Predestination

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

I kind of got a big fat spoiler for this movie by noticing that it's based on the short story "'—All You Zombies—'" by Robert A. Heinlein. I read that back in the early 60's; I still remember the Shocking Plot Device. So I expected the same thing here, and was not disappointed.

The protagonist, played by Ethan Hawke, is a time-travelling secret agent, trying to prevent a terrorist known as the "Fizzle Bomber" from blowing up a bunch of people in 1975. An initial attempt failed badly, leaving him seriously defaced (literally). He tries again, though. Along the way, he poses as a bartender, where he becomes acquainted with a younger person who entertains him with biographical stories, both lurid and heartbreaking.

Ethan Hawke always seems to look like he was just badly beaten up, and is about to get re-beaten soon. This role is no exception.

It's a very arty take on a story I remember as being as straightforward as a time-travel yarn can be. (I also remember it as being pretty filthy for an Omaha pre-teen, but what are you going to do?) But (ahem) unlike Starship Troopers, it's essentially faithful to its source material, and I think Heinlein would have approved. The movie's IMDB trivia page describes a number of fortune cookies in the movie for Heinlein fans. I'm ashamed to say I missed most of them.

Consumer note: as I type, the Blu-ray is cheaper than the DVD at Amazon. What's up with that?


Last Modified 2015-07-02 4:31 AM EDT

Maleficent

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

A PG-retelling of the Sleeping Beauty legend, where Maleficent isn't bad, she's just misunderstood. And a little hot-tempered, but who could blame her?

The premise is that a human kingdom and a magical fairy kingdom live right next door to each other, and they don't get along well. This is primarily the humans' fault, being all greedy and ambitious and … well, human. Maleficent is the fairy kingdom's most powerful defender against human aggression, which royally pisses off the royals. What follows is betrayal, anger, revenge, and how that all plays out against young Aurora, the human princess caught up in the battle between her father and Maleficent.

Angelina Jolie plays Maleficent, Elle Fanning is Aurora. It's full of special effects. (Angelina Jolie sometimes looks to be a real-life Special Effect, so it's appropriate she's here.)

I liked it a little better than I thought I would, because Disney can still tell a pretty good story when they want to. I was a little surprised by the PG rating; there's a lot of violence, so I thought it would be PG-13. But I guess it's "fantasy" violence. It's OK when fairies do it!

Wild Horses

[Amazon Link]

From 1994, this is probably my second-favorite Dick Francis novel (after Proof).

The narrator, Thomas Lyon, is visiting a dying old friend, a blacksmith who he knew long ago during a brief jockey career. Delirious from drugs and pain, the blacksmith mistakes Thomas for a priest, and incoherently seems to confess to a past crime.

Thomas is an up-and-coming movie director, and he just happens to be in the area making a movie. It just happens to be based on a fictionalized version of past events: the young wife of a horse trainer was found hanged in a stable. Was it murder or suicide? To this day, nobody knows.

But someone's apparently worried that the movie might illuminate how that death occurred. People are threatened, nearly killed. Including, since he's the Dick Francis hero, Thomas. The production is also in peril because the screenwriter doesn't like the changes Thomas is making to his version of the story, and badmouths him to the press.

So Thomas faces daunting odds: how to bring in the movie on time and budget, true to his artistic vision, while at the same time unravelling the mystery of what happened decades ago. Also, while staying alive.

The Phony Campaign

2015-06-28 Update

[phony baloney]

Joe Biden is back, baby, with PredictWise judging him with a 2% shot of being our next president. And so:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-06-21
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,240,000 -12,460,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 431,000 +20,000
"Rand Paul" phony 181,000 -8,000
"Donald Trump" phony 179,000 +6,000
"Joe Biden" phony 138,000 -
"Marco Rubio" phony 116,000 -4,000
"Scott Walker" phony 96,200 -1,000
"Bernie Sanders" phony 85,800 -400

  • At the Weekly Standard, Andrew Ferguson wends his way through old Hillary biographies written by her admirers. (Why? Because of "the general principle that you can learn more about someone from his friends than from his enemies.") Andrew marvels at the mental acrobatics as Hillary fans gingerly describe her sleazy behavior.

    The Hillary Paradox consists of two perceptions that are irreconcilable. The first is that Hillary Clinton is a person of uncommon decency, compassionate and deeply committed to justice. The second is that many of her actions over many years are the work of a person who couldn’t possibly be uncommonly decent. How could someone with a wonderful reputation so often behave disreputably?

    I, and probably you, have no problem with jettisoning the first perception. But for Hillary devotees, it's unshakeably tied up with their self-perception.

    Anyway, if you've forgotten the days of bimbo eruptions, White House Travel Office firings, Whitewater, cattle futures, Rose Law billing records, and the rest, Andrew provides a refresher course. If PredictWise is to be believed, there's a very good chance we're headed for more of the same.

  • At the WSJ, Ben Zimmer springboards from this observation:

    When Donald Trump gave a speech announcing his candidacy for president last week, he seemed to utter whatever thoughts popped into his uniquely coiffed head.

