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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

How Many Dimensions Of Chess IS Trump Playing


Sure, it looks like a clusterfuck: Trump goes to North Korea, declares it solved. They stand up Pompeo and have yet to give back remains--but it's all good--gonna work out. Trump goes to Helsinki (or, just, HEL) and he looks like Putin's Bitch.

Okay, that's crass--but man he sure didn't stand up for American Intel or American Democracy or America in general--but: what if he's playing a deeper game. If some conflict with Russia is, eventually, unavoidable, maybe playing the compliant partner for now is a good move?

How would we know? What evidence do we have that Trump is making the smart, long-game strategic moves--vs. bumbling around way, way, way over his head? Let's look.

The Omnivore asserts there are a couple of domains or axes by which to check for bumbling vs. deep strategy. These are:

  1. Domestic Policy - how good has Trump been at moving the ball on his domestic policy positions.
  2. Foreign Negotiations - When Trump wants to exercise American influence, how does he do it--what are his goals vs. moves to achieve them?
  3. Foreign Diplomacy - What does Trump seem to want to accomplish with foreign diplomacy vs. what are his outcomes?


Domestic Policy

While it's true that no one would call the "Muslim Ban" (in quotes because (a) that's what it was supposed to be, (b) that was what Giuliani called it on TV, and (c) That was what lower-courts found it was) roll out good--indeed, it seemed to be geared for maximal chaos--perhaps that was just a first-month-in-office kind of thing?

After all, he got the 3rd one through after putting a friendly justice on SCOTUS, didn't he?

However: it appears that when it comes to repealing Obamacare and replacing it with something better, Trump not only had no ideas--he was surprised to learn how tough it was. He has now settled for trying to sabotage the ACA in the hopes that it will [ something something ]. This does not seem like the roll-out of a long-game plan.

He did get to sign a tax cut (which is unpopular and is short of the tax-restructuring that we were promised) and he got Gorsuch through (which, erm, was really due to McConnell who is playing a kind of long game right out in front of us).

In short, on the domestic policy front, The Omnivore can't see any evidence that the president is handling things strategically. In fact, he often seems to get in his own way for inexplicable reasons (such as Tweeting the trans-gender ban or having his Muslim-Ban tweets used against him in court).

Analysis: NOT STRATEGIC

Foreign Negotiation

Trump came into office offering exclusive skill in the Art of Negotiation (the Deal). He felt he could make smarter deals than anyone else--especially Obama--and so get the nation what it needed. How has that faired?

Well, for starters: the TPP was created as a tool against Chinese dominance of APAC trade. It was meant to give the US leverage in confronting China on its trade practices. Trump threw it out--and then proceeded to try to negotiate with Xi. A gun-fighter who throws away his best gun and then goes in with a knife isn't what we would generally think of as "brilliant."

But the TPP was unpopular with people who mostly didn't understand it--so maybe Trump needed to do that in order to win American's trust.

How about NAFTA deals? Firstly, they are not going what you would call well. The Mad-Man strategy of negotiation does, certainly, have some impact: there is little doubt at this point that Trudeau and the new Mexican president consider that Trump is likely "crazy enough" to wreck NAFTA. That provides some extra leverage that, say, Obama would not have had.

On the other hand, Trump's approach is to make his administration offensive to Canadians and Mexicans. This limits their leader's ability to "just suck it up." Sure, everyone would like to go back to all this being swept under the rug--but Trump's rhetoric makes it actively harder for elected politicians facing off against him to tale the L. This isn't strategic. It's the opposite.

Now--let's make something clear: there is one area in which Trump is playing the long-game: in the trade wars with Europe and China, Trump seems to be predicting short-term pain for long-term gain. That is: he knows the trade-wars will hurt people in America--but he is betting that America's economy is strong enough to weather them--and we will come out stronger for it.

Is this true?

The Trade Wars Saga

The Omnivore is not an economist--but even so, there seem to be some problems here. The first is that Trump's voter-base is uniquely easy to target. Going after "Obama Voters" would have been comparatively difficult for enemy nations, same for Bush or Clinton voters. Trump, on the other hand, has some specific demographics that are easier to target. This means that the pain will not be evenly distributed.

The second problem is that with China--who really does do a bunch of unethical shit that we need to address--their centralized government will be harder to knock down than our divided one. This means that Trump doesn't have a long time to win this thing--he needs to survive the 2018 mid-term elections and then be able to make a credible run at 2020. Otherwise China will just wait him out. Right now, this is all up in the air: the long-game strategy here doesn't look appropriate.

In short, the idea that Trump's people will put up with some shit for a little while and then America will dominate trade looks iffy because of the timing and cohesion of the players behind it--not even addressing the specific tactics.

