Thursday, April 29, 2010

Roger Ebert's Descent

I have a lot of symmpathy for Roger Ebert. He has endured, among other things, the tragic death of his brilliant co-host, Gene Siskel, a stroke, subsequent surgeries that have rendered him unable to speak, and the cancellation of his namesake show, At The Movies (though he had ceased to be involved and has a new project in the works.

I also regard Roger Ebert as something of a hero. He took film criticism from the format of austere nitpicking to a genre relevant to all film-goers of reasonable intellect. In so doing, he rightly eviscerated manipulative pap like Dead Poet's Society, and condescending comedic trifles like Tommy Boy, while elevating unheralded family films like Fluke, and discovering odd masterpieces like Walkabout.

The man has earned his Pulitzer prizes, and will be remembered as one of the great writers of two centuries. Rightly so.

But now, his critical mind seems to be off-kilter, and his once reliable reviews are a crapshoot. I could forgive his persistent love of Drew Barrymore vehicles (she is charming, in the classical cinema sense), but lately, he has become as incoherent as the film critic for your local daily.

Exhibit A: His review of Kick-Ass... Ebert in bold. Me in not-bold.

Shall I have feelings, or should I pretend to be cool?

You are a film critic. You should have feelings AND be cool.

Will I seem hopelessly square if I find “Kick-Ass” morally reprehensible and will I appear to have missed the point?

No, you will seem presumptuous in assuming the movie has a "point". Has anyone ever enjoyed a movie that had a "point". Dead Poet's Society has a "point". Dead Poet's Society sucks.


Let's say you're a big fan of the original comic book, and you think the movie does it justice. You know what? You inhabit a world I am so very not interested in.


Fair enough. If you think the movie sucks, then who cares if it's like the comic book. I'm trackin'...


***spoiler alert***

A movie camera makes a record of whatever is placed in front of it, and in this case, it shows deadly carnage dished out by an 11-year-old girl, after which an adult man brutally hammers her to within an inch of her life.

I gave the spoiler alert because Ebert felt not so compelled. Apparently, this movie didn't deserve it, in his view. Revealing spoilers is a sanctimonious thing to do, as you are dismissing the film's merits entirely. That's fine for the latest Bruckheimer flick, but there is empirically SOME artistry on display in Kick-Ass, no?

Blood everywhere. Now tell me all about the context.

I will tell him about context. Let The Right One In is one of the most violent films I have ever seen. Lot's of "blood everywhere" scenarios. The violent acts are perpetrated, by and large, by an 11 year old girl. Ebert gave that film an emphatic thumbs-up, and rightly so; it is one of the best films ever made.

Clearly, context matters.

The movie's premise is that ordinary people, including a high school kid, the 11-year-old and her father, try to become superheroes in order to punish evil men. The flaw in this premise is that the little girl does become a superhero.


How is this a flaw in the premise? Isn't this just the premise? Perhaps the premise is flawed, but why? No need to explain, I guess. Not like we're writing a review or anything.

In one scene, she faces a hallway jammed with heavily armed gangsters and shoots, stabs and kicks them all to death, while flying through the air with such power, it's enough to make Jackie Chan take out an AARP membership.

Yep. Action movies pit protagonists against impossible odds. And, lo and behold, they succeed. This, of course, is awful. I mean, we can all agree that Empire Strikes Back sucked, right?

This isn't comic violence.

No. That's the point of the film. Violence has consequences. Life isn't a comic book. Didn't you watch the movie?

These men, and many others in the film, are really stone-cold dead.

Yes they are.

And the 11-year-old apparently experiences no emotions about this. Many children that age would be, I dunno, affected somehow, don't you think, after killing eight or 12 men who were trying to kill her?

As would any 40-year-old. We suspend disbelief when we go to movies. Is Ebert really dismissing any movie where the protagonist does not agonize over each and every person he or she kills?

Ethical heebee-geebies aside, can we discuss whether the movie was entertaining?

