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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 11, 2017

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Guardians 2, Rigor Mortis, Talking Black

Come on now. If you liked Guardians of the Galaxy, you're going to go see Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 no matter what I say about it. In fact, you've probably already seen it.

If not, go. Contrary to what some idiot reviewers have said, you will enjoy it. It can't dazzle and surprise you the way the first film did, because hey, they make sequels so that you can return to familiar and beloved characters. If Chris Pratt weren't playing a mix tape of old pop songs, we'd be outraged, even if we might have a kind of contempt for the taste that chose the songs (credit and blame entirely claimed by writer/director James Gunn).

I think my daughter said it best. All the reviewers who are criticizing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 seem to be complaining that it's not identical to the first movie. But one of the best things about Guardians 2 is that it's a new story. And, arguably, a better, more personal story.

Here's a fun comparison: Guardians 2 is to Guardians as The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. That is, while it tells a current story that takes place after the events in the first movie (using mostly the same characters), it also spends much of its time on the backstory of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), so that when Quill meets his father, Ego, played with extravagant ebullience by Kurt Russell in his best role ever, we have a very good sense of who he was.

Chris Pratt gives his trademark performance as the hero who can be sassy and savage, smart and silly, all at once. Bradley Cooper as the voice of the augmented raccoon named Rocket, and the animators who created the creature on top of Sean Gunn's motion capture work, combine to give the funniest performance in the movie.

Michael Rooker, who has been playing dangerous men since the mid-1980s, gets the role of a lifetime as Yondu, the blue-skinned criminal who actually raised Quill after Quill's mother died of a brain tumor. He gets a complete turnaround from the man he seemed to be in the first film.

Sean Gunn, as Kraglin, a minor character who becomes very important and gets a fine character arc, gives a wonderful performance. His IMDb credit in the movie includes the role of "On-Set Rocket," which means that while they were filming, he did the motion-capture actions and (probably) spoke the lines of the CGI raccoon, later overdubbed by Bradley Cooper.

Since he did both jobs in the first movie, too, it suggests that writer/director James Gunn, in respect for Sean Gunn's never-seen work as Rocket, used Guardians 2 to really make something out of Sean Gunn's visible character. Sean Gunn thus joins Andy Serkis (Gollum) as a motion-capture actor who only gets the respect he deserves when he's cast in a role where his face is visible.

Also, Sean Gunn is James Gunn's younger brother. But anybody who thinks nepotism is involved doesn't understand the movie business. You don't give a significant role in a multi-million-dollar franchise movie to anyone as a mere favor. We saw how badly that worked in Godfather III -- nobody wants to repeat that embarrassment.

The fact is, Sean Gunn paid his dues: He's been a working actor since 1999, including a seven-year stint on Gilmore Girls, with a career that has only intersected his brother's in a few places.

There are great special effects in Guardians 2, an extravagant plot that still manages to make sense -- far more than most comic-book movies -- but the heart and soul of this franchise is the writing. Actors are given some wonderfully witty things to say and surprisingly effective things to do.

And the actors are up to it, as even the metallic-faced bad guys called the Sovereign are given lots of interesting things to do. They are led by the gorgeous Elizabeth Debicki as Ayesha (a name ultimately borrowed from the title character of H. Rider Haggard's She).

There are several interesting cameos. Sylvester Stallone's appearance signals that he is going to play a major role in Guardians 3, but there are others who may well have popped up in Guardians 2 for the fun of it. For instance, there's just a momentary appearance by someone who makes you think: Is that Jeff Goldblum? Yes, it is.

David Hasselhoff has a cameo, but only a self-parodying one as David Hasselhoff (or, rather, as Ego taking on the appearance of Hasselhoff). Seth Green and Miley Cyrus have vocal cameos -- for some reason, Howard the Duck keeps popping up with Seth Green's voice -- and there's a tedious appearance by Marvel comics eminence gris Stan Lee, playing a really boring old astronaut. Ving Rhames appears with actual lines to say, while Vin Diesel plays the voice of Baby Groot, so his dialogue consists entirely of "I am Groot."

I never registered the presence of Michael Rosenbaum, the actor who, as Lex Luthor, pretty much dominated Smallville. I didn't recognize him because in Guardians 2 he has hair. But the very fact that he's hard to recognize suggests that this wasn't a cameo -- his character in this movie might turn into something much bigger as a Sylvester Stallone sidekick in Guardians 3.