Analysis: NOT STRATEGIC

Foreign Diplomacy

In the realm of keeping America safe from threats we are looking at three major players:

  1. Iran - if they start nuclearizing again, we have some really bad choices. A war with them would be terrible. Without a terrible war, we cannot easily stop them (bombing with conventional weapons will be ineffective).
  2. North Korea - Already having nuclear weapons, going up against them would be a NIGHTMARE scenario. We'd win--the cost would be unthinkable. We want them to decay from the inside and die peacefully.
  3. Russia - Russia is active in Ukraine and Syria. Challenging them there could, yes, lead to escalation. Americans aren't threatened in either place. Do we challenge them because they are doing bad things? Or turn away and let the bad things continue?
Iran - Trump's major action on Iran has been to unilaterally pull us out of the JPCOA Iran deal. What he left in its place was . . . chaos. The other nations involved were not convinced to end the deal--indeed, while the deal had some limitations and weaknesses (including the need for further action on Iran's missile development and a need to address some of the 10 year sun-set clauses) a case for strengthening the deal would likely have been met with some interest. Pulling out--and then ordering allies to "return to sanctions" was a move that, at least temporarily, worked in Iran's favor. Europe doesn't want to stop its money-making deals and Trump has not made the case for returning to sanctions (indeed, Iran has threatened retaliation of we manage to impose sanctions). 

This is not a position of strength from which to bargain--in fact, the somewhat haphazard nature of Trump's apparent decision making seems, again, to weaken the position he nominally wants.

North Korea - The only happy-conclusion to North Korea is internal collapse followed by partial reunification. Anything less than this will result in either a nuclear Nork or an unthinkable, erm, kinetic action. Trump's meeting with Kim has made the internal-collapse path harder--not easier. Now that Kim has achieved something generations of Kims have sought, he is more credible with his generals--not less. He shows no actual appetite for disarmament. 

Russia - Russia is a threat on a number of fronts. They are actively exerting military strength in Syria and Ukraine. They pressure Europe. They have conducted cyber-war against Britain (Brexit) and the US. They use Russian-signature nerve agents to kill abroad. They assassinate troublesome reporters. 

What are Trump's goals?

We don't know. Presumably to "keep us from uncontrolled escalation" in the form of potentially nuclear conflict. As far as that goes--fine--however let's consider a (limited) number of things here. The first is the Syria No-Fly zone. We have a number of reasons for not wanting Assad to secure power as a Russian puppet in Syria (their only external naval port is there--so denying them that would be geopolitically valuable to us). Trump is backing off on that--as much as he can.

A No-Fly Zone would force a confrontation--but it would not necessarily escalate to a full-on military one. This was Hillary's plan and it would have denied the Assad forces one of their best weapons. Trump has abandoned it.

How does this keep us safe? By backing down and ceding Syria to them and Iran--hostile actors we wish to pressure on other fronts.

There is Russian aggression in Ukraine. We sent them anti-tank rockets. These were demanded by the State Department for months. They sat on Trump's desk. He finally did it--which, good--but it is not a show of "toughness"--rather it is a show that Trump can be pressured by the State Department.

Why do we care about Ukraine? Well, they gave up Russian nukes in return for a promise of protection. Does this ring any bells? America's interests are on the line here--and we've moved from Obama's over-cautious position to one where we have US congressmen LITERALLY parroting propaganda (if the people of Alaska wanted to become Russian I'd be OK with that).

This is a huge victory for Putin and makes the US and NATO look toothless. Does it "keep us safe"? Only if we assume that Putin would move to outright physical attacks on us in response. That isn't certain or even indicated.

Finally there is Russian cyber-aggression. It played in Brexit. It was tried in France. It'll keep being tried until someone stops it. Who will stop it? We can only hope Merkel or someone else. 

How does this keep us safe? Presumably escalation to cyber-war would mean escalation to physical war--so we must just sit and take it.

Analysis: All of this is bullshit. None of it looks strategic.

Trump and Putin


What we saw yesterday was pretty amazing for one reason (well for many, really--but specifically one): It might move the needle. It could peel off some of Trump's support in a way that other actions haven't. Why?

What We Saw Yesterday

While there is some alternate-reality stuff going on here (Hannity found Trump commanding and strong) what was on display was body language of Trump crossing a red line: Looking weak.

Drudge, who maybe understands the MAGA psychology better than anyone (and, for that matter, the modern post-Reagan Republican psychology before MAGA) presented the above. He knows what's going on here: Trump looked like the one thing he cannot look like--a loser.

In the North Korea meetings, the victor was ambivalent--sure North Korea got a bunch of shit it wanted (the meeting, Trump fawning, and cessation of South Korea readiness exercises)--and America got nothing more than promises--but that didn't matter because it had the pageantry of a victory.

Trump went where no POTUS had gone before. He did so boldly--and Kim didn't humiliate him (not at the summit--you can decide for yourself about afterwards).

That wasn't the case in Helsinki.

