Sunday July 31, 2011
M's Game Report: The (Two) Kids Are Alright
The last time I was at Safeco Field, June 25th, the M's lost to the Florida Marlins but were flirting with (OK, kinda talking to but totally being dissed by) .500. They were actually only a few games out of first place, and, among fans, there were thoughts of “Really? This team?” We assumed they wouldn't stay there but hope began beating its tiny wings anyway. That 17-game losing streak earlier this month stilled those wings. In a way it was a relief. We knew, no matter what the standings said, that a team with the worst offense in baseball could only go so far.
Yesterday afternoon, a beautiful Pacific Northwest afternoon, I returned to Safeco and watched the M's win for only the second time in 20 games, 3-2 over Tampa Bay, behind two rookies: Michael Pineda, who pitched no-hit ball into the sixth, and Dustin Ackley, who hit a 2-run homerun in the 1st inning, a line shot over the 405 sign in right-center, then a 2-out, ringing double in the sixth (almost to the same spot), which led to the M's third and final (and winning) run when Mike Carp lined a single to right to plate him.
Pineda, with the usual snap to his fastball, wasn't quite as sharp as the numbers indicate. He threw 46 balls with his 64 strikes, and walked four while striking out 10. His strikeouts, inning by inning, indicate he probably tired: 7 Ks through 3 innings, then 3 Ks for the final 3. He gave up one hit, a single, but left with two on, both walks, in the 7th. The bullpen didn't give up a hit, either. So a combined one-hitter! Not bad.
I sat with my friend Jeff R., between old folks to our left and young folks to our right, talking old UBS shit and housing prices. The guy to my immediate right, who had the slouching posture of a teenager on a bus, kept dissing Jack Wilson. The M's crowd, near 25,000, kept dissing Chone Figgins ... even though no one else (besides Ackley) are hitting. The future star of spring, Justin Smoak, is now 12-for-July, a .146 average, dropping his season totals to .218/.313/.385. Again: Is he injured? Should he be rested?
Despite the game's good news—Pineda, Ackley, Carp—the best news might be this: The M's are no longer stuck with the 30-30-30-30 label! They are still last in the Majors in runs scored, on-base percentage, and batting average; but are, for the moment, and by a hair's breadth, 29th in slugging percentage. And hope beats its tiny wings again.
Friday July 29, 2011
Lessons in Headline-Making
Here's the headline in today's Seattle Times:
Dissent stalls GOP debt plan
Here's what it should have read:
Dissent among GOP stalls GOP debt plan
Is that partisan? Of course not. It's factual.
Does it matter what the headline reads? Of course. Most people, if they even see the headlines, don't get past the headlines. The current headline makes it seem Republicans and Democrats are in disagreement. That's a problem but it's not this problem. Not nearly. Folks glancing at the headline need to know what the real problem is.
The real problem is a GOP problem. They have people in government who don't believe in government, who want to bring down government, who want to shrink it and (their words) kill it in the cradle. It's their final solution after 30 years of Reaganesque anti-government pronouncements. We're already here.
Welcome to hard times.
Friday July 29, 2011
Movie Review: Buck (2011)
Of Buck Brannaman, the subject of Cindy Meehl’s documentary “Buck,” and a man who spends 40 weeks a year traveling the country giving seminars on horses, one of the talking heads says, “God had him in mind when He made a cowboy.”
Buck certainly fits some of our preconceptions of cowboys. For someone who talks for a living, he doesn’t talk much; and for someone who’s often in the center ring, he's got an aw-shucks manner. He ambles rather than walks. He’s married with children but spends most of his days alone and carries that solitude with him. He knows horses, and through horses, people. He does rope tricks. He drinks his coffee black. He’s named “Buck.”
He also expands our definition of what it means to be a cowboy.
“I was watching ‘Oprah,’” he begins at one point, then pauses and manages a crooked smile. “I don’t know if I should admit to that.”
Starting not breaking
He “starts” horses, he says, he doesn’t break them. His approach is discipline without punishment, empathy without sentimentality. Horse people come to his seminars skeptical and leave stunned. Their tough love doesn’t work. Their soft love doesn’t work. But Buck gets in the ring and in five minutes their horse is following him around like a dog. He takes an unfocused horse and focuses him. He takes a skittish horse and calms him. The advice he gives goes beyond horses.
- “Make it difficult for the horse to do the wrong thing and easy to do the right one."
- “You can't just love on them and buy them lots of carrots. Bribery doesn't work with a horse. You'll just have a spoiled horse.”
- “When you’re dealing with a kid or an adult or a horse, treat them the way you’d like them to be, not how they are now.”
He has a great, empathetic description of what a horse is allowing you to do when you ride it. On his back? By his neck? That’s where he’s attacked. So when you climb on him to ride him, he’s trusting you enough, or respecting you enough, to allow you into this vulnerable spot. Respect that.
“Everything’s a dance,” he says. “Everything you do with a horse.”
Horses can sense, I’m sure, his gentle spirit, as surely as Robert Redford, another talking head in the film, sensed it. They met when Buck was an advisor on Redford’s film “The Horse Whisperer.” Redford talks about filming a particularly difficult scene in which the film’s injured horse is supposed to go up and nuzzle the daughter, played by a young Scarlett Johansson, on cue. It’s a trick horse, a trained horse, but not a horse affiliated with Buck, and they spend all day and can’t get the shot. Then Buck suggests his horse. They get the shot in 20 minutes.
So who is this man who starts rather than breaks horses? He's someone who was almost broken himself.
“When something is scared for their life, I understand that,” he says.
I wouldn’t be surprised if I saw Buck some Saturday morning in 1970. He and his brother, rodeo stars who could do rope tricks blindfolded, were in a “Sugar Pops” commercial back then. And like another child star back then, Michael Jackson, Buck was controlled by, and abused by, his father. “He beat us unmercifully for not putting on a perfect performance,” Buck remembers. Buck’s mother would sometimes act as a barrier between the rage of the father and the vulnerability of her sons, but she died when Buck was young and he knew then that he was truly alone in the world. We get this story by and by. How a gym teacher in high school saw the marks on Buck’s back. How he alerted the authorities. How Buck wound up with a foster family in Montana that was raising 23 kids, and the father immediately gave him gloves and put him to work on the farm, and how that’s just what Buck needed. A purpose. The gloves were so special he didn’t even put them on when handling barb wire.
Buck Brannaman is a great subject for a documentary and “Buck” isn’t a good documentary, a worthy documentary, but it doesn’t feel as dense or as deep as it should. We get various scenes of Buck calming and controlling horses, but near the end we get a horse, in Chico, Calif., that can’t be calmed. It’s a spoiled horse, a mean horse, and Buck manages to work with it for a time in the pen; but when he’s away the horse attacks another cowboy, bites him in the head, draws blood, and it’s decided to put the horse down. Buck returns. He helps load the horse onto a truck. He chastises the horse’s owner. The horse’s owner talks to the camera about having to put her horse down. Then she and her horse leave.
Hollywood, I suppose, has conditioned us for a better ending—isn’t Buck supposed to save the day, as cowboys have been doing in movies since the silent era?—but the doc raises our expectations, too. Buck helps horses. That’s what he does. Horses with people problems. That’s what this horse is. So why is this horse beyond help? Why doesn’t he talk to us about this horse? It’s the emotional climax of the film but it’s not tied enough to the subject of the film. Meehl needed to tie that knot tighter.
And where’s his brother? We see photos of the two together, as adults, but no word from or about him.
Even so, see “Buck.” As he says about his methods: “It’ll make you better in areas that you didn’t think related to horses.”
Thursday July 28, 2011
Quote of the Day II
“Whatever the case, the last laugh has been his. Murdoch knows something that his assailants will seldom concede, and that renders their call for radical change, in the rapport between governance and the media, both tardy and redundant. The change has already happened; culture, media, and sport are not in Murdoch’s pocket, but the British, not least in their yen to watch soccer and cricket on Sky, have reached into their pockets and paid for his feast of wares. The country is in uproar just now, but outrage en masse functions like outrage in private: we reserve our deepest wrath not for the threat from without, which we fail to comprehend, but for forces with which we have been complicit. The British press has long revelled in the raucous and the irresponsible; that was part of its verve, and it was Murdoch’s genius, and also the cause of his current woes, to recognize those tendencies, bring the revelry to a head, and give the people what they asked for. He reminded them of themselves.”
Thursday July 28, 2011
Quote of the Day I
“That is why witnesses at the House of Commons Select Committee for Culture, Media, and Sport, which summoned Rupert Murdoch and his son James to appear on July 19th, were so taken aback. Almost the first move of the father, as the session began, was to cup his ear toward an interlocutor, and, with that tiny gesture, he broke the spell—the wicked charms that he had wreathed around the United Kingdom for decades. Here was no beast, no warper of souls or glutton for companies; here was an oldster, tortoise-slow on the uptake, with head drooping, shoulders slumped, rousing himself now and then to make a point by slapping the table before him. Though meant to sound decisive, the slap reminded some viewers of a grumpy grandpa asking when his Jell-O would be served.”
--from “Hack Work: A tabloid culture runs amok” by Anthony Lane in the latest New Yorker
Thursday July 28, 2011
I haven't done a Lancelot Links in a while. Maybe the news is too depressing to link to. (“The devil take this world/And shove it up his ass” is a line from a Tropicals song I keep thinking these days.) But not everything's depressing....
- Here's the trailer for the new ensemble romantic comedy “New Year's Eve,” directed by Garry Marshall. I'm not recommending the trailer or the movie or the director. I'm recommending Jeffrey Wells' one-word synopsis.
- Bachmann Pawlenty Overdrive. Probably the only time in the history of the Internet that a YouTube commenter was dead-on. WTF indeed, Minnesota.
- Well, at least Minnesota elected Al Franken, who, here, takes apart an anti-gay-rights leader. Here's hoping for a real Al Franken Decade.
- Could this be the chart of the decade? New policy changes under Bush: $5.07 trillion . And under Obama (projected to 2017): $1.44 trillion. Grab your favorite tea-partier and shove their face in this.
- The New York Times gives us a necessary Q&A on raising the debt limit. Money quote: “Q: Do you mean that Congress can pass a budget that requires borrowing, and then argue later about whether to approve that borrowing? A: That’s right. The system goes back to World War I...”
- The Onion cuts to the heart of the debt-ceiling debate.
- Funnier? Or dieier? Dan Savage threatens to change the definition of “Rick” if Rick Santorum doesn't behave himself.
- Here's a great takedown of Thomas Friedman by Salon's Steve Kornacki: “Does Thomas Friedman even follow the news?”
- I know it won't garner much sympathy from the rest of the country melting under incredible heat, but this kind of thing wears on you after a bit.
- Meanwhile, in hot and sultry (and sexy, I'm told) south Minneapolis, Jim Walsh goes nightswimming.
- Someone save the left from left-wing activists.