If that isn't the plan, it should be, because Rosenbaum is one of best American actors of his generation, and in his post-Smallville career he has so far been sadly underused. Give him a chance to steal all the scenes he shares with Stallone. He improves every scene he steals.

One of the memorable but brief performances is by an actor credited as "Jimmy Urine." It turns out that the universe is still in working order: His birth name is James Euringer. The "Jimmy Urine" moniker was adopted for his main job as lead singer of an electropunk band called Mindless Self Indulgence. The group's name came from the first album released by Jimmy and his brother Markus; the next album was named Crappy Little Demo, and I think that pretty well tells you all you need to know about the group.

What matters here is that Jimmy Urine does a good job as a deeply quirky character in Guardians 2. What began as a cameo turned out to be a good performance. It'll be interesting to see what he does with acting in the future. Surely you can't spend your whole life as an electropunk rocker. That would be even sadder than the Rolling Stones.

But speaking of self-indulgence, James Gunn inserts a lot of it in Guardians 2, mostly tied to the songs. I woke up this morning with a brainworm from the song "Brandy," a hit song from 1972, performed by Looking Glass, a group that had no other hit. The key lyric that keeps running through my mind -- because it was not only sung several times in the movie but also spoken aloud as if they represented a deep philosophy -- is "Brandy, you're a fine girl, what a good wife you would be. But my life, my love, and my lady is the sea."

What can that possibly have to do with a space-centered comic-book plot? You'll see. I really hope, though, that when Ego calls it "possibly Earth's finest composition," writer James Gunn was being ironic. Looking Glass singer Elliot Lurie is quoted as saying, "Far from it.... I would say that is probably 'Desperado' by the Eagles." That is a good song.

But "Earth's finest composition" will not be found among pop songs of the 1970s. Not while Pachelbel's Canon in D Major or Vivaldi's Four Seasons or Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite or Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings or Carl Orff's Carmina Burana or DeBussy's La Mer or Clair de Lune or Beethoven's Fur Elise or Bach's Brandenburg Concertos or the Largo from Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor (The New World) or Erik Satie's Gymnopedie No. 1 or the Moldau River movement from Smetana's Má Vlast or Fauré's Pavane or Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man or Delibes' "Flower Duet" from Lakmé or Puccini's "Un Bel Di" from Madame Butterly or "O Mio Babbino Caro" from Gianni Schicchi or Albinoni's (really Giazotto's) Adagio in G minor still exist.

(I prodded my memory using this list.)

I heard that the character of Ego, around whom most of the storyline is built, actually had his film rights controlled by a different studio, so that some kind of trade-of-favors must have taken place. Anybody who thinks the studios are enemies or even rivals doesn't really understand the movie business.

To studios, the only real enemies are the writers, because everyone knows that in film, nothing exists without them, and the only genuine claim to film authorship belongs to the writers. Studio executives can only rest easy when they know that screenwriters are completely subdued, subservient, humiliated, discouraged, or, preferably, dead. This is why the only powerful writers in film are the ones who also direct hugely popular or critically acclaimed movies.

This means that James Gunn has seen the Holy Grail of filmmaking: Not only did he write and direct one monster hit, but also he wrote and directed a sequel that is arguably better -- and which deserves to surpass it at the box office.

In Greensboro, the bonus is that there are non-3D (i.e., non-torture-chamber) showings of Guardians 2 in the recliner seats at the Red Cinema.

*

Rigor Mortis by Richard Harris is not a crime thriller -- or not in the usual sense. It's a book about how rigor in the biomedical sciences is pretty much dead -- which explains why so little progress is being made nowadays in curing little physical ailments like, say, cancer.

Right now we have a sad fascination with promoting science and math education in the public schools and trying to involve kids in this great national project. The main way of doing this is by cutting funding for anything that isn't science and math.

It's the exact equivalent of trying to get more three-point shooters in the NBA by requiring all schoolkids to play basketball. There are already far more good basketball players vying for the tiny number of NBA positions than they can ever use.

