Tuesday December 31, 2013
Tweet of the Year
This week's celeb news takeaway: she who comes closest to showing the actual inside of her vagina is most popular. #stopactinglikewhores— Rashida Jones (@iamrashidajones) October 19, 2013
I suppose this was the Tweet of the Year for me because I've been thinking about this forever. Twenty years ago I remember wondering if jeans ads in the future would be just some naked woman with a look of ecstasy on her face and then the “Calvin Klein” logo off to the side. That's the direction we seemed to be heading. We're nearly there.
Ms. Jones was actually attacked for the above. Shamed for it, you could say. Her critics accused her of shaming women for their sexuality rather than for how they market or sell their sexuality. Which was her point.
She responded to the attacks better than I could:
I'm not gonna lie. The fact that I was accused of “slut-shaming,” being anti-woman, and judging women's sex lives crushed me. I consider myself a feminist. I would never point a finger at a woman for her actual sexual behavior, and I think all women have the right to express their desires. But I will look at women with influence—millionaire women who use their “sexiness” to make money—and ask some questions. There is a difference, a key one, between “shaming” and “holding someone accountable.”
In the same article she asked men to speak up, so here goes.
I'm tired of it all. I'm tired of the constant distraction. I look at a magazine rack, at all the women on all the covers desperately seeking our attention, and almost feel sorry for them. The whole thing is sad. It's not that we're shallow (that's a given) but we're shallow all the time and we're making our culture shallower and shallower. At some point we'll hit bottom. Won't we?
More, I'm tired of the people who just don't get it; who could read Ms. Jones' tweet and not understand what she means. For you people: #stopactinglikeidiots
Tuesday December 31, 2013
Movie Review: Blackfish (2013)
The best scene in the best movie of 2012 was the moment in “Rust and Bone” when Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard), a former trainer at Marineland who has lost her legs to an orca, returns to her former workplace and stands in silence before a large glass tank. This is what I wrote a year ago:
She pats the glass once, twice. After a moment, a monster looms into view. An orca. The orca? The one who took her legs? One assumes not. One assumes that one has been killed but you never know and [director Jacques] Audiard never says.
I was so naïve. I thought putting down an orca was like putting down a dog, but other factors come into play. Like money.
Actually, there are no other factors. It’s just the money.
Not whales, not killers
Here are some of the things you learn watching Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s documentary, “Blackfish”:
- Orcas are highly social mammals and travel in packs.
- When baby orcas are separated from the pack by hunting vessels, the rest of the orcas stay close and attempt to communicate. They don’t flee. They don’t abandon the child.
- “Killer whale” is a misnomer. Orcas are not whales and they don’t kill people. At the least, there’s no record of them killing any human in the wild.
- Native Americans call them “blackfish.”
- Orcas can live as long as we can.
But the doc is mostly about one orca: Tilikum.
In 1983, off the coast of Iceland, a male baby orca, two years old and 4,000 pounds, was separated from its mother and taken to SeaLand in Victoria, B.C. It was named Tilikum. He performed there for years. The trainers liked him. But in February 1990, a marine biologist and competitive swimmer named Keltie Byrne, 20, slipped into the pool with Tilikum and two females and the whales, mostly Tilikum, held her underwater. She tried to surface and call for help, but she was held under again. She drowned. That was the first.
Apparently SeaLand was a sad little place, poorly run, and when it went under Tilikum was sold to SeaWorld Orlando. He performed there daily. Then in 1999, a 27-year-old man snuck into SeaWorld one night and jumped or slipped into the orca tank. He was found naked and dead atop Tilikum the next morning. Then in February 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a 40-year-old trainer, was pulled into the water by Tilikum. The other trainers eventually distracted Tilikum and he let her go, but by then she was already dead: beaten, drowned, scalped.
That’s when Tilikum was finally put down.
Kidding. He returned to performing shows at SeaWorld Orlando in 2011. Maybe you’ve seen him there. Maybe you paid money to see him. Why not? It’s a free country.
Not just Tilikum
The big question in “Blackfish,” unanswered and unanswerable, is this: Why did Tilikum kill Dawn Brancheau?
The corporate line, the SeaWorld line, is that it was a mistake. Dawn was wearing her hair in a ponytail, and Tilikum caught her ponytail, and yadda yadda. It wasn’t malicious; it was user error. Many of the talking heads in the film, former trainers themselves, dispute this. They say Dawn was their best. If it happened to her, they say, it could happen to anyone.
The doc’s line is this: Tilikum, over his lifetime, has been severely traumatized. He was separated from his family at a young age. He was bullied and scarred in captivity, and often kept in tiny 20x30 holding pens. He’s a mammal that was born to swim the ocean and instead swims in a tiny prison of water. He performs tricks to be fed.
We have our doubts about SeaWorld but we’ll never really know the answer.
But there’s a bigger question, unraised, in “Blackfish”: Why do we go to places like SeaLand and SeaWorld to see creatures like Tilikum performing tricks in such unnatural settings in the first place? Why does this appeal to us? So we can see these beautiful creatures close up? In safe settings? Without effort? Even though we know—all of us know, deep down—that this is not the place for them?
“All whales in captivity are all psychologically traumatized,” says one of the talking heads in the doc. “It’s not just Tilikum.”
“When you look into their eyes,” another says about orcas, “you know someone’s home.”
“In 50 years,” a third says, “we’ll be looking back and saying, ‘My god, what a barbaric time.’”
Patricia agrees. We watched the doc together. She only lasted 10 minutes into “The Cove,” the 2009 Academy-Award-winning documentary about the mass killing of dolphins in Japan, because she can’t stand seeing animals suffer; but she made it through “Blackfish.” Even so, she wore a look of horror during its 88-minute runtime. Afterwards, I asked what bothered her: Was it the whales in captivity or the killing of humans?
“Oh, the whales in captivity,” she said. “I could give a shit about the people.”
“Blackfish” is a good starter to a conversation we should’ve had decades ago. Will this conversation go anywhere now that “Blackfish” has been released? Well, you know us.
Monday December 30, 2013
The 10 Most Outstanding People in the World, According to Students at Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in 1927
Here's the list:
- Charles Lindbergh
- Richard Byrd
- Benito Mussolini
- Henry Ford
- Herbert Hoover
- Albert Einstein
- Mahatma Gandhi
- George Bernard Shaw
- Bobby Jones
- Al Capone
I came across the list near the end of Bill Bryson's much-recommended book, “One Summer: America, 1927,” during his section on Al Capone. But it's worth running down the whole list.
The top two are both aviators in a year famous for aviation. Lindbergh's fame, of course, survives; Byrd's doesn't, even though, at the beginning of that year, Byrd was the better-known of the two. But according to Bryson, Byrd's fame deserves to have faded since he was something of a charlatan.
Two politicians make the list, Mussolini and Hoover, both known for making trains (real or metaphoric) run on time. Neither fared well with history. Wait, I guess Gandhi was a politican, too. So three. Gandhi has fared best of all. He still makes an impact as example rather than negative example.
Only one businessman: Ford. Two if you count Capone—which Bryson does—and in some ways Capone has fared better historically than Ford. Bryson isn't much of a fan of the automaker, either. He gives credit where it's due but sees him mostly as a crank and anti-Semite. Capone? He simply saw a need and filled it. With a Tommy gun in hand.
Rounding out the list: one scientist, one athlete, one writer. Interestingly, Bobby Jones trumped both Jack Dempsey (in the year he lost to Gene Tunney) and Babe Ruth (in the year he hit 60 homeruns). In his book, Bryson writes often of Ruth, often of Dempsey, but never of Jones. I wonder why.
Worth noting, too, who's not on the list: President Calvin Coolidge, famously taciturn. He'd probably approve.
I'd be curious if such lists today ever include writers and scientists. Or gangsters and fascists.
The great men of 1927: Lindbergh, Einstein, Capone.
Monday December 30, 2013
When Hot Dogs > Steroids
“Babe Ruth's home run record stood until 1961, when Roger Maris, also of the Yankees, hit 61, though Maris had the advantage of a longer season, which gave him 10 more games and 50 more at-bats than Ruth in 1927. In the 1990s, many baseball players suddenly became immensely strong—some evolved whole new body shapes—and began to smack home runs in quantities that made a mockery of Ruth's and Maris' numbers. It turned out that a great many of this new generation of ballplayers—soemthing in the region of 5 to 7 percent, according to random drug tests introduced, very belatedly, in 2003—were taking anabolic steroids.
”The use of drugs as an aid to hitting is far beyond the scope of this book, so let us just note in passing that even with the benefit of steroids most modern players still couldn't hit as many home runs as Babe Ruth hit on hot dogs.“
-- Bill Bryson, ”One Summer: America, 1927,“ which focuses not only on the achievements of Babe Ruth but Charles Lindbergh, as well as the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, the introduction of talking motion pictures, the rise of Al Capone and the fall of Jack Dempsey as well as the height of something called ”negative eugenics." It's much, much recommended.
Tuesday December 24, 2013
It's Not Too Late to Give the Gift of Bryson
The other night at dinner with friends I mentioned that I don't get many personal emails anymore and they took it to mean I was pretending to be younger than my 50 years, someone who communicated in hipper ways, but I was actually lamenting the emails I got: amazon and Barnes & Noble, Rotten Tomatoes and SIFF. Plus stuff in Vietnamese. Lately, most of these were offering LAST MINUTE GIFT IDEAS and telling me IT'S NOT TOO LATE TO GIVE THE GIFT OF ...
My shopping is done so I don't need any of these ideas. You probably don't need, either. But here's one, nonetheless:
“One Summer: America, 1927” by Bill Bryson.
I bought a Kindle a couple of months ago and for a trip to Minneapolis I decided to finally use it. Why not? Bring one slim device rather than several thick and heavy ones. But what to put on it? I had like 15 minutes to decide. So I threw on there Kostya Kennedy's book on Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak, which I was already halfway through in hardback form, Eric Schlosser's book “Command and Control,” on the many ways we nearly blew ourselves up during the Cold War, and a stab in the dark, Donald T. Chrichlow's “When Hollywood Was Right: How Movie Stars, Studio Moguls and Big Business Remade American Politics.”
I finished the DiMaggio book on the planeride over. Schlosser's book was interesting but dense. The Crichlow? Awful. I could barely read it. So I quickly needed something else.
I forget when I remembered the Bryson book, but I quickly downloaded it and even more quickly got into it. It's how history should be written: quirky and fun. It's straightforward and full of digressions: I need to tell you about X but first you need to know about Y and Z. The first section is on Charles Lindbergh, for example, but you also need to know about all of the other aviators at the time, and how two guys actually crossed the Atlantic by airplane way back in 1919—Newfoundland to Ireland—to little acclaim, and how the whole New York to Paris thing was the result of a $25,000 prize offered. How difficult was it fly then? This difficult. How little-known was Lindbergh a month before his flight? Completely unknown. How little had Lindbergh done before this moment? Very little. He'd dropped out of college but he took to flight. The section on Lindbergh is called “The Kid” but it could be called “The Natural” because that's what Lindbergh was when it came to flying. Lucky, too. How well-known did Lindbergh become afterwards? So well-known, so suddenly, we can't fathom it today. And what does all of this have to do with Randy Newman's song, “Louisiana, 1927”? Get the book and start reading.
Anyway, that's my suggestion for a last-minute Christmas gift: “One Summer: America, 1927,” by Bill Bryson
This is how good the section on Lindbergh is. The second section is on Babe Ruth and baseball and I'm kinda bummed. I know. Me.
Monday December 23, 2013
Saddest T-Shirt Ever
This was for sale at a T-shirt shop at the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. What kind of idiot would buy this? Wear this? How puny do you have to feel to want to brag about this—something that most likely had nothing to do with you and ignores not only the other countries involved but history. Since when do wars that led to the death of tens of millions of people become something like Super Bowl championships?
Ninety percent of the shop was this way: sad and stupid. I complained as we stood outside waiting for a friend to finish shopping, and Patricia and I had the following conversation:
Patricia: I don't know. T-shirt shops have always been bad.
Me: They weren't this loutish back then.
Patricia: America wasn't this loutish back then.
Friday December 20, 2013
Sasha Stone of Awards Daily posted this the other day on Facebook (her daughter was watching it for the first time) and it made me smile for two reasons.
The first reason is that it's a press kit photo from the period. My father, movie critic for The Minneapolis Star-Tribune in the 1970s and '80s, got these all the time. Occasionally he'd bring them home and my brother and I would sit on the bed and divvy them up. Should I go for that Jacqueline Bisset glossy from “The Deep” or Luke Skywalker after witnessing Ben Kenobi's death in “Star Wars”? The dilemmas.
The second reason is it's “Breaking Away.”
Thursday December 19, 2013
Joey Poz on the Rime of the Ancient Yankees
On his blog, in a post called “Yankees Hot Tub Time Machine,” Joe Posnanski pointed out how long in the tooth (a long-in-the-tooth phrase if there ever was one) the 2014 New York Yankees are.
Currently, Brian McCann is 29, Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner are each 30, Mark Teixeira is 33, Brian Roberts 36, Alex Rodriguez 38, Derek Jeter 39, and Ichiro is 40.
More, for each of them, their best year was a while back, mostly between 2005 and 2007. Then Poz writes this
Oh, if only the Yankees had a Hot Tub Time Machine — or the phone booth from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure — they could put together one of the greatest teams in baseball history. Heck, let’s say it, if they could have all nine of those players, in their prime, that would be the greatest team ever. You have (by performance) three SURE Hall of Famers (A-Rod, Jeter, Ichiro), a possible Hall of Famer (Beltran) and four All-Star superstars.