- Someone save the right from folks like Sarah Palin and Andrew Breitbart.
- Related: How's that Undefeated thing working for ya? Brandon Gray at boxofficemojo.com parses the numbers on Palin's documentary and declares: “Even before The Undefeated bottomed out in its second weekend, the movie was a bust in its first weekend, but its boosters latched onto two stats: per-theater average and ranking among political documentaries. The classic tactics of movie spin include bragging about per-theater average and declaring a high ranking in a niche category. The funny thing is that Undefeated's opening didn't rate highly on either front, making the spin extra egregious.”
- In the wake of Anders Breivik's attack on a children's camp in Norway, many are saying that Norway and other Scandinavian countries paid too much attention to extreme Muslims and not enough to homegrown extrimism. Joan Acocella reminds us that Stieg Larsson was paying attention.
- Superman from scratch? I have some ideas. Unfortunately it's just another gimmick. It's creating another universe after DC went to so much trouble to consolidate them.
- Not sure if “Supergods” by Grant Morrison is worth buying (some excerpts were pretty purple), but this article by Tim Martin, on what superheroes mean, where they've been, and where they're going, is definitely worth reading.
- Great appearance by Spider-Man at Comic-Con.
- Supercool slideshow on Slate.com of dancers—and I mean dancers—doing amazing things in public.
- Now go outside and play.
View from Granite Mountain last Sunday.
Wednesday July 27, 2011
Quote of the Day about the Debt Ceiling, 1979
“I’ve never understood exactly why we [we have a debt ceiling], or why anyone can think it’s ‘fiscally responsible’ to vote against raising the debt ceiling when we’ve already incurred the responsibilities. It’s like not paying your bills. It’s silly to go through the posturing that you’re saving money by not voting to increase the national debt.”
--Rep. Tom Foley on raising the debt ceiling, in The New Yorker: April 1979
Wednesday July 27, 2011
Book Review: Crime Films by Thomas Leitch (2002)
In 2004 I reviewed the book “Crime Films” by Thomas Leitch for Film Quarterly magazine. The original review, which I reread recently, wasn’t good. Here’s an attempt to both loosen up and focus the original. Apologies to all involved.
In the first chapter of “Crime Films,” which is the third installment in Cambridge University Press’ series, “Genres in American Cinema,” author Thomas Leitch, professor of English and director of Film Studies at the University of Delaware, spends much of his time debating whether he even has a genre to explore.
Historically, he argues, crime film has been an academically ignored category; its sub-genres—including film noir, detective stories and gangster films—garner the attention. So should the larger category be its own genre or simply an umbrella covering better-known genres? And does it matter what we call it? And what makes a genre a genre?
In this way Leitch exercises himself for pages even though we know—as surely as we know that the detective will solve the crime, because that’s the way of detective films—that Leitch will argue in favor of the crime film genre, because we’re holding the book in our hands.
We’re not there yet, though. Leitch raises three “insuperable obstacles” in defining his genre:
- Crime is an aberration but crime films tend to treat it as normal
- how to distinguish crime films from thrillers, where crime is an isolated event rather than a metaphor for social unrest; and...
- the various intermingling of the genre’s stock characters: the criminal, the victim and the avenger
Reading, I thought, “Why are these obstacles? They read like definitions.” At which point, Leitch, with a hearty abracadabra, reveals that his obstacles aren’t obstacles at all but “at the heart of such a definition.”
It’s still an interesting topic. Human beings are constantly veering between the wish for order (and safety from the lawless), and the wish for freedom (and safety from the law), and crime films are celluloid representations of this ambivalence. It’s tricky generalizing about decades, but it’s still worthwhile pointing out, as Leitch does, that the lawyer as hero (Atticus Finch) reflected comforting thoughts about institutions in the 1950s; the gangster as hero (Bonnie and Clyde) reflected doubts about institutions in the 1960s; and the rogue cop as hero (Dirty Harry) reflected doubts about both rebellion and institutions in the 1970s.
I wish he’d continued in this direction. I wish he’d taken individual crime films through the years and charted whether they affirmed or challenged the existing moral, social or institutional order.
Instead, shortly after identifying the crime-film genre, he abandons it in favor of its better-known subgenres. Chapters 4 through 12 highlight, in order, the victim film, the gangster film, the film noir, the erotic thriller, the unofficial-detective film, the private eye film, the police film, the lawyer film, and the crime comedy, with a representative film explicated at the end of each chapter. This is certainly fun but scattershot. We’re never sure why, for example, his representative films are representative. At times he chooses purity over complexity: “Bullitt” instead of “The French Connection” for police films. Other times, he opts for complexity over purity: “Fury” instead of “Death Wish” for the victim film. “The Godfather” is selected as the representative gangster film because it’s “the most ambitious of all such studies, and the greatest of all American crime films.” But doesn’t this make it least representative?
So is there value in dealing with the crime-film genre via its tidier sub-genres? Sure. In the chapter on the lawyer film, represented by “Reversal of Fortune,” Leitch writes, “The lawyer’s official role, held in contempt in gangster films and police films alike, is to represent the law to individual citizens accused of wrongdoing...”—which is when a light went on over my head. Of course! Since we identify and root for the protagonist in each subgenre, studying the gangster film without the corresponding lawyer or police film is like watching a third of “Rashomon”: we’re only getting part of the story.
Leitch says so much in the final chapter. The full story, he writes, “continues to haunt the partial story each subgenre represents, for every film in every crime subgenre is marked by numberless traces of the alternative crime story it could have been.” Imagine, for example, “The Godfather” as a police film about the rise-and-fall of a corrupt cop (Capt. McCluskey). Imagine it focusing on a young, ambitious gangster (Sollozzo), who saw the future in drugs and had it stolen away by Don Corleone and his greedy sons. In this manner, you could to any crime film what Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” did to “Hamlet.” Where’s the film on Dirty Harry’s beleaguered chiefs—trapped between a maverick cop and the prigs at city hall? Where’s the film on the good folks at city hall who must deal with this rampaging cop and his ineffectual police chief?
This raises the question: Are there crime films that abandon the singular viewpoint? That give us the movie from the perspective of criminal, victim and avenger? If not, maybe it’s an argument for why the crime film, as defined by Leitch, doesn’t exist. It needs a greater wisdom than we, with our love of the narrow point-of-view, have.
“Crime Films” isn’t an easy read. Leitch’s prose tends to be overly academic and his mind tends to wander. Some meanderings, admittedly, are interesting: his distinction, for example, between the European victim film like “The Bicycle Thief,” in which there is a crime and a victim but not a criminal or avenger, and the Hollywood victim film, like “Death Wish,” in which victims tend to be “worms who turn on their tormentors.” And as academic as he is, he still provides a structure through which any film with a criminal, victim and avenger can be studied.
That structure is never more valuable than now. We’re living in a post-Enron world, in which our institutions are corrupt and must be weakened. We’re also living in a post-9/11 world, in which the world is corrupt and our institutions must be strengthened. So which way will we go? How will our ambivalence about order and freedom be exhibited over the next decade? And how will this ambivalence be reflected in our art?
--Originally published in a 2004 issue of Film Quarterly
Tuesday July 26, 2011
I wrote about the Mariners fall from grace a week ago (“The 30-30-30-30-Club”), when they'd lost nine in a row. Now it's 17. A loss to Oakland on July 6th. A four-game sweep by the Angels. All-Star break. A four-game sweep by the Rangers. A three-game sweep by Toronto. A three-game sweep by Boston. Now the first two games to the Yankees. They've been outscored 101 to 47 during the run. In eight of the games they've been shut out or managed only one run.
Joe Posnanski posts about their sad streak here.
Tonight was the worst. C.C. Sabathia had a perfect game going into the 7th. Then Brendan Ryan singled with one out. At .264, he's nearly our best hitter. Dustin Ackley, a June call-up, and our best hitter, struck out. Miguel Olivo, our home run leader (he's got 13), struck out. It was Sabathia's 14th strikeout of the game.
In the 8th, Sabathia loaded the bases on walks with nobody out and was promptly relieved. A chance! Followed by strikeout, groundout (for a run), strikeout. And the groundout should've been a double play.
For some reason, maybe to give him work, the Yankees brought in Mariano Rivera in the 9th. Seemed overkill: strikeout, line out, strikeout. Final line for Yankees pitchers: 9 innings, 18 strikeouts, one hit. That was no. 17 for the Mariners. As if in a cartoon, it rained on them, too.
Tuesday July 26, 2011
Hollywood B.O.: Captain America Throws His Mighty Shield
Turns out “Captain America” wasn't the big opening-weekend box-office superhero this summer.
Initial estimates placed the domestic gross of “Cap” just above “Thor”'s $65.7 million but the actuals have it coming up just short: $65.0 million. Still not bad. Unadjusted, it's worse than the “Spider-Man”s and “X-Men”s and “Iron Man”s of the world but better than the “Fantastic Four”s and “Hulk”s.
It's also better than what was predicted. From boxoffice.com last Friday:
In the actuals, besides the $10 million jump for “Cap,” these estimates were over by $5 million for both “Harry Potter” and “Friends with Benefits.” “Transformers” actually came ahead of “Horrible Bosses,” while Woody Allen's “Midnight in Paris” grossed another $.3 million, falling off only 3.8%, and might have a shot at $50 million domestic. It's already the highest-grossing domestic Woody Allen film at $44 million. Unadjusted. Adjust, and it's $90 million behind “Annie Hall”s $134 million.
What does all this mean? Not much. The numbers crunchers don't quite have our number yet, but nearly. The fate of “Cap” will depend on word of mouth: Good legs like “Thor” or bad legs like “F.F.”? And “Harry Potter,” record setter the previous weekend, fell like Icarus from the sky. Its 72% plummet is the biggest of the year, the biggest among 4,000-theater films, and the fourth-worst even among 3,000-theater films—after such crap as “Friday the 13th” (2009), “Doom,” and “A Nightmare of Elm Street” (2010).
And guess what? It doesn't matter. The film's been out a week and a half and its worldwide gross is nearing $1 billion. Talk about Wingardium Leviosa.
Monday July 25, 2011
Movie Review: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Steve: Why me?
Dr. Erskine: “Why me?” The only question that matters.
Superhero movies used to be embarrassments, sketchy shadows of the comic books they were based upon, but slowly—in part because of CGI, in part because a generation of comic book readers landed in Hollywood—the movies actually began to improve upon the source material. Take Superman. In the comic book he put the “S” on his chest because he was Superman. Duh. In “Superman: The Movie” (1978), that thing on his chest is his Krpytonian family crest. It’s Lois Lane who thinks up “Superman”—thus saving us all the embarrassment of watching this modest man give himself that immodest name.
