Our Souls at Night.

The new film Our Souls at Night, now available on Netflix, reunites Robert Redford and Jane Fonda for the first time since 1979’s The Electric Horseman in an adaptation of Kent Haruf’s final novel, published shortly after his death in 2015. It’s a slow, sentimental story of two neighbors, both widowed, who end up in an unlikely romance that brings each of them out of their long, dark nights of mourning while exposing the past wounds that haunt them both … but really, it’s about watching Redford and Fonda remind everyone why they were iconic actors of their generation.

Addie (Fonda) knocks on Louis’s (Redford) door one evening with a proposal: That he come to her place some night to sleep with her, literally, rather than in the Biblical sense. They’re both alone, she says, and she’s finding the nights particularly troublesome. It’s a cute conceit, but of course, the more they spend time together, the more they both open up, and we learn that each has a major, life-altering event in the past that remains unresolved – a death for one, an affair for the other – only to have their pasts sneak up on them as their romance blossoms. When Addie’s son asks her to watch her grandson for an indefinite period, the boy bonds with Louis, Louis himself opens up further to Addie, and Addie’s own mistakes come full circle and threaten to derail their newfound happiness.

The story is bookended by two less-than-credible events – Addie’s proposition to Louis that sets the story in motion, and her decision near the very end of the film that at least temporarily splits them up. The first is a necessary plot device, and it’s at least played out well by Fonda (nervous, but determined) and Redford (reticent and befuddled). The second is a bit harder to accept, because the plot gives Addie a false choice – she could have both, and for reasons that aren’t fully justified in the script, chooses to sacrifice her relationship with Louis. That leads to a very cute and somewhat more credible conclusion, but I could never quite buy into how we got there. It is primarily to the credit of the two actors and the familiar, comfortable chemistry between them that any part of this story plays out seriously, and that the audience can be absorbed in the minutiae of their relationship – the small-town gossip, the first-date hesitancy, the reactions of their adult children. (Judy Greer appears in one scene as Louis’s daughter, playing the character type at which she excels – off-kilter, goofy, effusive, and seeming younger than her actual age.)

The details are what really sell Our Souls at Night, as the plot itself is limited; the script just sort of throws these two characters together and sees what will happen. It avoids the worst cliches, like a forced conflict between the two where they fight and “break up,” and instead gives us two kind but hurting people who choose to be kind to each other. The deaths of secondary characters underline the idea that this is a last shot at happiness for Addie and Louis, rather than saddle the two of them with morbid dialogue, which further allows the script to focus on the organic evolution of the two characters’ relationship and their discussions, largely prompted by Addie, of the old wounds they each suffered that never fully healed.

Our Souls at Night played briefly in a few theaters in September, which should make it eligible for awards, which may really matter for the two lead actors, both of whom are previous winners and, at 79 (Fonda, who’ll turn 80 in December) and 81 (Redford) may not have many more leading roles in their careers. Fonda has won Best Actress twice, with five other nominations, and has three more Golden Globe wins for the same. Redford, to my surprise, has never won a Best Actor Oscar, earning just one nomination in the category (The Sting), with a win for Best Director (Ordinary People) his only regular Oscar, along with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002. The Best Actor category is so competitive that I wouldn’t predict a nod for Redford here, even given the natural boost he’ll get from his reputation and age, but Fonda, who carries a little more weight with her role in this movie, has a fair shot at some nominations for playing Addie. It’s more than a mere nostalgia play, though; Our Souls at Night showcases two great actors in a movie unadorned by anything but dialogue and some beautiful panoramas of the Colorado landscape, with performances that elevate the simplistic plot into something memorable.

Baby Driver.

Baby Driver (available to rent now on amazon and iTunes) was among the most anticipated films of the summer, and was released to solid reviews and an enthusiastic box office, clearing $100 million domestically and over $200 million worldwide. It very much looks like a movie, with actors, dialogue, set pieces, and something like a story. But it’s really an extended series of music videos, loosely stitched together by some semblance of a plot, and if you took the music out you’d just have Bad Boys 6 featuring Jon Hamm.

The main character is a driver named Baby (Ansel Elgort), and he can really drive. When he was still little, he was in the back seat of his parents’ car when they were arguing and ended up slamming into the truck in front of them, killing his parents and somehow leading him to a life of boosting cars and driving them like a champion stunt driver – but he can only drive while listening to music, and he has an iPod and a playlist for each day of the week (or something like that). He stole the Wrong Guy’s car one day, and ended up driving for that guy, Doc (Kevin Spacey), to repay his debt. The movie lets us know after the first heist that Baby just has to do One More Job and he’s “square” with Doc, after which he intends to do something not illegal. He also meets a waitress, Debra (Lily James, looking adorable), and they improbably fall in love despite spending almost no time together, but of course Doc isn’t willing to just let his best driver go – and the next caper is the one that goes wrong.

The movie is bookended by three chase scenes – two at the start, one at the end – that, if you like a good car chase, are tremendously fun to watch. They’re well choreographed and well shot, and Elgort is more than up to the task of showing steel-faced resolve behind the wheel while everyone else in the car is generally freaking out. But everything else about this movie is some exponential power of dumb. Baby records conversations he has with others and remixes them into amateurish home electronica, a habit that is both inexplicable and incredibly stupid, since he’s recording conversations he has with known criminals. With the exception of Hamm’s Buddy, the criminals themselves are caricatures, none more so than Bats (Jamie Foxx), who seems to be going out of his way at all times to let us know how crazy and unpredictable he is (which, in its own way, makes him utterly predictable). The scene with the arms dealer called The Butcher – a welcome cameo by songwriter/actor Paul Williams, playing thoroughly against type – is a complete mess, hinging on Doc failing to tell his crew a rather pertinent detail about the transaction. And throughout the movie, people get shot without any apparent pain or difficulty getting back up and returning fire.

That’s not to say that Baby Driver isn’t fun, because at many points, it is a blast. The car chases are fantastic. The script has some great lines and sight gags, often silly but frequently funny. The visual style throughout the film is arresting, no pun intended, especially during the first heist when Buddy, his wife Darling (Eiza González, wearing skintight clothes and not doing much else), and Griff move in tandem as they exit the car and approach the bank they’re about to rob. The scene opens the film and gives that music-video vibe that director/writer Edgar Wright just can’t maintain through the rest of the movie.

And boy is the rest of the movie a mess. The story is a lot of nothing, with plot conveniences strewn everywhere to keep it moving. The characters are mostly nothing; only Buddy has a hint of an interesting back story, and Hamm manages to turn the character into a credible antagonist. Elgort is solid as Baby, but not given a ton to do; the only scenes where the character shows a little depth are with his deaf, wheelchair-bound foster father, who unfortunately is more prop than anything else in the film. Doc is a parody of a caricature of a crime boss; Spacey’s performance here is indistinguishable from his work in those e-Trade commercials. The film really sputters out at the end, as if Wright couldn’t figure out how to end the story without killing everyone off, giving us a closing sequence that feels tacked on, incongruent, and very much like the end of some epic music video. Wright can certainly put together a good driving playlist, but he might have done better to ask someone else to help him write the story.