I know, I know. This is a satire. But a satire of what? The movie's rated R, which means in this case that it's doubly attractive to anyone under 17.

This from a guy who spent years (justly) criticizing the MPAA for lacking a true "Adults Only" rating for films. Does he think such a rating would not be triply enticing for young teens?

I'm not too worried about 16-year-olds here. I'm thinking of 6-year-olds. There are characters here with walls covered in carefully mounted firearms, ranging from handguns through automatic weapons to bazookas.

This is a terribly unclear sentence. What Ebert means to say is that two of the characters reside in an apartment lined with advanced weapons. This is an homage to any number of films which have earned Ebert's thumbs up. Hell, Pulp Fiction was an homage to the same films, and Kick-Ass is an homage to Pulp Fiction.

I will not include the paragraph where Ebert explains the film's ending, and then derisively condemns it. It adds nothing to his review, nor to my criticism of same.

The little girl is named Mindy (Chloe Grace Moretz). She adopts the persona of Hit Girl. She has been trained by her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), to join him in the battle against a crime boss (Mark Strong). Her training includes being shot at point-blank range while wearing a bulletproof vest.


This scene is brilliant, and lets us know that the film is willing to play any card in the deck. It creates genuine tension for the protagonists and... Ah, who cares. Back to the soap box.

She also masters the martial arts — more, I would say, than any other movie martial artist of any age I can recall.

Most martial arts films are known for their gritty realism and faithful recreations.

She's gifted with deadly knife-throwing; a foot-long knife was presented to her by Dad as, I guess, a graduation present.

It was a butterfly knife. It featured prominently in the film. And it was a birthday present. Again, did he see watch the movie?

Big Daddy and Mindy never have a chat about, you know, stuff like how when you kill people, they are really dead.


Yeah, that would have made the movie much more entertaining.

This movie regards human beings like video-game targets.


Says the guy who gave The Losers three and one-half stars. I mean, seriously? Tarantino doesn't treat human beings like video-game targets? Ridley Scott? George Lucas? No?

What about (Spielberg's) War of the Worlds? 11 year old girl watches hundreds of people destroyed before her very eyes. Does Tom Cruise sit Dakota Fanning down and explain that the exploding people are really dead?

Kill one, and you score. They're dead, you win. When kids in the age range of this movie's home video audience are shooting one another every day in America, that kind of stops being funny.

Ebert even liked the Rambo movies. Come on.

Hit Girl teams up with Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson), the film's narrator, a lackluster high school kid who lives vicariously through comic books. For reasons tedious to explain, he orders a masked costume by mail order and sets about trying to behave as a superhero, which doesn't work out well.

Tedious to explain? He is searching for self worth. I did it in six words. It is tedious to put six words to paper? This is a terrible review.


He lacks the training of a Big Daddy. But as he and Hit Girl find themselves fighting side by side, he turns into a quick learner.


No, he doesn't. It is now clear to me that Ebert did not watch the movie, he read the synopsis on IMDB, decided it would offend his sensibilities, and phoned it in.


Also, you don't need to be great at hand-to-hand combat if you can just shoot people dead.


True, but not relevant.

The early scenes give promise of an entirely different comedy. Aaron Johnson has a certain anti-charm, his problems in high school are engaging, and so on.

No! These are the most contrived portions of the movie! They are obviously inserted to sell a difficult film to producers who might be inclined to approve a Batman meets Superbad type of movie. Ebert was once a master at sniffing out this sort of manipulation.

A little later, I reflected that possibly only Nic Cage could seem to shoot a small girl point-blank and make it, well, funny. Say what you will about her character, but Chloe Grace Moretz has presence and appeal.

Ironically, Moretz's next role is the vampire in the misguided remake of Let The Right One In. If Ebert finds her role here to be problematic, he should be apoplectic come remake time. But again, he approved of the Swedish version of the film, so who knows? Maybe he'll actually go see the movie.

Then the movie moved into dark, dark territory, and I grew sad.

Okay. So, in synopsis... Wait, the review is over? It made him sad? That's all we get? Thanks for the preachy, Roger...