The first issue of Captain America was published in March 1941, a fertile period for superhero creation, but hardly a time when a lot of deep thought went into origin stories. Make the dude strong and get him out the door, basically. Captain America’s origin was eight pages—about seven and a half pages longer than Superman’s—but Steve Rogers was almost an afterthought in it. We get Nazi subterfuge in “peace-loving America”; then FDR introduces Army officials to the head of the FBI, “J. Arthur Grover,” who drives these officials to a curio shop run by an old woman—no, wait, a beautiful young woman—who takes them through a maze of doors until they find themselves in a modern laboratory, where, a caption tells us, “A side door opens...and a frail young man steps into the laboratory.” That’s our hero. Page 4. Prof. Reinstein inoculates this Army reject with “a strange seething liquid,” which turns him superstrong, which leads a Gestapo agent to kill Reinstein, which ... etc. Thus Captain America, the only super-soldier, is born.
But who is Steve Rogers and why did they choose him for this all-important experiment?
The question that Joe Simon and Jack Kirby didn’t care about in 1941 is the question that’s central to “Captain America: the First Avenger,” written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (“The Chronicles of Narnia”) and directed by Joe Johnston (“The Rocketeer,” “Jumanji”). And the way they answer it is why the movie is as good as it is.
Updating the tropes
It’s March 1942 and Steve Rogers (Evans) is trying to enlist in the Army but keeps getting rejected—four times now—for chronic ailments, like asthma, not to mention his stature. He’s the “before” part of a Charles Atlas ad: five-foot nothing and 98 pounds of weak. Ah, but he’s scrappy. At a movie theater showing newsreel footage of Nazis marching through Europe, he tries to quiet a rude dude and winds up fighting him in a back alley. Knocked down, he keeps getting up, only to be punished again. “You just don’t know when to quit, do you?” the rude dude says. As it is with American heroes. Think Rocky Balboa and John McClane. Think Indiana Jones and Cool Hand Luke. Steve is like that. He just doesn’t look like that. Yet.
In the midst of a double-date with his friend James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) at the World Expo ’42, he spots yet another Army recruiting station and goes for his lucky fifth. Lucky for him, Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), the Silver Age renaming of Dr. Reinstein, is listening in the wings. He likes what he hears, and, over the objections of Col. Chester Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones), OKs the skinny kid for the experimental super-soldier program.
Why Steve Rogers? Erskine is a German scientist, Jewish one assumes, who developed a prototype of the super-soldier serum back in Germany but was forced to use it on a bully, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), who is turned into the Red Skull. Erskine realizes that the serum not only makes a man stronger but amplifies what’s inside him. A bully becomes a megalomaniac. A weak man like Steve Rogers? “A weak man,” he tells Steve,” knows the value of strength, the value of power.”
I could raise an objection here, and did so, silently, in the theater. I thought of a line from college: “The worst taskmasters are former slaves.” I thought of myself, a skinny Steve Rogers-type most of my childhood, and of my many subsequent resentments. Did Steve have none? Was he that good a person?
Let’s face it: the real reason Steve Rogers is a small, skinny kid is because that was the comic-book-buying demographic in 1941, and those kids wished to thrill—a la Shazam—at the magical transformation from meek to masterful. The real reason Captain America has a boy sidekick, Bucky Barnes, is because every superhero had a boy sidekick back then—because, again, that was the comic-book-buying demographic. The real reason the Red Skull is a villain is because villains with heads like skulls were a comic-book carryover from the lurid pulps of the 1930s.
The goal of the movie, then, is to update these 70- and 80-year-old tropes for the modern age. Thus Schmidt turns into the Skull because the super-serum prototype wasn’t quite ready. Bucky Barnes is no longer a boy sidekick but Steve’s friend: the big kid in the neighborhood who rescued him; the soldier in Europe whom Captain America rescues. And small and skinny? “A weak man knows the value of strength.”
But just because Erskine approves doesn’t mean Steve is a go for the project. Col. Phillips is a soldier and wants a soldier—a real soldier, not some 98-pound asthmatic—to be the first super-soldier. The back-and-forth between Phillips and Erskine is wonderful—particularly in the scene where Phillips lets loose a dummy grenade amid the candidates and only Rogers falls upon it. Jones and Tucci are so good. The amused warmth in Tucci’s eyes; the hardened authenticity in Jones’ face. We should, in fact, pause to contemplate Tommy Lee Jones for a second. Time and again, he is asked to play the guy tracking or getting in the way of the ostensible hero, yet we love his character all the more for it. Because his character has character? Because he’s a man with a strict adherence to his job but not to his point-of-view? Because if you give him enough evidence, he’ll change?
Another trope in constant need of update is the convention of the superhero costume, which goes back to ... who knows? Some element of the strong man in the circus, with his outside undies, along with the tights of Hollywood’s Robin Hood, which inspired the comic strip “The Phantom,” which inspired everyone else. It’s a convention that hasn’t aged well. If you acquire superpowers, why would you put on a brightly colored, skintight outfit? What kind of freak are you? So modern cinematic superheroes, playing to a cooler crowd, either get rid of the outfit (X-Men), give it utility (Batman) or provide a comic version as a bridge to the final version (Spider-Man).
“Captain America” goes the “Spider-Man” route. After injection and transformation, and the subsequent death of Dr. Erskine by a spy from Hydra—the deep-science wing of the Third Reich, run by the Red Skull—Phillips, still not on board, rejects Steve for an overseas mission. But a visiting Senator, impressed with Steve’s heroic run through New York to nail the Hydra spy, and, more, with the subsequent positive press from his heroics, puts him on a tour to raise war bonds, a la the heroes of Iwo Jima in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers,” where, flanked by dancing girls, he wears a star-spangled outfit and decks an actor playing Adolf Hitler. A comic book is even created: “Captain America.” Same one created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Nice touch.
And that’s the costume he’s wearing, trying to entertain the troops in Italy, when he leaps into action to save the 107th and Bucky Barnes. Bonus: the Howling Commandoes come along, led by the moustachioed Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough, “Buck” Compton from HBO’s excellent “Band of Brothers”). No Sgt. Fury, of course, who, in the comics, led the Howling Commandoes. Sgt. Fury became Nick Fury of S.H.I.E.L.D., and, while that chronology worked in the ’60s, a mere 20 years after the end of WW II, it’s more problematic 70 years removed.
Interestingly, we never see Captain America battle the Nazis. He and the Howling Commandoes are always fighting Hydra—that Marvel Comics organization promising that if you cut off one head, two more will rise to replace it—and these scenes are super fun, with Captain America leaping off tanks in the Mighty Kirby Manner, riding his motorcycle over fences like a super Steve McQueen, and flinging his shield, that great shield, so that it banks off walls and takes out robots and armored men, then flies back to its master’s hand.
More important, we never lose sight of the skinny kid beneath the muscles. Cap is successful not just because he’s superstrong but because he’s always trying harder than anyone else. The dialogue with the rude dude at the beginning is even repeated with the Red Skull at the end. We never lose sight of the fact that Dr. Erskine’s serum may create the power, but it’s the man he chose who creates the hero.
Missing a date
“Captain America” does it all well: from the death of Bucky Barnes, to the final battle with the Red Skull, to Cap’s inevitable immersion in ice. They take their stolid hero and surround him with vibrant character actors like Jones, Tucci and Weaving—does his German accent remind anyone else of Werner Herzog?—as well as Hayley Atwell, who makes a lovely, tough Peggy Carter, Steve’s eventual love interest, with whom, before the final battle, he shares a soft, first kiss. (Suggested title for the sequel: “Captain America: 90-Year-Old Virgin.”)
But does the ending work? Cap commandeers the Red Skull’s plane, heading to bomb New York (giving us 9/11 overtones), and ditches it in the Arctic. He and Peggy share good-byes over the radio. They talk of a dance the following week. “I’d hate to step on your ...” he says, followed by the crackle of static. “Steve...” she says. “Steve...” she says. We get shots of VE-Day celebrations. We get the Howling Commandoes drinking a pint to the Captain, followed by Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), Tony’s father, finding the Red Skull’s cosmic cube. We get a shot of kids in Brooklyn playing Captain America with a painted garbage can.
Should it have ended there? It could have. “Avengers,” next year, could thaw him out.
Instead Steve Rogers wakes up in a neat bedroom. A nearby radio broadcasts a game between the Dodgers and Phillies at Ebbets Field, while a woman, looking WAC, enters to check on him. We know something’s amiss before he does. Ebbets Field? The Dodgers left there in ’56. He figures it out because the game being broadcast (or rebroadcast) is a game he actually attended back in ’41. So he breaks out of the room, out of the building, and into modern-day Times Square, where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) informs him he’s been in suspended animation for 70 years. “I had a date,” he says, trying to fathom all he’s lost.
But wouldn’t the above have worked better solely from his point-of-view? He’s piloting the plane, talking to Peggy, ice and snow appear before him, a crash. Then white (with echoes of her voice) ... followed by white (and silence)... followed by white. Then waking up in the room to the Dodgers game.
What would we have lost that we needed? This way, the movie could’ve ended with a visit to the grave of Peggy Carter (1920-2001). She’s British, but a soldier, and let’s have her buried in Arlington Cemetery. And that’s where you end your movie about World War II's supersoldier: Cap, at her grave, kneeling, then standing and looking around; and the camera pulling back and showing us the white markers of all the fallen soldiers.
“Captain America: The First Avenger” is a top-tier superhero movie, reminiscent of the first “X-Men” or “Spider-Man” in the joy it provides. Its ending, though, should’ve been a little more like its hero. It should’ve tried a little harder.
Sunday July 24, 2011
Granite Mt. Redux
Two years ago hiking Granite Mt., I missed the turnoff for Granite Mt., went a mile out of my way (two counting the return), and wound up with a 10-mile hike rather than a mere eight.
Today, the first nice weekend of the year in Seattle, I returned. Didn't miss the turnoff this time but probably should've checked the snow conditions. Put it this way: the prepared brought their crampons; I brought a turkey sandwich.
A good day, nevertheless.
P.S. First time attempting audio commentary. It'll get better...
Sunday July 24, 2011
Movie-Review Line of the Day
“As inconsequential and virtually indistinguishable sub-Judd Apatow white-boy comedies fueled by prison-rape gags and pants-pissing anxiety around black people go, ”Horrible Bosses“ is pretty solid entertainment.”
--Andrew O'Hehir, Salon.com.
His full review here. My review here. We have pretty much the same take on the movie - right down to its inconsequentiality. “The bosses are ... three caricatures rather than three human beings,” I write. “Farrell and Aniston's horrible bosses never remotely resemble real people,” O'Hehir writes. Add it up and it's 70% on Rotten Tomatoes.
Saturday July 23, 2011
Movie Review: Tabloid (2011)
Last May, after seeing the Seattle International Film Festival screening of Errol Morris’ new documentary, “Tabloid,” about Joyce McKinney and the 1977 Mormon sex-in-chains case, my friend Ben and I found ourselves disagreeing about the main subject, McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming, who, like Robert McNamara in Morris’ “The Fog of War,” more or less indicts herself in her talking-head interviews. I found her initially amusing, then increasingly sad, then turn-your-head-away nuts. Ben thought she was acting the whole time. He thought she just wanted the spotlight, even Morris’ spotlight, and would do anything to get it.
