Wednesday November 30, 2011
Conservatives Disrespecting Authority
Jonathan Chait's New York Magazine piece, “When Did Liberals Become So Unreasonable?” is necessary reading for anyone concerned with the 2012 election--particularly those on the left. I tend to agree with Chait. Obama has disappointed me a few times but he's by far the best president I've had in my lifetime. More power to him. Four more years to him--hopefully, with a Tea Party-less Congress. Hell, if folks on the left spent as much time working to get rid of these bastards as they do bitching about the imperfection of Obama, we might be getting somewhere.
So bravo to Chait. Even so, there's a line in his piece that made me squint my eyes in disagreement.
Conservatives, compared with liberals, have higher levels of respect for and obedience to authority and prefer order over chaos and continuity over change.
Generally and historically true. Yet they've spent the last three years besmirching, demonizing and undermining the ultimate authority figure in the country--the president of the United States--in a way that has never been done before. Democrats may have considered George W. Bush illegitimate because he only became president through a very shaky ruling by a very conservative U.S. Supreme Court; but Republicans and Tea Partiers argue that Pres. Obama's very presence in this country is illegitimate. They say he's not a U.S. citizen, he's not Christian, he's a socialist, he's Hitler. It's ugly stuff.
More importantly, beyond Obama, conservatives have shown massive disrespect for traditional authority figures for a long, long time:
- Judges (“activist”)
- Lawyers (“frivolous”)
- Teachers (“incompetent”)
- Cops (how can they be against armor-piercing bullets?)
It astounds me sometimes. The law-and-order folks that the left disrespected in the 1960s--pillars of the community--now get pilloried daily by Republicans and the usual loudmouths on FOX-News.
Chait's thoughts on conservatives, in this regard, need some correction.
Tuesday November 29, 2011
Movie Review: The Descendants (2011)
Everyone says that comedy is tragedy plus time, but in “The Descendants” writer-director Alexander Payne removes time from the equation. A woman—a mother, wife and daughter—is dying in a hospital bed, having spent the last year of her life cheating on her husband, and we find ourselves laughing out loud. Payne creates comedy out of tragedy as it’s happening.
Fifteen minutes in, I admit, I thought Payne was flubbing it. I thought the critics who were touting “The Descendants” as a best picture contender had blown it. Then the movie began to work and didn’t stop.
Matt King (George Clooney) is a self-professed “back-up parent” in Hawaii who suddenly has his hands full when his wife, Liz (Patricia Hastie), suffers a head injury during a boating accident and goes into a coma. Meanwhile, his 10-year-old daughter, Scottie (Amara Miller), is sending nasty text messages to friends. When he goes to retrieve his 17-year-old daughter, Alexandra (Shailene Woodley), from the Hawaii Pacific Institute, a kind of summer reform school, he finds her drunk and playing midnight golf and unsympathetic about mom in the hospital. “Fuck mom!” she shouts.
At which point, Matt, in voice-over, wonders how he always winds up with such self-destructive women.
If there’s an oddity to the movie—beyond the removal of time from the comedy/tragedy equation—it’s that almost everyone seems to think Liz will wake from her coma. After 21 days of nothing, they all seem to assume she’ll be fine. The guy who was driving the boat when she had the accident, Troy (surf champ Laird Hamilton in a surprise, low-key cameo), says he visited her, prayed with her, and saw her hand move. Her best friend Kai Mitchell (Mary Birdsong) puts make-up on her. Both children act as bratty as ever, as if mom is simply on vacation.
By this point, though, Matt knows Liz won’t wake up, and, per her living will, she will soon be taken off life support, and it’s up to him to break the news to everyone. The first person he tells is his 17-year-old, Alex, who is too busy talking on her cell and complaining about the leaves in the backyard pool to listen to him. So he tells her while she’s gliding along in the pool. For a second, she looks stunned; then she dives beneath the surface and her face crumples and she swims powerful strokes as if to get away from the bad news. When she surfaces she’s gone maybe five feet. “Why did you tell me in the goddamned pool!” she cries. It’s a great scene with a great actress. Who is this? I thought.
Matt screws up the second telling, too. Alexandra has just given him tit for tat—her bad news for his. “You really don’t have a clue, do you?” she asks, then drops the news that will propel the rest of the movie: “Dad, Mom was cheating on you—that’s what we fought about.” The family lives in Hawaii, and Clooney spends most of the movie in baggy shorts and shirts and sandals. Even his face has a kind of bagginess to it. He’s still movie-star handsome but there’s a layer of puffiness there that you won’t find in “Ocean’s Eleven” but probably see every morning in the mirror. After Alex drops her news bomb, Matt, in a kind of daze, struggles to put on his sandals, then does a kind of run/shuffle for blocks. It’s quite funny, but so inappropriate that one doesn’t feel like laughing. Yet. Is he, like Alexandra, simply running away from bad news? Is he running to the house of the man who cuckolded him? Neither. He winds up at the Mitchells, Kai and Mark (Rob Huebel), who are in the midst of their own absurd argument about cocktails (nice touch) to find out what they know about the affair. Turns out they know it all. Kai continues to defend Liz, how she was lonely, etc., but Matt isn’t having it, and he angrily breaks the news. “You were putting lipstick on a corpse!” he shouts, which causes Kai to break down. Something about her crying, as with his running, tickles us, and, though it was still quite inappropriate, I burst out laughing. The gates were open—for both Matt and me. He was free to find out about his wife’s lover and I was free to laugh.
Good thing. The movie keeps getting funnier. It also gets more poignant.
Matt has three tasks: 1) to find his wife’s lover, Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard); 2) to tell Liz’s loved ones that she’s dying so they can say their good-byes; and 3) and to preside over the sale of a huge tract of undeveloped land that his family has owned for generations. The buyers are either a Chicago developer, who put in the highest bid, or a Hawaiian developer, who will keep the money in Hawaii. Various cousins in baggy shorts, shirts, and flip-flops, all of whom will come into millions, as will Matt, have their say—including Beau Bridges as Cousin Hugh, seemingly channeling his brother Jeff’s Dude. Some of the cousins don’t want to sell at all.
Of these three tasks, the third task provides some background on Hawaiian history, and gives us some spectacular shots of undeveloped coastal land, but it’s not particularly intriguing. The second task is a tough one, and poignant, and will resonate with most moviegoers, but dramatically it’s a dead end. It’s the first task that drives the movie.
When Alexandra questions why he’s seeking his wife’s lover, Matt merely seems confused. “I just want to see his face,” he says at one point. To punch him? To tell him the bad news so he can say his good-byes as well? Matt doesn’t know himself, so the movie doesn’t know, so we don’t know. What will happen when they meet? Will it feel true? Will it resonate? Can it do both? The possibilities aren’t multiple choice and the impulse is universal because Matt doesn’t know what drives him.
On this task and others, Alex insists upon coming along, which means Scottie has to come along. The fourth member of their group, or troupe, as in a comedy, is Alex’s friend Sid (Nick Krause), a laid-back dude, part-stoner, part-stupid, with a blissed-out face and a wide smile. When he first meets Matt, he hugs him.
Sid (smiling): What’s up, bro?
Matt (not): Don’t ever do that again.
When Matt breaks the bad news to Liz’s father, Scott (Robert Forster), Sid doesn’t know enough to stay in the background. The mother, Alice (Barbara L. Southern), teeters out, and it’s apparent she’s not all there. Alzheimer’s, one assumes. She doesn’t know her son-in-law, she doesn’t know her grandchildren. When Scott talks about visiting Elizabeth in the hospital, she thinks he’s talking about Queen Elizabeth and gets excited, causing Sid to laugh out loud. Confronted, Sid compounds his error by continuing to smile and insisting that Alice must be joking. Right? “I’m going to hit you,” Scott says matter-of-factly, and then: Pow! Next scene, Sid isn’t smiling. More laughter.
But there’s redemption in “The Descendants,” too. On another island, in pursuit of Scott Speer, Matt can’t sleep, Sid can’t sleep, and they have a midnight talk in the living room. Sid insists he’s smarter than Matt realizes. “You are about a hundred miles from smart,” Matt answers. But as the talk deepens, we learn, with Matt, that Sid’s father recently died. At first, Sid says this with a shrug that attempts nonchalance. Then he owns up. “November 24th,” he says. “Drunk driver. Actually, both drivers were drunk.” Up to this point, Sid has been a picked-upon figure, comic relief, yet he’s never used his own recent tragedy as a means to sympathy, or as a kind of justification for boorish behavior (“Hey, my own dad died, too!”), or as a way to muscle in on the Kings’ tragedy. He allows their tragedy to be itself. He may not be smart, but he’s something.
So is Scott. In the hospital room, he lambastes his son-in-law for his stinginess. (In an earlier scene, Matt, in voiceover, mentions that he, like his father, never spent what he didn’t make himself. “Give your children enough to do something,” he says, “but not enough to do nothing.”) Scott thinks if Matt had just bought Liz a better boat, she’d be alive. He’s angry about it. He calls Matt names, and calls Liz a faithful, devoted wife who deserved more, and for a moment Matt rises up, about to shatter his father-in-law’s illusions. The he calms down and says, “Yes, she deserved more,” and leads the kids out into the hallway, where Sid says, “That guy is such a prick! Was he always like that?” Even as Matt admits as much, he sees, and we see, through the door, Scott, burdened with a wife with Alzheimer’s, saying good-bye forever to his beloved daughter. A prick, yes, but a loving man who is losing everything. We all have that which humanizes us.
Does Brian Speer? That’s the question for most of the movie. Liz, in love, wanted to leave Matt for Brian. Is he the “more” she deserved?
Information comes in pieces. Matt discovers Brian is renting a cottage from one of his cousins. Then he discovers Matt has a wife, Julie (Judy Greer), and two boys. Then he discovers that when the sale on the undeveloped land goes through, Brian, brother-in-law to the Hawaiian developer, will make millions selling it for him.
Is that why Brian was sleeping with Liz? To get close to Matt and his deal?
Matt doesn’t find out until he gets close to Brian, on the cottage porch, where he tells him, “Elizabeth is dying. Oh yeah: Fuck you.”
Inside, they have this nice exchange:
Brian: It just happened.
Matt: Nothing just happens.
Brian: Everything just happens.
He wasn’t using her to get to Matt. But did he love her? When Matt asks him directly, Brian hesitates; and in that hesitation Matt has his answer. Brian was never going to leave his wife and family for Liz. He was just fucking her. It’s an answer 100 times sadder than if he’d broken down and cried. It speaks to Liz’s self-delusion and loneliness. Later, when Matt agrees with Scott that Liz deserved more, he means not just more than himself but more than Brian Speer.
The news also allows Matt to find it in himself forgive Liz.
Three times during the movie he speaks to her comatose figure . The first time it’s practical and family-related. “Please, Liz, just wake up,” he says, his hands full with girls he can’t control. “I’m ready to be a real husband and father.”
The second time, after he finds out about the affair, he lets loose his anger. “Who are you?” he shouts. “The only thing I know for sure is you’re a goddamned liar!”
The final time, after this bargaining and anger (mixed with denial and depression), we get acceptance. We get forgiveness and love. He kisses her parched lips. “Good-bye Elizabeth,” he says. “My love, my friend, my pain, my joy. Good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.”
We think that’s the ending—and it would be a good ending—but we continue on to a scene where Matt and his two girls silently release Elizabeth’s ashes into a Hawaiian bay, possibly where the accident occurred, then place leis on the water, which we see from below.