Now up your game.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Monsanto's Proxy War on Salt

Our nation faces an obesity crisis. Diabetes and heart disease threaten the lives of every American. In response, Congress and the FDA are taking swift action... By declaring a war on salt, which causes neither diabetes nor heart disease.

Why salt? Why now?

Last week, nobody really cared about salt. The populace was nebulously aware that salt is bad for you, and most were convinced that American eat too much of it. I guess that's all it takes for massive federal intervention these days.

The brouhaha began with the release of a recommendation from the Institute of Medicine (I did not know we had one), which urges action (NOWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWWW!) on the salt issue. Doing so will save 100,000 lives per year, the Medicine Men breathlessly claim.

So what are we waiting for? Analysis and modeling for the various policy initiatives to... NO TIME! Says Tom Harkin of the push to impose federal limits in salt content:

"I understand they want to do it in a phased kind of a deal, but I don't want it to be too long,"


Rep. Rosa DeLauro agrees:

"I don't want this to take 10 years. . . . This is a public health crisis."


Wow, I didn't know public health was so important to them. How did this nascent public crusade against the world's tastiest mineral attract such fine upstanding members of congress?

Well, Harkin is from Iowa, and Rosa DeLauro's husband is/was a consultant for Monsanto (just ask organic farmers). Let me punch that into my calculator o' special interests. Five? Wait! This is just an ordinary calculator. That Chinese man needs to give me my $2,000 back.

So, basically, the two elected officials demanding the fastest action on this issue represent corn and big ag. Corn subsidies are the primary driver behind the increased consumption of high fructose corn syrup, which, as it happens, does quite a bit to cause diabetes and heart disease.

Let's face it, the tide is turning against ag welfare. Conservatives see it as a waste of money. Food-conscious liberals see Monsanto as the purveyor of all things poison. Beyond that, there is a general push to find ways to reduce health care costs, and people want to see our leaders taking steps to improve public health.

So when the Institute of Medicine decides to pretend that salt is killing 100,000 people per year, why not pounce on a less influential industry and divert attention from a far greater problem?

Of course, the backlash to the FDA's proposal has been swift and fierce. People don't like being told what to do by big brother, and this is a pretty egregious example of the phenomenon. As such, we can predict the FDA will backpedal, and reposition this as a research initiative or something.

Don't buy it. If it were true, they wouldn't bother saying it.

Advocates of the salt ban argue that people may simply choose to add salt later. This is ignorant. Cooking with salt impacts flavor differently from simply adding it after preparation. That's why recipes include it.

Others argue that this only impacts the sort of processed foods we should be eliminating from our diets. The truth is, the actual initiative will target whoever earns the ire of lobbyists. Big corn will tell you what to eliminate from your diet, thank you very much.

Federal regulations historically benefit large companies, which can hone formulas to pass regulatory muster. It won't be long before the government is breathing down the neck of your favorite chef, while Hostess evades scrutiny. What seems like pointless needling now will have a negative impact on health outcomes down the road.

As someone who genuinely cares about convincing others to eat real food, a federal ban on salt is a colossal leap in the wrong direction. Now, those who choose to eat natural, home-made, and organic foods are going to be lumped together with the salt-banning idiots.

Rep. DeLauro and Sen. Harkin do not care. More control over our diets means more control over our decisions, and more dollars for their corporate pimps.

Maybe the pepper industry should get in on the act.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New Monday Theme

From now on, I am renaming Monday "The New York Times runs belligerent crap in its Sunday edition, so let's try to make some sense of whatever it is they are trying to say" day.

We'll kick things off with everyone's favorite screwball, Frank Rich. I remind my readers, Frank writes for the New York Times. Yes, that New York Times, the one that millions of people read. Here's the whole thing. Let's roll.

It's kind of like that legendary stunt on the prime-time soap "Dallas," where we learned that nothing bad had really happened because the previous season's episodes were all a dream.