Ten steps outside the theater, something happened that made one of us change our minds.
Something for everyone
Are you familiar with McKinney? I wasn’t. The main characters in the drama are all American but the crime itself, if it was a crime, happened in Britain, where it became a tabloid sensation.
Basic facts: McKinney, a former beauty queen, met Kirk Anderson, Mormon, in the American west in the mid-1970s. The two were apparently engaged. Then he disappeared. Did he leave or was impelled to leave by others? She hires a private investigator, Jackson Shaw, to track him down and the trail leads to Ewell, Surrey, where he’s doing Mormon missionary work, and she, Shaw, and a pilot, along with her friend Keith “K.J.” May, travel to England to retrieve him. After both Shaw and the pilot return to the states, citing differences with and concerns about McKinney, she and Anderson wind up in a cottage in Devon. Did he go willingly or was he kidnapped? He’s tied to a bed and they have sex. Was it kinky sex or rape? Days later, when he finally files a report of kidnapping and rape, the British tabloids go mad. “There was something in that story for everyone,” says Kent Gavin, a photographer for The Daily Mirror, citing, among other items, the words “sex,” “beauty queen” and “spread-eagled.” He adds: “It was a perfect tabloid story.”
So the question: Which version of events is correct? Was it a story of star-crossed lovers (her version) or was it kidnapping and rape (his version)? Was it a love story, as she claims, or a porno story, as the tabloids trumpeted?
Here’s Morris in the documentary “Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary” (2008):
This idea that there is no such thing as absolute truth, that truth is subjective—there’s truth for you, there’s truth for me, everybody has their own truth—for me, that’s nonsense talk. There’s a real world. We inhabit that real world. Things happen.
But we don’t get that definitive point-of-view in “Tabloid.” Morris brings in a third party, a reformed Mormon, to get us into the Mormon mindset; and of course we have McKinney herself, older and overweight now, as the film’s main talking head, giving us her mindset, such as it is. But Morris doesn’t seem interested in parsing the matter any further than he does.
Perhaps for this reason: No matter the truth, her version of events, the supposed romantic version, the version without a crime, is actually creepier than his.
The documentary begins with Super 8 footage of McKinney, probably in the late ‘70s, wearing a long, white dress and a post-Farrah shag, walking on estate grounds and reading from a book. It’s her book. She reads: “Once upon a time, there was a beautiful little princess—the most beautiful princess in all of the land.” As a talking head, she refers to her former kidnap victim, whom she hasn’t seen in more than three decades, as “My Kirk.” She calls their story “a very special love story” and says, in a little girl’s voice, “I wanted to give him lots of babies in my tummy.”
Ick. Nails on a chalkboard. Immediately. It’s a glimpse into that crazy, gauzy, romantic fantasy world of women that would send most men screaming from the room.
Her romanticism is also at odds with her own reality. In that reality, as the tabloids back then uncovered, and as Morris implies, McKinney made the money for this misadventure in the porn business. Bondage photos. Was there prostitution as well? Unknown. But at the least she uses the promise of sex to further her goals. Shaw helps her, he says, because she’s good-looking and wears a see-through blouse. “Totally see-through,” he adds with a randy smile. Then there’s K.J., the eunuch in the story, at her beck-and-call. What is he hoping for?
Think of the irony. She uses sex to bend men to fit her fantasies, which are romantic, and winds up a plaything in men’s fantasies, which are about sex. She wanted “Once upon a time...” and wound up with “McKinney and the Manacled Mormon.”
For a time, she revels in the tabloid attention. Then the attention goes elsewhere. What happens then?
Well, in 1984, McKinney tries to reestablish contact with Anderson, who is now married with children. He gets a restraining order.
There’s home footage of McKinney in 1986 suffering from a kind of agoraphobia. She can’t seem to leave her home. She thinks people are out to get her.
But she gets a dog, a pit bull named Booger, whom she loves, and who dies in the 2000s. She can’t bear this loss. So she hires a Korean doctor to have her dog cloned. It’s an expensive but ultimately successful procedure and headlines are made around the world. She’s reunited with the dog she loves, as she wasn’t with the man she loves, and, in her little girl’s voice, talks up the joy of having five little Boogers running around.
All the while, my friend Ben, sitting next to me in the theater, laughed and laughed. I sat silent, sickened.
Morris, I thought, was taking advantage of this woman’s mental state without the benefit of any kind of artistry. He was throwing this mess on the screen, spread-eagled, for everyone to see.
At least that’s what I argued with Ben as we made our way out of the theater.
Then it happened.
Ben’s making his points, about what kind of person McKinney is, how she’s an actress, how she just wants the spotlight, and a passerby says, “She’s right over there.”
Ben looks up. “Who?”
We walk over to a crowd forming a half circle around a short, fat woman. And, yes, it’s Joyce McKinney, the woman we’ve just watched talking on the big screen for 90 minutes. She’s still talking, still complaining, but this time about Errol Morris. He promised, she says, that the documentary would be an exposé on the tabloids and the Mormons, and instead she got this, which is more an exposé of her. Once again, her tale wasn’t being told properly. Once again, she needed to right this wrong.
On and on she went, a modern, solipsistic Joseph K, railing at the forces against her. After two, three minutes, Ben and I finally turned away and made our way out of the crowd. Both of us were silent now. Finally he said, shaking his head, “You’re right. She’s nuts.”
Except I don’t know if I was right. Or honest. I assumed I was sickened by McKinney’s deteriorating mind when it may have been far shallower than that; it may have been her deteriorating looks.
Once upon a time she was a beauty queen, blonde with an OK face and a good body, and she used that to her advantage. She got men to do things for her because of that advantage. But time took it away. Yet there she was, still talking, still presenting her case, as if she still had that power. And it’s her very insistence that she still has that power that reminds us of the shallowness of that power. If it had been Angelina Jolie outside the SIFF screening, we would’ve been captivated and maybe even sympathetic. That’s awful... what he promised you... what he did to you... Instead some short, fat, dumpy woman was yakking away. About something. As if we cared. In a way, nothing reveals how nuts she is more than this fact: She thinks we still care even though she looks like she does.
I saw “Tabloid” before the British-tabloid cellphone-hacking scandal broke. No doubt that scandal has been good for Morris’ film. It’s also, I believe, fostering the sense that we, as a society, have got the bad guys—Brooks, Hinton, “News of the World,” Murdoch—on the run now. There’s a sense that we’re finally past this crap. We’re not. We still want it, we just don’t need Murdoch and company to deliver it to us anymore. It’s their mode, not their content, that’s outdated. I saw this after the SIFF screening, as Joyce McKinney, that fat, lost loon, complained about Errol Morris and the tabloid press and the Mormon church. No one said a thing. In the two minutes or so that I was there, no one tried to communicate with her. Instead, one by one, people took out their smartphones and began filming.
McKinney: with boobs, with boogers.
Friday July 22, 2011
Captain America: From Hitler Puncher to Commie Smasher to Man Without a Country
If you'd asked me in 1974, when I was 11 years old and a year into my serious Marvel-Comics-collecting phase, for the names of my two favorite superheroes, I would've immediately given you Spider-Man; then after some thought, after mentally sorting through Superman and Batman (the only DC heroes worth a damn), and the Hulk, the Thing, Iron Fist and Luke Cage, I would've added, “Captain America.”
Spider-Man is easy to figure. A teenager who feels sorry for himself but has the proportional strength of a spider. Identification and wish-fulfillment in the same package.
But Captain America? He was tall, blonde and strong-jawed. He was draped in the flag when there was no cache to being draped in the flag. He looked like a young adult but was actually older than my father.
Wish fulfillment, sure, but why did I identify?
Drawing taken from Captain America #1, March 1941
Captain America was created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby in March 1941, for what was then Timely Comics, and on the cover of the first issue he's seen decking Adolph Hitler—meaning Captain America was fighting the Nazis eight months before America was fighting the Nazis. He was soon joined not only by the rest of us but by many superpatriotic superheroes: The American Eagle, The American Crusader, Minute-Man: the One-Man Army, Major Victory, Man of War, Uncle Sam, U.S. Jones, The Shield, The Defender, The Flag, Super-American, and V-Man, as well as a character named Yankee Doodle Jones, an artificial man, who, in one of the more gruesome origins ever, was created from the body parts of crippled World War I veterans. Then he was injected with a super serum.
This last bit was Captain America's origin, too: scrawny kid, tries to enlist, 4-F, but volunteers to be injected with a super serum from a Professor “Reinstein.” The kid is to be the first of a super army. But the Gestapo shoots Reinstein, his formula dies with him, and we're left with Steve Rogers and the legend of Captain America.
Scan the covers of those early, World War II-era comics and they are, albeit with greater Kirbyesque attention to the energetic motion of the human body, typical of the period: carryovers from the lurid pulps, with damsels or young boys (Bucky Barnes) tied up and imperiled, and our hero decking yet another round of sinister Krauts or buck-toothed Japs or various yellow or green grisly monsters and henchmen. My favorite imperilment may be on the cover of Captain America #9, in which a Mephisto-like creature is painting himself in the act of strangling Bucky Barnes. Jack Kirby's wish fulfillment?
Most of the superpatriots either didn't survive or barely survived the war, and Cap was no exception. Captain America #42 was the first issue where Cap is fighting civilians on the cover—bank robbers rather than Nazi or Jap soldiers—and several issues on you can sense the desperation. Cap's dynamic silent covers suddenly became very wordy. A Clark Kent-like private life for Steve Rogers was created. Women went from being imperiled to being the peril. For a time, as horror comics took over the medium, the magazine was retitled “Captain America's WEIRD TALES.” At the height of McCarthyism, the magazine was retitled “Captain America COMMIE SMASHER!” None of it worked. Captain America #78 was the last issue.
Captain America covers, 1942-1954: the struggle for survival.
In 1974, I knew none of this history. I merely knew the story Stan Lee created in resurrecting Cap in Avengers #4: How, at the end of the war, as he's fighting Baron Zemo with Bucky, the two climb aboard a missile in flight to redirect it. But Bucky stays on too long and gets blown up, while Cap, screaming “Nooooooo!,” falls in the ocean, is encased in ice, and is thus preserved, World War II-era ready, when the Avengers find him in 1963.
In a way Cap never gets over losing Bucky. He never gets over his lost 19 years. He remains, in the Marvel comics parlance of the time, trapped in a world he never made!
That was part of the appeal for me. In 1974 my parents were already separated and in the midst of a divorce, and I felt trapped in a world I never made. I felt I had lost something, as Cap had lost Bucky, as Spider-Man had lost his Uncle Ben, and I identified with their respective losses.