    As Mark Plotkin, a contributor to the Hill newspaper, put it, “To say he has ‘no filter’ would be a gigantic understatement.”

    … to a lively entomological history of how the "no filter" terminology was coined and popularized over the years.

    I'm all for "no filter" in theory. In practice, however, would we really want a president who was in the habit of saying the first thing that popped into his head? I see downsides.

  • "America's Liberty" PAC submits a fake ad, good for a chuckle:

    There is also a "Bailout Bush" website (where, beware, the video above autoplays).

    America's Liberty PAC "is a Super PAC created for and dedicated to, electing Senator Rand Paul President of the United States in 2016. It is the only Super PAC endorsed by Senator Paul." There's no mention, as near as I can tell of the Paul connection on the "Bailout Bush" page. But due to the wackiness of campaign finance laws, there is the phony declaration: "Not authorized by any candidate or candidate committee."


Last Modified 2015-07-05 8:02 AM EDT

The Double

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

Giving this a whole two stars is kind of a stretch. It's arty and pretentious. I nodded off for long periods. When I do that during other movies, I sometimes feel obligated to re-watch the DVD to at least fill in the gaps; I didn't feel that obligation here.

Anyway: it's based on the Dostoyevsky story of the same title. (Considered by most critics to not be one of his better efforts.) Jesse Eisenberg plays nebbish Simon, working at a soul-draining job in some unspecified bureaucracy, disrespected and ignored by everyone.

Things change when James shows up. He's everything Simon is not: charismatic, interesting, popular. But here's the thing: James and Simon look exactly alike. (My keen eye discerned that this was primarily due to both roles being played by Jesse Eisenberg.) The two develop a relationship, but it's an unhealthy one.

The setting is dark and surrealistic, with absurdist and stilted dialogue, and unbelievable characters. Basically, a 93-minute nightmare for Simon, but I don't think he wakes up. Or, if he did, I missed it.

John Wick

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

Comic-book movie? I wondered. It turns out not. I'm kind of ashamed to admit I liked it as much as I did.

The titular character is played by Keanu Reeves. (Looking at his IMDB page, I'm pretty sure this is the first movie I've seen with him in it since the ultra-forgettable Street Kings and A Scanner Darkly (both 2008). He's recently lost his wife (Bridget Moynahan), and then some bad-guy Russian mobsters do something really nasty. Revenge is called for.

Dickensian coincidence: it turns out that Wick used to be a hired killer for the father of one of the bad guys. (What are the chances? In the real world, zero.) So, in effect, it's Wick against the entire Russian mafia, at least the part that's based around New York.

There are a lot of good actors in supporting roles: Michael Nyqvist as the Russian Godfather; Dean Winters (I miss Battle Creek very much) as the mob consigliere; Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki as fellow hit-people; there's even a small role for the great John Leguizamo as a chop-shop proprietor who (nevertheless) has certain principles.

MPAA: "strong and bloody violence throughout, language and brief drug use". They ain't kiddin'.

Who's the Bully?

A local activist, Jerry DeLemus, recently announced his desire to run a "draw Muhammad" contest right here in New Hampshire.

This prompted my local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat, to run an editorial in opposition: "'Draw Muhammad' contest is just bullying". You can read the whole thing at the link, but in summary: the word "hate" appears 8 times (with "hateful" also making an appearance); "anti-Muslim" thrice.

Their final paragraph:

In our view, freedom of speech is not under attack. Freedom of speech is alive and well in New Hampshire and across America. What’s under attack is the right of our Muslim friends and neighbors to practice their religion in peace without fear that provocative acts by fools like [Pamela] Geller and DeLemus will incite violence in equally foolish extremists.

I wrote a brief letter to the editor in response:

A recent Foster's editorial opined that a local 'Draw Muhammad' contest is "just bullying".

Let's do a quick thought experiment:

Person A proposes to engage in activity that most people agree is fully protected by the First Amendment. He threatens nobody, and nobody is being forced to witness, attend, or publicize the event.

Person B, enraged, attempts to thwart person A's activity via the use of force, threats, coercion, and intimidation.

Who's the bully? If you're a Foster's editorial writer, apparently the answer is "Person A".

To quote a character from a favorite movie: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

I could have made this longer, but I wanted to make it short and pithy. I had had a longer letter on the same subject published last month.

But I'll add here: Contra Foster's, I'd say the vision of an America where people are free to say, within broad limits, pretty much anything seems to be strongly under attack.

Foster's worry that DeLemus's event might "incite violence" strongly implies that Muslims are uniquely prone to such reactions. (But it's not their fault! The poor dears were provoked!)

This strikes me as a weird condescending bigotry toward the Muslim community. Fragile flowers! But dangerous! We can't expect them to follow the same rules the rest of us do!