Well, now we've honed in on the demographic for this drivel. Geriatric grumps with absolutely no taste or conscience when it comes to how they spend their time. I love that Frank takes time to explain that Dallas was a "prime-time soap", as though his metaphor would otherwise elude us.

We now know that the wave of anger that crashed on the Capitol as the health care bill passed last month — the death threats and epithets hurled at members of Congress — was also a mirage.

Nope. Thanks to Frank, we know it was the second coming of Kristallnacht.

Skip to next paragraph

Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times


This is what comes up when you cut and paste a NYT article into a blog post. Fred R. Conrad would apparently like me to skip to the next paragraph. I'll do so when I'm good and ready, Fred R. Conrad.

Speaking of which, Mr. Conrad, does it depress you that the Sunday op-ed section is exponentially less demanding of your readers than the Monday crossword puzzle?

Take it from the louder voices on the right. Because no tape has surfaced of anyone yelling racial slurs at the civil rights icon and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, it’s now a blogosphere “fact” that Lewis is a liar and the “lamestream media” concocted the entire incident.


So, for lack of physical evidence of anything having happened, they conclude that it did not happen. How unreasonable. Also, "lamestream media", while satirically inadequate, is generations evolved from opening an op-ed with a reference to Dallas.

The same camp maintains as well that the spit landing on the Missouri Congressman Emanuel Cleaver was inadvertent spillover saliva from an over-frothing screamer — spittle, not spit, as it were.


Here's the link Frank provides. Doesn't the above seem to be the likeliest explanation, and perhaps the rather obvious one?

True, there is video evidence of the homophobic venom directed at Barney Frank — but, hey, Frank is white, so no racism there!

The hyperlink provided does not link to any video, but rather a piece by the Washington Post ombudsman, in which he concedes that the "spitting incident" Frank references above was likely unintentional. The new rule of internet argumentation: If it's Hyperlinked, it MUST be true.

Also, nobody likes Barney Frank.

One more thing. If all of this video exists as concrete proof of single instances of spitting and faggot-calling, doesn't that call into question the contention that thirteen racial epithets were unfurled by raging tea partiers?

I mean, I hate to get all statistical, here, but it's almost implausible that we are (allegedly) 2 for 2 on these, but 0 for 13 on the others? If I cede Frank's case, there is a 1 in 105 chance that those 13 incidents happened.

“It’s Not About Race” declared a headline on a typical column defending over-the-top “Obamacare” opponents from critics like me, who had the nerve to suggest a possible racial motive in the rage aimed at the likes of Lewis and Cleaver — neither of whom were major players in the Democrats’ health care campaign.

Again, Frank did not suggest a "possible racial motive". He compared it to Kristallnacht, the unofficial starting point of the Holocaust, whereby 10 million people were systematically murdered by the government. Would anyone accuse Hitler of having a "possible racial motive"?

It’s also mistaken, it seems, for anyone to posit that race might be animating anti-Obama hotheads like those who packed assault weapons at presidential town hall meetings on health care last summer.

So, Frank thinks people are literally having this discussion:

Shirley: Simon, aren't you forgetting something for the town hall?

Simon: What? The banner's in the truck!

Shirley: Aren't you going to pack heat? After all, the president is black.

Simon: Good point. I had better bring assault weapons, but only because the president is black.

Shirley: Correct. Otherwise, there would be no need to bring assault weapons.

And surely it is outrageous for anyone to argue that conservative leaders are enabling such extremism by remaining silent or egging it on with cries of “Reload!” to pander to the Tea Party-Glenn Beck base. As Beck has said, it’s Obama who is the real racist.

Frank has gotten better at introducing Beck (twice!) earlier in his piece. Perhaps the latest NYT style guide has addressed this issue. Alas, it has not been sufficient to compel writers to introduce their thesis early on.

I would be more than happy to stand corrected.

As happens almost every week. Of course, we cannot expect the Times to write:

"Last week, Frank Rick compared the tea party movement was akin to Kristallnacht. Many readers have pointed out that this is bat-shit insane. We have corrected the error."

If that ever happened, I would subscribe to the New York Times.

