Thursday, October 31, 2013

Card not seeing Ender's Game movie profits?

According to The Wrap, author Orson Scott Card isn't sharing in the profits of the filmed version of his novel Ender's Game. This is of interest to a lot of science-fiction fans because Card's vehemently and oft-expressed anti-gay sentiments have honked off some of the movie's potential audience.
... multiple sources from both inside and outside the companies that produced the “Ender’s Game” film – distributor Summit Entertainment, visual effects company Digital Domain and book-rights holder OddLot Entertainment – tell TheWrap that Card’s fee has already been paid through a decade-old deal that includes no backend.
Card, in other words, has already made all the money he stands to make from the movie. Whether it does well or poorly at the box office makes not a whit of (financial) difference to him.

On the other hand, he's still raking in the bucks on sales of the novel.

If you really want to hit Card where it hurts, boycott his book instead: Card still profits handsomely from the novel, perched at the top of the latest New York Times Best Seller List for paperback mass-market fiction.
The article doesn't cite any sources by name, and anonymously sourced stories don't carry as much weight in my book as stories whose sources are willing to be named. This article could be a carefully placed attempt to ensure the opening weekend's box office numbers aren't hurt by the boycott that has been urged for months. This whole "Card's not making a dime off the picture" business, in short, could be a big lie. Nevertheless, if your sole reason for boycotting the film is to send a message to Card, you might want to rethink your stance.

I wrote about my own ambivalence toward the movie — toward the very idea of filming the novel — in July. My own reason for not seeing the movie hasn't changed: I have too much respect for the novel to imagine anyone could faithfully translate it to film. If the couple of reviews I've read are any indication, the movie doesn't portray Ender in the way I hoped so my decision not to see the movie is the correct one — for me. (It's hard to imagine a movie Ender could be as nuanced and empathetic as the novel's: much of the novel takes place in his mind, a perspective that would be nigh impossible to represent on film.)

Whether you see the movie, think long and hard before you buy new copies of Card's books. Chances are good you can find used copies of the Enderverse sequels (and his non-Enderverse works). Ender's Game itself, unfortunately, will be tougher to find: people who buy the book tend to keep it. It's possible, though, that some of the folks driving the novel's current high sales won't be so enamored of it six months hence and will look to sell it or give it away, so patience might reward you (and allow you not to reward Card).

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Homicide: waxing nostalgic

Thinking about Munch prompted me to poke around YouTube for clips of Richard Belzer's other in-character cameos. While NBC seems to have successfully taken down any snippets of his appearance on 30 Rock, I did find a surprisingly large number of Homicide excerpts — even whole episodes.

If all you know is the pale shadow of John Munch that graced the squadroom of Law & Order: SVU, you need to see him in his original stomping grounds. Munch has gotten a lot more attention than the other Homicide characters only because he survived beyond the end of the show (and the subsequent TV movie). When you see him in his native habitat, you realize he was part of a special breed, one that thrived in an exceptionally well-written environment.

This clip, for instance, finds Munch in a typical moment of down time between cases, or at least between moments of active police work, in the company of his best partner, Stan "The Big Man" Bolander (Ned Beatty) and fellow detective Meldrick Lewis (Clark Johnson). Bolander and Lewis also figure prominently in the last ten minutes of "Crosetti", a wrenching episode that also featured a brilliantly written and acted exchange between Bolander and Gee about which I wrote a while back. Munch doesn't have much to do in these ten minutes but his brief exchange with Gee about eulogies is classic for the character.

The interactions between Bolander and Lewis show why Homicide, in spite of its flaws (see: Falsone, the Luther Mahoney storyline, all of the seventh season), is so much better than all of Dick Wolf's Law & Order series put together. Wolf fields AAA teams; Tom Fontana & co. played in the big leagues. I've seen the episode several times, but Lewis' reaction to the toxicology report, and Bolander's reaction to Lewis, still break my heart.

Note also how Baltimore is vital to the show's atmosphere in a way that New York never manages to be in any of the NYC-based Law & Order offerings. The outdoor shots in the aforementioned clip from "Crosetti" give those scenes tremendous impact.

I enjoy Andre Braugher's buttoned-up captain on Brooklyn Nine Nine, a character that nothing can discomfit. Nevertheless, I sometimes miss the more vulnerable Pembleton. Here, for instance, we see first Bayliss (Kyle Secor), then Kellerman (Reed Diamond), get under his skin. It's enjoyable to watch him lose his cool, however slightly: it humanizes the super-cop. Nor does Pembleton have to be irritated to show his softer side: sometimes all it takes is a few moments of enforced leisure, as in this interlude with Lewis.

