Dec 162014
 

Horror films work best when they reflect the mundane through a looking glass darkly. The Babadook, a finely honed and nerve-wracking movie from Australian director, focuses its looking glass on a hallowed fixture of domestic life: the relationship between mother and child. We meet Amelia (Essie Davis), a young widow who is still grieving the death of her husband several years past. Her grief is made even more excruciating by the circumstances of his death, which I won’t detail here because it’s a crucial plot element. She does her best to care for Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her young and rather high-strung son, but a toxic combination of resentment and loss have placed her on the knife’s edge of a nervous breakdown.

One night, Samuel asks his mother to read to him from a mysterious storybook that he found on his shelf. The book depicts, through a series of pop-up images, a menacing character named Mr. Babadook. Babadook’s likes include top hats, hanging from the ceiling, and driving people to commit murder and suicide.

Amelia quickly decides that this is not appropriate reading material for a 7-year-old, but the damage is already done. Samuel soon begins hearing voices and, in one particularly harrowing scene, has a full-blown meltdown brought on by visions of the Babadook. And then Amelia begins seeing a cloaked figure creep into her bedroom at night. Before long, they are both trapped in their dimly lit home by their own fear and insomnia as the Babadook lurks in the shadows.

For a debut feature, The Babadook is remarkably self-assured. Kent doesn’t introduce any extraneous details or waste time establishing the story. She has created a sleek cinematic engine emitting a disquieting thrum that grows steadily louder. It’s one of the best movies of the year and I’m expecting great things to come from Ms. Kent. The movie is playing in only a handful of theaters, but is readily available on iTunes and Amazon.

Dec 102014
 

MIT professor Andrea Louise Campbell writes an essay for Vox describing how Medicaid forces people with disabilities to live in poverty in order to receive health coverage. She focuses on California’s Medicaid system (Medi-Cal), which she was forced to examine after her sister-in-law became a quadriplegic in an automobile accident. Many of her criticisms of the program, such as the harshness of the income and asset limits, won’t come as a surprise to those familiar with Medicaid policy.

In fact, Campbell’s outrage strikes me as naïve for a professor who teaches social welfare policy and her critique carries a worrisome undertone of middle-class entitlement. Disability advocates have long made the argument that Medicaid eligibility criteria traps people with disabilities in poverty, but Campbell only acknowledges this in passing. At one point in her essay, Campbell describes how a relative bought formula for the couple’s newborn baby and she writes, “I wondered what people who don’t have middle-class relatives do in a situation like this.” It’s really not that difficult to imagine the deprivations that people with disabilities without middle-class family members must endure, but Campbell seems shocked that this kind of thing goes on in America.

I get that most Vox readers don’t give much thought to disability policy and the article is meant to illustrate how such policy affects real families. But if Vox plans on exploring this topic further, it might be a good idea to get insights from the actual people with disabilities who live with the consequences of these policies on a daily basis.

 

Dec 062014
 

Over at Vox (my favorite new site of 2014), Sarah Kliff has a great article pointing out the emerging and conflicting narratives of the Affordable Care Act. From a political perspective, the ACA seems like a train wreck. It continues to poll terribly, its backers have made some boneheaded remarks about American voters, and senior Democrats like Senator Chuck Schumer are now saying that it was a mistake to pass health care reform. This is not what the story of a successful law should look like.

And yet, the actual policies seem to be working. More Americans have health coverage than ever before. Health care costs are slowing at a remarkable rate. And during the current open enrollment period, over 750,000 individuals have already selected an ACA health plan.

The law continues to offer real benefits for millions of people, but this fact gets lost in the political echo chamber. As for second-guessing Democrats like Schumer, I suggest they take a running leap into a very shallow lake. If Democrats had done a better job of actually explaining how the ACA helps people, the conservative misinformation campaign might have been less successful. They could have also fought harder for a public option plan or, even better, Medicare for all. Instead, they spent an interminable amount of time trying to win conservative support that never materialized.

The ACA is certainly a flawed piece of legislation, but it is ultimately making life better for Americans. Rumors of its demise remain greatly exaggerated.

Dec 022014
 

Stephen Hawking wants to play a villain in a future Bond movie. Of course, you know what this means. This means that I’m kicking off my Official Campaign to Be Stephen Hawking’s Henchman in As-Yet Undetermined James Bond Movie. I would be perfect as the guy who sits behind Hawking and glares menacingly at a bound and gagged Bond while Hawking provides a detailed explanation of his plans to destroy the Earth in a re-creation of the Big Bang. I would be willing to work for scale and call Hawking “Boss” if the script calls for it. I could even provide comic relief after Bond inevitably escapes and a furious Hawking instructs his pet cybernetically-enhanced gorilla to dispatch me.

It’s unlikely that anyone will make a (pretty good) movie about my life, so this may be my best shot at getting my name in IMDB. Anybody know a good agent?

