Film Review: Blade Runner 2049

October 10, 2017

Spoilers … naturally!

A prologue re-introduces the audience to the early 21st century breakthrough by the Tyrell Corporation … the replicant … an artificial person, almost completely indistinguishable from a normal human, with human intelligence and superhuman strength … bio-engineered to be the slave labor force of humanity, but imbued with only a seven year life span to limit their emotional maturity.  They eventually created a new model, the Nexus 8, which could have implanted memories to give the replicant a past and a more stable set of emotions.  After several uprisings by the slaves in the 2020s, the Tyrell Corporation went bankrupt.  Shortly after, the Earth started final ecological collapse, and was only saved by the development of new farming techniques by Niander Wallace.  Wallace purchased the remnants of the Tyrell Corporation, and began making a new series of replicants which were absolutely obedient.  Still free were the last of Tyrell’s Nexus 8s which had an unlimited lifespan, in hiding among the human population … hunted by a special group of police officers called blade runners …

30 years after the events of the first film, we follow Officer K (Ryan Gosling) who is both a blade runner with the Los Angeles Police Department, and also one of the new replicants developed by the Wallace Corporation.  We see K find a Nexus 8 named Sapper (Dave Buatista) who is hiding as a farmer, but is also part of a replicant revolutionary faction.  K retires (kills) Sapper, who curses K for turning on his own kind, noting that he might think differently if he had ever witnessed a miracle.  Before leaving, K notices a small bunch of flowers laid on top of some dirt near a dead tree, and determines that there is a box buried underneath.

Back at police headquarters, the box is found to have skeletal remains … the remains of a woman who died in childbirth.  Then to their horror, they determine that the bones belonged to a replicant.  Replicants can’t reproduce, and if the public were to learn this, mass anarchy would erupt in the face of a replicant revolution amongst the remaining hidden Nexus 8s.  K is ordered by his boss (Robin Wright) to keep this secret, and to find the child and retire it.

We see K go home where he has a holographic girlfriend named Joi (Ana de Armas).  Joi helps him to keep in touch with his emotional side.  K visits the Wallace Corporation where he meets Wallace (Jared Leto) and his assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), and through a search of records determines that the remains he recovered belonged to an experimental replicant made by Eldon Tyrell himself … Rachel … a replicant who disappeared in 2019 along with a blade runner of that era named Rick Deckard who seems to have fallen in love with Rachel.  After K leaves, we learn that Wallace is unable to provide enough replicants to the off world colonies (“Every civilization was built on the back of a disposable workforce, but I can only make so many.“), but if he could learn the secret of how they reproduce, he could have all the replicants he wants.  He orders Luv to recover Rachel’s remains, and to follow K as he searches for the child.

K returns to Sapper’s farm and notices an inscription in the tree that marked Rachel’s burial:  6-20-21.  K knows these numbers from a memory from his childhood … they being numbers scrawled on a wooden horse he had at an orphanage that he had to hide from bullies.  However, he knows those memories aren’t real, because he never had a childhood …

K visits the woman who is responsible for creating replicant memories, Dr. Ana Stelline, a woman of incredible imagination, but who is confined to live in a sealed room because of an immune disorder.  She is able to determine that K’s childhood memory is real, something that K confirms when he visits the orphanage, and is able to find the wooden horse still hidden.  His assumptions are confirmed when a review of the orphanage’s records indicate a boy and girl with identical DNA were born on the same day, with only the boy surviving.  K suspects that he is Rachel’s son.  And now sets off to find his father.  An analysis of the wood in the horse leads him to the remains of Las Vegas.

In one of the abandoned casinos, K finds Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford).  Deckard doesn’t know much. He left a pregnant Rachel with the replicant freedom movement, and was ordered to leave, but was unable to track the children later, and has been living in hiding ever since.  Luv tracks K, and after a fight, captures Deckard, and leaves K for dead.

K is rescued by replicants who know what is going on.  K reveals that he is the child of Rachel and Deckard, but the replicants tell him that can’t be, because the boy died in childbirth, and that only the girl survived, with the records being falsified to protect the girl.  They inform him that Wallace cannot be allowed to discover the secret of replicant reproduction, because it will allow him to breed a slave race far grander than he can already build … and that K must stop this from happening, even if it means killing Deckard.

Deckard is brought before Wallace, who implies that perhaps he was programmed to fall in love with Rachel by Tyrell to experiment in replicant reproduction.  Wallace begs to know the identity of the child, and even offers Deckard a new Rachel replicant, just as she looked 30 years ago.  Deckard refuses, and Wallace kills the new Rachel, and orders Deckard to be taken off world to be tortured for the truth.  En route, K catches up to them, and forces Luv and Deckard to crash in the water.  K kills Luv and rescues Deckard, making it look like Deckard drowned in the crash.

Mortally wounded, K takes Deckard to see his daughter … the only woman who it could be … the woman who gave K the real memories of a child … Dr. Ana Stelline.  As Deckard meets his daughter, K reclines on the steps of Stelline’s laboratory, and dies ………. Roll credits.

Denis Villeneuve, the director, had about as tough a job in creating this sequel as Peter Hyams did in creating 2010 (the sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey) back in the mid-1980s.  How can you follow up a masterpiece?  In this case, the answer is: pretty well!

There are some particular elements that simply needed to be present for the sequel to succeed:  one, Blade Runner was not so much a science fiction film as it was an example of crime film noir from the 1930s.  The look and more importantly, feel, of Los Angeles is dirty and grimy and shades of grey and dark.  They get that right.  Second, the societal feel is a gradation of disconnection … there are still some rich people on Earth, but no one has a great quality of life … just differing levels of poor quality of life … very much a world where human civilization is on the decline, and no one seems to concerned.  It is apathy run amuck.  This, too, is captured quite well.