We think that’s the ending—and it would’ve been a good ending—but we get another scene. Scottie’s on the couch watching “March of the Penguins,” narrated by Morgan Freeman. Matt joins her with two bowls of ice cream, strawberry and mocha chip. They share a blanket. Is it the same blanket Liz used in the hospital? Alex joins them, and, without smiles, with eyes fixed on the TV, all three share bowls of ice cream and the blanket. Earlier in the movie, Matt compared a family to a Hawaiian archipelago: connected, but separate, and forever drifting apart. Here, for an ordinary moment anyway, we see them together. We think that’s the ending, and it is, and it’s a good ending.
What I’ve relayed isn’t exactly funny but the movie is. The script helps. The character of Sid helps. The character of Scottie, creating her “sand boobs” helps. George Clooney helps. A bit too much? At times, he plays it a bit “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”—as in this scene where he first spots Brian’s cottage:
Shailene Woodley, who isn’t funny, is a revelation. There’s not a false note in her performance. Is there buzz for a supporting actress nom? One hopes.
As for the land deal? Matt, as sole trustee, ultimately nixes it, screwing over Brian Speer, but one wonders if it’s a necessary subplot. You could cut out the whole thing and the main storyline wouldn’t change. At the same time, you’d lose something ineffable. Part of it is Hawaiian history, as I said, and part of it is the movie’s title. But it’s more. Yes, these are the descendants, this King and his two girls, and all of their cousins; and they’ve been entrusted with this great wealth; and the question is what they do with it. Most of us aren’t going to come into millions, like the Kings, but the dynamic, the dilemma, the perspective, still resonates, because it’s universal. All of us are descendants. All of us are entrusted with this great wealth—the wealth of the world. And the question is what we do with it.
Monday November 28, 2011
LinkedIn to the Heavyweight Champ
Perks of the job.
In 2005, I wrote a profile of entertainment attorney Henry Holmes, whose clients included Michelle Rodriguez, Robert Evans, and, in particular, George Foreman. In 1994, Holmes helped clear the way for Foreman's title bout, at the age of 45, with Michael Moore, which Foreman won, as well as “The George Foreman Grill,” for which Holmes convinced his client to forgo an upfront salary for a joint venture that ultimately made Foreman upwards of $100 million. I interviewed Foreman for the piece, by phone, with maybe a follow-up by email. Apparently his email system never deleted me. A few days ago, this arrived in my in box:
I accepted, of course. I have a job at the moment but nothing's forever; and if you're going to have someone in your corner, why not the heavyweight champion of the world?
Sunday November 27, 2011
Hollywood B.O.: Crunching Numbers for HUGO
Paramount's decision to open Hugo on 1277 screens last Wednesday indicated (to me at least) that they were hedging their bets and hoping that critical raves and a word-of-mouth groundswell might materialize. As of last night Hugo had pulled in $8,545,000 after three days (having opened on 11.23) in 1277 theatres. That works out to a $6691 per-screen average...not bad, could be better. But it was fifth-placed after Breaking Dawn, The Muppets, Happy Feet 2 and Arthur Xmas (none of which I give a damn about).
The estimated numbers for the weekend are now in and it doesn't look much better:
|1||The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn||Sum.||$42,000,000||4,066||$10,330||2|
|3||Happy Feet Two||WB||$13,400,000||3,606||$3,716||2|
True, every other film in the top five played in more than 3,000 theaters, versus “Hugo”'s measley 1,277; but “Hugo”'s per-theater-average is still second best to “Twilight.”
But Box Office Mojo now offers more options to break down the numbers: not just theaters, but screens; and not just screens but showings. In this regard “Hugo” goes from a three-to-one disadvantage with “The Muppets” and a four-to-one disadvantage with “Twilight” to a six-to-one and 10-to-one disadvantage:
|1||The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn||Sum.||$42,000,000||7,200||104,500||$402||2|
|2||Happy Feet Two||WB||$13,400,000||6,500||71,000||$189||2|
|5||Jack and Jill||Sony||$10,300,000||3,100||43,100||$239||3|
|6||Puss in Boots||P/DW||$7,450,000||4,100||40,100||$186||5|
And if you sort these nine movies by average-per-show, you get a prettier picture:
|3||The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn||Sum.||$42,000,000||7,200||104,500||$402||2|
|4||Jack and Jill||Sony||$10,300,000||3,100||43,100||$239||3|
|8||Happy Feet Two||WB||$13,400,000||6,500||71,000||$189||2|
|9||Puss in Boots||P/DW||$7,450,000||4,100||40,100||$186||5|
Folks are obviously seeing it—at a two-to-one advantage over “The Muppets” and “Twilight.” The other movies don't even come into play. “Arthur Christmas,” another opener, is abyssmal in comparison.
Some of “Hugo”'s advantage is obviously 3-D money rather than kids in the seats. But one wonders, as always, how well it might have done if Paramount had just had the confidence to play it in more theaters, and on more screens, for more showings.
Still, I'm hoping for positive word-of-mouth. I love the movie, most people I know love the movie—our friend Laura kept thinking the word “enchanting” as she watched—and it's a movie that SHOULD BE SEEN IN THE THEATER. In 3-D. So go already. Please.
Meanwhile, last week, I said “Twilight” would drop like a rock. Did it? A bit: 69.6%, or about the same as Ang Lee's “Hulk,” “Jonah Hex” and “Eragon,” but not as bad as “New Moon” (70%). For movies opening in more than 3,000 theaters, it's the 12th-worst drop ever.
Find the enchanting numbers here. And go see “Hugo.”
Saturday November 26, 2011
Movie Trailers: What's Wrong with this Picture?
I saw this on IMDb.com yesterday. Can you spot the oddity?
With the left-most trailer, “Newlyweds,” I wondered if the girl with Ed Burns wasn't Melanie Laurent, but I believe it's Caitlin Fitzgerald. But that's not an oddity.
The poster for Cameron Crowe's “We Bought a Zoo” relegates Scarlett Johansson to the background, which is like putting Baby in a corner, but that's not an oddity, either.
No, it's in the right-most trailer image. I saw it and thought, “Oh, Jeremy Renner's got a new movie coming out. Cool.” Then I saw the title.
When was the last time a Tom Cruise movie ignored Tom Cruise in its marketing? Is he still that toxic?
Friday November 25, 2011
Movie Review: G-Men (1935)
WARNING: SPOILERS, SEE?
With a movie like “‘G’-Men,” one of the top-grossing films of 1935, and an early attempt to deglorify gangsters by turning James Cagney, the most glorious of cinematic gangsters, into a lawman, a government man, a ‘G’-man, you hold out hope that something besides Cagney is worthwhile. You know the movie won’t be “Angels with Dirty Faces” but you wouldn’t mind a plot twist that resonates, a shot that illuminates, a forgotten colloquialism that amuses. You want a scene like in “Blonde Crazy,” where Cagney meets a grifter selling charm bracelets. The charm? A swastika. A good-luck symbol that quickly turned into the ultimate bad-luck symbol.
Nothing like that in “G-Men.” Well, there’s that moment when luggage is loaded into the nose of a plane. Didn’t know they did that. There’s a good shot as crime boss Collins (Barton MacLane) makes a getaway via a fire escape that is lit from below:
Collins makes his escape in “G-Men” (1935)
Otherwise it’s a Cagney vehicle with Cagney finally on the right side of the law. His character, ‘Brick’ Davis, is still from the Lower East Side, as Cagney was, and rough-and-tumble, as Cagney was; but he’s saved from a life of crime (and from the Hays Code) by a benevolent bootlegger, ‘Mac’ Mckay (William Harrigan), who sends Davis through college and law school.
As the movie begins, Davis realizes that maybe he’s not cut out to be a sit-behind-a-desk lawyer. A friend, Eddie Buchanan (Regis Toomey), then encourages him to join the nascent Bureau of Investigation, which would be federalized into the FBI before filming was through. When Buchanan dies at the hands of gangsters, that seals the deal. Davis gets the OK from his mentor, who’s getting out of the gangster business anyway to run a lodge in Wisconsin, and joins up.
Does that lodge in Wisconsin sound vaguely familiar? It should.
At the Bureau, Davis runs into two mentors: Hugh Farrell (Lloyd Nolan), an expert at wrestling who is fairly benevolent, and who sees the value and toughness of the new recruit; and Jeff McCord (Robert Armstrong of “King Kong” fame), who starts out bitching about all the lawyers joining the Bureau, and who has it in for the smart-alecky Davis from the get-go. When Davis demonstrates his toughness by giving McCord a black eye in a boxing match, McCord resents it. When Davis demonstrates his value by correctly identifying the gardenia killer as Danny Leggett (Edward Pawley), McCord resents it. It takes him the entire movie to warm up to Davis, by which point he’s willing to welcome him into the family via his sister, Kay McCord (Margaret Lindsay), whom Cagney romances, or at least smooth-talks, throughout.
Two of the big shoot-outs in the film are based upon real incidents. When the mob springs Leggett in Kansas City, killing several officers including an unarmed Hugh Farrell, the screenwriter was adapting from the “Kansas City Massacre,” from June 1933, in which Frank “Jelly” Nash was sprung from federal custody while three police officers and an unarmed federal agent lost their lives. Later in the film, the remnants of the Collins gang hole up in ‘Mac’ Mckay’s Wisconsin lodge; and it’s there that they’re surrounded by, and shoot it out with, federal agents, in a scene reminiscent of the 1934 Little Bohemia Lodge shoot-out between federal agents and Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger. With a twist. In the movie, no agent dies and all gangsters but Collins are caught or killed. In real life, despite having the element of surprise, the federal agents managed to kill several innocent bystanders but captured not one mobster. So it goes.
That takes us to the final act, where Jean Morgan (Ann Dvorak) is killed because she’s the bad girl, Kay is captured but freed because she’s the good girl (and a pain in the ass), and we get our happy Hays-Code ending with intimations of a wedding.
Again, it’s Cagney who recommends the movie. When mobsters pick a fight with him, his face lights up. When McCord dismisses him, his face lights up. When his sister sobs into his arms for fear for her brother, his face lights up mischievously rather than sympathetically. He’s got energy, a dancer’s posture, a joie de vivre.
I only decided to see “‘G’-Men” because it was referenced in Clint Eastwood’s biopic “J. Edgar.” Interestingly, much of what Hoover lobbies for in that film, this film lobbies for: making kidnapping a federal offense; making crossing state lines a federal offense; allowing federal agents to arm themselves. We see the experts at Bureau headquarters use forensic science—examining wood paneling and fingerprints—which is both the image and reality Hoover wanted for his bureau. According to some, Hoover even approved the script and assigned federal agents to monitor production. Even so, according to others, he disliked the final product. He couldn’t get past Davis’ insubordination—as if he were Jeff McCord himself. Once the movie became a hit, though, he used it, along with comic books and radio shows, to help promote the Bureau.
So it’s an ordinary film but consider this: “‘G’-Men” was one of four movies Seton Miller wrote in 1935; it’s one of five movies William Keighley directed in 1935; and it’s one of six movies in which James Cagney starred in 1935. Warners kept these guys busy. Rewrites and retakes weren’t big.
Keighley and Miller, by the way, would reunite two years later for “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” which almost starred Cagney before the lead went to Errol Flynn. Thankfully. I’m a Cagney fan, but come on.
Wednesday November 23, 2011
Movie Review: Hugo (2011)
WARNING: CLANDESTINE SPOILERS
For most of its 50-year history, 3-D movies have been famous, or infamous, for propelling cinematic objects at its audience. Martin Scorsese turns this idea on its head. He begins “Hugo,” his first 3-D movie, as well as his first children’s movie, by propelling his audience at cinematic objects.