Instead, Tex is old and played just 15 games last year, Jeter is old and played in 17 games, A-Rod is old and with a pending suspension that would last more than a year, Ichiro is old and has not even managed a .300 average since 2010, Roberts is old and is hitting .231/.289/.344 the last three seasons. Soriano and Beltran are old too, though they still had something left last year. Even McCann and Ellsbury, who are like One Direction compared to this gang of Rolling Stones, will be 30 on Opening Day.
Michael Schur and I argue about the Yankees all the time. I believe this team is about to become an all-time fiasco … something that has been building for a few years now with these gigantic and back-loaded contracts that, sooner or later, come due. I look at this creaky team — and the fact the Yankees had to pay a huge luxury tax just to put it together — and see doom.
That last graf warmed my heart on this cold, cold Seattle day.
Thursday December 19, 2013
The Saddest Song Ever?
Since “Saving Mr. Banks,” which I obviously didn’t like much, I’ve been thinking a bit about “Mary Poppins,” the 1964 movie that the 2013 movie is all about.
I was born in 1963, a year before its release, but it was still big by the time my memory kicked in during the late 1960s (about the time some people’s memories began to kick out). I remember I was going to the birthday party of a good friend, John Mockenhaupt, and my mother bought the “Mary Poppins” soundtrack album for me to give to him. What did I do? I opened it and listened to it on my own record player. Couldn’t you do that? Couldn't you just put the LP back into the cover and give it to him? Apparently not. Mom wasn’t happy. Neither was I when I had to show up, sheepishly, with a crap secondary gift.
Odd that I needed to listen to it because I wasn’t a huge fan of the movie. I liked Bert and his cohorts enough, true free spirits, but the kids didn't seem like kids but waxworks of kids; they freaked me out a little. The parents? Sure, the absentee father. But the Mrs. was too interested in suffragette politics to care for her kids? I didn’t get that at all. Even Mary Poppins, pretty pretty Julie Andrews, with her prettier voice, was a little scary for me. You sensed her sympathy was only skin deep; that there was steel beneath it. I was a bit spoiled, and used to unconditional love, so all of this felt somewhat unpleasant.
But I did like the songs: “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “I Love to Laugh.” So much so that John Mockenhaupt’s loss was my gain.
“Feed the Birds,” though, made me uncomfortable. And I think it made me uncomfortable because it’s so fucking sad. It’s a beautiful song, probably the most beautiful song the Sherman brothers wrote for “Mary Poppins,” and sung gorgeously by Julie Andrews, but ... I mean, it sounds sad, and it's about a homeless woman (Jane Darwell, 25 years after “Grapes of Wrath”), begging people to buy little bags of bread so birds don't die. And that's a lullaby? I‘ve written before that this is the saddest song ever, or maybe Judy Garland singing “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” in “Meet Me in St. Louis”; but at least “St. Louis” recognizes the song’s sadness. Little Margaret O’Brien starts crying a minute 30 in. “Feed the Birds” in “Poppins”? The kids listen with creepy smiles then drift off to sleep. I would’ve had nightmares. I probably did.
Even now, at 50, it breaks my heart.
Wednesday December 18, 2013
Quote of the Day
“Congratulations. I'm glad a real hitter broke it. Keep going.”
-- The 10-word telegram George Sisler sent to Joe DiMaggio on June 29, 1941, the day DiMaggio, in a double-header against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, passed Sisler's modern-day record of hitting in 41 consecutive games. As recounted on pg. 223 of Kostya Kennedy's book, “56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports.” DiMaggio infamously had his bat stolen between games.
Wednesday December 18, 2013
Movie Review: Saving Mr. Banks (2013)
“Saving Mr. Banks” is a movie ruined by flashbacks.
Could it have been saved? I don’t know. I don’t know if the foregrounding story of P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) refusing to sign over the copyright of her great character Mary Poppins to Walt Disney (Tom Hanks), then finally acquiescing, allowing the 1964 musical to be made (starring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke), and to gross ($102 million, $629 million adjusted), and to win (five Academy Awards, including best actress), I don’t know if this story could have been salvaged. But it’s so intercut with the other one, the story of P.L Travers’ childhood in turn-of-the-century Australia—the flashbacks that Explain All—that it has no chance. It’s the cocaine cut with baking powder. It’s the Julia cut with Julie.
“Mr. Banks” was probably a goner anyway. A Walt Disney movie about Walt Disney? Talk about synergy. But at least I found the foregrounded story vaguely interesting. The other one? In Australia? Kill me now.
He’s a drinker, see?
For a while, Walt Disney’s name goes unmentioned. It’s just he. It’s just assumed. I’d say it’s like the unutterable name of God but it’s more like the unnecessary name of God. It is he who rules beneficently over all.
The she is often assumed, too. Maybe they should have gone on assuming. Because once they start using definite names, chaos ensues. Walt Disney insists on being called “Walt” but Mrs. Travers insists on calling him “Mr. Disney.” She wants “Mrs. Travers” but Walt calls her Pamela, or worse, Pam. The chauffer (Paul Giamatti) calls her “Mrs.” while she doesn’t even know his name until the third act. It’s all very British vs. American, uptight vs. loosey-goosey, and should’ve been funnier than it is.
It’s not even until the third act that Walt discovers P.L. Travers’ real name isn’t Travers; it’s Goff. “Travers” was her father’s name. This is news to him but not to us—we’ve been getting the Goff story from the beginning—but it raises questions. You’d think with all of Disney’s money and power he would’ve been able to figure this out. Like 20 years before. But I guess we all need a third-act reveal. Even when it’s not very revealing.
How many flashbacks to Australia circa 1906-07 do we get in this movie? They just keep coming. And in chronological order, too. So nice when memory works that way.
At first they’re idyllic. A young girl (Annie Rose Buckley), her handsome father (Colin Farrell), the great, lazy outdoors (dry grass next to babbling brooks). Then they move, from Maryborough, Australia to the end of the line: Allora. He has a job as a bank manager. But, uh oh, the bottle appears. He’s a charmer, yes, but a drinker, see. We get several examples of his humiliation, and hers. The girl, Ginty, actually aids and abets, and he winds up in bed, coughing blood. From drinking? No, influenza. So why are we focusing on the drinking? For the shame of it, I guess. For the dull storyline of it.
Ah, but a magical figure appears: a strict nanny who will save all (Rachel Griffiths). Except she doesn’t. The father dies as the girl, Ginty, brings him pears. That’s why, see, Mrs. Travers hates pears. That’s why Mary Poppins. Mrs. Travers didn’t create her to save the children; she did it to save the father. Her father.
She’s a curmudgeon, see?
Anyway, all of these godawful flashbacks help explain why, in the present day, 1961, P.L. Travers is so persnickety, so adamant, so ready to sabotage an absolutely lovely musical that just wants to make everyone ever so heppy. It’s all about her and her effed-up past, when the real dilemma is what he does with British children’s classics. The fluff they become.
We get a flash of this. In her hotel suite in LA, she finds great heaps of stuffed animals based on Disney characters, along with fruit baskets that contain—no!—pears, which she promptly tosses several stories down into the hotel pool. Then she picks up a big stuffed version of Winnie the Pooh and sighs. “Poor A.A. Milne.” She should have kept going. Peter Pan. “Poor J.M. Barrie.” Then her own creation: “Poor me.”
At this point, she’s allowed Disney only an option on the property, so she has the right of first refusal. And second. And third. She takes them all. She doesn’t want a cartoon. She doesn’t want animation of any sort. She doesn’t want the color red in the movie. “Mary Poppins is not for sale!” she tells him. “I won't have her turned into one of your silly cartoons.” Hanks plays Disney as oblivious. How could anyone not like what I do? What I’ve made? It’s the happiest place on Earth! She’s the grumpiest person on Earth in the Happiest Place on Earth. There should’ve been more humor to mine from this as well.
Instead, we veer wildly. Travers goes from totally uncompromising to totally compromised (by “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” of all songs) to storming back to England when she discovers there will be animated penguins, forcing Uncle Walt to actually do research on her, and figure out about her father, and fly to England to not only save the day but commiserate. He tells her his own sad tale—of the harsh winters of turn-of-the century Kansas City, Mo., and of his father’s belt—which is why he does what he does. See? They’re doing the same thing. It’s papering over the pain. It’s making the story come out right. It’s the Disney version. Then he holds onto her hands: Let him make the Disney version of her story, so that, together, they can save Mr. Banks.
Which is what happens.
Interestingly, in the epilogue, at the world premiere of “Mary Poppins,” Uncle Walt is a bit distant from P.L. He doesn’t even invite her to the premiere. (Apparently true.) But she shows, and she cries, and she approves. (Apparently untrue.) For her father is saved onscreen for all time. Because that’s what movies do. They give us the pretty little lies we all crave.
Except P.L. Travers didn’t crave it. She hated it. She hated the Disney version.
Consider “Saving Mr. Banks” the ultimate revenge of Disney Corp. P.L. Travers was a pain in the ass, refusing, for a time, to allow Mary Poppins to be turned into one of Disney’s silly creations. So they waited. And waited. And waited. And then they did the same to her.
Tuesday December 17, 2013
Movie Review: La Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty) (2013)
Paolo Sorrentino’s “La Grande Bellezza” (“The Great Beauty”) is well-named. Sure, it’s episodic and goes on a bit long (148 minutes), and I kept seeing endings before the ending. Oh, it’s going to end here. Then it didn’t. Or here. No. But its ending was a good ending, probably better than the other endings I felt. Above all, it’s beautiful to look at and to contemplate. It’s pungent in its beauty.
Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), 65, wise in his age, bemused in his stance, idle with his time, is on a sort of search. He’s not searching for meaning so much as a reason to keep going. At one point he says, “I can’t waste any more time doing things I don’t want to do,” and this is just before he disappears rather than look at the naked photos of a beautiful woman, Orietta (Isabella Ferrari), he just slept with. So: high standards. At another point he sees a giraffe, a beautiful giraffe staring down from on high and surrounded by a half-circle of ancient Roman columns; and the two, Jep and the giraffe, stare at each other until Jep’s magician-friend arrives and explains the giraffe. It’s part of his act. He makes it disappear. And Jep leans close and asks, “Can you make me disappear?” That’s when we realize the extent of Jep’s ennui. He shows the world a bemused face, but inside, particularly in the morning light after another party, he’s desperate. His magician-friend has to tell him that if he could make people disappear he wouldn’t be where he was. “It’s just a trick,” he says.
A life in tatters
On the surface, Jep has little to complain about. He’s a spry 65, still living the sweet life, la dolce vita, in modern-day Rome, with friends, parties, work, women, and a beautiful apartment with a balcony overlooking the Colosseum. I’m talking the fucking Colosseum. He came to Rome at 26 and got sucked into the whirl of the high life, and he didn’t just want to be part of it; he wanted to be its king. He wrote a slim novel, acclaimed, called “The Human Apparatus,” and has been living off of that, and a few writing gigs and interviews for major magazines, ever since. He wants to write more but wine, women and parties keep getting in the way.
Sound familiar? It’s basically the dilemma of Marcello Rubini, Marcello Mastroianni’s character in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.” Rubini kept getting sucked into la dolce vita, which wasn’t (dolce), while Jep keeps searching for la grand bellezza, which, ultimately, is (bello).
We get disconnected, sometimes absurd scenes a la Fellini. Jep watches a performance artist, naked but for a diaphanous hijab, run into an ancient stone structure, then declare, to the outdoor audience, “I don’t love you!” to applause. Turns out he’s interviewing her for his magazine and with a smile refuses to accept any of her “artistic” responses. He tries to get to know his neighbor, who refuses to speak, and hosts parties on his balcony, to friends who refuse to shut up. He gets into it with one friend, a beautiful woman and Communist Party member named Stefania (Galatea Ranzi). She brags about all she does, the children she’s raised, the 11 books she’s written, and refuses to see the lies she lives with every day. She demands he gives examples. He does, to the discomfort of everyone else, and with that same sad smile on his face. Then he says this:
Stefania, mother and woman, you’re 53 with a life in tatters like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We’re all on the brink of despair. All we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little. Don't you agree?
That’s not a bad end philosophy but we’re still near the beginning of the movie. So what can our man learn?
This? The great love of his life, Elisa, seen in flashback (Anna Luisa Capasa), dies, and her husband of 35 years comes to Jep in tears, telling him “She always loved you.” He’d cracked her diary and read her thoughts and he barely comes up in them. “Thirty five years and I’m mentioned as a ‘good companion,’” he says. Jep tries to comfort him, though he’s secretly thrilled, though later in the movie it’s Jep who wants answers. Elisa, long ago, left him so he wants to know why she did this if she loved him, and he asks if he can read that diary. But by this point it’s been burned. By this point the widower is now with another woman, and happy again, and life continues.
Jep gets involved with a woman, Ramona, the daughter of an old friend. She thinks he’s after sex but he’s more interested in the her of her, and maybe in the distraction of it all. The sex comes later. So does death.
There are great lines throughout. Stefania calls him a misogynist, and he replies that he’s a misanthrope not a misogynist—a line I swear I’ve used in the past. Much later they’re dancing at an outdoor function and they have this exchange—lines which I wish I’d used in the past:
Jep: Have we ever slept together?