The Phony Campaign

2015-06-21 Update

[phony baloney]

A shakeup at PredictWise results in big changes in our phony poll. In this week: Bernie and The Donald (which would be a pretty good name for a rock band). Out: O'Malley, Biden, and Perry (which would be a pretty good name for a very boring law firm).

And Jeb sees a huge increase in phony hits. Probably one of those illusory Google glitches. Given that our methodology here (as we've said before) proves absolutely nothing, we're not too worried about that.

And I would be OK with a Paul/Sanders ticket. However unlikely that would be in the real world. I would definitely buy a bunch of bumperstickers just to splice out the "ers".

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-06-14
"Jeb Bush" phony 13,700,000 +12,739,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 411,000 -3,000
"Rand Paul" phony 189,000 +2,000
"Donald Trump" phony 173,000 -
"Marco Rubio" phony 120,000 -6,000
"Scott Walker" phony 97,200 -5,800
"Bernie Sanders" phony 86,200 -

  • As always occurs after a bloodbath perpetrated by someone with a nest of spiders living in his brain, politicians could not wait a decent interval to pontificate that the horror perfectly demonstrated what they've been saying all along; and demand that actions be taken that would have had no preventative effect on the crime.

    Sometimes they weave in fundraising requests while waving the bloody shirt; demanding money, in addition to new "gun control" legislation. And fervently hoping that nobody will notice that their 12-point official "Vision" page contains zero references to gun control.

    Yes, this issue became serious when it could be used as campaign fodder. Before that, not so much.

    As I've noted before, here at Pun Salad, we try to adhere to the Elvis Costello rule: "I used to be disgusted, and now I try to be amused." But events sometimes drag me back to disgust.

  • One of our new entries, Donald Trump, is the subject of, not one, but two Kevin D. Williamson articles at NR. Sample:

    Donald Trump, being Donald Trump, announced his candidacy at Trump Plaza, making a weird grand entrance via escalator — going down, of course, the symbolism of which is lost on that witless ape. But who could witness that scene — the self-made man who started with nothing but a modest portfolio of 27,000 New York City properties acquired by his millionaire slumlord father, barely out of his latest bankruptcy and possibly headed for another one as the casino/jiggle-joint bearing his name sinks into the filthy mire of the one U.S. city that makes Las Vegas look respectable, a reality-television grotesque with his plastic-surgery-disaster wife, grunting like a baboon about our country’s “brand” and his own vast wealth — and not see the peerless sign of our times?

    Kevin's not a fan. Both articles worth your while.

  • We were pretty tough on Mitt Romney in the past. He never shook off Jonah Goldberg's 2008 observation that if you pushed the mute button when he was speaking on TV, he seemed to be saying: What do I have to do to put you in this BMW today?.

    So (naturally) my attention was pricked by a CBS News story: "Mitt Romney: Hillary Clinton is a phony." It refers to Mitt's MSNBC appearance, reacting to Hillary's campaign kickoff, where he observed:

    "I thought the text touched the various places she needs to touch to try and keep her base intact," Romney said. "Somehow, though, when you see her on a stage or she comes into a room full of people, she's smiling with her mouth, but her eyes are saying, you know, 'Where's my latte?' It just doesn't' suggest that she believes everything she's saying."

    Some enterprising people should wave homemade signs at Hillary's rallies: "Hillary, I have your latte!"

  • The Daily Sheeple (motto: "Wake the Flock Up!") asks: Want to Know If a Presidential Candidate Is a Phony?" Well, sure we do. Their recommended method:

    Do you wish there was a fast and easy way to tell if one of the front running presidential candidates is a big fat phony? Well fret not, because such a method exists. All you have to do is run the name of their twitter account through twitteraudit.com, and find out how many of their followers are bots and shills. Obviously, if someone is willing to buy a bunch of fake followers, then they’re probably a pretty disingenuous person.

    The various candidates are ranked, and the phoniest will surprise you!

    Well, that's not actually true. The phoniest candidate won't surprise you.

  • Your tweet of the week:

    Apparently only 90 minutes apart! Impressive!


Last Modified 2015-07-05 8:01 AM EDT

Jurassic World

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

I thought I was going to wait for the DVD. But Pun Son wanted to see it and we've been going to Jurassic movies since he was seven. I can't decline the pull of tradition.

And I forgot how much sheer fun these movies are. (I suppose they could make one that wasn't. But they haven't yet.)

The movie is set on the same island as the original Jurassic Park; it's a couple decades later, and John Hammond's vision has been restored: it's the site of an actual theme park where people flock to see live dinosaurs. And it's all pretty amazing, nothing goes wrong, and everyone has a good time.

Just kidding! The park is doing OK, but the supervisor, Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), realizes that its continued health depends on coming up with new, even more thrilling creatures. Or, as everyone puts it, "more teeth." So the top-secret on-island lab creates an Indominus Rex.

This coincides with a visit to the park by Claire's nephews, Zach and Gray. (Kids in peril is a recurring theme in these movies.) There's also Owen (Chris Pratt), a genius researcher working to (sort of) tame three velociraptors by becoming their "alpha".

