[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

One of those movies where I could see the flaws, but managed to like it anyway.

It's about—guess who?—Alfred Hitchcock, spanning the time between July 1959 (the opening scene is the North by Northwest premiere) and June 1960 (things wind up with the premiere of Psycho). Although insanely popular with audiences worldwide, Hitch is somewhat concerned that he's reached the end of his (heh) Rope, creativity-wise. He wants to do something new and scary, and finds (to the skepticism of nearly everyone) the very thing in the book Psycho, by Robert Bloch, which in turn was inspired by the gory 1950s Wisconsin crimes of Ed Gein.

Hitch has problems, though: He thinks his wife, Alma Reville (played by Helen Mirren) is getting way too chummy with the dashing, womanizing screenwriter Whitfield Cook. (She, in turn, is getting a little put out with her husband's obvious infatuation with the aloof blonde starlets he keeps casting.) Their personal fortune is at risk on the success of Psycho, and the production is mired in problems. The censors are on his (ample) ass. So are the studio execs. Plus, he eats too much, drinks too much, and smokes burrito-sized cigars.

But it all works out.

Anthony Hopkins plays Hitch; they don't get the physical resemblance very close, but the voice and mannerisms are pretty good. And his macabre quips are nearly all funny. ("Oh by the way, try the finger sandwiches. They are real fingers.") Helen Mirren is wonderful as Alma, and Scarlett Johansson is decent as Janet Leigh, around whose performance the movie-within-the-movie depends. And gee that actress playing Vera Miles looks familiar! I had to wait for the credits to find out it was that nice Jessica Biel.

One problem is shared with most biopics: the script uses dialog for exposition. (Movies should should either bring in Basil Exposition for this, or find another way to do it.)

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:59 AM EDT

Carol Shea-Porter: Here Are Ideas, Which I May Or May Not Like

Reps. Carol Shea-Porter & Paul
Hodes It's time once again to look at one of "Carol's Columns", the latest in a series of pieces from my own CongressCritter and perpetual toothache, Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01).

I sometimes wonder: does Carol write these columns herself, or does she have some flunky on her staff do it? I am leaning toward the former opinion. For evidence, here is the column's headline:

Common cents for raising revenue

"Sense, cents, get it?" Moan.

She couldn't be paying an actual salary for someone to write a headline that lame, could she? Well, maybe. But I have a feeling we're getting direct insight into the Mind of Carol here.

[Update: since I posted, the column's title has been truncated to "Common cents". Concentrating the inanity into two words instead of spreading it out over five.]

Carol's column appears at her government-provided website and residents of NH01 may see it at some point as an op-ed in their local papers. I am reproducing the 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.

Congressional Republicans and Democrats want to lower the debt, but they have very different approaches. The Republicans' idea, the Ryan Budget, would repeal the health care law, turn Medicare into a voucher program and reduce benefits, slash Medicaid -- the program that more than 60 percent of nursing home residents need to pay for their beds -- cut other domestic programs, and would be revenue-neutral. In other words, it would not raise a penny of revenue to help pay down the debt; it would rely just on deep cuts. Democrats offered a budget, the Van Hollen Budget, which had a mixture of cuts and revenue. For Americans who want to lower the debt but still invest in good government, the question has to be, "Can we raise revenue to pay the bills without increasing taxes on the middle class and small businesses?" Interesting word choice: Carol talks about "debt" and never "deficit". Does she know the difference? We will never "lower the debt" until we eliminate the deficit altogether, and start running a surplus. Nothing Carol suggests will even come close to that.

Clearly, though, her constant use of "revenue" throughout this column is a dishonest euphemism for "taxes".

It was only a few weeks ago, by the way, that Carol trashed the Ryan Budget: "[S]ince there is no effort to even acknowledge the other party or compromise on any issues what-so-ever, it has zero chance of success."

But that was then, this is now, and Carol now cheers for the "Van Hollen Budget" which is, if anything, more partisan, less compromising, and has even less chance for success. And that's fine with Carol.

The answer is, "Of course." There is plenty of revenue to be found, but guards, otherwise known as lobbyists, are standing watch over the revenue and our incredibly unfair tax code. America desperately needs revenue to rebuild transportation and communication infrastructure and create jobs, to provide health care to seniors and poor children, to invest in medical and business research and technology, to educate our young people, keep our country safe, and to pay down our debt, but we should not borrow for all of this. We should raise revenue. So, looking past both budgets, where can we find money? In CarolLand, taxes are not raised; instead, "revenue" is "found". That is, if you can get around the "guards" who are "standing watch" over it.

What is that money doing in private hands anyway? Nothing that Carol deems worthwhile. That money is what "America desperately needs". The $5.4 Trillion in cash that government currently extracts? Sorry, just ain't enough. For Carol, it's never enough.

What's clear from her rhetoric: There is not a single dollar in private hands that Carol does not imagine she could spend more wisely and humanely. Oh, sure: she'll probably let you keep some of yours. But that's not due to any lofty principle. The only rule is: if she thinks government "needs" it, and she can politically get away with it, she'll take it.

Carol deems the current tax system "incredibly unfair"; she never spells out what she means by that, except that it doesn't generate enough cash flow to satisfy her unlimited spending desires.

Even though most people don't hear about them, there are many suggestions being made by many different groups. I am going to include some here, whether I agree or disagree with the suggestions. Translation: "I don't have enough political courage to advocate specific positions and take responsibility for them."
Some want to raise taxes on the wealthiest. The Congressional Progressive Caucus Budget "asks the extraordinarily wealthy to pay a sensible share by creating five additional tax brackets, the highest of which is still lower than the top bracket in place during most of the Reagan Administration." Their brackets would be 45 percent for $1-10 million, 46 percent for $10-20 million, 48 percent for $100 million-1 billion, and 49 percent for $1 billion and more. I know Carol's just quoting someone else here, but note the "asks" euphemism. The government does not "ask" for more taxes. It takes them, under threat of force. Anyone who says government should "ask" for more taxes is a dishonest and cowardly charlatan, and is demonstrating contempt for your intelligence.

Also note the "sensible share" bit. That's an interesting way to frame an arbitrary grab for more cash.