Third, the original music, considered one of the great film scores of the 1980s, was composed by Vangelis (the Greek composer of electronica best known for composing Chariots of Fire).  The unique feel and sound of Vangelis had to be somewhat followed, and I think Hans Zimmer managed this effectively.  Any differences are hardly distracting.

The visuals of the film are quite stunning at times.  One scene has Joi contact a local prostitute so that Joi can get in “synch” with her, and so that she can make love to K.  The scene is hardly ground breaking in terms of new technology, but it does demonstrate how some amazing (and in this case quite very obvious) visual effects can heighten a very emotional moment.  Some of the cinematography is stunning, especially the scenes set in the approach to the ruins of Las Vegas.

One gigantic question that remains hanging in the air for fans of the original film: Was Deckard a replicant?  There were four different versions of the original Blade Runner released over the decades, and in Ridley Scott’s definitive director’s cut released in 2007, he makes it fairly clear that Deckard was in fact a replicant.  This film won’t answer that question.  Certainly, Wallace teases Deckard with that, and in one scene where K questions Deckard former partner Gaff (Edward James Olmos), Gaff seems to imply that he thought Deckard might have been a replicant, but it is also pretty clear that Wallace doesn’t know, and that Deckard seems pretty sure that he is human, having aged over that time.  Interviews with the director make it pretty clear that he was not interested in answering that question, and people looking for definitive answers will be disappointed.  Those who prefer the ambiguity can be relieved.

Then what was this all about?  We don’t get the answer to the big question, and we get introduced to a replicant freedom movement, but are never told where that goes.  What is the point?  I think that the point, much like the original film, was, like all great film noir, is to solve the mystery.  In the original film, the mystery was to find and retire a quartet of renegade replicants.  Deckard does that, and the film ends shortly after.  In this film, K is tasked with finding the identity of the child, and the film ends with the child being identified and K dying.  The heavier metaphysics of existence and humanity is the “B” story, so to speak.  It is an amazing “B” story that elevated the original film (and this one) to among the great films of science fiction, but in the end, you are watching an old-fashioned mystery that follows far more from the work of Dashiell Hammett with a splash of William Gibson than vice versa.

In keeping with the grittiness, there is some nudity (more than the original film), and more blood and violence compared to the original film, so its “R” rating is not a soft “R” for sure.


Southsiders: Rogue One

October 1, 2017

This afternoon, appropriately in the bleak hellscape that is Cleveland, the White Sox ended their season.  The Sox avoided last place, and avoided losing 100 games, both of which appeared at one point to be certainties.  It was a season that, in the end, wasn’t a good one:


Of course it makes matter worse that the Cub continues to succeed


It was either this or Clark the Cub, and posting a picture of Clark can get people reported as a sex criminal … so … I went with this.

However … this bad season ends with a certain sense …


The White Sox have in fact built up a formidable farm system that borders on the frightening!  Despite the rough season, the overall feeling in the fan base of White Sox Township is that there is tremendous hope for the future.  As it is, we are solid at first base with the great José Abreu who joined Frank Thomas this year as the second White Sox player in team history to start their career with four consecutive seasons with 20 home runs and 100 RBI.  Avisaíl García became only the fifth Sox player since 1950 to end the season with a batting average over 0.320.  While Tim Anderson had a disappointing start to the season as a young shortstop, he is developing nicely, and shows great promise.  Kevan Smith at catcher, and Nick Delmonico at DH are also showing promise.  Pitcher Lucas Giolito managed a really nice 2.38 ERA over 45 innings, and is showing some real promise.  Carson Fulmer managed a 3-1 record in 5 starts … so while the pitching staff is perhaps the greatest question mark, there is still hope there.  Yoan Moncada started slow when he came up, but through his first 61 games has comparable stats to Mike Trout through that many games.

This will still take time … no one is expecting anything major to happen in the 2018 season, but the real hope is that by 2019, the White Sox should be able to make a run at the division championship, and perhaps a deep run into the playoffs.

The challenge is for the Sox to develop the young players, and possibly trade some to get some key veterans as the team gets close to success, and then somehow keep the farm system fertile.  The Sox promise to be nothing but interesting in the coming years, and I look forward to seeing what comes next.





Film Review: Passengers

July 27, 2017

My new exercise bike has been getting a workout, and it has given me a good excuse to spend more time in front of the TV in a healthy way … and I have started catching up on some films on the “to-do” list.  Among them is the 2016 film Passengers … so if you haven’t seen it, and might be interested, stop reading, I will spoil this.

We are introduced, via on-screen text to the luxurious starship Avalon, ship of the Homestead line, owned by the Homestead company which is en-route to the colony world of Homestead II (this makes sense … you know if Walmart was running things, the ship and planet would be “Walmart”).  The crew of 200 and change is in hibernation in the ship’s ever rotating command ring, and the 5,000 future colonists are similarly in a different rotating ring fast asleep.  The ship encounters some asteroids, which their shields easily burn up … but one pesky big rock requires the computer to divert more energy to the shields, and during the encounter, there is some damage.  The computer repairs most of this damage, but one of the hibernation pods malfunctions, and revives Jim Preston (Chris Pratt), formerly of Denver, Colorado.  At first, Preston is merely confused as he is greeted by holograms who inform him he is now awake after 120 years in suspended animation.  After a long nap in his small cabin, he reports for training with the other engineers and technicians, and is surprised that he is the only one there.  He tries asking the corporate computers, but gets no useful information, and only in the observatory does he learn the horrific truth:  it has only been 30 years since he left Earth … he has 90 years to go.  He fires off a message to Earth, but is told that a reply will not be expected for over 55 years.

