The John Dean Moment
We used to have to wait a day for headlines like these—or at least until the afternoon newspaper, kids—but now it plays out in real time. Along with the denials and obfuscations and general muddying of waters. That's all the GOP has these days: mud to add to otherwise pretty clear water. It's becoming apparent to more and more people what should‘ve been obvious a long time ago: Donald Trump is a crook.
The Times’ subhed is just as important: Pence and Pompeo. Frick and Frack. Or Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? Nah, that's letting them off too easily.
Alan Moore on Our Superhero Fixation
What was the impact of popular heroes comic books in our culture? Why are people fascinated by alternative realities?
I think the impact of superheroes on popular culture is both tremendously embarrassing and not a little worrying. While these characters were originally perfectly suited to stimulating the imaginations of their twelve or thirteen year-old audience, today’s franchised übermenschen, aimed at a supposedly adult audience, seem to be serving some kind of different function, and fulfilling different needs. Primarily, mass-market superhero movies seem to be abetting an audience who do not wish to relinquish their grip on (a) their relatively reassuring childhoods, or (b) the relatively reassuring 20th century. The continuing popularity of these movies to me suggests some kind of deliberate, self-imposed state of emotional arrest, combined with an numbing condition of cultural stasis that can be witnessed in comics, movies, popular music and, indeed, right across the cultural spectrum. The superheroes themselves – largely written and drawn by creators who have never stood up for their own rights against the companies that employ them, much less the rights of a Jack Kirby or Jerry Siegel or Joe Schuster – would seem to be largely employed as cowardice compensators, perhaps a bit like the handgun on the nightstand. I would also remark that save for a smattering of non-white characters (and non-white creators) these books and these iconic characters are still very much white supremacist dreams of the master race. In fact, I think that a good argument can be made for D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation as the first American superhero movie, and the point of origin for all those capes and masks.
interview between “Watchmen” creator Alan Moore and Brazilian writer/editor Raphael Sassaki, which took place in 2016, and was translated and published in January 2017. Full interview here.
Trump Outsources Foreign Policy to Russian Gangsters
“A week ago, CNN found Trump had at least ten interactions with [Lev] Parnas and [Igor] Fruman [who were arrested by federal agents on Oct. 10], straining his denials beyond all credibility. Friday night, CNN unearthed an even more dangerous piece of news. Parnas and Fruman, along with their partner, Rudy Giuliani, met with Trump in the White House during its annual Hanukkah party. Parnas told two people that Trump tasked them with pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
”Trump's dishonesty is so comprehensive that the revelation he lied about knowing Parnas and Fruman—the sort of lie that would badly damage a normal president—barely registers. The fact that he allegedly commissioned Parnas's work directly might prove more damaging. Here Trump recruited a pair of sleazeballs with ties to the Russian mafia to communicate with the Ukrainian government on his behalf. ‘President outsources his foreign policy to gangsters’ is the sort of charge that ought to draw more attention than it has.“
Jonathan Chait, ”Trump Personally Directed Mob-Linked Figure Tied to Ukraine Shakedown," New York magazine
Movie Review: The Irishman (2019)
It goes pretty fast for a three-and-a-half hour movie. Surprising since the movie itself isn’t rushing through anything. It moves leisurely. It’s got an old man’s pace—befitting its storyteller.
No, not director Martin Scorsese, who just turned 77, and who can still make movies as clipped and zippy as his own much-imitated speaking style. I’m talking the title character. The movie opens with a single-shot pan down the hallway of a nursing home, which eventually turns a corner and settles on an aged Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), sitting in a wheelchair in an alcove and talking about his past. To whom? One might think it’s Charles Brandt, the former Delaware attorney general who, six months after Sheeran’s death in 2003, published the book on which the movie is based. Except that book, “I Heard You Paint Houses: Frank ‘The Irishman’ Sheeran & The Inside Story of The Mafia, The Teamsters, & The Last Ride of Jimmy Hoffa,” has been pretty much debunked, and anyway we never see Brandt. We don’t see anyone. Sheeran is sitting by himself and talking to himself—or talking in his head. He’s all he’s got anymore.
