titled Cinnamon Skink, in tribute to John D. Whattya think?

Carol Shea-Porter: If the Car Won't Start, Maybe Slashing the Tires Would Help

Sorry, Sanitation People It's been a long time (mid-June) since we last looked at one of "Carol's Column's", penned by my own CongressCritter and perpetual toothache, Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01). Her 700-800 word theses are primarily aimed at the op-ed pages of our local newspapers, but also appear at her government-provided website.

Her mid-June column was about student loans. On July 1, she emitted another column on the same topic, where she managed to say precisely nothing new or interesting: just the same tired finger-pointing, lame talking points, scare tactics, and sloganeering. Not worth a response.

On August 6 her column bemoaned Congressional gridlock. As if that's a bad thing. Nevertheless, she and her colleagues were blameless; it was all the Republicans' fault, especially those awful "Tea Party" Republicans. At least Carol believes in transparent government: her column was transparently partisan. Also not worth refuting at length here, but even my local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat considered it to be a case of "Kettle calls the pot black"

But it's time for Pun Salad to get back in the saddle. Carol's current column is titled Time for a Jump Start (hence our clever illustration); As always: I am reproducing her entire column here, lest I be accused of quoting out of context. Carol's words are (appropriately) on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

Our economy has been slowly but steadily recovering. However, too many people still cannot find work, and most workers are experiencing flat wages, even though corporate profits are at an all time high. They watch the stock market and corporate pay and bonuses skyrocketing, and feel left behind. They believe government and media don't care and are not even noticing. Are they right? Carol brushes against an insight here, but her ideology won't allow her to look at it squarely. Simply put: a lot of domestic firms have discovered that they can chug along just fine with fewer workers, and not giving significant raises to the ones left over.

Carol wants you to know that she "cares" about this, of course. She "cares" quite a bit about any issue that allows her to rail against her usual array of villains: Republicans, corporations, the private economy.

But actually caring about citizens who can't find jobs? Eh, not so much.

They are correct that they are being left behind, but they are not the only ones noticing and talking about it. Just a few short years ago, when some economists, politicians, and advocates first started talking about how the economy seemed to favor only the corporations and the wealthiest, they were attacked and accused of conducting class warfare. However, now all of the mainstream newspapers and economic observers are talking about it also. The American Dream is in danger. Note Carol's word choice here. The (saintly) folks on her side are merely "noticing" and "talking about" the issue. The (nasty) other side "attacked and accused". They're probably racist Tea Partiers.

But her memory is just convenient. In fact, leftist demagogues have yammered about this stuff forever, and managed to get plenty of "mainstream" media outlets to take them seriously all along.

For decades, each generation has done better than the one before. Better education and pay resulted in a higher standard of living. This formula spurred innovation, economic growth, and more millionaires, as Americans reached for their piece of the dream. Work hard, dream big, succeed. But lately, that formula is unreliable. Our economy is 70% consumer driven, so it relies on more Americans earning more money, but with wages flat, workers have not been able to drive the economy like before. This is a problem for all of us. USA Today's May 5, 2013 article, "Profits don't flow through to wages", quotes Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Analytics: "Ultimately, for the economy to thrive we need everyone participating." This article reports that, "Workers who rely on paychecks for their income have been running in place, financially speaking. Adjusting for inflation, an average worker who was paid $49,650 at the end of 2009 is making about $545 less now—and that's before taxes and deductions." The USA Today article Carol references is here. The authors, Paul Davidson and John Waggoner, are slightly less clueless than Carol about the issue. But they, like Carol, Point With Alarm to the disconnect between rising stock prices/corporate profitability, and employee compensation as if there is—nay, should be—some sort of mathematically necessary correlation between them.

But there's not. Few employers are in the charity business. If it makes economic sense to hire more workers, or to give their existing workers significant raises, they will. Otherwise they won't.

There are things government can do about this. The most effective strategy would involve a search-and-destroy mission against existing government disincentives to employment. Like, for example, Obamacare. Unfortunately, Carol strongly approves of those disincentives.

It doesn't matter: she can continue to Point With Alarm, which is all she really wants to do anyway.

