Wag Mittman

Another terrible ad from Meg Whitman. How is she winning? Oh, she's only winning the Republican primary? Never mind.

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Review: MacGruber (2010)

I've never known quite what to make of Will Forte. Shortly after he arrived on "Saturday Night Live," he was enlisted to be their George W. Bush after Will Ferrell's departure, and he was awful. Still, he's displayed through the years a willingness to do almost anything for a laugh, particularly, playing pathetic. Sometimes, it's even funny. MacGruber is pretty funny. And pathetic. And it definitely continues to display that quality of just going for it if there are any possible laughs to be mined.

MacGruber originated as an "SNL" parody of the 1980's t.v. show "MacGyver," with Richard Dean Anderson. I have to admit I have probably seen every episode of this show, though none recently. I'm right on the tail end of the marketing for this movie, and that does not mean I'm 18 going on 17. It was a cool enough show for when I was a kid, and always ripe for parody. I've enjoyed most of the skit versions I've seen. It's just so ridiculous (the skits and the original show).

The film, while not a direct parody of the show, still makes use of enough action tropes and semi-direct references to it to qualify as a parody of it. But it's its own action comedy as well, and a parody of muscular action films. When we first find MacGruber, he's being recruited by Col. James Faith (Powers Boothe, okay) and Lt. Dixon Piper (Ryan Phillippe, dedicated straight man) to come out of retirement to lead the search for a nuclear weapon stolen by MacGruber's old nemesis, Dieter Von C---h (Val Kilmer, okay).

C---h's not MacGruber's nemesis because he's a terrorist, MacGruber retired to get away from working to protect his country (after an unbelievably strong record of service) and is cooling out at a monastery. MacGruber hates C---h because C---h firebombed MacGruber's wedding, killing his fiancée, Casey (Maya Rudolph).

At first, MacGruber demurs, but eventually, he decides to take the government up on its offer, recruiting a team of "American heroes" from his past missions with names like Tug Manley to find and thwart C---h's team of baddies. This goes awry.

As it works out, MacGruber ends up with a team of just three, himself, Lt. Piper and Vicki St. Elmo (Kristen Wiig, floating magically above the lousiest parts of the film), who worked with MacGruber in the past and was best friends with Casey. But first he has to convince her to leave behind a promising career writing terrible music on a keyboard.

Most of the jokes work, if you're in the right frame of mind--i.e., a totally ridiculous frame of mind with maybe some remnants of old "MacGyver" episodes rattling around somewhere in your memory, and there are plenty of jokes. MacGruber is portrayed as addled, unconfident (but with bravura in his back pocket), stuck-in-the-eighties weirdo with multiple identity issues. There's nothing serious about the character, but a lot that's pathetic, and, as before, sometimes funny. The film does get off its laugh-pace at times, but generally snaps back pretty well. There's a winningness to its determination to go too far. And there were a couple of times when it lit up a lot of laugh-receptors in my brain at once.

I want to put in a quick word for some good "SNL" movies which I feel have generally been unfairly slammed in reviews I've seen of MacGruber. Anybody could tell you The Blues Brothers and the Wayne's World movies are classics, and this is widely acknowledged. But A Night at the Roxbury is very, very funny, a very good, slight film based on a good sketch from the show. It's Pat and Stuart Saves His Family are solid, with moments of greatness. I haven't seen The Ladies Man or Superstar. Coneheads is pretty predictably not that great.

MacGruber is absurd, but not an absurdist classic like the best of Jerry Lewis, Adam Sandler or others, though definitely in that vein. It's aggressively odd and vulgar. There are times when it is definitely trying too hard, but, eh, I still mostly laughed.

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Not a well-timed ad

Just saw this AT&T ad on t.v.; looks like BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill swamping America.

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Rand Paul's version of free speech vs. civil rights tends toward discriminatory government thuggery

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Republican senatorial nominee Rand Paul, M.D., of Kentucky, essentially argues here that police should have been, and should now be arresting or escorting away by force peaceful protestors dubbed trespassers by private business owners practicing open segregation or discrimination in public accommodations, on whatever basis the business owner decides--age, race, color, language, disability, etc.--instead of providing redress for those discriminated against.