Corporate greed and hubris, as always, are the root causes of the ensuing havoc. And (also as always) there's plenty of stuff to chuckle at, even as people are getting eaten.

Words and Rules

[Amazon Link]

I enjoy reading Steven Pinker's popular non-fiction (see here, here, here). This one I've had on my shelf for awhile; published in 1999, I picked up this UK edition on the $3.98 remainder table at Barnes & Noble a few years later. Finally percolated to the top of the cybernetic to-be-read pile.

Pinker's research area is broad: roughly, how language is processed and generated by the brain. (He's written elsewhere on even broader topics.) Here, he concentrates on how that process is illuminated by the study of irregular verbs and nouns. (Consider your average dictionary, packed with verbs; you might be surprised (as I was) to learn that only a couple of hundred of them are irregular. Seems like more.)

Pinker argues, based on his research, that "language comprises a mental dictionary of memorized words and a mental grammar of creative rules." This is contentious, but Pinker does a good job defending it. Still, it's worth remembering that he's not a dispassionate observer.

As usual, Pinker tells his story with verve, clarity, and occasional humor. (He likes to illustrate points with relevant newspaper comic strips.) I laughed out loud at this, after he's described one of his research studies apparently carried out in a University-attached community:

We also wondered whether the effect might be a fussy affectation of pointy-headed, Volvo-driving, endive-nibbling, chablis-sipping young urban professionals.

Pinker does get down into his research weeds occasionally; I don't know how many readers will be interested in exactly how a subset of Hungarian irregular nouns get declined differently when they are used as proper names. But this is proceeded by a pretty good joke ("That fact, combined with the disproportionate number of Hungarian mathematicians and scientists, led one physicist to suggest that Hungarians are a advanced race of space aliens, but that theory is no longer widely believed.") Readers can pick and choose what to delve into and what to skim over.

Man on a Ledge

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

It seems that most of the recent movies I've watched are either wonderful or dreadful. So it's kind of a relief to report that this is a totally mediocre movie. Not a dreadful way to spend 102 minutes, but nothing with which you'll be overly impressed. It appeared on most "Box Office Bomb" lists for 2012. Rated PG-13 for "violence and brief strong language".

The hero is Nick, played by the sometimes-blue guy from Avatar, Sam Worthington. He has been railroaded into the slammer for swiping a fabulous diamond from millionaire David Englander (Ed Harris). But he makes a daring escape, aided by his brother Joey (Jamie Bell). And the next thing we know, he's checked into a high Manhattan hotel, climbed out on the—guess what?—ledge, and quickly draws a crowd. The cops include Lydia, the designated don't-jump negotiator (Elizabeth Banks), Dante (Titus Welliver), Jack (Ed Burns), and Nick's old partner Mike (the Falcon himself, Anthony Mackie).

All these people deserved to be in a better movie.

If you've guessed that Nick's suicide attempt is a scam, designed to be part of an elaborate scheme to prove his innocence… well, you're correct of course. The main problem is that the scheme is several times more improbable than your average Mission: Impossible episode. But it's sort of fun to watch the actors try to sell the ludicrous plot.

Devil's Knot

[1.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

I think that Mrs. Salad requested this for the Netflix queue due to the presence of Mr. Darcy himself, Colin Firth. And it's pretty funny to see Mr. Firth manage a foreign (in his case, Southern) accent. But… Well, it seems to have not to have obtained a theatrical release in the US, and did negligible business in other countries.

Based on actual events. It's set in sleepy West Memphis, Arkansas in the early 90's. It starts out with a horrific crime, the murders of three children. Suspicion quickly falls on the local weird kid and his cohorts, suspected of being Satanists.

Reese Witherspoon plays a grieving mom. Colin Firth plays a private investigator hired by the defense team. Captain Pike himself, Bruce Greenwood, plays the trial judge. That guy you've seen in dozens of things plays a cop. Mostly everyone seems kind of bored.

Here's the thing: there's not a lot of drama. No big courtroom revelations. The real-life events this movie was based on did not have a satisfactory conclusion; hence, neither did the movie.

The Boxtrolls

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link] [Amazon Link]

A little stop-motion animation gem.

Set in the fantasy town of Cheesebridge, which has an interesting social structure: the cheese-obsessed humans live aboveground, and everything is run by the "white hats". At night, the Boxtrolls emerge from their underground lair while the humans cower in their homes.

But one fateful night, seemingly, the Boxtrolls do something unusual: the infant Trubshaw is abducted, daddy Trubshaw disappears. The town exterminator, red-hatted Archibald Snatcher, bullies the mayor, Lord Portley-Rind, into authorizing an extermination campaign against the underground monsters; in exchange, Snatcher will be granted a white hat and allowed entry into the exclusive cheese-tasting room in the Portley-Rind mansion.

As it turns out, the Boxtrolls are ugly, but they're so ugly they're cute (as typical with movies like these). And they have a certain amount of engineering wizardry, stealing junk from Cheesebridge at night, transforming their underground digs into a Rube Goldbergian paradise.