What The Omnivore is calling out here is, specifically, the body language. Now, The Omnivore is no dentist--but it sure did look like Trump was the smaller man in the room (despite being taller).

This is the blow that will hurt. Firstly it will hurt because if Trump thinks he looked like a loser, he will be unable to countenance that (looking like a traitor is okay--but not a loser). Secondly because his base has ingested the Trumpism, they are tied to him: if he looks like a loser then they look like losers.

Since the motivating force behind what, today, is called conservatism is the demand for "respect" and the avoidance of "humiliation" (at the hands of imaginary liberal elites) this is unacceptable. From an emotional standpoint, Trump looking dominated is a serious injury--maybe even a mortal wound.

That's taking it too far right now, really--this summit--while a disaster--will not break Trump--but it may shake Trump's otherwise super-stable positives. If he loses 5% with any longevity he reaches the potential water-line where the GOP feels he is a sure loser for them. If they believe he will lose them re-election then they will bail on them--excluding the ones who are with him for ideological reasons
(which--the joke here--is "none of them").

Sunday, July 8, 2018

The Damage: Part 7 - An Update

The Omnivore's Trump-voting uncle asked The Omnivore: "What has Trump done that is so bad." The Omnivore has written a lot about this--but it's time for an update.

Trump's administration mixes malice, incompetence, ignorance, and conspiracy-theory into a totally toxic sludge. Oh, you think The Omnivore is overblowing it or just being biased? Well, behold. The Omnivore is going to stick to things you cannot in good faith disagree with! Yes, you read that right--YOU, Trump-voter, will be forced to agree with all of this.


Malice

Trump's (really Stephen Miller's) plan for dealing with illegal immigration was to change the standing policies to prosecute (refer to the DoJ) 100% of caught border crossers--even if they said they were seeking asylum.

This was done, explicitly as a deterrent. Now--why would this deter? The reason is that border crossers with young children understand that the children will be traumatized by this (even if they are kept in relatively nice places). In other words: the plan is to traumatize children to deter parents.

  1. What About Evil People With Fake Kids? We have stats for that. It's 1/2 of 1%. That's not the reason for doing this (although it was floated as one--ex-post-facto). Nope.
  2. You Break The Law--You Lose Your Kids! Simple. Firstly, no. Improper Entry--the crime for border crossing--is a misdemeanor. Can the government take your grandkids if your daughter is caught speeding? Yeah--you'd be happy with that. Secondly the kids--the ones, you know, being traumatized--are innocent. To even attempt this excuse is abhorrent.
  3. We Had To Do Something. We did not. Illegal crossings are down well below their historic highs. Also: parents crossing with kids are not the problem in terms of crime.
  4. OBAMA DID IT TOO! Look, you idiot, Obama tried to minimize separations. Don't believe The Omnivore? Obama had a pilot program for light monitoring of families with kids that cost a whopping 36.00 per day. It was shut down by Trump. Comparing policies to minimize trauma to innocents to policies designed to maximize it? If you thought that for a second, you should turn the fuck off your TV. Seriously. You don't know how to get news.

Analysis: Despite the fact that you were lied to a bunch, it should now be clear that the plan that Miller (who ditched his Latino friends in high school, telling them he could not be friends with a Latino) has enacted is, in fact, malice. A plan to maximize harm to children--no matter your political objective--is evil. You know--and you know from childhood--that the ends do not justify the means.

Incompetence

If parts of the Trump admin are malicious, a great deal more of it is simply incompetent. Want a prime example? North Korea. 
This is a photo of Trump saluting Kim--who has his hand out to shake. What happened was that Kim saluted Trump and then Trump returned the salute as Kim stuck his hand out. It was, in fact, a human mistake to make. HOWEVER - there is a reason that presidents are usually prepped all to hell and back before meeting foreign leaders: they are to know the protocol and not give monstrous dictators huge propaganda wins. 

What does this matter? This sort of thing--Kim looking dominant over Trump--improves Kim's standing with his generals. His generals are the people who would theoretically remove him if they were going to change the regime. That means Trump, fucking around, has strengthened Kim's hand in negotiations since he is stronger internally.

The summit was a disaster for other reasons. Kim got a bunch of of stuff he wanted (meetings with a world power as an equal--something generations of Kims have sought, cessation of SoK/US readiness exercises, and pleasure from China--their chief supporter). The US got nothing. Trump claimed the problem was solved--maybe you believed him? It wasn't--and now you can see that.

There is a way to avoid this nonsense: do things the right way. Your lower-level people hammer out a framework for a deal and THEN the presidents meet. Meeting Kim wasn't the problem. Meeting Kim incompetently is.

Analysis: There were a LOT of options here, honestly. The roll-out of the Muslim ban was incompetent. The DHS response to the courts ordering children reunited with their parents shows there was no planning or anything going into this policy shift. All this stuff--everything they do--is half-assed.