I do love me some Kay Howard (Melissa Leo), too, and when the female super-cop has a real conversation with the male super-cop, it's always a special moment. Here's a quick, quiet, serious chat that directly affects one of Pembleton's investigations. This one, on the other hand, is nominally about one of Howard's cases, but ends up revealing far more about Pembleton's demons. "It's all in the caffeine."

These characters live and breathe and we care about them, thanks to superb writing, acting and directing. That's why the show's fans were and are passionate about it. Few TV shows manage to make us genuinely passionate. All hail Homicide: Life on the Street.

Friday, October 25, 2013

healthcare.gov and its fixers

The ambitious title of the op-ed piece is, "Why the Government Never Gets Tech Right".

I resisted reading it for the longest time — by which I mean a couple of days, an eternity in the news and in information technology. I grudgingly decided to check it out to get the scoop on what has been a terribly confusing, complicated story about what everyone seems to agree is a terribly confusing, complicated endeavor in the guise of a Web site.

I should have my head examined.

No op-ed piece could explain the failures that I have the strong impression even the responsible parties — the contractors who built, and Administration officials in charge of, the site — do not yet understand. What the heck was I thinking?

Even so, I hoped the piece would shed some light. Ah, me. You'd think I would have outgrown such touching naivete.

Clay Johnson and Harper Reed blame

... the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which is more than 1,800 pages of legalese that all but ensure that the companies that win government contracts, like the ones put out to build HealthCare.gov, are those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job.
Yeah, right. healthcare.gov would be working just fine if only the contracts had been better handled.

Give me a freaking break.

Johnson's and Reed's take would be offensively simpleminded even if we knew why healthcare.gov is so slow and unreliable. But what none of the myriad so-called experts flapping their gums will tell you is that we still don't know why healthcare.gov doesn't work as it should.

Does it arise from difficulty knitting together the information management systems of private insurers with the healthcare.gov front end? Is it trouble with the other government databases and information management systems that healthcare.gov requires? Were parts of healthcare.gov not competently coded? Are there insufficient resources (e.g., processing power, memory, network bandwidth) available?

If you don't understand the problem, don't pretend you can solve it.

If somebody says he knows how to fix healthcare.gov and he's not involved in actually working on it, tell him you'll listen as soon as he extracts his head from his ass.

Johnson and Reed have an axe to grind. The only thing excusing their axe-grinding masquerading as expert advice is, they're hardly alone. Everybody and his uncle — including the most ass-ignorant of Republican lawmakers — is spewing bovine excrement based on absolutely squat in terms of understanding.

Why don't all you putative expert problem-solvers go and get yourselves real jobs instead of spouting off in ignorance? Shut the frack up instead of adding to the confusion.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Munch retires

In the credit-where-credit-is-due department, hats off to Law & Order: SVU for sending John Munch off in style.

I was hard on the long-running TV show, dumping on the performances of former star Christopher Meloni and current lead Mariska Hargitay. My severest criticism, though, I saved for Dick Wolf and his writing staff, who all but destroyed the character of John Munch they inherited from Homicide: Life on the Street. In particular I was ticked off that they disavowed Munch's Baltimore roots and sanded off all his angular edges. After SVU's first few seasons, I wrote, "Munch had become one of Dick Wolf's shadow puppets."

I stopped watching at that point so I don't know how he was treated from then on. I suppose it's possible the writing got significantly better, and/or the producer and his writers got religion about who John Munch really was. I doubt the writing got better: Wolf's shows have a house style and tone that keeps the writing decent if seldom outstanding. To get significantly better they'd have to be different shows. And as for changing their view of who John Munch was, that would have been risky: the SVU audience had come to expect Munch to be the shriveled husk in Benson and Stabler's shadow.

Munch finally hit mandatory retirement, a consequence of Richard Belzer's decision to cease being a regular cast member (there's widespread expectation he'll return for guest appearances). In the SVU episode "Wonderland Story", the squad holds his retirement party. For a Dick Wolf series the episode is practically a swoon-fest, as the first five minutes or so are a paean to Munch. (When longtime Law & Order star Jerry Orbach left that show, his Lenny Briscoe also ostensibly retiring, there was no celebration at all: Briscoe simply looked around the squad room for a moment before walking out the door.) Hargitay's Benson, Dann Florek's Cragen and Ice-T's Fin all say laudatory, if sarcastic, things about Munch's tenure, and Munch is even given a few moments to do a bit of Belzerian standup at the podium.