The Uplift War.

I have a bit of a strange history with David Brin’s The Uplift War, the second of his two novels in this series to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel; I first got it late in 2015 as an ebook when it was on sale for $2, but when I tried to read it in January of 2016, I found I couldn’t get into it at all and bailed after about 35 pages. What I didn’t quite realize at the time was that I was horrendously sick – regular readers will remember that I had to push the top 100 prospects package back by a week that year, as I ran a fever of up to 103 for six days and ended up needing a powerful and risky antibiotic to knock out the infection. I read a few other books in that span, including The Caine Mutiny (never reviewed, but I did love it) and The Vorrh (which I later reviewed in tandem with its sequel), so I figured Brin’s book maybe just wasn’t for me.

I gave it another shot on my AFL trip this year and ended up flying through it, so clearly the problem was me (or my illness), not the book. It’s long and the story is somewhat involved, but despite Brin’s background as an astrophysicist and heavy use of his own jargon, the prose is surprisingly readable, with some help from an average chapter length of about six pages. There are certainly aspects of old-school sci-fi here that make the book feel dated, including an overreliance on things like intergalactic travel and a universe full of advanced races, but at its heart, The Uplift War is a clever and often exciting war story that works in an anti-war message by having the underdogs’ intelligence and flexible thinking carry the day.

Uplift is a core concept in this book and in the other five novels in the series (Startide Rising, the preceding novel, also won the Hugo), where various races in the Five Galaxies are allowed to raise lower, “pre-sentient” species to a higher level of sapience and consciousness. In the chronology of the stories, humans have already done this with dolphins and chimpanzees, with the latter, dubbed “neo-chims,” playing a significant role in this novel. For advanced species, becoming patrons to client species is apparently a very big deal, although I didn’t quite grasp what tangible benefits accrue to the patrons.

The Uplift War takes place entirely on a remote planet, Garth, controlled by humans and neo-chims, which is then invaded by birdlike creatures called Gudru who act and speak in triplets, with control of the planet somehow very important to their long-term plans for galactic dominance or something like that. (It gets a little too Amazing Stories for my tastes with this stuff and the various alien races.) This leads to a complex web of subplots involving human, neo-chim, and Tymbrimi (another alien race) characters who have variously woven traps and schemes to trick the invaders into, among other things, hunting for a pre-sentient species known as Garthlings hiding in the hills of the planet. The Tymbrimi are apparently big practical jokers, and the long con forms a large part of two of the subplots in the novel, which generally follows the resisting forces with occasional diversions to the three Suzerains from the Gudru who are leading the effort to control the invaded planet.

The setup is long and assumes some foreknowledge of the Uplift universe, which probably didn’t help my fever-addled brain on my first attempt to read the book, but once the narrative shifts focuses to individual characters, who end up working mostly in pairs, the pace picks up substantially and the work itself starts to look more like a classic war novel. It’s not War and Peace, but you can see the influence that work had on Brin with the multi-threaded narrative, emphasis on political and psychological aspects to the fight, and the panoply of side characters who dart in and out of the text. I found much of the race-specific material on aliens and neo-chims to be tiresome and reminiscent of pulpy sci-fi from the 1950s and 1960s, and could have done without Brin’s use of some florid vocabulary (I would say I looked up at least fifty words here that either weren’t in the Kindle dictionary or showed up as “poetic/literary” or “archaic”), but got caught up in two of the stories in particular because he created interesting, three-dimensional characters and managed to build plenty of tension even when it was clear the characters would have survive at least until the end of the book.

Brin, as an astrophysicist, had to be aware of the absurdity of his intergalactic setting, but fares better with some of the futuristic technologies he puts on the ground in the book, especially in terms of sensors and “globes” that resemble RFID devices. He actually does much better in exploring the psychologies of his different races, especially where the Gudru’s lack of a sense of humor ends up costing them in the fight against resisting primates. If you can get past some of the silly trappings around the aliens and neo-chims – fortunately, we don’t get any neo-dolphin characters – there’s a surprisingly good story underneath.

Next up: Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, a data scientist who worked at Google in that role for several years.

Stick to baseball, 10/13/17.

For Insiders this week, I posted my first batch of scouting notes from the Arizona Fall League, covering prospects from the Cardinals, Yankees, Brewers, Orioles, Padres, Cubs, Rockies, and Twins. I also held a Klawchat on Friday.

Later today (Saturday) I will be at Changing Hands in Phoenix, at 2 pm, to talk about and sign copies of Smart Baseball. I’ll also be signing books at PAX Unplugged, a new boardgaming convention that takes place in Philadelphia the weekend before Thanksgiving.

And now, the links…

Klawchat 10/13/17.

My first AFL roundup post is now up for Insiders, with notes on Yankees, Cards, Cubs, Twins, Brewers, Orioles, Rockies, and Padres prospects.

Paul: Have you had a chance to see Alex Jackson catch in Arizona? Or heard from anyone who did?
Keith Law: I saw him. It’s not good. I do like his swing more, but the catching has been bad.

Patty O’Furniture: Can you please provide a ray of hope about these “unprecedented” rule violations by the Braves? Still think Maitan gets to stay in the system?
Keith Law: MLB declined to comment at all, so I don’t know where these rumors are coming from. I do know that there’s no way there were “unprecedented rule violations” without the knowledge of Hart, Schuerholz, and McGuirk. I’m not sure any GM in baseball has that kind of power.

Guest: thoughts on replay/sliding decisions? acceptable unintended consequences, or something that needs to be changed
Keith Law: The call was correct, but I think we’re totally changing the intent of the game here. Are we really trying to determine if, what, a few molecules of air were between the base and some part of the player’s body?

Smikey Pineder: any thoughts on albert abreu of the yankees, #2 upside?
Keith Law: He’s in the Insider post that went up today. I’d probably go below #2.

Greg: What’s your view on Austin Riley?
Keith Law: Same problem as before – doesn’t have the bat speed to get around on good velocity. Homered on a breaking ball yesterday, was behind two fastballs he put in play.

DMan: Florial at double-A next year? How long do you should it take for his pitch recognition to improve?
Keith Law: There’s no way I’d send him to double-A given where his pitch recognition is. He’d get eaten alive.

John: What is Soroka’s ceiling/floor? Although it seems like you aren’t as high on his ceiling as you are the other Braves prospects, do you think he has a higher floor than most if not all of them?
Keith Law: I do not; I think his floor is the bullpen.

Stinkbug Jones: There seems to be a lot of buzz about Hans Crouse, the Rangers’ 2nd rounder from this year — do you think he’s getting overhyped right now, or did the Rangers potentially get a steal at the end of the second round?
Keith Law: They got him in the right spot. Good arm with some delivery and starter/reliever questions.

B: Could we see Nick Gordon in Minnesota EARLY next season, or is he more a September call up candidate?
Keith Law: They’re probably going to play service-time games with him, but I think he’ll be ready sooner rather than later in 2018.

Jon Orr: How would you handle Alex Reyes when he’s healthy next year?
Keith Law: Probably ease him into the rotation in June/July after some rehab outings. Goal should be to get him back to regular work by year-end, which may mean soft-pedaling his workload early in the season.