That don't fly, it's not just an "intellectual discussion," it's backing putting government on the side of moral, civil, political, practical evils, if its implications are to be entertained seriously. Ridiculously, as both Maddow and Paul point out, this isn't and shouldn't even be a current political or legal issue, as this question has been long decided in accordance with the Constitution, and most people aren't dumb enough to be shooting airy gratuitous pie-in-the-sky what-ifs off into the civic stratosphere about it for the sheer intellectual stimulation--if they want to win a modern election.

So if you're keeping score, that's Kentucky Secretary of State Jack Conway for Senator by default, and I don't even know much of anything about the guy except he's the superior American major-party candidate in the contest.

UPDATE: Since I focused in this post on the focus of Maddow and Paul's conversation, I've seen many others point out problems in Paul's approach for issues of discrimination in employment, housing and the provision of medical care (Dr. Paul), which are equally troubling.

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Review: Robin Hood (2010)

Writhe, and writhe again for two and a half hours, as a promising version of the Robin Hood legend becomes a silly bad memory. I found this inscription on the underside of a paving stone outside the movie theater at 2:30 Friday morning. Why was I prying up paving stones? I like to think of it as a heroic instinct.

Let me make a rare spoiler warning here. If you want to take this movie seriously, or preserve any secrets about the plot, etc., this review will spoil that for you, so don't read it. That still might not help you take it seriously, but them's the breaks. Multiple movie spoilers lie ahead.

The Ridley Scott Robin Hood starts promisingly enough, with Russell Crowe as Robin Longstride, an archer in the army of Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston, off-center and great as usual). When an argument between Robin and Little John (Kevin Durand, very good) over a shell game becomes a general fistfight, the King breaks it up and quizzes the combatants about what started it. Our hero Robin takes the occasion to file a complaint against Richard's whole Crusade, protesting a slaughter of innocent Muslims ordered by the King.

Unsurprisingly, though the King has asked him to speak freely, this open defiance lands Robin and some friends in the stocks, as the army sacks one last French castle before heading home to England. This happens to be the battle during which the King is finally killed, which is good luck for Robin and the crew, who break out during the confusion and look for their chance to make it home. It's bad news, however, for King Philip of France (Jonathan Zaccaï, fun), who's been plotting to assassinate Richard and invade England. He's already got a plot in motion with Godfrey (Mark Strong of Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass, pretty good), an intimate of Richard's brother and heir, Prince John, to execute Richard and his company in a forest en route home across the Channel.

His already being dead means that our man Godfrey and company instead kill Sir Robert Loxley and his men, who are returning with the crown of the fallen monarch. Then Robin and his men stumble upon the aftermath of that ambush with their own ambush. The dying Loxley implores Robin to return his family sword to Nottingham and his father, Sir Walter Loxley. The insipidity--I mean "inscription"--on the sword is somehow familiar to Robin, which, in a Ridley Scott movie, means burnt-looking flashbacks. ("It means, 'Never give up,'" explains Robin, but Churchill is yet to be born, so we couldn't just say that.)

With so many ambushes ambushing each other, it's weird that Robin and his men have a long colloquy standing over the dead bodies, with nobody apparently looking out for the next ambush. Luckily, one is not forthcoming, so Robin and his men decide to impersonate the dead English knights returning the crown to get a ride home.

In theory, this could have been a worthy prequel to the more usual Robin Hood tale. The plot is pretty neat, collecting and attempting to answer most convincingly many questions about the Robin Hood story and the history of the times during which he might have existed. But aside from some solid action, it's pretty boring, flat and politically correct beyond belief. The Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew McFadyen, Robert the Bruce from Braveheart), always among the most hissable villains of the tale, is a drunken footnote, but shouldn't have been. There's very little of Sherwood Forest. There's very little fun. Even Friar Tuck is practically written out. And Maid Marion (Cate Blanchett in full Katharine Hepburn mode), from a believable brave and loyal widow farmer in Nottingham, is turned into a proto-feminist Batman predecessor who secretly fights crime in custom armor with a Lord of the Flies-style gang on Shetland ponies. This is not a joke or a lie, just the sorry facts.

Many of the plot threads have fun-killing consequences like this, unfortunately. Despite admirable acting from Max Von Sydow as Sir Walter, he can't elevate the dippy past-life regression he practices to lend Robin a rebel backstory. Eileen Atkins is strong as Eleanor of Aquitaine, but her role is self-contained and lends little support to the Robin Hood plot. Oscar Isaac is pretty convincing as Prince John, but Godfrey hogs the plot's villainy to the detriment of its portrayal. William Hurt is completely wasted.