Many are taking aim at those corporations that have managed to escape paying any federal income taxes. David Kocieniewski's article in the New York Times, March 24, 2011, titled "G.E.'s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether," certainly caught the public's attention. He wrote that General Electric had worldwide profits of $14.2 billion, $5.1 from U.S. operations, and "Its American tax bill? None. In fact, G.E. claimed a tax benefit of $3.2 billion." And G.E. is not alone. Kocieniewski points out that while we have one of the highest corporate tax rates in the world, "companies have been increasingly using a maze of shelters, tax credits and subsidies to pay far less." A debunking of the "GE pays no taxes" meme is here.

Carol, of course, has no idea what to do about the corporate income tax, other than vaguely "taking aim" at the corporations. (Gun-based metaphors are OK to use when you're a Democrat.)

It's notable that even a lefty like Matthew Yglesias thinks we should just get rid of the corporate income tax. Whether the GE factoid is true or not, the corporate income tax has become a dirty joke, an inefficient snakepit of favors for the politically well-connected.

(Of course, being a lefty, Yglesias thinks we should more than make up for it by increasing taxes—on, of course, "the rich"—elsewhere. But unlike Carol, he's honest about it.)

He reports that the corporate contribution to our nation's revenue was 30 percent of the total 60 years ago, but only 6.6 percent in 2009. Reform the tax code now. Some think we need to do a better job collecting taxes that are already owed under the current code. James Thompson wrote in an article, published on April 13 in USA Today, that, "The government's failure to collect the $385 billion that is owed but not paid the government each year -- called the "tax gap" -- translates to a $3,300 surtax on each taxpaying household, according to the Taxpayer Advocate Service." He argues that instead of cutting the IRS and its 98,000 employees, 10,000 employees smaller than in 2010, we should invest in catching cheaters to bring in revenue and make it fairer for the rest of us. If the government manages to snatch more money away from corporations, fine. Of course, they'll have less to fritter away on jobs, etc. But that's OK with Carol: the increased government revenue can be spent on unemployment benefits! And as Nancy Pelosi knows, unemployment benefits create jobs!

Carol also has a naive faith that throwing money at an organization—the IRS in this case—is an effective way to improve its operations. Daniel J. Mitchell debunks.

There are many other ideas to raise revenue without hitting the middle class and small businesses. Stop allowing hedge-fund managers and private equity fund managers to report their income differently, paying a capital gains rate instead of an ordinary income rate. No more deductions on yachts, gambling debts and private jets. A small financial speculation tax on huge institutional (not individual) transactions on Wall Street would raise billions over 10 years. A mix of mostly dreadful ideas. Mostly chosen for their value as demagogic political theatre, not for any rational fiscal purpose. Also, since they conveniently target "someone else", Carol can pretend that there would be no negative effects of sucking more money out of the private financial sector, or punishing people who choose to invest their money instead of spending it.

I have to admit that I have no idea what Carol is referring to about taking a tax deduction for gambling debts. Is that a thing? I can't find anything about it, for example, in this Forbes article describing the tax implications of Carol's fellow Democrat Maureen O'Connor's $1 billion gambling losses.

The financial "speculation" tax (usually referred to as a "financial transaction tax") is a spectacularly bad idea. Here's an article discussing a European proposal, but the argument applies to the US.

The point here is that we have a choice. Put options on the table and have a vote on them, one by one. I listen to government officials, service providers, educational institutions and small businesses each day. They talk about the need for some revenue to invest in our people and build our country. We can raise revenue to pay down the debt and adequately run the country, and we don't need to ask the middle class to pay more than their fair share. We just need to ask others who have been holding back to pay theirs. Note (once again) the "ask" euphemism, demonstrating Carol's lack of respect for her readers and constituents.

Bottom line: Carol doesn't worry overmuch about the details as she gets more money to play with, to spend on her worthy schemes.

But, perhaps surprisingly, I agree with her on one thing: If I were advising Speaker Boehner, I would put every silly tax-raising scheme up to a vote in the House, so that Carol would go on the record. No more hiding behind the "I'm not going to tell you whether I agree or disagree" tergiversations.

Last Modified 2013-06-19 10:11 AM EDT

Django Unchained

[4.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Another Oscar Best Picture nominee. And Christoph Waltz won for his supporting-actor performance. And Quentin Tarantino won for his screenplay. And (as I type), the IMDB raters have placed Django Unchained at position #44 on the Top 250 Movies Of All Time.

In addition, I liked it quite a bit. Mr. Tarantino, who (you may have heard) also directed, is a movie lover, and this is his own unique take on the Western genre. (Although most of it is set in Tennessee and Mississippi.)

It takes place in 1858, and slavery's still going strong. Django, played by Jamie Foxx, is a slave, freed in the opening scene by Dr. King Schultz, Waltz's Oscar-winning role. Schultz is a bounty hunter, and he enlists Django as his sidekick. Dishing out murderous violence to white criminals, it turns out, is something Django has an unusual talent for.

But Django's wife ("Broomhilda") is still in captivity, and Schultz agrees to help track her down and (hopefully) free her by fair means or … well, let's be honest here, the goal is to engage in a lot of violence and hope that the right people are left alive at the end.

Waltz's Oscar is richly deserved; he's a lot of fun to watch. Unlike Inglorious Basterds, he's pretty much a hero here.

It's also a lot of fun playing spot-the-actor. As in his other movies, Tarantino pulls in a lot of semi-forgotten TV and movie stars of yesteryear: Michael Parks, Lee Horsely, Franco Nero (the original Django), Dennis Christopher, Don Johnson, etc.

Sheer coincidence: the soundtrack contains a snippet of Richie Havens' classic song "Freedom", and I watched the movie the same day I heard of Havens' passing.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:58 AM EDT

Life of Pi

[4.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Life of Pi won four Oscars (including Best Director), and was nominated for seven more (including Best Picture). The IMDB raters have (as I type) pegged it as #190 on the list of the Top 250 Movies Of All Time. I don't know about that, but it's pretty good.

It's the story of a young Indian kid, Pi Patel. His family runs a failing zoo in India, and they decide to pack up and move to Canada, taking the zoo beasts with them. They find themselves on a doomed ship, and pretty darn quickly Pi is drifting alone in a lifeboat with a few zoo animals. Most notably, a full-grown Bengal tiger that they've named "Richard Parker".