But the story of race and the right did not, alas, end with the health care bill.

Memo to the intern who edits the New York Times: You almost never need an "alas" in the same sentence as a "but". They mean the same thing, in the colloquial sense. Also, don't get weirded out by David Brooks. He thinks everyone is as into jelly beans as he is.

Hardly had we been told that all that ugliness was a fantasy than we learned back in the material world that the new Republican governor of Virginia, Robert McDonnell, had issued a state proclamation celebrating April as Confederate History Month.


*ding* *ding* *ding* *ding* *ding* *ding*

WE HAVE A THESIS! kinda


In doing so, he was resuscitating a dormant practice that had been initiated in 1997 by George Allen, the Virginia governor whose political career would implode in 2006 when he was caught on camera calling an Indian-American constituent “macaca.”


I look forward to a nuanced discussion of the confederacy, along with recommendations for... Oh, forget it, let's just get with the "confederacy, therefore all Republicans = racist" shtick.

I mean, that's what this is, right? Do we really need 1,500 words, with an opening salvo cum homage to prime-time soap operas from 80s?

Of course we do... Frank just keeps right on going. This was only the introduction!

(stay tuned for part 2)

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Change of Heart

It has been more than a year since Toyota came into my life, and I was saved by zero. I am thankful for all the ways low, low financing on select new and used Toyota models has had a positive impact on my life.

Lately, however, I been re-examining what I believe about Toyota. The recent accelerator scandal has made me question how a good and loving auto manufacturer can let bad things happen.

But it's deeper than that.

Other automobile manufacturers have offered zero percent financing? My friends who drive Hondas are sincere and good people, and the really believe that this is their path. I have a friend who came out and told me he had bought a Saturn. You know what? He's still the same guy I grew up with. Nothing's going to change our friendship.

And it frustrates me to see Toyota owners, people who have been saved by zero, making a mockery of our faith in public.



Don't get me wrong. I still believe I am saved by zero. I just wonder why low, low financing has to divide our culture. We're seeing congressional hearings over hot button issues, while millions of people are still driving Chryslers, I wonder if we haven't maligned Toyota's plan for us.

In retrospect, maybe this wasn't worth leaving my wife over.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Talkin' Sports with Barack Obama

Every now and then, my blog affords me the opportunity to talk with various newsmakers. Recently, President Barack Obama threw out the first pitch to kick off the Washington Nationals' season. He's here with me today to talk sports. Mr. President, welcome to TPWK.

Pres. Obama: Touchdown!

TPWK: Yep. Now, you threw out the first pitch for the Nationals, but your from the South Side of Chicago, so your heart has to be with the White Sox.

Pres. Obama: Absolutely, I remember, as a child, going to Charbinsky court to watch the greats. Ryne Sandberg, Walter Payton, Shoeless Bip Roberts.

TPWK: Walter Payton?

Pres. Obama: Yeah, I know, I'm old. I saw all those guys before the Black Sox scandal, one of the saddest chapters in our civil rights history.

TPWK: Really? Because many don't see the Black Sox scandal as a civil rights issue.

Pres. Obama: Well, I can tell you, growing up in Chicago. The black people were united. You know, you had the Watts riots.

TPWK: Those were in Los Angeles.

Pres. Obama: They were everywhere... And, you know, the World Series is what brought the country back together. We were united against a common enemy.

TPWK: The Minnesota Twins?

Pres. Obama: I think you had, you had the segregated leagues, so the Dodgers, you know, Jackie Robinson, and then...

TPWK: Sandy Koufax.

Pres. Obama: Right, Sen. Koufax, who opposed the Civil Rights Act. So you know, Jackie Robinson going against an all-white team...

TPWK: What about Tony Oliva?

Pres. Obama: Right, Tony Oliver, Ty Cobb, all the rest trying to keep the American Baseball Association white.

TPWK: It was a fascinating chapter in the history of our national pastime. What is your favorite baseball memory.