Stefania: Of course not.
Jep: That’s a big mistake. We must make amends immediately.
Why doesn’t the companion of Jep’s dwarf publisher ever speak? “Because he listens.” Why are the trains, the conga lines, at Jep’s parties the best? “Because they go nowhere.” For a movie I feared would not be about character or dialogue, this one has great examples of both.
Your earlier, funnier movies
Probably the key question of the movie is this: Why did Jep never write a second novel? Everyone wants to know. Even a future saint.
Near the end, Jep is hosting Sister Maria (Giusi Merli), a 103-year-old nun who has worked her whole life with the poor. She has handlers, a PR man who answers questions, so for a time we don’t even know if this husk of a person, this toothless, wrinkled woman, can speak. But finally she does. And one of the first things she says is: “Why did you never write a second novel?” It’s like the running gag of “your earlier, funnier movies” in Woody Allen’s “Stardust Memories,” which is itself a takeoff on Guido’s “next movie” in Fellini’s “8 ½.” Homage upon homage.
And it’s here that Jep finally gives an answer. “I was looking for the great beauty,” he says, smiling his sad smile. “But ... I didn’t find it.” It’s around this time that Sister Maria gives her own answer to an oft-asked question. The rumor is that she eats only roots. People want to know why. So she tells Jep. “Do you know why I only eat roots? Because roots are important.”
Is this her advice about finding the great beauty? Does this help him, in the end, find the great beauty? By the end, he’s writing a novel anyway. We get its beginning in a voiceover. “So let the novel begin,” he says. “After all, it’s just a trick.”
“The Great Beauty” is a movie I could see again, and not just because it’s beautiful but because I’m curious about all that I missed amid its swirl. Jep, like Marcello before him, straddles the profane and the sacred, the great pointlessness and the great beauty. One assumes the two are inexorably intertwined; that if you are lucky enough, you suffer through one to get to the other. But that’s too neat, too definite. “The Great Beauty” is more open-ended. It opens its arms wide and lets you enter.
Monday December 16, 2013
Movie Review: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)
It’s the ending.
I’d heard it was the way the Coens treated him. They were like Old Testament gods toying with their creation again, making sure nothing went his way again, and people were, I heard, objecting. But that’s not the problem with “Inside Llewyn Davis.” The problem is the ending. It just ends. Au revoir.
It ends where it begins, but is it ending where it began—i.e., with the same scene— or is it merely similar to the opening scene, as waking up at the Gorfeins’ place at the end (purring kitty, sticking head sideways out doorway) is similar to waking up in the beginning? It’s part of the nightmarish cyclical nature of the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), and of all of our lives, really. He and we are trapped in it and we’re not allowed out. Except one way.
We get Bob more prominent in the end, a young Bob Dylan coming onto the Gaslight Cafe stage with a bit of a song that sounds like Llewyn’s, or like traditional folk songs anyway (the whole “fare the well” thing), which is the final nail in the coffin for this Dave Van Ronk-alike. The Coens own up to that, by the way: the Van Ronk comparison. Even the album names and covers match. But it stops there. Van Ronk ruled. He was the Mayor of MacDougal Street, and beloved. Llewyn is compressed, bitter, and so very very tired. He is the talent doomed to never be known. He is the modern ...
Let me back up for a second.
There are some great line readings in the movie, particularly from Carey Mulligan as Jean, part of the folksinging husband/wife duo Jim and Jean (Jim = Justin Timberlake), but my favorite may be from F. Murray Abraham, who plays Bud Grossman, AKA Albert Grossman, the man who managed Bob Dylan, and who created Peter, Paul and Mary. The great odyssey in the movie, the attempt to get out, and up, rather than out and down, which is what Llewyn’s former singing partner does (off the George Washington Bridge), is Llewyn’s trip to Chicago to play for Bud at the Gate of Horn. It’s nightmarish getting there, sometimes even hellish, but he does it. And there’s this devilish figure waiting for him at the end.
Llewyn has a copy of his album with him, “Inside Llewyn Davis,” but Bud, rather than listen to the record, wants to hear him live. “You’re here, play me something.” Pause. “Play me something from inside Llewyn Davis.” That’s it. It’s perfect. It has just the right soupçon of condescension about Llewyn’s album title and maybe his talent. F. Murray is so good in such a small part, and you’re so grateful to be seeing him onscreen again, that you might not make the connection immediately. I didn’t. It wasn’t until we were walking back to the car, Patricia and I, talking over the movie, and I was thinking that Llewyn Davis was the talent destined to be unknown, the talent usurped by the greater talent, Bob Dylan, making him ... of course! ... the modern Salieri, the man usurped by Mozart in “Amadeus,” and who was played by, of course, F. Murray Abraham.
Of course Llewyn isn’t even Salieri. Salieri was hugely successful in his time, beloved by kings, but he also recognized the greater talent in Mozart. Llewyn gets nowhere. And does he even recognize the greater talent in Dylan? We don’t know. He listens for a few seconds and then leaves to get beat up in the alleyway for past crimes.
At the Gate of Horn audition, Llewyn plays a beautiful ballad, “The Death of Queen Jane,” and plays it well, and there’s a pause. Then Grossman says, “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Then he talks up Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), the too-innocent, cereal-slurping, folk-singing soldier stationed at Fort Dix, who, Grossman says, “connects with people.” Meaning Llewyn doesn’t. But Grossman gives him a way out. How is he with harmonies? Does he want to be part of a group he’s putting together? This will be Peter, Paul and Mary, one assumes, and Llewyn could’ve been Paul in that configuration, but he says no. He’s a solo act. It’s his way or the highway so it’s the highway. CUT TO: Llewyn struggling comically forward in the snow against the bitter Chicago wind.
Maybe that should’ve been the end: rejected by Salieri. But the Coens needed Llewyn to return to New York and get trapped in the bottle again.
Please Mssrs. Coens
I’ll say this: Not many filmmakers do place better than the Coens, whether it’s Florida in the 1930s, Minneapolis in 1967, or Greenwich Village in 1961. The streets Llewyn walks down all seem like the street Dylan walks down with Suze Rotolo on the cover of “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”
They get all the little details right: the caricatures of Llewyn’s agent, Mel Novikoff (Jerry Grayson), that he has framed on his walls, along with the framed copy of SING OUT! magazine, the folk music staple. Even the Gorfeins (Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett), the ultra-liberal, upper west side couple who let Llewyn stay there, are perfect. Their guests, too, Marty Green and Janet Fung, who rename themselves the Greenfungs, not to mention the humorless bearded music historian Joe Flom (Bradley Mott). I’m curious, though, why the Coens named him thus, after the famous M&A attorney. And why name Llewyn’s former singing partner, the one who jumped off the George Washington Bridge, Mike Timlin? What is it with the Coens using other people’s names? We got Ron Meshbesher in “A Serious Man” and Al Milgrom here. Is it homage? Do they like funny sounding names?
Should we worry about the Old Testament quality to the Coens? They tend to punish all of their creations (it’s called a story) but a few are allowed happy endings: Herbert and Ed McDunnough, Jeff Lebowski, Ulysses Everett McGill. Most are not: Barton Fink, Larry Gopnik, Llewyn Davis. What do these last have in common? Too much pride and prickliness. And Jewishness. The Coens are like Bernard Malamud this way: tougher on their own.
One of the oddities of the trailer is that everyone rails against Llewyn, particularly Jean, calling him an asshole (in another great line reading), but he never does anything really assholish in the trailer; he’s simply put-upon. But in the movie he is an asshole: he sleeps with Jean, explodes at the Gorfeins, gets drunk and yells obscenities at a kindly old woman playing a harp at the Gaslight because he’s mad at someone else. He’s got that prickly, prideful solitariness.
Does his need to be alone relate to the death of his former partner? The Timlin tragedy just hangs in the background. It’s a dull ache in Llewyn’s side that never goes away but is never explained. Same with the 2-year-old in Akron. Same with Jean. Most of Llewyn’s crimes are in the past. When we catch up with him he’s about to be punished.
Hang me, oh hang me
“Llewyn Davis” is also a movie about music, and the music, produced by T. Bone Burnett, is exceptional. The Coens give us entire songs. They hold on the performer, singing, and Oscar Isaac can sing.
“Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” Llewyn sings in the beginning, and for the rest of the movie the Coens come close to doing it. Do Llewyn’s travails make him a better performer? That would be the easy way out of the story. That’s what most Hollywood movies would do. Llewyn is on this odyssey, often with Ulysses the cat, and he comes back a wiser man, and that wisdom leads to success. That’s the lie Hollywood often tells us, because it’s the lie we often tell ourselves, because otherwise why all this? Why travails, and pain, and sorrow, if it doesn’t lead to something? But here Llewyn’s travails lead to Dylan’s success.
I think I’ve actually written myself into liking “Inside Llewyn Davis." I want to see it again. The Coens often do this to me. The movie feels like an answer, and I’m just missing the answer, and maybe if I see it again I’ll find it. But I know I won’t. The Coens are masters at giving us the answer of the non-answer. This is another one.
Sunday December 15, 2013
Movie Review: Spring Breakers (2013)
It takes a particular kind of talent to make tits and ass this boring, but apparently writer-director Harmony Korine, who gave us the powerful “Kids” in 1995, is that kind of talent.
“Spring Breakers” is an arthouse version of an exploitation flick. That almost makes it sound interesting but “Spring Breakers” is not. It’s dull, atmospheric, repetitive. It’s about four college girls—three rowdy blondes and one Christian brunette, Faith (Selena Gomez)—who do what they can to go from wherever they are to St. Petersburg, Fla., for spring break. In a way it’s about the bastard children of Britney Spears and George W. Bush, the ones who grew up watching her videos and hearing snippets of his speeches, and drew all the appropriate lessons about looks and smarts.
It’s our past come back to haunt us, y’all.
The unreal real thing
What do the girls do in St. Pete? Ride scooters, go to the beach, party hardy. There’s beer bongs and dancing and not much dialogue. It’s hypnotic and dreamlike. They need this, these girls. They need to get away. From studying. About history and shit. An early good scene shows two of them, Candy and Brit (Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson), as the professor goes on about ... is it the civil rights movement? The girls stop listening to draw a dick on their notebooks and take turns mock licking it. Then they put on ski masks and rob a diner to come up with the scratch for the trip.
For some reason, amid all the partying in St. Pete, they get singled out for arrest—or maybe they’re just part of the long line of kids busted that evening—but either way they wind up before the judge and then in jail and then bailed out of jail by Alien (James Franco), a local rapper and wannabe gangster. And at this point we think this: comeuppance. We think: These college girls tried to be what they weren’t—tough and bad ass—and now they’re dealing with the real thing; and now they’re going to pay. That’s the direction we seem to be going in. When Alien tries to seduce Faith, leaning in close, insinuating, it’s super creepy, and she begs the others to leave with her. They don’t. So she gets on the bus alone and gets out of Dodge. Why don’t they? Because they like it. Because they’re the real thing. At least two of them.
A key scene (although there really aren’t many scenes) is when these two, Candy and Brit, tell Alien how they robbed the diner, and how they yelled at everyone to get on the fucking floor, and they do this with Alien. They use his guns to tell him to get on the fucking floor. They put the gun in his mouth. They make him suck it. It’s sexy, actually, our first sexy scene in the movie, and it reverses the power structure within the movie. Suddenly they seem like the real deal and he seems the fake: the sad white boy with cornrows and gold-capped teeth who buys into gangsta culture.
Alien is in the midst of a turf war with a childhood friend and mentor, Archie (Gucci Mane), and they exchange words, and off of one bridge, gunfire. Cotty (Rachel Korine), the third rowdy blonde, gets hit, and scared, and goes back home, wherever that is. That leaves two. And Alien, who used to have a bit of a posse, at least the creepy ATL Twins (Sidney and Thurman Sewell), attacks Archie’s well-guarded compound with only himself and the two girls wearing pink ski masks. It’s all hallucinatory and in slow-mo, and Alien, that faker, never makes it off the dock. He’s killed fast. The two girls? They take out everyone else, including Archie, without a scratch, without splattered blood. Apparently Archie's a faker, too. No one's the real thing here. Then they ride out of Dodge in Alien’s Ferrari and into the sunset.
The unhappy happy ending
Is it a happy ending? Maybe it’s a play on a happy ending. It’s a fake, wish-fulfillment ending with a fake, arthouse tone. It’s the worst of both worlds.
I know others disagree. “Spring Breakers” is making a lot of 10-best lists. Certain critics see something profound in its awfulness: in the way it subverts the male gaze, or in its implied condemnation of the vapidity of our culture. I just hated it. How do you make a movie about the utter vapidity of our culture without being vapid? This was Harmony Korine’s attempt. Next.
Saturday December 14, 2013
Quote of the Day
“Stefania, mother and woman, you're 53 with a life in tatters like the rest of us. Instead of acting superior and treating us with contempt, you should look at us with affection. We're all on the brink of despair, all we can do is look each other in the face, keep each other company, joke a little...Don't you agree?”
-- Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo) in Paolo Sorrentino's “La Grand Bellezza” (“The Greaty Beauty”), which is currently playing at the Varsity Theater in the U District in Seattle.
