Daily Archive: 29 Nov 2013

Nov 29

Thematic Problems in The Heat

The HeatOne of the things I was looking forward to on Thanksgiving was watching The Heat with my family. I didn’t know anything about the film except that it starred Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy, both of whom I like. The beginning of it was typical enough. Bullock plays FBI Special Agent Sarah Ashburn, a very capable person with no people skills at all. Think: Miss Congeniality, but much less likable. I figured she’d learn through the course of the movie to be a decent human being. I was wrong. Soon we meet McCarthy’s character: Boston Police Detective Shannon Mullins. She is quickly established as a woman who has no regard for the law in her pursuit of a man trying to get a prostitute and another who is smoking a joint.

Here’s the thing. Even I can get into a movie like Dirty Harry, because the cop is being an asshole in pursuit of a serial killer. This shtick doesn’t work in a comedy when the “bad guys” are unfaithful husbands and kids getting high. But Mullins is worse than that. There is a whole tiresome back story about how she sent her own brother to prison because he was on drugs. She justifies this to her family by saying, “Well none of you got him off the streets!” That’s really amazing. Prison is probably the worst place to get someone off drugs. For one thing, there are plenty of drugs in prison. But more important, after people have felonies on their records, they don’t have a lot of employment (or many other) choices. So after getting out of jail, her brother is likely to be thrown in with the same people he was with before. And this turns out to be exactly what happens in the movie. (Of course, there is no realization in the film that Mullins “solved” her brother’s problem in the worst way.)

Another extremely repellent aspect of the movie is how it dumps all over FBI interrogation. The FBI has the best system for doing interrogations and they are highly successful. But in our pop culture world where 24 is how real men interrogate, the FBI system is wimpy and ineffective. It depends upon rapport-building and also what’s called tit-for-tat. There is a wonderful example where “one terrorist surrendered valuable information in exchange for a heart transplant for his child.” But in The Heat, being an asshole was always the key. They don’t need no stinking effective negotiation techniques!

The film goes on to have exactly the villain you expect. In terms of the “police story” aspect of the film, it is just a series of cliches from movies, but mostly television shows. And at the very end, the villain acts totally stupidly as though all he wants to do is kill the lead characters and doesn’t need to worry about then being arrested. It also uses the myth that air embolism will kill you. This is injecting air into the blood stream. It will kill you, but it would take about a hundred full syringes of air to do it. Regardless, if you managed to succeed at that, the two cops who had been shot to death in the same room would probably raise red flags.

The ManWhile watching the film, I was reminded of a great comedy The Man with Eugene Levy and Samuel L Jackson. In that film, Jackson plays the McCarthy part: he is really not likable. But instead of teaming him up with a straight laced cop who gets poisoned by his influence, he is teamed up with a sweet, morally heroic dentist. In the end, it is Jackson who learns valuable lessons about life. And this is the fundamental problem with The Heat. The characters start off being unlikable and end up even more so.

This is not to say that the film isn’t funny. McCarthy is funny despite the material. But it isn’t nearly as funny as it would have been if the script had done anything to make me feel that the characters were redeemable. Bullock, on the other hand, was miscast in this film. She puts in a fine performance, but it never seems to gel, and she doesn’t have much to do in the movie other than be outraged and finally won-over by McCarthy.

Look: it would be different if there weren’t real cops acting like they were above the law. But I read about them every day of the week. Hundreds of thousands of people’s lives are destroyed every year by this kind of behavior. So when I see it being held up as an ideal, it gets my back up. Things I would normally find amusing I just bristle at. And that was especially true after the negotiation scene. My advice: rent The Man

Afterword

Of course, The Heat received generally good reviews from the “critics” and did huge box office. The Man was panned by “critics” and did almost nothing at the box office. But I predict that people will quickly forget The Heat. For one thing, how long will it take before people get tired of Melissa McCarthy’s one character act. (Identity Thief was pretty good, but it was exactly the same thing.) For another thing, The Man ages well, and I think it’s silliness will appeal more as people’s preconceived notions about Samuel L Jackson fade away.

Update (5 April 2014 6:01 pm)

I mistakenly wrote above that Eugene Levy’s character in The Man was a dentist. He was actually a dental supply salesman.

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Nov 29

The Future of Obamacare

Josh MarshallJosh Marshall presents a very optimistic take on the future of healthcare reform, A Realist’s Take on Obamacare. He offers four reasons for this. First, the law is going nowhere until at least 2017 when a Republican might be in the White House. This is the response to the conservative belief that if the Republicans just held their breath long enough and destroyed enough of America, Obamacare would just go away. Well, maybe Obamacare will go away. But even if our next president is Chris Christie, I don’t see him dumping the plan. It is exactly the kind of conservatism that he believes in. So we’ll see, but only in another three and a half years.

Second, the insurance and medical industries are completely vested in its success. To me, this is the ultimate argument against repeal of Obamacare. The liberal complaint against the healthcare reform from the beginning was that it was a great big wet kiss to the whole healthcare industry. The hospitals didn’t want to get stuck with unpaid bills from the poor and the insurance companies wanted more customers. And let’s face it: Obamacare effectively turns insurance companies into a kind of private utility where they are paid just because they exist. In our new system, they are nothing but middlemen scraping off a cent or two from every healthcare dollar spent. I wish I could get in on that. And they are going to be none too willing to give up on that gravy train.

