Sunday, August 13, 2017

MovieMonday: Step

Here's a documentary that does what I expect a documentary to do -- show me something I would not see in my everyday life.

It's the story of three seniors, members of a step dance team and of the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, a public charter school with an African American student body.  

The school aims to graduate seniors ready to attend and graduate from college.  The students mostly come from families who have not gone to college, and they mostly are being raised by their mothers.   

The broader story is punctuated by step team practices and events.  The students in the group reinforce each other and take pleasure in their efforts.  They lose a Baltimore step competition and then set their sights much higher, on a Maryland-Delaware-D.C. regional competition late in the school year.  They practice and practice and practice. 

One of the featured girls is Tayla, the only child of a mother who works as a corrections officer.  Tayla's mom is fiercely devoted to her daughter and to the step team -- too devoted for Tayla's liking.  The mom says, "Don't have no out-of-wedlock baby like me!" at one point, and Tayla rolls her eyes.

Cori describes her mom as "a magic wand in human form," and recalls a time when "we were homeless, and I didn't even know it."  Cori is a gifted student with many siblings, and she will need a full scholarship to attend her top college choice. What she craves most is "stability."

Blessin has a mother who has ongoing problems with depression and who is unreliable.  Blessin can remember times when the family refrigerator was empty.  Her grade-point average is terrible, and she missed 53 days of school in her junior year.  But she has potential -- in the first grading period of her senior year, she makes the honor roll.  She also is an enthusiastic leader in the step group.   

The school year starts a few months after Freddy Gray's death in the back of a police van, an event that shook Baltimore.  The step team visits the Gray memorial, and their  advisor tells them, "As young black women, it could have been us." She also says, "As African American women, we are considered the bottom of the barrel." 

If these don't sound like upbeat messages, well, the women who run the school are absolutely devoted to their students -- encouraging and steadfast.  They understand each girl as an individual and work with each one personally.  The college counselor and principal just never give up.  Their support and commitment yield results. 

These are students whose prospects almost certainly would be less bright if they spent grades six through 12 in traditional Baltimore public schools.  What is satisfying about the film is watching the students grow, succeed and enjoy their senior year.

I saw this movie in an empty theater.  I doubt it will gather a major audience.  Those who do see it probably will arrive already believing that we need more schools like the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.  

Still, the story is moving.  Why not give it a look?


Friday, August 11, 2017

Shoulder Pads Redux?

One standout in the designer collections for the 2017 fall/winter season has been the jacket below from Anthony Vaccarello, the creative director for Paris-based Saint Laurent. 

What is distinctive, to my eye, are the rather broad shoulders. 

Vacarello didn't stop with the jacket.  Here are several other designs with pretty impressive shoulder spans.

Arrayed left to right, the look seems to be heading into Grace Jones territory.  We'll see how that goes.

(Vacarello replaced Hedi Slimane, who left Saint Laurent in 2016 after doubling sales of the high-fashion line in four short years.  Slimane's collections were alternately described as accessible or overly commercial; he also worked in Los Angeles, which may not have been received well in France.)

Vacarello's collection may be seen as something of an homage to Yves Saint Laurent, the most influential fashion designer of the late 20th century.  He popularized pantsuits for women, safari jackets as street wear and big shoulder pads, which he introduced in 1971.

The latter innovation was the fashion equivalent of lighting a match, but slowly.  By the 1980s, big-shouldered womenswear was seen as assertive and strong; the look appealed to baby boomer women moving into executive positions in the work world.

Lesser designers just kept going and going with bigger and bigger shoulder pads until things got really out of hand.  (See below.)

To be fair, Yves Saint Laurent cannot be held responsible for this wretched excess.  Here is an advertisement for one of his 1987 collections.  The clothes are classic and would look perfectly fine today.  The man's fashion sense was impeccable.

Other Designers Now 

In addition to Vacarello, other designers are testing the market for big shoulder pads.  Here are some notable jackets for the fall winter season.