We begin with an extended shot inside of the Montparnasse train station in the 14th arrondissement of Paris in 1931. It’s crowded, as train stations are, but the camera keeps moving through hordes of people getting on and off the train. If the tendency in a traditional 3-D movie is to duck out of the way of thrown objects, the tendency here is to bob and weave through the crowd. It puts us in the scene. It feels like magic.
Magic is key to “Hugo” and—Scorsese would argue—to cinema. Maybe we don’t always feel it now. Maybe we’re all a little too jaded in the 21st century with our iPhones and iPads. So Scorsese takes us back to a time when we didn’t need 3-D technology to flinch away from something onscreen—we did it anyway, in 1895, with the black-and-white, 48-second film “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” by the Lumiere Brothers. He reminds us that movies were not only magic but created by magicians; that books were once precious, and thus magic when in your hands; and that being whole in body and spirit after the Great War and during the Great Depression was so rare it was a kind of magic, too.
(Remember that train arrival, by the way. It returns.)
“Hugo,” I should mention at the outset, is completely charming, hugely entertaining, and genuinely educational. Almost everyone who sees it will be educated. Even I, at 48, was educated.
The title character, Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield), is a 10-year-old orphan who lives inside the clockwork at the Montparnasse train station. He life is both dodgy and an adventure: He steals to eat, steals equipment to fix the clocks, and is forever on the run from the Station Inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) and his growling Doberman Pinscher. We can’t help but wonder how he got there. And why he stays there.
From behind the clocks at the station, he peers, generally out the number “4,” at the goings-on of the station: the attempts of Monsieur Frick (Richard Griffiths) to woo Madame Emille (Frances de la Tour); the attempts of the Station Inspector, with his squeaky metal leg, to merely speak to Lisette, the flower girl (Emily Mortimer), or to capture another urchin and send him off to the orphanage. He sees the monumental Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) sitting inside his book shop and the quiet Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) dozing in front of his toy/repair shop with a tool nearby. Which is when he makes his move.
Bad move. Méliès was merely laying a trap for him, this boy, this THIEF, who had already stolen half of Méliès’ tool collection. He demands that he empty his pockets. But Hugo’s pockets merely contain bits and pieces: flotsam. Plus a notebook with words and diagrams and drawings. When Méliès sees it he gasps in recognition before turning even frostier. Hugo pleads with him to give it back but the next day Méliès shows up with ashes wrapped in a handkerchief.
The notebook, which isn’t really destroyed, is one of the few mementoes Hugo has of his father (Jude Law), a clock keeper and repairman. In a brief flashback, we see the father buy an automaton from a museum and attempt to fix it—to bring it back to life. Then he dies in a sudden fire and Hugo is adopted by his drunk Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone); he is taken to the Montparnasse station and put to work. Then Claude, too, disappears. (He drowns, we find out later, in the Seine.) But Hugo keeps working. He keeps all the clocks going so no one will investigate, find him alone, and put him in an orphanage. You could say he’s a boy trapped in time.
After the scene with the ashes, Hugo’s spirit is revived by Méliès’s goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz), another orphan, but a happy one with a home. She’s a precocious lover of books and words (“clan-des-tine”), who talks up fantasy worlds such as Oz, Neverland, and Treasure Island. But she wants an adventure of her own and she sees Hugo as the key. One day he offers her one: He takes her to the movies. Specifically, he sneaks her into the movies.
Isabelle: We could get into trouble...
Hugo: That’s how you know it’s an adventure.
Before they’re tossed out, they see Harold Lloyd dangling from a clock tower in “Safety Last,” an indelible cinematic image, and one Hugo will repeat before the movie is over. Afterwards, she tells him Papa Georges doesn’t allow her to go to movies, though she’s not sure why, and he tells her how his father loved movies, and once saw a film where a rocketship went right into the eye of the moon. The father said it was like seeing his dreams in the middle of the day.
Their adventure, and friendship, deepens, and he show her where he lives. “I feel like Jean Val Jean,” she says, of the steamy metal works, where, behind the scenes, Hugo has been attempting to do what his father couldn’t: fix, or bring to life, the automaton. He believes if he fixes it, he will receive a message from his father. One thing stands in his way: a keyhole in the shape of a heart.
Somehow Isabelle has that key.
The automaton is poised to write, and, wound up, that’s what it does. Unfortunately what it writes is gobbledygook: a “c,” a “4,” an “r.” When it stops, it’s Hugo who breaks down. He cries and confesses that in his heart he thought if he fixed the automaton his father would come back to life.
Which is when the automaton begins writing again, faster and faster, and it becomes apparent that it’s not writing at all. It’s, as Hugo says, drawring. What does it drawr? A rocketship in the eye of the moon.
This does seem like a message from Hugo’s father. But at the last instant, the automaton adds a final touch—a name: Georges Méliès.
I assume a few people in the audience will know the answer to this mystery. They’ll know that Georges Méliès, a former magician, was an early innovator of cinema who created hundreds of films in the 1900s and 1910s, including “Le voyage dans la lune,” with the rocketship in the eye of the moon. He also created the automaton. Those who don’t know his cinematic background will enjoy uncovering the mystery along with Hugo and Isabelle, who are schooled by Prof. Rene Tabard (Michael Stuhlbarg), an early film historian, and all three will attempt to reunite the volatile Méliès with his past—to fix him, in Hugo’s words—all the while outrunning and outsmarting the Station Inspector and his Doberman Pinscher.
That’s basically the rest of the movie and you can guess how it goes. “Happy endings only happen in the movies,” Hugo says earlier. And he’s right. At least here.
I could go on. The art and set direction of “Hugo” are incredible—those great puffs of steam behind the works—and the acting is wonderful: from big people with small roles to small people with big roles. Chloë Grace Moretz makes anew the smart girl with the precocious vocabulary, and Asa Butterfield, with his intense blue eyes, wears pain the way other actors wear a scarf. You feel, even in happy moments, it never quite leaves him. Sacha Baron Cohen, meanwhile, gives us a villain who is actually sympathetic (and still comic), while Michael Stuhlbarg brings his innate gentleness, previously cloaked in a schlemiel (“A Serious Man”) and a gangster (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”), to a true gentle man.
Even the source material is rich. “Hugo” is based upon the 2007 children’s book “The Invention of Hugo Cabret” by Brian Selznick. Initially I wondered if all the movie history was in the book, or if Scorsese, with his love of film and film history, added it. But it’s not only in the book, it's in the author. Brian Selznick, born in 1966, is first cousin twice removed to David O. Selznick, the producer of “Gone with the Wind.”
All of which is fascinating. But what I want to talk about is Hugo’s dream.
After the above scene with Isabelle and the automaton, Hugo sees Isabelle’s heart-shaped key on the train tracks in the station. He looks up, he looks down, then leaps onto the tracks. He fingers the key. He sees it as the answer. But at that moment a train is arriving and Hugo, lost in thought, doesn’t see it coming until it’s too late, until the train leaps the tracks and careens through the station and bursts through a wall and falls onto the ground outside, a story below. Which is when Hugo wakes up.
As he’s feeling himself to make sure he’s all there, he begins to change. His flesh becomes metal, and his torso becomes ribs of metal, and his face turns into the calm, expressionless (but somehow very expressive) face of the automaton. Which is when he wakes up again. A dream within a dream.
Each dream takes less than a minute but initially I felt a little cheated—as I often do with dreams in movies. But I gave this one a pass. I remembered the line “Movies are like dreams in the middle of the day” and thought this scene was building on that theme.
It was. And more.
Later in the film, at its climax, Hugo is taking the automaton to Georges Méliès but is finally caught by the Station Inspector; and in their struggle, the automaton goes flying in the air and lands on the train tracks... just as a train is coming. As the automaton is the key to everything, Hugo leaps onto the tracks to save it. But this is where his courage leaves him. He embraces the automaton but can’t move. He’s as frozen as the automaton. It’s up to the Station Inspector, acting as deus ex machina, the redemptive engine of himself, to pull both boy and robot to safety.
You think back to the dreams: The key is on the tracks; the boy and automaton are one.
But there’s more. Remember the Lumiere Brothers’ “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” which Hugo and Isabelle see while researching early film history? The people cowering from the oncoming train on the movie screen? That’s like this scene. That’s like his dream. The train on the screen leaps into Hugo’s dreams and reality.
But it wasn’t until I got home and researched the Gare Montparnasse that I found the true coup de grace. Because in 1895, the same year as “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat,” a train did jump the tracks at the Gare Montparnasse; and it did careen through the station and burst through a wall and fall onto the ground outside, a story below. There’s a famous photograph showing that fallen train.
This is deep resonance. We get echoes upon echoes, involving dreams, history, film, and film history. The movie keeps doing this, too: the ashes of Hugo’s notebook; the ashes his father came to; the ashes Méliès’ early films were reduced to. On and on. The movie resonates so much it has a beat, a pulse. It’s alive.
Tuesday November 22, 2011
Movie Review: Hulk (2003)
WARNING: PUNY SPOILERS
The Hulk is the ultimate fantasy figure of the weak and average. One moment he’s a normal dude, Bruce Banner, a scientist; the next moment, he’s a huge, muscle-bound, inarticulate rage machine that can destroy anything in front of him. He is rage personified. He is how we like to envision our own rage. We like to move through the world thinking, “Don’t make me angry; you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry,” when, let’s face it, almost no one is scared if we become angry. Our rage is generally impotent. We destroy nothing in front of us.
So if you’re going to create a movie that taps into the Hulk fantasy, under what circumstances would you have Bruce Banner hulk out? When provoked by bullies? Criminals? Authority figures?
Here’s what causes Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) to morph into the Hulk in Ang Lee’s “Hulk”:
- He thinks about stuff in his lab, then upends a janitor’s pail in the hallway.
- He gets into a fight with his nemesis, Glenn Talbot (Josh Lucas).
- He has a nightmare in a sleep-deprivation chamber.
- His father (Nick Nolte) turns into a giant electro-creature in front of him.
Only 2) comes close to what we want.
That’s not even the worst part. Here’s the worst part. Between incidents 2) and 3), Talbot, as battered as Evel Knievel after a bad jump, returns to provoke Banner again in the hope of finding out more about the Hulk gene. He tasers him—once, twice, five times. Then he decks him. Nothing. “Consciously you may control it,” Talbot tells Banner’s supine figure. “But subconsciously? I bet that’s another story.”
Consciously you may control it? The whole point of the Hulk is that you can’t control it. If Bruce Banner could control it, you wouldn’t even have a story.
I’m sorry to harp on this, but of all the stupid ways a modern superhero movie has deviated from the source material, this is one of the stupidest. I’d call it the second stupidest—right after the way filmmakers exonerated the Burglar for the murder of Uncle Ben in “Spider-Man 3” and thus ruined Spider-Man’s whole raison d’etre. Don’t get me started on that one.
I watched Ang Lee’s “Hulk” again recently with the thought that maybe we were all being harsh when we dismissed it back in 2003. It was the movie Lee made between “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Brokeback Mountain.” How bad could it be?
Awful, it turns out. Horrible. Lee takes a fairly simple story and complicates it with angry, unforgiving fathers, a nothing romance, a non-entity for a protagonist, and zippy split-screens and quadruple screens, popular in 1960s art-house cinema, but here representative of comic panels. Except they just get in the way.
We begin in the mid-1960s with military scientist David Banner (Paul Kersey), against orders from Gen. “Thunderbolt” Ross (Todd Tesen), intent on manipulating the human immune system. After he experiments on himself, his wife tells him she’s pregnant. Oops. And yes, he passes the genetic modification on to his son.