Friday December 13, 2013
The First Rule of Seattle Traffic
1. No, please. After you.
Friday December 13, 2013
The Seventh Rule of Seattle Traffic
7. The lack of a blinker does not mean the driver isn't turning; a flashing blinker does not mean a turn will be made.
Friday December 13, 2013
Movie Review: Nebraska (2013)
In “Nebraska,” David Grant (Will Forte), a middle-aged man with a crappy retail-sales job and a nowhere life, offers to drive his grizzled, alcoholic father, Woody (Bruce Dern), who believes himself to be a million-dollar sweepstakes winner, the 900 miles or so from Billings, Mont., where they live, to Lincoln, Neb., the headquarters of the publishing house offering the prize. Along the way, circumstances compel them to stop in Hawthorne, Neb., where Woody grew up, for a visit with aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. These people are generally reticent, dull, and, once Woody’s suspect bounty is revealed, greedy. They are also without hope and opportunity, living in a dead-end town in a dead-end part of the country during the dead-end of the global financial meltdown. It’s a comedy.
What to make of “Nebraska”? It’s beautifully photographed (black and white), and doesn’t feel false,necessarily, since we all have distant relatives that seem dull and dimwitted. But there’s usually more to them, isn’t there? Even if the more is less? Hardly a racist word is spoken here, for example. Just something about “Jap cars” and even that racism seems old. It’s circa 1991. Or 1941.
No, the Grants’ distant relatives are just comic relief. They add to the sad absurdity that is Woody’s quest. The women gather in the kitchen to gossip and the men gather in the living room to watch television in silence. If they’re old, they fall asleep on the couch. If they’re young, they drink beer on the porch. David has two cousins like that, Bart and Cole (Tim Driscoll and Devin Ratray), who stare at him with bug eyes, belittle his driving abilities (and, implied, manhood), and late in the game actually rob Woody of his sweepstakes announcement. They seem like characters John Candy could have played on SCTV.
At the same time, I was rarely uninterested in “Nebraska.” It affected me. Its tone sank into my bones like gray weather.
Problems with the basic premise
The opening image is a static shot of a nondescript part of Billings. In the distance, an old, grizzled man (Woody) walks towards us on the thin strip of grass between an unmoving railroad and a constantly moving highway: between the static past, you could say, and the constantly moving present. A cop stops him and asks, over the roar of the traffic, where he’s headed. Woody points toward us. And where is he coming from? Woody points back. Cue credits. At this point, I was ready to love the movie.
But I had trouble getting beyond its premise. Why would David agree to take his father to Lincoln to collect nothing? Isn’t his father suffering the early stages of Alzheimer’s? And isn’t David’s own life going nowhere? He’s a clerk at an electronics store, lives in a flimsy apartment, wishes to start up a relationship again with a woman he doesn’t love. His life is sad sad sad. Does he have ambitions? Hopes? Fears? Who is he?
Later, David talks about his reasons for the trip: 1) He wants to get out of Billings; 2) he wants to spend more time with the old man; and 3) he wants the old man to shut up about the million dollars. Reasons 1 and 3 I can see, but 2? Who wants to spend days in a car with Bruce Dern?
I know, cheap shot, but this may be an instance where good casting works against a movie. Dern is getting acclaim for the role—best actor at Cannes, etc.—and he’s good, but a premise of the movie, a third-act revelation, is that David is “just like his father.” Really? David is too kind and too passive. He goes along to get along. So we’re supposed to believe that this cantankerous, alcoholic old man, played by Bruce Dern of all actors, was kind and passive in his youth? Have the filmmakers seen “Coming Home”? “The Great Gatsby”? “Marnie”? Anything?
For the impromptu family reunion in Hawthorne, both David’s mother, Kate (June Squib), and his more successful brother, Ross (Bob Odenkirk), join them. I like how both sons are played by comedians. I like how Ross is more successful but not a jerk. I didn’t like the mother’s outlandishness. Too much. When she hiked up her skirt at the cemetery to show a former beau what he was missing? Like that.
By this point Woody has blabbed about his winnings and everyone’s believed him, and when the family says, “No, he didn’t really win a million dollars,” everyone thinks it’s an attempt to shake them off the scent. Folks begin behaving badly. So do the Grants. Some of it’s funny. Mostly it’s just sad.
And all the while we’re wondering this: How can the filmmakers—director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) and first-time screenwriter Bob Nelson—give us a satisfying end? What can this road trip bring but more disappointment?
Here’s how. They make David even kinder than we thought he was, with access to more money than we thought he had.
In Lincoln, David and Woody walk into the home office of the publishing house, a nondescript building in a nondescript part of town, and a nondescript woman greets them. They say why they’ve come, she takes Woody’s announcement and punches the numbers into her computer. Sorry, she says. You didn’t win. Then she offers a consolation: How about a cap or blanket? He chooses the cap. He puts it on. It reads: PRIZE WINNER.
Why did he want the million dollars? That’s a question that’s come up several times in the movie, absurdly to me, since who wouldn’t want a million dollars? Money means opportunity and options. It means the end to the dead-end. But it’s asked, and Woody replies that he always wanted a brand-new truck (even though his driver’s license has been taken away), and an air compressor (even though he no longer has use for one). He also wishes he had a little something to leave his sons. He doesn’t like the idea of leaving them nothing.
“You should’ve thought of that before you threw your life away,” David replies.
Kidding. David doesn’t say that. Instead, in a used-car lot in Lincoln, he trades in his Japanese car for an American truck. Then he buys his father a useless brand-new air compressor. Then they return to Hawthorne and David lets Woody drive the truck slowly down Main Street.
It’s a sweet moment, a not-bad resolution. At the same time, it requires us to believe that everyone that matters to Woody in Hawthorne, former loves and current enemies, would be in the proper place at the proper time to see his one-man victory parade. It also requires us to believe that David has more disposable income than we were led to believe.
But that’s our end. And off they ride, a debt-ridden father and son, into a black-and-white American sunset.
I wanted to like “Nebraska.” But it portrays us as both better (David) and worse (almost everyone else) than we really are.
Thursday December 12, 2013
Steve Coll on Raising the Minimum Wage
Steve Colls begins his “Talk of the Town” piece on a $10 federal minimum wage in familiar territory for me: Sea-Tac:
In 2005, Alaska Airlines fired nearly five hundred union baggage handlers in Seattle and replaced them with contractors. The old workers earned about thirteen dollars an hour; the new ones made around nine. The restructuring was a common episode in America’s recent experience of inequality.
But the key graf is near the end and worth reading and re-reading this holiday season, or Christmas for Fox-News watchers:
For decades, business owners have resisted higher minimum wages by arguing that they destroy jobs, particularly for young people. At some theoretical level, high minimum wages will distort job creation, but the best empirical evidence from the past decade is aligned with common sense: a minimum wage drawn somewhat above the poverty line helps those who work full time to live decently, without having a significant impact on other job seekers or on total employment. (For example, a study of pairs of neighboring counties with differing minimum pay found that higher wages had no adverse effect on restaurant jobs.) Even so, a federal minimum wage of ten dollars or more will not solve inequality. It will not stop runaway executive pay or alter the winner-take-all forces at work in the global economy. Yet it will bring millions of Americans closer to the levels of economic security and disposable income that they knew before the housing bubble burst.
Thursday December 12, 2013
7 Thoughts on A.O. Scott's Top 10 Movies of 2013
A.O. Scott has published, after numerous throat clearings and various condemnations (“The problem is you,” he writes), his top movies of 2013.
- A six-way tie for No. 10? That's a bit of a cheat. At least he recognizes it.
- Wait, he actually places “American Hustle” and “Spring Breakers” at the same level? Tied for No. 10? The former is one of the best while the latter is just ... boring. Tits and ass were never so boring.
- Wait, he actually places “Lee Daniels' The Butler” (No. 9) one place above “American Hustle” (tied for 10th)? I guess he likes his history neat.
- Wait, he actually places “Frances Ha” (No. 7) three places above “American Hustle” (tied for 10th)?
- Wait, he also includes, but not in the top 15, the painful “Before Midnight”? I guess a lot of critics like that. It's got dialogue. Inane dialogue, but dialogue.
- The Coens at No. 1? I hold out hope. I see it tonight.
- I get the six-way pile-up at No. 10: Here's the acquisitive vapidity of our culture represented in American movies. But there's a difference between Gatsby's shirts, and why he has them, and Alien's shorts, and why he has them. There's a difference between “The Bling Ring,” where the kids still seem like real kids, and “Spring Breakers,” where they rarely do. Where you have trouble differentiating them. Which, yes, is the point, or part of it I assume, but it still doesn't make it interesting. Not to mention that reality intrudes upon Gatsby in the end while fantasy intrudes upon our pistol-packing spring-break girls. Sorry, but I could write an entire essay dissecting what's wrong with A.O. Scott's No. 10 picks. Maybe I will.
Exploitation flick through an arthouse filter equals dullsville ... and No. 10 on A.O. Scott's list.
Thursday December 12, 2013
Photo of the Day
This is from last summer but I just came across it via @TheKansan on Twitter. It's the Harlem Globetrotters living up to their name:
Not much that still exists reminds me of my childhood more than the Harlem Globetrotters. I don't know if they were at their pinnacle in the early 1970s but they were close to it. They were a Saturday morning cartoon, then a live-action “popcorn machine” show. ("And now ... Rodney Allen Ripey, take a bow!) They toured the country and the world and kept popping up on TV. We knew them by name: Meadowlark Lemon (who had his own song), Curly Neal (and his half-court shot), Geese Tatum, Marcus Haynes (to show you how).
Has anyone done a serious history of them? There's this George Vescey book but that's from back then, June 1970. Such a history has got to be fascinating. Particularly for the players who bridged the gap in the Civil Rights era: who were touring in the 1950s and into the 1970s; who were other and then central.
Wednesday December 11, 2013
Movie Review: American Hustle (2013)
David O. Russell’s “American Hustle” is a movie that earns the “American” in its title. It’s big, brassy, energetic, corrupt, and has great cleavage. It’s fascinating and fun. It’s a movie that never sits still. It’s about all the little scams everyone plays every day along with the big scams they get caught up in. It’s about how no one’s clean but some people are smart. At one point, maybe two-thirds of the way through, I thought, “After all these years of making movies for us, how nice that someone finally made a movie for Martin Scorsese.”
“American Hustle” is also a movie that earns the “Hustle” in its title, since it’s about people hustling/striving to get ahead and people just hustling/conning everyone else. Usually the two go together.
If you can't tell, I loved the hell out of this movie.
1979 is getting its closeup
It’s the 1970s. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale), fat, from the Bronx, and with the worst combover in the world, is involved in his little scams in and around Long Island and New Jersey—shady loans, counterfeit art, plus a few legitimate dry cleaning stores—when he meets Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams) at a party. Boom. She’s from New Mexico, works at Cosmopolitan magazine, but jumps into his scams with both feet. Puts on a British accent and displays leg and that great braless cleavage of the era as they schnooker anyone they can find. Then they schnooker the wrong guy, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper), a low-level field agent for the FBI. Since only Sydney puts her hands on the money, only she goes to jail. Freaks her out. Richie uses this, not to mention Irving’s love for her, as leverage to get both of them to help with an operation involving Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), the popular, populist mayor of Camden, N.J.
Polito, the father in New Jersey’s version of “The Brady Bunch,” including a black kid he adopted, has helped make gambling legal in the state, and he wants to help reopen Atlantic City, too. So the FBI creates an Arab buyer who will bankroll refurbishing the run-down seaside town for a little something under-the-table. I supposed I should’ve known going in that this was about Abscam. The Iran hostage crisis last year and Abscam this year. 1979 is finally gets its closeup.
What was the deal with Abscam again? Wasn’t it viewed as entrapment? It wanted to be Watergate. It wanted to prove big-time corruption but proved—just barely—small-time corruptibility. Which is like proving nothing at all.
The operation is mostly internecine battles: between Richie, who wants to make it as big as possible, and Irving, who wants to keep the operation small and controlled; between Richie and his immediate superior, Stoddard Thorsen (a hilarious Louis C.K.), a careful stump of a bureaucrat, who refuses to OK any of Richie’s extravagant operational needs (an airplane, a hotel suite, $2 million in wire transfers) without a push from his boss, Anthony Amado (Alessandro Nivola, channeling in looks a young Harvey Keitel, and in voice a young Christopher Walken), who has Richie’s lust for fame. It’s also a battle for Sydney, between Richie and Irving, but who she’s scamming, if she is scamming anyone, we don’t know. She might not know.
The greater battle is probably internal. Irving is being forced to help someone he doesn’t like (Richie) to ruin the life of someone he does (Carmine). He’s doing it for Sydney but in the process he’s losing Sydney. Plus his crazy wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), threatens to ruin the whole operation. Plus the thing he wants small and controlled keeps getting bigger and crazier.
The movie reached a crescendo for me—a testament to the outsized craziness of American life and storytelling—in Atlantic City, when the mob shows up, smiling and hanging at the bar up front, and being whisked in for high-powered meetings in the back room. The face at the bar belongs to Pete Musane (Jack Huston, “Boardwalk Empire”), polite, mustachioed, making eyes at Rosalyn. The face in the back room, and it’s a shock, a wonderful shock, belongs to Victor Tellegio, an uncredited Robert De Niro, doing some of his best acting in years. He suggests speeding up citizenship papers for Sheik Abdullah (Michael Pena), and Carmine, somewhat uncomfortable, agrees to set up meetings with U.S. representatives and senators he knows. The helpless look in Irving’s eyes at all of these moving piece is beautifully contrasted with the greedy gleam in Richie’s. Richie sees greatness coming out of this; Irving merely sees his own death. You can scam the mayor of Camden, N.J., but you can’t scam the mob. The FBI maybe but not him. With every step, it seems, he has more to lose: first Sydney, then Rosalyn, then his life.