And their abduction of the Trubshaw babe is also a bad rap. They adopt him as one of their own, and eventually he grows up to (slight spoiler here) save the day against the evil Snatcher, with the help of Lord Portley-Rind's slightly-spoiled daughter Winnie.

It's wonderfully creative, very funny in spots. Clearly a labor of love for the filmmakers.

Interestingly, I just read an article in Wired where Steven Spielberg pronounced stop-motion as "extinct" after viewing the CGI dinosaur effects for the first Jurassic Park. He said that over twenty years ago. Nevertheless, the technique keeps ticking along, and it's difficult to imagine that this movie would be quite as wonderful without it.

Mr. Sammler's Planet

[Amazon Link]

Back in 2010, Mr. Sammler's Planet was placed on the list of "Ten Great Conservative Novels" by National Review. Given my political leanings I was kind of surprised that I'd only read a couple of them (Advise and Consent—long ago—and Bonfire of the Vanities). So I put them on my (very large) to-be-read cyberpile.

I checked off Walker Percy's The Thanatos Syndrome last November, and now I've finished Mr. Sammler's Planet by Saul Bellow. Six more to go! But as you can see, I'm taking my sweet time about it.

Mr. Sammler's Planet won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1971. Bellow himself won the Nobel Prize in Literature just a few years later.

The novel is set in late-1960s New York City: crime-ridden, filthy, smelly. But those are only the outward symptoms of general social and moral rot. The protagonist, Artur Sammler, is an old man, and he's been through a lot. A Polish Jew, he spent some time in England in the orbit of the Bloomsbury Group, making the acquaintance of H.G. Wells, among others. From that civilized height, however, he picked a poor time to return to Poland. He and his wife were caught up in the Holocaust. Sammler is half-blinded by a Nazi rifle butt. He eventually crawls out from a mass grave, leaving his dead wife behind.

Sammler has a small network of acquaintances and surviving family, all dealing with the Big Apple in mostly unsatisfactory ways. Sammler himself finds himself dealing with a black pickpocket, who is reliably victimizing fellow riders on the Manhattan bus he and Sammler frequent. Even half-blind, Sammler's the only one noticing the crime. (He tries reporting to the cops, but in John Lindsay's NYC, they are uninterested.)

A lot of other things happen, some slapstick, some ludicrous. Mr. Sammler is bemused by it all, but comes to at least a temporary understanding with God at the end.

The Phony Campaign

2015-06-14 Update

[phony baloney]

PredictWise punters have dropped Elizabeth Warren below our (arbitrary) 2% probability threshold for becoming our next president. But Joe Biden's back at 2%. And we welcome Rick Perry to our poll for the first time; he's also at 2%.

So our adjusted lineup:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-06-07
"Jeb Bush" phony 961,000 -599,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 414,000 +13,000
"Martin O'Malley" phony 228,000 -61,000
"Rand Paul" phony 187,000 -3,000
"Joe Biden" phony 146,000 -
"Marco Rubio" phony 126,000 +16,000
"Rick Perry" phony 104,000 -
"Scott Walker" phony 103,000 -5,000

  • Rand Paul's campaign store will sell you a genuine fake Hillary's Hard Drive for a measly $99.95.

    CLEARANCE SALE! You've read about it on the news, now you can get one for yourself. Hillary's Hard Drive. 100% genuine erased clean email server. Buyer beware, this product has had heavy use and it currently is no longer working, but that doesn't mean it's not valuable to someone. Anyone?

    Limited edition. We have 80 of these and when they're gone, they're gone forever.

  • The best twitter-sized summary of Hillary's campaign "relaunch" event:

    As an additional echo of the 1930s, the event was held on Roosevelt Island, named after FDR.

  • Marco Rubio wasted no time in rebuttal:

    As a number of others pointed out: Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Ted Cruz, and Bobby Jindal are actually younger than the song "Yesterday", which was first recorded exactly 50 years ago today.

    Did any of the 1964 candidates try to make a point by referring to songs from 1914? Too Ra Loo Ra Loo Ral, anyone?

  • Did Martin O'Malley tax the rain when he was governor of Maryland? Nay, says Media Matters for America; that's a "bogus conservative media talking point."

    Conservative media responds:

    If you want to be technical about it, it taxed any impervious surfaces on which rain falls. Defenders prefer to call it a ‘stormwater fee’, but that’s another way of saying rain tax.

    I love semantic quibbles, don't you?

  • In phony news, Jeb Bush visited Europe, and seems to have made it back gaffe-free, dashing the hopes of mainstream media.

    Well, except for MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who claimed to detect an "Awkward stumble for Jeb Bush in Poland". What was it? Well, Jeb met with Radoslaw "Radek" Sikorski, who recently resigned his post, roughly equivalent to the US's Speaker of the House.

    Why did Sikorski resign? Well, he was among the Polish pols secretly recorded at a "fancy Warsaw restaurant" making off the cuff remarks. Including:

    Sikorski called Poland’s alliance with the United States “bull—-” and “worthless” before comparing the relationship to oral sex.