The quiet crowning moment of that opening, though, comes when Fin presents Munch with a shadow box of his New York and Baltimore badges. As Fin says "Baltimore shield" an unidentified man yells out, "No no no, we ran his butt out of B-more!" It's Clark Johnson, obviously playing his Homicide character Det. Meldrick Lewis. This follows on the heels of Munch's brief mention of two of his ex-wives, seated together at a table; the actresses are Carol Kane and Ellen McElduff, who portrayed two of Munch's ex-wives on Homicide. (None of them is credited by character name, though.) Nice tip of the hat to Munch's origins, and the most one could expect given SVU's pedigree.

Until the end. The last scene features Munch alone at his desk, cleaning it out. We hear his voice muttering, "Did you pull the ident photos?", but his lips aren't moving. Suddenly we're in a different, equally deserted squad room where a short-sleeved, unmistakably younger Munch is riffling through index cards with suspects. It's a scene from Homicide's pilot, "Gone for Goode", in which Munch is trying to prove to his crusty senior partner that he is, in fact, a good detective by going through booking photos (and talking to himself). It's a lovely, surprising second tip of the hat to a great show. (I wonder if one of "Wonderland Story"'s credited writers, Julie Martin, who also worked on many episodes of Homicide, had a hand in the more than usually respectful take on the earlier series.)

Yet one more little surprise awaits: when the phone rings in SVU-land, dragging Munch out of his Baltimore reverie, he picks it up and answers, "Homicide ... I mean, SVU."

It's a tell. For all the years Munch has been in SVU, his heart is still with his erstwhile fellow homicide detectives in Baltimore. You didn't have to say that, Wolf & co., but you did. Thanks, and good job.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Naming things for politicians

The California legislature decided to waste some of its time renaming the western span of the (San Francisco-Oakland) Bay Bridge after former Assembly speaker and former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.

Brown was a member of the California State Assembly for thirty years and its Speaker for fifteen before serving two terms as San Francisco's mayor. He was a consequential politician in his day, but he wasn't a saint and he engendered his share of controversy. He was a major reason California voters enacted term limits for state legislators: he and others had all but grown roots in the state house. Brown also thinks very highly of himself, even as politicians go: a lot of us were surprised he and his ego fit inside San Francisco's massive City Hall dome. In short, he is something of a polarizing figure around the state.

Plus, he's still alive. Most politicians, even in this age of brazenness, have the good sense to wait until their former colleagues have been dead for a bit before bringing their names up to grace public monuments.

Fortunately for California's Democrats, they didn't have to do the heavy lifting.

The rename, which covers the bridge from Yerba Buena Island to San Francisco, was co-authored by San Francisco Democratic Assemblyman Phil Ting and was a top legislative priority for the state NAACP.

The backing of the powerful civil rights group was one of the key reasons the name change sailed through the Legislature with hardly a peep of opposition. San Francisco’s other Assemblyman, Tom Ammiano, opposed the name change but abstained from the vote.

The Senate vote came after lawmakers on the Transportation Committee had waived a rule against naming roadways for people who are still alive.

As Matier and Ross (the San Francisco Chronicle's political gossip columnists) noted, some of the Bay Area's most powerful Democratic state legislators stayed mum and/or abstained from voting on the resolution. It seems likely that, although they were reluctant to cross Brown openly (he still carries a lot of weight in state Democratic circles), they could see how greasily self-serving this maneuver looks for both the NAACP and Brown himself.

Speaking of Brown, he, as the consummate pol that he is, has had the good sense to display a little humility. A little.

“Let’s be honest,” he said. “In the long run, it will always be the Bay Bridge.

“But for today – I am the bridge.”

He does know how to make self-aggrandizement more charming than it has any right to be, does Mr. Brown.

But yes, Willie — in the long run, it will always be the Bay Bridge. Not least because it unostentatiously does its job, and "unostentatious" is the very last word anyone would use to describe you.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Not enough hurt

As I watch what some genuinely unhinged anarchists on the far right of the political spectrum — call them Tea Party activists if you will, though I'm not convinced "the Tea Party" is a meaningful rubric — are doing to our polity, I'm left with a somber realization. The reason they've been able to get away with hijacking our national government, and many of our state governments, is that the worst excesses of their nihilistic, anti-government agenda have been blunted.

Consider sequestration. It was designed, by both parties, to be as painful as possible so as to spur lawmakers and the President to find common ground on the budget. It didn't work, of course, and we're living with the consequences. But did you remember that sequestration was in place? Probably not, if you're like me and you don't make much explicit use of government services. (Certain so-common-we-never-think-about-them things, like the interstate highway system, are about the closest a lot of us get to genuinely federal services.)