Preston eventually finds that he is not entirely alone, as the grand concourse has a bar with an android bartender named Arthur (Michael Sheen at his Michael Sheeniest!)  Unable to get anything more than cereal and a regular coffee in the cafeteria (the lattes and other pricier food is for “Gold class” passengers), at least he can get a drink.  As an engineer, Preston attempts to fix the hibernation pod to no avail, and tries to break into the bridge and the crew hibernation area with no luck.  Horribly depressed, Arthur convinces him to accept his situation, and live it up as best he can, with small malfunctions being minor annoyances.

Preston takes the advice, and breaks into one of the best cabins on the ship, takes advantage of the many restaurants, games and recreation, and even goes for a space walk.  After about a year, he has grown despondent and bored, and even contemplates walking out the airlock without a spacesuit.

One day, while walking through the hibernation chamber, he spies one of the passengers …a beautiful woman named Aurora Lane of New York, New York (Jennifer Lawrence).  He looks her up on the passenger manifest, watches a recording she made, and finds she is a writer who has decided to create her own adventure to inspire her writing.  He falls in love with her recording and her voice, and dines next to her hibernation pod.  Finally after more than a year has passed, and trying to fight off temptation, he succumbs to his loneliness, and triggers a malfunction which brings her out of hibernation.  Aurora meets Jim on the grand concourse, and is none the wiser, especially with the other small malfunctions cropping up.  At first, she doesn’t accept the situation, and tries to fix her pod and get at the crew, but, like Jim, eventually accepts the situation, and falls in love with Jim.

One day at the bar, Jim is getting ready to propose to Aurora, when Aurora learns, by accident from Arthur, that Jim had been obsessing over her for a few months before he woke her up.  She is crushed to learn that the life she had planned is over, and that she is condemned to die before reaching the planet.  She attacks Jim, and demands that he keep his distance.  The pair settle into a routine that keeps them apart, with them splitting days with Arthur.

As time goes on, Jim harnesses his guilt, and manages to use supplies and samples from the ship’s garden to build a tree in the middle of the concourse for Aurora, which she ignores.  The malfunctions on the ship are getting more numerous and worse, and Aurora is nearly killed when a loss of the simulated gravity nearly drowns her in the pool.

Jim and Aurora are then shocked when a human voice comes over the intercom, demanding to know who put the tree on the concourse.  There, they meet Gus, the crew chief, who has woken up prematurely because of a malfunction in his pod.  He investigates, and determines that there was some damage to the ship during the asteroid encounter some two years earlier, and that the ship’s computer has been trying to fix it, but has been allowing other systems to fail in the process … the ship’s engine core is now in danger.  Unfortunately, Gus dies from complications of his early waking, but not before handing over a key that grants access to all parts of the ship.  Jim and Aurora work together to fix the problem and save the ship.

Some 90 years later, the Avalon is nearing its destination, and as programmed the crew awakens first.  They walk onto the concourse and find an incredible park with grass and trees and even a home that Jim and Aurora had created for themselves.  A final recording of Aurora’s writings to her fellow passengers notes that Jim and Aurora got lost on the way, but found each other and chose to make a beautiful life for themselves while on the journey, even if neither lived to reach the end …

Roll credits!

Passengers has so much going for it:  It is a phenomenal concept, it has wonderful performances, Oscar nominated artistic design and musical score, and great effects (it is, at times, visually striking).  With all of that going for it, there was a key breakdown in the writing of the script, and to me it was obvious:

A man has been stalking a sleeping woman for months, then takes an action that will prematurely kill her just so that he can have a relationship, but only after forging a physical romantic relationship based on a huge lie, but in the end, she falls in love and they live happily less than 90 years.  Perhaps if the film were titled “Stockholm Syndrome”, this would make sense, but otherwise, it takes Jennifer Lawrence’s well acted character of Aurora, and turns her into some psychological victim of a very nice guy who killed her (the film is from an omniscient POV … but if they had written this film from Aurora’s POV, this film would be a horror-thriller … something I’m not wholly convinced they weren’t going for, given the carpet in the bar and Arthur’s dress mimics The Shining).  I give the writers some credit in that they try and soften Jim a bit … when Aurora explains to Gus what has happened, Gus actually takes Jim’s side by analogizing that a drowning man will cling to and take the person next to them down with them … which to me is not an apt analogy at all, and borders on saying “you can’t blame a lonely guy for stalking you and forging a relationship on false pretense”.  Its not victim blaming … but it comes close to “eh, boys will be boys”.  This might have been a bit easier to swallow if Gus had been a female character, or maybe (MAYBE) if they had established Jim as some kind of a gregarious fellow who desperately needed human companionship instead of showing him to be a bit of a loaner in the first place … but I had a hard time accepting this attempt to put Jim’s blame aside.

Passengers, I think, would have worked great as a much shorter work of drama, and without its ending..  In fact, I think this would have been a dynamite episode of The Twilight Zone, if it had ended right at the point where Aurora learned to truth – (I can even picture Rod Serling doing the final voice over:  Portrait of a man who was dying of loneliness only to have to live with the guilt of a killer, and something that no killer has ever had to live with:  the constant visceral hatred of the person you are killing, slowly, every day for the rest of your lives”).

I think also lost along the way is if this film was trying to communicate something other than a story.  There is a smidge of “corporations are, worse than evil, they are fucking annoying douches of life!” … but that gets forgotten about after maybe 25 minutes in the film … once the film settles into the Jim-Aurora relationship.  I was wondering if it was commenting on loneliness or that true love needing to be based on honesty.  Clearly if it was, the film’s message is a bad one, because it seems to say that loneliness is an acceptable reason for being a criminal, and no matter how much of a lying weasel you have been, up to and including putting someone you love into a life-threatening situation … it is no problem because they will come back to you.