Or at least that's the story Pi tells. But it's a very good story, filled with danger and amazement. The moviemakers did an incredibly good job putting the story on screen. Even jaded me is amazed to learn that 86% of the Richard Parker shots are CGI, with no actual tiger content.

I read the best-selling novel back in 2004. Although my memory is kind of dim, I think the movie is rather faithful. And that's important, especially for the plot twist at the end. Spoiler alert coming: both movie and book offer a very different alternative look at Pi's travels. So, in its own way, Life of Pi is as bleak as Killing Them Softly. A gutsy choice to make for a big budget flick.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:58 AM EDT

Killing Them Softly

[2.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

A very bleak, bloody crime thriller marked by pretentiousness. Maybe it's Brad Pitt's least glamorous role? I'd hate to do the research. It is based on the George V. Higgins novel Cogan's Trade; although that book was written around forty years ago, set in and around Boston, the movie's was filmed in New Orleans and takes place in 2008.

I haven't read the book, but based on the Wikipedia entry, the movie is remarkably plot-faithful. A group of petty crooks conspire to knock over a mafia-protected card game. Their scheme rapidly falls apart, and Brad Pitt, playing hitman Jackie Cogan, is called in to punish the upstarts. He's directed by lawyer "Driver" (Richard Jenkins), whose strings are pulled by shadowy Mob higher-ups.

There's a darkly comic element revolving around Cogan's cynicism and efforts to behave professionally while all around him are relative screwups: Driver's bosses are criminals, fine, but they're also bureacratized and risk-averse, avoiding the decisions Cogan knows have to be made. Cogan hires an assistant, Mickey (James Gandolfini) to deal with one of the targets; Mickey has turned into a worthless drunken lecher.

I mentioned the movie was pretentious. Over many scenes of seedy criminality, we hear speeches given by Obama, Dubya, McCain, et.al., mostly on the topic of the financial crisis of 2008. I assume the point is the theft of billions by Wall Street bigwigs in their corporate jets, while normal criminal lowlife scum bicker, assault, and shoot each other in the gutters over relatively paltry sums. The movie's final scene has Brad Pitt haggling with Richard Jenkins over a $5K difference in his hitman fee, while Obama pontificates on a nearby TV, and Cogan makes a little speech about Thomas Jefferson being a wine-snob slaveholder.

Subtle and insightful? No, pretentious and tedious.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:59 AM EDT

Obama Pouts

pout face

I made the mistake of watching the local news on Manchester, NH's WMUR last prevening. On came President Obama with a pious, pouty, petulant, partisan rant in response to the defeat of the Manchin-Toomey "background check" amendment to the "gun control" legislation under consideration in the US Senate. My feelings wavered between outrage, disgust, and embarrassment, maybe a few others.

First, the outrage: Obama yammered on for many minutes. Video at the WaPo goes for over 13 minutes. I don't know if WMUR stuck through the whole thing, because I clicked off about 8 minutes in. Gotta watch that blood pressure.

But seriously, WMUR. Are you going to give a Republican gun control opponent comparably equal time to rebut this heavily partisan speech? Or are you just going to keep airing unpaid ads for the Democratic Party?

My feelings of disgust were aimed at the President, who reminded me of a spoiled teenage girl who didn't get the exact prom dress she wanted. And I'm not alone. Jacob Sullum was also appalled ("Obama Responds to His Gun Control Defeat With Self-Righteous Solipsism"):

Obama does a fine job of empathizing with the parents of Adam Lanza's victims. But that is something any decent human being should be able to manage. Where he has trouble, despite his lip service to the idea of putting himself in the other guy's shoes, is in empathizing with his opponents. He not only says they are wrong, which is to be expected. He refuses to concede that people who disagree with him about gun control are acting in good faith, based on what they believe to be sound reasons—that they, like him, are doing what they think is right. His self-righteous solipsism is striking even for a politician.

Similar observations from Peter Wehner:

Mr. Obama’s effort at emotional blackmail has failed, and in bitterly lashing out at those who called him out on his demagoguery, he went some distance toward confirming that he is, in fact, a demagogue.

Both Wehner and Sullum seem to give too much weight to taking Obama's words at their face value, as if they're honestly felt. I have serious doubts about that.

I don't know if Obama is delusional enough to believe his own arguments; it's (unfortunately) much more likely that his posturing is a cynical ploy to gin up know-nothing outrage against the GOP for the 2014 elections.

Evidence: Gun control was, essentially, off the table for the 2012 elections. And now we're supposed to believe that it's suddenly the most important issue ever?

Nah. It's all about coldly leveraging people's (understandable) post-Newtown emotions into political power.

And that's (finally) why embarrassed: for the country that elected this demagogic phony.

But there's a silver lining: for all Obama's poutiness, the emotional blackmail didn't work. The country yawned. So there's also optimism.

Last Modified 2013-06-19 10:11 AM EDT

Senator Ayotte Chooses Wisely

Kelly Ayotte

New Hampshire's better Senator has decided, after careful consideration, to oppose the Toomey-Manchin "background check" amendment to the "gun control" legislation under consideration, as Pun Salad suggested yesterday. Her bottom line:

I believe that restricting the rights of law-abiding gun owners will not prevent a deranged individual or criminal from obtaining and misusing firearms to commit violence. While steps must be taken to improve the existing background check system, I will not support the Manchin-Toomey legislation, which I believe would place unnecessary burdens on law-abiding gun owners and allow for potential overreach by the federal government into private gun sales.

She also voted for cloture on the legislation, as Pun Salad advocated last week.

I won't say my well-reasoned and respectful communications on her website helped to sway her vote, but … well, I'm allowed to imagine they did, right?

Next up: the "Gang of Eight" immigration bill. I'm leaning toward "No", Senator.