Overall, this is not a good version of the Robin Hood legend. Even though the historical conjectures and context it presents may be interesting and clever, and might have served a better movie well, the execution here is sloppy and, at worst, quite silly or even stupid. The musical score, by Marc Streitenfeld, is bad and forgettable. The Kevin Costner version is more fun. The Errol Flynn version is more fun. Literally thousands of book versions are more fun. This movie is just kind of lame and at sea. There is a visually interesting oil-painting pop-art end-credits montage, which some in my fleeing audience paused to view.

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More jobs might be created this year than during George W. Bush's presidency

From National Journal via Huffington Post:

First, the numbers: From February 2001, Bush's first full month in office, through January 2009, his last, total U.S. nonfarm employment grew from 132.5 million to 133.5 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's an increase, obviously, of just 1 million. From January through April of this year, the economy created 573,000 jobs. Over a full year, that projects to 1.72 million jobs. Job-creation numbers are notoriously volatile, so the actual result could run above or below that estimate. But Obama administration economists are increasingly optimistic that job growth this year will exceed expectations. Few of them will be surprised if more jobs are created in 2010 than over Bush's two terms.

Now the principal footnote: To compare job growth in 2010 with Bush's record ignores the nearly 4 million jobs lost in Obama's first year, during the freefall that began in Bush's final months. That's like ignoring a meteor strike. Over time, voters are likely to judge Obama by his degree of success in eliminating that deficit and reducing unemployment. Still, if the economy this year produces more than 1 million jobs -- or, conceivably, more than 2 million -- that will give Democrats more ammunition to argue that their agenda has started to turn the tide.

The real point of looking again at Bush's record is to underscore how few jobs the economy was creating even before the 2008 collapse. Bush's tally of 1 million jobs was much less than the economy had generated during any other two-term stretch since World War II: Dwight Eisenhower produced nearly 4 million, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (together) almost 16 million, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford (together) 11 million, Ronald Reagan 16 million, and Bill Clinton more than 22 million.

Obama says the same thing:

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Shop the Shop!

Check out the Choose Our President 2012 Shop. Since '05, I've sold items in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, U.S. military bases overseas, Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan, Canada, the Australian Capital Territory, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia, Australia, the United Kingdom, Austria, Brazil, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Singapore, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and Turkey. I've sold campaign items for President Barack Obama (IL) and for first lady for Michelle Obama, as well as Colbert for President and Olbermann for President items.

There are 2010 congressional campaign items, Senate campaign items and governor's race items available and no doubt for more and more candidates as we get on toward 2010 and beyond. Candidate stores have buttons, rectangular, oval, and bumper stickers, notebooks, mugs, shirts, yard signs and more, so get decked out and support your candidates early!

Along with specific-candidate items, there are Democrat and state and national flag items, and more at my politics and humor shop.


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Review: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo [Män som hatar kvinnor] (2009)

Niels Arden Oplev's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, based upon the novel by Stieg Larsson (which I have not read), is one great movie, a Hitchcockian, Almodovaresco, Coen Brothers-level unconventional thriller story of women and men and a lot of things they want and need from one another, set on a weird Swedish family island where an age-old family mystery--murder?--is being reinvestigated. The Swedish title is less intriguing but blunt: "Men Who Hate Women."

I mostly don't use the word "Swedish" without "weird" as the immediate modifier--unless, of course, we're talking about delicious meatballs--and is that better or worse because I'm Danish? Anyway, it works for this movie. Aggressively weird and odd, violent, terse, involving, moving, striking, surprising, this is filmmaking at its best, as complicated as The Godfather and flatly gorgeous like The Silence of the Lambs.

The film begins with a scene of an old man (Sven-Bertil Taube, very good) opening an envelope, somehow reluctantly. The contents are revealed as framed dried wildflowers. He begins to sob largely, almost comically.

It's kind of a jarring moment, wondering if he's really crying or laughing or what kind of reaction that is--are we supposed to laugh, anticipate a character we've just met? Get used to the jarring moments, there are two and a half more hours of them to come, we're lucky like that.

You may think I'm kidding, but basically every time you relax and think you can see the plot coming down Fifth Avenue, there's some little twist, sometimes subtle, sometimes out of nowhere, always better than what one might have imagined or expected from a less daring and humanistic film, and eminently faithful to the characters as established.

