October 1, 2005

Serenity Update: Movie Critic and Blogger/Public Reviews

Filed under: Business Moves,General — Tom @ 6:02 pm

Previous Posts:
- “Serenity” Is Special for Its Sincerity
- ”Serenity” Sneak Preview Sept. 27
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This post explains why Universal went around the movie critics.

The Good News: Critics at the Big 4 Papers are Generally Pleased

  • Roger Ebert gives it three stars, but believes its appeal will be limited to “people who can’t get enough of this stuff. You know who you are.”
  • New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis (requires registration) is generally complimentary, but reserved, as if deliberately turning down the expectations meter.
  • Desson Thomson at The Washington Post (requires registration) is an unabashed booster: “…. the enjoyable result is a highly concentrated, amphetamine-fueled reprise, designed to give fans a sentimental jolt and boost new devotees. If newcomers feel overwhelmed by the fast-moving details, they’ll be drawn back in by the otherworldly mayhem…. no matter what’s coming their way, post-apocalyptic doom or gloom, this James Gang of the galaxy is just plain fun to watch.”
  • LA Times critic Kevin Crust (requires registration) has high praise (“A strongly acted, well-written story fortified by riveting action sequences — a rarity these days among studio releases — “Serenity” should delight Whedon novices as much as the already converted.”)

The Not-so-good News: Other Critics Are Mostly Disparaging

  • At BoxOfficeMojo, critic Scott Halloran (“Space Western’s Shining Crew Saddled by Cacophony”) is unimpressed and almost hostile.
  • This reviewer gives it a 2 out of 4 (“less-than-stellar effects, average-to-poor performances and dialogue”).
  • The Toledo Blade reviewer gives it two stars out of four, and thinks it simply a pile of clever borrowing from previous scifi films (zheesh).
  • But, The Cincinnati Enquirer gives it a 3 out of 4 and is generally complimentary.

Meanwhile, Moviegoers Are Impressed

  • Almost 300 BoxOfficeMojo.com visitors (as of 6:15 PM on Oct. 1) are giving “Serenity” a net grade of A- (with 88% As).
  • This link reports that the film “is receiving great reviews on the Google movie review site (4.3 out of 5)” (i.e., from people in the moviegoing public).
  • iFilmMagazine.com (presumably the “i” stands for “independent”) is very pleased (“all hail Joss Whedon’s FIREFLY spin-off”).
  • All of the over 20 blog reviews I have read have rated it very good to excellent.

The collective take of the critics shows that the idea of relying on them to favorably talk up an off-the-beaten-path film like “Serenity” was risky. From here, if for no other reason than to have an insurance policy against the naysayers, it looks like the strategy of reaching out to bloggers to attend the sneak preview to get favorable buzz from everyday people has been vindicated.

Whether this translates into the box office success Universal is hoping for is another matter that won’t be known for a few weeks.
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UPDATE: The September 30 box office estimate for “Serenity” was $3.9 million, good enough for second place behind “Flight Plan,” which is pretty impressive considering the latter film is in about 1,200 more theaters.

UPDATE 2: Many more reviews linked review excerpts are at Serenity’s Rotten Tomatoes page (HT commenter Dave G).

UPDATE 3: $10.1 mil is the estimate for the weekend.

Proof That Many of Those Who Claim to Be Against the Kelo Ruling Really Aren’t

Filed under: Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 3:05 pm

From an Amy Ridenour post at the National Center Blog, linking to (of all things) a National Center press release:

Environmental Activists Target Small Property Owners While Calling the Fifth Amendment a “New Entitlement”

Washington, D.C. – The environmental community is in an uproar this week over a proposed measure that would reform the Endangered Species Act by including within it modest property rights protections for small landowners.

The “Threatened and Endangered Species Reform Act” (TESRA) is being debated now and is expected to face a vote today in the House of Representatives.

If green lobbyists and their congressional allies get their way, American property owners will continue to have their rights trampled by the Endangered Species Act.

“In light of the enormous outcry over the dreadful Kelo v. New London ruling, it’s hard to believe that anyone would so vehemently oppose protecting the property rights of American landowners,” said Peyton Knight, Director of the John P. McGovern MD Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs of the National Center for Public Policy Research. “Indifference to the suffering of small property owners would be bad enough, but actively seeking to harm them is beyond the pale.”

Knight refers to the onslaught of anti-property rights rhetoric that has poured out of the environmental community this week as a result of the proposal that landowners should receive compensation when the government takes their property under the Endangered Species Act.

Under current law, the ESA takes private property without paying the owner a dime.