Ignorance

Is the Trump administration ignorant? It is difficult to say what they really think vs. what is "spin." For example, Trump tweeted that immigrants are coming now to get in on the DACA bandwagon (DACA only applies to immigrants who came here before 2007). The Tariffs plan seems to be ignorant as well: Trump has very little idea what trade-deficits we have with countries admitting he made up deficits with Canada and then he lied about being proven right.

When faced with his campaign promise to repeal Obamacare and replace it with something better, he asked "Who knew health care was so complicated?" The answer, unfortunately, was everyone but him. If you think Obamacare was bad, you should place your blame squarely on Trump for failure to repeal it. He claimed he could do this easily and completely fumbled the ball--out of ignorance.

Trump seems only vaguely familiar with how the legal system works--complaining about the filibuster when a majority of Republicans cannot agree on a bill. He apparently asked if we could invade Venezuela. You might not believe these things--or believe that Trump is just pretending not to know things in order to help push his agenda--but consider this: what move has Trump actually made that shows a command of knowledge? 

Analysis: It is difficult to determine if Trump policies are actually ignorant--or if that is just what he believes his base to be so he feels he can get away with things. However, we have him on the record as saying things that are, clearly, legitimate expressions of ignorance of key issues his admin has promised to tackle.

Conspiracy Theory

If there is one mindset that does the most damage to our country--and has all but destroyed the Republican's moral center--it is the adoption of conspiracy theory as a mindset. Trump, facing an investigation that is largely of his own making (due to incompetence in firing Comey) has settled on delegitimizing a stalwart Republican patriot in the eyes of his base. He claims that Mueller--a hero--is running a witch hunt, trying to get him by any means necessary.

He claims he was wire-tapped in his tower. He claims that an FBI "spy" was placed in his campaign. His attacks on the FBI and the DoJ have had a noticeable effect in weakening our institutions. People believe that the mainstream media literally invents stories. This is false. Trump has tried to claim sources did not exist when they were captured on audio. Trump claims millions and millions of illegals voted in the 2016 election when we know they did not.

And so on. 

The damage here is that more and more Trump voters are living in a false reality--one where the FBI is massively corrupt, where Russia is our ally, where Canada is an enemy. They believe that the media is full of liars and voting numbers are counting millions of fraudulent votes.  This is a disgrace to our country and dangerous for our democracy--and Trump embraces and spreads it.

Conclusion

We have covered this ground before--but we can see that these trends still continue and increase. Trump is damaging the fiber of America and our moral center and his enablers in government and the electorate cheer him on as we watch. 

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

The Parable of The Littlest Nazi

The Omnivore tells you a story you haven't heard before.

ONCE upon a time--and this was a while back when it was not fashionable to be a nazi--there was a nazi who lived in a small town. He was very hateful--but he was also very small--and when he talked in his racist way about the Jews and Blacks he would get the ever-living fuck beaten out of him. So he kind of stopped doing that.

But he was, still, a nazi--so he could not really help himself.

When he moved to a new town he hit upon a new idea: Now he talked about racial statistics. He would cite FBI statistics of crime. He would talk about wealthy Jews in banking and hollywood. He would cite numbers and data--and he, of course, would not shut up about it.

First people said: "You're kinda a racist nazi, dude."

To which he parried: "I am only stating facts! Ha! Got you! Debate my facts!!"

And then they beat the ever-living fuck out of him--because he was a nazi.

THE END.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

The Politics Of: Death Wish (2018)


This is a review of 2018's Bruce Willis vehicle Death Wish--the first part is a straight up review. The second does the politics and has all kinds of spoilers.

Death Wish (2018)

The original Death Wish, starring Charles Bronson, is gritty in a way that films today maybe can't. For one thing, it was contemporary--set on the mean streets of New York which is an iconic city--at a time when, well, they really were mean (and mean to white people--not just in the minority neighborhoods). Secondly, Bronson doesn't have Bruce Willis' charisma--but he is a more believable revenge killer.

Finally, the film itself looks different--and while The Omnivore couldn't tell you the differences without looking them up, the grain of the 1970's non-digital film is probably a subconscious marker to a more, erm, primal time.

In any event, the remake has Eli Roth at the helm--so gore is to be expected. It has Bruce Willis who, while older, is still plenty watchable--and it has revenge shootings and detective work and so on. The Omnivore went in with low expectations and a fast forward button and used it a couple of times--shortly--to blow through the home invasion and a little of the family time.

The Omnivore could go the rest of his life with movies just showing a placard saying "And then his whole family was murdered so now he's on a revenge kick." Seriously. Also, for Spider-Man? Don't ever show uncle Ben dying again. We can live without that too.

However, once we get the set up and the mourning out of the way, we get a reasonably good movie. Roth visited the Chicago police station to see how they looked and worked (one joke: a note on the unsolved case board says "We're Gonna Need  A Bigger Board" came from this). The detective work feels competent. The medical stuff (Willis is a surgeon) feels reasonably tight, and the societal reaction works nicely.