How he gets out of it, and the comeuppance of Richie, is a joy to watch. Early on, Irving says this: “As far as I see, people are always conning each other to get what they want.” Irving began the movie conning others, then Richie conned him, and together they began conning Carmine. But the con got too big. So Irving scales it back by conning Richie again.
God, it’s fun.
The first and final con
I flashed on a few other movies watching this one: “Goodfellas” for its energy and narration and camera movement and made guys; “Atlantic City” for the attempt to resurrect the boardwalk; “Argo,” for the era, and for this thought: Can the Academy award its best picture to back-to-back 1979 movies? Probably not. Shame. This one deserves it more.
You’ll hear a lot about the acting, but it’s not in the weight Bale gained nor in his elaborate combover nor in Bradley Cooper’s perm—all of which are fun. It’s in the eyes. The con, and then the concern, in Irving’s, the need in Richie’s, and the fear, the dizzying fear, in Sydney’s. It’s the death stare of Victor Tellegio, delivered as only De Niro can deliver it. It’s in the officious blankness in Stoddard Thorsen’s eyes. A small favorite moment: After all that Richie puts him through, there’s no vindictiveness in Stoddard’s eyes in the end. His eyes remain blank and officious. Like he’s simply wondering when he can go home.
Are there mistakes? Sure. Is Carmine too decent? We don’t really get why Richie targets him in the first place. We barely understand his crime. To him, the graft seems a necessary byproduct of what he really wants to do, which is creating working class jobs for the people of New Jersey. And in the backroom staredown between Victor, who, oops, knows Arabic, and the fake Sheik, who doesn’t, well, isn’t the jig up right there? Yet it isn’t. Plus how does Pena’s FBI agent suddenly know entire sentences in Arabic? Has he been studying?
No matter. Go. Most movies of this type begin with the disclaimer “Based on a true story,” but “American Hustle”’s disclaimer is a little looser, a little more American. It says: “Some of this actually happened.” Meaning most of it didn’t. The movie’s our first and final con. A joyful one.
Tuesday December 10, 2013
Quote of the Day
“Oh, what can I say about that one? I could not believe it. A lady like that playing little old me.”
-- Philomena Lee on being played by Dame Judi Dench in the movie “Philomena,” as reported in a Q&A in The Los Angeles Times.
Tuesday December 10, 2013
Movie Review: Philomena (2013)
The power of Stephen Frear’s “Philomena” lies in the performance and in the message.
A simple woman searches for her long-lost son with the help of an erudite former BBC reporter. Early on, you think the movie is merely an odd-couple road-trip—him, with all his Oxford smarts, learning her simple wisdom—and that’s certainly part of it. You also think the movie is about the journey (them together) more than the destination (what happened to her son), but halfway through we wind up at that destination, and it dead-ends, and we wonder where the story can possibly go. Is there a path? There is. Through there. Then another dead-end and another path. And we keep squeezing through onto these smaller paths, wondering if we’re going to make it out, until suddenly everything opens up into a field, and we stand there for a second, happy, even as we recognize we’ve been there before. It’s Roscrea, the convent in Ireland where we started. At this point the former BBC reporter, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), recites the following stanza to the woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench):
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
She’s effusive, and asks if he came up with it just then.
Martin (slightly embarrassed): It’s T.S. Eliot.
Philomena (unembarrassed): Oh. Well, it’s still very nice.
It’s the “still” that gets me. It’s the way Dench says it. It’s the way Dench says everything. She reminds me of my mother and Sixsmith reminds me of me. I don’t see me in many movies, and I see my mother less often, so it’s nice to see us up there for a change.
The greater sin
In 1951 Philomena Lee (Sophie Kennedy Clark) met a young boy at a carnival, and after a candied apple knew sin. Her family, ashamed of the out-of-wedlock pregnancy, sends her to Roscrea, where the nuns grill her. “Did you take your knickers down?” they ask. “Did you enjoy your sin?” She signs a document giving the convent the right to put her child up for adoption; then she and other unwed mothers work off what they owe in the laundry room. They’re allowed an hour a day with their child. Philomena’s is named Anthony. At age 3 he’s taken away. She hasn’t seen him since.
Why does Philomena tell her daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin), about the half-brother she never knew on the 50th anniversary of his birth? She still considers herself a good Catholic and for years thought that what she’d done was a sin, a great sin, so she’d kept it hidden. But wasn’t keeping it hidden a sin as well? Which was the greater sin? She didn’t know. So her gut decided.
Later, Jane is serving wine at a party when she overhears Sixsmith talking to friends, rather uncomfortably, about his plans for the future. He’d worked for the Blair government but left under a cloud. The cloud actually surrounded the Blair administration but most people just remember the cloud. Sixsmith is thinking about writing a book on Russian history—everyone’s lack of interest is a running gag in the film—so Jane tells him about her mother. He’s dismissive at first. Human interest stories, he says, are for “weak-minded, vulnerable and ignorant people.” Then he realizes the insult.
There’s a lot of this: Sixsmith acting slightly rude and/or academic in that Steve Coogan manner, then slightly abashed in that Steve Coogan manner. Philomena is his opposite. She’s sweet but slightly daft. Mostly it works. As here:
Jane [to her mother]: What they did to you was evil.
Philomena: No no no. I don’t like that word.
Martin [taking notes]: No, it’s good: Evil. [Looks up.] Storywise.
Philomena: Do you believe in God, Martin?
Martin: [Exhales]Where do you start? I always thought that was a very difficult question to give a simple answer to. ... Do you?
Or the scene on the back of the airport cart when she goes on and on about the trashy book she’s just finished despite his complete lack of interest. But he’s polite. He says it sounds interesting and she pushes the book on him. He scans the back cover. “I feel like I’ve already read it,” he says dryly. Beat. “Oh, there’s a series.”
The even greater sin
In scenes reminiscent of Coogan’s mockumentary, “The Trip,” Sixsmith and Philomena drive to Roscrea to find of what they can. The nuns there are distant and unhelpful. The records of what happened to Anthony are gone, too, destroyed in the fire in the 1970s. He later learns the fire wasn’t a fire-fire but a burning of records.
Back in the 1950s, most Irish children were adopted by wealthy Americans, some of the few people in the postwar world who could afford the £100 pricetag; and while the British government isn’t helpful with its records, Sixsmith, who once reported from Washington, D.C., thinks they’ll have better luck with the Yanks. That’s the rationale for flying to the states. It feels unnecessary, but it furthers the road trip and the comedy of manners. In a D.C. hotel buffet, for example, Philomena is overfriendly with the Mexican staff (“I’ve never been to Mexico but I hear it’s lovely.” Beat. “Apart from the kidnappings.”), while Sixsmith isn’t friendly enough. But it’s there he finds the answer to her question. A friend emails an old newspaper photo from 1955 showing a Dr. and Mrs. Hess returning from Ireland with two adopted children, Michael and Mary. A quick internet search turns up Michael Hess, senior counsel in the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations, who died of AIDS in 1995. Philomena has found her son only to lose him again.
That’s the dead-end. So where do you go?
To these questions: Did he miss me? Did he think about me? Did he try to find me as I tried to find him? That’s when the trip to the U.S. makes sense. They meet the sister, Mary (Mare Winningham, in a great, thankless performance), who seems to know little about the inner life of her brother, along with a few of Michael’s friends; but in Michael’s lover, Pete Olsson (Peter Hermann), they run into another dead-end. He refuses to talk to them, even after Sixsmith “doorsteps” him. It’s Philomena and her moral authority that wins the day.
She learns that not only did Michael try to find her, he visited Ireland and the convent. He met with the nuns, including Sister Hildegarde (Kate Fleetwood/Barbara Jefford), severe in manner and cat’s-eye glasses. He’s buried there. But they told her they didn’t know where he was, just as they’d told him they didn’t know where she was. They kept mother and child apart. Most movies are about absolutes, good guys and bad guys, so I took all of this with a grain of salt. “I’m sure it’s exaggerated for the movie,” I thought.
Nope. From Sixsmith’s 2009 Guardian article:
Separated by fate, mother and child spent decades looking for each other, repeatedly thwarted by the refusal of the nuns to reveal information, each of them unaware that the other was also yearning and searching.
On the return to Roscrea, Sixsmith is full of righteous anger and condemnation. That’s what the movies are often about, too: revenge. Philomena takes another path, and it’s her path that gives the entire movie meaning.
“Philomena” isn’t perfect. Coogan, who wrote the screenplay with Jeff Pope, pushes the differences between the two characters to an unnecessary comic degree. He turns Sixsmith into too much of a Steve Coogan character and makes Philomena more daft than she probably is.
But Dench is perfect. We get several scenes from the 1950s to demonstrate what Philomena lost, but these, to me, are almost unnecessary. We know what Philomena lost. You just need to watch Judi Dench act.
Monday December 09, 2013
Quote of the Day
“I’m no great person but I do care about the right things. I work hard to do the right thing. And what’s happened here is wrong. What’s happened to the players and coaches here is wrong. What’s happened to this organization is wrong. It’s so wrong. I can’t put it any better than that. At some point in time, somebody’s got to stand up to them.”
-- Eric Wedge, former Mariners manager, on the Mariners' front office, including especially general manager Jack Zduriencik, president Chuck Armstrong, and CEO Howard Lincoln, as reported in Geoff Baker's article, “Dysfunction at the Top: Eric Wedge, others point to trouble in Mariners’ front office,” in yesterday's Seattle Times.
Lincoln and Armstrong don't come off well here but Zduriencik comes off worse. A question I haven't seen raised yet about this article: Was the overpayment of Robinson Cano (10 years/$240 million) an attempt to head off these criticisms before they saw print? Imagine if this story had been published and we hadn't signed Cano. Would jobs be on the line? Are they now? Should they be?
Other insiders leveling charges at the front office:
- Former Mariners special assistant Tony Blengino
- Former professional scouting director Carmen Fusco
- Patrick Guerrero, the M's former top Latin American scout
- Various unnamed scouts still with the team
Monday December 09, 2013
LA Films Critics Includes Three Ties Among Its Year-End Awards
Where's Joe Biden when you need him?
The L.A. Film Critics Association (LAFCA) obviously needs another member since it included three ties among its year-end awards, including best picture. And that's without runners up. They were announced yesterday.
Here are the winners:
Picture: “Gravity” and “Her” (TIE)
Director: Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
Actor: Bruce Dern, “Nebraska”
Actress: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine,” and Adele Exarchopoulos, “Blue Is the Warmest Color” (TIE)
Supporting actor: James Franco, “Spring Breakers,” and Jared Leto, “Dallas Buyers Club” (TIE)
Supporting actress: Lupita Nyong’o, “12 Years a Slave”
Screenplay: Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, “Before Midnight”
Foreign-language film: “Blue Is the Warmest Color”
Documentary/nonfiction film: “Stories We Tell”
Animation: “Ernest & Celestine”
Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki, “Gravity”
Film editing: Alfonso Cuaron and Mark Sanger, “Gravity”
Production design: K.K. Barrett, “Her”
Music score: T Bone Burnett, “Inside Llewyn Davis”
- Despite the split vote, “Gravity” is the obvious winner, since it won three other awards, too. Thoughts:
- “Stories We Tell” again? It's a fine doc but not so fine that it wins every time. This is getting boring already.
- Linklater, Delpy and Hawke for best screenplay? I'm sorry but that's one overrated movie.
- They're making me watch “Spring Breakers.” Damn them.
- I like Dern in “Nebraska” fine but I'd still go McConaughey in “Dallas Buyers Club.”
- The actress category is the toughest in years. Those two plus Judi Dench in “Philomena.”
- “Her” hasn't come out yet here but “Gravity”? A great spectacle, a fine action fllick, but otherwise ...
The count so far from three critics groups: “Her” (1.5), “American Hustle” (1), “Gravity (.5). And we're just getting started.
”Gravity" holds: Four awards, including half a best pic.
Sunday December 08, 2013
Joe Henry at the Triple Door
I’ve been on iTunes for about 10 years now, and if you sort by number of plays, Joe Henry’s “Ohio Air Show Plane Crash,” from his album “Trampoline,” ranks fifth with 198.
These are the other top Joe Henry songs on my iTunes hit parade:
- Ohio Air Show Plane Crash, Trampoline, 198
- Our Song, Civilians, 147,
- You Can’t Fail Me Now, Civilians, 100
- Dirty Magazine, Tiny Voices, 88
- Fat, Fuse, 72
It skews recent, of course. I began listening to him about 10 years before iTunes, in 1992, when “Short Man’s Room” was released and he went on tour with the Jayhawks, whose tour manager was my good friend Dave Paulson. Joe gave Dave a book, “Willie’s Time,” by Charles Einstein, about Willie Mays and the 1950s, and Dave gave it to me, and I almost completed the circle at the Tractor Tavern in ’93 when Joe opened for Jimmie Dale Gilmore. I had the book in my backpack, and Joe was sitting by himself in the corner, but I didn’t work up the courage to go over. Bad form. If you’re there for the opening act, let the opening act know.