Yet there was one federal function whose sequestration-caused cutback came very close to causing a lot of very high-profile pain: air-traffic control. I had hoped that the media-made spectacle of frustrated business and leisure travelers, not to mention their direct complaints to lawmakers, would put a boot in Congress' posterior. It did, but not in the way I had hoped. Rather than prompting Congress to deal with the budget as a whole, it made House Republicans whip up a special exemption to the sequestration rules that allowed the FAA to restore full funding for controllers. It passed the House, then the Senate, and was signed by Obama almost before the ink was dry.

That lightning-fast compromise, seemingly enacted within a couple of days, pissed me off in no uncertain fashion, because the very visible and vocal pain of sidelined travelers would have been exactly the kind of consequence that Democrats could and should have used to drag Republicans back to reality. Instead, Democrats, including the President, allowed the GOP to do exactly what they wanted: to fund only those parts of government that they liked, or at least that the public wouldn't let them curtail. Meanwhile, the extremely poor, who make for lousy visuals on TV (and who have no lobbyists in D.C.), got screwed in no uncertain terms.

The same lack of pain is on display with the partial shutdown. Notice that everyone knows it's only a partial shutdown. Social Security checks go out, Medicare isn't noticeably affected, servicemembers are being paid, agricultural subsidies are still being paid — all the GOP's core constituencies are being cushioned from the shutdown's effects. If Social Security checks weren't being cut, do you think asshats like Michele Bachmann or Joe Barton would have cheered the shutdown or be minimizing the possible effects of a debt default? Do you think Boehner would be letting himself be led around by the nose by the far right nutjobs in the House? Hell, no: he'd be hearing the screams of his angry constituents without even picking up the phone, and he would be huddling in the Oval Office 24/7 until a deal was hammered out. If we were having a real shutdown, the genuine meaning of federal spending might even penetrate the hardened concrete around the brains of grassroots Tea Partiers.

There could be genuine, lasting (as in permanent) pain on the way if the far right succeeds in triggering a debt-ceiling-mediated default on the national debt. However, it's the sort of pain that will first hit the GOP's big-business wing, and big business isn't, for the most part, driving the nutjobs holding the House hostage. The irrational and ignorant citizenry shouting "bring it on!" won't feel the pain for a while, and when they do — when they discover that interest rates on loans have skyrocketed and that D.C. needs to make really painful cuts to long-sacrosanct, supposedly non-discretionary outlays like agricultural subsidies and, uh oh, Medicare — the reality-challenged idiots that elected the destructive morons who triggered the crisis in D.C. won't make the connection. The right-wing media cocoon will blame it on Obama and Congressional Democrats, I guarantee it, and the half-wits who get their news only from these outlets will continue to fuck over the rest of us by mulishly continuing to behave self-destructively.

Until or unless the scarily-uninformed, more-than-reactionary zealots of the far right actually are made to hurt because of a lack of federal services, they will continue to be shrapnel in the machinery of government — and the rest of us will continue to be screwed over by them.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Another state legislator, another little mind

There's no doubt that state and local representatives are closer to their constituents than Washington politicians are likely to be, both physically and spiritually. Thus it makes me wonder what the people of Payson, AZ are like — and not in a good way — when their state legislator, Brenda Barton, goes on a temper tantrum and compares the President to Hitler.
Someone is paying the National Park Service thugs overtime for their efforts to carry out the order of De Fuhrer... where are our Constitutional Sheriffs who can revoke the Park Service Rangers authority to arrest??? Do we have any Sheriffs with a pair?
The appalling dilution of what Adolf Hitler and the Nazis did proceeds apace as yet another boneheaded public official equates "things that make me very, very unhappy" with the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime.

Yo, Brenda — you're throwing a temper tantrum over the closure of national parks? And you're claiming it's Obama's fault? What, in your world the President is a king and there's no such thing as Congress?

To correct Barton's idiocy is a mighty task. (The word "idiocy" doesn't even begin to plumb the depths of her mindlessness.) It's not just that she ignores the outsized role of Congress in the current fiasco. She honestly expects people to imagine that the National Park Service is an arm of a totalitarian regime. The National freaking Park Service.

And then ... equating the President — any U.S. president — with Adolf Hitler?

You see six million bodies (counting just the civilians) on any U.S. president's tally sheet, Brenda?

Oh wait, you do. I will bet money you do. That's how divorced from reality you are.

I feel thirty IQ points dumber just trying to wrap my mind around the shriveled nubbin that is Barton's.

I have in my mind the image of a grown woman sitting in the middle of the street, having thrown down her rattle and pacifier, bawling, "Obama's a meanie!! I hate him!"

If there are any adults in Payson, AZ, could you look into getting Brenda Barton back to her parents, or to whoever cares for lost and wayward children? The rest of us have real work to do, and she's just getting in the way.