Joe: Given the Giants’ unconventional approach to previous drafts (picking players who fit their preferred skill sets), do you think they’ll have a similar Big Board compared to the rest of the league now that they have a top pick?
Keith Law: I do. When they’ve picked high, they’ve taken guys in that range. They’ve picked in the top ten four times since I came to ESPN. They took Lincecum in 2006, and he was a stud with stuff and performance but durability concerns. They took Bumgarner in 2007, high-ceiling HS arm with velocity. They took Posey at 5 in 2008, and he was #2 on my board that year. And they took Wheeler at 6 in 2009, which is around where I ranked him too.

Seth: Shouldn’t it be a prerequisite that you must know to bat Anthony Rendon higher than sixth to be qualified to manage in the big leagues?
Keith Law: There’s so much talk about Baker’s handling of the pitching staff, but I don’t think he really did anything wrong on that front. I argued that he should have had a quicker hook with Gio yesterday, but he did eventually get to Scherzer and then someone fired up the improbability drive on him. That wasn’t on Dusty. His biggest mistake to me, and one that may have swung the series (given how close the whole thing was), was hitting Werth 2nd and Rendon 6th. Werth probably belonged on the bench, period, but if you must play him, you can’t bat him before Harper AND rob Rendon of probably 2-3 PA over the course of the series.

Tyler: Just read round up post. Mechanically anything change with Sheffield or just new team new environment? Is he up next year?
Keith Law: It looks like the Yanks have had him ditch the curveball to go to the slider full time. He should be up next year if healthy.

Mike-OB: Do you agree with Kurkjan that the replay overturn on the pick off last night is not in the spirit of the replay rule (I agree with him)?
Keith Law: I agree too, but this is the rule right now. If we don’t like it, we need to change the rule.

RSO: Who wins the ALCS?
Keith Law: I will guess Houston in 6 and the Dodgers in 6.

AES: Klaw–thoughts on Farrell’s dismissal and the allegations of bad clubhouse culture? Leaving starters in far too long/misunderstanding the impact of 3rd+ time through the order is bad. The rest seems like post-facto poppycock.
Keith Law: Baseball as an industry has an unfortunate habit of smearing people as they walk out the door. Boston has done it to Theo, Francona, and now Farrell. Yeah, Farrell was not a great tactical manager, but maybe bad clubhouse culture is on the players?

Peter: He’s older/facing younger competition in the AFL, but did you get a chance to see Eric Filia and did he make an impression?
Keith Law: Saw one game. Can swing it a little. Probably not much ceiling but can at least hit a good fastball.

Jim: Some good reports on Jo Adell. Your thoughts based on what you’re hearing?
Keith Law: Hearing that he’s a good athlete and still can’t throw. Nothing we didn’t know in the spring.

Ben: It looked like Josh Naylor gained some significant weight throughout the season. Does he look bigger now than he did during spring training?
Keith Law: He’s very big, yes.

B: I don’t think Eric Hosmer is very good, but I’m convinced that Dave Dombrowski is going to sign Eric Hosmer to a terrible contract to play 1B for the Red Sox.
Keith Law: I think he goes back to KC for way too much money. The market for him is really limited – very few teams with money need a 1b – and his huge 2017 season is out of line with his career. He’d produced 10 WAR (B-R) over 6 seasons, then 4 WAR this year. There is a small chance this is really who he is going forward, but you can’t pay a player based on his platform year while ignoring what came before. That’s how Garry Matthews Jr. got overpaid.

Ford : Heard Acuña took a fastball of his wrist yesterday anything to worry about?
Keith Law: I tweeted about it. He left the game, probably won’t play today.

Scott: Thoughts on Brandon Waddell? Seems to keep flying under the radar anything there for the Pirates?
Keith Law: Lefty with deception but fringy stuff. I wrote about him in late August, might sneak in as a back-end starter.

Josh: Keith, I know you expressed support for Jemele Hill in a previous chat. Now she is suspended. I am not well versed in the nuances of ESPN’s social media guidelines for employees, I am just saying as a business decision, it makes sense that they would do this. She loosely implied that people should harm ESPN business partners, right?
Keith Law: I still support Jemele. I also don’t know what went on between my employer and her (and her agent) after the initial brouhaha, so I can’t offer any informed opinion on the latest issue, even if I felt like I could.

Marc: Does Alec Hansen stick as a starter? #2 ceiling?
Keith Law: Starter, yes. Ceiling might be a 2 or even a tick higher, but low probability given past control and delivery issues.

Jerry: Let’s say a guy like Franklin Perez becomes a true #4 SP and the other prospects in that deal fail. Is that a win for Detroit considering the money owed to Verlander?
Keith Law: I think it is, given what a starter is worth and what Perez would be paid early in his career.

jeff: What would be the purpose of offering contracts to any of the Royals FA? They are a .500 team with these players. Would the best course of action be just to tag them and fire sell everyone else?
Keith Law: I think the Royals should make QOs to try to collect a bunch of picks, and if someone accepts, it’s a one-year deal and you trade the guy as soon as the rules permit. Re-signing any of them to be expensive players on sub-.500 teams isn’t smart. And they don’t have the pitching, now or in the high minors, to make this team a contender in 2018-19.

BOOKS: I am reading the Master and Margarita for the first time and so far I am really enjoying it. Anything else in this vein you would recommend?
Keith Law: I read that book in college in a class called Comedy & the Novel. The reading list was M&M, Don Quixote, Joseph Andrews, The Charterhouse of Parma, Jacques the Fatalist, If on a winter’s night a traveler, Dead Souls, and Huckleberry Finn. The professor said he would have included At Swim-Two-Birds if he’d been able to squeeze in one more book. Of those, I recommend M&M, If on a winter’s night, and At Swim-Two-Birds the most.

Josh: The Reds outfield seems a little crowded with Schebler, Duvall, Winker, and Hamilton, so what will they do next year? Also, do you think the Reds try to resign Cozart? Finally, do you think Senzel will get a shot to start the year in the majors out of Spring Training?
Keith Law: Senzel probably makes it up in June or so – service time stuff. Really don’t think Schebler is someone you plan around – he’s a fourth outfielder, tops – and Duvall is only marginally better. They need guys who get on base, and neither of those two does that well at all.

Britt: Your thoughts on Adbert Alzolay? Seems to have some helium. Is he a starter long term?
Keith Law: Starter if there’s a third pitch I didn’t see in his relief outing.

Dan: Were there any particularly egrigous (cough Hendricks batting in the 4th cough cough) that happened last night that were not talked about enough, if at all?
Keith Law: Going to Albers in the fourth would qualify. And also the Werth batting order thing I mentioned above.

John : Is Max Fried a potential 2/3 still?
Keith Law: Stuff is there. That stuff should miss more bats than it has, and I think command is one big reason.

Evan: So why are you so high on the Braves system? Seems like a lot of pitching and Acuna. What other position player prospects are even worth paying attention to?
Keith Law: I think Pache is going to be an above-average regular, possibly a star. But you are correct that it is mostly pitching.