    So Maddow (as near as I can tell, alone among commentators) found Jeb's meeting with Sikorski to be a "flub". [She ignores, of course, that Sikorski was criticizing recent American foreign policy, under the dreadful stewardship of Obama/Clinton. Maddow elides that context, claiming that Sikorski was trashing the US in general.]

    Or at least I think that was her point, because I had to wade through an amazing amount of Maddow's shtick and folderol before she even got around to making this point. And I bailed about halfway through. I don't understand how people have the patience to endure such a low signal-to-noise ratio.

    Not necessarily a partisan issue; I don't listen to Maddow's counterparts on "my" side either. Not even John Stossel, who I like.

Birdman

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

Subtitle is: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). No, I'm not sure what that means without doing some research. It won four Oscars, including Best Picture, and was nominated for five more, including two "Best Actor" (Michael Keaton and Edward Norton) and one "Best Supporting Actress" (Emma Stone). I'm not surprised at that last bit: everyone acts the crap out of their roles. I would have thrown Naomi Watts in there too.

It is bizarre, in a love-it-or-hate-it way. I found it agreeable, Mrs. Salad did not. It is far from clear how much is actually-happening fantasy and how much is all-in-someone's-mind delusion. I chose fantasy, which might be the reason I liked it.

Michael Keaton plays Riggan Thomson as he struggles to open an "arty" play based on a Raymond Carver story on Broadway. Riggan is perhaps best known for his superhero role (guess the name) many years back, and has struggled to get taken seriously as an actor ever since.

He is surrounded by a host of colorful characters: his friend/lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis); daughter Sam (Emma Stone); moody actor Mike (Edward Norton); Mike's ex-girlfriend/actress Lesley (Naomi Watts). Everybody's pretentious, self-destructive, and various degrees of insane. The production is teetering on the edge of financial ruin. And Riggan keeps hearing a powerful voice advising him to… well, do stuff that might not be in his best interests.

Trivia: Eventually I caught on that the movie was filmed with a minimum of visible cuts. (IMDB counts only 16 in the entire movie.)


Last Modified 2015-06-12 10:16 AM EDT

Microsoft Stops Shooting Self in Foot

Student e-mail at the University Near Here is run by Microsoft "in the cloud", They don't do an awful job (just don't get me started on their customer support). But they have their own "Code of Conduct". And (sensibly enough) we've felt obligated to at least let our students know where to find it.

Here is where we've directed the kiddos. Calling it broad is an understatement. But one bit kind of stuck in my craw, under "Prohibited Uses":

You will not upload, post, transmit, transfer, distribute or facilitate distribution of any content (including text, images, sound, video, data, information or software) or otherwise use the service in a way that […] promotes or otherwise facilitates the purchase and sale of ammunition or firearms.

Yes, gun stuff is right out. It seems to be the only category of otherwise legal commerce that Microsoft saw fit to prohibit.

Other people have noticed and criticized this provision. (See here, here, here, here.) And the Electronic Frontier Foundation has a fuller criticism here. Also note that Microsoft has no problem in marketing the heck out of "shooter" games for the Xbox. (Is that irony? I can never tell.)

Anyway, Microsoft came out recently with "Updates to our terms of use and privacy statement" which points us here.

Blessedly absent: any reference to firearms or ammunition.

"Hate speech" is still banned, though. Which I hate.

UNH: Retirement Looking Better Every Day

One of those little coincidences. First was a University-wide e-mail from the president of the University Near Here, Mark Huddleston. The subject line:

President Huddleston Addresses Title IX and Campus Culture

Anyone who's followed recent news can only read that with a sinking feeling of dread.

You can read the President Huddleston's letter right here yourself. But I'll excerpt here:

With commencement and other end of academic year celebrations behind us, it is a good time to look ahead to the upcoming year. At the end of March, I shared the findings of an independent investigation, which in part evaluated Title IX efforts across the University System of New Hampshire. The report, among other findings, specifically identified the need for stronger coordination and collaboration related to all our Title IX efforts.

You can see the report to which President Huddleston refers here, which details alleged institutional failings in dealing with employee misbehavior at UNH and Keene State. To a certain extent, it's a natural bureaucratic response: we'll solve this (perceived) problem by creating new bureaucracy.

But wait, there's more:

However, as I said in March, our work around Title IX must move beyond rules and simple compliance. While these things are important, we must address the broader and more complex factors in our culture that keep us from becoming the kind of community to which we aspire. A safe and healthy campus is one grounded in widely shared values and deeply rooted norms of behavior wherein people respect and take care of one another.

Bottom line: UNH is getting a "task force", starting out as a "working group" which will develop an "action plan" to… Oh, I'm sure it will involve above-average arrogance and self-righteousness in service to the latest buzzwords, all wrapped up in who-could-possibly-be-against-that language.