Could his story have been shorter? My friend Jim felt that. He’s from Jersey, loves Scorsese, but near the end I caught him fidgeting. As soon as the movie he was over, bye, he was outta there. An hour later he shot me this email:
Loved seeing those actors, especially Pacino and De Niro, liked it, coulda got ’er done in 2 ½ hrs.
Jim wanted less of the last half hour—after the death of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino). Once that happened, he felt, the story was over. He’s right. But Scorsese is interested in the other story, too, the effect of all this crime on the man. Plus, when introducing characters throughout the movie, Scorsese will often freeze-frame the shot and let us know when and how that character died. Usually it’s brutally. John Irving did the same thing in “The World According to Garp,” telling us the how and when each of his characters dies, leading to this last great sentence: “Her famous grandmother, Jenny Fields, once thought of us as Externals, Vital Organs, Absentees and Goners. But in the world according to Garp, we are all terminal cases.” That’s where I assumed Marty was leading us with the extended denouement: to the terminal case of Frank Sheeran.
And that’s the one he doesn’t give us. He shows Frank buying a coffin. He shows him estranged from his family—his four girls—one of whom tells him that growing up they could never come to him with a problem. If they did, he would overreact and hurt people. Scorsese shows us FBI guys visiting Frank, trying to get more details on the Hoffa case. But then this too goes away. Everything goes away. The nurse taking his blood pressure (Dascha Polanco) doesn’t know from Jimmy Hoffa. Frank is more and more irrelevant, more and more alone, until he asks the departing nurse to leave the door open to let a little light in.
And that’s where Scorsese leaves him: an old man in a wheelchair, alone, with no connection to anyone or anything. He leaves him in purgatory.
I like that. As for the movie?
Not Irish enough
I had trouble getting past the CGI and (believe it or not) the casting. De Niro’s the reason the movie even got made—he’s been pushing to do it, with himself in the lead, since the book was published—but he’s wrong for the role. It’s not just that Sheeran was 6’4”, 250, and De Niro isn’t, and Sheeran was Irish while De Niro, while part Irish, is the most iconic Italian-American actor of his generation. It’s that Sheeran was Irish among the Italians. He was an enforcer for the Italian mob in Philly, so you really want to feel that ethnic difference: How he is one of them and not; how he’ll never be one of them; and how maybe he has more in common with Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, who was, after all, half Irish. But we don’t get this. It’s the “Raging Bull,” “Goodfellas” and “Casino” crew, but with one guy pretending—kinda—to be Irish-American.
What could someone like Liam Neeson have brought to the role? That’s what I kept wondering. Neeson is also 10 years younger than De Niro, who’s 76, so the CGI wouldn’t have had to work so hard. Here, it works way too hard. Things happen when you age that CGI can’t erase. Your lips get thinner; your mouth may curl inward; you lose any spryness in your step. We watch Frank, a 20-something WWII vet, moving like a 70-something worried about breaking a hip. It takes you out of the film. The farther back we went, the worse it got. At time, he looked like Robin Williams, other times Kevin Kline. At one point, so much of De Niro’s age and humanity had been erased that I flashed on Tom Hanks in “Polar Express.”
The production values, on the other hand, were amazing. Did our mob visit any business that’s still in existence? It was all Stuckey’s and Howard Johnson’s and Sunoco. It was famous mob-hit locations: Umberto’s Clam House in Little Italy, where Crazy Joe Gallo (standup comic Sebastian Maniscalco) bought it; the Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, the last place Jimmy Hoffa was seen.
There’s a scene in 1975 where Frank is driving through Detroit neighborhoods to the house where Hoffa will get whacked. I came of age at that time, in Minneapolis, and goddamn if it didn’t feel like a Midwest neighborhood in 1975. But perfectly. The Coens were able to do the same with a 1960s lake in “A Serious Man.”
The early stuff—how, as a trucker, Frank met Russell Bufalino (Joe Pesci), delivered stolen, cut-rate meat to Felix DiTullio (Bobby Cannavale), and got in good with those boys—was OK, even if the CGI was distracting, and even though we’ve kind of seen it before. But I like how characters came and went. They seem central until they’re not. Like when was the last time we saw mob boss Angelo Bruno (Harvey Keitel)? At the testimonial?