Alexander McQueen

These are more tailored looks than the loosely constructed pieces we have seen in recent years.  They may be signaling a turn from the all-casual/all-the-time ethic, or perhaps they are aimed at presenting a more flattering, hourglass-shaped physique. 

It's probably a bit early to invest in this look.  But if your mother or grandmother has a few vintage designs in her attic, you might ask her to bring them out so you can try them on with your black pants -- the wool pair, not the yoga pants.  


Yves Saint Laurent was not the first designer to sew broad shoulder pads into women's clothing.  The trend got a flutter in the 1940s, most notably in the costumes Joan Crawford wore in her Oscar-winning title role, Mildred Pierce.  In the movie, Mildred was a hard-working, self-made woman with a difficult daughter.  The film was a hit in 1945 and remains popular today. (Milo Anderson was the costume designer for the film.)

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Healthcare -- Just Tell Us What It Costs

The Idiosyncratist has no particular opinion about either political party's healthcare policies; my only observation is that people seem to hate all of them.  

But certain ideas do make intuitive sense.

One of these is transparency -- requiring every doctor, clinic and hospital to post a price list.  This works for dentists and eye doctors and veterinarians. It's time to apply it more broadly.  

Here's a fun video that explains some of the needless complexity that has resulted from not requiring price lists.

One Situation

Last month I got a simple, single-assay blood test for a minor hereditary condition that is well managed with generic medication.  I provided the lab with my new insurance card, and the lab's crack administrative team went ahead and billed my former insurance company, which of course denied the charge.  

I was billed almost $160 for a test that should have cost $20.

After several hours on the phone and on hold, I got the matter worked out. I learned the price only after I had had the blood test and after two insurance companies had run the bill through their elaborate bureaucracies.  It was $27.

Leave aside that it's hard to trust test results generated by a medical laboratory that cannot send a bill to the right insurance company.  Let's talk about the cost implications

High-Deductible Policies

Like many people now, I have a high-deductible health insurance policy.  This does not bother me.  I'm happy to trade $10 copays for full coverage if I get a cancer diagnosis. 

My deductible is $3,000.  Like most healthy people, I don't have that much in the way of medical expenses every year, and so all my medical costs are on me. 

On at least two occasions, I have been able to save money by checking prices.

In one case, I was bit by a dog. (My fault; we were playing fetch, and I mishandled the stick.) In an excess of caution, I decided to get an overdue tetanus booster:  
      My options were these: 1) See a doctor at an urgent-care center for $280, 2) See a nurse at a pharmacy clinic for a little over $100, or 3) Get a tetanus shot from the pharmacist at Costco for $15.
      Since I'm not stupid, I chose the third option.  

In the other, I made use of pharmacies' online price lists.  I found that the 90-day price for my generic drug varied from $20 to $90.  On an annual basis, choosing the right drugstore saves me $280.  I appreciate that.

I'd be happy to do the same with other medical expenses, and I believe other people would too.  

In fact, those new high deductibles could drive down medical costs by motivating people to seek lower-priced alternatives and, indirectly, by motivating medical care providers to set competitive rates.

The only reason this not happening is that medical charges are closely held secrets.  

How It Would Work

If I make a doctor's appointment today, the receptionist will tell me, "We don't know how much the consultation will cost."
       Maybe, with transparent pricing, the receptionist could say, "The doctor bills $100 for every 10 minutes of his/her time; if medical tests are ordered, we will tell you the cost before the tests are done."

If my doctor ordered me to get an MRI at an institution s/he owned, I could consult an online service that compared prices for the same procedure.  An outfit called already does this in some places. 
       Or, even better, I could call my insurance company and ask the price BEFORE I ran up the charge.  Shouldn't health insurers take an interest in cost management, or at least help patients who want to minimize their expenses?

If my kid fell and injured his arm, I could check prices for x-rays and stitches at the several hospitals' emergency rooms in my area and choose one.  Or, more likely, while in the emergency room, I could do the research on my cellphone and argue later if I thought the price of treatment was out of line.  
        (Goodness knows there would be plenty of time.  On my only visit to the emergency room, several years ago, it took the doctor EIGHT HOURS to diagnose appendicitis.)