I, for one, welcome our new Title IX overlords who will be in charge of enforcing "widely shared values" and "deeply rooted norms". Nothing could go wrong there.

The second part of the coincidence mentioned above: Jessica Gavora (Jonah Goldberg's readers know her as "the Fair Jessica") writes in the WSJ today on "How Title IX Became a Political Weapon"

Since its passage 43 years ago, Title IX has proved to be a remarkably elastic law. It has been stretched and warped from its original intent to end discrimination on the basis of sex in schools that receive federal funding. As long as Title IX’s victims were wrestlers or swimmers from low-revenue men’s sports that were jettisoned to achieve participation-parity with women’s sports, nobody much cared. But now that the law is being turned into a tool to suppress free speech on college campuses, even liberals are starting to cry foul.

Ms. Gavora's article should be recommended reading for anyone on President Huddleston's task force. Fearless prediction: it will not be read by anyone on President Huddleston's task force.


Last Modified 2015-06-09 6:51 AM EDT

Seveneves

[Amazon Link]

Stephenson: automatic buy. Even though I don't read a lot of science fiction any more.

Here's sentence number one (so it's not really a spoiler): "The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason." Whoa.

This happens in the slightly-near future: near enough so that the International Space Station is still in operation, but far enough so that we've figured out how to grab an asteroid, and attach it to the ISS for futher study. That's extremely fortuitous, because the Moon's destruction turns out to be, like war, not healthy for children and other living things. Having a big rock around helps.

The book is neatly divided in three: the first part deals with mankind's realization that the World As We Know It is ending, and most normal pursuits become irrelevant. The entire planet's resources and efforts are devoted to ensuring the survival of at least a fragment of humanity. This is not without controversy and squabble. Warning: Certain people are not to be trusted.

Part two deals with the aftermath of the end of the world. The aforementioned squabbles continue, but they become even more deadly, as the spacefaring survivors can't even agree on their short-term survival strategy. Bickering leads to disaster and tragedy.

And then, part three: set 5,000 years in the future. (Just as a benchmark, 5,000 years ago, humanity was just getting around to building the Great Pyramids and Stonehenge.) Things have changed a lot (although I won't spoil the details). But millennia-old conflicts still have their echoes, and they play out in surprising ways.

I very much enjoyed the book. Stephenson is endlessly imaginative, and (I assume) his science is impeccably hard. Parts of the text could be assigned to advanced undergrad courses in Orbital Mechanics, Aerospace Engineering, or Reproductive Biology. As in his previous books, Stephenson's heroes are competent, resourceful, perhaps a little geeky, and brave. I was simply in awe of his talent, all the way through.

The Phony Campaign

2015-06-07 Update

[phony baloney]

Rules are rules, even arbitrary ones. And our rule is: PredictWise has to show a 2% or above probability for inclusion in our phony poll. So once again we bid adieu to VP Joe Biden:

Query String Hit Count Change Since
2015-05-31
"Jeb Bush" phony 1,560,000 +662,000
"Hillary Clinton" phony 401,000 -92,000
"Martin O'Malley" phony 289,000 -125,000
"Rand Paul" phony 190,000 -26,000
"Marco Rubio" phony 110,000 -19,000
"Scott Walker" phony 108,000 -49,000
"Elizabeth Warren" phony 82,700 -12,300

Announcing their candidacies this past week: Rick Perry, Lindsey Graham, Lincoln Chafee. So far, PredictWise judges their chances as between slim and none. (Ditto the previously-announced candidates Sanders, Fiorina, Cruz, Carson, Huckabee, Santorum, and Pataki.)

  • The Washington Free Beacon headline: "ThinkProgress Finds Linguist Who Doesn’t Want You To Mock Hillary’s Phony Southern Accent".

    And it's true! Robin Dodsworth, an Associate Professor in Linguistics at North Carolina State University pointed out to ThinkProgress that when Hillary slathers on the cornpone, she's simply "trying to get people to like her, and trying to fit in."

    To adapt one of James Taranto's shticks: what would we do without Associate Professors in Linguistics?

  • You'll note that Elizabeth Warren still appears in our phony poll. The betting market undergirding the Predictwise probabilities has decided to shrug off the sad news that "Run Warren Run", a group backing her imaginary candidacy, has decided to throw in the towel. In The Hill story announcing the end of the effort, the reporter observes:

    But while the calls never publicly moved the needle toward a Warren presidential campaign, the groups point to their efforts as a main reason Clinton burst out of the gate taking progressive stances on issues like income inequality and campaign finance reform.

    Corollary: nobody believes that Hillary came to these "stances" via any deep-held conviction.

  • I'm sympathetic to the libertarian argument that the NSA goes too far in accumulating vast amounts of data about the phone calls of Americans neither accused nor suspected of any criminal activity.

    (Sometimes this is fudged by calling it "metadata". I demur. I don't think that's correct usage of the meta- prefix. What's being collected is data, plain and simple.)

    Pretty much the only Republican candidate who comes close to my position on this issue is Rand Paul.