One provision in TESRA would help resolve this problem by providing fair compensation to landowners who lose the use of their property as a result of the ESA. Environmentalists have made gutting this protection a top priority.

A “Dear Colleague” letter being circulated by Representatives Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and John Conyers (D-MI) vilifies the compensation provision as a “sweeping new entitlement program.”

There’s a term for taking someone’s land without compensation: stealing.

Current law that authorizes the stealing is a travesty. Those who believe that taking someone’s property without compensation over an endangered critter is okay cannot possibly, or at least consistently, have a problem with taking it away for another lawmaker-sanctioned “higher purpose.”

More on China Repression and Yahoo! Enablers

Filed under: Corporate Outrage,Economy,Taxes & Government — Tom @ 11:35 am

Xiao Qiang, the director of the China Internet Project at the Graduate School of Journalism of the University of California at Berkeley, and editor-in-chief of the China Digital Times, speaks out forcefully, and in my opinion a bit too optimistically (link requires subscription):

China’s Internet Censors Fight a Losing Battle

Almost overnight, the Internet has emerged as the single most important forum the Chinese people have to criticize government policies and participate in politics. This is the good news. The bad news is that China’s leaders have also noticed this phenomenon, and are doing everything in their power to reverse it. The really awful news is that Western Internet companies are only too happy to help the government.

On September 25, two powerful Chinese government agencies, the State Council Information Office and the Ministry of Information Industry, jointly issued an important legal document: Rules on the Administration of Internet News Information Services. Particularly aimed at online forums, Web logs and even SMS wireless services, these new regulations represent the latest wave of forceful measures that the Chinese government has undertaken in a desperate attempt to regain control over the Internet.

….. Significantly, the new rules include two additional categories of forbidden content left out of previously released regulations. One is the ban against “inciting illegal assemblies, associations, marches, demonstrations, or gatherings that disturb social order,” and the other targets “conducting activities in the name of an illegal civil organization.” This is an apparent attempt to eliminate netizens’ capacity to organize online. The massive anti-Japanese protests in some major Chinese cities this spring demonstrated the medium’s potential for spontaneous organization.

The most obvious feature of the new regulations is that they focus on “Internet news.” The following statement from the official news agency Xinhua makes the intention clear: “The state bans the spreading of any news with content that is against national security and public interest.” The regulation defines “Internet news” as, “current events news information, and includes reporting and commentary relating to politics, economics, military affairs, foreign affairs, and social and public affairs, as well as reporting and commentary relating to fast-breaking social events.”

….. All major Internet Service Providers and Internet Content Providers in China have to hire people who do nothing but watch online information on their Web sites, and are ready to delete content considered “sensitive.” In addition to human censors, all Web site-hosting services have also installed keywords filtering software. Posts on politically sensitive topics, such as Falun Gong, human rights, democracy, and Taiwan independence are routinely filtered. A list obtained by the Berkeley China Internet Project last year found that over 1,000 words, including “dictatorship,” “truth,” and “riot police” are automatically banned in China’s online forums.

This regulation is backed up by real policing power. Since 2000, China’s police force has established Internet departments in more than 700 cities and provinces. The Chinese net police monitor Web sites and email for “heretical teachings or feudal superstitions” and information “harmful to the dignity or interests of the state.” They also have access to software which enables them to detect “subversive” key words in emails and downloads as well as to trace messages back to the computers from which they were sent.

….. But Chinese authorities do not only rely on the threat of police action or imprisonment, but also adopt more subtle approaches to “guide opinion” online. Propaganda agents work undercover online pretending to be ordinary netizens, monitoring Internet debate as well as “guiding” online discussions.

Ironically, while government agents hide their identity online, Chinese authorities have ordered that all users of blog-hosting services and other individual Web sites register their identity, even at Internet cafes. All of these control mechanisms have a clear goal: to hold individuals directly responsible for what appears on their Web sites.

….. grassroots media activities will continue to take place despite the new regulations. New-generation technologies such as peer-to-peer file sharing and voice over IP phones (Skype is a brilliant example), will provide new communication platforms that can make it easier for users to bypass the censors’ control. The capacity of the government to implement these new regulations effectively, therefore, is very questionable. The many-to-many and emergent nature of the Internet empowers information users far more then censors.

In the short-term, the new rules may have a chilling effect on Chinese cyberspace. In the long term, however, the Chinese censors are fighting a losing battle. The deeper problem here is that the Chinese Communist Party itself is morally bankrupt and intellectually exhausted. More regulations will not make official propaganda any more attractive or credible to Chinese netizens. Undercover commentators, self-censorship by Web site hosts, and occasional harsh police action against political activists will not help China’s leaders gain legitimacy and trust either. Those in the West that helped trying to suppress speech may come to regret their decisions.