Since I am going off on the writing component, I will continue on with some issues related to direction and technical production:

  • The film opens with some text reading, which I don’t have a major problem with, except that virtually all of it then gets explained within the first 10 minutes of the film anyway, which renders the need for the text moot.  That’s sloppy film-making!
  • Jim is an engineer, and, as we learned, got a discount on his flight since his training was necessary for the running of the colony.  Aurora is a writer.  Jim is traveling on the discount travel plan (cereal and coffee only), while Aurora is a gold class passenger who gets access to all of the good food and drink.  If the future portrayed in this film means that engineers have been relegated to the same level as beach bums despite retaining their importance in an advanced technological society, and English majors go on 120 year first class cruises, then I say something seriously wrong happened between our seriously fucked up 2017 and their future, and this film is really dystopian.  Engineers should get the elite cabins.  English majors lacking any notable publications should be riding steerage.  Sorry.  There, I’ve written it.
  • For all of the grandeur, it annoyed me that most of the actions occurred in large rotating rings (to avoid the need for zero gravity effects), but looking out the windows, the stars don’t move in some scenes.  Again, that is sloppy film-making!
  • The design of the Avalon is really beautiful, and they were careful to put the action in the rotating rings to produce a simulated gravity effect.  The shame of this beautiful planning is – when the ship begins its massive shutdown near the film’s climax, the rings stop rotating … but they remain firmly planted on the floor.  Sloppy!
  • When Jim and Aurora need to fix the ship, Jim notes that the ship’s stores have spare parts for everything … but apparently no one thought it was a good idea to put a … I don’t know … spare hibernation pod on the ship!
  • The ship is shown to be a model of advanced artificial intelligence … yet it somehow refuses to ever detect that one and then two, and later three people are up and about when absolutely no one should be up and around.  This follows with the crew hibernation chamber being locked off … why lock it off?  The crew wakes up a month before anyone else, and no one should ever be awake during the journey … so why lock the sleeping crew away?
  • Before waking Aurora, Jim is shown to be frustrated with the cafeteria where he is limited in what he can order.  However, there is a great restaurant on the ship which serves lots of great food that he is seen ordering.  Why does Jim even bother getting frustrated with the limited menu in the cafeteria??
  • It is clear the technical designers understood gravity and science.  What kills me is that I suspect the director was kind of lost.  There is a beautiful spacewalk scene where Jim beholds the wonders of the universe before him in his loneliness … and a single tear runs down his cheek I guess because the someone remembered the water trickling scene/chaos theory exposition by Jeff Goldblum from Jurassic Park, and figured there was some random chance the tear might roll down his cheek in the absence of gravity.

Maybe any one technical issue can be overlooked for the sake of drama, together, they really steal from the film and its great performances. What is perhaps the most maddening issue is that the director decides to dangle a ray of hope before snatching it away.  After Jim and Aurora save the ship,  they discover that the one automated medical pod has a setting that allows for one individual to enter stasis.  Jim, I suspect, could have found a tranquilizer, knocked Aurora out, slipped her into the unit, and saved her life as a way of redeeming himself.  Of course, Aurora and Jim decide that they won’t leave the other, because … Jim has forgotten his guilt and Aurora no longer hates the man who is slowly killing her (I’m guessing this is the only logical reason)?  This seems to indicate to me that the production staff knew that they were creating a dramatic situation with a lot of internal fallacies … and then let them continue despite an option to clean them up with one swoop.

Passengers is a film where so much went right … but a critical error in writing and production created a situation that falls flat.  This script could have definitely used a script doctor to find ways out of the internal inconsistency.

Why “scientific data” is hurting and helping

July 18, 2017

A few weeks ago, I got done reading the landmark baseball book Moneyball.  It is an outstanding book that overlaps a bit with the Brad Pitt film, but goes into far more historic perspective on the birth of sabremetrics.

Trying my best to briefly recap:  sabremetrics (or advanced metrics) grew out of a major series of papers written by Bill James back in the early 1980s.  He started with some of the basic “unanswerable” questions of baseball (Is it pitching or hitting that wins games?  What role does defense really play?), and he tried to answer them much like a scientist might.  He gathered as much raw data (player and team statistics) as he could, and then looked for correlations between those numbers and team success.  His findings were revolutionary:  the currency of baseball is the out, and therefore, you want players that make the fewest possible outs … this means that you want players with high on-base percentages (OBP), and ignore the big stats like batting average and RBIs.  He also found a strong correlation for success with players who had high slugging percentages (SLG — the measure of a player’s “power” … home tuns, and triples increase your SLG more than doubles and singles).

The point driven home in Moneyball is that when baseball teams were presented with this wealth of tremendous data showing them how to win, they all largely ignored it until Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta needed a way to build a winning team in Oakland without a New York Yankees gangster wad in their back pockets.  They realized that the qualities that won games (getting walks to improve your OBP and hitting doubles to raise your SLG) were often under-priced in the vast marketplace of players, and that Oakland could build a winning team by going after these players.  You didn’t care so much about defense, which was difficult to quantify, and you definitely didn’t want your players trying to steal bases, unless their chance of success was extremely high.  You wanted guys who could draw walks and not hit the ball into the air to make a lot of outs.

The A’s have built teams that on a performance-to-dollar basis outperform nearly every team in Major League Baseball, but have failed to get a team to the World Series in the almost 2 decades they have been trying.  From a front office standpoint, the team has prospered.  From a fan’s standpoint, the A’s have largely failed to make a run at the World Series, and play in a (sometimes literally) cesspool of a stadium.  Sure, you were lucky in the men’s room at Wrigley Field if the only things you had to deal with was a pantsless mascot rubbing against you while the odor of urine wafted above the single trough running through the middle of the room … but at least you usually never had to actually walk through human waste.  The good news is that the A’s are finally getting a new stadium (bad news Cub fans … you still have Clark the pantsless bear as your spokesperson).

