Both sides do it!

I’ve been traveling for work, so — maybe blessedly — I didn’t initially see this AP story by two reporters I like very much personally. It’s no patch on them when I say that “Welcome to the Trump-Clinton conspiracy election” is a textbook-ready case of how the search for equivalence can wreck a piece of journalism.

The problems previewed by the headline get worse in the nut graf.

Donald Trump and his surrogates hint at a mysterious “illness” afflicting rival Hillary Clinton. Pushing back, Clinton warns of murky ties between Trump and the Russian government, insinuating that her Republican opponent may be a puppet of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Two problems here. One: The ties between Trump and the Russians are by no means as “murky” as the conspiracy theory that Clinton’s doctors (and her campaign schedule) are covering up a devastating illness. Two: The Russia talk is not a pushback on the “Hillary’s health” stuff. It’s been happening independently; indeed, Clinton was been pushing it before Trump elevated the health rumors.

The second point is just obviously misleading, while the first requires the application of blinders that characters the worst both-sides journalism. Much of the story deals with the ways Trump has tried to exploit Internet theories about Clinton’s health, and how Clinton’s pivoted from that to an attack on Trump’s embrace of kookery more generally. The “but Russia!” equivalence platter is saved for the final two grafs.

In the aftermath of hacked Democratic emails, Trump encouraged hackers from Russia to find Clinton’s missing State Department emails, an apparent invitation for a foreign power to intervene in a U.S. election.

Clinton’s team frequently points to Trump’s ties to Russia. Her campaign has a page on its website devoted to a Q-and-A about Trump’s “bizarre relationship” with Russia, fueling an unproven theory that Trump is a shill for Putin.

So on the one hand, Trump is elevating theories that rely on rumors or forged medical records; on the other, Clinton’s accusation that Trump “is a shill for Putin” is “unproven.” But the first attack is baseless; the second is political rhetoric based on — wait for it — reporting from the AP.

I’m not fond of quickie campaign “fact sheets” like “5 questions every voter should ask about Donald Trump’s bizarre relationship with Russia.” Question 5 suggests that “Trump publicly encouraged further Russian espionage to help his campaign.” That’s true, though Trump later tried to pass it off as a joke. Question 4 is fishier, noting that “some suggest” that Trump’s as-yet hidden tax returns might reveal deals with Russian oligarchs. But the basis is a 2008 quote from Trump’s son Donald: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”

Question 3 suggests that Trump would fulfill a Russian “wish list.” Again, there’s a basis: He has talked about lifting sanctions on Russia, and he rather uniquely among Republicans has said he wouldn’t contest the annexation of Crimea. Question 1 quotes a few instances of Trump praising Putin.

But Question 2 is the humdinger. Asking why Trump “surround[s] himself with advisers with links to the Kremlin,” the Clinton campaign… explains the links several Trump advisers have to Russia. The outdated page spends the most time on Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager until this month. The “kill shot” on Manafort is generally understood to be the AP’s August 17 story on his secret work for Ukraine’s pro-Russian faction.

Donald Trump’s campaign chairman helped a pro-Russian governing party in Ukraine secretly route at least $2.2 million in payments to two prominent Washington lobbying firms in 2012, and did so in a way that effectively obscured the foreign political party’s efforts to influence U.S. policy.

So, on the one hand, Trump’s campaign and surrogates are speculating wildly — and in some cases, citing bogus medical information — to question whether Hillary Clinton’s health has collapsed. On the other hand, Clinton’s campaign is citing Trump’s public statements, his family’s public statements, and the financial ties of campaign advisers to say that he’s shilling for Russia.

I am wracking my brains, and I can’t imagine how these two stories were conflated. In the quest to say that Both Sides Do It, the AP elevated Trump’s conspiracy-mongering about Clinton’s health to the level of his campaign’s well-reported Russia friendliness; it downgraded that friendliness to the level of a conspiracy.

The word for this is not “balanced.” It’s “pathetic.”

Little Furry Things

Zootopia (Howard/Moore/Bush, 2016)
A terrifying and unrelenting vision of a world long after the apocalypse, where only mammals survived, and built their own civilization with all of the mistakes that zoomed humanity.

Nah, fuck it, this is a kid’s movie about a cute bunny (Ginnifer Goodwin) who fulfills her lifelong dream of becoming the first tiny mammal cop in a world of talking animals; previously, we see, only the largest animals had become cops. (This seems entirely sensible, but a nice training sequence reveals how Judy Hopps learned to use her speed and high jump to compete with the more lumbering cops). Assigned to the garbage meter maid beat, she encounters a con artist fox (Jason Bateman), who is far more comfortable with the limitations placed on him by speciesism. There is a mystery. Spoiler: They solve it.

The test of any kid’s cartoon is whether the target audience will find it cute and the parents who pay for it will find it witty. “Zootopia” succeeds, even if some of the jokes are right on the bunny nose. (A mob boss named Mr. Big — who is actually very tiny — and talks like Vito Corleone! Ah ha ha fuck you.) The characters are adorable, the world-building is gorgeous if theme park-esque, and there is a delightfully problematic through-line about whether we can ever escape our genetic inheritance. Put another way: This is a movie for children in which the hero explains that some animals may simply be “biologically” inclined to violence, and where the voice of Idris Elba, through a water buffalo, says that “this world was already broken.”