Third, there are huge numbers of people who are going to very happy with Obamacare: people on expanded Medicaid, people who couldn’t get insurance at all before, and people who are getting cheaper or better insurance. So what we have now is about 85% of the population currently on plans (through employers or the government) who will not see things change at all. Then we have about 13% of the population who have no insurance at all who will be getting it. Then we have perhaps 2% of the population who will have to trade in their placebo policies for something that works. So let’s lay that out:

85% No change!
13% Completely Good Change!
 2% Mixed Change…

Marshall’s fourth reason is kind of vague. Basically, he thinks that Obamacare is a well designed law and that as time goes on, it will work even better. In other words, the truth will out. The design is such as to provide near universal coverage and keep costs down. It’s funny to watch people like Avik Roy pull out Switzerland and claim that’s the system we should have. It is always the same thing: what we ought to have is something—Anything!—that isn’t what we have. But as free market systems go, Obamacare is about as good as it gets. So Marshall is right: the law will work.

The biggest problem with Obamacare going forward is the fact that half of the states are not expanding their Medicaid programs. This is nothing more than conservative spite—an attempt to harm President Obama politically with the added benefit of harming the working poor. But I don’t think this will be an issue for very long. These conservative lawmakers are simply wrong about the harm they are doing. First, they aren’t really hurting Obama. As the system works in Blue State America, it will be trumpeted as a success by the media, because most of the media are in the big blue states. Second, and most important, not expanding Medicaid is bad for the states. They are foregoing free money that would stimulate their local economies. Their hospitals are still going to have to treat poor people who will not be able to pay the bills. And as a result of that, healthcare premiums in these states will be higher than they would normally be. So it isn’t just the poor who are harmed in Texas. It’s Rick Perry too.

So I’m with Josh Marshall: the future of Obamacare is bright. And the stragglers will catch up once they see that their spiteful political “messages” mean nothing other than that their states are harder to manage and their economies are more depressed. In the end, the conservative ideologues will look like idiots. (But they’re used to that.) And Obamacare will be that thing no one knows how we ever did without.

Keep your stinking government hands off my Obamacare!

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Nov 29

Billy Strayhorn and Art from the Shadows

Billy StrayhornOn this day in 1803, the great physicist Christian Doppler was born. He is the man who explained the Doppler Effect. This is what you hear when a train passes by you. As it approaches, the frequency of the sound is high and while it moves away from you the frequency of the sound is lower. It’s really simple: as the train approaches you, the sound waves get bunched together and so they have a higher frequency. Think of a guy on top of a train throwing baseballs at you every second. They would hit you more than once a second as the train is approaching and less than once a sound as the train departed.

Doppler wasn’t looking at this problem at all. He was looking at stars. He noted that if a star was moving toward us, its color frequency would be higher and thus bluer; if it was moving away, it would be be redder. It would take Einstein’s work 52 years after Doppler’s death to fully work out the theory.

The great film director and choreographer Busby Berkeley was born in 1895. He created such iconic musicals that his name has become a descriptive term. I always assumed he was gay, but that was really silly. You can tell by the way he shoots women that he loves them. And plenty of them! He was married six times! Here is “We’re in the Money” from Gold Diggers of 1933:

The writer C S Lewis was born in 1898. He is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m not a big fan. But I’m really interested in his Christian apologetics. Some time ago, I came up with an idea, Jesus: God or Nut? The idea is that Jesus claimed (or at least heavily implied many times) that he was God. So he was either God or some deluded guy. Well, I later found out that Lewis made this exact same argument in favor of Jesus being God. I guess the idea is that no reasonable person could claim that Jesus was insane. Personally, a man who walks around telling people the end is nigh has more than a few screws loose.

Other birthdays: naturalist John Ray (1627); the first female physics professor at a European university Laura Bassi (1711); philosopher Andres Bello (1871); composer Gaetano Donizetti (1797); Russian Neoclassical painter Alexander Brullov (1798); neurology pioneer Jean-Martin Charcot (1825); Rocky’s crazy mother Jackie Stallone (92); the great musician John Mayall (80); actor Diane Ladd (79); musician Chuck Mangione (73); the great wrestler Jerry Lawler (64); comedian Garry Shandling (64); the great filmmaker Joel Coen (59); comedian Howie Mandel (58); actor Andrew McCarthy (52); actor Don Cheadle (49); and actor Tom Sizemore (49).

The day, however, belongs to the great jazz composer Billy Strayhorn who was born on this day in 1915. He is closely aligned with Duke Ellington and it is sometimes hard to decouple them. Strayhorn is the ultimate artist; he didn’t especially want recognition. And there are clearly times where he should have got full credit but only got partial or none at all. But there is no doubt that he needed Ellington who really did treat him well. Here is the man himself playing “Take the ‘A’ Train”:

Happy birthday Billy Strayhorn!

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