The sins of the father grow worse. He treats little Bruce like a science experiment. He takes away his binky and watches his skin turn vaguely green when he bawls. WHAT HAS BEEN PASSED ON? he writes. He gives him monsters to play with then studies his blood. CONFIRMS MY WORST FEARS, he writes. Before he can cure him, though, Ross fires Banner for ignoring protocol, and in response Banner ... launches a gamma bomb? Is that right? How does a scientist get the authority to do that? And what does that green mushroom cloud have to do with anything? Is it to distract everyone so Banner can return home and kill his son? Instead he knifes the mother right in front of the son. “It was as if she, and the knife, merged,” the older, more bat-shit Banner (Nolte) says, later, in one of the film’s good lines. “You can’t imagine the unbearable finality of it.”
But Bruce, already a bottled-up child, represses the memory (we don’t see the knifing until the third act), gets adopted, and becomes a scientist like the crazy dad he doesn’t remember. We’re nearly 12 minutes in our seats, our popcorn nearly gone, before we see the adult Bruce shaving in his mirror, biking to work, and remaining emotionally unavailable to the best-looking scientist who ever walked the planet, his ex, and lab partner, Betty Ross (Jennifer Connelly at her most smoking). Yes, “Thunderbolt” Ross’ daughter. Small world.
Smaller world: They’re trying to improve the human immune system, too! Just like David Banner! He killed a monkey in the process, they explode a frog or two. Then Banner’s assistant stumbles, sets off the gamma radiation, and Bruce purposefully takes the brunt of it. Cue muffled g-bomb explosion inside him. Nice effect, actually.
In the hospital, Bruce has two visitors: Betty, who cries, and complains, and doesn’t acknowledge his bravery (which would totally suck); and the new janitor with his crazy hair and mean dogs, who turns out to be Bruce’s biological and bat-shit dad (ditto).
For some reason—repressed memory of the killing of the mother?—Bruce gets really pissed off by the presence of bat-shit dad. In fact, back in the lab, it pisses him off so much he turns into a giant green monster. This occurs without any provocation from anyone and 42 minutes into the film. Talk about a downer.
It gets worse. The crazy father who wanted to save his son from genetic mutation has become the crazier father who wants to save the genetic mutation from his son. In this endeavor he sees Betty as an obstacle (he’s right: she can tame the Hulk) and so sics giant dogs, including a giant French poodle, on her. But Bruce hulks outs and battles them. Then in a quiet moment in her battered car, Bruce, not the Hulk, but Bruce almost chokes her. Nice. Is this why she betrays him to her father (now Sam Elliot), who locks him up? But Talbot’s dickish ways unleash the Hulk again, who escapes and goes bouncing around the American southwest pursued by army helicopters. He winds up in San Francisco, where the battle between a giant green creature and the U.S. military draws many onlookers, zero news cameras and one hot female scientist. When Hulk sees Betty, he goes from a huge, engorged creature to something small, limp, and vulnerable. It’s the anti-Freudian stance. Hulk is angry but innocent. The monster inside us is actually sweeter than we are.
This sets up the final, crazy showdown between the Banners, and the epilogue in Central America. “No me hagas enfadar; no te va a gustar cuando este enfadado.” These 30 seconds are the best part of the movie.
“Hulk” isn’t all bad. I like Bruce’s early admission to Betty, “You know what scares me the most? When it comes over me, and I totally lose control... I like it.” Connelly is good, too. Her flirtations with Bruce are fun, but they run into the blank wall of his character and dissipate.
Other than that, “Hulk” is an overlong, poorly edited, poorly directed, pointless mess. It wants to say something deep and winds up saying nothing.
Even the writing team of James Schamus (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), Michael France (“Goldeneye”) and John Turman (uh... “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”) disappoint. Early on, before anyone Hulks out, Talbot wants to buy (take over) Bruce and his research team. Bruce refuses. They lock eyes. Then they have the following exchange:
Talbot: You know, someday I’m going to write a book. And I’m going to call it ‘When Stupid Ideals Happen to Smart Penniless Scientists.’
Bruce: Wow, that’s a shitty title.
Talbot: No, the point is—
Bruce: Why not “Smart Scientists, Stupid Ideals”? Isn’t that simpler?
Talbot: Listen, I’m—
Bruce: You call yourself a businessman? You don’t even know how to sell anything.
Kidding. That’s my rewrite. Here’s how the scene really played out:
Talbot: You know, someday I’m going to write a book. And I’m going to call it ‘When Stupid Ideals Happen to Smart Penniless Scientists.’
Bruce, fuming, stares at Talbot, who leaves.
Monday November 21, 2011
Movie Review: Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)
Saying “Transformers 3” isn’t as bad as “Transformers 2” is like saying the cold that put you in bed for a week wasn’t as bad as the pneumonia that put you in bed for a month. You still wouldn’t want to wish either on a friend.
“Transformers” movies have dominated the box office for four years now. The first, in 2007, grossed $319 million domestic and $709 worldwide. The second grossed $402 million domestic and $836 worldwide. This one grossed $369 million domestic and $1.12 billion worldwide. It’s hard for me to type sadder numbers.
Let’s step back a moment. What are we talking about with these movies? What are they about?
They’re about mechanical creatures, some giant, some small, who can transform into any mechanical thing on Earth: semi-truck, flat-screen TV, whatever. The good ones (Autobots) want to protect Earth; the bad ones (Decepticons) want to take it over. A few people, led by everyman Sam Witwicky (Shia LeBeouf), attempt to help the Autobots.
In each movie, Witwicky has an insanely hot girlfriend: Megan Fox in the first two movies, supermodel Rose Huntington-Whiteley in this one. It’s the unlikeliest of matches, particularly if like lightning it strikes twice, but then none of the movie is logical. The hot women are there to draw more of the teen-boy crowd, or more of the boy-man crowd, who like to look at giant robots battling and pretty women pouting. In this one, Carla (Huntington-Whiteley) first shows up, filmed from behind, wearing panties and a man’s dress shirt like in that 1980s Brut cologne commercial. (“Honey, I was just thinking about you.”) Director Michael Bay gets even less subtle in a scene where Witwicky meets Carla’s boss, Dylan Gould (Patrick Dempsey), a rich, handsome somethingorother, who will become the movie’s chief villain, in league with the Decepticons. Dylan is showing off one of his vintage automobiles to Witwicky and commenting upon its curves, which he calls sensual. In a typical scene, Dylan would look Carla up and down as he did this. That would be the asshole thing to do. Here Bay does it himself. While Dylan talks, Bay’s camera pans up Huntington-Whiteley’s body. Making Bay the asshole? Making the audience the asshole? I wish it were a comment on our loutishness but it’s just another example of our loutishness—or Bay’s. Why not an up-the-skirt shot while he’s at it? Or is he saving that for “Transformers 4”?
The giant robots are from a distant planet in a distant time, but on Earth, they’ve adopted well to not only 20th and 21st century technology (cars; flat-screen TVs) but 20th and 21st century pop culture. Some speak with British accents, some with Scottish brogues, some trash talk American-style. They know “Star Trek,” “We are Family” and “Missed it by that much.” The comic relief ones anyway. The main transformer, Optimus Prime, has a bland, stentorian voice, pronouncing the blandest of sentiments (“It is I, Optimus Prime!”) as if he were the hero of a 1950s television show, or, more to the point, a voice a kid might imagine when playing with his toys.
Because that’s what these things are: toys. Before he became a right-wing nutjob, Michael Medved wrote a book called “The Golden Turkey Awards,” in which he gave out awards, Golden Turkeys, to the worst of the worst in movie history—Worst actor, Richard Burton, for example—but my favorite Golden Turkey was for worst credit line. In an early, silent version of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” we got this credit line: “Additional dialogue by Sam Taylor.” To which Medved wondered: Additional dialogue? To Shakespeare?
I thought of this during one of “TF3”’s opening credits: “In association with Hasbro.” Hasbro. Creator of Mr. Potato Head and the Easy-Bake Oven. We’re playing with toys here. No, not even. We’re watching others, rich folks, play with toys. We’re paying money to watch rich folks create stories out of 30-year-old toys. We’ve spent nearly $3 billion on this, just in theaters, thus far.
So what’s the plot of this one? Apparently the Prime before Optimus, Sentinel Prime (voice: Leonard Nimoy), in the last days of the Autobot-Decepticon War, attempted to escape with a device that might’ve won the day for the Autobots. But he was shot down, drifted in space for a while, then crashlanded on our moon circa 1958. Just in time for the space race.
Actually, he was the reason for the space race. That’s why JFK, sneaky bastard, gave his “We choose to go to the moon in this decade” speech. We needed to beat the Russians there so Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin (sneaky bastards) could explore that alien space ship and get what they could. So we did. So they did.
That’s our history-skewing backdrop. Eventually we get to Sam Witwicky, the everyman protagonist nobody cares about. He’s living in a beautiful well-lit apartment in D.C. with a supermodel girlfriend and a couple of small, comic-relief Autobots, but he’s got nothing but complaints. Three months out of college and he can’t find a job. Carla teases him about this. His comic-relief parents, when they show up, tease him about this. He doesn’t think it’s funny. “I saved the world twice and I can’t even get a job!” he says. He’s got a medal from Pres. Obama (handed to him dismissively), but no one is impressed. It’s all still top secret. Plus he can’t blame his inability to find work on the Great Recession since the “Transformers” movies are all about escapism and the Great Recession is exactly what we’re trying to escape. Might as well have Fred Astaire dance in hobo rags during the Great Depression. (“Easter Parade” was in ’48.)
Here’s a suggestion: Sam might want to temper his job-interview personality. Basically he brings his saving-the-world intensity to the job interview. He puffs up, talks big, offers nothing. It might help, too, if he could remember the name of the job interviewer. But who can blame him, right? It’s a Japanese name and those Japanese names sure are weird and funny.
Mostly, though, Sam just wants to matter again.
Hey, why doesn’t he join the military? Doesn’t he see himself a soldier? Isn’t the film’s most memorable line something Charlotte Mearing (Francis McDormand), Director of National Intelligence, tells him to get rid of him? Doesn’t she say, “You are not a soldier. You are a messenger. You've always been a messenger”? So why not show her, damnit, and become a soldier for real?
Because it would upset the balance of the movie. Everyone is a type here. Mearing’s a bureaucrat (and wrong), the soldiers are soldiers (and move heroically in slow motion), and Witwicky is the intense everyman with the hot, hot girlfriend who gets mixed up in this shit. He can’t go beyond the bounds of his narrow character any more than Optimus Prime can sing like the Pointer Sisters.
Meanwhile, an investigation at Chernobyl turns up a slithery Decepticon named Shockwave (voice: Frank Welker), which leads to the uncovering of the NASA cover-up, and the Chernobyl cover-up (also caused by Transformers), and a demand from Optimus Prime to retrieve both Sentinel Prime and the advanced Autobot technology from the moon.
Except this is all a plot by an injured Megatron (voice: Hugo Weaving), hanging out at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro, to regain power. From this we get betrayals human (Dylan Gould) and Autobot (Sentinel Prime). Sentinel Prime then addresses the U.N., demanding that all remaining Autobots (but not Decepticons) leave Earth. Within 24 hours, Congress, cowardly as ever, succumbs to these demands and the Autobots are forced to leave. Their ship is then shot down by the Decepticons, leaving a trail of smoke reminiscent of the Challenger disaster. At which point, the Decepticons take over the world, or at least Chicago, and set up the advanced Autobot technology in order to transport their dead planet, Cybertron, into our solar system. But against all odds, Sam Witwicky and a rag-tag team of mercenaries go in, along with Special Forces, along with, eventually, the Autobots—who were never killed, who faked the launch—and eventually the good guys, who stand for freedom, beat the bad guys, who stand for tyranny, and Sam and Carla run to each other and kiss. It’s up to Optimus Prime to deliver the movie’s last thrilling lines:
In any war, there are calms between the storms. There will be days when we lose faith, days when our allies turn against us. But the day will never come that we forsake this planet and its people.