Chris: With Austin Barnes proving his worth and some solid catching prospects in the minors, should the Dodgers trade Yasmani Grandal this offseason?
Keith Law: I think so. I was too light on Barnes when he was a prospect – he’s an above-average regular back there.

Justin R: You’ve mentioned Alex Cora as a strong candidate for any head coaching job. What specifically makes him such a strong candidate?
Keith Law: Intelligent, critical thinker, likes to work with analytics department, strong player development mindset, bilingual, has coaching and managerial experience already.

TestaDuda: Did you get a look at Chavis? Is that swing set-up and execution really fixed? Still only 21 years old, I think.
Keith Law: “Fixed” is too strong a word. His hand is healthy, which helped. And the contact he’s making is hard. He can still get pretty uphill and he’s not that disciplined a hitter.

Derek: Jorge Mateo profile better at SS or CF for you? First division starter upside at either position?
Keith Law: Never seen him in CF. Think he’s fine at short.

John: If you were running the Phillies, how would you approach this winter? They have an obvious need for starting pitching and too many middle infielders. Would you go with Hoskins/Kingery/Crawford/Franco in the INF and trade Hernandez/Galvis? Would you try and acquire one of the big ticket FA starters (Arrieta) or go for the next tier down?
Keith Law: I’d explore trades for Hernandez and especially Galvis, as JPC has to play short. As much money as they have to spend, I don’t know that I’d blow it out on this year’s FA starters, who all have real question marks as long-term assets.

Steve: Cole Ragans struck a ton of people out this year, could he be a 2?
Keith Law: I have yet to see him, but I get glowing reports across the board. Sounds like a guy with mid-rotation stuff who pitches above that.

Jay: Terry Francona seems to be receiving a lot of criticism over Cleveland’s loss. They were up 2-0 despite a ton of issues. The only thing I can find fault in is having Michael Brantley playing what was basically spring training for him again and then maybe thinking Corey Kluber’s back problem was better than it was? Am I crazy to think he’s getting too much heat?
Keith Law: They didn’t hit and Kluber struggled in two starts. How can you pin that on the manager? If Brantley didn’t belong on the roster, that’s an organizational decision, not the manager’s. The one mistake I saw from Tito, which Joe Sheehan has pointed out a few times, was putting Kipnis in center, which he just cannot play.

Greg: Compared to the other long list of SP prospects in Atlanta’s system, Joey Wentz is _________?
Keith Law: One of them?

Thomas: It feels like the Tigers farm system is finally starting to trend up (albeit, simultaneous to the team collapsing). Once they add the #1 pick in next year’s draft to the fold, could they finally crack the teens in your rankings?
Keith Law: Going to take more than that. A good draft class plus a few more trades.

Justin R: I’m so confused how the same people irate that Weinstein was a big Democrat donor also voted for Trump, who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.
Keith Law: As am I. Sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape are not partisan issues. We should be as irate over the President doing these things as we are over Weinstein, and as we should be over anyone else of any profession or party who does it. My hope here is that more women come forward to call out other rapists and harassers, because you know these men are everywhere in every business.

M: Is there a better pitching prospect mix than the Padres? The depth is quite impressive. Gore, Quantrill, Nix, Baez, Morejon, Lucchesi, Lauer, Allen, Lawson all seem to have big league starter potential. Maybe not a No. 1 in the mix, but an impressive group.
Keith Law: Atlanta can match that.

Gene Mullett: Since you’ve been scouting & tracking players as a trade, who’s the worst/most underachieving top 3 pick you can remember?
Keith Law: Probably Tim Beckham, given industry consensus, predraft tools, and of course where he was taken.

Mickey: What happened to Manny Banuelos?
Keith Law: Multiple arm problems. Came back with reduced stuff.

Bored Lawyer, Esq. : I saw a couple Mitch Keller starts. I know it’s hard to tell from box scores, but he has command and control, right? I don’t recall seeing a young AA pitcher withcthst ability in some time.
Keith Law: Control more than command to me. Also needs to refine the changeup, which is really a BP fastball right now.

Bananas: Touki have a shot at your top 100?
Keith Law: He’s been on it at least once before.

Dan: Does the proliferation of scout lingo among in-group fans irk you at all? If you could remove one or two terms from the baseball commentariat lexicon, what would they be?
Keith Law: It’s not going to make me take you more seriously if you try to use jargon. I find fans in general tend to push toward extreme judgments – your system is not full of guys with 70 and 80 tools.

Moltar: The Mets have to make a roster spot for Guillorme, no? He’d most certainly make another team happy as a rule 5 selection if not.
Keith Law: On the 40-man yes. Not sure there’s enough bat there to make him a good ML bench guy even as a 70 or better defender.

Dylan: Do managers need to stop throwing starters out of the bullpen on short rest in the playoffs? It seems like it doesn’t work much more often than it does work.
Keith Law: I feel like it’s become a crutch of sorts without regard to whether such starters are actually the best options to get the next 1 or 3 or 6 outs. We just assume they’re better than any relievers, and over the course of a season that would be true, but in one shot, working on irregular rest, out of their routines, that may not be the case.

B: Do the Astros have anything with Arementeros? Is he just a 4/5 innings eater guy or is there more there?
Keith Law: A 4/5 innings eater guy for what they gave him ($30K, I think?) would be an outright steal. And I think he’s that.

HH: I know you hate comps but Tristan MacKenzie reminds me very much of Carl Edwards Jr. How likely is it that T-Mac can stick as a starter, given his body type?
Keith Law: Taller, longer release, better spin on his FB than Edwards.

Average Joe: regarding replay: I’ve seen several cases this year where there was less than perfect evidence a players foot/hand came off the bag and yet replay overturned a call, does NY see more than they show on TV?
Keith Law: Yes.

Dylan: Going back to the call on the slide at first base last night – science tells us we’re truly never touching anything. This could be a gamechanger for baseball. Everyone is out, all the time.
Keith Law: Exactly. Also, the universe is just a hologram and matter is
not real.

Scott: Yordan Alvarez’s ceiling is a .300 hitter with 20-25 bombs? Or too optimistic?
Keith Law: Probably right. I feel like, despite his size, he’s more of a hitter for average than big power. It’s not a lofty swing. And yes, I know everyone hits 20 HR right now.

Moltar: Should the Mets plan for 2018 be Smith as the full time 1B? Should the be looking for a higher-end backup/platoon partner?
Keith Law: Need to let him play full time, even if that means living through adjustments or struggles. Platooning young players is generally the worst thing for their development.

Greg: What are the chances that Lourdes Gurriel hits enough to be a regular player in the bigs? If he doesn’t, will he still likely profile as a big league utility player?
Keith Law: I don’t see it. Hasn’t looked good at the plate any time I’ve seen him – really slow actions everywhere.