The storylines in Captain America were also fascinating. I began collecting Cap with #169, which was the first issue of an six-issue arc in which Cap battles a group called “The Secret Empire,” who first besmirch Cap's name via television propaganda (anticipating FOX-News by 25 years), then frame him for murder. But Cap and the Falcon (now with wings!) infiltrate the organization and stop it literally on the White House lawn. 1974 was a very political year and Marvel, to its credit, didn't run from it. They embraced it. Inside the White House, Cap unmasks the Empire ringleader, a man with “high political office,” whose power was “still too constrained by legalities,” who subsequently kills himself. An issue later, in the exact month Nixon resigned the presidency, Steve Rogers, fed up with what his country had become, resigns being Captain America. A few issues later, with the help of Hawkeye, Steve Rogers becomes Nomad, man without a country. That arc lasted for about a year.
My favorite Captain America storyline, though, was one I discovered via back issues at Schinders, a magazine store on 7th and Hennepin in the then-grungy part of downtown Minneapolis. Captain America #s 154-156 would now be called a ret-con storyline: “retroactive continuity.”
Fans, you see, delving into the history, had begun to wonder how Captain America could have been frozen in a block of ice during the 1950s when there were in fact real issues, “Commie Smasher” issues, being created in our world. This was Marvel's solution. Scripter Steve Engelhart and artist Sal Buscema created a second Captain America and Bucky, both injected with the super serum, who became America's McCarthy-era heroes. The original serum, though, included “vita-rays,” which weakened, slightly, the serum but preserved the subject's sanity. McCarthy-era Cap wasn't so lucky, and, like the worst part of his country during that decade, he became an intolerant, racist superpatriot, a commie smasher who, after Nixon opened China in '72, is resurrected by another commie-hater within the State Department. 1950s-era Cap then goes after 1970s-era Cap, whom he doesn't know is the original until it's too late.
Our Cap, the sensitive 1970s Cap, beats the fascistic 1950s Cap in a battle in Miami. But check out the last panels (taken from the original comic book). He wins but he sees himself in the loser. The victory doesn't make him feel good:
Here, meanwhile, are similar last panels from the Secret Empire storyline:
Admittedly Captain America is a cool superhero. He's got a cool name. He's got a shield that, like a bullet-proof frisbee, always returns to him. He rides a motorcycle. Plus he's a tortured soul in the Mighty Marvel Manner. He's suffered a great loss. He has an original sin. He's stuck in a world he never made.
In his post-1963 incarncation, he's also never been a superpatriot. The opposite. He has nothing but doubts about his country. Representing America, he is forced to question it all the more.
But I think the above panels demonstrate Captain America's real appeal to my 11-year-old self. After his incredible victories, against incredible odds, using his incredible muscles, he resembles no one so much as me dragging myself back to my room to mope.
Thursday July 21, 2011
Captain America: Disambiguation
From Wikipedia, natch...
Captain America is a Timely/Atlas/Marvel comic book superhero.
Captain America may also refer to:
- Captain America: The First Avenger, a 2011 film directed by Joe Johnston and starring Chris Evans, Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving.
- Captain America (serial), a 1944 serial
- Captain America (1990 film), a film starring Matt Salinger
- Captain America (album), an album by Jimmy Buffett
- Captain America, a song by the band moe. from their album Dither
- Captain America, a character in the film Easy Rider
- Captain America, a Scottish rock band later known as Eugenius
- Captain America or Randy Couture (born 1963), mixed martial arts fighter
- Captain Americas, a themed restaurant chain in Ireland (since 1971)
- Captain America, a character in the television series Generation Kill
- Claudio Reyna, former captain of the United States men's national soccer team, dubbed Captain America by British media
Thursday July 21, 2011
A Practically Priceless Drawing of Captain America ... By Stan Lee
I met Stan Lee in 1975 when my father, a reporter for The Minneapolis Tribune, interviewed the co-creator of the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, etc., as he was traveling city-to-city for his book, Sons of Origins of Marvel Comics. My father knew nothing about comics—“Superman” would make him think George Bernard Shaw more than Siegel and Shuster—while my older brother Chris and I were immersed, particularly me. So Dad invited us along for the second-half of the interview at a swanky, dark, downtown restaurant. I held the light for the photograph that went in the next day's newspaper. It was a beginning.
The great part? When the interview was over, Stan didn't turn off. I don't know if he has an “off.” He invited Chris and I over and brought us out. He took out a pen and drew us a cartoonish Captain America holding up a sign. He gave us nicknames in the Mighty Marvel Manner: Charismatic Chris and Erudite Erik. He may have been the nicest famous person I ever met.
Here's the drawing:
Thirty-five years are often unkind, with people more than paper, but it's still a pretty cool collector's item for a non-collector like me. 'Nuff said.
Wednesday July 20, 2011
The Songs of Captain America
1n 1975, my friend Dan Roach and I, nerdlinger comic book collectors both, wrote a song called “Captain America” to the tune of “Theme from Rockford Files,” an instrumental song in want of lyrics, which was just hitting the Top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.
In honor of the Captain America movie coming out Friday, not to mention a brain stuffed with the inconsequential, here are the lyrics:
Throw your mighty shield
Beat the enemy
Do not yield
It is up to you
A living symbol
Red white and blue
Through the years you've fought for worldwide peace
Your fight for freedom, will never, never, never
Throw your mighty shield
Beat the enemy
Do not yield
--from the song “Captain America”: Music by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter; Lyrics by Dan Roach and Erik Lundegaard
OK, a bit derivative of the 1966 cartoon theme song (shield/yield), but we were 12. Stick around, true believers, and I may regale you with “The Night Gwen Stacey Died,” to the tune of “The Night Chicago Died.” Excelsior!
“Beat the enemy, do not yield”
Wednesday July 20, 2011
Movie Review: Horrible Bosses (2011)
WARNING: EOE SPOILERS
There’s a moment when “Horrible Bosses” has a chance. It’s near the beginning of the film and Nick (Jason Bateman), arriving horribly early to work, is telling us in voice over about his family history. His grandmother, whom he’ll later call Gam-Gam to comic effect, came to this country with a few bucks and worked her entire life and wound up saving two thousand dollars. That sucks, he says. “The key to success,” he tells us, “is taking shit. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last eight years.”
Hey, I thought. Maybe we’ll get some interesting back-and-forth here on how to get ahead in America. Kissing ass? Hard work? Ruthlessness? Connections? Luck? Why do some get ahead and others do not?
Then Nick adds: “The only hitch: I work for Dave Harken.”
Ah, I thought. Less systemic, more personal. Too bad.
There’s another moment, actually, when things might’ve worked out, too.
Our trio of dudes, Nick, Dale (Charlie Day) and Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), are lamenting their current states of employment at the local pub. Nick’s boss, Dave Harken (Kevin Spacey) strings Nick along on a promotion, getting him to work weekends and apologize for coming in “late” at 6:02 a.m., then, a la Dick Cheney, gives himself the promotion. In the movie’s parlance, he’s the TOTAL FUCKING ASSHOLE boss. Dale’s boss, Dr. Julia Harris, (Jennifer Aniston), a dentist, sexually harasses him (she’s EVIL CRAZY BITCH), while Kurt’s boss, after his company’s kindly patriarch, Jack Pellit (Donald Sutherland), passes away, is Jack’s son, Bobby (Colin Farrell, in comb-over mode), who wants to fire fat people, do blow off hookers, and run the company into the ground. He’s DICKHEAD COKEHEAD SON.
Over drinks, our trio decide they should find new jobs.
That’s when they run into Kenny Sommerfeld (P.J. Byrne), a high school classmate who went on to Harvard and a big career at Lehman Bros. Kenny greets them happily, then talks up his current situation, which, years after the Lehman collapse, which was the bellwether for our current economic collapse, is still without work. Then he asks for money. They’re kind; they actually give it to him. But he says it’s not enough. So if they ante up more, he’ll take them into the bathroom for blowjobs. They’re shocked and appalled, he’s pleasantly insistent, but finally he’s shooed from the bar—a known nuisance, unknown by his former classmates who frequent the joint.
The scene is shorthand for how bad the job market is and how stuck each of our protagonists are in their current crappy jobs with their current horrible bosses. It’s played for laughs—this is a comedy, after all—and it is funny...ish. But it’s not meaningful because it’s not relatable.
What a missed opportunity. I know quite a few people who are stuck in crappy jobs, and/or with horrible bosses, so, if anything, the movie should be relatable. Why isn’t it? Because it’s a slapsticky, pushing-the-same-damned-envelope comedy about hapless attempts at revenge on three caricatures rather than three human beings. It pretends to be about here and now but it isn’t. It pretends to be about you and me but it isn’t.
Admittedly, some things in the movie work.
I like the way the revenge plot comes about: haphazardly. They joke about it over drinks, then different characters take turns carrying it until suddenly it solidifies. It becomes a thing before the characters know it’s a thing.
I like the fact that, for all their angry talk, none has it in him to kill anyone.
Jamie Foxx has a good cameo but the racial stuff there feels old.
We get a few laugh-out-loud lines (“I can’t walk around this neighborhood with that Disney-ass name”), and some great line readings, particularly by Bateman (Nick: “I was drag-racing.” Cop: “In a Prius?” Nick [Pause]: “I don’t win a lot.”).
But “Horrible Bosses” doesn’t mean anything because it’s not about anything. The bosses aren’t really bosses and the friends aren’t really friends. After it was over, I wasn’t amused or angry; I didn’t feel cheated or uplifted. It contained just the right ingredients to make me feel nothing at all.
Tuesday July 19, 2011
Lyrics of the Day
Hey Little Hypocrite
What you gonna say
When you wind up standin' naked
On the final Judgement Day
How you gonna justify it
Who you gonna call
What if it turns out that
God don't look like you at all
--“Little Emperor” by Steve Earle, from the album “I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive”
Tuesday July 19, 2011
What Bing Does Better Than Google
In my review of Woody Allen's “Midnight in Paris,” which is about traveling to a place and time where art and literature matter, I made a passing reference to the fact that even Philip Roth doesn't read fiction anymore. He said so in a recent interview with Jan Dalley, “Life After 'Nemesis,'” in Financial Times.
I wanted to provide a link to that interview so I Googled two terms: “Philip Roth” and “stopped reading fiction.” Here are the top results for that search:
- The New York Times artsbeat blog referencing and linking to Dalley's FT article.
- The Atlantic referencing and linking to Dalley's FT article.
- Althouse referencing and linking to Dalley's FT article.
- Salon referencing and linking to Dalley's FT article.
- Yahoo News referencing and linking to Dalley's FT article.
- James Russell Ament referencing and linking to the Salon article, which references and links to Dalley's FT article.
- Slate republishing the entire FT article with Dalley's byline.
- ArtsJournal referencing and linking to the Slate article.
- The original article.
Ninth. Above it, you have all the sites feeding off it. In the Google world, in the tech world, there's little respect for original content. To me, this lack of respect filters down and you wind up with some aspect of the shitty culture we have.