I think I’ve seen Joe five to 10 times since then—at the Showbox, at the Pier, at Bumpershoot one year—and last night Patricia and I caught him at the Triple Door in downtown Seattle. A far cry from the Tractor for both of us. Before he came on, I talked up a few of his songs to poor Patricia, stuck there with me, this Joe Henry bore. We both love “Our Song.” I mentioned the great lines from “You Can’t Fail Me Now” that I wrote about last year:
We‘re taught to love the worst in us
And mercy more than life, but trust me:
Mercy’s just a warning shot across the bow
I talked up the epigrams of “Fat”:
If this is our finish let’s begin
Gambled I would lose, guess I .... win
For some reason I quietly sang the opening lines to the title song from Joe’s 1995 album, “Kindness of the World,” which I’d always loved:
I’d like to see your badge
Who are you to be so brave
With one arm free to catch yourself
And you’re using it to wave
Recently, in some online forum, someone had stated the obvious and I replied with these lines from Joe’s song “Dirty Magazine,” which I (missing the irony) also repeated to Patricia:
Just tell me everything I’ve heard before
Like it was news
Like it was news
So of course Joe opened with “Dirty Magazine,” played both “You Can’t Fail Me Now” and “Our Song,” and closed with “Kindness of the World.”
“That just doesn’t happen,” Patricia said afterwards.
“He missed ‘Fat,’” I said.
It was a quick tour, just four acoustic shows in northern towns (Minneapolis, Chicago, Ann Arbor, Seattle) during the first week of December. When the weather gets warm he heads south, to Durham, N.C., to record a new album. He played about five of those songs last night. His voice sounded stronger than ever. The stories accompanying the songs, including playing ”Kindness of the World“ in Hiroshima, Japan, were better than ever.
I kept flashing back on semi-forgotten things. He played ”Short Man's Room“ from 1992 and I remembered a poster from that album (”You‘re only as good as your knees“) hanging in my room for who knows how many years. I listened to ”Our Song“ while cleaning the kitchen in the new place Patricia and I bought in the fall of 2007, the exact wrong time to buy a new place. I also flashed on that first show at the Tractor in Ballard in 1993. I biked there from Green Lake on a drizzly evening with ”Willie’s Time“ in my backpack. I carried both the book (because of lack of courage) and my slicks (because the weather had cleared) on the ride home, and both helped cushion whatever was thrown at me from a car of teenage boys out looking for mischief at 1 a.m. They peeled out and I circled back and found an egg, cracked, in the middle of the street. They'd hit their target but missed. I was unsplattered. There was just this sad egg in the middle of the street.
That was a long time ago. Last night I drove to the Triple Door, had to wave off valet parking, bought a bottle of red wine before the show. It was freezing outside but warm inside. The place was packed. All the men there looked like variations of me.
Here's ”Fat," the song he missed.
Sunday December 08, 2013
The Best Tweet on the Robinson Cano Signing
As a Yankee fan, the Cano mega-deal offends me. Grow your own talent Seattle! Don’t buy aging free-agent superstars! Sheesh.— Daniel Foster (@DanFosterType) December 6, 2013
Saturday December 07, 2013
The Upside of the Cano Deal for Yankee Haters
Here are the 2013 Yankees batting leaders:
All Robinson Cano.
Admittedly the Yankees had bad luck with its hitters in 2013. Well, “bad luck.” They had a lot of old guys and they got injured. Doesn't take Benedict Cumberbatch to figure that one out.
Quick trivia: How many 2013 Yankees had an offensive WAR greater than 1.0? Here's a hint: the woeful Seattle Mariners had nine such guys, including the oft-injured Franklin Gutierrez at 1.0.
The Yankees? Just four: Cano at 6.8, Brett Gardner at 3.5, Alfonso Soriano at 1.4 and Eduardo Nunez at 1.3. That's it.
Measured by WAR, Cano was more than half the Yankees' 2013 offense. And now he's gone.
They‘re working to replace him, of course, and were before he signed with the Mariners: Brian McCann, whose best hitting days may be behind him, the oft-injured Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran, who starts the season at age 37.
Even so, the Yankees’ horrible 2013 offense just got a whole lot worse. So in that regard there's cause for celebrating. Start spreading the news.
Saturday December 07, 2013
Start Spreading the News: My Reaction to the Reaction to the Cano Signing
Let's start with David Schoenfield at ESPN.com:
You can argue the Mariners would have been wiser to spend that money on three players rather than one. But there was also no guarantee the Mariners would be able to convince Shin-Soo Choo or Ubaldo Jimenez or whomever to come to Seattle, anyway. At some point, you have to strike, and the Mariners did it in the biggest way possible.
Sure, at some point you have to strike. But why is this that point? The Mariners did it in the biggest possible way. Was it the smartest way? No. Did it smack of desperation? Yes. And speaking of desperation ...
Here's a good nyah-nyah from Tyler Kepner, New York Times:
The most desperate teams usually make the costliest decisions in free agency. The surprise here is that another team was more desperate than the Yankees.
Yep. And, beyond the last abyssmal 10 years, you wonder why. Were people's jobs suddenly on the line?
Art Thiel, formerly of the PI, has thoughts:
Of course it is ridiculous to commit to paying 10 years from now a 41-year-old second baseman $24 million. But this isn’t about 2024, this is about 2014. Which means that Lincoln cannot stop with Cano. If the Mariners fail to continue to invest in payroll to support Cano in the lineup and on the mound, they truly will be squandering $240 million.
Does this move smack of desperation? Panic? Insanity? Yes. But what else could they have done? The great fear among Mariners fans was that Lincoln was so disconnected from reality, he wouldn’t recognize that recklessness was the absolute minimum requirement.
As Otter said to his frat-house faithful in “Animal House”: “I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part!”
Bluto: “We’re just the guys to do it!”
They used to play bits of this for those pathetic ninth-inning-rally videos, didn't they? “Let's do itttttttt!” etc. To jumpstart enthusiasm when it didn't already exist, and when there was probably no reason for it to exist. I guess the Cano signing is the same thing. Except worse.
From a 2011 piece by Mike Edelman, Bleacher Report:
That's the issue with Cano. He does all the flashy things that grab attention. He plays for the New York Yankees, he puts up gaudy offensive numbers and he makes strong throws. But he doesn't do the basic things that are truly valuable, like hitting well when it matters or having good range defensively.
Or leading the league in anything, as I mentioned yesterday. Cano has never done that. He puts up good numbers but never better than anyone else. Let me repeat that: never better than anyone else. Yet there he is with Albert Pujols money. By the time Pujols signed with the Angels he'd led the league in runs scored five times, hits once, doubles once, homers twice, RBIs once, batting once, on-base once, slugging three times, OPS three times, and total bases four times. He was a three-time MVP. Four other times he finished second in the MVP voting. He had one of the highest liftetime OPSes in baseball history and was generally acknowledged as one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. And he got 10 years, $240 million at age 32. Cano is 31. He's done none of those things, won none of those things, and is generally regarded as a good player. Even the Yankees with their deep pockets weren't treating him like Albert Pujols. But the M's? Apparently, they were desperate ...
So what does the best baseball writer out there, Joe Posnanski, have to say? This was Joey Poz before the signing, referencing the Yankees signing Jacoby Ellsbury:
My gut instinct is that it will work out for the Yankees. But I say this in part because things always seem to work out for the Yankees.
I can say this with more confidence: If the Mariners sign Robinson Cano … that won’t work out.
And here he is after the signing. He wondered if the twilights years (31-40) of the greatest second baseman of all time, Joe Morgan, would be worth $240 million. He calculated it this way: 1 WAR = $5 million. And the answer was: nearly. Morgan came about $6 million short. He also had two of the greatest seasons ever for a second baseman at ages 31 and 32, when he won the 1975 and '76 NL MVP awards. Posnanski concludes:
If Cano has a Joe Morgan like second half — two of the greatest seasons in baseball history, two or three other very good seasons and offers some value even in his off years by doing something extra — I think it will be a good deal. Does Cano have that in him? That’s an entirely different question.
Here's the thing. I don't even know if I like Robinson Cano. And this move? Dragging your entourage, including effin' Jay-Z, across the country because your original team won't give you Pujols money, which you totally don't deserve? What kind of person does this? I hate the Yankees with a poker-hot hatred but Cano was in the Mecca of baseball. Did he find it a drag? All that history weighing down on him? Did he dislike playing into October all the time? Did he dislike the clean-shaven look? How about this question: What do the Mariners, and Seattle, have to offer besides money? Anything? I know my thought is a kind of Mariners fan's take on Woody Allen's take on Groucho Marx's joke: Who joins a club that has us for members? What's worthwhile at Safeco that you would want to come here? Besides the money, I can think of one thing. The chance to make history. One more title in the Bronx? Ho hum. But a title in Seattle? You will never be forgotten. You will be the David Ortiz of Seattle. (Even as Seattle originally signed David Ortiz.) Except I don't get that vibe from Cano. I hope I'm wrong. But I don't think this is personal, I think it's business; and I think it's lousy business for Seattle.
And finally, back to David Schoenfield, the former Seattlite, and Pollyanna of ESPN.com:
For the first time since the club made the big Cliff Lee trade, it feels good to be a Mariners fan.
No. No, it doesn't.
Friday December 06, 2013
Just Say No to Cano: An Imaginary Conversation with a Seattle Mariners Fan
Apologies in advance for this exercise in dialogue.
- Hey, I read the Mariners are interested in this Cano Robinson character.
- Robinson Cano.
- Right. He must be great. What with the money they’re offering him?
- I heard $225 million over nine seasons.
- A quarter of a billion dollars! Wow. He must be great.
- He is.
- He must be the most valuable player in baseball. He probably wins those awards all the time, right? The MVPs?
- Actually he’s never won one. He’s come close the last couple years. Third in the voting in 2010, sixth in 2011, fourth in 2012 and fifth in 2013. But no, nothing on the mantle.
- But he’s always good, right? Perennial All-Star.
- Five All-Stars in nine years. So half-perennial.
- But a league leader.
- He’s never led the league in anything.
- Games played once. In 2009. But that’s, you know, the attendance award. Although attendance does matter. But he’s often in the top five in many categories, both offensive and defensive.
- So is he young then? With the chance to improve?
- He turned 31 in October.
- Is that young?
- That’s when players begin to decline, generally.
- And we’re offering how many years?
- Until he’s 40?
- Why are we doing that?
- I don't know.
- Do we think we have a chance to win in the next few years? When he’ll still be in his prime?
- Doubtful. The Mariners won 71 games last year. There’s a stat, WAR, or wins above replacement, that measures how many wins a particular player is worth over an average replacement. Cano had one of the highest in the league last year: 7.6. But the Mariners primary second baseman, rookie Nick Franklin, had a 2.3 WAR, so the swap wouldn’t even be worth seven victories. It wouldn’t even make the M’s a .500 team.
- Are long-term deals like this common in baseball?
- Do they work out?
- So ... why?
- [Shrugs] To be honest, I was hoping the Yankees, Cano's team, would offer him this kind of deal.
- I thought you didn't like the Yankees.
- I don't.
- So you thought such a deal would ...
- ... hurt them in the long run.
- And now your team is offering such a deal.
- The irony.
Opinions may vary.
Cano watching his 2011 season end early. If he comes to Seattle, he should get used to this feeling.
Thursday December 05, 2013
What's a Nice Jewish Girl Like You Doing with a Magic Lasso? Gal Gadot Cast as Wonder Woman
Gal Gadot, Miss Israel 2004, and an actress best-known in the states for playing Gisele in the three most recent “Fast & Furious” movies, has been cast as Wonder Woman in Zack Snyder's upcoming “Batman vs. Superman” movie—the belated attempt by Warner Bros. and DC Comics to replicate the huge box-office success of “The Avengers” movie.
But better get those bullet-proof bracelets up, bubelah. It didn't take long before fanboys were taking potshots. These are simply comments on IMDb.com. Can't imagine what it's like over at Twitter:
- a skinny chick with not the hint of muscle tone... good choice
- i prefer megan fox to be the wonder woman
- was still hoping Gina Carano might get cast
- an Amazon Princess shouldn't look like she's starving to death...
- Crap choice ... and isn't that girl to [sic] skinny?
I believe “skinny” is code for something.
At least there was this response:
- The problem is that Zack Snyder is still going to direct it
Gal pal, Amazonian princess.
Thursday December 05, 2013
Thoughts on 'The Amazing Spider-Man 2' Trailer
- Good open. When he's falling silently? I like that.
- “The more people I try to save, the more enemies I will make.” Is that true? Maybe if an organized group was after him, but ...
- Is there any chemistry between Garfield and Stone? I don't sense it. It's like they're on a first date.
- Dane DeHaan looks AMAZING at 0:58. Who does he sound like here? Brad Pitt?
- So more on Richard Parker. I guess we'll get this stuff bit by bit, in movie after movie, like Don Draper probing his past. The movies really are episodic now.
- “I made a choice, this is my path...” Ick. And that's for the trailer?
- Electro: “Soon everyone in the city will know how it feels to live in a world without power, without mercy ...” Sounds like the GOP platform.
- Hey, has Spider-Man caught the Burglar yet? Is he gonna?
Great action scenes anyway but overall ho-hum. But it's gotta be better than the first one, right? Right?
Thursday December 05, 2013
Major Burn on Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK)
Jill Lepore is increasingly my favorite writer on staff at The New Yorker. This is from her recent piece, “Long Division: Measuring the polarization of American politics,” which is locked online, available only to subscribers. So subscribe already.