Roth got real radio personalities to do the bits and just gave them descriptions of the situation so they could do all the dialog all themselves. For some of the memes that people make as a response to the killings, Roth went to an Internet meme aggregator and had them help out.

So the texture of the movie feels right. The problem, if there is one, is that, as noted above, the issue that our society has with violence now is either black-on-black crime or hate crimes. The target of the movie generally does not live in fear--even if they they live in Chicago. In the remake, the cops weren't just don't-care-useless--they did care, were pretty much the good guys--and, it's possible--would have caught the dudes (they got a break and it's impossible to say if they would have followed up successfully).

The bleakness of the Bronson film just isn't extant today--and so--Death Wish becomes more of a pretty violent character drama and less social commentary.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of Death Wish (2018)

The Omnivore expected an extreme 2A movie and, while it fell short of X-TREAM it is, to be honest, pretty 2A. Explicitly in the movie, Willis says he feels responsible because he failed to protect his wife and family (he wasn't home at the time, so being strapped wouldn't help--and the home invaders got the daughter and the wife by surprise--so unless they were panther quick and carrying inside their house while cooking dinner . . .).

On the other hand, the defense-against-home-invasion scenario plays out at the end, when Willis returns from the hospital with his daughter who has woken up from the coma she was in (his wife was killed) and the lead crook--along with some more hired guns--comes back to finish the job (she could, maybe, ID him).

At this point Willis is strapped, knows it's coming (or at least sees someone closing in and knows what it means), and even has the odd surprise in store.

The home invasion scenario is important because it is like the ticking-time-bomb scenario that justifies torture: it is the one situation where the cops can never get there fast enough, your family is at grave risk, and if you don't have a gun, you're pretty fucked. Given the specifics of the home invasion scenario--whatever the reality (the ticking time bomb scenario has never happened) it is hard to argue against personal gun ownership.

Interestingly we did NOT see Chicago's gun laws make it too hard to get a weapon to defend oneself. When Willis entertains a roaring rampage of revenge he goes to a gun shop and is told he'll have to do a background check and a weapons class--but "no one ever fails." It'll take a couple of weeks (or something)--but that's not what stops him.

The idea that the gun will be registered in his name and he is on camera buying it--and he plans to kill a bunch of people with it--is what turns him away. So, of course, a gun literally falls at his feet when a thug is brought in to the ER and they missed the piece. This is an interesting choice on Roth's part: It makes the case for having traceable gun sales nation-wide and having deep background checks.

The criminals are white (one is Latino)--which isn't especially surprising: some of the drug dealers are black--the movie doesn't get racial--which is fine. It also doesn't overly glamorize the Grim Reaper--even though he is just killing criminals. The radio personalities are realistically leery of embracing him although they do give him his props. In the end, after a massive home invasion with assault rifles and multiple hit-men, the cops, realizing full well who has been doing the killing--opt to let him go: after all, he was pretty much right to kill these guys--even though the daughter didn't remember anything, whether or not Willis did anything they were coming back to kill them both no matter what.

So the movie isn't a propaganda piece. It is 2A--but not "ammosexual." That's not bad--and the movie isn't bad if you can skip some of the melodrama. The arguably less political Sicario was more 2A than Death Wish--and maybe that's one of the reasons that Death Wish 2018 came off as a little toothless while the original prefigured Bernie Goetz by 10 years.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Politics of: A Wrinkle In Time

Someone told The Omnivore he should do more movie reviews--and The Omnivore is nothing if not conscientious! A Wrinkle In Time is now available on Pay Per View--and The Omnivore paid! How was it? What did it mean? The first part is a general review. The second part contains spoilers.

A Wrinkled Time

The book A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L’Engle is both beloved and complex for a book of its era and audience. When The Omnivore heard it was getting the deluxe treatment, The Omnivore was interested! The Omnivore counts himself as one of the story's fans--and, if it was done right, it could be an amazing--and sometimes chilling--family classic.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. The movie clocks in below Disney's attempt at Tomorrow Land--a movie with a very, very good idea, some very good actors, and a construction that, in the end, was equal parts unsatisfying and overwrought. Tomorrow Land had no book it was based on to disappoint and had some very good sequences--but saddled with a book that is a classic and a lack of sequences that commanded attention--Wrinkle falls short of even that.

The kid performances are alright--but the shocking standout is Levi Miller playing, of all people Calvin. In the book Calvin is an important character--but he is secondary in importance to Meg, Charles Wallace, and perhaps even the Mrs's. Here, given a nearly impossible script, he is the actor who comes off the most comfortable with the role. Still, if he's the high point, the story itself is the low point. Wrinkle was never going to be easy to adapt as a great deal of it takes place in either dialog or inside Meg's head--also, it is surprisingly dense in a tell-don't-show fashion (and puts the lie to truck-loads of writing advice that goes the other way).