It’s once we’re introduced to Hoffa, and get into national politics with the Kennedy boys, or at least Bobby (Jack Huston, sounding just like him), that I became truly interested. Has Scorsese done this before? Brought us the national and international import of the mob? In the past, he’s stayed in the neighborhood.
Pacino’s still got energy, and he’s paired against up-and-comer Anthony “Tony Pro” Provenzano (Stephen Graham, Al Capone in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” and Graham goes head to head with Pacino like not many can. Their argument in prison was riveting. BTW: Is it an agreed-upon fact that Sam Giancana helped elect Kennedy in ’60 or is that still supposition? Feels like supposition, and the why of it here feels shaky. Giancana wants the mob back in Cuba, now run by Castro, so he needs the attempted coup that Kennedy launched in April 1961—the disastrous Bay of Pigs operation. Sure. Except that was planned in Ike’s term; Kennedy just came in at the tail end, then launched it without air cover. Are the theorists claiming Nixon wouldn’t have launched it against Castro? Tricky “Pink down to her underwear” Dick? President “Sure, let’s go into Cambodia” Nixon?
The movie has Frank running guns down to Florida for the operation, where he briefly meets David Ferrie (Louis Vanaria), weird eyebrows and all. First thought: Hey, Pesci’s character from “JFK”! Second thought: So is this their linkage between the mob and the assassination? When we get the assassination again, we get it the way most people got it in 1963—on television. Frank, Hoffa and others are at a diner when we hear the “flash out of Dallas” and Walter Cronkite’s heartbreakingly professional reporting. Everyone’s shocked and distraught except for Hoffa. He’s quiet. He seems to be ruminating. Did he know? Did he know who knew? Was he in the room where it happened?
Not ‘Goodfellas’ enough
I could’ve done without some of the daughter stuff. Leave in Frank busting the grocer’s hand in front of Peggy (Lucy Gallina, eventually Anna Paquin), but take out the stuff about her not liking Russell and liking Hoffa. Pesci’s cast against type here—he’s calm, wise and understanding—but his fixation on the kid is a little weird. You need to know why the Frank is estranged from his daughters and that’s it.
I also would’ve trimmed down some of Frank’s attempts to get a post-prison Hoffa to back off from trying to regain control of his union. These are interminable. Of course, since all of this is being filtered through Frank’s mind, maybe he’s constantly replaying those scenes to justify what he did—killing his friend the way he did—but it doesn’t mean they don’t get dull. And was anyone else confused by the slow-mo assassination of one of the union/mob guys by the nondescript black guy? It seems like we’re in the early-to-mid 1960s, then we get this, and everyone in the scene is dressed like early ’70s, and ... I don’t quite get what it connects to.
I’m glad I saw it. It’s not “Goodfellas” but it adds to the pantheon. Leaving the theater, I even thought what a double-bill it would make with “Goodfellas.” Same director, same stars, but an old man’s pace rather than the cocaine-fueled rush of “Goodfellas.” That said, tough to watch any three-and-a-half hour movie on a double bill. Particularly at my age.
Box Office: ‘Ford’ Vrooms, ‘Angels’ Die
The fourth reboot of a ‘70s jiggle show may be the last ... for a while.
Still not a fan of Box Office Mojo’s redesign. So much data is now hard to find on the site, or is now only available if you pay $100+ a year for IMDb Pro. All this is Amazon, by the way. They didn't create either site, just bought them years ago, and are now mucking them up. No character searches any longer on IMDb; now all this crap.
That said, there may be advantages to the new setup. The No. 1 movie for the weekend, and the highest-rated (92%) RottenTomates new release, is “Ford v Ferrari,” which grossed just over $31 million. Second was the second weekend of “Midway,” $8.7 million, third was the first weekend of “Charlie's Angels,” $8.6.
Wait, whoa. Third? Not even $10 mil? Shame. Elizabeth Banks directed, which probably means—despite her “Pitch Perfect 2” grossing $184 in 2015—she won't be getting many more chances. On the plus side, maybe this is a stake in the heart of this intellectual property. How many variations have there been? From 1970s jiggle TV show to 2000 hit movie to 2003 disappointing sequel to 2011 disappointing TV show to 2019 disappointing reboot. Three disappointments and you‘re out? Probably not.