How to Make It Happen

Some years back, one political party passed a bill called the Affordable Care Act.  The other party has been fighting to repeal that bill or pass its own ever since.  

Unfortunately, neither party has paid much mind to the elephant in the room:  affordability.

Why not a bipartisan bill, two pages long, requiring every healthcare institution and practitioner to post a price list for every service it/he/she provides?  

Yes, the AMA would squeal.  So would all the other participants in the industry that soaks up 18 percent of national expenditure.

My answer to the complaints would be this:  Tough.  People have a right to know the cost of something before they are asked to pay for it.

Note:  Here is yet another article explaining that that we spend too much on healthcare.  From the article:

"According to experts, there are two underlying reasons why the United States spends so much on healthcare:  It uses expensive medical technology, and prices for healthcare services and goods are higher than in other countries."

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Movie Monday: Landline

Maybe Tolstoy was wrong.  Maybe dysfunctional families are all the same, too.

"Landline" is a story about a long-married couple and their grown and almost-grown daughters, set in 1995.  The title reflects the era's telephones, which were plugged into walls, and also suggests the connections among family members.

As the story opens in early September, we learn that Ali, a high school senior, is acting out in typical adolescent ways -- cutting classes, sneaking out at night, having sex with a not-official boyfriend and avoiding the college application process.   

Dana, the older daughter, acts out after she begins to wonder whether she should marry her nice but schlubby fiancé.  

The father acts out and has an affair, apparently because his wife disdains his career achievements and also because he suspects that his part-time playwriting is not particularly good either.  

An hour or so into the movie, even the mother, who has played the family heavy through all the drama, does a little fantasy acting out as well.  

On Halloween evening, these plot lines meet up in a crescendo and then resolve themselves in a plausible ending.  Through it all, there is yelling and flouncing around, but the characters behave as real people in a real family might behave.  All very credible.

The actors are fine, the cinematography is fine, the dialogue is fine and the 90s details (pay phones, computer discs, music on CDs) are fine.  But somehow it doesn't work.

In the end, the characters matter to each other but not so much to the audience, which never is invested in how the story will resolve itself.  In fact, the story resolves itself as might be expected.    As a result there is no tension and the pacing feels slack.  

It's not bad, exactly, but I wish I could say I liked it better. 


Each of last weekend's two major movie releases disappointed in ways that could have been anticipated.

"The Dark Tower," based on an eight-book, meticulously plotted Stephen King fantasy series, was seen as ridiculously short at 95 minutes -- this despite the casting of always-watchable Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey.  Presumably this picture was built to launch a series, but a second approach might be in order. 

"Detroit," a based-on-the-facts story about the 1967 riots in that city, is seen as too long.  Given most viewers' unfamiliarity with the long-ago event, a documentary treatment might have been more illuminating and have offered more in the way of context.  

Trump Obsession

About 10 days ago, the leftish New Republic magazine published an article entitled,  "Is Trump Ruining Book Sales?"  The subhead:  "Authors and publishers alike are finding that it's hard to sell books in a political climate where truth is stranger than fiction."

I would posit an alternate thesis that does not involve the president:  It's hard to sell mediocre books, and most books these days are not particularly distinguished.  Plus, more authors are releasing their books online. 

I don't spend much time reading about politics, but I have been surprised this year at how absorbed the press is with the "Trump is ruining everything" theme.   Articles about seemingly unrelated topics -- book sales, history, sports, arts, fashion, whatever -- include everything from slipped-in slurs to wholesale detours to explain why Donald Trump is terrible in every possible way.  

Here are examples from just two days.    


There’s a Monty Python sketch in which a man in a restaurant is frustrated because everything on the menu seems to have some rat in it. That’s how things are in the age of comrade Trump. It would be great if he would tweet, “I’m the reason you can’t have nice things. SAD! #inwayovermyhead.” No matter what good things happen, there’s probably a bit of Trump in it.

(The above is the first paragraph in what purports to be a review of the Fuck Yeah Fest!, a classy-sounding music event.  The article proceeds through seven more paragraphs about Donald Trump, four paragraphs about two bands, one paragraph about Iggy Pop and a concluding paragraph.)