It’s toys. Sam is the boy playing with his Transformers and G.I. Joes and army men. The buildings are Legos. Carla is his sister’s Barbie. The bureaucrats are whatever: Troll dolls. And Sam makes them all fight and makes the buildings topple. He provides sound effects. Pkschuh! He provides the dialogue. Which explains a lot.
Except it’s not so innocent. There’s a sheen of adult (right-wing?) paranoia and loutishness on top of this childplay.
Question: Who do we trust in these movies? What groups or institutions?
Parents? They’re daft and comic relief.
Government? Bureaucrats are always wrong.
The U.N.? It allows villains to speak there.
Congress? It’s weak, betrays friends, and capitulates on a dime.
Presidents? JFK was a liar and Obama was dismissive.
The Apollo program? It began as a lie and it ended as a lie. Buzz Aldrin even shows up to lie to us some more. Saddest guest appearance ever.
No, it’s just one group we can trust: Soldiers. That’s it. Army men. They’re the only ones. You can even trust them with your hot, model girlfriend and they won’t look at her twice. They’re that trustworthy.
This is a worldview so infantile and paranoid it borders on the psychotic.
“Star Wars” was infantile (good vs. evil, etc.) but it was also expansive. It opened up a universe to Luke Skywalker and us. You found friends everywhere. And the force was with you.
“Transformers” is infantile but shuttered. Everyone you meet is a jerk, an ass, an idiot or in league with your enemies. You trust army men and Optimus Prime and that’s it. Because no one is with you.
And somehow this thing has grossed $3 billion worldwide.
“We were once a peaceful race of intelligent mechanical beings,” Optimus Prime tells us at the beginning of “Transformers 3.” “But then came the war.”
We were once a race of semi-intelligent human beings, I thought at the end of “Transformers 3.” But then ... But then ...
Sunday November 20, 2011
The Biggest Hurt of All: The MLB Network’s Countdown of the Greatest Players Never to Appear in the World Series
After a long week of work and illness, I plopped onto the couch Friday night to watch a bit of the MLB Network to cheer myself up. Usually works. One of their “Prime 9” shows was on, this one about the best players to never play in the World Series, and so, despite the awful MLB Network commercials, I stuck around to the end. I wanted to see if Ken Griffey, Jr. was their No. 1. As he was mine.
He was. Their list:
9) Phil Niekro
8) Ryne Sandberg
7) Luke Appling
6) Ernie Banks
5) Ferguson Jenkins
4) Gaylord Perry
3) Frank Thomas
2) Rod Carew
1) Ken Griffey, Jr.
Chicago is well-represented: Three Cubs, Two White Sox.
I’m well-represented. No. 2 on the list is the guy I watched growing up in Minnesota. No. 1 on the list is the guy I watched living as a young adult in Seattle. I guess I’m bad news. (Speaking of: Where will we put Ichiro on this list? How about Edgar Martinez?)
All of which is a little sadder than I wanted for a Friday night after a long week of work and illness.
But then Prime 9 did something I’d never seen before. They went beyond the list to provide editorial comment on one team. No, not the White Sox or the Cubs. My Mariners. My 1990s Mariners.
Here’s what they said:
Griffey is just one reason why it’s hard to believe those Mariners teams of the late 1990s never reached a World Series. For beyond Junior, who was arguably the best player in baseball at that time, they also had the game’s premiere designated hitter. (Cue footage and audio from Dave Niehaus: “Edgar Martinez with another home run! Unbelievable!”)
There was also a precocious talent emerging as one of the game’s superstar shortstops. (Cue Niehaus: “That’s going to be...CAUGHT BY RODRIGUEZ! An amazing catch by Alex!”)
And on the mound, Seattle had the Big Unit, one of the most dominant and successful pitchers baseball has ever seen. (Cue announcer: How good is this guy? One of the best.”)
There was a wealth of riches in Seattle in those years. But there was one jewel missing from this gem of a team: A ring.
And that’s our Prime 9. What’s yours?
Well, that is my Prime 9. I'd already written about it back in June 2010 when Ken Griffey, Jr. retired from baseball:
I wasn't there at the beginning but I was there at the end. Not Junior's last game on Memorial Day, but the first Major League Baseball game without Junior on a roster. As he drove home to Florida, M's management played the tribute video they'd probably had in the can for 14 months and the grounds crew created a “24” in the dirt out by second base, and me and my friend Jim watched this team, once mighty, once a potential dynasty, now as weak and characterless as the day he arrived to save them, eke out a win in extra innings. But there was nothing electric about it. There was no future in it. The M's are still a backwards-looking franchise that doesn't even have a definitive victory to look back on. In the 1990s they had three of the greatest players ever to play on the same team, Junior, A-Rod and Randy, and they couldn't get past the ALCS. Two of those players now have rings from other franchises. The last will go down as the greatest player in baseball history never to be in a World Series.
But any baseball fan in Seattle could tell you the same. We know. The rest of the country may be waking up to this just now, but we’ve known since 1998 or ’99. We even know who to blame. From the same post:
Moreover, Junior’s team, the lowly Mariners, who stormed ahead in '95, and seemed, in '96 and early '97, on the verge of a dynasty, was already being undone by awful relief pitching and awfuler moves. Omar Vizquel for Felix Fermin. Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson for Sterling Hitchcock and Russ Davis. In July '97, with Norm Charlton and Bobby Ayala forever blowing ballgames, M's GM Woody Woodward went out and got three relief pitchers: Bad (Mike Timlin), Badder (Paul Spoljarec) and Baddest (Heathcliff Slocumb). To get them he gave up what felt like the future: another Jr. (Jose Cruz), catcher Jason Veritek and pitcher Derek Lowe. It didn't even work short-term. The M's got killed by Baltimore in the '97 ALDS, three games to one, and from the right-field stands I watched Junior flub a chance at a great play. The ball went off his glove. I'd never seen that before. I thought: “What is that? He normally gets that.” The next season was worse. We lost Randy Johnson in July, and while Junior was blasting homeruns it wasn't at the pace of the two testeronic monstrosities, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, who ruled the summer. Junior was a diminished figure in the steroids era. The M's were a diminished team in the Yankees era.
I still contend that if the M’s hadn’t made that ’95 trade to the Yankees, if they’d just been smart about their trades in ’97, if they’d just spent a little more for relief, the great baseball dynasty of the late 1990s wouldn’t have been the effin' New York Yankees. It would’ve been my Seattle Mariners.
But ownership’s purse remained tight, the front office continued to fumble, GM Woody Woodward continued to play golf.
In Ken Burns’ “Baseball” documentary, talking head Billy Crystal says that the Yankees defeat to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1960 World Series still hurts. But Billy Crystal doesn’t know from hurt. The Big Hurt was No. 3 on MLB’s list but the biggest hurt of all was there at No. 1. It’s a hurt that hasn’t healed in Seattle. It probably never will.
Safeco Field, the night after the day Ken Griffey, Jr. retired from baseball. (Click here for more posts about the Seattle Mariners.)
Saturday November 19, 2011
Hollywood B.O.: Breaking Dawn Breaking Records
So “Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1” grossed as much Friday ($72 million) as “Moneyball” has in a month and a half ($72.24 million). Sad. It's the third-highest single-day total ever, after the final “Harry Potter” earlier this summer ($91 million) and “Twilight: New Moon” two years ago November ($72.7 million).
Watch it drop like a rock. Friends are already posting their Facebook reviews and they're not pretty (the reviews; the friends are fine):
Go see Breaking Dawn if you want to die of boredom, cringe at the abysmal acting and horrendous dialogue, and laugh at all the wrong places.
I can't say I didn't deserve or expect it, BUT. Worst movie ever!!
Meanwhile, IMDb begins its commentary on the knock-out opening thus:
The Twilight phenomenon showed no signs of fading on Friday...
Isn't this the second-to-last one? So isn't that fading? Please say it is.
Meanwhile, waiting for “Hugo.”
Friday November 18, 2011
Clint Eastwood Doesn't Have Much Truck with Market Research
“When The Gauntlet didn't do as well as hoped, Warners became concerned that Eastwood was making the wrong choices. He always had a streak of Burt Reynolds redneck humor about him, and when he wanted to play opposite an orangutan in Every Which Way But Loose, Warners' did some market research that indicated a negative reaction to the title, to the orangutan, and even to the idea of Dirty Harry in a comedy. But Eastwood doesn't have much truck with market research and went ahead anyway. It cost about $8 million and grossed about $85 million (about $150 million in today's dollars*), making it his biggest film.”
--Peter Biskind, in the article “Any Which Way He Can,” in his book “Gods and Monsters.”
* The article was written in the early 1990s. So that $85 milliion in 1978, which made it the no. 4 box office hit of the year, which was $150 in 1993 dollars, is approximately $289 million today.
Thursday November 17, 2011
Movie Review: J. Edgar (2011)
WARNING: THE FBI ALWAYS GETS ITS SPOILERS
Biopics are tough. Take a life that has no discernible story arc, create one, and stuff it into two hours of movie time. Fun.
“J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t do a poor job of it, but it does a familiar job of it. We get the famous figure at the end of his life reflecting on the life. As in “Chaplin,” the intermediary is the biographer, or, in J. Edgar’s case, the biographers. Black also adds a twist at the end but I wish it were more of a twist. I wish it reflected on the entire life, the entire memoir, rather than a small portion of it.
First, let me say I was fascinated by the early stuff: Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home being bombed by anarchists in 1919 and the “Palmer Raids” in response, and the general fear of Bolsheviks and anarchists along with the deportation not only of foreigners but of U.S. citizens like Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht). It’s a time period we don’t see much in the movies, yet it felt familiar to me. It’s the same arguments, the same overreactions, we’ve had since 9/11. You get the feeling that what Hoover tells us in voiceover at the end of the movie—“A society unwilling to learn from the past is doomed; we must never forget our history”—is precisely what Clint Eastwood is telling his audience. Learn you history, punks.
In 1919, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a prim, proper, legal functionary within the Bureau of Investigation, who, as he survives the various scandals of the Harding-era Justice Department, including the Palmer Raids, rises to power. In 1921, he is appointed deputy head of the Bureau. In 1924, he becomes its acting director. Finally, under Calvin Coolidge, he becomes its director—the sixth in the Bureau’s short history. (It was created in 1908.)
There’s a good, paranoid sense we get from DiCaprio’s Hoover. He assumes he’ll be bounced from his post at any minute—as easily as he bounces others—and thus scrambles to hold onto power. Should this have been underlined more? This fear of others doing to you what you do to others? The Golden Rule turned on its head? Hoover worried about being fired on a whim because he fired others on a whim. He knew the value of loyalty because he was disloyal. He sought the awful secrets of others because he knew the awful power of his own secrets. He was paranoid and combative because he assumed the world would act as unscrupulously as he did, which is why, in the end, he beat it. Because the world wasn’t as unscrupulous as he was. He had it at an advantage.
And didn’t. He was a closet case, trapped in homophobic times (OK, more homophobic times), without even a sympathetic family to fall back on. When he objects, later in the film, to having to dance with actresses like Ginger Rogers and Anita Colby, his mother (Judi Dench) reminds him of a neighborhood boy, “a daffodil boy,” she calls him, who killed himself after his secret came out. “Edgar,” she says, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil son. Now I’ll teach you to dance.” It’s a sad, effective scene.