Nov 282014
 

It appears that the only thing that could snap me out of my extended blogging absence is the first trailer for the next Star Wars movie. As I frequently note, trailers can be deceptive indicators of a movie’s true quality, but this brief preview does its best to hit all the classic Star Wars motifs. We see glimpses of a desert world (Tatooine, perhaps?) as well as a menacing Sith-like figure, X-wing fighters skimming the surface of a body of water, and a magnificent shot of the Millennium Falcon evading a squad of TIE fighters. The trailer does a nice job of sparking speculation about the rest of the movie. Does the Empire still exist? What are the Sith up to? Who are these young whippersnappers featured in the trailer?

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait until next December (or perhaps the next trailer) for answers. In the meantime, here’s your fix:

Nov 112014
 

Interstellar tries so hard to say something profound about humanity’s place in the universe and our ability to overcome our more self-destructive impulses, but some silly plotting and overwrought dialogue pull the movie into the gravity well of mediocrity. The movie is set on a future Earth that is slowly dying. Crops are failing around the world and dust storms regularly plague the countryside. Matthew McConaughey plays Cooper, an ex-pilot and farmer who discovers a gravitational anomaly that leads him to a secret NASA project to save humanity. nASA has discovered a wormhole to another galaxy and has already sent several manned missions to assess the region for human habitability. It now wants to send another mission to check on the scientists from the original mission and determine whether colonization is possible. Cooper is asked to join the mission. Because life is all about just showing up.

The movie does explore some truly interesting ideas regarding time dilation, black holes, and artificial intelligence. At times, I felt like I was watching an updated version of 2001 (a movie that I love). But then the story crumbles in the third act, taking the tone of a late-night, pot-fueled bullshit session between philosophy majors. I’m not sure why so many science fiction movies succumb to this kind of New Age faux profundity, but it completely takes me out of the story. My eyeballs are still sore from the rolling. The movie is worth seeing for the spectacle, but I’m still waiting for the true successor to Kubrick’s masterpiece.

Nov 072014
 

My election predictions were mostly accurate, although I underestimated the strength of Republicans in both Minnesota and nationally. Four years of political stalemate, combined with stagnant wage growth, has left voters frustrated and angry. They directed that anger at the most obvious target: the President. I’m not sure Tuesday’s results point to a more conservative electorate, though. Republicans did so well because they didn’t have to define a specific agenda; attacking Democrats was all the strategy they needed to win. We’ll see whether voters remain as enamored with Republicans once they take control of Congress and start putting policy proposals in writing.

Even if Republicans wear out their welcome, Democrats are unlikely to take back Congress anytime soon. As long as Democratic voters are concentrated in urban areas, it will be a struggle to recapture the House. The Senate and the Presidency may swing between the parties in coming years, but it’s going to be a long while before Democrats have enough power to advance a truly progressive agenda.

Nov 042014
 

It’s Election Day and Republicans are poised to take control of the Senate. As I’ve noted previously, Republican control of Congress won’t make our national politics any less dysfunctional. The GOP will need to win the Presidency and probably a few more Senate seats in 2016 before they can start enacting their agenda. In the meantime, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to watch gushing public displays of affection between Mitch McConnell and John Boehner while Obama does his best to tame that pulsating vein in his forehead at every press conference for the next two years.

Here are my predictions for the Senate and state races:

  • U.S. Senate: Republicans will secure a 53-seat majority with victories in Montana, South Dakota, Georgia, Arkansas, Alaska, Louisiana, Kansas, and Iowa. Democrats, through the strength of their ground operations, will eke out victories in North Carolina, New Hampshire, and Colorado. Here in Minnesota, Al Franken should easily win a second term against an opponent who didn’t attract much national attention and struggled to introduce himself to voters.
  • Minnesota Governor: This race has tightened in recent weeks, but Dayton should win by 5-7 points. Minnesota’s economy has been performing well and Republican Jeff Johnson hasn’t been able to make a compelling case for Dayton’s ouster.
  • Minnesota House of Representatives: This is a difficult call. Minnesotans don’t like to give either party extended control of government, but the DFL should benefit from Dayton and Franken appearing on the ballot. I’ll take a chance and predict that the DFL will retain a slim House majority, which could allow Minnesota to follow a progressive path for another two years despite the ongoing policy stalemate at the national level.
Oct 222014
 

Ars Technica profiles the Uni, a tablet that is designed to translate American Sign Language into spoken English and vice versa. The startup company behind the Uni hopes that the device will help the deaf and hearing impaired communicate in a variety of everyday situations without relying on a human interpreter. For the Uni to achieve widespread adoption among the deaf community, it will need to overcome a high sticker price and a limited vocabulary. The vocabulary can be expanded through software updates, but price might be a more difficult issue to address (something that is true for a lot of assistive technology).

The Uni seems to rely on a combination of hardware and software to achieve its goals. As the technology on consumer tablets and phones improves, perhaps an app (or even the operating system) will be able to perform these functions. It might be a more cost-effective solution. In the meantime, let’s hope the Uni can get enough traction to continue development.