Last Modified 2013-06-19 10:10 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2013-04-16

  • Copley Square I have no deep thoughts about the horror at the Boston Marathon yesterday. We spent quite a bit of time watching the local TV news folks babble, and report a lot of stuff that later turned out to be wrong. Jim Geraghty's "Morning Jolt" e-mail is titled "Making Sense of the Sensless", and it's pretty good:

    Right now, I could write segments on the idiot comments made by the usual suspects . . . but do you really need another piece of evidence to support the argument that, say, Cynthia McKinney is a lunatic? Eh, if so, here you go. I can't get all that revved up about it. She is what she is. If you really put much stock in her judgment of what's "the real story" behind a horrific news event, theories that hear this awful news and immediately jump to elaborate theories of "false flag" operations and the notion that our local and federal law-enforcement ranks are full of men and women willing to set bombs and blow up children in order to score some sort of propaganda victory . . . well, then I doubt there's anything anyone can say to dissuade you of that vast worldview you've constructed within your mind.

    The conspiracy theorist is only a couple of steps away from the person who — often on Twitter — begins discussing who was behind it with way too much certainty. As I said on Twitter yesterday, I suspect that speculation, unhelpful as it is, is a coping mechanism: People attempt to make a sudden unexpected horror fit into pattern of known facts. If we can figure out who did it, we can find someone to feel anger and rage towards and, for some people, that's a much easier emotion to deal with than shock, horror, fear, and sorrow.

    The all-too-confident speculator is only a few steps away from the ordinarily knowledgeable terrorism expert or pundit yanked into a television studio at a moment's notice and asked to speak, extemporaneously, about what could be behind these awful events based on nothing more than initial reports and the most horrific of images playing on a monitor just beyond the camera.

  • A Washington Post article claims that New Hampshire's better Senator, Kelly Ayotte is "undecided" on the Manchin-Toomey "background check" amendment.

    So Granite Staters might want to sway her one way or the other. If you're like me, you might want to point out that the amendment is the worst sort of "do something" legislation: hastily cobbled together, "limp and pointless" (J.D. Tucille); "broader and fuzzier than the legislation described in the press" (Jacob Sullum); a "slippery slope" with a near-guarantee that today's "exemption" will become tomorrow's "loophole". (C.W. Cooke).

  • Two good articles from the current print edition of Reason are now free online. The first is "The End of Power" by Moisés Naím. It suffers a bit from gee-whiz breezy prose. But Mr. Naiím notes some trends that might make even the most cynical pessimist cheer up a bit. E.g.:

    According to the World Bank, between 2005 and 2008, from sub-Saharan Africa to Latin America and from Asia to Eastern Europe, the proportion of people living in extreme poverty (those with incomes under $1.25 a day) plunged. Given that the decade was marked by the onset of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression of 1929, this progress is even more surprising. The world is expected to reach the Millennium Development Goals on poverty set in 2000 by the United Nations much earlier than originally anticipated. One of the most audacious goals back then was to cut the world’s extreme poverty in half by 2015; that impressive feat was achieved five years early, in 2010.

    Even though it's in Reason, Mr. Naím is not your usual libertarian nutbar (like me), but an internationally-known journalist and scholar. If he says something revolutionary is happening, it probably is.

  • The second article is from Peter Suderman, titled "Down the Drain" and it refers to the $833 billion stimulus from a few years back—you know, the one that was supposed to bring us to 5% unemployment rate by now.

    I can't recommend it unless you have your blood pressure under control and are not prone to throwing things when enraged.

    If you want to see where a little bit of your $833 billion stimulus went, head south from St. Louis on Interstate 44 until you reach the Mark Twain National Forest. On March 13, 2009, less than a month after President Barack Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) into law, the federal government awarded $462,912.30 to a Spokane, Washington, construction firm called CXT Incorporated to build and install 22 “precast concrete toilets” in the park.

    I, for one, am making travel plans to visit my ex-money.

  • Remember the Jesus-stomp incident from last month? That bizarre incident revolved around a faculty member, one Deandre Poole, in the "School of Communication and Multimedia Studies" at Florida Atlantic University, who thought it would Teach a Useful Lesson to have his students write "JESUS" on a piece of paper, then put it on the floor and stomp on it. Mr. Poole was placed on leave.

    The FAU Administration has now decided to reprimand a different facule in the same department, one James Tracy, over wacky conspiracy-mongering at his blog. Among other things, Tracy questions "the official Newtown narrative". Like, did the whole thing ever really happen?

    Speaking as a University employee who expresses out-of-mainstream views on his blog at times: I don't think a University should be reprimanding its employees for expressing out-of-mainstream views on their blogs.

    But to expand a point I made: FAU is a clusterfrak of (a) clueless administrators who don't understand academic freedom or the First Amendment; (b) academically-worthless departments with names like "School of Communication and Multimedia Studies"; (c) which are full of undergifted faculty like Poole and Tracy.

    That's your real scandal, right thar.

    (Story via Col·lege In·sur·rec·tion, which I enjoy typing.)

Last Modified 2013-06-19 10:09 AM EDT

Chernobyl Diaries

[1.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

I won't bore you with the details of how we came to watch Chernobyl Diaries. Suffice to say: I would have preferred to get something else from Netflix, but I'm not the only person living in Pun Salad Manor.

Three young Americans (two female, one male) are doing a tour of Europe; they stop off in Kiev to meet with the male's brother, who lives there. They plan to travel on to Moscow, but the brother has a different idea: he's heard of a local guy, Uri, who engages in "extreme tourism", and one of the extreme tours is to Pripyat, the abandoned ghost town that the Soviets once built to house workers for the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Together with another couple (Norwegian girl, Australian guy), they head off for Pripyat.

But this is a horror film, and other than its unique premise, it's extremely generic. Eventually, things get creepy, then scary, then the troupe starts getting picked off, one by one. The only question is whether there will be a sole survivor (probably the plucky independent girl) or whether they'll get her too.

Filmed mostly in shakycam, giving it that "found video" vibe, although most of the shots show the entire group, so who's holding the video camera? There's a lot of running, screaming, crying, mostly in the dark with flashlights waving around. It is rated R, but (I think) nearly entirely for overuse of the f-word; there's remarkably little gore, and the Disturbing Images aren't that Disturbing.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:58 AM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2013-04-14

  • Tax It's that time of year again. Since Pun Salad does not provide legal advice of any kind, I can not suggest you follow any of the advice contained in this classic Dave Barry column from 1997.

    It's time for my annual tax-advice column, which always draws an enthusiastic response from grateful readers.