Anyway, I lost the thread. The advantage to the new cross-pollinated amazon setup may be this: I was curious what else “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold had done, and checked it out as part of my trial subscription to IMDb Pro. I was like: Oh right, the Wolverine stuff. Also “Walk the Line” and “3:10 to Yuma” and “Knight and Day” (underrated for that kind of film).
But to get to that info you have to go through “Projects in Development,” one of which, for Mangold, was this:
“Untitled Joe Namath Project”
The story of American football star Joe Namath, who became one of the sport’s early media sensations as well as a Super Bowl champion.
For a second, I was excited. I would totally be there for this. Then I saw how many other “Projects in Development” Mangold has: 10, and with eight of them he's attached as director. No way that's going to happen. So we‘ll see.
BTW: Elizabeth Banks has 30 projects in development right now, including five in which she’s attached as director, so I probably shouldn't worry too much about her. Or at all, given the state of the world.
BTW II: Adam Driver as Broadway Joe?
“Attempted murder? Now honestly, what is that? Do they give a Nobel Prize for attempted chemistry? Do they?”
— Sideshow Bob, “The Simpsons,” Season Six, Episode Five, 1994
“This rhetorical absurdity, originally intended as a joke on a TV cartoon, is now being trotted out in all seriousness by the GOP. What New York magazine writer Jonathan Chait has called the ”Sideshow Bob defense“ has become central to Republican efforts to shield President Trump from accusations of wrongdoing. ...
”House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), for instance, said: ‘Name me one thing that Ukraine did to release the money. Nothing.’ ...
“Nikki Haley reasoned: ‘... It’s hard for me to understand where the whole impeachment situation is coming from, because what everybody's up in arms about didn't happen.' ...
”It's hard to believe that the Sideshow Bob defense of Trump will be long-lived, as it fails to stand up to even the slightest scrutiny. It is literally a joke. (Still, Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) felt obliged to stamp out any confusion during the impeachment hearing Wednesday. ‘Is attempted murder a crime?’ he asked Ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. Laughing, Taylor responded: ‘Yes, attempted murder is a crime.’)“
Bill Oakley, writer for ”The Simpsons,“ in the Washington Post Op-Ed, ”One of the defenses of Trump is — literally — a TV-cartoon joke"
Quote of the Day
“Socialism never took root in America because the poor see themselves not as an exploited proletariat but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires.”
― Ronald Wright, “A Short History of Progress,” 2004
Movie Review: Yesterday (2019)
Has any pop music act represented its times as much as the Beatles and yet remained as timeless as the Beatles? They were the biggest act of the 1960s; they defined it and altered it. They altered us—the way we dressed, wore our hair, what we smoked and thought; what we thought of this thing called rock ‘n’ roll. They helped change the name; they took out the roll and left the rock.
At the same time: “Yesterday,” “Let It Be” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” all feel fresh 50 years later.
I was born in January 1963, and when I was about 5 years old I was staying with family friends in Michigan. One day the mother was working in the kitchen and overheard me and her son, B.G., in the bedroom arguing. “Mine’s longer,” I said. “No, mine’s longer,” B.G. said. We kept going back and forth in this manner, and she kept growing increasingly worried, until one of us declared, “Well, if I pull mine, mine’s longer.” That’s when she decided enough was enough, and she stormed into the bedroom ... to find B.G. and me kneeling in front of the mirror and pulling our hair down toward our eyes. The Beatles brought that. Long hair stayed the cool thing for decades after they brought it over.
At the same time: “Help!,” “Here Comes the Sun” and “The Long and Winding Road.”
A shadow hanging over me
“Yesterday,” a magic-realism movie written by Richard Curtis (“Love, Actually”) and directed by Danny Boyle (“Trainspotting,” “Slumdog Millionaire”), is better than I thought it would be. Some of the relationships feel real enough. It’s got enough Boyle to make up for the Curtis.
Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) is a struggling musician playing nowhere gigs around Lowestoft in Suffolk County, England. He's managed by longtime friend Ellie Appleton (Lily James), who is obviously in love with him. He just as obviously doesn’t seem to notice. Or maybe he thinks shagging his manager is too #MeToo. Or maybe he’s just got his eyes on the prize—singing his songs and playing his music. Trouble? His songs aren't that good. “Summer Song,” his standby, is good enough to make you pause for a second but then it just dissipates around you. It’s actually the perfect song for his status. You get why it’s his standby and you get why he’s going nowhere.
Indeed, he’s about to give up—just declared so to Ellie—when there’s a worldwide power outage. It’s like the world is rebooting, and in the sudden dark, biking home, Jack is hit by a bus and flies through the air. I assume it’s the flying through the air that saves him, or unalters him, because when he wakes up in the hospital, sans two front teeth, the world is altered. Slightly. I like the slightly. So British. A Hollywood movie would have him waking up in a world in which the NAZIS won World War II, but here it’s just little things. Well, not really “little.” It’s that life is the same, but there’s no cigarettes, Coca-Cola, or the Beatles.
The Beatles thing he realizes first. In the hospital, he makes a lame “When I’m 64” joke but Ellie doesn’t get it. Why 64? she asks. He doesn’t get why she doesn’t get it. Later, with their friends, she presents him with a new guitar—his got smashed in the bike accident—and while his joshing friends request “Summer Song,” he decides that a beautiful guitar deserves a beautiful song and plays “Yesterday.” Ellie tears up. Where did THAT come from? she asks. He’s confused all over again. He tells them—Paul McCartney, Beatles—but they don’t know it or them. In fact, they think he’s bragging about the song he wrote:
Carol: Well, it’s not Coldplay. It’s not “Fix You.”
Jack: It’s not bloody “Fix You,” Carol, it’s a great, great work of art.
Carol: Wow, somebody suddenly got very cocky.
The movie’s tag line is about how Jack is the only one who remembers the Beatles but it’s more than that; they never existed. His Beatle albums are all gone—Bowie’s there, but not them—and there’s nothing on Google, just the bug with the double e. Poof. Did they just play some gigs in Liverpool and Hamburg and that was it? Did they never get to Hamburg? Did John and Paul never meet? We don’t know. Just that. Poof. Gone.
All this creates what Jack calls “a dilemma.” Should he pretend he wrote all these songs, or ... Or nothing, it turns out. The “or” is never explored. Instead, he writes down as many of their songs as he can remember and begins playing them and taking credit for them.
I love the indulgence of family and friends here, who think they’re getting the next “Summer Song.” My favorite scene may be when he tries to play “Let It Be” for his parents and keeps getting interrupted—friends come over, phones ring—and they keep messing up the title: “Leave it Be”; “Let Him Be.” He’s trying to get them to hear greatness and they’re not hearing it.
That’s actually one of the unspokens in the film: How most people don’t recognize greatness. It’s not just family and friends. An Ipswich TV host is mostly amused by Jack, who works in a warehouse; and so even as Jack plays “In My Life,” beautifully, the host doesn’t hear the beauty and keeps joking about the day job. It’s up to the few who hear, and know, to push Jack up and out: first, a local producer, Gavin (Alexander Arnold, who could play Stephen Merchant’s handsomer son); then Ed Sheeran, who taps Jack to open for him on a worldwide concert tour. They go to Russia, where Jack plays—seemingly out of nowhere—“Back in the U.S.S.R.,” which goes viral, and which nobody really questions. There’s a toss-off about the anachronistic use of “U.S.S.R.” but nothing further. Like: Is it an anti-Putin message? Suggesting Russia under Putin is the same as the old Soviet regime? That might’ve been fun to go there. But the movie doesn’t.
Instead, Jack winds up under the wing of Sheeran’s nefarious manager, the too-aptly named Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon), who wants him to put out a double album. Despite being the talent, Jack is led along, stunned. His output is finite, after all—not even the entire Beatles’ oeuvre, just the stuff he remembers—so he should parcel it out, a few songs a year, rather than all at once. But he’s passive. He even lets Ed Sheeran change “Hey Jude” to “Hey Dude.” Admittedly a funny scene, but c’mon. Stand up for Paul here. Or Jules.
