A Good Day to Die Already!

A Good Day to Die HardThere are two contrasting scenes at the beginning of A Good Day to Die Hard that perfectly encapsulate what is wrong with the American action film genre. The first finds John McClane in a taxicab in Moscow. The cabby learns that he is from New York and starts singing “New York, New York.” When McClane gets out of the cab, the driver tells him the ride was free because McClane let him sing.

The second scene is soon after. The first car that McClane stole to follow his son (so they could talk) has been destroyed due to his reckless driving that (although unseen) must have resulted in dozens of deaths and hundreds of serious injuries to people whose only crime was to drive in the same city as this American asshole. He tries to get a car to stop for him. No one will. (Would you?) So he throws himself in front of one car, making the driver slam on his breaks. The driver gets out of the car and yells at McClane in Russian. I don’t speak Russian, but he was clearly saying something like, “Are you crazy?!” McClane wants none of it. He punches the guy and then says something like, “Don’t you know I don’t have any idea what you’re saying?!” With the driver unconscious in the middle of the road, McClane steals his car and drives off.

These two interactions demonstrate the noble and angry savage archetypes. The cabby was childlike. He didn’t need money; all he needed was someone to listen to him sing! He is, of course, the Good Russian. The other guy was angry that some asshole jumped out in front of his car. How dare he? Didn’t he know that McClane was an American? You don’t question Americans! And you sure as hell don’t speak Russian to them! If they want to steal your car, you smile and hand them the keys. You’re grateful! They’re Americans, after all! This guy, of course, was the Bad Russian.

This is what I hate about American action films. There is this idea that America is Good, True, and Right. What’s more, everyone should just know that. There is no understanding that other cultures may have their own pride. What’s more, they might be unhappy with things that the United States government has done to them. And in A Good Day to Die Hard there is a perfect symbol of this in the form of a jailed Russian billionaire. The US was a big reason that Russia moved recklessly towards a market economy that allowed most of the people to be robbed at the expense of unscrupulous billionaires.

Let me step back. Even apart from all the vile politics in this film, the best thing you can say about it is that it is short. All the other “Die Hard” films were over two hours. A Good Day to Die Hard was an hour and a half. Yet, it is long even at that. There isn’t much to the plot of the film. It is mostly a number of action scenes separated by some of the lamest dialog bits I’ve ever seen. Credit has to be given to Jonathan Taylor, the second unit director. He actually had a larger camera crew than the first unit. I figure that 60% of this movie was shot by the second unit.

The plot itself would have been great if this movie had been released in 1990. That’s because I remember being totally fooled by the plot twist in Die Harder. This film uses the same device and I saw it coming from an hour away. I’d warn you about upcoming spoilers, but really: how could anything spoil this film for you more than the film itself? It starts with a woman bad “guy.” The billionaire has to get his daughter out of Russian. What are the odds that the woman we’ve seen is the same as his daughter? And then, it turns out that the father and daughter are in cahoots! Who could have predicted it? Answer: Steven de Souza and Doug Richardson, who wrote Die Harder.

The film also had many of my most hated action film problems. 1. The bad guy didn’t care about the lives of his henchmen. Apparently, bad guys don’t have to worry about loyalty or anything. And why should they? The good guys don’t either, even if they don’t just blow up dozens of their friends on screen. 2. The bad guys are just vengeful for no particular reason. Rather than trying to get away, they go on suicide missions. 3. John McClane, despite lots of delays, still manages to get to the final scene almost as fast as the Mi-26 helicopter—which have a cruising speed of 158 miles per hour. 4. When they are alone, Russians speak English, unless they are minor characters, in which case they speak Russian. It is very confusing! 5. And…

God damn it! The flames of a fire are not what harm you. It is the heat. In a big explosion, if you are just outside of the fireball, you are still dead. And yet, John McClane manages to not even get his shirt burned. Of course, this kind of nonsense is found throughout the film. According to it, you can fall without harm, as long as you keep breaking through floors. There are so many times in this film that the characters would have died, it was just silly.

One more thing: Uranium. Weapons grade Uranium is 99% pure. Do you know what fuel grade Uranium is? It is 3% pure. The idea that someone is siphoning off Uranium from a nuclear power plant for sell in the weapons market is laughable. What’s more (and this was the same idea in the dreadful The Expendables 2) the idea that there is a billion dollars to be made selling illegal Uranium is ridiculous. The truth is, there isn’t much of a market. Terrorist groups, even well funded ones, just don’t have that kind of money. If someone were really smart, as the villain in this film is, he would steal bearer bonds or gold bullion—not fucking Uranium that would almost certainly get him killed if he tried to sell it.

I could go on. Do I need to? This film is even bad by action movie standards. Above all, however, it is offensive to our non-American friends and it perpetuates the worst stereotypes about America. At one point, a bad guy says that he hates cowboys. After watching the film up to that point, I had to agree. Yippee-ki-yay, my ass!

Deficit Opinions Should Change

Michael TeslerMichael Tesler, a political scientist over at Brown, wrote a guest post at The Monkey Cage, Who Cares About Budget Deficits? Basically, the entire article is the graph below, which I altered to make display better here. It shows two things. First, it shows that the better informed partisans are, the more likely their opinions will follow those of party elites. By “informed” we simply mean the more they pay attention to the news; it might be (and often is) a very bad source of real information. Second, it shows that since 2007, Republicans have become very concerned about the deficits and Democrats have become much less so.