As an experiment, I cleared my cache and tried the same search on Yahoo, expecting similar results. Nope. Much better. The original article appeared third.
Then I cleared the cache again and tried it with Bing. The original article appeared first.
Guess I'll be using Bing more often.
Monday July 18, 2011
The 30-30-30-30 Club
The Mariners' season came undone while I was visiting family in Minneapolis in early July. They were getting by, as my friend Jim said, with Smoak and mirrors, and on July 5, despite getting swept by the Nationals and Braves in late June, they were 43-43, .500 exactly, and only a few games out of first place in the weak American League West.
On July 5 they beat Oakland 4-2 in 10 innings. The next day they lost to the A's, 2-0, but still won the series, 2-1.
They haven't won since.
The Angels swept them in four games in Anaheim. The Rangers swept them four games here. That's a nine-game losing streak. Now they're more than 10 games back. Season over.
It's not just that they lost, it's how they lost. In the four games here, the M's gave up 17 runs and scored two: one on Saturday night, one on Sunday afternoon. In 36 innings, they not only never had the lead, but, since Texas scored in the first inning in three of the four games, the M's actually trailed for 34 of those 36 innings. Even though every game starts out 0-0, they can't even hold onto the tie.
Last season, the M's set a record for fewest runs scored by a Major League team in a non-strike-shortened season since the advent of the DH rule. They were last in almost every offensive category. Runs: 30th. Batting Average: 30th. OBP: 30th. Slugging: 30th. So it is again. They're the sole members of the 30-30-30-30 club. They don't seem interested in sharing that dishonor.
So how could it get any worse? This way: We're down to just mirrors. Justin Smoak, who currently leads the team in HRs (12) RBIs (43) and OBP (.324), is in a downward spiral. Here are his numbers, month-to-month:
Is he injured? Are fans talking about it? Are there fans?
M's management is doing the right thing. I have to say that. They're going young now. They're building from within. But the team is suffering from the bad moves and worse picks from earlier in the 2000s. The question is how long they—and we—will be suffering.
Monday July 18, 2011
Movie Review: Midnight in Paris (2011)
WARNING: MOVEABLE SPOILERS
I never thought Woody Allen would make me this happy again. I thought he and I were done. I once wrote: “Our relationship has gone on too long and I know all his bad habits.” And that was back in 1998. Since then, after “Sweet and Lowdown,” a good film but hardly one that made me happy, he disappointed with “Small-Time Crooks,” “The Curse of the Jade Scorpion,” “Hollywood Ending,” “Anything Else,” and “Melinda and Melinda.” He revived, ironically, away from New York, with “Match Point,” which, sadly, I never saw. I did see “Scoop” (eh), “Cassandra’s Dream” (bleh) and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” which everyone liked and I didn’t, and I told myself that was it. Life was short, Woody was old, we were done. Move on.
I didn’t believe the good reviews for “Midnight in Paris,” either. Hadn’t everyone liked “Vicky,” too? The people praising the film probably didn’t know Woody like I knew Woody. Eventually though, I succumbed. Paris and Hemingway? Rachel McAdams and Carla Bruni and Marion Cotillard? Porquoi pas?
Glad I did. At 75, Woody has finally found the leading man to replace himself. I never realized how Woodyish Owen Wilson’s inflection already was—but west coast rather than east coast; gentile rather than Jewish; laid-back rather than angsty.
Wow. A west coast Woody. What would Alvy Singer say?
Wilson plays Gil, a Hollywood screenwriter attempting a novel, and visiting Paris with his fiancée Inez (Rachel McAdams). Early on, he waxes rhapsodic about Paris, particularly Paris in the 1920s, and she tells him, “You’re in love with a fantasy,” to which he responds, holding her, “I’m in love with you.” Both are true. Or: the she he imagines her to be is the fantasy. They’re obviously not suited for each other. She doesn’t like Paris, she doesn’t like Paris in the rain, her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy) are conservative assholes: the father is all about mergers and Bush-era Francophobia; the mother shops and carps. Gil and Inez have nothing in common. They’re the couple thrown together in the beginning of the film so the filmmaker can break them up in the end.
By this point, too, Woody has already picked sides by declaring his own love for Paris. The first few minutes of the film consist entirely of five-second shots around the city—the Arc d’Triomph here, Luxemburg Gardens there, Eiffel Tower everywhere—backed by a mellow jazz score. It’s “Manhattan” without the Gershwin grandiosity or Woody narration. It’s truly beautiful.
So Gil not only has to deal with a combative wife and her Republican parents but a perennial Woody nemesis: the pedantic blowhard after his girl, here named Paul and played exceptionally well by a bearded Michael Sheen. Paul is an expert, or “expert,” on everything from French wine (“too much tannin,” he says of the ’59) to Rodin. He even corrects (incorrectly) the tour guide at the Rodin Museum on whether Camille Claudel was Rodin’s wife or mistress. The tour guide, in a nice touch, is played by Carla Bruni, the former mistress, current wife, of the president of France.
Apparently Paul is also a great dancer, and he and his wife ask Gil and Inez along for a night of dancing. Inez accepts, Gil begs off, and instead walks the streets of Paris. Inez tells him not to get lost so of course he gets lost. As he’s sitting on some steps, tired and forlorn, a nearby clock chimes midnight, at which point, a 1920 Peugeot Landaulet, full of carousers, pulls up and pulls him in. They take him to a party where he meets a woman named Zelda (Alison Pill) and her husband Scott (Tom Hiddleston, Loki from “Thor”). Their last name? Fitzgerald. He points at them. “Huh, Same as...” They seem confused by this. They also seem very 1920s. And the guy on the piano singing the Cole Porter song (Yves Heck) sure looks a lot like Cole Porter.
It’s not until they go to another bar and meet Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll) that ... It’s less the other shoe dropping than the jaw dropping. It’s giving in to the fantasy, which Gil does when he asks Hemingway to read his manuscript. This Hemingway is a fully formed version who talks as Hemingway writes. When Gil praises his book—most likely “In Our Time”—Hemingway responds, “It was a good book because it was an honest book, and that's what war does to men. And there's nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully. And then it's not only noble but brave.” Hemingway talks moveable feasts and Fitzgerald calls Gil “old chap,” as if he were Gatsby, which not only makes sense—since, you could argue, all of this is in Gil’s head, so he’s not dealing with the real Hemingway and Fitzgerald but his versions of them—but it’s fun, too.
Hemingway refuses to read Gil’s manuscript, claiming he already hates it—if it’s bad and untrue, he says, he’ll hate it; and if it’s good he’ll be jealous and hate it even more—but he promises to set him up with his mentor, Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates), who will read it with a clear mind and heart. When Gil arrives there the next night, Pablo Picasso (Marcial Di Fonzo Bo) is showing off the latest painting of his mistress, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), whom Gil falls for.
Everyone knows I love me some Cotillard, but her scenes, and Gil’s romance with her, actually slow the movie down. The greater romance—for both Gil and Woody—is with art and literature and 1920s Paris. Those are the scenes that made the movie for me. Offering Zelda Fitzgerald a valium. Running into Luis Buñuel (Adrien de Van), Man Ray (Tom Cordier) and Salvador Dali (a hilarious, scene-stealing Adrien Brody) at a local pub. Pitching Buñuel an idea for a later Buñuel film—“The Exterminating Angel” from 1960—and leaving Buñuel as perplexed as a film student forced to study Buñuel. “What do you mean no one leaves the room?” he says. “Why?”
The more immersed Gil becomes in 1920s Paris, the more estranged he becomes from Inez, who winds up in the arms of Paul. There’s a great scene in modern-day Paris where Paul bores everyone with his views of a Picasso painting—the same Picasso painting we saw at Gertrude Stein’s—and Gil corrects him as thoroughly as Marshall McLuhan corrects the pedantic fucker in “Annie Hall.” Again: fun.
Fun ... but light. Adriana, it turns out, loves La Belle Époque as much as Gil loves the 1920s, and she and Gil, wah lah!, wind up back there, where they run into Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (Vincent Menjou Cortes), and Gauguin and Degas (Olivier Rabourdin and François Rostain), who wax nostalgic for the Renaissance. A light goes on for Gil. No one is happy in their time. Most eras look great past their time. Thus Gil returns to 2010, for good now, breaks it off with Inez—Hemingway makes him realize she’s having an affair—and walks the streets, until, at midnight, he meets the usual unattached beautiful French girl (Léa Seydoux), and they take a walk together in the rain. The End.
It’s a nice fairy-tale ending. I liked it ... enough. It’s the movie’s lesson that feels less-than-satisfying to me.
Obviously a dramatist can’t leave his protagonist buried in a nostalgic past. At the same time, not all eras are created equally. I loved this version of 1920s Paris—who wouldn’t?—but, more, I loved the idea of traveling to a place where art and literature matter. Where it’s discussed, seriously and interestingly, all the time. In my own time, I just don’t see it or feel it. The artistic enclaves I’ve encountered tend to be full of the Pauls of the world, while the wider world, obsessed with wealth, power and technology, could give a shit. It’s harder and harder, in the digital age, to make a living as a writer, or photographer, or graphic designer. Even Philip Roth admits he doesn’t read novels anymore.
So I didn’t quite buy the lesson in the end. Even so: Thank you, Woody, for reminding me why I fell in love with literature in the first place. And why I fell in love with you.
Sunday July 17, 2011
First Draft: “If You Won't Lose Everything, Your 401K Will Be Cut in Half and You'll Be Underwater in Your Mortage for a Decade.”
Check out this poster from “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.” Look at the tagline and then at the release date:
Those of us who bought homes that year, or felt comfortable in our jobs or with our retirement funds, really should've paid attention.
Sunday July 17, 2011
The Dark Knight is Dead; Long Live Prince Harry
So what movie did you see this weekend?
I finally got around to “Midnight in Paris” (fun!) and “Buck” (good!) but everyone else in America apparently went to “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2,” which set a one-day record Friday by grossing $92 million (breaking “New Moon”'s 2009 record of $72 million), then, bien sur, broke the opening weekend mark of $158 million set by “The Dark Knight” in 2008 by pulling in $168 million. It also grossed $157 million overseas. Pretty soon, as the saying goes, we'll be talking real money.
This is the eighth Harry Potter film in 10 years, and, worldwide, the movies have grossed from $795 million (“Azkaban” in 2004) to $974 million (“Sorcerer's/Philosopher's Stone” in 2001), for a total of more than $6.6 billion. One assumes “Hallows 2,” after its jumpstart, will be the one over the $1 billion mark but that depends upon repeat customers and word-of-mouth.
(BTW: I'm sure this has been ridiculed for 10 years now, but how sad is it that in this country we can't bear a title with the word “philosopher” in it?)