Brent: Keith, is there a group of draft prospects that have separated from the pack to be considered 1-1 candidates? I realize games haven’t been played yet, but do you have a ballpark figure on who the likely top draft pick would be?
Keith Law: There’s a group of 1-1 guys but nobody who’s clearly above the rest. I hear Turang’s name a bit, but nobody is sold (yet) on the bat. Rocker and Hankins are the best HS arms, but no prep RHP has ever gone first overall. I don’t know if there’s a college guy even likely to get into that tier. It seems like a good college crop for the 11-30 range, but not for the top ten.

88 Keys: Are you surprised by the amount of traction Democratic Socialism appears to be getting among millennials? I’ve wondered if it isn’t just a small, loud online group, but there appears to be a decent sized faction out there who seem truly committed to the notion that centrism and neoliberalism are pejorative terms.
Keith Law: I’ve assumed some of what I’ve seen is an echo chamber effect – I know a few people into that movement, and thus I see/hear more about it. Socialism has been such an abject failure around the world that I can’t support any movement that even leans in that direction.

Gene Mullett: Did you ever see any of this coming out of Jose Rameriez? Sure, he had a lousy ALDS, but he’s been an absolute monster the last 2 seasons.

Also, how many questions are in your queue or scolling by?
Keith Law: Thought he had a chance to be a good player, never forecasted top 10 in the league, not even as a best case scenario ceiling. He was nearly always young for his levels, too, so he never performed up to his raw ability (but was always solid in context of his age).

Keith: What is your POV on how teams should best use the AFL? Some teams have sent top guys there; others (like White Sox) sent none of their top guys. How do the developmental pro/cons break out in your mind?
Keith Law: Send guys who need to face better pitching to develop. Send anyone who missed time during the year due to injury and needs to make up the AB/IP they lost. Send borderline 40-man candidates so you can evaluate them – and so can other teams, so maybe you can trade them in November.

Joe: Gary Denbo a good hire for the Marlins?
Keith Law: I don’t have an opinion on him specifically for that role, but overseeing player development AND the amateur draft is ridiculous – and worse when the person has no experience on the amateur side. Those are both departments that require one full-time head.

Dan: Sadly, there are still probably plenty of other “Harvey Weinsteins” in Hollywood and many other industries that have acted similarly. Hopefully, all these monsters can be rooted out.
Keith Law: I bet they’re all over sports too. I would imagine a woman working for a professional sports team would feel the same way many of these young actresses say they felt when Weinstein attacked them – no one will believe them, it’s a male-dominated industry, they’re alone/without support. If you’re a woman in MLB and have been harassed in any way by a male supervisor or co-worker, I’d love to hear your story.

JP: Over/Under 3 years, $30 million for Cozart?
Keith Law: I think well over on the dollars.

Tracy: Hi Keith, I’m a book imbiber just like you, but more so on the non-fiction side, particularly presidential bios, so I am looking forward to reading the new Ron Chernow book on Grant. Do you have any interest in this subject?
Keith Law: Never been huge on American history as a book topic. I go more for history of science books when I go non-fiction.

Marc: White Sox still have to go BPA at 4 even if it’s another SP right? People already seem to be itchy to start ‘filling holes’ 12 months into a rebuild.
Keith Law: Always go BPA.

Nick: Think Almora is a can be an average everyday hitter? And how good can “elite” defense really be in center field when speed is average at best?
Keith Law: Andruw was still an elite defender even when he was no longer any kind of runner. Vernon Wells never ran average but had a few years of great defense in center. I think Almora’s an elite defender and doesn’t have to hit much to be an average regular.

David Dahl: Do you think I’ll ever stay healthy enough to be an All-Star caliber player? Or just a “nice” #3 OF?
Keith Law: All-Star if healthy. Health is a big unknown here. He had a serious injury that can alter a career, but I don’t know any specifics about his case.

Mike: But I am in the camp that believes starting Bauer in game 1 was just an excuse to give Kluber’s back an extra day to recover.
Keith Law: We just don’t know, right? Maybe Kluber still wasn’t 100%. Maybe Scherzer could have started games 1 and then 4 and been fine, but the Nats didn’t want to risk it. I don’t always succeed but I try to limit criticisms of managers to stuff we know – like, hey, Jayson Werth, not so good with the bat now.

Grant: What purpose does exit velocity serve?
Keith Law: Harder contact is good, no? Increases likelihood of hits, likelihood of extra bases. No power without hard contact either.

Nick: Have you read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy? I really enjoyed it as a quick one with excellent, funny dialogue.
Keith Law: Yep, enjoyed it, read the first sequel, thought it was repetitive.

Mickey: Hammett or Chandler?
Keith Law: Hammett

CL: Hypothetically Hart is forced to resign. Who would be a good replacement for him? Who would be a good replacement for Coppy?
Keith Law: I think it depends on who’s actually calling the shots there. You can’t bring in someone who won’t be able to work with Schuerholz, for example. If you need a president and a GM, do you hire someone who’s had success as a GM elsewhere and promote him to the President role that Hart currently fills? I threw some names out last week, but it really depends on who’s still there in Atlanta when the dust settles on the investigation.

Adam: In the Nationals situation, down two games in a five game series, was there a strategic advantage for Strasburg pitching game 4 instead of game 5? I was having trouble following what the problem would be moving him back a day if he were sick.
Keith Law: The idea of losing the series without Strasburg pitching again.

Jim: Braves J2 prospects from 2016 were high profile guys with big dollars – Maitan, Gutierrez, Severino – wouldn’t that open up the flood gates for other J2 prospects to leak tampering?
Keith Law: Every J2 player who signs on July 2nd had an illegal predraft deal in place. Could any of them come forward and demand free agency because the signing team broke the rules? Does MLB want to open that door, and thus find itself lying on the ground with a giant door on top of it? This metaphor isn’t quite working out for me, but yes, when the whole system is corrupt, then it could all collapse given the incentive the players have to take the money and then cry foul.

Clark: I don’t think I’ve ever seen you post anything about soccer, but do you have an opinion on the humiliating loss this week that saw the USMNT miss the World Cup? It’s not like American soccer was every going to challenge baseball or the other top sports, but it still has to be a huge blow to the sport’s rise here, right?
Keith Law: I assume so, but I really don’t know or follow soccer. I’ll typically watch a little World Cup, but that’s it.

Bobby: You said in your post you saw Albert Abreu ” turn the changeup over at release”. For we noobs that are just getting into this stuff, what exactly is “turning over a changeup” and how did you, as the evaluator, recognize it.
Keith Law: It’s a literal description of how the pitcher’s hand moves at release. I can see him turn it over – rotating his wrist at release. When a pitcher does it on one pitch but not the others, it’s a signal to an observant hitter what the pitch is.

Jay: Tommy Pham one year wonder or sustained success for next few years?
Keith Law: Skills are there, has to stay healthy. He really had no track record of health coming into the year.

Ted: So you’re saying the White Sox should have sent Robert to the AFL. He seems to fit the “should face better pitching to help with further development” bucket.
Keith Law: I don’t think he has a work visa yet. I was told he’s not in instructs either.

B: I like Xander Bogaerts, but where the hell is the power?
Keith Law: Played with two hand injuries this year. Can’t hit for power if you can’t grip the bat.