The main story concerns Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist, first-class), a journalist who's lost a court case and been gently persuaded to take a sabbatical from his magazine writing, at least until the ramifications of the litigation are all ironed out. In the meantime, he's quietly vetted and offered the job of investigating the disappearance of Harriet Vanger from her family's private island forty years ago. Intrigued, especially when he recalls being watched by Harriet when he was a child and vacationed with his family on the island, he leaps into the investigation in a broad-ranging, intelligent way.

There's not much more I can say without spoiling things, except that Nyqvist becomes involved with a hacker named Lisbeth (Noomi Rapace) who's no slouch in the investigative department. Actress Rapace is so compelling as Lisbeth, it's beyond words. Check it out. The film reminded me a bit of 2008's Låt den rätte komma in (Let the Right One In), also from Sweden, with a similar alternative love story, but maybe a little bit because that's the last Swedish film I saw.

I'm not a big fan or anti-fan of subtitles, they can be annoying or distracting--though I prefer them to bad dubbing--but this movie has them, and I wanted to especially compliment them. Even though there are several English cognates spoken in the film, the writer of the subtitles uses a different word than the one the Swedish word sounds like, for example, the characters use a word that sounds like "murder," and the translator gives it as "kill," so you get a double verbal emphasis several times. I found it quite effective.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo will stick with you. It's beautiful, complex, haunting, edge-of-your-seat, without fake emotional manipulation or action-movie adrenaline runs. It is supposed to be the first in a trilogy, and is already in pre-production for an American version which will likely suffer by comparison. Catch it if you have the chance!

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Obama nominates Solicitor General Elena Kagan to Supreme Court

From the Boston Globe:

Obama chose a nominee who has never been a judge, a factor the White House said had worked in Kagan's favor, giving her a different perspective from the other justices. Poised to put his imprint on the court for a second time, the president embraced Kagan's profile: a left-leaning lawyer who has won praise from the right, earned political experience at the White House and on the college campus, cleared one Senate confirmation already and served as the nation's top lawyer.


At 50 years old and with lifetime tenure, Kagan could extend Obama's court legacy by decades. Her vote could be the difference on cases that shape American liberties and the scope of the government's power.


Mentioning Kagan's late mother, Obama said: "I think she would relish, as do I, the prospect of three women taking their seat on the nation's highest court for the first time in history--a court that would be more inclusive, more representative, more reflective of us as a people than ever before."

Looks like a solid pick to me....

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Review: Iron Man 2 (2010)

Jon Favreau's Iron Man 2 is an engaging and entertaining sequel to a somewhat better film. It's slightly flabby and unfocused plotwise, but it delivers the familiar pleasures of the first film while cheerfully and intelligently moving the story forward.

Part of the fun of the first Iron Man film was seeing a hard-to-adapt story take off like a rocket. Now that we know it can be done, the pressure's off a bit, and some of the first thrill of discovery is diminished, but the sequel mostly delivers.

Having liberated his weapons company from the warmongers in the first film, and effectively "privatized world peace" with his Iron Man adventures, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is riding high at the beginning of the new installment. He's hosting a year-long "Stark Expo," sort of a privatized world's fair of technology inspired by his father's expos of yesteryear. He travels to Monaco for an automobile race, and decides to kick the driver aside and pilot his car himself.

But there's trouble on the horizon. Stark's use of the element palladium to power his robot heart is poisoning his blood, and like any cell phone or other rechargeable battery, Stark's is starting to last less and less time with each replacement. Gee, I wonder how we could create imaginary technology to solve this problem? Oh yeah, we can just make it up, cool.

There's another threat coming at Stark from Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), a Russian physicist with a longstanding grudge against the Stark family. Like Stark did in the first film to survive, Vanko breaks out the blacksmith tools and circuit boards to create a weapon to take on Stark directly. This leads to a spectacularly dangerous ending to a fun road race.

More Stark enemies view this attack as an opportunity. Arms developer and dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell, good-campy) breaks Vanko out of jail and gives him pretty much carte blanche to create anti-Stark technologies.

Stark friends Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his S.H.I.E.L.D. team see all of these developments as their own opportunities, to protect as well as manipulate Stark, and "Rhodey" (now played by Don Cheadle instead of Terrence Howard) walks the line between friendship and duty to his country.

While the plot could have been sharper, the film does not fail for it. Downey is again outstanding as Stark, Gwyneth Paltrow's role as Stark's "right-hand woman" Pepper Potts is expanded and effective. Garry Shandling is good as Senator Stern, and Scarlett Johansson as "Natalie Rushman" is fun and her action sequences are the bomb.