Still, for all the difficulties, the team has done a remarkably poor job of it. Without going into spoilers (next section), it is fair to say that the team did a "workman-like" job--they put in back-story that wasn't in the book. They cut a bunch of stuff out with the literary equivalent of a hatchet (the twins? Gone!). They made sure that parts of it looked right--but the results were more like false advertising than adherence to the material. It didn't have to be this way--but in the end, Wrinkle is more than just a disappointment or a missed opportunity--it's actively working against what made the book a classic.

The movie is good to look at and would be a decent outing if it weren't taking material that was, frankly, more deserving of the Lord of the Rings treatment (or, at least, The Hunger Games treatment) and giving it the ABC After School Special. Let's look at how they blew it.

The (Politics and Design) of A Wrinkle In Time

The Omnivore is frankly more interested in the design of the plot--but this is a political blog--so we'll do the politics first. What was done to Wrinkle was, precisely, what conservatives complain about in Hollywood film-making. To wit--

  • The deeply Christian nature of the books is utterly removed. As with Narnia, the religion inherent in Wrinkle was not hit-you-over-the-head. It could have been left in without breaking anything or preaching. It wasn't though. Why? We don't know--aesthetic choices of the filmmakers? The movie is poorer for it--the heart of the story is removed and replaced with glurge.
  • The casting of Oprah was greeted with groans from conservatives--if she were to run against Trump in 2020, it was considered that, at the time, she might be a threat. It doesn't look like she wants to--and Wrinkle isn't a launch vehicle for her anyway--but the idea that a potential candidate paired with the right movie (and Wrinkle could have been the right movie--Chelsea gave it a shout-out at the convention, remember?) would be a dangerous combination. As it is, Oprah does an okay job and, well, that's it. Air ball.
  • Everything is mixed race for "no reason." The Omnivore has no problem with the casting. It was all fine as far as it goes--and there was no problem with mixing things up a bit. However, if you want to take the conservative opinion on this, asking why it was done leaves only one real answer--because it was hip? Meg doesn't get any racial stuff added--which is good--but she also doesn't get any particular difference in perspective for being black. In short, it's diversity in casting for diversity's sake. Again, The Omnivore doesn't mind this--but it's more than a little glaring.
Let's talk about the design.

As The Omnivore said up top, Wrinkle had a bunch of problems that, say, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe (or The Golden Compass--much less The Hunger Games) did not. These were:
  • Very, very little action. There is almost no action in the book. It's all cerebral and the sense of threat is ambient--but not direct (they don't get chased down or anything).
  • The plot meanders a good bit: they meet the Mrs.'s. They go to paradise-planet. They go visit the Happy Medium (argh), THEN they go to Camazots--where things take off. In the book, the payoff for Camazots works. In the movie, they have about 1hr to get there and there's a ton of stuff that has to be stuffed into that hour. That was going to be a problem no matter how they did that. Comparatively, a bunch of other family classics have more cinematic pacing.
  • It's All In Her Head. The Tell-Don't-Show stuff is hard and heavy in Wrinkle. It opens with a Dark and Stormy Night--and then Meg's inner narrative info-dumps her family with the twins, her trouble with school, Charles Wallace's psychic powers, Mom's inner strength, dad's disappearance, and some foreshadowing for Mrs. Whatist (who shows up quickly then). 
To get around this, the movie introduces mean-girls in school so we can see her get made fun of. It chops the twins out, killing off the twin-centric potential sequels. It gives us some dad-vanished visions and . . . removes Charles Wallace's psychic abilities (kind of--they're still  . . . kind of there--but in the book he can like scan people).

This leaves the opening weak and Meg a little unlikable. When Whatsit shows up, it's out of nowhere. On the screen she falls flat.

The second problem is that the soggy middle of A Wrinkle In Time (the first Tesser, Uriel, and the Happy Medium) are needed to set up what the kids are going to do: venture into the heart-of-darkness to get their dad back--the angles can't go themselves). 

Again: this was never going to be that easy--in the book the kids get to Uriel, get told they're now conscripts in the Warriors-For-Light league--visit the awful pun so they can see the enemy (The Darkness), and the off to Camazots. It's short, info-dumpy, and while the text plays really well off the build up (we are given to think that the Mrs's might be dottering old fools at first--and then, well, something cool, and finally literal angels)--and the vision of a star sacrificing its light to fight The Darkness is powerful--the movie has none of that.

Instead it: has an extended Uriel scene where the kids fly around on the back of Mrs. Whatsit in dragon form, introduces Camazots a literal dark cloud that comes out of the sky (for no reason)--and is described as THE GREAT EVIL IN ALL THE UNIVERSE. In the books, Darkness was the evil. Camazots was just one element. In the movie, IT is responsible for all suffering on earth. This was unnecessary and kind of stupid.