CNN Money covered this story in 2011, titling it, "How the middle class became the under class." They wrote, "Middle-class incomes have been stagnant for at least a generation, while the wealthiest tier has surged ahead at lightning speed." They added, "Meanwhile, the richest 1% of Americans—those making $380,000 or more—have seen their incomes grow 33% over the last 20 years, leaving average Americans in the dust." CNN Money cites the reasons other articles cite as well—globalization of the economy, technology, erosion of unions and collective bargaining, etc. It also reports that, "Tax cuts enacted during the Bush administration and extended under Obama were also a major windfall for the nation's richest." The CNN Money story referenced by Carol is here, written by one Annalyn Censky. Even though it's 2.5 years old, it's more up Carol's alley, a complete array of left-wing talking points and uncritical quotes from obvious partisans.

Again: Carol's more interested in stirring the demagogic pot than in actually doing anything to spur employment and wages.

An International Business Times article, “US Worker Productivity Is Rising Faster Than Wage Growth,” says it all. They wrote, "U.S. companies have been getting more out of fewer employees, but those workers aren't enjoying a corresponding increase in their wages." They also quoted Gary Burtless, senior fellow in economic studies at The Brookings Institute, who told CNN, "A bigger share of what businesses in the U.S. are producing is going to the owners of the firms and the people who lent money to the firm, and a smaller share is going to workers." Referenced article is here. Again, the question-begging premise is that productivity "should be" inexorably tied to wage levels and employment.

Why assume that? Well, it allows Carol and her ilk to dodge around why that disconnect might be happening. It's much more politically useful to implicitly or explicitly point the finger at rich, greedy capitalists. Essentially: "you're doing poorly because they are doing better."

For example…

These are not left-wing organizations. These are middle to conservative groups who are highlighting a problem in America—the vanishing middle class. When a Chief Executive Officer (CEO) earns 380 times what the average worker earns, when a CEO earns in one hour what the employee earns in one month, something is wrong, and we need to work on this. My suggestion would be for Carol to get out of politics and start up her own enlightened corporation. One where the CEO/worker pay disparity will be less than 380. Obviously, that's the road to business success!

Won't happen, though. Carol's complete economic illiteracy would shatter on any contact with the free market. In politics, however, you can make a very decent living out of that ignorance.

But about that "vanishing middle class": 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the book The Facts of Socialism, by socialist Jessie Wallace Hughan. In it (page 88) she refers to the "vanishing middle class" as if it were a done deal, a known fact, an inevitable outcome.

For lefties, the American middle class has been vanishing for a real long time. It's a completely immortal trope, even though the middle class stubbornly refuses to vanish.

We need to examine trade agreements, end unfair tax breaks, and fix what conservative Oklahoma Senator Coburn wrote about in his report, “Subsidies of the Rich and Famous.” We must raise the minimum wage to provide more buying power for individuals, which will also help small businesses. We could lower the corporate tax rate, which is merely a suggestion anyway, since so few corporations actually pay at that rate, but then we need to actually collect those taxes. CNN Money reported on August 12, 2008, that nearly two-thirds of U.S. companies paid zero federal income taxes, and that outrage continues today. Encourage and reward corporations that create jobs here instead of parking their profits off shore. Invest in our nation's aging infrastructure. We need to work together—small businesses and large ones, every level of government, educational institutions and non-profits—to turn this around. Finally, Carol handwaves at various things that government could do. But they mostly illustrate how idea-free the current crop of Democrats are. It's a laundry list of stuff they've been advocating for years and years. Nothing she proposes will credibly incentivize the private economy to improve the employment picture.

  • "Examine trade agreements" is (probably) code for "erecting trade barriers". In theory, this might make employment better for a favored fraction; in practice it would make us all poorer.
  • I love Senator Coburn. The report Carol mentions is here (PDF). While it's full of good ideas, there are no recommendations in there that would directly help employment or wages.
  • Of course, raising the minimum wage is a disincentive to hiring and will (again) make us all poorer.
  • Carol proposes to do something about corporate taxation, but there's only a vague muddle instead of concrete proposals. Punish some, reward others? Our current labyrinthine corporate tax code is the result of doing just that for decades. Will anything Carol's proposing cause businesses to turn around and hire more people or increase wages? Um, no. Probably the opposite.
  • Bemoaning "aging infrastructure" is the latest incarnation of Obama's "shovel-ready projects". As always, Carol has complete faith in the power of government to invest money more wisely than the private market. This faith is immune to evidence or reason.

I do not have all the answers. Nobody does. But I know fairness is at our core, and we need to restore this truly American value. In fact, Carol has no credible answers. As our headline indicates: to "jump start" the economy, she'd start by slashing the tires.

Last Modified 2017-12-01 10:41 AM EST