Question of the day: How will Warner Bros. revive this lucrative franchise? By rebooting the sucker in three or four years with all-new cast members? Or by wrestling enough copyright away from J.K. Rowling to create its own Harry Potter adventures—a la Ian Fleming and James Bond? That's assuming Harry lives at the end of “Hallows 2.” I don't even know. I haven't read the books and I stopped with the movies about five years ago. Even the ones I've seen run together. There's our threesome, who often go up against the bad guys, including the blonde kid, Malfoy, the Nellie Olsen of wizards. You get to the school magically, where you play a game on broomsticks. Most of the teachers are old-school stoic. Some help, some hurt. Harry, the orphan, is the chosen one. Just because. There's a really really bad guy he's supposed to go up against. That's about it. But the world is taken.
Elsewhere, “Transformers 3” fell off 55% but still finished second, after two weekends at first, with $21 million. It's now passed the $300 million mark.
It was followed by the second weekend of “Horrible Bosses” ($17m), the second weekend of “Zookeepper” ($12m), the fourth weekend of “Cars 2” ($8.3 million) and the first weekend of the reboot of another British import, “Winnie the Pooh” ($8 million).
The magic totals here.
The Harry Potter posters: from “Let the Magic Begin” to “It All Ends.”
Saturday July 16, 2011
The Real Culprit in the British Tabloid Scandal
The scope of the phone-hacking scandal that killed one of Britain's oldest tabloids, and has knocked from their perch some of Rupert Murdoch's most high-flying executives, including Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton, keeps widening. Now Prime Minister David Cameron, who had a “cosy and comfortable” relationship with Murdoch's executives, meeting with them 26 times since May 2010. Now Scotland Yard, who apparently had evidence of the phone hacking back in 2006 but did nothing.
But the biggest culprit is hardly mentioned.
Not Murdoch himself. I'm talking about the people who actually buy this shit.
The tabloids do what they do, or did what they did (or will do again), for a reason: It makes money. People lap it up.
I remember working at a grocery store in the early 1980s and seeing people, mostly women, mostly fat, seemingly dim, who would buy one, two, five copies of U.S. tabloids like The National Enquirer, and its stories about celebrity scandals, real or made-up, and UFO sightings and the like. The whole thing made me shudder. What a waste, I'd think. How can you encourage that? I'd think.
I still think that. The tabloids may be intentionally appealing to the lowest common denominator, but it's our lowest common denominator. Save your outrage for the person next to you in the check-out line.
Saturday July 16, 2011
“And Off to the Right? A Massive Thunderstorm Bearing Down on Us”
My flight home from Minneapolis Sunday night was supposed to leave at 9:35 but departed 15 minutes early to avoid thunderstorms. All well and good. Full flight, so I assumed everyone was on board. But in the air—20,000 feet? 25,000 feet?—we saw the thunderstorms off to the right, which I assumed was north, since we were heading west, but may have been west and we were heading south to avoid them. Either way, it was quite the show. We didn't hear much thunder over the drone of the airplane but we saw the flashes of lightning every few seconds and saw the actual bolts of lightning zinging down.
Went on for 10 minutes.
I was already semi-paranoid about the flight, too. In the Humphrey terminal bar—you know the one: there's only one—I struck up a conversation with a Brit, Matt Chapman, on his way to LA to making a living, or to improve his chances of making a living, as a freelance movie writer. He writes regular features for DVDreview.com.uk. We had a good time talking celebrity interviews (he's done many, me a handful), blasting “Green Lantern,” and talking up DVD commentaries. I asked him for his favorite DVD commentary but his answer has already slipped my mind. Apologies. (Matt, if you read this, please add it below.) Mine is still Craig Wright's commentary from the episodes he wrote for “Six Feet Under.”
As airport bar conversations go, it was pretty decent. In the middle of it, though, something was said, or thought, that led to a pretty strong deja vu moment for me. It was as if I flashed back to a dream I'd had years earlier—a dream that ended with me about to die in an airplane crash. Now, I felt, I'd reached that point in time. I tried to shake the feeling but couldn't, but refused to allow it to change my course. Then, at 20,000 feet, the whole thunderstorm lightshow began.
Do you pray on planes? My airplane prayers tend to consist of entreaties to God to look out for various loved ones. For some reason, it calms me down. Not until now, not until writing this, did I realize the mild threat implicit in these prayers: Really? You're gonna take me? OK, then this is who You have to look out for ... Maybe secretly I'm hoping God thinks, “Oh, man. Seems like a lot of work. OK, I'll let him live ...”
In the end, of course, we passed by the thunderstorm with hardly a bump, and life, in all its pettiness, picked up anew.
The lightning-bolt-striking-Air-Force-One scene from “Superman: The Movie” that I kept flashing to during those 10 long minutes.
Friday July 15, 2011
Taylor Halperin's Mid-Season Report: Annotated
Taylor Halperin of Pro Ball NW gave the mid-season report for the Seattle Mariners on ESPN.com. Since he seems to do this full time, and since I'm mostly a movie guy, not a baseball guy, I should pause, long and hard, before criticizing any or all of his synopsis. Unfortunately it's the Internet so here we go. His column with my annotations...
Seattle Mariners (43-48, -18)
What needs to be fixed or accomplished in the second half?
The M's aren't really gunning for a playoff berth this year, but a poor showing by Texas has allowed for a tight AL West race. If this team wants to contend, the front office needs to do something about manager Eric Wedge's affinity for the hapless Carlos Peguero, who has arguably the worst plate discipline in the majors.
We have an offense that's last in the majors in every conceivable category and you blame ... big Carlos Peguero? That's like pinning Watergate on little Don Segretti. Yes, Peguero is hitting .199 with the ninth-most at-bats on the team, but two guys with more at-bats (Franklin Gutierrez and Chone Figgins) actually have worse batting averages. More importantly, Peguero is tied for the third-most homeruns on the team. As for “...who has arguably the worst plate discipline in the majors,” you should really stop using “arguably.”
Top item on shopping list?
GM Jack Zduriencik would love to nab a left fielder with some pop, and he might be willing to deal Michael Saunders in a package for a veteran such as Ryan Ludwick or Luke Scott. Hunter Pence would look awfully svelte patrolling Safeco's left field, though he would command a big return.
GM Jack Zduriencik would love to nab Ryan Braun, too, but it ain't gonna happen. And might be willing to deal Michael Saunders? In 45 games, at the age of 24, dude had an OPS of .471, then got sent down. Who's gonna want him? Better question: Do we really want a Luke Scott? 33 years old with a .305 OBP? Your advice seems to indicate a chance in hell, but since we're in the 30-30-30-30 club, I don't think we have that chance.
Player to watch.
Ichiro, who's hitting significantly worse than ever before, needs to heat up if the M's have any hope of contending into September. Time will tell if the uniquely effervescent outfielder will break out of his slump — or if his career is quickly winding down.
“Time will tell”? Didn't Garry Trudeau mock that journalistic phrase 30 years ago? But, yes, Ichiro, with the best batting average among regular players on the team, does need to heat up. On the other hand, if he doesn't, it makes the argument about whether we should re-sign him after 2012 so much easier...
-- Taylor Halperin, Pro Ball NW
Apologies. — Erik.
Thursday July 14, 2011
Bye-Bye Tabloid; Hello “Tabloid”
Errol Morris is one lucky bastard. His most recent documentary, “Tabloid,” played the Seattle Interntional Film Festival last month. Here's its synopsis:
Morris’ latest mind-boggling study of boundless obsession takes as its jumping-off point the notorious 1978 kidnapping in the U.K. of a Mormon missionary by former Wyoming beauty queen Joyce Kinney. The lurid details made headlines across the world and turned her into a one-woman media circus. ... Moving beyond the sick, sad, and smirk-inducing aspects of the film, director Morris makes some serious points about the power of the yellow press to shape and destroy lives ...
“Headlines all over the world?” I remember thinking. “I was around in the 1970s. I like stories about sex. How come I don't remember it?”
Then I saw the film and realized, “Ohhh, because it happened in England, with the British tabloid press. Yeah. No wonder I didn't know about it.”
Then I thought, “Too bad for Morris. Probably no market for it. Americans just aren't as interested in British tabloid stuff.”
The doc opens in limited release in the U.S. tomorrow.
Thursday July 14, 2011
Movie Review: Bad Teacher (2011)
WARNING: HOT-FOR-TEACHER SPOILERS
Whoever produced the red-band trailer for “Bad Teacher” should get a prize. They managed to cull every funny moment from the movie and left us with, you know, this.
It should’ve worked. That’s the way with Jake Kasdan movies, isn’t it? “The TV Set”: chronicling the ways TV networks butcher good shows. Should be good! “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”: a satire on every music biopic. Should be good! “Bad Teacher”: Cameron Diaz as a gold-digging, foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, smokin’ hot teacher. Should be good! But all of them are only trailer good. “The TV Set” not even that.
What’s funny? Bluntness. Saying what everyone thinks but no one says. Example: Lynn Davies (Phyllis Smith from “The Office”) and Elizabeth Halsey (Diaz) are watching substitute teacher, and scion to a watch fortune, Scott Delacorte (Justin Timberlake), sit in with the teacher-only band “Period 5” at a local pub:
Lynn: I love how his eyes sparkle when he smiles.
Elizabeth: I want to sit on his face.
Elizabeth was going to marry another scion to another fortune but his mother intervened at the 11th hour and revealed her to be a heartless gold digger, so now she has to keep going with her horrible teaching job, which she does horribly. For the first half of the year she does nothing but show her students uplifting teacher movies (“Stand and Deliver”; “Lean on Me”; “Dangerous Minds,” etc.) while sleeping off the previous night’s drunk. Her goal is to get a boob job to better attract moneyed interests like Delacorte, but they cost, so she: 1) takes in a doofus roommate; and, 2) leads a school car wash in order to embezzle funds. Later she finds out that the teacher of the class with the highest score on the state exam gets a $5,000 prize, and, thus incentivized, she does a 180, drills her students hard and slams them for stupidity. In other words, she’s outrageous when she’s not trying and outrageous when she is. She, and the film, push the boundaries of good taste, as comedies do, to make us laugh. “Sign my yearbook, fucker,” she says to gym teacher Russell Gettis (Jason Segel) at the end of the school year. He hands her his gym bag. “Hold my ball sack?” he asks innocently. Funny bit. Segel’s great. So is Diaz. So is Smith.
Here’s the problem. While riding the blunt, bad-girl honesty of Elizabeth, who says what everyone thinks but no one says, the film, like some polite Midwesterner, shies away from the thing everyone—or at least every schoolboy—thinks. Which is this:
I want to sleep with my teacher.
I’ll go first. I wanted to sleep with my second-grade teacher, my fourth-grade teacher and my brother’s fifth-grade teacher. This was before hormones kicked in. And none of them looked like Cameron Diaz.