Moneyball, the book, was published in 2003, and over the past almost 15 years, baseball front office people have digested it, and have adjusted to it.  This summer, watching baseball, I have come to the conclusion that this philosophy has reached saturation in baseball (looking for proof?  Check out the most recent World Series winning team … a team of very interchangeable players, not really any stars or Hall of Fame caliber players, but which did come together to score runs and win games). However, I’m not sure this is overall a great thing.  Out are things like base running, great defense, and with players trained to take more and more pitches to get that walk … is it any wonder that the average time of Major League games has become a problem?

This new approach to building teams has added a degree of parity to baseball which, with the absence of a salary cap, isn’t at all a bad thing (when the Yankees haven’t won a World Series in 8 years, and the Royals have … that is a GOOD thing).  However, in so carefully building a data-driven baseball team, I think there is a certain fun factor that is sucked out of the game.  This may not on the surface seem like a big deal (after all … if you are winning, aren’t you having fun?), but there is something underlying the patterns of data … since ultimately, only a handful of teams make the playoffs, for the teams that are trying to do this, and are not winning, what you are left with comes across as boring … and my guess is that this does not sell seats or merchandise … and that should concern the ownership and management of teams to some extent.


I am sensitive to this not because I am a fan of a team that is rebuilding and currently occupying the American League cellar for the first time in decades, but because I am a teacher.  About 15 years ago, data-driven instruction became the way every school was going to be run.  What have been the results?  I would argue that it has raised some test scores (whatever that means), and has largely turned kids off from learning, especially more challenging material.  In February 2016, there were over 5 million job openings in the United States, and roughly 8 million or so unemployed.  There are lots of reasons for this, and I will not oversimplify this … but when jobs in the technology sector, engineering, legal, education, and medicine are not being filled, one has to wonder why there aren’t enough qualified people to do those jobs while we still have so many people unemployed? Again, I won’t pretend that I have a magic bullet here, but I think part of this problem lies in the fact that we have turned off a generation of kids to learning because it has become so dry and uninteresting thanks to data driven instruction sucking the creativity and life out of a very human enterprise like education.  I’m not saying “get rid of all data”.  That would be as bad an overreaction as what got us here in the first place … but I have felt the pain of teachers and students being pushed by wannabe systems’ analysts with DEds who think they actually know good data and know how to analyze it.

I think baseball needs to remember that above all sports, it is a sport haunted by numbers.  Numbers like 755 and 262 aren’t mere numbers … they are descriptors and milestones of greatness.  Baseball has always been a numbers game, and advanced metrics add some really cool and significant points of analysis to what is going on.  However, like so many human endeavors, there are often non-measurable factors that are part of what happens, and failure to acknowledge them comes with a great cost.

To be clear … it is not the scientific approach to things that is bad … it is not understanding the limits of the data and analysis that are bad.  This is true for people applying statistical analsysis to baseball and education just as it was bad for people applying the misshapen and not well-understood ideas of Darwinian evolution to societies and individual people.

It is time to get … pragmatic

June 22, 2017

My father was an alcoholic, and he described for me once that moment of realization that things have gone completely wrong, and that the only alternatives are death or getting cleaned up.

The Democratic Party needs to get cleaned up.

Think of how utterly rock bottom they have hit.  In November, a man who shouldn’t have been allowed anywhere near power was elected president, and has done nothing but alienate our allies, put other even more clueless people into power, and has set himself up for a major fall since he does not read briefings from the Defense Department, FBI, or CIA unless it is broken down into pictures (this isn’t my attempt at humor, his appears to be how he approaches briefings with his most important advisers).

Then, in Montana, a man who assaulted a member of the press is elected to Congress.  Yeah, it was Montana, and yes, a significant percent of the voters had already cast early ballots, but in a sane world, that man would have been out on bond, not heading to Washington.

Finally, in a suburban Georgia special election, the democrats roll out a moderate, who was receiving a lot of outside money running against an opponent who unambiguously said that she doesn’t believe in a living wage.

The time has come.  The Democratic Party has hit rock bottom.  It is time to make a decision.  The question is, what decision do you make??

There is still a great deal of uncertainty over what the fuck has actually happened in our country that convinced 60 million people that a possibly mentally unstable man, with a track record of bankruptcy, misogyny, racism, and xenophobia, was the best course of action for our country.

I think that there are several reasons for this.  It isn’t one, but the Democratic Party needs to start thinking quick because it is June 2017, and that is 17 months from midterms, and roughly 8 months before primaries.  Here are some thinking points:

  1.  Pretty much abandon hope on major gains the 2018 midterms.  The goal for the 2018 midterms should be to gain a few seats in the House, and lose none in the Senate.  This is realistic.  There is virtually no chance of flipping the House, or coming close.  Don’t bother.  The senate is close, but all of the GOP seats up for grabs are in safely red states.  That is unlikely to happen either.  Spend money wisely.  Gaining a few seats in the House and not losing seats in the Senate is a moral win.
  2. Focus on gerrymandering issues and winning back state legislatures.  At least some of the GOP victories have come from states that gerrymandered to give GOP House seats a virtual lock.  The Democrats need to keep working on this with the courts, and then needs to sink money into getting those legislatures back.  This will help increase gains in 2020.  In fact, more than anything, this is where the party should be focusing its financial concerns.
  3. Start focusing on labor again.  Especially in states where you have some control, you need to start focusing on getting people to work.  In industries that are dying, this means retraining.  Take my own Illinois for example … downstate Illinois has a dying coal industry.  Even though finances are in dire straits, the Democrats would do very well to start some kind of retraining programs to get coal miners into new areas of employment.  Even if it is not 100% successful, the publicity alone is great!  A couple of thousand votes in Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania could have been huge, and that is why this is important.  Those folks who feel disposed of need to be made to feel important again, and this is a way to do that.
  4. Pick a lane on charter schools.  Just polling in my school, which as some of you know had ties to Hillary Clinton, quite a few teachers admitted that they either didn’t vote or voted for a third party candidate.  I suspect a lot of teachers were turned off by her.  The NEA was one of the first unions to endorse Hillary, but I suspect that this in no way lead to widespread support … and this against the single most anti-science, anti-education president we have had in forever!  In short, neither Obama nor Hillary were seen as big backers of teachers and education.  Obama’s Race for the Top was a disaster, and Hillary was seen as being far too chummy with the Wall Street people who were backers of Race for the Top, NCLB, and Common Core … none of which have shown many positive results, but have driven thousands from the profession and have kept a lot more from considering teaching as a path.  If the Democrats want teachers on board, they need to pick a path, and this one should be clear:  with the NAACP no longer backing charter schools, and with Betsy DeVos as their standard bearer, and with states like Indiana even voting out pro-charter people, the best bet is to walk away from supporting charters, and get behind really fixing public schools that need it.
  5. Come up with a new health care system that helps people.  Obamacare clearly had something that was wrong with it … I don’t suspect it was a big deal, but I suspect it could have been fixed with a more agreeable Congress.  Start putting together 2.0.  There is no need to publicize it now, but get it ready so that the next presidential debate can involve some particulars that are favorable.
  6. Take a stand on free speech.  This one is a toughy.  What is happening on college campuses these days is really not a big deal.  College kids protest all the time on a variety of issues, always have and always will.  Certainly, I support people protesting the likes of Milo-whatever-the-hell-his-name-is … he’s scum in a suit.  The problem is by shutting down his speech, he is now able to play the victim card, and while that shouldn’t work, I suspect it is working.  Even when graduates turned their backs on Betsy Devos, far too many people got caught up on the “disrespect” shown to her.  It sucks that someone like that has to ruin the students’ graduation, but in the end, actions like these are being effectively used to embolden conservative thinking that the left is a bunch of anarchists.  Like I said, it is time to be pragmatic.  Protest all you want, but shutting down speech on campus, and showing what some people see as “disrespect” is only hurting the cause.
  7. Lay low on the civil rights issues.  I can’t believe I’m typing this.  This one sucks the most.  I think one of the prime reasons that a lot of people supported Trump had nothing to do with liking the man … but had a lot to do with fear.  Quite a few older folks voted for Trump, and a whole lot of white people voted for Trump, and virtually all of the FRWEASPs voted for him.  Why do old people vote for a party that has been talking about privatizing social security?  Why do white people, particularly the far right wing evangelicals vote for a twice divorced casino magnate who is less Christian than Gandhi.  It is out of fear.  I think a lot of white people know that we are a scant few years away from white people being less than 50% of the population.  Old people look around and see women kissing and transgendered guys showering with girls in gym class, and the evangelicals see their version of Christianity, which they have been able to enforce for so long, slipping away.  I think the SCOTUS opening from Alito’s Scalia’s death was the last straw … when they saw that chance to get a grip on the Court and keep it conservative for perhaps the next 15-20 years or more, people saw a rallying cry.  Even if the country goes brown and more atheist, the Supreme Court will act to put on the brakes, as they see it.  The Democratic Party needs to put people at ease, and I don’t know how you do that.  I think the only way they can do this heading into elections is to downplay the civil rights issues of the day, and that is terrible to do.  However, I ma convinced that if this doesn’t change, and those fears remain prevalent among those populations, it will be a very long time before a more sensible group of individuals gets control of the government back, and I hate to think how much damage is going to be done before that.

Film Review: Wonder Woman

June 17, 2017

Of course there will be spoilers … just so that you are aware.


After so many false starts and misses with Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and Suicide Squad, the DC Universe finally hit a home run, and in the process had an inside the park grand slam!  Wonder Woman is a film I would easily put on the shelf of great super hero films along with the likes of The Dark Knight as something that is genre re-defining.

The film opens in the present, as Diana walks to her job at the Louvre.  She appears to be a curator in charge of ancient armor and weapons.  A briefcase arrives from a Wayne Industries courier, and she opens it to find the original glass photograph of her and three soldiers taken in World War I that we saw in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.  A note from Mr. Wayne says that he found the original, and wanted to pass it on to her, hoping that she will one day tell him the story.  As she stares into the photo, she remembers how it all began …

On a lovely (one could say, paradise … like) island, young Diana watches as the Amazon warriors train, led be her aunt, Antiope (Robin Wright, better known for playing Buttercup in The Princess Bride and Jenny in Forrest Gump, as you have never seen her before!)  Diana wants to train as well, but her mother, Queen Hippolyta, is very reluctant.  As aunts will do, Antiope trains her in secret.  Hippolyta also tells young Diana stories about the origin of their people … that after Zeus created humanity, his son, Ares (god of war) corrupted the hearts of mankind.  Zeus created the Amazons to restore order and protect humanity and fight Ares, and while Ares almost won in defeating all of the gods except Zeus, Hippolyta led the Amazons to victory, and in Zeus’ dying moments of victory, he created their secret island, Themyscira, to protect the Amazons from Ares view, should he ever return, and also gifted to them a weapon that could kill Ares.  Diana asks to see the weapon, and mom shows her a magnificent sword stored with other weapons in a vault.  Diana’s mom eventually finds out she is being trained, and gives in, demanding that her sister train Diana to be the best.  Diana grows into a great warrior, much to the worry of her mother.