Hoover does have a long-time companion, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a law school graduate who quickly becomes the No. 2 man at the FBI, even though he mostly helps Hoover, a) keep an even keel, and, b) with his clothes. There’s an odd moment at Julius Garfinkel & Co., a D.C. department store. The store’s clerks inform Hoover his credit is no good since someone named John Hoover has been bouncing checks, leaving the Director of the Bureau of Investigation sputtering that he is himself and not someone else. Funny stuff. At which point Clyde vouches for him and a new line of credit is established. Giving up both “John” and “Johnnie,” he signs his name, momentously, J. Edgar Hoover. Ah! The legend being born. Unfortunately, the careful viewer will have noticed, in an earlier scene, a desk nameplate already reading “J. Edgar Hoover.” But Eastwood needs to film his momentous moments.
From there, it’s battling both gangsters and Hollywood’s glorification of gangsters. Hoover turns James Cagney, the charismatic bad guy of “The Public Enemy” in 1931, into the charismatic good guy of 1935’s “G-Men.” He pushes for labs, and forensic science, and the creation of a national database of fingerprints. He federalizes the bureau and lobbies Congress to make kidnapping a federal offense so he can involve the bureau in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He sells his agency—putting “Junior G-Man” badges in Post Toasties cereal and pushing for “Junior G-Men” comic books—while demoting anyone who steals his spotlight, such as Melvin Purvis, one of his best agents. Was this the first governmental mass-media campaigns in the U.S.? Was it propaganda? One gets the feeling an entire movie could be made about this issue alone. One wants a first-rate documentarian to take a stab at J. Edgar Hoover’s century.
Eastwood’s stab feels ... weak and misdirected. We’re watching two storylines here: The aged Hoover in the 1960s, on a mission to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., detailing his own early history as justification. As the story he’s telling moves from the 1920s to the 1930s, so 1960s Hoover moves through various events of that tumultuous decade: JFK assassination, MLK Nobel Prize acceptance, Nixon inauguration. We assume the two stories will meet—we’ll get the 1940s and ‘50s—but the past, oddly, never gets out of the 1930s. We hear nothing about WWII, the creation of the CIA, and the rise and fall of McCarthyism. That’s a big gap. That’s too much history, dismissed.
DiCaprio, who does a good job, is still an odd choice. Over the years, Hoover has been played by Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, Vincent Gardenia, Ned Beatty and Bob Hoskins, actors with weight and heft and bulldog faces. Even a 1987 TV biopic, which covered Hoover’s early years as “J. Edgar” does, cast Treat Williams, who is dark and bulldogish, in the role. DiCaprio ultimately seems too light and pretty for the role.
And the point of it all? Clyde Tolson, whose old-age makeup is even worse than Hoover’s, tells his long-time companion that parts of the history he’s been dictating are bullshit. Hoover claims to have captured various gangsters but didn’t. He claims to have arrested Bruno Hauptman but didn’t. His story is false. This is the twist from Dustin Lance Black that I liked, and would’ve liked more if the falsehoods had been spread throughout Hoover’s reminiscences rather than sprinkled into a brief period in the mid-1930s. But one understands why they did it this way. Making the whole thing a lie would’ve risked alienating the audience. Moviegoers may want to see lies but not those kinds of lies. They want to see fiction but don’t want to be told they’re seeing fiction. That would just ruin the experience.
Even so, imagine the lesson. Done right, it could have reminded the audience to be wary of storytellers—not just Hoover telling his story but Eastwood telling Hoover’s. Truth, after all, is one of the first things to go in a Hollywood biopic. “J. Edgar” may be a movie about an unreliable narrator, but the movies themselves, from “Birth of a Nation” to “JFK,” are our greatest unreliable narrator.
Tuesday November 15, 2011
Karl Show! (Starring Jason), with Special Guest ... Me
A friend of mine from bookstore days, Jason Lamb, hosts a radio show Friday nights in Portland called “Karl Show! (Starring Jason)”—great name—and Jason, and Karl, were nice enough to invite me on a few Fridays back to talk about movies, reviewing movies, specific movies (mostly “Tree of Life” and “Ides of March”), along with a few excursions into bookstore days. We also listened to music that I provided, including Steve Earle, Pearl Jam, Decemberists, Van Morrison and the Tropicals. (Somehow we never got around to Joe Henry. Bummer.)
The episode is now up on their site. Feel free to listen here.
There's talk about having me back at Oscar time, which would be fun.
The drawing below is one of the few images I have of Jason. It was done by our mutual friend Scott Tolson, who died in 2003. “Lucky Bastard Club,” I believe, was a book coming through the bookstore warehouse, which we unboxed for the store, or boxed to return to the publisher, and the title inspired Scott, who created his own club. Of us. I'm Lungs. Jason is Angry the Kid. Mr. B comments on the site frequently. Tea Time still hasn't been found.
Monday November 14, 2011
Quote of the Day
“The greatness of 'Funny People' hinges on Sandler’s ability to adeptly capture the sadness of a comedic actor looking back on his career when confronted with mortality. And Sandler nails it! Hits every goddamn note, moment and scene, masterfully. And while I do believe he’s a great actor (when he wants to be), part of it also comes from Judd Apatow so skillfully tapping into Sandler’s own regret about his own choices and then seamlessly filtering them through the character of George Simmons. That’s why the parodies within 'Funny People' — like 'Re-Do,' where a lawyer gets magically turned back into a baby or 'MerMan,' the story of a male mermaid — hit so hard. It feels like Sandler is acknowledging the ridiculousness of his filmography and owning up to it.
”That’s what makes 'Jack and Jill' so perplexing. How can you soberly acknowledge all that one year, and then star in 'Jack and Jill' the very next? And more important, how can you leave that much talent on the table? It’s like turning down the opportunity to play for a championship in order to spend another year on a bottom feeder.“
--Toph Eggers, screenwriter, in the salon.com piece ”The Tragedy of Adam Sandler."
Monday November 14, 2011
Movie Review: Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
“Searching for Bobby Fischer” is a traditional three-act story of rise, fall and redemption. Its first act, like the first act of a superhero movie, contains the dawning realization of power: the chess prowess of seven-year-old Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc), who may be the next Bobby Fischer. In the second act, Josh acquires two teachers: Vinnie (Larry Fishburne), a speed-chess hustler at Washington Square Park in New York, who fascinates Josh, and who represents a style of chess that is aggressive, streetwise and American; and Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley), a national master at the Manhattan Chess Club, who is hired by Josh’s father, Fred (Joe Mategna), to teach Josh, and who represents a style of chess that is cautious, erudite and European. The two styles and teachers clash, of course, and a rival—seven-year-old Jonathan Poe (Michael Nirenberg)—is discovered, and fear is introduced. That’s why the fall. It’s only when Josh intuitively combines the two chess styles in the third act that redemption is possible and final victory achieved.
I saw the movie when it was released in 1993 and liked it. I saw it recently, after Patricia and I watched Liz Garbus’ excellent HBO documentary “Bobby Fischer Against the World,” and was disappointed. Immediately.
The film, based upon a true story, opens with kids playing hide-and-seek in Washington Square Park. We focus on the birthday boy, Josh, doe-eyed and big-shoed, who runs, hides under a bush, and finds a chess piece there, a knight, lying on the ground. He looks around. He sees men playing various games, vaguely trash talking. Then, reflected in the sunglasses of one of these men, he sees a chess board, and the soundtrack music rises triumphantly. That’s when my heart fell. The moment just doesn’t happen; the moment is crowned with music. In case we might miss it.
The movie keeps doing this. It keeps nudging us. It’s written and directed by Steven Zaillian, based upon Fred Waitzkin’s book, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Zaillian or some studio hand kept bringing up “The Natural,” the Robert Redford film, as a model. The movie is similarly nostalgic, even though its time-frame is recent if unspecific; it’s similarly melodramatic, even though it’s about a real boy rather than a mythic creation. We keep getting magic-hour light, too. That’s probably why its only Oscar nomination was for cinematography. The Academy can’t get enough of magic-hour light.
So is the opening scene the first time Josh discovers chess? We don’t know. When does he become friends with Vinnie? We don’t know. When does his mother, Bonnie (Joan Allen), no longer fear the Washington Square hustlers, as she does initially, but actually prefer them to the uptight and unlikable Bruce Pandolfini? We don’t know.
We don’t get any of that. Instead we get adult reactions and arguments about what to do with Josh. Should he focus completely on chess? Should he focus on it at all? Is Vinnie’s aggressive brand of speed chess ruining Josh’s game, as Bruce contends?
In the middle of a school conference, Josh’s grade-school teacher (Laura Linney) suggests—with everyone, including Josh, within earshot—that Josh needs to think about more than chess. She suggests he’s becoming isolated. Is he? We never really see him in his day-to-day so we don’t know. But we do know that Fred makes sense when he tells her (again, in front of everybody) the following:
He's better at this than I've ever been at anything in my life. He's better at this than you'll ever be at anything. My son has a gift. He has a gift, and when you acknowledge that, then maybe we will have something to talk about.
Good lines. The question is what do you do with it? How do you bring out the gift? The movie ultimately favors a “Let Josh be Josh” strategy. Josh’s second-act fall occurs not only because he fears his new rival but because the game stops being fun for him. Vinnie is fun; Bruce is not. Vinnie hangs outside; Bruce is almost always seen in airless rooms. Vinnie is cool, relaxed, wears weightlifting gloves for no discernible reason; Bruce is erect, tight-lipped, and encourages a contempt for the world, and for Josh’s opponents, that is the opposite of Josh’s natural decency.
So Josh begins to lose. On purpose. Because it’s all too much.
How does Josh revive in the third act? Again: who knows? His father brings his trophies into his room (“These belong to you”), which is a kind of metaphoric gesture (I.e., your talents belong to you, not to me or any other adult). Then he takes him back to Washington Square Park for a game with Vinnie. Then suddenly we’re in Chicago for the nationals, both teachers in tow, where Josh wins by utilizing both teachers’ strategies and by being himself. He offers his rival a draw, for example, before he beats him. In the midst of cutthroat competition, he remains decent.
I actually believe this to be a true lesson: To achieve true success, one has to be as authentically oneself as possible.
I also believe this to be a false lesson. The film implies that to succeed at the highest levels one need not sacrifice anything. Before the tournament, unlike the other poor kids chained to their chessboards, Josh goes on a two-week fishing trip with his father. At the end of the movie, we’re told that Josh, the real Josh, is currently the highest-ranked player in the U.S. under 18. “He also plays baseball, basketball, football and soccer, and in the summer goes fishing,” we’re told.
I wanted to like “Searching for Bobby Fischer” again, but it’s too sweet, too false by half. It forces structure onto a real story and wrecks it. I don’t know if the real Josh Waitzkin went through a rise/fall/redemption cycle but we do know that the real Bruce Pandolfini was Brooklyn-born, easy-going, and popular with his students. Unfortunately a film needs conflict and drama, and Kingsley’s Pandolfini is the route they chose. Shame. It’s sad when a movie is based upon a true story and you walk away thinking, “I didn’t buy it.”
Friday November 11, 2011
- Via Roger Ebert: OhNoTheyDidnt, a livejournal, celebrity gossip site, has broken down the 13 movies posters we get: from Sexy Back (lone, violent, often western hero), to Back to Back (oh, those crazy couples), Legs Spread Wide (could be a raunchy comedy, could be Bond). My favorite of the bunch is the first, “Tiny People on the Beach, Giant Heads in the Clouds,” films that tend toward the sappy, such as “Charlie St. Cloud,” “City of Angels,” “Forever Young.” Are most of the posters we see French posters? Would be interesting to break down international films by country. How poster art differs from country to country.