Lepore talks up the data compiled by scholars such as Warren E. Miller of the University of Michigan, whose research has been funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation's Poliltical Science Program, inaugurated in 1966. She says the research suggests that both voters and legislators are more polarized than at any time since the U.S. Civil War. Then she writes:
What's really going on could be anything from party realignment to the unraveling of the Republic. It's hard to know, though, what with a polarized Congress keen to defund the very scholarship that might cast light on the matter. [Sen. Tom Coburn, R-OK, who introduced legislation to abolish the Political Science Program] is untroubled. “The University of Michigan may have some interesting theories about recent elections,” he allowed, “but Americans who have an interest in electoral politics can turn to CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, the print media, and a seemingly endless numnber of political commentators on the Internet.” This is a little like saying, when your kitchen is on fire, that it's O.K. because, in a cupboard above the stove, you keep fifty boxes of matches.
Thursday December 05, 2013
Dibs on the Heist Movie
From The Economist, Nov. 23:
The world’s rich are increasingly investing in expensive stuff, and “freeports” such as Luxembourg’s are becoming their repositories of choice. Their attractions are similar to those offered by offshore financial centres: security and confidentiality, not much scrutiny, the ability for owners to hide behind nominees, and an array of tax advantages. This special treatment is possible because goods in freeports are technically in transit, even if in reality the ports are used more and more as permanent homes for accumulated wealth. If anyone knows how to game the rules, it is the super-rich and their advisers. ...
The goods they stash in the freeports range from paintings, fine wine and precious metals to tapestries and even classic cars. (Data storage is offered, too.) Clients include museums, galleries and art investment funds as well as private collectors. Storage fees vary, but are typically around $1,000 a year for a medium-sized painting and $5,000-12,000 to fill a small room.
Wednesday December 04, 2013
National Board of Review Falls in Love with 'Her'
The National Board of Review, usually the first voice in the year-end movie round-up, but usurped yesterday by NYFCC, went with Spike Jonze's “Her,” starring Joaquin Phoenix and the voice of Scarlett Johansson, as the best movie of the year.
- Best Film: Her
- Best Director: Spike Jonze, Her
- Best Actor: Bruce Dern, Nebraska
- Best Actress: Emma Thompson, Saving Mr. Banks
- Best Supporting Actor: Will Forte, Nebraska
- Best Supporting Actress: Octavia Spencer, Fruitvale Station
- Best Original Screenplay: Joel and Ethan Coen, Inside Llewyn Davis
- Best Adapted Screenplay: Terence Winter, The Wolf of Wall Street
- Best Animated Feature: The Wind Rises
- Breakthrough Performance: Michael B. Jordan, Fruitvale Station
Breakthrough Performance: Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Color
- Best Directorial Debut: Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station
- Best Foreign Language Film: The Past
- Best Documentary: Stories We Tell
- William K. Everson Film History Award: George Stevens, Jr.
- Best Ensemble: Prisoners
- Spotlight Award: Career Collaboration of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio
- NBR Freedom of Expression Award: Wadjda
- Creative Innovation in Filmmaking Award: Gravity
Unlike the NYFCC list, this is mostly movies I haven't seen because they're either not out yet or haven't arrived in Seattle yet. Immediate thought: “Prisoners”??? Secondary thought: Octavia Spencer? Tertiery thought: Breakthrough performance for Michael B. Jordan? Didn't these critics watch “The Wire? Final thought: Is Forte really better than Leto in ”Dallas Buyers Club“ or Michael Fassbender in ”12 Years“?
The NBR also does a top 10 list, sans ”Her,“ and in lame alphabetical order:
First thought: ”Prisoners“? Second thought: ”Wait. 'Lone Survivor'? The thing with Marky Mark? Really?“ Third thought: Hollywood REALLY needs to do a better job of getting its better movies out a little earlier.
More interesting, but also in alphabetical order, is NBR's list of top 5 foreign-language films and top 5 docs. Good to see ”A Hijacking“ on the former; sorry ”Muscle Shoals“ isn't on the latter:
Top 5 Foreign Language Films
Beyond the Hills
Top 5 Documentaries
20 Feet from Stardom
The Act of Killing
The Board's history is a mixed bag. Counting back to 2000 from 2012, these are its best films of the year: ”Zero Dark Thirty,“ ”Hugo,“ ”The Social Network,“ ”Up in the Air,“ ”Slumdog Millionaire,“ ”No Country for Old Men,“ ”Letters from Iwo Jima,“ ”Good Night, and Good Luck,“ ”Finding Neverland,“ ”Mystic River,“ ”The Hours,“ ”Moulin Rouge,“ ”Quills." A few odd years there from 2000 to 2006.
Hey everybody who isn't in NY or LA: another movie to possibly look forward to.
Wednesday December 04, 2013
Movie Review: Before Midnight (2013)
September 4, 2012
First, it was great meeting you and your family in Greece this summer. I was only there a week but I had a blast. Your boy Henry is very sweet and the twins are adorable.
Second, it’s a little intimidating writing a letter to a famous novelist such as yourself. I know, I know, there’s Gore Vidal’s line: “To speak today of a famous novelist is like speaking of a famous cabinetmaker or speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun.” Even so, it’s intimidating. I never read your books (sorry!) but I did see the movies based upon them (sorry again!). “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” right? With Ethan Hawke as you and Julie Delpy as Celine? Don’t remember much about them, unfortunately. I remember conversations on a train and walking about in Paris and a reading at ... was it Shakespeare & Co.? Those movies were mostly dialogue about everyday matters. Maybe that’s why I don’t remember them. The everyday goes away.
Anyway, apologies about all that, and apologies for this massive presumption, but it’s the reason for this letter. I wish I’d told you this earlier but now this will have to do. Here it is.
Your wife is crazy.
I didn’t think so at first. I thought, “Ah, another couple dealing with the doodads and crises of parenting in the early 21st century.” I even had a little trouble with you at first. I thought you were too delicate around your son. Like you were seeking his approval when it should be the other way around. Then I remembered you were divorced and he lived with his mother, and it made sense. You’re trying to make up for lost time. In this manner, divorce makes children of parents and parents of children.
It was at dinner that I began to see the pattern. Those dinners were a little odd, weren’t they? A little too Woody Allen during his stilted, pretentious period. I liked the kids enough. And I loved Patrick and Natalia. Her line about how we’re just passing through? And you raised a toast “to passing through”? That was nice. Sure, Stefano couldn’t get away from the topic of sex while Ariadni played her usual game of self-satisfied gender politics, but at least you felt the rules in their relationship. No one ever went out of bounds.
Your wife, Celine, kept going out of bounds.
Someone would say how the meeting story of you and Celine was romantic and you agreed and Celine immediately disagreed. Someone would say how your girls were beautiful and you thanked them and Celine immediately disagreed. Remember when Henry was out and about on the island and he called Celine’s phone and she wouldn’t put you on? I’d never seen that before. Another time she asked you some theoretical question—if you’d met on the train today, would you still talk to her?—and dissed your answer. She said, “I wanted you to say something romantic and you blew it.” But whenever you did say something romantic she dismissed it, so I didn’t see how you could win.
She kept cutting into you with these little cuts, about little things: the amount of housework you did, the attention you paid, how self-obsessed you were. Then she’d take out the cleaver and try to lop off your head. Sorry, but it was brutal to watch.
There was such hate in her eyes. That’s the thing. I couldn’t see the love there. Nowhere. You kept trying to make it work and she would come back at you with hate.
She kept reading two or three steps ahead into everything you said. Does she always do this? And is she right? I’m curious. Because you’d say something and she’d make this assumption about what it really meant, and she’d wind up objecting to something that wasn’t even there. Like after Henry left. You were talking about missing him, and missing his years growing up, and how he threw a baseball like a girl because you weren’t around to teach him—which he totally does—but how there was no solution. Henry wouldn’t be allowed to live with you in Paris and you couldn’t move to Chicago to be with him every other weekend because it would disrupt the lives of Celine and the girls. But that’s what she assumed you meant. And the daggers came out.
Have you talked to her about this? This tendency to read three steps ahead? To assume this much? Because it’s not even a good strategy. To attack someone where they aren’t? Every battle that does that, loses. Or does she do this to prevent you from getting there? She attacks where you aren’t to prevent you from going to that place?
Remember that conversation we had about how men always compare themselves to other famous men? Fitzgerald did this by age X and Balzac by age Y and why aren’t I doing that? That felt true. But then she said something like, “Women don't think that way as much.” WTF? That’s the main neuroses, isn’t it? I’m fat, I’m ugly, my hair is too straight. Or too curly. I’m not wearing the right shoes. I’m not Beyoncé or Angelina or Kate. But she probably meant, you know, women outside of show business, because then she said something like, “The women who achieve anything in life, you first hear about them in their 50s, because they were raising kids before then.” So obviously not Beyoncé. She’s talking about someone like Ruth Bader Ginsberg ... who was arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court in her thirties. Or Flannery O’Connor ... who wrote “Wise Blood” in her twenties.
No, I know. She was talking about herself. Because that’s what she does. She was laying out the hope that her achievement in life is not being wife to you, or mother to two girls, but something else. Now to me—and I tried to tell her this—but to me the most important thing men and women can do in this life is raise children, and raise them well, but I’m still a fan of maintaining hope for other achievements, too. It keeps us going. In a way, you and Celine regret opposites: You, who have published three novels, regret not parenting enough, and she, mother of two girls, regrets not “achieving” enough. So there’s conflict. That’s inevitable. But you seem to blame you for not parenting more while she seems to blame you for why she hasn’t achieved more. And she blames you without mercy.
I haven’t even told you the worst part yet.
Celine and Patricia and I went on a hike one day. Celine, again, wouldn’t shut up, just went on and on about herself. At some point she talked about some quote someone put on the refrigerator at work with those poet/magnet thingees. Something like, “Women explore for eternity in the vast garden of sacrifice.” Crap, right? She thought it was meaningful. More, she thought it related to her. Not just her mother or grandmother, or any of the women who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago—but her: a pretty French girl born in Paris in 1970. She thinks she’s spent her pampered life in “a vast garden of sacrifice.” She sees herself, despite all evidence to the contrary, as a symbol of oppressed women everywhere. And she sees you—and this was the really weird part—as a symbol of tyrannical men everywhere. She compared you to Dick Cheney and George W. Bush! She said you were a proponent of “rational thinking” but then so were the Nazis during the Final Solution. I mean, holy fuck. I had to walk away at that point.
I probably shouldn’t even have written this letter. I probably won’t send it. I just had to let it out. In the past, you’ve written about your relationship with Celine, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you write about this summer: How you and Celine were in this beautiful place but stuck in this awful situation, which she kept trying to destroy and you kept trying to repair. Maybe they’ll make another movie about it. “Before Dinner”? “Before Dusk”? “Before the Final Solution”?
Anyway, I hope to see you again. Maybe in another nine years? If so, I hope—and this is a bad thing to hope—but I hope you’re on your own. I hope you’re finally free of Celine and that awful, awful decision you made to talk with her on the train to Paris in 1994. Because no man deserves the amount of grief you’re putting up with. To be honest, it’s a little embarrassing.
Tuesday December 03, 2013
New York Film Critics Circle Picks the Best of 2013
So it starts.
The New York Film Critics Circle has announced its 2013 award winners. The only film with more than one award is David O. Russell's “American Hustle,” the best picture winner, which also picked up best screenplay and best supporting actress nods:
- Best Picture: American Hustle
- Best Director:Steve McQueen – 12 Years a Slave
- Best Screenplay: American Hustle
- Best Actress: Cate Blanchett – Blue Jasmine
- Best Actor: Robert Redford – All Is Lost
- Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence – American Hustle
- Best Supporting Actor:Jared Leto – Dallas Buyers Club
- Best Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel – Inside Llewyn Davis
- Best Documentary: Stories We Tell
- Best First Film:Ryan Coogler – Fruitvale Station
- Best Animated Film: The Wind Rises
- Best Foreign Language Film: Blue is the Warmest Color
- Special Award:Frederick Wiseman
Not a bad list, from what I've seen. I'll see “American Hustle” next week. I'm still chomping at the bit for “Llewyn Davis.” Review for “Blue is the Warmest Color” up soon.
NYFCC doesn't have a bad history. Its recent best picture winners: “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Artist,” “The Social Network,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Milk,” “No Country for Old Men” and “United 93.”
“American Hustle” cast. L-R: Lois Lane, Rocket Raccoon, Hawkeye, Batman, and Mystique.
Tuesday December 03, 2013
Chuck Armstrong Retires, Lauded for Never Winning Pennant
Here's AP's story on the retirement of Mariners president Chuck Armstrong. Annotations are mine.
SEATTLE — Seattle Mariners president Chuck Armstrong announced Monday he will retire at the end of January after spending 28 of the past 30 seasons in that position with the ballclub, helping stabilize the team in the Pacific Northwest. 30 seasons, zero penannts. Can't get much more stable.
Armstrong built the Mariners into a contender then faced criticism for the past dozen seasons without a playoff appearance. Oh c'mon. He received criticism way before then. He will retire effective Jan. 31 and the club said it is beginning the process of finding a successor and starting that transition. Ten years late, but what the hell.