One day, Diana witnesses an airplane crash through the invisible shield around the island, and saves the pilot.  No sooner has she done this than German ships come through the shield, and land troops.  There is an awesome battle between German troops and Amazons, resulting in losses, but none moreso than Antiope who takes a bullet for a distracted Diana.

The pilot, under duress of the magical golden lasso of Hestia, is revealed to be Steve Trevor (Chris Pine, in a great performance), an American spy working for British Intelligence.  He was tasked to fly in to a secret German base to investigate one of their generals, Luddendorf, and his chemist, Dr. Maru, who has created the German chemical weapons program, and is working on a new gas that will destroy gas masks.  Trevor, against orders, steals her notebook, and was on the run when he was shot down.

While the Amazons are content to lay low, Diana is convinced by her years of listening to her mothers’ tales that Ares must be at work, and that it is the duty of the Amazons to complete their mission and defeat him.  When her mother refuses, she secretly helps herself to the weapons vault, including her own set of special armor, a shield, the lasso, and the god-killer sword.  She frees Trevor, and they attempt to leave.  Her mother stops her, finally giving in that she may lose her daughter in the process, but cannot stop her.  Before they part, mom gives Diana her aunt’s war tiara that she had worn when she fell in battle.

They arrive in London, and learn that an armistice is near.  Trevor is still concerned about the new gas being used before the treaty is signed, and Diana is convinced that the treaty will never be signed because Ares won’t allow it.  We meet Trevor’s boss, Sir Patrick, who secretly backs Trevor for a mission to Belgium to find the gas and end the threat, and Trevor gets a team together: an Arab wannabe actor who is an undercover specialist (Sameer), a Scottish sniper (Charlie), and a Native American trader who can get them to Belgium (the Chief).  They slip into Belgium, and enter the labyrinthine system of trenches.  There, they learn of a town across the no-man’s land where the Germans have been killing indiscriminately and enslaving the rest.  While Diana has been anxious to take action, she has felt restrained until now because of Steve, but can no longer take it.  She drops her cloak, and rushes across the no man’s land in a blaze of glory with the Entente soldiers following her all the way (this scene is pretty damn kick ass … and only the prelude to her more-or-less single-handedly liberating the town, which is even more kick-ass).  It is here, after the battle, where her picture is taken with Steve, Sameer, Charlie, and the Chief.

Trevor learns that the gas facility is not far, and the team gets to a castle where there is to be a gala that night (the gala had been to celebrate the coming peace, but after Luddendorf tested Maru’s new gas on the German high command, peace doesn’t appear to be near).  Steve and Diana separately infiltrate the gala, and learn to their horror that the height of the celebration is an artillery firing of the gas onto the recently liberated town.  Diana and Steve speed back to the town, and find the population dead.  She is enraged at Steve for delaying her the whole time, realizing that if she had just killed Luddendorf/Ares when she wanted, this would have never happened … because without his corrupting influence, the war would end.  She speeds back to the castle and its gas production factory, and goes medieval on the soldiers until she finally corners Luddendorf.  After a brief confrontation, she kills him with the god-killer … but is shocked to see that soldiers are loading the gas bombs onto a large aircraft.  She can’t understand why the war continues.  Trevor tries to convince her that maybe this isn’t Ares, or maybe there is an inherent corruptness to some of humanity, but he still needs to act to save lives.  She gives up.  Trevor leaves her to go after the plane.  At that moment … Sir Patrick appears before Diana … yes, he was Ares and not Luddendorf.  Ares explains that after humanity was created, he saw their flaws and tried to warn the gods to no avail, and has sought to stamp out the mistake ever since … not by actively involving himself in human affairs, but by using his power to suggest ways that man could destroy themselves.  Diana and Ares fight for a bit, and is shocked when her attempt to run the god-killer though him, results in the sword being reduced to ash … During a lull in the fighting, Trevor gives Diana his father’s stop watch, telling her that he wished they had more time, and  that he loved her.  Trevor fights his way onto the plane.

Ares, now in his true form, tells Diana that he doesn’t want to fight her, and hopes she has come to the realization that he did a long time ago, that with mankind out of the way, Earth will finally be a paradise that it was supposed to be, and can be, and now that she knows how evil men (and women) can be, she should join with him … given as they are brother and sister.  Ares also informs Diana that the sword was never the god-killer that Zeus gave the Amazons, that he gave them one other gift … herself.  She is the god-killer.

Trevor realizes that he cannot crash the plane anywhere without killing everyone around the crash with the gas, and as Diana watches, he blows up the plane.  In a fit of rage, she and Ares continue their fight, but then comes to the realization that the only way to win is not through Ares’ hatred, but through love and compassion. She rebuffs Ares’ invitation to kill Maru, and instead defeats Ares in battle.  With Ares gone, the soldiers, many of them young boys, pull of their helmets, and the fighting ends.  Back in London, the team briefly reunites before parting as celebrations of the war ending are going on, but not before pausing to see a picture of younger Steve on a bulletin board of those who fell.

Back in the present, Diana sends Bruce Wayne an e-mail, thanking him for returning Steve to her.  She reflects that mankind, for all of its faults and darkness, is still worth saving, and that she has been reminded of her duty.