    So it's distressing when Paul goes out and steps on his own d—erm, his own tie while arguing for this worthy cause.

    While addressing the Senate Sunday, Sen. Rand Paul said that opponents of his efforts to end the NSA’s bulk data collection and force an expiration of the Patriot Act “secretly want” a terror attack on the U.S. so they can blame Paul for it.

    To his credit, Paul walked back this stupid accusation later, but he badly needs a real-time filter on the stuff he says "in the heat of battle" if he wants my primary vote.

  • The NYT found it newsworthy that Marco Rubio (and his wife) had combined for 17 traffic citations in Florida in the past 18 years. ("Mr. Rubio with four and his wife with 13.")

    Ye gods.

    The Twitterverse leapt into action with #RubioCrimeSpree. It's difficult to pick one, but:

The Love Punch

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

The only people who should watch this movie are aspiring filmmakers who can use it as a prime example of how to waste acting talent. Pierce Brosnan and Emma Thompson are simply lost with a tired script and sub-par direction. I would blame (naturally enough) writer/director Joel Hopkins, but his previous effort (Last Chance Harvey, also with Ms. Thompson) was better.

Anyway, the story: Kate (Ms. Thompson) and Richard (Mr. Brosnan) are divorced, due to Richard's infidelity. But they're still semi-civil, and at least Richard still has feelings for Kate, because who wouldn't, it's Emma Thompson, fer goodness sake.

On the edge of retirement, Richard has sold his company to what he thought was a dynamic up-and-comer. He is disappointed when the company is hollowed out and put into receivership. Not only is his life's handiwork destroyed, his pension (and those of his ex-coworkers) has vanished into thin financial air.

He and Kate track down the misbehaving financier; it becomes apparent that there's no possibility of getting him to personally shoulder the old company's liabilities. So instead they set their sights on "nicking" (I should have mentioned that this is a British comedy) a huge diamond the financier is about to give his airhead fiancée as a wedding present. The resulting hijinks are eminently predictable. (Do Kate and Richard rekindle their romantic feelings for each other? Duh.)

I missed about twenty minutes or so due to extreme boredom. No subtitles on the DVD.

Tomorrowland

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

Even though this movie got mediocre reviews, I wanted to see it on the big screen for one reason: it was directed, produced, and co-written by Brad Bird. Its box-office performance is also mediocre, which told me I better get a move on before it disappeared from area theatres.

The plot is difficult to summarize without major spoilers. But the premise is the existence of a literal utopia, nearby us in an alternate dimension, accessible only via convoluted technological mumbo-jumbo. It was conceived by dreamers and innovators decades ago, free from the shackles of big government and big business. A select few are "recruited" to this semi-magical land from our world in order to create further wonderfulness.

But that was then. Most of the movie is set in our near future, and things aren't going right, neither in this world, nor in Tomorrowland.

What's good: although the (literal) fate of the world hangs on the shoulders of Frank (George Clooney) and his spunky young sidekick Casey (Britt Robertson) the movie doesn't take itself that seriously; chuckles throughout. And—sorry for the cliché—it's an imaginative visual feast all the way through.

What detracts from all this wonderfulness: the whole utopian notion of a magical land free from constraints and trade-offs: why, we'd be there now if not for … well, something or other. Greed. The Man. You know.

And even if you are stoned enough to buy the techno-hippie premise, the underlying plot conflict doesn't make a lot of sense, either: there's a bad guy, willing to send out murderous robot hordes to thwart Frank and Casey, but his motives are unclear, and his methods are inexplicable. (Why, it's as if he wants to lose.)

But I had a good time. Take the kiddos, don't think too hard.

St. Vincent

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

I think this is an example of a relatively small genre of movies, which I'm classifying as "undomesticated male gets civilized/redeemed by cute kid." Let's see if I can find that at TVtropes.org... Well, this is close: "Children Raise You". But that's not on the tropes page for the movie itself. Hm.

Anyway: Bill Murray plays Vincent, who's a mess: a grumpy misanthrope who lies, steals, drinks too much, smokes too much, frequents a Russian hooker (Naomi Watts, with heart of gold) and plays the horses poorly. His Brooklyn accent comes and goes, but that's OK. One day, he acquires next-door neighbors: Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her young son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher), who are in flight from Maggie's cheating husband.

Maggie is also on shaky finances, and has a demanding job that keeps her away from home a lot. Oliver is kind of small, a ripe target for the bullies at his Catholic school. They relieve him of his keys, wallet, and street clothes, leaving him no alternative than to throw himself on Vincent's mercy. And they do the sort of thing that happens in this kind of movie: learn from each other and improve each other. There are dramatic overtones throughout, but it's mostly funny.

I can't imagine anyone doing better in this role than Bill Murray. And Melissa McCarthy does a fine job too. (I was surprised, because I've only seen her in roles where she's loud and rude. She can do other things!)

Everybody else is good too. Special mention to Chris O'Dowd who plays Brother Gregory, a humane and funny teacher at Oliver's school.