Corey: Speaking of the AFL, did you see Henry Owens’ start ? 5 BBs, 2 hits, 4 runs, 1 IP. Is he ever going to be anything beyond a AAA walk machine ? Seems like his height is in the way of his mechanics and nobody can figure out how to fix it
Keith Law: I was there and tweeted about it. He’s a sidearmer now and it’s ugly.

Billy: Why is young pitching in the draft still seemingly valued higher than young hitting? We’ve seen countless high profile pitchers flame out or get injured constantly whereas proven college bats seem to have a higher rate of success. For example (not necessarily the best one) the in 2015 MLB draft, top 10 picks Benintendi and Bregman are starting everyday for playoff teams whereas Dillon Tate is in AA and has been already dealt for a veteran bat rental
Keith Law: Because you might get a Clayton Kershaw (#7 overall in 2006) or a Jose Fernandez (#14 overall in 2011), and no one wants to miss on a guy like that.

Rich: A very bright friend of mine is, for some reason, a chronic conspiracy theorist. Days after the Vegas incident, he was predictably sending me all of the damning evidence that this was a false flag operation. Do you have any theories why otherwise intelligent people are so gullible when it comes to these events?
Keith Law: I would truly un-friend this person, forever. You can’t talk to someone like that.

Raphael: Is Teoscar a future regular?
Keith Law: I think so.

Sam: Should Braves fans want Dayton Moore? Seems like the “he won a WS” argument is nice, but I’m not sure I’m excited about him as an option. Their farm is a wasteland.
Keith Law: He built a good system, won two pennants and a WS, and would leave the farm in pretty bad shape. Is that an acceptable outcome for most teams? I think it is. Most fans would take one WS win and a second flag even if it means a rebuild afterwards.

Dennis: Who do you enjoy more, Henry Green or Anthony Powell? I haven’t read either, thinking of starting with Green….
Keith Law: Powell. I loved A Dance to the Music of Time.

Sam: Based on what is public knowledge or whatever is private knowledge, what do you think actually happens to the Braves through this MLB investigation?
Keith Law: Definitely big fines coming. If they find evidence the team did something wrong in the draft beyond the usual (everyone strikes predraft deals – the system more or less forces you to do so), they could strip picks. Beyond that, I truly don’t know.

Chris: I know its a few months late, but are you going to do your re-draft article 10 years after the 2007 draft? I’m sure it’s because you were finishing your book, but I always enjoyed those ones.
Keith Law: No, my editors didn’t want it this year.

Mark: Was wondering if you have ever read Dune by Frank Herbert and if so what you thought of it ?
Keith Law: Dune is great, but do not read any sequels.

Stan: Lots of talk about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers being the greatest American band in history. Does employing a British drummer for 23 of the bands 40 tears disqualify them for the title?
Keith Law: I liked Petty’s work – although it irked me that their first “greatest hits” record omitted “Woman in Love” – but yeah, greatest American band is probably a stretch, regardless of where the drummer was born.

Dennis: Tristram Shandy worth reading?
Keith Law: It’s funny but the language is so different that I found it slow going.

Dave: Lots of great new albums out today…have you had a chance to listen? ST. Vincent, Beck, Wu-Tang, Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile
Keith Law: Wu-Tang is surprisingly good – in the sense that it sounds a lot like vintage WTC. Hated the Barnett/Vile singles (mostly because I can’t stand how he sings) and have never liked St. Vincent at all.

Dave: What was the last concert you went to?
Keith Law: Saw Less Art in Philly a month ago.

Dave: Do you think Girardi will be back?
Keith Law: Definitely.

Ben: With the way Gregorious played this year, do you start Torres at 2b or 3b to begin his career or do you explore moving Didi while his value is at its peak?
Keith Law: My argument has been to move Didi while his value is high – once Torres is back and healthy – because I think you could get a king’s ransom for him, perhaps filling two roles with such a deal, while moving either him or Torres to another position wastes someone’s defensive value, as both can really play short.

James: Does Victor Robles open 2018 with a full time job or does he need more seasoning?
Keith Law: He really hasn’t played much above A-ball. I expect him to spend most of the year in the minors.
Keith Law: OK, I’m off to a game shortly here – thanks for joining me for the impromptu chat today. I should be back on schedule next week. Also, I will be at Changing Hands here in Phoenix at 2 pm on Saturday (tomorrow) to discuss and sign copies of my book, Smart Baseball. Hope to see some of you there!

A Case of Conscience.

James Blish’s novel A Case of Conscience won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1959, the fifth time the award had been given out, kicking off a run of books that are still considered classics today: Starship Troopers, A Canticle for Leibowitz, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Man in the High Castle, and Way Station won the next five Hugos, and Dune won two years after that streak. It was a golden age of science fiction, particularly of sci-fi novels that tackled major philosophical themes; Blish’s novel, his only winner, remains one of the few novels to win the award that uses a science fiction plot to examine questions of religion and morality. It’s a curious work, a novella that was then doubled in length to turn it into a novel, and has some of the stitched-together quality you’d expect, but also gives the reader a fairly compelling central story that centers on a Jesuit priest’s crisis of conscience while also working in issues around colonialism, exploitation, and violent political movements.

Father Ramon Ruiz-Sanchez is the story’s protagonist and moral center, one of a group of four humans on the planet Lithia, assigned the task of determining whether it is safe to open the planet for human contact. The rest of the crew comprises three scientists of varying views on religion and morality, including the rationalist/atheist Cleaver, a physicist who discovers that the planet is a potential source of raw material for the production of nuclear weapons. The Lithians, reptilian creatures who walk on two legs, live in a utopian society where their culture and language lack words for conflict, dissent, or crime … but they are also a completely secular society, without any concept of religion or God. Father Ruiz-Sanchez begins to suspect that the planet itself was created by Satan, as it is a near-perfect attack on core principles of Catholic theology, and argues that the planet should be “quarantined” from all contact with earth. The team is unable to agree on a recommendation, and Ruiz-Sanchez acknowledges that Cleaver is likely to get his wish in the end. The Lithians, unaware of any of this conversation, give Ruiz-Sanchez a parting gift as they leave: an embryo (in an egg) of a Lithian, in a special container designed to allow the fetus to survive the journey back to Earth. (Lithians do not raise their young as humans do, which is explained at length in the text.)

In part two, the Lithian embryo becomes the grown Egtverchi, a ten-foot tall saurian biped who experiences a whole new level of culture shock as he’s exposed to human civilization. Possessed of a tremendous capacity to learn, he quickly absorbs most human knowledge, and I think it’s fair to say he’s not terribly impressed by it. He becomes a pop phenomenon, getting his own reality TV show, and encouraging his viewers to act on their discontent with their jobs, their government, and so on. His following is large enough to lead to mayhem in the streets, all while work to convert Lithia into a giant lithium deuteride factory continues fifty light-years away. Father Ruiz-Sanchez, meanwhile, is charged with heresy, faces an audience with the Pope, and comes back at the UN’s request to deal with the situation Egtverchi has created.