- Oscar Oscar Oscar: Brett Ratner's gone as producer after his “fags” comments, etc., so Brian Grazer steps in. Eddie Murphy follows of his own accord as Oscar host. Leaving? Jeff Wells suggests Vince Vaughn. Not a bad idea, actually. Or if you're going to co-host it ... Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Or Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson. Any of them frat packers.
- Nope. Looks like it'll be Billy Crystal. Like Grazer, the safe choice.
- New Yorker editor David Remnick has a nice piece on former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, who died this week, and who never forgave Muhammad Ali his insults.
- Meanwhile, Smokin' Joe Posnanski weighs in: “Frazier was heavyweight champion of the world when that meant something.” Indeed. And don't forget he was in the first “Rocky.” Yes, in that awful green suit.
- Andrew Sullivan has smart readers. From “Who Caused the Financial Crisis?” series.
- Speaking of: Michael Lewis, who has spent books determining who caused the financial crisis, goes beyond “Moneyball” in this Vanity Fair article. Wait: way beyond “Moneyball.”
- This is the best thing I've read in weeks: Malcolm Gladwell on Walter Isaacson on Steve Jobs. Gladwell calls Jobs not an inventor or innovator but a tweaker. He would take something and improve upon it and then close it off so it couldn't be improved upon by others. Thus the closed-off (but well-designed) design of Apple products. Most amusing to me, though, is the anecdote about how the iPad came to be. The Jobs family had a friend who was married to a top executive at Microsoft, and who was invited to Jobs' 50th birthday party. As Jobs tells Isaacson:
This guy badgered me about how Microsoft was going to completely change the world with this tablet PC software and eliminate all notebook computers, and Apple ought to license his Microsoft software. But he was doing the device all wrong. It had a stylus. As soon as you have a stylus, you’re dead. This dinner was like the tenth time he talked to me about it, and I was so sick of it that I came home and said, “Fuck this, let’s show him what a tablet can really be.”
Thursday November 10, 2011
Photo of the Day
Seattle, lower Queen Anne, 3rd and Roy, Nov. 10, 2011, morning. (Stupid truck.)
Thursday November 10, 2011
Market Research: Product Planning Based on the Opinions of Schoolgirls
Large advertising companies have long invested huge sums of money in conducting studies based on research, customer surveys and interviews. I myself have participated in such studies. At the big advertising agencies they round up users and market to them as reps from the manufacturing companies watch, sometimes through one-way mirrors. I’ve heard of some companies that go so far as to base their product planning on the opinions of schoolgirls. Will this type of planning seriously result in a hit product? I don't think so, and ... neither did Steve Jobs. I’ve actually been to many of these marketing focus groups, and I can tell you that no great ideas come of them.
He then quotes Steve Jobs on the matter:
It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.
It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.
Wednesday November 09, 2011
A Strong Female Lead?
More Netflix nonsense.
Based on “Eat Drink Man Woman” and “The Brothers,” Netflix recommends the following films with A STRONG FEMALE LEAD:
Nice. Two women who are scared and one who is grimy and chained for your pleasure. Seriously, Netflix, there's gotta be a better way you can handle this kind of thing.
Other Netflix movies with strong female leads include “Revenge of the Bridesmaids” (comedy), “Practical Magic” (comedy) and “The Housemaid” (Korean sex abuse). But at least they include “Jane Eyre,” “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and “Winter's Bone.” At least they got a few right.
Tuesday November 08, 2011
Fifty Years Later, The Hamster Wheel Answers Philip Roth
“The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, describe, and then make credible much of American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is an embarrassment to one's own meager imagination. The actuality is constantly outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist.”
Philip Roth wrote that in his essay “Writing American Fiction” back in the early 1960s, and only the most blinkered among us would think that things haven't gotten worse. Our current national talents haven't outdone the writers of that period (Roth, Mailer, Baldwin, Capote), while the figures our culture tosses up have only gotten more ridiculous. Roth's examples include Charles Van Doren, Roy Cohn, David Schine and Dwight David Eisenhower, while our current culture tosses up (but not out, never out) Sarah Palin, Donald Trump, Kim Kardashian, Michael Jackson, Michele Bachmann, “The Situation,” Herman Cain, Rick Perry or just, fuck, really anyone running for the 2012 presidential nomination on the GOP ticket. Dwight David Eisenhower is a mountain of sanity in comparison. Put it this way: What Roth rejected as ridiculous? That's what we yearn for.
No one I know has figured out how to properly deal with this gap between reality and the unimaginably idiotic and surreal characters who dominate our culture.
A brilliant solution. Roth suggested such a solution back in the early 1960s but we were too blind to see it:
“Whatever else the television debates produced in me, I should point out, as a literary curiosity, they also produced professional envy. All the machinations over make-up and rebuttal time, all the business over whether Mr. Nixon should look at Mr. Kennedy when he replied, or should look away—all of it was so beside the point, so fantastic, so weird and astonishing, that I found myself beginning to wish I had invented it. But then, of course, one need not have been a fiction writer to wish that someone had invented it, and that it was not real and with us.”
Question: What current American figure do you wish was merely a brilliant satiric character from Sasha Baron Cohen?
Question II: When our current crazies talk their crazy talk, shouldn't we treat them as “The Hamster Wheel,” an Australian comedy show dealing with the media, treated Lord Monckton? As a proper joke? As a Sasha Baron Cohen character?
Again: brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.
Monday November 07, 2011
Movie Review: Haevnen/In a Better World (2010)
Susanne Bier’s “In a Better World,” the English-language title for the Danish film “Haevnen,” which won the Oscar for best foreign language film at the 2010 Academy Awards, attempts to give a more adult answer to the dilemma Hollywood has spent 100 years exploiting: What do ordinary, law-abiding citizens do when confronted with bullies and psychopaths? How does a man face brutality without becoming brutal himself?
These films are now called vigilante films, since, in them, ordinary citizens go beyond the law to set things right (see everything from “Death Wish” to “Harry Brown”), but they were once simply called westerns. The hero that emerged, often John Wayne, didn’t have to worry about going beyond the law because there was barely a law. He also shot second. (He was eminently fair.) There was also no blood, no rape, no none of that. Hays Code.
In “Haevnen,” Elias (Markus Rygaard), buck-toothed and braces-wearing, is the picked-upon kid at his local school, whose hallways are ruled by Sofus (Simon Maagaard Holm) and his crew of toadies. They block entranceways, demand obeisance, and hurt and humiliate those they don’t like. Elias, sweet-natured, is a favorite target.
Then Christian (William Jøhnk Nielsen), Danish, but recent of London where his mother died of cancer, arrives on the scene. He’s no bigger than Elias, and both are smaller than Sofus, but he moves through life with an intense glare. The first day he scopes out the scene like a little Clint Eastwood, stands up to Sofus (for which he gets a soccer ball in the nose), and the next day, when Sofus follows Elias into the boys’ room to further pick on him, Christian follows and attacks Sofus with a bike pump and a knife, leaving him bloody and moaning on the floor. It’s like John Foster Dulles’ 1950s foreign policy of massive retaliation except in a Danish middle school.
School officials, absent or impotent for the reign of Sofus’ terror, now, of course, get involved. The knife is particularly troublesome—it’s apparently the Danish equivalent of bringing a gun to school—and parents are called and admonished; but both boys stand firm, the knife is never found, and Sofus’ reign ends. Half an hour into the film.
That itself is intriguing. In the typical vigilante film, you get your moment of revenge in the third act, not the first, and it pretty much ends the movie. Now we’re left wondering what’s going to happen next. (At the same time, it doesn’t mean we didn’t thrill to the beating of Sofus, the little shit, any less than we thrill to the revenge perpetrated against any number of cinematic bullies. First or third act, the desire for justice of a violent nature is still there.)
I suppose that’s the question of “Haevnen”: Can we have a justice that’s not violent? That’s within the law? That’s adult?
Anton (Mikael Persbrandt), the father of Elias, attempts to find out. Well, he doesn’t attempt to find out. It’s less proactive than that. He just finds out. Kind of.
Anton spends half his time as a doctor-without-borders in sub-Saharan Africa, treating the sick and the injured. The latter group, increasingly, is filled with pregnant women whose stomachs have been slit open. Why? Who could do such a thing? Turns out, the local chieftain, Big Man (Odiege Matthew), who bets compatriots on the gender of the unborn babies of passing pregnant women. Cutting them open is a way to settle the bet.
It’s in Denmark, though, that Anton finds his bully. One day, chaperoning his two boys and Christian near the docks, Morten (Toke Lars Bjarke), Elias’ younger brother, pulls away and gets into a fight with another boy over a swing. When Anton tries to break it up, the father of the second boy shows up, belligerently objects to Anton touching his son, and slaps Anton in the face several times. It’s a shocking moment—for both us and the kids. It’s also shocking for Anton, who keeps his cool but cools off his injured cheek (and injured spirit?) with a swim in the family lake at dusk.
In a better world, Anton would forget about the incident. Unfortunately, now his son thinks him a coward. So after the boys have tracked the bully, Lars (Kim Bodnia), to his workplace, Anton shows up, with boys in tow, and confronts him. Except Lars feels no shame, just maliciousness, and again slaps Anton repeatedly. It’s an interesting scene. Anton is confrontational but peaceful, and shows no fear, and questions every move Lars makes. Afterwards, outside, he claims that Lars showed himself to be a big jerk not worth anyone’s time or attention. He says Lars lost. But Christian annunciates our thoughts: “I don’t think he thinks he lost.”
This sets up the second half of the movie: Anton, in Africa, dealing with an injured Big Man, and Elias and Christian, in Denmark, scheming against Lars. In his grandfather’s garage, Christian finds old fireworks and uses their gunpowder to create a bomb with which to blow up Lars’ car.
In the end, retribution against Lars is premeditated and comes with complications (Elias is caught in the blast), while retribution against Big Man is impulsive and ... without complications? Anton treats Big Man for an infected leg for several days, but when Big Man makes a joke about a girl who dies on Anton’s operating table, Anton loses it and shoves him and his entourage—two unarmed men—into the courtyard. The two men flee, while Big Man is left helpless on the ground. The citizens gradually close in on him and tear him apart.
If there are complications for Anton’s actions, they are internal, within Anton, never external. At no point, for example, do any of Big Man’s men take revenge. Because they wanted Big Man gone, too? Who knows? It’s all left hanging. Does Anton feel less culpable about Big Man’s death because it wasn’t by his own hands? Does he feel disappointed in the citizens who tear him apart? Does he revel in the revenge, as most of us, from the safety of our theater seats, do?
Every answer “Haevnen” offers is dissatisfying. Most, one imagines, are purposefully so, but the movie is dissatisfying in other, seemingly unintentional ways. How, for example, does Christian become a 10-year-old Clint Eastwood in the first place? Solely through the death of his mother? He apparently learns his lesson—or a lesson—about his violent ways by almost causing the death of Elias. But how long does the lesson hold? And does Anton feel any culpability here? If he’d simply stood up to Lars, or called the cops on him, the boys wouldn’t have felt the need to take action themselves. What’s the better world of the title: one in which Anton stands up to Lars or one in which Lars doesn’t exist?
The cinematography is gorgeous and the acting excellent—particularly William Jøhnk Nielsen’s astonishing turn as Christian, for which he was nominated best actor at the Danish Academy Awards. But “Haevnen” still feels weak for a best foreign language film winner. We watch for two hours and no insight, great or small, comes.