The Happy Medium scene doesn't explain to the kids what's going on--instead it becomes a "use your love for dad to find him"--and then everyone is shocked--SHOCKED--when he's on Camazots. The Happy Medium scene is also extended, played for laughs, and gender swapped. It wasn't an especially good part of the book and it's an even weaker part of the movie.

Then, instead of just going to Camazots, the Mrs' decide the mission is too dangerous for the kids and tessers them home--except Meg's love for dad takes over the angel's teleportation and zips them to Camazots instead. Oops.

The wish to have the Mrs.'s be "responsible adults" makes sense in a modern movie--would you send kids into 1984 to rescue someone from Room 101? No. But in the book there is a fairy-tale like quality that this harms. They should've stuck to the text here--it turned out the kids were (in the book) pretty well suited to rescuing dad--especially with a high-level esper (Wallace) on their side. Maybe give Calvin a 9mm or something?

Unfortunately, Camazots is replaced with a holodeck. The kids are moving through not a real-world--but some kind of VR. This is interesting to look at--but it lacks authority. The man with the red eyes is modestly well done--but in the end what we get is a bunch of VR stuff for no good reason, then Meg finds dad (with the glasses she got from the angels, as in the book--mostly) and . . . this sets up the one action scene that was IN the books--they try to rescue Charles Wallace from IT--can't--and have to have dad tesser out--which he doesn't do well.

Meg is blinded and they run into "Mother Beast"--some really cool aliens that care for them until Meg can go back and take Wallace away from IT.

This would be great--except by this time, the movie has about 20 minutes left and so it has dad teleport out, Meg stay behind, and use the POWER of LOVE to not just rescue Charles Wallace (from inside a big, dark, neural-net--the black brain on a dais is, alas, gone) but actually kill It.

What?

Yeah. She kills it. So now earth is kinda saved. Go Meg.

Needless to say, this cheapens the Universal Evil, the book's interesting conceit that these are kids--they can rescue dad--but they aren't going to go nova and fight darkness like the stars did--and, well, everything else. It's a "Feel Good" ending for a movie that didn't need or want it.

Conclusions




A good movie of A Wrinkle In Time is yet to be made. The translation from page to film needs a LOT more work than this team gave it. Once they fumbled that, it was all over. Maybe HBO or someone can do a miniseries?

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Russia Scenario



The Omnivore was asked "What is your scenario for Trump-Russia." It's a decent question--there is a great deal of speculation, inference, and leaks (or "leaks") to contend with. That's not even counting various conspiracy theories. So let's look.

On One Hand

Of the key pieces of what we know that we know, there are two strong indicators: 1. Trump is certainly acting like he's guilty of something. He he fired Comey for looking into Russia--and he wanted Sessions--a loyalist--to run the operation.

Secondly, we know that Don Jr. would very happily have colluded with Russia given the opportunity (from his emails).

Extending from these two points we also know that:

  1. Russia interfered to help over other potential nominees and then against Hillary.
  2. Trump's policy has been extremely and egregiously Russia-friendly (you can say all you like about "Trump being tougher than Obama"--but when you look into that you discover that (a) Obama, by the end, was getting a lot tougher than he was in his reset phase, (b) that Trump took over after the big interference and chose to essentially do nothing--or less than nothing in most cases and (c) when you point to something tough he did do, it turns out it was someone else's idea and he fought it tooth and nail.)
On The Other

The charges that the Trump campaign was too poorly managed to "collude with anyone" have a certain resonance. They were certainly chaotic, undergoing staff churn, and had a voter turn-out plan that was basically "I'm the most racist guy running." How exactly could they collude? We are pretty sure Putin didn't meet with Trump--so how would that conversation go? Would Manafort spin tales in Trump's ear about changing the policy on Ukraine in the GOP platform (and Trump would find ways to pressure the delegates--the same way that Obama pressured the IRS to go after the Tea Party--in a way that mysteriously leaves no fingerprints?).

No--the Trump campaign was a dumpster fire that won on the back of dislike for Hillary and, well, you know (racism). They were not a well-oiled-machine.

So what's the scenario?

Two Words: Money Laundering

The Omnivore suspects that all things being equal the Steele dossier is mostly correct. That is: 1. Putin had goods on Hillary and Trump (Hill from her emails, Trump from his ventures around Russia) 2. Trump had / has long been involved with OC people in Russia through varying shades of gray real estate deals, and while his people--including his kids--may not know what the policy on Ukraine should fucking be and may not have known how what "Hillary dirt" would be worth--or even how to structure a quid-pro-quo deal for it with Russia ("You want me to say what? I don't understand. Putin? I don't understand what you're asking!") there is one thing they could certainly do: make money.

If there is collusion with Russia, The Omnivore suspects that it takes these forms.