In the car-wash scene, Elizabeth shows up in halter-top and short-shorts, does a Jessica Simpson all over the wet, soapy cars, and jaws drop. It’s as if they never noticed she was attractive before. Yeah. Cameron Diaz. These other characters have an innocence that is either annoying (rival teacher Amy Squirrel, played by Lucy Punch), endearing (Lynn), or unstated and all-encompassing (every student), and the joke in the movie is how Elizabeth rides roughshod over this innocence. But the innocence of her students, particularly as it relates to their budding sexuality and her full-flowered version, is such a lie as to make the entire film reek of falseness.
“Bad Teacher” is supposed to be a blunt, boundary-pushing comedy, but it not only doesn’t push this particular boundary—the “hot for teacher” meme—it pretends it doesn’t exist. It can’t go where Van Halen went 20 years ago. In the end, the movie is as prissy as Amy Squirrel.
Wednesday July 13, 2011
Jellybean's eating corn on the cob...
Tuesday July 12, 2011
Quote of the Day
“When you say MEDIUM, we hear LARGE.”
--Sign outside the Southdale Theater, an AMC chain, promoting AMC's “Stubs” program, which involves tracking your movie purchases (seemingly for you, really for them), rewards for every $100 spent (encouraging you to spend that), and free upgrades on popcorn and “fountain drinks” (i.e., the cheap stuff). Bad name, bad campaign, bad slogan. Seriously, when I say 'medium,' I'd rather you heard 'medium.'
Tuesday July 12, 2011
A Walk Through the Old Neighborhood in South Minneapolis
It’s muggy. Seven in the morning and already muggy. Last night, leaving the Humphrey Terminal at 10:30, the air felt soft, but now it’s too soft. Muggy. Mugg-ee. Even the word sticks together.
I feel like a giant here. That’s the way, isn’t it? The cliché? Return to the place where you grew up and everything seems small. Except it feels smaller than it did a year ago when I was 47. The distance between Dad’s garage and the end of the alley is supposed to seem longer and longer, as I get feebler and feebler, but now I feel like a giant bestriding it. How did this alley ever wear me down? How many times, as a kid, did I slink home? Weighed down. By what? What weighs down a kid again? I couldn’t ride a bike. I wet the bed. My parents were fighting, then separating, then divorcing. There were bullies. The world was big and violent and strange and I was small and soft and strange.
Ah, that spot between the two garages, that narrow spot with the slanted concrete wall, where Mark Noel and I—eight years old? nine?—ran and hid with the cigarette pack. My parents had a cocktail party the night before, and in the morning light the living and dining rooms, scattered with remnants of grown-ups—martini glasses and wine glasses and napkins smeared with lipstick—seemed stiller than usual. Mark and I walked through it carefully, reverentially. Then we spotted the cigarette pack on the mantle and whoosh! Why do I remember this moment out of all the other moments? Mark had no problem with the cigarette. He could do it. I took a puff and nearly vomited. Kept me away from cigarettes all those years.
They’ve kept the mailbox on the corner of 53rd and Dupont. When do they...? One p.m., weekdays and Saturdays. It feels like it’s from another era. A mailbox, out here where there’s little foot traffic, in the digital age. But I’m glad it’s here.
Take the creek? No. Muggy equals buggy. Those high-school cross-country practice runs along the creek, shirtless. The bugs, the no-see-ums, dying on contact with your sweaty body. You’d come home speckled in death.
Parkway is good. Man, look at these homes. When I was a kid they were just homes, other people’s homes, but now they seem ... like places I’d like to live: stucco and limestone and brown trim. Particularly compared to that clapboard crap they tossed up in Seattle.
Don’t really know this side of the parkway well. I always took the other side, the Friendlys’ side. This was the Premacks’ side. Where does this lead again? Right. Nicollet Bridge. Why that big embossed “T” on the column at the front of the bridge? Is it a “T”? Nicollet. Where’s the “T”? A reminder to pronounce the “T”? Effin’ Minneapolis.
Look down there. The wide, clean pathways next to the creek, amid the green grass and green trees, for bikes and pedestrians. A kiddie-land for adults. Minneapolis used to seem large and sharp-edged and now it seems small and carefully cultivated. That thought from “Eli, the Fanatic.” Have children ever been so safe in their beds? Parents so full in their stomachs? Never in Rome, never in Greece. Here was peace and safety—what civilization had been working toward for centuries. Minneapolis.
Keep going down Nicollet or through Tangletown? Tangletown. Let’s get off the grid, man. Let's get off the grid plan. “The Cruise.”
Wow, these homes are even nicer. Holy crap, that one’s got a gate and a drive-up entrance. Did I know this back then? Why didn’t I go into Tangletown more often? I guess my friends were elsewhere, and by the time I hit high school, Washburn, I found the lack of right angles confusing. My streets made sense: 54th led to 53rd led to 52nd; Aldrich led to Bryant let to Colfax led to Dupont led to Emerson and all the way to Zenith. Too much sense, probably. I expected order from the world. I expected peace and safety. I was for the grid plan.
So does this come out at Ramsey? No, Washburn. Have I stepped back in that building since graduation 30 years ago? Don’t think so. Is my aversion because of what happened there or what’s happened since? Because of who I was or who I am?
The rocks. We’d paint them the school colors, orange and blue, and other schools would paint them their school colors, then we’d paint ‘em back. They’d come in the middle of the night with their paint cans and paintbrushes and show us. It was supposed to matter. Your team vs. my team. What is my team now? Are those the original rocks? They look flatter. Didn’t I hear something about kids from another school actually stealing the rocks rather than merely painting them? Bad form. Would make it my team again.
Doug and I used to do our Spanish dialogue here on the way home. “Hola, Douglas.” “Hola Enrique, como estas?” “Muy bien, y tu?” “Oh, asi asi. Adonde vas?” “Voy a mi casa.” That’s as far as we got. We merely kidded around with being smart. We really wanted acceptance and girls. We kept our eyes off the prize.
Somehow that dirt strewn over the sidewalk feels so Minneapolis. Or is it dirt? Ick, ants. Hundreds crawling after a pop spill or something. So Minneapolis. We don’t get that in Seattle—that constant reminder of the life beneath. The creepy-crawly smallness of it all, swarming outside, invading your home. The reminder of what you’ll come to, the dirt to which you’ll return, and who rules it. What’s it like—that smallness? That subterranean living? How are ants part of the plan? No, no plan. There can’t be a plan, not with ants. No wonder Minneapolis stays carefully cultivated. Keeps the ants away. Keeps the bad thoughts away.
Should I try this Caribou place? Seems busy. Too busy. Keep walking. The Boulevard Theater, now an Anytime Fitness place. Effin’ Hollywood Video. They took it away and couldn’t maintain it. It should still be a theater. Could it be turned back into a theater if you had the money? That would be nice. A neighborhood theater again. Except you can’t go back again. We can go back, it can’t. Red Owl is Kowalski’s, Salk Drugs is Starbucks, Little General is a doctor’s office. Beek’s lives.
Monday July 11, 2011
Location! Location! Location!: Photos from the Death of a Mall
Last week I happened to be in the Southdale Shopping Center, near Edina, Minn., in the middle of a weekday afternoon, and the place was a ghost town. Seven miles east, on the site of old Met Stadium, you have the Mall of America, which still brings in (and takes away) the crowds. The recession, and the digitalization of business and culture, hasn't helped Southdale, either. Even its movie theater was pretty empty.
Monday July 11, 2011
I need a better way to post when I'm away from home. Last week, in Minneapolis, I brought along my iPad with wireless keyboard for such a purpose and it kinda fell flat. It worked well with almost everything except this blog. Specifically it didn't recognize the window I normally write in as a window to write in. Plus there was no way to upload photos from the iPad. So still a few bugs in the system. A long way of saying some of the upcoming posts might have the flavor of last week. Apologies for that.
In the meantime, as St. George used to say, I'm back, baby.
From the Mill City Museum in downtown Minneapolis, the July 4th fireworks gave one the impression of being in a war zone. Speaking of: the museum is currently closed because of the state government shutdown.
Wednesday July 06, 2011
Conversation with Jordy, My Nephew, Turning 10 on Thursday
Sunday night I gave my nephews, Jordy, 10 on July 7, and Ryan, 8 on July 4, a book I wrote for them: “Jordy and Ryan at the Superhero Museum.” I'd written them a picture book, in verse, three years ago in which they were superheroes, Soarin' Jordan and Flyin' Ryan, but this was, as the kids say, a chapter book. Jordy immediately began reading it. After the first chapter, which deals with me coming down into the basement, where Jordy is playing Wii and Ryan is playing with Legos, and the two get into a fight, and after much back-and-forth I introduce the idea that there might be a superhero museum we could go to if they were good, Jordy looked up at me.
Jordy: Uncle Erik, is this contemporary realism?
Me (startled, practically gagging): Do you know what that means?
Me: What does contemporary mean?
Jordy: Like... now?
Me: Good. So does the story seem like it's happening now? In this time period?
Me: And does it seem real?
Jordy: Yeah. Except for the superhero museum.
Me: Right. So maybe it's magic realism more than contemporary realism.
Jordy (nodding): Maybe.
Fifth grade next year.
Tuesday July 05, 2011
If They Don't Win It's a Shame
When I was a kid, I thought the refrain in baseball's 7th-inning stretch anthem went:
So let's root-toot-toot for the home team
And stay away from the shade
Because that was always my inclination. Why would you want to be way back there in the dark? The sunny seats were better seats. Sunburn? What was that? I tanned naturally.
Yesterday, at Target Field in Minneapolis, I was root-toot-tooting for a little shade. Went with my father, who bought some great seats in the Legends Club--second deck behind homeplate--and when we walked down to the fifth row and looked up, the sun, high in the cloudless sky above us, seemed merciless. I was sweating after two minutes.
“If I'm sweating,” I said to my father as I pointed at the Twins mascot, TC Bear, cavorting on the field, “What's that guy doing? How much weight per game does he lose in sweat? What's that costume smell like after a game like this? Five games like this?”
Dad calculated we'd be in the sun half the game, tops. Turned out to be eight innings. He calculated--we all calculated--that the Twins (36-46) would have trouble against the Tampa Bay Rays (46-38), and their ace, David Price, whose ERA was a run better than Twins starter Brian Duensing. Seemed right after an inning. Duensing loaded the bases and only got out of it with a double play. Price took about eight pitches to retire the hapless, overmatched Twins.
Then baseball happened. All the guys my father complained about before the game came through. Tsuyoshi Nishioka hit an opposite-field double with the bases juiced and Michael Cuddyer hit a mammoth, second-deck homerun in the third. (When it left his bat I did my Pauly Walnuts imitiation: “Aoh!”) Later, Cuddyer made a great catch in right, and Danny Valencia added a three-run homer in the eighth. Duensing went the distance. Final: 7-0, Twins.
One game out of 162 but what a nice July 4th. We ate hot dogs, drank beers. I had an ice cream cone (because I was hot) and a Killebrew root beer (because you have to). We talked to the guys in front of us, who wore jerseys, recently purchased at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, with “Who 1” and “Idontknow 3” on the back. We stayed away from the shade.