    "Dear Dave, " goes a typical letter. "Last year, following your advice, I was able to receive a large tax refund simply by claiming a $43,000 business deduction for 'paste.' I am currently chained to a wall in federal prison, but they tell me that, with good behavior, in 25 years they'll remove the skull screws. Thanks a lot!"

  • Kevin D. Williamson brings us the happy news that local health bureaucrats are producing Obamacare regulations that are totally reality-based and will save us all a bunch of money real soon now.

    Just kidding!

    The District of Columbia's Obamacare czars --- the board that sets rules for the phony insurance marketplace, or "exchange," that the law creates --- have decided that henceforth insurers shall be forbidden by law to charge smokers higher rates than non-smokers. Smoking, as it turns out, "is a preexisting medical condition," according to Dr. Mohammad Akhter, the chairman of the D.C. Health Exchange Board. Two liberal states, California and Connecticut, have decided likewise, while Colorado and Alaska have rejected the idea.

    The obvious point: non-smokers get to subsidize the health care costs of smokers.

    The slightly less obvious points: the Einsteins behind this decision are unelected and unaccountable. They make decisions unencumbered by rationality or constraint. There are myriads of decisions like this coming down the pike, and they will wind up destroying the health insurance market.

    But of course, that's what Obamacare was designed to do.

  • For us non-Twitterers, Iowahawk is hard to find these days. But here he is reflecting on the recent profundities emanating from the mouth of one Melissa Harris-Perry, for example that "we" should "recognize that kids belong to their communities." The Hawk concentrates on the thought-corrupting, Orwellian language used:

    One of the creepier features of lefty language is the application of possessive pronouns. "My" is for rights (real or imagined), "your" is for responsibilities, "our" is for the stuff in my bank account they want to take. Unless it's the case of "our responsibility" in which case they actually mean "your responsibility." As the old saying goes, "what's mine is mine, what's yours is negotiable."

  • Iowahawk's observation has been made by others. Here is one of my favorite examples, from the late Underground Grammarian, written back in 1987 (space down to "The Witching Our: Pronominal and Participial Considerations from our Acting Adjunct Sociogrammatologist") He wrote about some earnest babbler of that age who demanded that something be done "to protect our young and needy."

    My admonisher is surely sincere, and, although history does not suggest that it is out of a lack of sincerity that tyrants and other monsters are made, I do believe that he believes that the result of his admonition, somewhere down that long, long road of consequence, will be of some good to some child. And that may be so. In other words, I do not suppose him a man who designs to deceive. Why is it, then, that he talks like a liar?

    The UG is sorely missed.

  • Cracked lists "The 5 Creepiest Ways Major Companies Are Watching You".

    Not a bad article. But here's an interesting combination of facts:

    1. Microsoft has an anti-Google site, scroogled.com which details all the different slimy tactics Google uses to make money off your personal information: e.g., using the text of your Gmail to position ads; providing your personal information to Google Play app-sellers; using paid ads for shopping-search results. Ack, horrible, horrible Google!

    2. Gosh, thank goodness at least one company—Microsoft—is dedicated to its customers' privacy.

      Oh, wait. From the Cracked article:

      Microsoft filed a patent back in 2010 for a proprietary technology that will scan your emails, text messages, and browsing history, while monitoring your facial expressions and speech via webcam or Kinect (if you have an Xbox) to try and determine your emotional state, delivering ads that they think will appeal to your current mood.

    If you want me, I will be in a cave with an abacus, trying to protect my computing privacy.

Last Modified 2013-06-19 10:09 AM EDT

The Intouchables

[3.5 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

The IMDB raters have have (as I type) The Intouchables at #61 in the list of the Top 250 Movies Of All Time. Yeah, I don't think so. But it's not bad.

Also (according to IMDB) it is "the most successful French film in German cinema history." And you know how much Germans like French stuff. It is based on a true story.

The plot is what TV Tropes calls the Odd Couple. The "Oscar" is Driss, a young black man living in France, on the edge of a mean-streets life of crime, drugs, and homelessness. In order to get French unemployment benefits, he has to at least pretend to look for a job; this sends him to the house of Philippe (or "Felix"), a rich parapelegic widower who needs a caregiver.

Philippe's world is dry, antiseptic, humorless, and boring. Driss would be totally out of place. Of course, he is hired; Philippe appreciates his total lack of pity. There are all sorts of conflicts, mostly handled humorously: Philippe loves art and classical music. Driss is more into Kool and the Gang, and Earth Wind and Fire. But (you know this is coming) their odd chemistry manages to develop in ways that saves them both.

I have no idea what the title refers to. French intouchables translates to "untouchables" in English, according to Google Translate. But there's no Eliot Ness.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:59 AM EDT

A Letter to Senator Ayotte

Gals too Inspired by this post from the Minute Man, I sent the following e-missive to our state's finer Senator, Kelly Ayotte:

I oppose the gun control legislation proposed by President Obama and Senate Democrats, but I would suggest you NOT support the filibuster some Senate Republicans are proposing in response. The bill would not pass the House. There would be no harm, and a lot of good, resulting from getting all Senators to vote on the merits of the legislation. Specifically, I would enjoy seeing Democratic Senators, like your colleague Jeanne Shaheen, agonize over whether to outrage their liberal donors or their nowhere-near-as-liberal constituents.

I surprisingly find myself allied with John McCain on this issue. Oh well.

Last Modified 2013-04-09 7:59 AM EDT


[Amazon Link]
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I read 1491 by Charles C. Mann back in 2011 and found it interesting enough to follow up with 1493. (As always: thanks to the library of the University Near Here for getting it.) Mann's topic is broad: how Columbus's journey upset the entire world's apple cart, with many of the apples still rolling around today.

It's a daunting subject, and one could (and some do) spend one's entire life in its study. But (fortunately) Mann is not a professional historian, he's a journalist, and this book (like 1491) concentrates on good stories and provocative ideas.

Those stories have a strong scientific component. Mann writes engagingly and comfortably in the realms of climate, ecology, biology, epidemiology, and other disciplines. It's a story of invasive species and ecological chaos, brought about mostly by human beings' lust for power and money. (Not that there's anything wrong with the latter.) Rubber, silk, silver, tobacco, potatoes, etc.; all started swirling around the globe with mostly unexpected consequences.