Sunday November 06, 2011
WANTED: Algorithmic Help for Netflix
I was doing research on “The Wizard of Oz” recently when I came across this latest horrific example of Netflix's recommendation algorithm:
If you'd asked me to name a thousand movies that were similar to “The Wizard of Oz,” I wouldn't have named any of these. Who is screwing things up at Netflix? Who was fired, and who was hired, and who is running things into the ground there?
As an experiment, I tried it at IMDb.com. These are the recommendations for their “Wizard of Oz” page:
That's a little more like it.
Saturday November 05, 2011
- Matty Alou, one of the three Alou brothers (with Jesus and Felipe), a lifetime .307 hitter, and the tying run stranded at third when Willie McCovey lined out to Bobby Richardson to end the 1962 World Series, died in the Dominican Republic at the age of 72. His career stats here. The death of ballplayers, particularly ones I grew up with, tends to sadden me more than any other celebrity group.
- I mean I spent more time with Andy Rooney than Matty Alou and yet ... Of course, Andy was older, too. Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeff Wells gives Andy a nice sendoff.
- Who knew that a dinner party with Groucho Marx and T.S. Eliot could be dull and awkward?
- The creator of my favorite TV show these days, Jonathan Ames of HBO's “Bored to Death,” lets the Atlantic magazine in on his reading habits. Quote: “My parents kindly gave me a subscription to The New Yorker but I don't seem to read it any more. They just pile up. I'm so far behind — there's an article from 2010 on the brain I've been meaning to read for almost two years — that I've just given up on the magazine altogether.” P.S. Someday I'll have to write a post about “Bored to Death” and how much I identify with the fictional Jonathan Ames played by Jason Schwartzman.
- You heard what New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg said about Congress being responsible for the Global Financial Meltdown? Here's the genteel repsonse from Mike Konczal of Rortybomb: “Both the subprime mortgage boom and the subsequent crash are very much concentrated in the private market, especially the private label securitization channel (PLS) market. The GSEs were not behind them. That whole fly-by-night lending boom, slicing and dicing mortgage bonds, derivatives and CDOs, and all the other shadiness of the 2000s mortgage market was a Wall Street creation...”
- Here's the less-than-genteel response from Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone magazine: “Well, you know what, Mike Bloomberg? FUCK YOU. People are not protesting for their own entertainment, you asshole. They’re protesting because millions of people were robbed, by your best friends incidentally, and they want their money back.”
- Did you read how Hassan Elahi dealt with being a suspected terrorist? Smart.
- Did you read how Ann Jones dealt with being a suspected terrorist? Scary.
- Voted the other day. Mostly a straight Stranger ticket. If a Stranger ticket can be straight.
- The artwork of high school friend Marcellus Hall, a sometime New Yorker cover illustrator, is featured in this post about art for children's books. I marvel at the talent.
- How the U.S. is losing engineering and math students at the college level. Even at the elite college level. I feel part of the problem. Where went that elementary school love of math?
- And bad news on the global warming front: “The new figures for 2010 mean that levels of greenhouse gases are higher than the worst case scenario outlined by climate experts just four years ago.” At least we've stopped debating that this is happening. Oh right.
The Alou brothers, Jesus, Matty and Felipe, with the San Francisco Giants in the early 1960s. They were the first brothers to play in the same outfield in the same game.
Friday November 04, 2011
The Bravest Man of the 20th Century?
Rustin was the civil rights movement before the civil rights movement. He was advocating a non-violent confrontational approach in the 1940s, more than a decade before the lunch-counter sit-ins in Greensboro and Nashville. He was engaged in freedom rides more than a decade before “the Freedom Rides” of 1961. He also organized a little thing called the March on Washington in August 1963.
So why isn't he better known? Look at the Times' obit. The piece is 41 paragraphs but this isn't mentioned until the 40th paragraph:
In an interview published in The Village Voice on June 30, Mr. Rustin was quoted as saying he was homosexual. Asked in the interview how this and his 1953 arrest and subsequent sentence of 60 days in Pasadena, Calif., on a morals charge had affected his civil rights work, he said that '‘there was considerable prejudice amongst a number of people I worked with,’' although they would not admit it.
Born in 1912, Rustin was both black and openly gay, and his homosexuality was used against him several times during the civil right movement. It marginalized him—an early, dynamic leader—and yet, even with this marginalization, he still did what he did.
I'm curious: Did Rustin ever meet up with James Baldwin, who was both black and openly gay? What was that meeting like? Could someone write a play about it?
“Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin” isn't a great doc, but its subject, Rustin, is a great subject. Someday someone will get it right.
Rustin, with glasses, behind Martin Luther King during the “I Have a Dream” speech. Unfortunately, King wasn't always behind Rustin.
Thursday November 03, 2011
Movie Review: Margin Call (2011)
WARNING: There are three ways to review a movie: Be first, be smarter, or use SPOILERS.
Let’s talk irony.
“Margin Call” is about the immoral (or at least amoral) actions of a group of executives at a powerful, Goldman-Sachs-like New York investment bank, who realize, during a 36-hour period circa 2008, that if stock market trends continue the losses on their books will be greater than the entire value of their 107-year-old company. So during several hushed, middle-of-the-night meetings they must decide what to do.
The employee who created the program that reveals this gap is risk management executive Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), but—and here’s the first irony—he was fired, along with 80 percent of his floor, at the beginning of this 36-hour period. He’s been with the company 19 years, but someone taps on his door, and he’s taken to an office where two young women, HR folks, express condolences and lay out a severance package. After it’s done, they nod toward a burly security guard by the door. “This gentleman will take you to your office so you can clean out your office,” one says. Then he’s walked out the building as if he’s a common criminal.
This is the thought that scene is intended to evoke: “Awful!”
This is the thought it evoked in me: “Pikers!”
A month earlier, my domestic partner, Patricia, had been fired from Microsoft after 10 years on the job. She did good work, put in long hours, but her boss, two years ago, slowly began to squeeze her—making impossible demands, holding back on approval for projects and then blaming her for not meeting milestones—until, at her annual review this September, she was let go. That was the injury but here are the insults: 1) She received no severance package; and 2) she was escorted, not back to her office, but to HR, where she was told not to contact anyone at Microsoft except HR. Then she was escorted from the building. A week later, the personal items from her office finally arrived. She didn’t even get to box them up herself. Her personal items included an unopened 10-year anniversary gift/card she’d received from Microsoft last spring. “On your tenth anniversary, we would like to thank you for your incredible commitment to Microsoft,” the card read. It was signed: “Steve Ballmer.”
That’s the big, unintended irony of the opening scene. Hollywood thinks it’s showing us an immoral act from a soulless institution, but the soulless institutions of the world have already shown us much, much worse.
“Margin Call” is a smart, relevant, powerful film that is also curiously isolated. The terms we’re used to hearing about the global financial meltdown—“toxic asserts,” “mortgage derivatives,” “subprime mortgage loans”—are rarely enunciated. The reasons Eric Dale and 80 percent of his floor are let go at the beginning of this 36-hour period are never mentioned. Things just happen. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think the global financial meltdown began here, with this 107-year-old investment bank, rather than with policy decisions dating back to at least 1999 and probably earlier.
The movie is so compact in terms of time and place that I thought it was based upon a play: off-Broadway, I imagined, fall 2009. It’s actually an original screenplay by first-time director J.C. Chandor, who, at times, feels like he’s channeling David Mamet with his blunt, vague dialogue. (First words: “Is that them? ... Are they going to do it right here?”) His characters remind me of characters from a play, too. Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) immediately comes off slick and fierce but that doesn’t mean he’s disingenuous or doesn’t have a moral code of his own. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) is appalled by what he’s asked to do but that doesn’t mean he can’t rally the troops to do that very thing.
It’s a simple story. Eric Dale is fired, Will Emerson commiserates in his way (without outward sympathy), while Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto), who worked under Dale, offers him an awkward, heartfelt farewell by the elevator. At the last instant, probably because of this show of heart, Dale gives Sullivan a zip drive. “I was working on something but they didn’t let me finish it,” he says. As the elevator doors close, he adds, “Be careful.”
That night, after his regular work, and while his colleagues are decompressing at a Manhattan bar, he begins to fiddle with the model. He punches in numbers. What they reveal is so awful he phones his friend, Seth (Penn Badgley), to bring in their new boss, Will, who brings in his boss, Sam Rogers, who alerts executives Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), the woman responsible for Eric Dale being fired in the first place. When they get the news, they call in the bank’s CEO, John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), who arrives, like a deus ex machina, in a helicopter that lands on the roof. But he’s not a deus ex machina. “The cavalry has arrived,” one man says. But he’s not the cavalry, either.
Chandor is good with moods: the hushed, ominous wait at 2 a.m., which Tuld cuts through with his 3 a.m. arrival and his no-bullshit questions and his ultimate decision to kill rather than be killed, to SURVIVE, as he says, which leads to 4 or 5 a.m. bleariness as you wait out the dawn, and the day, and the only questions that remain: Will we do this thing? Can we do this thing? Eric Dale is searched for (in Brooklyn), Jared Cohen tries to pry Will away from Sam (and fails), and different people have quiet conversations in which philosophies are revealed; but ultimately we’re just waiting to see if the company can survive, and, if it can, what this means.
It’s a Goldman Sachs moment—knowingly selling toxic assets—and Sam rallies the troops to do this, just as he rallied the troops after the mass layoffs the day before. What he said about their fired colleagues on day one, in fact, could apply to the toxic assets at the end of day two: “Now they’re gone. They’re not to be thought of again ... You are all survivors.”
It’s merciless but true. The company takes what would’ve killed it and lets it loose in the economic ecosystem, where, even in diluted form, it will kill others. Maybe you.
As they do this, they affix blame elsewhere. Here’s John Tuld to Sam:
You and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it, or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right and we get left by the side of the road if we get it wrong.
Here’s Will Emerson to Seth on the drive back from Brooklyn:
The only reason that [most people] get to continue living like kings is cause we got our fingers on the scales in their favor. I take my hand off and then the whole world gets really fuckin’ fair really fuckin’ quickly and nobody actually wants that. They say they do but they don’t. They want what we have to give them but they also want to, you know, play innocent and pretend they have know idea where it came from. Well, that’s more hypocrisy than I'm willing to swallow. So fuck ’em. Fuck normal people.
Others can’t affix blame elsewhere. At the end of the day, Sam, the good soldier, looks weaker from the purging and tells Tuld he wants out. He says he’s tired of the game. He says he should’ve gone into ditch digging. How far have we fallen when Kevin Spacey plays our moral exemplar?
Ditch digging, ironically, is where we last see him: digging a hole in the front yard of the home he used to share with his ex-wife, to bury their old dog, who died of a tumor as Sam was rallying the troops. It’s one of the few moments in the movie where we’re not in a corporate high-rise so it feels a bit out of place. It’s dirt and grass rather than steel and glass. And yet it feels exactly right. It feels like the last few years. Something beloved is being buried in a place where we no longer live.
Tuesday November 01, 2011
Quote of the Day
“If you live in France and you have written one good book, or painted a good picture, or directed one outstanding fim, 50 years ago, and nothing ever since, you are still recognized as an artist, and honored accordingly. People take their hats off and call you maitre. They do not forget. In Hollywood--in Hollywood you're as good as your last picture. If you didn't have one in production in the last three months, you're forgotten, no matter what you have achieved ere this.”
--Erich von Stroheim, “Classics of the Silent Screen: A Pictorial Treasury” by Joe Franklin