Ditto with science. We already have far more talented, dedicated scientists scrambling for the same few jobs. Quadrupling the funding won't even dent the problem of an oversupply of scientists. All it will mean is that you'll have 375 instead of 400 applicants for each good job.

Worse yet, it won't change in any way the incentives for bad work that are built into the system.

Scientists either work for academia, industry, or the government. Industry is the most rigorous one, because they have to make a product -- a drug, a treatment, a diagnostic machine -- that actually works in the real world.

The government mostly farms out its research -- it doles out money to favored projects.

Academia has the most incentives to do sloppy, ill-designed, or badly analyzed research, because it is all based on grant applications, which are largely based on credentials like publication in top journals or working in a prestigious research mill.

If you don't publish in one of the top-tier journals within about five years of getting your doctorate, your career is probably dead in the water, regardless of your ability. You aren't going to be offered a position by a prestigious university. You will not get grants to do significant research.

So the pressure to get your name onto papers in the top journals is enormous -- your livelihood and your future importance in the field depend on it.

How do you get published in those places? Not on the basis of merit. True science values research that proves that a certain line of inquiry is a dead end, thus saving everyone else the trouble of wasting time on it. But when it comes to publication, a paper saying, "We thought this might work, but it didn't," is not going to get into the journal Nature or Cell.

What does get in? The experiment with unexpected and/or exciting results. The trouble is that unexpected results are usually wrong, and exciting results can easily be the result of wishful thinking -- what is often expressed as "confirmation bias." Excitement is not good for science.

Excitement leads to headlines in the popular media, touting promising discoveries that "may" lead to cures for this or that. But most of the time, according to Harris, these "exciting" stories turn into exactly nothing, because the research was bad. Badly designed, badly executed, badly analyzed, and then published and hyped by people who are incapable of recognizing just how worthless they are as "science."

Yet that hunger for prominent publication requires young scientists to move into the already-crowded research areas where excitement is even possible -- cancer research, for instance.

Working on obscure biological functions and getting solid, reliable experimental results may lead someone else, years later, to build on that foundation to create a cure for this or a radical explanation for that. But nobody will remember your career except in a footnote.

But as a scientist, you aren't going to get a chance to do that kind of good-science research because nobody will fund it. And because nobody funds it, it isn't getting done.

It isn't enough to do your research, you also have to publish it first. Once someone else has published your idea, nobody will publish your paper even if your research is better. With several different labs doing the same or related work, that means you are rewarded for hurrying, even if it means cutting corners and fudging your results a little, while you're punished for doing it right.

What is "right"? Planning your experiment so its results will actually mean something, taking every meticulous step, working with large enough sample sizes for your data to be significant, and then repeating the experiment often enough to be sure your results are reliable across time and circumstances. You have to examine everything about your subjects and your ingredients. This takes time.

Enough time that somebody else who did sloppy, hurried work is going to beat you into print, and then too bad for you, because the big journals won't publish your also-ran results, and the entity that gave you your grant will be officially "disappointed" because they measure outcome, not in the quality of your work -- they have no convenient way of measuring that -- but in the prestige of the journal, if any, that publishes you.

What happens then? You don't get the grants you apply for. Your university can no longer pay you a salary. You can't even get a job as a high school biology teacher. Uber driver with a doctorate, welcome to the world of ad hoc public transportation!

The big state universities seem to be running great research programs, but they're not. State governments fund a minuscule portion of those universities' research budgets -- somewhere around three percent, in many cases. All the other funding comes from grants, so the scientist who can't get grants is a scientist who has no value to the university.

This is why the thought police of Global Warming are so powerful: They spread the word that somebody is a "climate change skeptic" (i.e., a real scientist who rejects dogmas and asks hard questions), and suddenly he gets no grants from anybody, period. Soon he's out of work and without a university or think-tank credential attached to his name, nobody listens to him, nobody publishes him, he's dead.

And, of course, so is science.

The scariest thing about Richard Harris's Rigor Mortis: How Sloppy Science Creates Worthless Cures, Crushes Hope, and Wastes Billions, is that when he turns to proposing the solutions, he can't really offer much hope. That's because the only changes that will work are cultural, not fiscal.

In a way, the scientists he cites who are struggling to stem the tide of sloppy science are the solution -- but only if universities, journals, Congress, and the pharmaceutical industry cooperate to change the incentives that now force almost all scientists to behave badly in order to have a career. Standards need to be set and then enforced.