The Manafort Connection

Paul Manafort is a rock solid political operator. He knows what Russia wants from Ukraine (without Ukraine, they say in Russian schools, Russia is a country. With Ukraine, Russia is an empire). He knows who to talk to in order to get to Putin's ear. All of that. He would be the person who would counsel Trump on Russian policy. 

It wouldn't have to be quid-pro-quo for Trump: All Manafort would need to do is say "no lethal weapons to Ukraine, Trump--Russia will like us for that. Putin will be your pal" and Trump, who does not give a shit about Ukraine but has wanted Putin to be his best friend since Miss Universe Moscow would be like "Great! Let's call the guys writing the platform!" "No, boss," says Manafort. "Don't come on too strong. Let me get someone on the phone for you and you can make your wishes known without laying down the heavy hand."

"Good thinking," says Trump.

Bought And Sold. And Sold.

Almost no one--including Trump--thought he was going to win. This extended to Don Jr. and Eric and everyone else. However, they had a unique position of advantage from which to do deals--and, according the guy spearheading a look into Spain's Russian-backed organized crime, the conversation that Don Jr. had with the Russian Oligarchs / Mafia could be bad. "Trump's son should be concerned," said the investigation leader who knows what was recorded. 

Of course we now see Trump trying to bring back ZTE while Ivanka gets trademarks in China--related? Probably didn't hurt, right? Is there any reason to think that (a) Trump wasn't doing shady stuff in NY real estate before and (b) that he would stop dealing with these guys while running for president? No--he just refused to disclose. To be fair, he got away with it.

The Scenario

So if their was collusion it looks like this:

To Trump: Trump believes he is a natural friend of Putin's. Both are "tough guys." Both "know a good deal when they see one!" He admires Putin's strength and doesn't really think to hard about Putin being a murderer. The left probably overblows it anyway, right? So sure--he got some advice to go easy on them. Didn't Obama have a reset button too?

But his business deals? Mueller better damn not look into that--he was doing stuff with the Russians that better stay swept under the carpet.

To Don Jr: Jr. likes to mix it up. He wants to grind Clinton--make her hurt. He'd love to get some juicy dirt on her--and gloat about it on twitter as she burns. Of course he also fancies himself a deal-maker--so when people reach out to him--about deals--he goes and listens.  "Hey," he thinks, "All I'm doing is listening, right?" Whether it is to Russian OC, Russian Intel, or whoever--it's just listening. Right? If some Russian "overpays" for a Trump property? That's just bad business! If someone wants to give me a good business deal and my dad just happens to be president? Or maybe president? Why not--who wouldn't??

By the time we have taken a few steps down this road, though, we start having to keep things quiet.

To The Internal Operators: There are at least two--maybe three--players in this who know this isn't innocent. These are Paul Manfort, Erick Prince (blackwater, Betsy DeVos), and maybe Cohen. These people know the score because it's their profession. They know where they can meet without being scrutinized by the feds (hopefully). They understand the big picture: Russia, via currency transactions, wants to get its hooks into Trump so it can realize its expansionist policy. It will do this through organized crime / oligarchs and will play for keeps. Cohen, for his part, may not see all the upper echelon stuff--but he's moving enough money around to have a clue. He decides he wants some for himself and shakes down AT&T among others. We should also count Flynn in here--he, while he was in the campaign, was definitely dipping into the trough.

Other Players - Trying To Keep Control: The Kushners and others would probably be happy with imposing their anti-immigrant agenda and running some mild grift--but by the time Trump has run the White House, Jared knows he has a problem--this whole enterprise is sprawling and has been out of control for a long time. Flynn is doing who-knows-what--with who-knows-who (Turkey). He knows Don Jr. has met a bunch of shady characters: Did anything happen? Roger Stone seems to be playing footsie with Wikileaks--and Kush knows Cambridge Analytica is hard-core dirty (whether or not they are effective). He now has to "Shut the reactor down" before they all go to jail.

His dad went to jail--he--more than anyone--knows it could happen. He decides, with some credibility, that the only way to get a handle on all this is to talk to Russia--but he can't use normal channels because they're monitored--so he goes for a "back channel." His goal here is to (a) keep them happy so they don't release kompromat on Trump or his kids--and (b) try to limit the amount of malfeasance. When the back channel doesn't work, he's worried. 

When Trump starts thinking about firing Comey, Kushner jumps at the chance: he realizes Comey doesn't like Trump--and in these people's world, everything is personal. The idea that replacing Comey with another stand-up lawman would intensify the investigation doesn't ever cross his mind.

Did This Happen?
 
Hell if The Omnivore knows--some of it happened--but we don't  yet know why. There are various behaviors (firing Comey), and data points (money movement through Cohen) that certainly look like money laundering. We know there were meetings--we know there were lies--so? The Omnivore, like everyone else, will need to wait and see--but this is your mission, Trumpster: make a case against this. 

Good luck.