Perhaps Mr. Qiang knows better, but it seems to me that a morally bankrupt and intellectually exhausted leadership can hang on to power for a long time if it has a death grip on communications, and I don’t see how the new developments like Skype are any less controllable than other communication methods. But I do agree that if democracy triumphs in China, American enablers of the deposed regime will be remembered, and not fondly.

booyahoo

Meanwhile, a Yahoo! boycott site has been started. It has a petitition (which I signed), guidance on how to stop using the Yahoo! services, and much more. I encourage you to visit. I hope to be able to report large numbers of co-signers in a few weeks.
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Previous posts:
- China Repression with American Technology–On Smart Mobs, BBS, and SMS
- China Crackdown Continues: First Blogs, Now Internet News and Web Sites
- I Do Not “Yahoo!” Update: WaPo Weighs In
- I Do Not “Yahoo!” Follow-up
- I Do Not (and Will Not) Yahoo!
- The Bull in Oppressive China’s Shopping

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UPDATE: A defense of Yahoo! from one Jeremy Goldkorn (HT Instapundit):

If Yahoo! and the others packed their bags and left this country, freedom of expression would take a step backwards. By their investments in the Chinese Internet, foreign Internet companies have dramatically advanced freedom of expression for a quarter of the people on the planet.

Microsoft, Yahoo!, Cisco, Google etc. are forced into compromises when operating in China, but for every Shi Tao in jail, there are millions of people who have unprecedented access to information from around China and the outside world, thanks in part to those corporations.

This is why you almost never hear complaints about these companies from Chinese people, especially those who remember the pre-Internet age, when the average citizen could not even get hold of a copy of Time magazine.

No one is proposing these that these companies leave China. I’m suggesting that they not leave their principles and ethics behind when the enter China, or Mr. Goldkorn’s second paragraph cited above may have to be revised into past tense.
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October 1 Wizbang Trackback Carnival participant.

Positivity: Bobby Martin–”An Inspiration to All of Us”

Filed under: Positivity — Tom @ 7:05 am

From The Dayton Daily News (may require registration):

Bobby

(more…)

This Weekend’s Unanswered Questions (100105)

Another installment in a nearly-regular series of mysteries and pseudo-mysteries (usually 3-4) this inquiring mind would like to have answers for (some links included may require free registration):

QUESTION 1: Shouldn’t there be a warning sign on this stat?

At issue is the heavily-demagogued “average earnings” of production workers in manufacturing and non-supervisory workers in services. Alan Reynolds thinks this stat has got to go (bolds are mine):

But that data series does not purport to measure hourly pay at all, much less a typical worker’s wage. The figures cover only 62 percent of all jobs, not 80 percent, if government workers and the self-employed were included. And that just begins to explain the confusion.

In fact, this data series is so misleading it is finally being phased out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), to be replaced over the next four years by one that covers all private employees. For one thing, as the BLS explains: “the production and non-supervisory worker hours and payroll data have become increasingly difficult to collect, because these categorizations are not meaningful to survey respondents. Many survey respondents report that it is not possible to tabulate their payroll records based on the production/non-supervisory definitions.”

An accountant in a manufacturing company should not be counted as a production worker, for example, but an accountant in a bank should be counted as a non-supervisory worker. Non-supervisory is defined to exclude supervisors, yet include “supervisory workers.” Such arbitrary distinctions make responses “increasingly difficult to collect,” suggesting the estimates depend on an increasingly dubious sample of older firms.

The most obvious flaw in the average earnings figures — as Stephen Moore pointed out in an Aug. 29 column, “The Wages of Prosperity” — is that they totally ignore health, pension and other benefits. With benefits included, real compensation per hour was up 3.6 percent between the second quarters of 2004 and 2005 among non-farm businesses, and up 5.6 percent in manufacturing.

The last paragraph shows that real compensation is continuing to beat inflation of 2.5% or so by a substantial margin, and the bleating about Americans falling behind has no “real” basis.

QUESTION 2: How long can the weekly magazines dance around their problems?

They keep playing games as they attempt to keep the circulation numbers up. Here’s the latest instance (requires registration):

TIME INC. CIRCULATION RECORDS SUBPOENAED
150 Clients and Advertisers Notified of Federal Investigation
September 22, 2005

NEW YORK (AdAge.com) — Time Inc. has been subpoenaed by the U.S. Attorney in the Eastern District of the Court of New York for information about the company’s sponsored sales programs. Such programs have come under new scrutiny after the Audit Bureau of Circulations disqualified a sponsor earlier this year.