But most importantly, graduate students in the sciences need to be thoroughly trained in responsible, rigorous research methods, and then required to use those methods as students and, later, as research scientists.

The cost of each important research project would double, triple, or quadruple. But if, along with that, all the "fluff" projects designed only to win publication and advance careers were eliminated, so that only well-designed projects got funded, we could accomplish far more with half the money we're spending now.

This is that all-too-common thing: a huge, devastating public problem whose solution cannot be reached by having Congress pump more money into it. Yet pumping money into things is almost the only tool that Congresswights know how to wield.

*

John McWhorter's new book Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca returns McWhorter to his roots as a public figure. A serious linguist working in creoles and pidgins, he first came to prominence when he refuted some of the extravagant claims about Ebonics in Oakland, California, in the 1990s. Now he tackles the whole issue of how American Blacks talk.

Is Black speech just bad or broken standard American English? No. It's a genuine dialect, with complex grammatical devices that standard American English doesn't have -- as well as simplifications, which are already the hallmark of English.

Black speech is also an accent, so that even when reading or narrating something written in standard American English, we can tell when the speaker is Black with nearly perfect accuracy.

Not all Black Americans speak with a "Blaccent" (McWhorter's word), but excluding immigrants from Africa, about 99% do -- or at least know how to switch it on at need.

White Americans are learning not only the Blaccent but also some of the grammar of Black English, and it shows up in places like this text message joke:

Text: "We can't leave things like this. Can't we try again to love each other like we used to?"

Reply: "Who dis?"

There is no implication that either party is Black. But the Blaccent pronunciation "dis" for "this" is perfect for texting, because a single "d" replaces "th" and because in Black grammar, "Who is this" is shortened by leaving out the copula (the "to be" verb). Thus, "Who dis?"

Most Whites of the rap music generation have adopted enough Black English to not only understand that sentence, but also to say or write it without any sense that they were getting "racial." It's just part of young informal American English now.

McWhorter spends a bit of time explaining the Black English usage of "ass" and "damn." Take, for instance, "I'm going to fire his ass." Nobody thinks for a moment that only a particular part of the person's anatomy will be fired. In all such usages, "his/her/their/our/my/your ass" is a compound pronoun that includes a strong dismissive meaning: It is meant to demean the person referred to.

The stress makes a difference. Jimmy Carter, about what he'd do if Ted Kennedy ran against him in 1980, famously said: "I'll whip his ass." As a White man, Carter stressed "ass." "I'll whip his ass." But in Black English, it would be "I'll whip his ass."

"Damn" does the same job, but is even more contemptuous: "Why's she complaining about the low attendance? She didn't even come her damn self." Standard English would use "own" in that sentence: "She didn't even come her own damn self." The "damn" would just be a cuss word instead of a grammatical word.

This is a great book, and considering how much the two dialects (standard American and Black English) are interpenetrating, and yet how much they serve as markers and boundaries, I think it's important reading for both Blacks and Whites.

Blacks need to read it so they recognize that when they "talk Black" among themselves, they aren't speaking bad English, they're using the valid dialect that marks them as insiders in their own community.

Yes, for purposes of career advancement in many fields, it's useful to also learn how to use standard American English, just as immigrants benefit from learning it. But American Blacks should no more abandon, suppress, or demean Black English or the accompanying Blaccent than immigrants from other lands need to forget or hide from the native language of their forebears.

Of all Americans, White Southerners should understand this. The various southern accents (from the Appalachian twang to the tidewater drawl) all sound stupid to outsiders, so that many or most southerners regard it as part of their education to learn to speak so that nobody even suspects you're from the South.

But, as I learned from a Southern girl I knew in college, "The minute I get home to where people talk right, I drop right back into my native speech." In American life, in order to get ahead and get along, it's valuable to be multilingual -- which includes learning how to use different accents and dialects accurately and fluently.

Talking Back, Talking Black: Truths About America's Lingua Franca by John McWhorter is available as a cheap hardcover ($10.81 new on Amazon) and as a Kindle ebook ($10.27). An audiobook would have been very helpful, so that we could hear McWhorter switch into and out of Black dialect -- but alas, we only have these text versions so far.


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