As did disease. It's well known what smallpox, introduced by Europeans into the Americas did to the folks already living here. Mann also documents the massive toll that malaria and yellow fever took on the incoming Europeans. (He raises the interesting point that slavery established itself in the South most firmly because Africans were more resistant to tropical disease than the other primary source of workers, indentured servants.)

Mann is a diligent researcher, visiting many of the historical sites he writes about, describing his encounters and observations. It's not all interesting, but a lot of it is. Recommended for even the person not all that interested in history.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:58 AM EDT


[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
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My fellow Americans, I am a bad person. Probably I should move to Cuba or some other Commie hellhole. Because I fell asleep while watching Lincoln. It was boring.

Sorry, Abe.

Now (as always, I shouldn't even have to point this out) your mileage may vary. Lincoln was nominated for 12 Oscars (including Best Picture) and won 2 (including Best Actor for Daniel Day-Lewis, who plays Abe).

But I'm convinced that many of those Oscar folks were just running on autopilot, perhaps just after waking up from a Lincoln nap. To paraphrase an apocryphal quote from the man himself: People who think they are supposed to like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they are supposed to like.

It follows the last few months of Lincoln's life in 1865, as the Civil War winds down, and concentrates on the political maneuvering behind the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment in the House of Representatives. It is like watching a filmed version of a history book, where the characters' dialog takes the place of the author's narrative, instead of resembling anything like what people might actually say to each other.

In fact, it would be a pretty good movie to show in high-school history classes. (I briefly thought that the language in the movie might not be appropriate for that (according to IMDB: "Two f-words. Four or five s-words.") but it's probably not a deal breaker for kids these days.

And Daniel Day-Lewis is truly amazing. Just not interesting.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:58 AM EDT

Carol Shea-Porter: Has No Solutions, Doesn't Like Yours

My own CongressCritter and perpetual toothache, Carol Shea-Porter (D-NH01), pens an occasional column to the Little People Back Home, i.e. me, and perhaps you. Her latest effort is titled "Ryan's Path to Prosperity - Still a Bad Idea" and it appears at her government-provided website. Eventually, residents of NH01 may see it as an op-ed in their local papers.

Once again, let's take a look at Carol's column! Carol's words (appropriately) on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

The House Republican budget, crafted by the Chair of the House Budget Committee, has been presented. Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan has kept the misnamed "Path to Prosperity" title for this year's budget, and he has also kept most of his really bad ideas. This budget is not based on any reality and lacks specifics because of that. As the Associated Press reported on 3/12/13, "A document released Tuesday offers few specifics on the proposed cuts to domestic programs, but it generally appears to incorporate spending levels for day-to-day agency operations significantly below levels called for by controversial automatic spending cuts." Congressman Ryan's budget needs to spell out the cuts so we can all judge it. You can check out Ryan's proposal, without the spin of AP or lefty think tanks, here.

What Carol doesn't mention: President Obama was also supposed to present his proposed FY2014 budget back in February. Not yet, as I type; its ETA is now sometime in the coming week. ("It's hard! It's math!")

It is true enough that Ryan's proposal does not get detailed enough for us to learn whether Your Federal Government will still be funding the study of duck penises. Instead it provides numbers for broad spending categories in a ten-year window. (E.g., $30.574 Billion for "General Science, Space and Technology" in FY2019.)

That's not specific enough for Carol. Fine. You might think that would be the end of her column, then. You would be wrong.

It also fails as a statement of our values, since its deep cuts tear at our moral and social fabric. And finally, since there is no effort to even acknowledge the other party or compromise on any issues what-so-ever, it has zero chance of success. So, what exactly is in this budget? Politicians are supposed to hide their arrogance, but Carol can flaunt hers at times. Like here, when she imperiously refers to "our values". Please.

She really means her values.

And one of her Highest Values: Federal government spending. Spending as much as it can possibly spend. And then some. More every year. Otherwise, you "tear at our moral and social fabric."

That fabric is apparently a very fragile item indeed. As Ryan pointed out: "current path" spending is scheduled to increase 5% per year through the ten-year budget window. Ryan's "deep cuts" proposal is to … gasp! … increase spending at a 3.4% rate instead.

Keep that in mind as you read Carol's phony apocalyptic rhetoric. We're just talking about different rates in spending growth.

There are tax cuts--for the richest among us. A Tax Policy Center analysis of the Republican budget shows that the average millionaire would reap a $408,000 tax cut under Chairman Ryan's proposal to reduce the top individual tax rate from 39.6% to 25%. Unless offset, the overall tax cuts in the Republican budget add an additional $5.7 trillion to the deficit over the next decade. Those in the top 0.1% of income, who make $3.3 million or more, would get a whopping $1.2 million on average-a 20% increase in their after-tax income. Another one of Carol's "values" leads her to view tax policy not as a means of raising revenue, but as a means to kick rich people in the teeth.

In fact, Ryan's proposal is pretty tame stuff: simplify the byzantine tax code, lower rates, broaden the base. His goal is to have the Feds take in around 19% of GDP in revenue, which is the (high) ballpark of the long-term historical average since World War 2.

Don't look for Carol to propose specific tax ideas of her own. (Other than the constant "RaiseTaxesOnTheRich" drumbeat.) Like Tim "Turbo Tax" Geithner, she doesn't have a solution, she just doesn't like Ryan's.

I will not vote to give still more tax cuts to the wealthiest while asking the middle class to pay more. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, "families with children that have incomes below $200,000 would have to face tax increases averaging more than $3,000 a year, if policymakers were to avoid increasing the deficit while reaching Chairman Ryan's 25-percent top-tax-rate goal." That is just morally wrong, and it is bad for our economy as well. We need a vibrant middle class to move this country forward. Carol's rhetoric about "still more tax cuts to the wealthiest" is dishonest. She voted for Obamacare, which (at current estimates) will raise taxes by over a trillion dollars over the next decade. And there's the $620 Billion "fiscal cliff" tax increases passed just a few months back. "Still more tax cuts"? Give me a break.

Note that Carol (however vaguely) admits that higher taxes can hurt the country's prosperity. She appears to think that this effect is magically confined to tax increases on the "middle class". It makes them less "vibrant".