150 notified

The company, which received the subpoena in late July, has talked to about 150 of its major clients and media buyers to alert them to the subpoena and walk them through the sponsored sales programs that some of its titles have used.

Sponsored sales programs, as described by Time Inc. Executive Vice President Jack Haire in a letter to advertisers, include “magazine subscriptions purchased by a sponsor for distribution either to public places, such as waiting rooms in doctors’ offices, or to a targeted group of individuals selected based on the subject matter of the magazines.”

Under Audit Bureau of Circulations rules, sponsored sales subscriptions may be counted as “paid” circulation if the sponsor pays at least one cent per subscription. Time Inc. now plans to change a number of those subscriptions from “paid” to “qualified” on ABC Publisher Statements as of the period ending June 30, 2006.

5% of total circulation

At the Time Inc. magazines that are tracked by the audit bureau and have rate bases — paid circulation guarantees for advertisers — about 5% of the total circulation is now classified under sponsored sales.

And certain titles are far more exposed to reclassifications than others. People en Espanol, for example, reported an average paid circulation of 462,099 during the first six months of the year, comfortably above its rate base of 450,000. But the total includes 108,682 copies that were derived from sponsored sales, or a whopping 24.2% of the rate base.

QUESTION 3: Could Fan and Fred take the economy down?

The Wall Street Journal is worried (link requires subscription):

When we first raised doubts about Fannie’s accounting more than three years ago, we were derided as irresponsible, or tools of the shorts. Turns out we had understated things. Dawn Kopecki of Dow Jones Newswires, who has owned this story, reported this week that investigators have uncovered even more accounting “irregularities” — including overvaluation of assets, attempts to hide derivatives losses and the possible improper use of tax credits.

Investors who had trusted the Wall Street analysts who said the worst was over took a big hit, as the stock fell to an eight-year low of $41.71 on Wednesday. Fannie shares did a dead-cat bounce yesterday, but they remain well below their highs at the start of the year ….. and far off what they were in their glory days of zero market scrutiny before 2002.

Which brings us to Mr. (Ohio Congressman Michael) Oxley, the House Financial Services Chairman who is pressing a “reform” for Fannie and its sibling, Freddie Mac, that fails to address their core financial risks. His bill does nothing to reduce their huge portfolios of mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and the derivatives they use to hedge those portfolios.

Reducing their MBSs would dent their profitability. But a meltdown in their black-box hedging operations could have far worse consequences, and the ramifications wouldn’t be limited to Fan’s and Fred’s shareholders. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan refers to this as “systemic risk,” a polite way of saying that the damage could spread throughout the U.S. financial system and beyond. With Fan and Fred between them controlling about one-fourth of the multitrillion-dollar MBS market, that is no exaggeration.

They have a point. Fan and Fred’s large share of the MBS market should be reduced. Politically, the party in power will get the blame for any damage the Fan and Fred problems inflict on the economy, never mind that most of the massive buildup in the MBS portfolios occurred in the 1990s.

QUESTION 4: Will someone finally acknowledge that gutting the Catholic Church in the US is their real goal?

Though “the corporate veil” is a time-honored legal construct, a bankruptcy judge thinks he can pierce the longer-standing archdiocesan-parish “veil” (requires registration), which plays nicely into the hands of those who wish to capitalize on the sexual abuse scandals financially gut the US Catholic Church:

Blameless, but Liable
A bankruptcy judge threatens religious freedom.

When Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., warned recently of the “national consequences” of a bankruptcy ruling that has rocked his diocese, it wasn’t an instance of self-serving rhetoric. The fate of the decision has implications not just for Roman Catholics but for anyone who cares about religious liberty.

According to federal Bankruptcy Judge Patricia Williams, more than 80 Catholic parishes in the Spokane area are no more than branch offices of the local archdiocese. Archdiocese creditors–in this case, the victims of sexual abuse by various priests–have as much right to the assets of churches and schools as they do to the buildings and investments under direct diocesan control. Or so the judge reasoned.

It so happens, however, that the Catholic Church does not think of parishes as a diocese’s branch offices. It never has. The church’s Canon Law, the world’s oldest formal legal system in continuous use, says that parishes are separate entities, while spelling out their relationship with the presiding bishop. He wields considerable authority within his domain, but parish assets are not his to dispose of as he pleases.

….. If the Spokane ruling stands and is mimicked elsewhere, diocesan creditors will enjoy greater access to parish assets than the local bishop himself. Hundreds of churches and schools that had nothing whatever to do with any sexual predator, and whose facilities exist through the patient charity of generations, will be at risk–as will the very autonomy of the church.