Right off the bat, the production team (director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg), had to be careful of a few things: make damn sure that we don’t forget that Wonder Woman is in fact a woman, make sure that she is not presented as window dressing with bullet proof bracelets and the ability to jump really far (see televised version of Wonder Woman), and then make sure that she is presented as a fully human character.  That last part in particular has been difficult for the DC franchise of late (Superman and Batman are both really depressing characters in this iteration of the DC universe).  They got it damn near perfect here.  Gal Gadot is certainly a good looking lady, but at no point is there even a hint of the character as a sex symbol.  Compare this to Black Widow showing up in any number of “butt-centric poses” … there is nothing at all “cheesecake” about this Wonder Woman.  Most of the time she wears a ground-length cloak, and when she is in her iconic costume, it is not a costume to show off her figure … it is the armor of a soldier … a real warrior, and at no point are you allowed to forget that you have an intelligent, highly trained, highly skilled warrior who is very capable of using lethal force.  That was so important for this film to succeed, and that was pulled off well.

They also had to show Diana as human.  Quite a few super hero films inject humor or cheese to distract from genuine drama.  As I noted, they have failed with this so far with Superman and Batman, but even the Marvel films have had a problem fighting this at times.  Superman is shown to be kind of angtsy and using a lot of power without much thought.  Batman is just a brooding, broken vigilante.  Diana is shown as having a fuller growth to her character.  Because the character is written with such genuine conviction, she has a moment when her convictions are shaken that she freezes.  She is convinced from the start that she has the facts about who Ares is and that she will end this war with his death, and her faith is shaken not once (when she kills the wrong man), but twice (when Ares so easily destroys the god-killer sword), and in both cases, she is genuinely paralyzed for a time.  Some would see this as a weakness of story telling, but I see this as an almost unheard of maturity in writing and execution.  The real maturing into a hero is not her blazing across battle fields, but in the realization that power must be tempered with mercy and compassion (love, if you will).  This is when she becomes a real hero.  Superman never had a moment like this, and neither did Batman.  Perhaps moments like that could never be shown because those were male characters … but it is a wonderful change of pace in the world of superheroes to see that real GROWTH as a person into a hero.

Let me talk about feminism for a moment.  Its hard not to bring this up with one of the oldest female superheroes, one who long ago became a feminist icon.  When I went and saw this movie last night, its third week out, the small theater was quite full, and there were quite a few older women there who I suspect are not the usual viewers of comic book films.  Clearly, the film has struck a chord in an era where the value of women is under attack.  I was also shocked to see some feminists attacking the film for not allowing Diana to be the hero at times.  I think these folks have missed the artistic points.  One scene sees Steve and Diana trapped in an alley by German spies.  Steve initiates the fight, and Diana proceeds to wipe the proverbial floor with them, with Steve punching the final spy out.  This scene was attacked because it “showed Diana couldn’t finish the job herself, and needed a man to finish it for her”. That is ludicrous!  In fact, I would compare the scene very favorably to the first time we see the Black Widow in battle in the film Iron Man 2:

The fact that Happy got the first and last punches in was in no way there to say that Black Widow needed help … it was there to make Happy the comic foil and show that the only person in charge was Black Widow … as goes the scene with Diana.

In fact, feminism is not largely brought up, and is certainly not something that is hammered over the head (I think the production team realized that their story and actors were going to do that on its own).  In fact, part of Diana’s education is learning how complicated our world is.  At one point, she seems to scold the Chief for not taking sides and involving himself in the fighting. The Chief tells her that his people have done a lot of fighting, and it didn’t end well, and that he feels he has found freedom away from his home.  Diana inquires whose people stole his home, and is a bit surprised when he points to Steve.

One thing that they also got just right was the requisite “fish out of water” scenes.  Good drama requires small comic interludes to permit the ebb and flow of emotion, and again, they got his 100% right.  Certainly there is a woman, who is foreign to the world of men, and that will lead to questions and situations.  You might have made an entire comedy out of this, but the production team kept the comedy strategic, and was probably smart to put a lot of it in the trailers to further defuse it a bit.  One particular scene that got a lot of laughs form the women in the audience takes place on the boat trip from Themyscira to London, where Steve and Diana discuss biological reproduction, and how Diana has read a great deal about this, but doesn’t see that big a deal, since men aren’t necessary for the pleasurable parts of it.  Like I said, the women laughed.

Another aspect of the film that really was done well was the music.  In Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, Wonder Woman’s theme was introduced, and it is a driving, emotional Hans Zimmer composed rhythm that reminds you that this music represents a passionate warrior.  I came across a neat video that explained a bit about this music (linked here), which mixed some dissonant tones with resolved tones to create a sense of conflict.  The video notes that this was used in “Immigrant Song” by Led Zeppelin, and was meant to invoke the idea of a banshee.  Upon some reflection, I think this also reminded me of another piece of theme music I had heard … used to evoke much the same ideas of conflicted warriors fighting complex, emotional battles.  In fact, if you saw that video of music from Battlestar Galactica, you may have noticed an Asian gal playing something that looks like a Klingon cello.  That is Tina Guo, and she is also one of the inspirations for Wonder Woman’s theme.  In fact, she helped Zimmer compose the theme, and played it on her electric cello, and here is her music video:

Interestingly, you don’t hear this theme until well into the film, and that is not until she does battle for the first time … in a sense, she needs to “earn” the theme.  It is a nice touch.

Forgetting that this is a super hero, comic book film, this is simply a good film, and I think the critical and box office acclaim it has gotten are so well deserved.  While I would hope a lot of younger girls get to see this film, I hope a lot of younger boys get to see this film, too … they should learn that yes, woman can have exciting, complex, and exciting stories that are worthy to be told and listened to.



I suppose this is better than selling hairs from Trump’s toupes

June 16, 2017

The Chicago Cubs, in the midst of their glorious championship season, are embarrassing themselves.  I know people in Colorado and California are shelling out huge sums for some dried plant matter to make themselves feel good, but this borders on homeopathy.