But tax increases on the rich, no problem!

She doesn't have to resolve this contradiction, or even have evidence to support it. It's what she feels to be true, and that's all she needs.

There are changes to Medicare which would be devastating to senior citizens. Half of all seniors have an income of $22,500 or less per year, but the tax cuts go to the richest, and the cuts in benefits and the costs fall heavily on the old and the sick. Under the Ryan budget, our seniors would be handed a voucher and would have to go out and purchase their own insurance. The burden would be on them to keep costs down, and costs would rise faster than the voucher payment. My parents had enough difficulty negotiating the medical system with traditional Medicare. I cannot in good conscience vote to make it even more difficult and expensive for our older and sicker citizens. The Ryan budget also would increase seniors' costs for prescriptions, and slash Medicaid, despite the fact that 60% of nursing home residents need Medicaid to pay for their stay.

Ryan is (at least) honest about pointing out that Medicare and Medicaid are on a fiscally unsustainable path.

Carol prefers to ignore that. What's her plan? She doesn't have one.

Other to close her eyes, clap her hands over her ears, and whine about people who are actually trying to get the government's fiscal house in order.

Education is the key to prosperity for any nation, and as Dr. Jill Biden says, the country that out-educates us will out-compete us. Young people need a good education if they are to succeed, and their families need help with the high costs of education. The Ryan budget makes very deep cuts in education, taking us backwards instead of forwards. Actually this tired "out-educate/out-compete" rhetoric has been a Democrat staple in recent years. Carol (like her cronies) use it to assert (without evidence) that continually shovelling federal dollars into a pipe labelled "education" will magically produce smart people and economic prosperity coming out the other end.

But in fact the US already outspends other nations by a wide margin; the results are mediocre.

(It's hard to resist observing: if we were smarter, we wouldn't keep electing people like Carol Shea-Porter. QED.)

This is an area where I don't think Ryan's proposals go far enough. Democrats want to prop up this wasteful, corrupt system at 110%; Ryan wants to do 80% instead. Please, someone: put it on a glide path to zero.

Transportation takes a hit under the Ryan plan. This is the moment where we can invest in infrastructure and both create jobs, and repair and rebuild. The Democrats' budget calls for an infrastructure bank to get America moving again, while the Ryan budget slashes investments. Again, wrong direction for job creation. Another bit of magical "Federal spending in/prosperity out" thinking from Carol. She relies on our short memories; didn't we just have an $833 billion "stimulus" that was supposed to fix all this stuff? Shovel-ready and all that? Supposed to get us back to full employment?

Never mind that, Carol says. We'll do it right this time. Promise.

Bullshit then. Bullshit now.

For those Americans who care about the old and the sick, who care about school lunches and Meals on Wheels for shut-ins, who care about education and research and infrastructure, this budget is the wrong approach. I care, I care, I care, Carol says. "Caring" focus-groups well.

But, for Carol, "caring" means spending other people's money. And spending more than you can actually afford. When you "care", there's never enough of that.

I know that we have to reduce the debt, […] Readers, if you've been paying attention, I bet you can guess Carol's next word.
but I believe a slow, careful, and balanced approach is the way to go. Countries like England that have tried austerity-only approaches have not been successful. Our economy, while still fragile, is improving. This is not the time to let ideology trump sound practice. Did you guess correctly? I bet you did.

Beyond throwing out adjectives ("slow, careful, and balanced"), Carol has no plan to actually regain fiscal sanity.

As for the UK (or, as Carol calls it, "England"): see Matthew Feeney: "British Austerity is a Myth, Despite What the Keynesians Say"

Last Modified 2024-02-20 1:11 PM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2013-04-04

  • Saving for College Nick Gillespie is inspired by Rutgers' firing of coach Mike Rice (for getting caught "abusing" of his players) into looking at a larger outrage: the "way that Division I college sports is abusing most college students at most shools around the country, even if they never suit up for a practice or attend a single varsity competition of any sort."

    Nick looks at the latest USA Today report describing how 277 NCAA Division 1 public institutions of Higher Education fund their athletic programs.

    When all is tallied up, USA Today calculates that Rutgers is subsidizing the operation of its athletic department to the tune of 47 percent of its expenses. Let's underscore that: This is money that is overwhelmingly going to field football, baseball, lacrosse, and other sports teams. It's not going to create new sections of Biology 101 or English 251 or underwrite the discovery of the next Streptomycin or publish the next Economics and the Public Interest or anything that remotely comes close to education or research.

    Rutgers is Gillespie's alma mater. Milton Friedman, also a Rutgers alumnus, is quoted.

  • Rutgers is one of the "comparator schools" for the University Near Here. Gillespie's article made me wonder how the level of athletic subsidy compares at those schools. Here 'tis:

    School Revenue Subsidy % Subsidy
    Massachusetts $27,248,277 $22,043,976 80.9%
    Buffalo $26,228,030 $20,823,478 79.4%
    Delaware $36,074,840 $28,535,457 79.1%
    Rhode Island $23,614,858 $17,588,496 74.5%
    Vermont $16,671,903 $11,972,477 71.8%
    UNH $26,237,332 $18,348,442 69.9%
    Maine $18,443,619 $12,096,275 65.6%
    Rutgers $60,190,100 $28,475,523 47.3%
    Connecticut $63,089,340 $15,029,723 23.8%

    To quote T. Brennan: "I don't know what that means." Other than the 47.3% subsidy that outrages Gillespie is pretty modest when compared to UNH, or even most other schools (except UConn).

    Other fun facts gleaned from the USA Today data: for UNH, over the 2006-2011 period, the amount of revenue obtained by ticket sales declined by 10%, while revenue from (mandatory) student fees increased by 40% and from "school funds" went up by 29%. "Coaching staff" expenses went up by 25%.

  • Libertarians might want to check out an interesting post from Tyler Cowen; it's in response to people who ask him about "guns and gun control". Although Tyler leans libertarian, he would "gladly see a cultural shift toward the view that gun ownership is dangerous and undesirable, much as the cultural attitudes toward smoking have shifted since the 1960s."