Pres. Obama: Well, obviously, you know, there are so many, but I think, from the 1980s, you know, the White Sox were looking to repeat, and we were at Cobinsky Stadium, and you know, it's fourth period, so Barry Bonds is at the wicket and... I mean, those are the memories that live with you.

TPWK: Of course. Well, since your in D.C., what do you think about the Nationals' chances?

Pres. Obama: Who?

TPWK: Well, that's all the time we have on TPWK. I'd like to thank President Obama for stopping by, and we'll see you tomorrow.

Pres. Obama: Go Cubs!

Monday, April 05, 2010

Monday Musings

Fox 9 Storm Prophet Keith Marler has once again smiled upon us with his grace. The sun abounds. Let's muse.


------------

Last week, I wrote, regarding racial epithets and threat hurled at congressman by tea partiers:

I'm certain there are "goons" on the right wielding threats at congressmen. I am equally certain that there are left-wing activists perpetrating hoaxes in an attempt to discredit conservative opposition.


This week, I read:

That crowd (of tea partiers) was a sea of new-media equipment. Not only were tens of thousands people armed with handicams, BlackBerrys and iPods, so also was the mainstream media there, covering every inch of the event. Why did not one mainstream media outlet raise the specter that perhaps a video would exist to prove the events occurred?


Just reminding my readers that I am usually right, not that you need convincing.

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A bit late to the game on this, but I really need to opine, since it combines my love of food with my love of decrying our city's nanny-style city council leadership.

Minneapolis recently amended a city ordinance in order to allow food trucks (mobile kitchens, not unlike those found at your local county fair, but with higher quality offerings) to operate in Minneapolis. St. Paul already allows this, but Minneapolis worries that if it doesn't control everything, then everyone will automatically die.

The amendment isn't perfect, nor is it particularly good. Only 25 street food licenses will be allowed, and businesses will have submit proposals for licensure. This means that the vendors will be selected in accordance with the council's own parochial interests.

Chef Shack
is a shoo-in, and you can pencil Parasole Holdings and at least a couple Midtown Global Market players. All good. But you can expect a lot more Green Mill, Smashburger and Jimmy Johns types, bigger companies that are well connected and know this process. Regulation is the enemy of innovation, and there is a lot of regulation here.

A half-assed (or, tight-assed, as the case may be) street vendor solution is no solution at all. So color me hopeful, but not optimistic.

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I've wasted too much of my time on Frank Rich, and I'll not waste more of yours. Okay, maybe a bit. His article this week compares Obama to Superman. Literally.

Conservatives are often chided for embracing allegedly mythical personae. What, then, to make of an ideology that regards it's own human leaders as mythical? How do you respond to ideologues who accuse innocent citizens of engaging in behavior akin to that of the Nazis, based upon the fabrications of a party they believe to be led by superheroes?

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In the world of brick and mortar restaurants...

We had a stellar meal on our return visit to Evergreen Chinese. The restaurant resides in the basement of one of those ubiquitous Eat Street mini-malls. Every time we go, I feel like I'm being let in on a secret. If you are fan of "mock" anything (I had the lemongrass mock beef) this is your place, but don't miss the dumplings or the boiled peanuts. Four courses will run you about $15 per person, which makes it among the best values in the cities.

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Had a so-so lunch at Caspian Bistro. The ambiance is a cut above what you'll usually find near the 'U', but I like their approach to the gyros sandwich, with lavash style bread rather than the typical pita. The falafel was cold and mushy, and the dolma didn't have any punch to it (for an outstanding take on the latter, visit Emily's Lebanese deli in NE).

Some of the larger entrees coming out of the kitchen looked gorgeous, so a return dinner visit might be in order.

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If you enjoy cocktails, you must get to Bradstreet Crafthouse @ the Graves Hotel, and if you like whiskey, you must try their take on the sazerac. To give you an idea of how seriously they take the art, the waitress presented us with a cocktail amuse, served in a port glass. They also make their own bitters and even their own ice. The small plates were well above average as well. This is one of the great Minneapolis experiences. Go.