The novel is brief, just over 200 pages, but packs a lot of ideas into its two sections. The first part, originally published on its own, is a sort of thought experiment: Blish appears to have been very familiar with Catholic teachings and created a civilization in the Lithians that would refute that doctrine, such as that a peaceful world would not be possible without God. Blish gives Ruiz-Sanchez this challenge, and forces him to confront it and try to convince at least one of his skeptical colleagues to agree to his plan to close off the planet from human contact. Without the second half, however, it’s fairly flat, devoid of any tension, and the potential risks from Ruiz-Sanchez’s scenario are far from evident. A Case of Conscience needs Egtverchi to bring the priest’s concerns to life, and he does so in stark, shocking ways, stirring up an angry populist mob in a storyline that seems to presage everything from Fight Club to the 2016 U.S. election.

Blish also opens the door to discussions about imperialism and exploitation of colonies with the setup of his novel, as humans have developed the technology to get to Lithia and have made numerous scientific discoveries that the Lithians, while an advanced society, have not. Lithia itself has very little iron, limiting their progress in some key aspects of physics or chemistry, adding to the sense that humans are the ‘superior’ race, which, in Cleaver’s mind, means there’s no problem with showing up on someone else’s planet and plundering it of resources, even if the cost is environmental destruction or other massive disruptions of the native species. The theme isn’t entirely fleshed out here because the second half of the novel takes place almost entirely on Earth, but the questions lay open in the text, and given that Blish wrote it in the 1950s while western countries still held nearly all of Africa and swaths of southern Asia as colonies, I imagine that was at least a model for him in devising the structure of his universe.

I won’t spoil the resolution of A Case for Conscience other than to say that I enjoyed its ambiguity; I think it’s a perfect way to get around the religious question involved in the conclusion without dismissing it entirely. Blish’s portrayal of Ruiz-Sanchez is thoughtful and respectful in a way that most science fiction authors’ words aren’t; many sci-fi novels ignore religion entirely or portray it as an artifact of the past, something sloughed off over time or destroyed by the progress of science. Such twists tend to miss the importance of religion to human culture (for better and worse) and how religion gives many people an answer to the meaning of life. Blish, whom the introduction to the version I read labels as an agnostic, deserves credit for creating a man of the cloth who is credible, well-drawn, and appropriately flawed.

Next up: David Brin’s The Uplift War, another Hugo winner.

A Ghost Story.

A Ghost Story reunites Rooney Mara, Casey Affleck, and director David Lowery, who all worked together on 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints?, this time in a peculiar film that manages to combine elements of dark humor, pathos, grief, and existential fear in its 90 minutes. It’s about as slow-paced a movie as I can remember seeing, varying scenes that go on twice as long as necessary with compressed time-lapses, and for much of the second half of the film the direction seemed unclear or just lacking. It takes a strong payoff at the end – and this payoff is very strong, thematically and in terms of plot resolution – to justify some of the earlier choices Lowery makes in getting to that final scene. It’s currently available to rent/buy on amazon or iTunes.

Affleck, who won Best Actor this spring for Manchester by the Sea just after allegations of sexual and personal harassment surfaced against him, plays M, who has just moved into a house with C, played by Mara. They seem to have an idyllic little romance, but shortly into the film, M is killed in a car accident just outside of their house. After C identifies his body at the morgue and leaves the room in her grief, M rises from the gurney … with the sheet on, and two dark ovals for his eyes, and then spends the rest of the film wandering around as a ghost in that sheet. It sounds ridiculous, and it largely plays out that way: It’s hard to take anything too seriously when the dude is standing there in the cheapest Halloween costume ever.

M goes back to the house and sees C mourning, including a scene that was longer than Krusty the Clown’s SNL sketch where C eats a pie left by a friend, and then sees her go on a date and starts moving things around in the house in his anger. She moves out, another family moves in, and suddenly M is haunting the house, leading to a fairly harrowing scene out of a gothic horror film, made worse because the son of the family can actually see him (the only evidence I saw that any living character saw the ghost). M even interacts with another besheeted ghost next door, although she at least gets a pattern on her sheet, in a couple of brief conversations that are so morose that they played out as the blackest of comedy to me. Eventually, the house is destroyed while M is standing in it, cleared out to make room for a skyscraper … and things just get weirder from there, as M loops backwards in time and eventually approaches the present where he can see himself as a ghost watching himself as a living person with C in their house.

A story like this only works if enough of the details that seem trivial in passing turn out to matter in the resolution, and by and large Lowery does so. The ghost next door turns out to matter. C’s habit of leaving notes in crevices of places she’s lived turns out to matter. The scene early in the film where a strange noise in the middle of the night gets the two out of bed matters. Some things don’t – I mean, really, I love pie, but the pie scene is just too damn long – but Lowery brings enough of these quirks home in the conclusion to justify the length and pace of the journey.

Although it’s a supernatural film in the sense that M is a ghost, A Ghost Story doesn’t dwell at all on the spiritual aspects of what’s happening, even though much of its internal theology draws from the practices and beliefs of modern spiritualism or religions that draw from it like Baha’i. What appears to be a story about a tragic romance ends up a story about moving on after loss, about how you can get stuck in your grief and unable to move forward, forced to repeat or relive the worst experiences of your life when you still have life ahead of you.

Affleck doesn’t appear in the film very much except under the sheet – I’ve read that it was usually him under there – and it could have been almost anyone in that role. Mara has more weight to carry, and I don’t think she was fully up to the task. Mara has a vacancy to her looks, her speech, even her appearance that undermines the character’s presence on the screen. I understand C’s grief, but I don’t feel it from Mara. It doesn’t help that she looks so much younger than Affleck, or that her voice is so insubstantial; she reminded me of Zoe Kazan in The Big Sick or Emily Browning on American Gods (easily my least favorite actor on that show), where the casting director seems to have confused “waifish” with “vulnerable.” I don’t care about how a character looks if s/he brings the right emotion to the role, but Mara just isn’t present enough in C’s character to sell me on the depth of her grief or make her recovery from it feel compelling.

A Ghost Story is a tough sell on so many levels, and I’m still not sure how much of what I found comic in the role was intentional. Had Lowery flubbed the ending, I’d have little positive to say about it, because he constructed the script on the foundation of that concluding scene. But it works extremely well when he gets there – and it’s fast, so if you do watch this, don’t blink – and infuses almost everything that came before with greater meaning, so that A Ghost Story really does tell us something about loss and continuing to live beyond it.

The Big Sick.

The Big Sick was one of the few bright spots in an ugly summer for the movies, racking up over $40 million in a limited release to lead all indie films from 2017, 2016, or 2015. The romantic comedy is a rarity in its genre, a genuinely funny film with a big heart that doesn’t talk down to its audience, and is boosted by two strong supporting performances by Holly Hunter and Ray Romano. Oh, and one of the two romantic leads spends about half of the film in a medically-induced coma. (I know, it’s serious.) Amazon purchased The Big Sick in the spring but hasn’t put it on Prime (yet), so you can rent it from the usual sites in the meantime, including amazon and iTunes.