The further Jack rises, the more guilt-ridden he becomes. He also loses Ellie. Because he’s shagging women all over the world? Nah. She just kinda drifts away. She feels like she’s not needed and winds up with someone who needs/wants her: Gavin. Meanwhile, we see two people—a man in Russia and a woman in Liverpool—who keep eyeing Jack suspiciously, as if they know where this music came from. They do. And together they visit Jack backstage—they present a yellow submarine as a calling card—and confront him about it. (How do these two find each other, by the way? The movie never answers that.) What I like is they’re not villains. They’re not even angry; they’re grateful that he’s brought the Beatles music back. They missed it so. They also present him with a scrap of paper with an address on it. I knew immediately what it was. It’s shocking Jack hadn’t pursued it.
It’s John Lennon’s address. John (Robert Carlyle), 78 now, lives by the ocean and does his artwork and seems completely cool with how his life turned out. There was no Mark David Chapman shooting, of course, because there were no Beatles. It’s quite poignant. This John is less rebel John, not to mention hoodlum John, than peacenik John. He’s wise. He doesn’t know who Jack is but he gives him life advice:
You want a good life? It's not complicated. Tell the girl you love that you love her. And tell the truth to everyone whenever you can.
Great advice ... which just happens to speak to the movie’s immediate dilemmas: Jack’s been lying to the world while never telling the girl he loves that he loves her. So he does both at the 11th hour. Before a huge concert crowd, he admits he didn’t write the songs he’s been singing—that four guys named John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr wrote them. Everyone boos. (You know crowds.) But then he says he’s going to upload his album to the internet so everyone can listen to it for free. Everyone cheers. (You know crowds.) And in front of this huge crowd, with her beautiful face up on the big screen, he tells Ellie that he loves her. Everyone cheers again. Even Gavin. Sap.
But what dreck. Does it have to be before a huge crowd? Does love not matter unless millions see it? Besides, does he really love her? We do—it’s Lily James, she’s fuckingn adorable—but he’s been blinkered throughout. I don’t really trust his 11th-hour conversation.
That said, Patel is great as Jack. He sings beautifully and seems lost, humorously lost, for much of the movie. Lily James is lovely as ever but given little to do. I liked Joel Fry as Rocky, Jack’s ne’er-do-well friend who becomes his roadie. Sheeran was both good and a good sport. McKinnon was over the top.
Looks as though they’re here to stay
So it's not bad but it's not enough. It's better than “Summer Song” but not nearly “Let It Be.”
Example: When Jack owns up and mentions the four Beatles by name, I'm curious what happens next. Does the media descend upon John, Paul, George and Ringo? Are they all alive? If so, what do they say? What could they say? “He’s a bit daft, really. John was me mate 60 years ago, and we palled about in a skiffle group and wrote some thingees, but that’s it. I’m a retired teacher now. Never even heard of Ringo. Sounds like a cowboy.” The movie gives us John, but it doesn’t even ask about Paul, George or Ringo.
And shouldn't you tell the rest of the world that data went missing? Shouldn't you gather the historians? “For some reason, you have Pepsi, but the original thing that’s based on, Coca-Cola, is gone. You have the Rolling Stones, but the original thing that’s based on, the Beatles, they’re gone.” It’s like a knockoff world. Original content doesn’t seem to matter. It's like Google’s algorithm.
Shit, I haven’t even gotten to causality yet. That's the part I figured would bug me most and it did. The Rolling Stones were a band from London who didn’t even think about writing their own songs until they saw John and Paul, already famous, go into the corner of a restaurant and knock out one in 30 minutes. That’s when they went “We can do that,” and did. So in this alt-universe, what caused the Stones to wake up? What caused them to wear their hair in the Beatles/Astrid fashion, or to make it in the U.S. when no British rock band had the temerity to do so? How are the Stones still the Stones? How is Bowie still Bowie? How do you have all the things that followed the Beatles without the Beatles?
You know the butterfly wings that cause the hurricane on the other side of the world? Losing the Beatles is losing the hurricane. The ramifications would be endless.
Oh, and the world never is righted again. The movie just leaves us with a few of their songs. It leaves us with Jack playing “Obla-di Obla-da” before a group of kids, who sing along. That's our happy ending. Life goes on, bra.