Henry Rollins
"Enough Trump -- Let's Talk about How Great Iggy Pop Was at FYF"
August 3, 2017


"Old Walt is tasked with destroying the dark tower, which is the only thing stopping monsters from taking over the planet. Is this a metaphor for the Trump administration? Don't get your hopes up."

Peter Travers
"The Dark Tower' Review"
Rolling Stone

August 3, 2017


Of course, the song’s success doesn’t mean that President Trump’s project will fail, or that cranky nativism will give way to happy multiculturalism. Plenty of people might be willing to watch a video by Puerto Rican artists and still not want a Spanish-speaking neighbor next door. (Although Puerto Rico is a United States territory, so if you’re American, get over it.)

Moises Velasquez-Manoff
"The Meaning of ‘Despacito’ in the Age of Trump"
New York Times
August 4, 2017


Six months into Donald Trump’s presidency, Shkreli captured the zeitgeist of America. Like a millennial version of Trump, he was bombastic, defiant, politically incorrect, indifferent to social norms -- and, according to prosecutors, the truth -- while his expert use of social media attracted a legion of followers. Unlike Trump, he was banned from Twitter after harassing a female journalist.

Misyrlena Egkolfopoulou, Patricia Hurtado and Chris Dolmetsch
"Why ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli Is Swaggering Into Jail"
August 4, 2017


The obsession with hating Donald Trump -- and it is an obsession -- is out of hand.  

If you really, really can't stand the guy, there are practical reasons to think twice before disparaging him every chance you get.

1) Assigning Donald Trump responsibility for everything that you don't like has the perverse effect of making him seem more important and powerful than he actually is.

2) Being unable to view general topics without applying a "Trump-bad/me-good" template limits your capacity for critical thought.

Not everything in this world is about Donald Trump.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

MovieMonday: Girls Trip

There wasn't much new to watch at the movie theater this weekend, unless you wanted to see "The Emoji Movie."  I didn't want to see the that movie, and so I saw "Girls Trip" instead.

Ever since 2009, we've had bro-friend and girlfriend group movies.  Personally, I've see "The Hangover,"  "Last Vegas," "Bridesmaids" and, now, this one.  

To its credit, "Girls Trip" does more to establish the loyalty of friends to each other than its predecessors ever did. 

The plot is this:  One of four college friends, very successful, is seen as the next Oprah and has written a book called "You Can Have It All."  When she is asked to give the keynote speech at the annual Essence Festival in New Orleans, she invites the other three to join her.  They quickly learn that she does not, in fact, have it all, and they form ranks to protect and help her.  

It's a vulgar comedy -- zipline pee jokes, grapefruit oral sex jokes, male nudity and absinthe-induced hallucinations.  Scenes like these now are expected in this this type of film;  The audience in my theater understood this and enjoyed the film enormously.  

After I got home, I went back and re-read the plot synopsis from the first of these, "The Hangover."  It's much, much more crude than "Girls Trip," and it has more than a whiff of misogyny to it.  

On the upside, serious actresses including Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith are in the ensemble, and there are snippets of musical performances (Ne Yo, Diddy) from last year's Essence Festival.  A new-to-me actress, Tiffany Haddish, stole scene after scene playing Dina, a fiercely loyal friend with no dimmer switch and seems to destined for fame as Melissa McCarthy was after her star turn in "Bridesmaids." 


Movies like "Girls Trip" are not just formulaic -- they are shaping the culture.  For the second year, I am some months in Nashville, which has acquired a regional reputation as the go-to spot for bachelorette weekends, prenuptial bonding events for brides and their bridesmaids.

Recently, the local paper described how a 20-year-old company, NashTrash Tours, has stopped accepting bachelorette groups for its smutty, alcoholic entertainments.  Turns out bachelorette groups misbehave too much for the NashTrash people.

FWIW, bachelor groups are not banned.   They seem to behave themselves better.  Also, I never have seen an African American bachelorette party in downtown Nashville.