The script draws from the true story of Kumail Nanjiani (playing himself) and Emily Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), incorporating her real-life illness and the cultural conflict Kumail faced as the secular son of religious, traditional Pakistani parents in Chicago. The two strike up an unlikely relationship that falls apart when Emily finds out that Kumail hasn’t told his parents, who expect him to make an arranged marriage to a girl of Pakistani descent, that he’s dating a white woman. Shortly after their breakup, however, Emily ends up in the hospital with what appears to be a serious infection, and one of her friends calls Kumail – perhaps unaware how things ended between them – to ask him to go be with her in the ER until her parents get into town. In the interim, the doctors put Emily into a coma, so that when her folks, played by Hunter and Romano, arrive, Kumail meets them for the first time under strained cirumstances, and since they know what he did, they’re not especially open to his presence. Over the remainder of the film, of course, they grow fond of each other, pushed along by outside events, while Kumail has to confront his inner conflict between fealty to his parents and his desire for an independent, non-Muslim life in the U.S.

While Nanjiani is affable and charming throughout the film, Hunter and Romano – especially Hunter – carry this movie beyond regular meet-cute territory, with performances that manage to feel real without crossing into pure sentiment. Hunter, playing Beth, pulses with a sort of quiet rage that spills out in the most unlikely place, where she defends Nanjiani from a bigoted heckler, signaling (obviously) a turning point in her view of her daughter’s ex and making clear that his ethnicity or background are just not relevant to her. The strained relationship Beth and Terry (Romano) have also gets a little more explanation as the story progresses, but this is primarily about how Kumail and Emily’s parents formed a bond while Emily was under, and Kumail’s own realization that he’d rather defy his family and face the consequences than walk away from Emily forever.

There are bits of The Big Sick that don’t work as well, that feel a bit more like, if not exactly cheap laughs, then slightly less expensive ones. I don’t know how true to life the scenes of Kumail with his family are, but we’ve certainly seen these assimilation stories before, right down to the mom blithely pretending she’s not trying to arrange a marriage for her son while she’s obviously trying to arrange a marriage for her son. His parents come off as very one-note in the film, and in an unconvincing way – the importance of tradition or religion for them is just assumed, never shown, and their reaction when he reveals that he’s dating a white girl and has no intention of accepting an arranged marriage feels out of proportion to what we’ve seen before then.

I also didn’t feel like Kazan, who of course isn’t in the movie as much as Nanjiani, brought a ton of personality to Emily’s character; she’s little, and has a cute smile, but there’s little depth to her personality on screen and Kazan’s youthful appearance ends up working against the character by making her seem insubstantial. The story is more about Kumail and Emily’s parents than it is about Emily, and there’s enough chemistry between the two leads that the romance itself is credible, but I thought Kazan was less than ideal for the role.

This feels like perfect fodder for The Golden Globes, with that show’s separate category for comedies, and could end up with nominations for best comedy, maybe best actor in a comedy (Nanjiani), and perhaps a supporting nod for Hunter (although the Globes don’t distinguish between supporting roles in dramas or comedies). It seems most likely to me to end up a film that while generally unrecognized by industry awards makes a slew of critics’ year-end top ten lists.

Stick to baseball, 10/7/17.

My lone Insider piece this week looked at the top under-25 players on playoff rosters, so of course someone complained that I’d left Manny Machado off the list. I also held a Klawchat on Thursday.

Next Saturday, October 14th, I’ll be at Changing Hands in Phoenix, talking about and signing copies of Smart Baseball, starting at 2 pm ET. This Changing Hands location serves beer and wine, which may help make me more interesting.

And now, the links…

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

Robert Heinlein won four Hugo Awards for Best Novel, tied with Lois McMaster Bujold (at the moment) for the most in that category, with two of those wins coming for his iconic books Stranger in a Strange Land and Starship Troopers. Heinlein’s works, whether novels, short stories, or young adult fiction, tend to me a little lighter on the science and heavier on story, while always being readable, often compulsively so. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress diverges completely from the pattern of his other three winners – and everything else I’ve ever read from his pen – in its turgid prose and emphasis on irrelevant details, turning what might have been a compelling political allegory into a bloated sci-fi stereotype.

Set in the 2070s, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress has the moon functioning as a penal colony and, strangely, an agricultural entity, growing wheat and shipping it back to earth. (Heinlein’s works often reflected the limited knowledge of the chemistry and geology of foreign bodies; in several of his novels and stories, he has humans colonizing Venus, because at the time we didn’t know how utterly inhospitable that planet’s environment is.) Mannie is the narrator, a free person on Luna who is agitating for political autonomy for the colony, and joins forces with “Mike,” a massive supercomputer that has achieved sentience without its developers realizing it; Prof, an old hand with broad knowledge of political systems; and Wyoh, full name Wyoming Knott (Wye Knott … get it?), a young woman who shows promise in an underground political rally that turns violent. These four characters plot and scheme, building a communist-style, decentralized, self-protecting network of cells that proves impenetrable for Authority forces from Earth, with Mike playing a critical role in both running scenarios and calculating odds of success and in using his pervasive presence on Luna to control and monitor communications and movements.

Heinlein has created a few iconic characters, but I associate him more than anything else with great stories – he cooks up novel situations in sci-fi settings, then puts his characters through the paces with quick prose and fast-changing plot details. In The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, he fails on both of those latter two counts. Luna residents speak in a Russian-inflected slang, similar to the one Burgess employed in A Clockwork Orange but with more Russian loanwords, and with many articles and prepositions dropped from Mannie’s dialogue and narration, which makes for a slower, actively frustrating read.

And it turns out that revolution is kind of boring. Heinlein wastes far too much time on internal discussions of how the revolutionaries will set up their org structure, how they’ll govern if they gain independence, how they negotiate with hostile countries on Earth (which still includes a “SovUnion” … predicting the future was never Heinlein’s strong suit), or how the Lunar colony’s “catapult” to lob projectiles at earth is supposed to work. At one point he lists all of the officials in the new Lunar provisional government, many of whom are names that only appear that one time in the book.

There is a real metaphor here – and I know Heinlein disdained attempts to read into his work – about the relationship between colonizer and colony, about rights of self-determination, and about economic oppression. Heinlein wrote this in the mid-1960s as European powers were slowly and often reluctantly granting independence to their colonies in Africa, a process that wouldn’t really end until Portugal ceded Angola and Mozambique in 1975. Whether he meant the book as a criticism of such colonialism or not, it is impossible to avoid such a reading of the work given the time in which he wrote it and the exploitation of the natural resources of Africa (and previously Asia and the Americas) by paternalistic and often violently repressive European nations. It’s the most potentially interesting part of the novel, but is constantly subsumed by Heinlein’s focus on irrelevant details or dull tangents like the ones where he describes the polygamist culture of Mannie’s “warren” on Luna.

I’d read any of Heinlein’s other winners before this one, even Double Star, which lacks the philosophical weight of his other works but tells a cracking good story with a few clever twists. The early years of the Hugo Award produced some pretty questionable honorees, and I wonder if there was a Gold Glove effect here – Heinlein had won it before, and was a huge name, so this book earned some votes on that basis rather than on its own merits. It’s in the bottom half of the roughly 50 winners I’ve read so far.