The natural assumption here is that Democrats are more worried about deficits when Republicans are in power and vice versa. This is certainly the case. I’ve noticed this with politicians. I haven’t, however, noticed it so much with rank and file partisans. And look at the graph: news consumption had almost no effect in 2007. I think what we are seeing in 2011 is due to a real public argument that has been going on these last four years.

Should the government run deficits after a recession? The answer to this, regardless of party, has always been (for my lifetime, anyway), “Yes!” That’s what Bush’s tax cuts were all about: stimulating the economy. The truth of the matter is that the Democrats in these cases are right. In 2007, we should have been reducing the deficit: the economy was good and unemployment was as low as 4.4% that year. In 2011, we should have been increasing the deficit: the economy was poor and unemployment was at 9% for most of the year.

This is a point that most people miss. For example: Matt Yglesias. Not all budget deficits are created equal. As John Maynard Keynes wrote in Collected Writings, “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.” So if we look at the facts of the situation, the Democrats were right to change their views on the deficit and the Republicans were wrong.

I accept the first fact about this graph: it does indeed show that the more of a news consumer one is, the more one is likely to develop a partisan slant. But the second issue is not proved by these data at all. Indeed, if they show anything along these lines, they show that Republican thought is getting more and more removed from reality.

Opinions of Deficit 2007-2011

Zero Mostel

Zero MostelNinety-eight years ago, Zero Mostel was born. I always loved seeing him in movies. He was especially charming in The Producers. And when I read, years later in When The Shooting Stops … The Cutting Begins, that Mostel and Mel Brooks had a feud going throughout the filming, it only made me love him more. (Note: Mel Brooks is a well documented asshole.)

Another great film that I have seen dozens of times is A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The film has a great cast, but I can’t imagine it without Mostel. Mostly, he just did his shtick. But like most comedic geniuses, he was also a good actor who did what was appropriate. His performance in The Front is downright subtle. The fact that he was blacklisted makes it all the more poignant—as does his death soon after the film’s release.

But what I will always associate Mostel with is Fiddler on the Roof. He wasn’t in the movie and I never saw him on stage. But when I was young, I loved Broadway musicals and I listened to every original cast album I could get my hands on. One of my favorites was Fiddler on the Roof. Here is Mostel performing “If I Were a Rich Man” at the 1971 Tony Awards:

Zero Mostel died much too young, but he left us quite a legacy.

Canoodle

CanoodleI’m a pretty clueless guy in a lot of ways. So when I saw the following CTV News blooper, I immediately felt a kinship with the poor news anchorman. He was talking to the weather woman and mentioned that they might “canoodle” before she presented her forecast. She was shocked, “We’re not going to be canoodling… What?!”

Meanwhile, a producer off screen is yelling something along the lines of, “Canoodling means to make out, you dolt!” So the anchor smiles (he has a very nice smile) and says, “Oh, I thought canoodle meant ‘chat.'” By this time, the weather woman is laughing uncontrollably. But the unflappable anchor continues on, “Astor, you lucky there’s a producer in my ear or I would have carried that on and on.”

Maybe it is because I had never heard the word “canoodle” before either. Or maybe it is because the word has such a sweet meaning, “To kiss and cuddle amorously.” But I think the whole thing is charming as hell.

Is Ben Bernanke This Clueless?

Ben BernankeLast year, Matt Yglesias made one of the best political observations I’ve ever heard, “If the unemployment and inflation rates were reversed, would the Fed do something about it?” The point he was making was that the Fed is overly concerned about inflation. For the last four years, we have lived with unacceptably high unemployment while the Fed has worked to keep bond rates negative. It is madness and it speaks to elite thinking. Ben Bernanke seems to be saying, “No one I know is unemployed, so it must not be a problem. On the other hand, everyone I know has lots of money and they would be hurt by even a little inflation.”

Yglesias was back yesterday, pointing out a ludicrous boast that Bernanke made at the hearings, “My inflation record is the best of any Federal Reserve chairman in the postwar period”! Yglesias concedes that this is true—but only because we’ve had a pretty good economy since World War II. There weren’t any depressions. And again, he is able to cut right to the core of the matter, “No sensible person would look at America’s economic performance in the 1929-1933 period and say ‘man, they did a great job of fighting inflation.'”

There are two issues here. First, in a depressed economy it is a trivial matter to keep inflation low. So it is no great accomplishment for Bernanke to have done this. Second, allowing inflation to rise would have been a good thing. In fact, that is Ben Bernanke’s job. The Fed has a dual mandate: keep inflation low and employment high. Now these two things work against each other: rising employment pushes inflation up and and lowering employment pushes inflation down. So the Fed needs to balance these interests. Unfortunately, Bernanke hasn’t balanced them at all. He has done everything he could to keep inflation low and almost nothing to boost employment.

In the decades ahead, I’m sure that historians will look back at Bernanke and judge him very harshly. I doubt that he will be ranked below Greenspan. (How could he be?!) But whether because of cowardice or callousness, he has done a remarkably bad job for the country, but a great job for the bankers.