    Really? But he goes on:

    I am, however, consistent. I also think we should have a cultural shift toward the view that alcohol — and yes I mean all alcohol — is at least as dangerous and undesirable. I favor a kind of voluntary prohibition on alcohol. It is obvious to me that alcohol is one of the great social evils and when I read the writings of the prohibitionists, while I don’t agree with their legal remedies, their arguments make sense to me. It remains one of the great undervalued social movements. For mostly cultural reasons, it is now a largely forgotten remnant of progressivism and it probably will stay that way, given that “the educated left” mostly joined with America’s shift to being “a wine nation” in the 1970s.

    I don't agree with this—at least not yet—but I admire Tyler's willingness to take his argument where consistency demands he take it. Check it out.

Last Modified 2014-12-01 2:35 PM EDT

URLs du Jour — 2013-04-02

  • scene of the crime Local resident Sarah Long was grievously injured in broad daylight yesterday by a greasy Portuguese assailant. Best wishes for her speedy recovery.

    (Map of crime scene courtesy of MarineTraffic.com and Google; click to embiggen.)

  • The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) weighs in on the "Stomp on Jesus" class activity at Florida Atlantic University (FAU), and the ensuing charges. Unsurprisingly, their judgment is: "a screwup from start to finish."

    It's a balanced and thoughtful article, and notes the (possible) overreaction of the devout Mormon student, Ryan Rotela, to the exercise. Bottom line:

    The university's repeated attempts to get on the right side of the politics of the issue has instead simply added to the litany of problems it has caused. Here's hoping for the day when universities discover that sticking to your principles is the best form of PR.

    For a bunch of allegedly smart people, you'd think that discovery would have been made long ago.

    On the other hand, there's the uncomfortable fact that they are running an academically-bereft course at their bad joke of a college. If they had principles, they wouldn't be doing that either.

  • New Hampshire Watchdog Grant Bosse takes on my local paper, Foster's Daily Democrat, for endorsing SB126, a bill that champions local car dealerships against their franchising manufacturers.

    Grant (correctly) notes that the state should stay away from changing contractual obligations freely entered into by the dealerships. And he also points out the "protectionist nonsense" involved:

    Tilting government to favor local, popular businesses against less popular out-of-state companies may be quite tempting for politicians and advertising-supported media, but it makes no economic sense. Undermining the power of contracts simply inserts political meddling into the marketplace. Local car dealers complain that they lack leverage with the auto makers. This is simply untrue. In fact, state law already grants them far more leverage than they’ve earned from their place in the market. State laws in all 50 states prevent automobile companies from selling their product directly to their customers. This is a ludicrous and indefensible restraint on trade imposed on manufacturs [sic] because local dealerships have more political clout than market power.

    Here's hoping Foster's is paying attention.

  • If you're in the mood for some cheering up, the NYPost provides (what they claim are) "The greatest gags, tweets, jests and jokes from the past year". I don't know about that, but here's one I laughed at:

    I wonder if Jeremy Irons ever quietly laughs to himself while he’s ironing.

    So far, the people I repeat that to invariably say: "That's stupid!" But they always laugh first.

  • If you're using the Pun Salad default view: my take on Anna Karenina is available on the Movie view, and A Drop of the Hard Stuff by Lawrence Block on the Book view.

Last Modified 2013-06-19 10:11 AM EDT

A Drop of the Hard Stuff

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I've been reading Lawrence Block's Matt Scudder mystery novels for — well, quite awhile. Mr. Block has slowed down some: the previous Scudder book (All the Flowers Are Dying) came out in 2005, and the one before that (Hope to Die) was published in 2001.

Mr. Block is 74, and has earned the right to write as slowly as he wants. But I also took my time in reading this one (originally published in 2011).

Mr. Block is a gifted storyteller and a impeccable prose stylist. (He's also written a lot of how-to-write stuff.) And Matt Scudder is a compelling protagonist: he started off as an alcoholic ex-cop, wracked by guilt over his accidental shooting of an innocent bystander. To make ends meet, he became an unlicensed private investigator, for which he had enough of a knack to make a living at. Eventually, he joined AA, and even got semi-respectable. This book is mostly a flashback to a few decades back, about a year into Matt's sobriety. He runs into Jack, an childhood acquaintance at an AA meeting, one who came up on the wrong side of the law. Now struggling through AA's 12 steps, he's "making amends". But (unfortunately) something about the step gets Jack gruesomely killed.

Jack's AA sponsor has a list of folks that Jack made for Step 8: "all persons we had harmed". But he doesn't want to give the list to the cops: they might hassle a bunch of innocents needlessly. Scudder is hired to check them out.

Does he eventually solve the murder? Well, sure; he's Scudder. But along the way is a lot of fun, as he meets a bunch of colorful folks and needs to deal with some of his own problems, even the recurring demon of booze.

Next up: A Long Line of Dead Men, a collection of shorter Scudder fiction.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:59 AM EDT

Anna Karenina

[2.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

[Amazon Link]
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Based on the famous Russian novel by Tolstoy!

The movie is set in 1870s Russia, mostly in the upper strata of the aristocracy. The centerpiece—why would the call the movie this otherwise—is young Anna (Keira Knightley); she's married to much older Alexei (Jude Law), but fatefully (and, eventually, fatally) attracted to the young and dashing Count Vronsky.

There are subplots: Anna's dad is a serial adulterer, which causes problems in his marriage; friend Levin is smitten with Kitty, who's initially attracted to Vronsky, but by the end of the book realizes this folly. Levin is also devoted to a philosophy that causes him to live in the countryside, working the fields with his serfs. (These subplots are given much more weight in the book, but they're just pointless tack-ons in the movie.)

The main gimmick about the movie: a lot of it takes place in a theater setting: not only on stage, but backstage, in the rigging, down where the audience would sit. Some sort of metaphor for urban life? Maybe, as Levin's farm is apparently in the great outdoors. This gimmick, and other in-your-face stylistic flourishes were lost on me; it made the whole movie come across as affected and dishonest.

It won the Oscar for costumes, though. And it was nominated for cinematography, production design, and musical score. So if you're a fan of those things, even when they're wrapped around a pretentious, empty movie, check it out. But otherwise, read the book: it's not bad.

Last Modified 2024-01-28 12:59 AM EDT