Kung Fu Panda 3 (Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2016)
The delightful but derivative series continues (no one can say “concludes”) with a story about the titular panda, Po, (Jack Black) encountering an ancient, soul-sucking evil (J.K. Simmons) and overcoming him to become a “master of qi.”

Look, if I was eight or nine years old, I fully believe that these would be my favorite movies — funny, furry characters getting into beautifully choreographed battles, all re-enactable in the backyard. As a man who was born around the same time as Michael Phelps but achieved much less, I still have a spot for these movies — in part because the voice casting rewards fans of “Mr. Show,” in part because I watch them when I am on planes and very tired.

Still, there’s a visible tug of war between the plot points that were designed by committee and the dialogue punched up by funny people. I enjoyed the banter, especially a running gag about Kai’s frustration that no one remembers him 500 years after he was banished to the spirit realm. I sort of shrugged through the introduction of a Secret Panda Village where a civilization that abandoned Po (for reasons never explained) takes him in and acts all goofy. Evil is defeated by people Being Themselves and Working Together. Finally!

The blog where it happens

This is a model takedown, and a lot of fun even if you’re not so much a “Hamilton” hater so much as a person who can’t understand how your friends had the time and foresight to see this thing.
 
Caveat: The impossibility for anyone but your annoying Instagram friends to get a ticket is cited as evidence that few people have experienced the dang thing. “Hamilton is the ‘nationwide sensation’ that only .001% of the nation has even witnessed.”
 
True, not many people have gotten to see it in person. But the cast album went platinum, in an age when nobody buys albums anymore. Lines from the musical have infiltrated culture and reporting. Insofar as a piece of theater can become widely known, this one is widely known. Just as people who have not seen “Star Wars” know “Luke, I Am Your Father,” I know “the room where it happens.”
 
That said, the people insisting that this is the greatest work of art of all time are silly. (That’s obviously Jethro Tull’s “Thick as a Brick.”) I guess the question is whether this musical is still cool when the inevitable “Rob Marshall’s ‘Hamilton'” film adaptation comes out at the start of President Hillary Clinton’s second term.

Ghostbusters (2016)

The first “Ghostbusters” was a formative movie experience for me, but not a sacred one. I saw it on TV or VHS sometime before 1989, i.e. when I was 7 or 8 years old. (I know this because I saw the sequel in the theater, when I was tood young.) Parts of that movie mapped the “screaming terror” part of my brain — Rick Moranis’s party gone wrong, Gozer’s red eyes, the librarian ghost that transforms when Bill Murray talks to it. In my teenage years and, yes, even today, the better lines became part of my conversation. “Cats and dogs, living together!” “When someone asks you if you’re a God, you say yes!”

Still, I snorted with all of the other right-thinking people when the geek army, having conquered all of pop culture, declared war on “Lady Ghostbusters.” I wanted it to be great.

It is not great. As remakes go, it’s higher than “Rollerball” and many floors below “Dawn of the Dead.” I align myself, as usual, with Sonny Bunch, mostly in his contempt for the people (cough RICHARD BRODY) who have been attempting to retcon the original film as a middling nostalgia joint.

PETTY COMPLAINT DEPT.

Product placement. A minor gripe elevated by how goddamn much it appears. Patty’s uncle is not just not a rent-a-car — he’s not a “Enterprise rent-a-car.” Holtzmann doesn’t just eat during the first sighting — she eats Pringles. For Christ’s sake, the Manhattan-based Ghostbusters order pizza and we get several wide shots of the Papa John’s box it came in. I’m not even a New Yorker and I was offended on Gotham’s behalf.

Dialogue. This is by far the least funny of the Paul Feig movies, and it happens to be the one grasping for the baton from a cultural institution. The more improved-sounding dialogue is perfectly fine; Wiig and McCarthy have great chemistry, eve if the joke is that they’re never in emotional sync. McKinnon, one of our muggiest actors, is fun to watch but never quotable; Leslie Jones is better than I’ve ever seen her, but I can’t remember anything she said.

Plotting. We get to the ghosts fast enough, but there’s no momentum and plenty of holes. The chintzy TV ad campaign of the first film explained how they stayed in business; this time the ‘busters have money problems but seemingly infinite scrap metal. Killer lazers shoot into random streets with no effect. Characters make stupid decisions to set up the conflict, far less satisfying than the original film’s “everything was going fine until the fucking EPA showed up” plot motor.

DEPT. OF THINGS I DIDN’T HATE

New characterizations. Feig didn’t want people to be muttering “is that the new Egon,” and voila, the four ‘busters are actually pretty well drawn characters. If one measure of success is that nerdy girls have new heroes to trick-or-treat as, then this is a success — go ahead, awkward girl who wants to gel up her hair and be Holtzmann.

Feminity. Seriously, it was fine. A dance party instead of “we came, we saw, we kicked its ass?” Sure. A himbo secretary? Very funny, thanks to Thor. Unlike some percentage of the Internet, I’m fine with this film existing. I just don’t feel a need to ever see it again.