Iron Man fans, Downey fans, and general audiences should get a kick out of watching this franchise develop, and begin to intersect with the larger Avengers series planned by Marvel to link up Iron Man, Nick Fury, Captain America, the Incredible Hulk and Thor. Besides the Ang Lee Hulk, officially consigned to continuity purgatory by the newer and stronger version with Edward Norton, each installment so far has been pretty worthwhile and built anticipation for the next. It's a winning formula for the box office and comics and superhero fans. As with the first film, watch all the credits....

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Review: The Runaways (2010)

Floria Sigismondi's The Runaways, based on the book Neon Angel by Cherie Currie (which I have not read), is sort of a disappointing fashion shoot of a film about the seventies rock band which launched Joan Jett to prominence.

The music is there, but it seems disconnected from the performances, even when songs are being written and performed by Kristen Stewart as Jett, Michael Shannon as producer Kim Fowley, and others. It's not a terrible movie, but I give it a slight non-recommend even for fans of the music of the band or the era, or the actors, or rock and roll movies.

There's not much going on, so even though some of it is interesting or original, and there are some minor okay performances from Kristen Stewart, Dakota Fanning as Cherie Currie and Riley Keough as her sister Marie especially, it's paper-thin and kind of boring.

I suppose it could be argued that this is the director's intention, as the band is portrayed as shallowly conceived, executed and sustained for a brief time only through sheer bravura, Joan Jett and sex-appeal marketing. That does seem to be the director's intention, but it doesn't add up to a very realistic or compelling picture of the characters, either.

It also tends to follow in the tradition of The Glenn Miller Story, The Buddy Holly Story, La Bamba, Walk the Line and others in creating some pretty hokey stories about how the songs were written. Only here it's just not as much fun.

There are one or two especially remarkable and successful scenes with Dakota Fanning as the spaced-out, dislocated Cherie which seem to promise more in terms of character development, and one or two which are quite good with Stewart as Jett, but again, they seem out of place with the rest of the film. They're not pivotal or built-upon.

In fact, they're meant to hinge on a disappointing ending, which I won't spoil, but suffice it to say it involves Stewart as Jett dressed like Paula Poundstone circa 1989, and it's weak and weird.

Riley Keough is outstanding as Marie, the sister Cherie leaves behind when she is whisked away by the rock and roll life. She's probably the most believable and well-observed character in the film.

So, on the whole, unless you're super-interested in seeing The Runaways for any reason--not just maybe slightly interested--I'd stay away. But it's not terrible, just slight and poorly written.

The Magic of the Movies


Paul leads 2012 GOP presidential nominee web poll results for April

Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) led April voting for who respondents thought would be the 2012 Republican presidential nominee. As usual, this is of self-selected voters of any party who found my website, so it is not scientific in any way. (This means you should not complain that it was not scientific because it's never going to be.) Voting is just for fun, please no wagering. Here are this month's results:

April 2010

#1 - Rep. Ron Paul, M.D. (TX) ... 24.5%
#2 - Rep. Mike Pence (IN) ... 17.8%
#2 - Sen. John Thune (SD) ... 17.8%
#3 - Gov. Tim Pawlenty (MN) ... 10.8%
#4 - Fmr. Gov. Sarah Palin (AK) ... 6.2%
#5 - Gov. Haley Barbour (MS) ... 5.8%
#6 - Other ... 5%
#7 - Fmr. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (GA) ... 2.5%
#7 - Fmr. Vice Pres. Dan Quayle (IN / AZ) ... 2.5%
#8 - Gov. Bobby Jindal (LA) ... 2.1%
#8 - Fmr. Gov. Jeb Bush (FL) ... 2.1%
#9 - Fmr. Gov. Mitt Romney (MI / UT / MA) ... 1.2%
#10 - Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) ... .8%
#11 - Senate Min. Leader Mitch McConnell (KY) ... .4%
#11 - Fmr. Gov. Tom Ridge (PA) ... .4%
#12 - Sen. Sam Brownback (KS) ... 0%

241 total votes cast / Margin of error ±100%

Gov. Bobby Jindal has left the poll, because of a Shermanesque statement against running, and Sen. Sam Brownback has also left the poll (that one's just gut instinct).

You can vote for this month's new poll here, or click the vote button from any of the Choose Our President 2012 pages.

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