“Since day one, he has given his heart and soul to Mariners baseball. And yet ... He sincerely cares about the game of baseball, this organization, this city and this region,” Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said. And yet ... “On behalf of ownership and everyone who has worked here for the past 30 years, I thank Chuck for his tremendous contributions.” Which were ... ?
The 71-year-old Armstrong joined the franchise as team president in 1983 and, outside of a two-year stint in the early 1990s, has been with the club in that role since. Yes, he has. Boy, has he ever.
“This was a very difficult, very personal decision, but I know in my heart that it's time to turn the page and move to the next chapter of my life,” he said.You're a slow reader, Chuck.
Armstrong first joined the club following the 1983 season under then-owner George Argyros. Homonym: arduous. His most famous move during his first stint was making the decision to draft Ken Griffey Jr. with the first pick of the 1987 amateur draft. Well, thanks to Roger Jongewaard and Dick Balderson, but sure. Armstrong left the club in 1990-91 when Jeff Smulyan owned the team and its future in Seattle was tenuous, but he returned to the job in 1992 after he helped in the Baseball Club of Seattle purchasing the franchise, the first step in keeping the club in Seattle. Or in threatening to take the club out of Seattle.
Armstrong was instrumental in getting Safeco Field built (see: threat, above), a move that solidified the franchise and came during the best run of success in franchise history. Nice coincidence, that. Starting with Seattle's stirring comeback to win the AL West in 1995 and run to the AL championship series, the Mariners went to the playoffs in four of seven seasons and three times reached the ALCS. And yet ... Seattle won a record-tying 116 games in 2001, but fell to the New York Yankees in the postseason. In five games ...
“Through all the good times and the not-so-good times on the field since 1984, the goal always has been to win the World Series,” Armstrong said. And yet ... “My only regret is that the entire region wasn't able to enjoy a parade through the city to celebrate a world championship together.” The entire region's regret, too.
The 2001 season was the last time the Mariners reached the postseason and the 12-year drought has brought criticism to Seattle's front office. Again, we were critical much earlier. Fans have soured on a product that has eight losing seasons in the past 12 years. And the worst offense since the advent of the DH: Don't forget that. A club that once sold-out Safeco Field with regularity last year had just one in 81 home games. That lone sellout came on the night the club honored Griffey. Our glory is in the past, and it's not that glorious.
“Thanks to our outstanding ownership, the franchise is stable and will remain the Northwest's team, playing in Safeco Field, a great ballpark and great example of a successful public-private partnership,” Armstrong said. Until they threaten to move again. See: Turner Field, Cobb County. “The team is in good hands and positioned for future success. I am thankful for this important part in my life.” And we are thankful for this speech. Now where's Howard Lincoln's?
Monday December 02, 2013
Be Like Obama: Give Books for Christmas
Laurie Hertzel at the Star-Tribune has a piece on the book-buying binge Pres. Obama went on over the weekend at Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, D.C.
Two of the 21 books he purchased are all-time favorites of mine: “Ragtime” by E.L. Doctorow and “My Antonia” by Willa Cather. The rest of his list looks interesting, too.
My reading this year has mostly been non-fiction, but all of the books below (with links to posts about them) are recommended as gift possibilities:
- “Gods Like Us: On Movie Stardom and Modern Fame,” by Ty Burr
- “Joseph Anton,” a memoir by Salman Rushdie
- “My Pilgrim's Progress: Media Studies 1950-1998” by George W.S. Trow
- “Popular Crime: Reflections on the celebration of violence” by Bill James
- “The House that Ruth Built” by Robert Weintraub
- “56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports” by Kostya Kennedy
- “An Athiest in the FOXhole: A Liberal's Eight-Year Odyssey Inside the Heart of the Right-Wing Media,” by Joe Muto
- Marvel Comics: The Untold Story" by Sean Howe
Monday December 02, 2013
Movie Review: Oldboy (2013)
Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy” (2003), starring Choi Min-sik and Kang Hye-jeong, is the one of the greatest revenge movies ever made. Spike Lee’s “Oldboy,” starring Josh Brolin and Elizabeth Olsen, is not.
The new “Oldboy” is both more grounded and less believable. It’s less dreamlike, less cartoonish, less comic, and packs less of an emotional wallop. It give us more of Joe Doucett (Brolin) acting like a drunk asshole, more of Joe imprisoned in the room, and a greater subterfuge about the love interest (Olsen), but it’s not as good, not as clever, and obviously not as original. It corrects some of the mistakes of the Korean version but makes its own. It shortens the length of the movie by 16 minutes but hardly to its advantage. As the climax looms, we think, “Already?”
Admittedly remaking a classic is a tough gig.
Joe Doucett is an ad executive and alcoholic, who, as the movie begins, blows a deal by coming onto his client’s wife. Afterwards, he gets massively drunk, roams Chinatown, buys a cheap Buddha gift for his 3-year-old daughter, throws up on himself, and knocks on the door of the bar of his friend Chucky (Michael Imperioli). Then a beautiful woman with an umbrella appears, beckons him, and Joe disappears. All that’s left behind is the Buddha.
He wakes in a hotel room with the shower running. He assumes it’s the umbrella woman but nobody’s there. His clothes are gone, there’s no phone, no room service. At first he thinks he’s simply locked in; then, as food and vodka appear, he realizes he’s being kept prisoner in the room. We realize, meanwhile, that the Korean version didn’t give us this. It went right to being imprisoned for two months, as its main character, Oh Dae-su (Choi Min-sik), veers between rage and catatonia. Both responses come off as comic. That’s part of the tension in watching: not laughing at this man in his horrible predicament. Spike Lee doesn’t give us this. So there’s less tension.
What does Joe do in his imprisoned hotel room? He drinks, he cries, he jacks off. After this last, gas fills the room, and some time later he finds out via the TV news that his ex-wife has been raped and murdered and the irrefutable evidence points to ... him. He’s now a wanted fugitive.
After a few years he gets serious. He stops drinking, gets in shape, readies himself for revenge. He’s tunneling his way out, a la Andy Dusfrene, but at the last moment gas fills the room again. Except when he awakes, he’s out, he’s free. Where? Korean version: on a rooftop. U.S. version: in a coffin in the middle of a field. OK. And there’s the woman with the umbrella again. OK. It’s amazing how she hasn’t aged. Or maybe this is a different woman.
It’s amazing how he hasn’t aged. Joe actually looks better now than when he went in. He also seems saner. Every one of these points is at odds with the Korean version; every one seems wrong.
He follows the umbrella girl until ... well, now it’s a homeless man, standing in line for free health care, and the volunteer nurse on staff is Marie Sebastian (Olsen), who gets caught up in Joe’s life and story. As does Chucky. As does Adrian (Sharlto Copley of “District 9”), the man who imprisoned him, who sets him on a 48-hour mission to find out the answer to these two questions: who is he and why did he imprison Joe for 20 years? If he can answer these, his daughter, now 23, and a cellist somewhere, will live, he’ll be given evidence to clear his name, he’ll be given, what is it, $20 million in diamonds? Plus he’ll get to watch Adrian put a bullet through his own head. Nice deal. He takes it.
The larger prison
So how else does the U.S. version differ from the Korean version? Well, the owner of the private jail, Park there and Chaney here (Samuel L. Jackson), isn’t tortured by teeth extraction; instead, Joe cuts out bits of his neck and literally pours salt in the wounds. There’s less back-and-forth with him, too. Park and his men keep turning up, Chaney less so.
The backstory of the villain (Adrian/Lee Woo-jin) is also different. Korean version: Lee had sex with his sister at school, Ou Dae-su saw it, told his friend, who told others, and on and on until there was scandal and suicide. So Ou Dae-su, a despicable man, suffers for a crime he didn’t commit. U.S. version: Joe witnesses sex, yes, but between the sister and an older man, who turned out to be the father. Joe didn’t know that then, but he still spread the story, and the girl was still hounded, and eventually the entire family, happily engaging in incest with the father, was forced to flee to Luxemburg, where Daddy finally lost it and killed them all. Adrian was only wounded.
Now before I go on to other changes, let me say, emphatically, to anyone who hasn’t seen theKorean version: Go watch it. Now. It’s streaming on Netflix. If you keep reading this, you will discover one of the great twist endings in movie history. It will be like knowing what Rosebud was. So please, if you haven’t seen the movie yet, leave.
Are we good? Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
Another difference is the way the new “Oldboy” presents what happened to Joe/Ou’s 3-year-old daughter. Korea: He gets a slip of paper saying she was adopted by a couple in .... was it Switzerland? She’s out of the picture. In the U.S. version, we see her on television over and over again. She keeps showing up on one of those crappy “unsolved crime” shows, which Joe keeps watching while imprisoned. She grows to be a beautiful 23-year-old cellist. Why this change? One: American children don’t get adopted abroad. Two: the greater subterfuge—and it is subterfuge—is there less to fool Joe than to fool us.
Except ... One of the things I liked about the Korean version is that I suspected briefly who Mi-do (Kang Hye-jeong) was. “He should be careful,” I said to Patricia. “That girl is his daughter’s age. She could be his daughter.” I’m careful this way. I’m good with math. But the thought went away. It flashed in my head, and the story picked up, and I stopped thinking about it.
This has happened to me a couple of times watching movies: flashing on the answer, losing it in the story, and then—boom—there it is. When I first saw “The Crying Game,” I thought maybe the dude was a lady; then it went away; then there it was. With Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” I felt a vibe of assassination. I don’t know why. But then it went away. Then boom. It’s almost a kind of subconscious foreshadowing. It’s one of those mysteries of movies, and if you have it you don’t want to mess with it—it’s actually more effective, more resonant, than completely fooling your audience—but in the new “Oldboy” they mess with it. Since the subterfuge is greater, I can’t imagine anyone new to the story engaging in this kind of subconscious foreshadowing.
In both versions, by the way, the villain tells the hero he asked the wrong question: Not why did I imprison you but why did I let you go? But here’s a better question: Why did I let you go after 15/20 years? The length of time, it turns out, is the whole point.
Park’s “Oldboy” is a great revenge fantasy because the revenge isn’t extracted by the man who was imprisoned but by the man who imprisoned him. And the 15 years isn’t the revenge, it simply sets up the revenge. The 15 years is prelude. Enough time has to pass to allow the revenge to happen: to make Ou guilty of the crime that sent Lee Woo-jin’s sister to her death: incest. That’s brilliant. Equally brilliant, equally painful, is Ou’s reaction. He grovels and acts the dog. He literally cuts out his own tongue to please the man who imprisoned him so he won’t tell the daughter what really happened. The dream has become a nightmare; and unlike Ou’s imprisonment, it won’t ever end.
The U.S. version screws this up, too. Josh Brolin is a good actor but he can’t grovel. And Joe certainly doesn’t cut out his own tongue. Instead, even as Adrian kills himself, Joe takes the diamonds, gives most to Marie along with a carefully worded farewell note, and the rest goes to Chaney so he’ll lock up Joe for the rest of his life. Joe is now his own imprisoner. And he smiles at the camera.
It’s not a bad end. It recalls long-held prisoners who want the comfort of the jail cell again. But it doesn’t resonate the way the Korean version resonates.
I think the biggest mistake in Spike’s version was losing the dream/nightmare quality of the Korean film, the horror/comic fable of it all. This version takes itself a little too seriously. Which I guess is what you do when you remake a classic. But it doesn’t serve the final product.
Or maybe it does. We still have the original version, after all, and the U.S. version, despite the talent involved, is no competition. It will fade, disappear from view, leaving only the Korean classic. That’s the one people should see anyway.
Sunday December 01, 2013
The Worst Movie Review of the Year, Part II
I'm sorry but I couldn't leave this one alone.
There are so many distortions in Kyle Smith's New York Post review of the film “Philomena” that it's hard to deal with them all. It's also difficult to extract the half-truth from the half-lies he's formed around them.
But let's have a go. Near the end of his review he writes:
Philomena spends the movie saying dumb stuff (at the Lincoln Memorial: “Look at him up there in his big chair!”), Martin is rude and dismissive, and we’re meant to laugh, I guess, at her being a rube and his being a journalist. You may be wondering why Coogan felt the need to play a cold and unpleasant a figure who isn’t (like many other Coogan creations) funny, but the answer is simple: Coogan hates journalists.
- Coogan, I imagine, hates bad journalism, particularly tabloid journalism, particularly the awful tabloid journalism revealed in the phone-hacking scandal that sunk News of the World in July 2011. His own phone was hacked, his own private life revealed to sell newspapers, and he's become a strong voice against the practice. He's testified before the Leveson inquiry into unethical journalism and has written Op-Eds for The Guardian about same.
- News of the World was owned by Rupert Murdoch.
- Rupert Murdoch also owns The New York Post, for which Kyle Smith writes his reviews.
Look again at the shoddy way Smith raises the phone-hacking scandal without mentioning the phone-hacking scandal. Which, of course, would point back to his boss. Awful.
More, though, it's Smith's representation of the characters Coogan and Dench play: “a ninny and a jerk” he calls them. Is that all Smith sees? We‘re supposed to laugh at him being rude and her being a rube? No. We identify. I did anyway. He reminded me a bit of me (distant, overly academic) and she reminded me a bit of my mother (not much formal education, heart of gold). He’s got the education and the words but she's got the wisdom. As here:
Philomena: Do you believe in God, Martin?
Martin: [Exhales] Where do you start? I always thought that was a very difficult question to give a simple answer to. ... Do you?
What was this to Smith? “90 minutes of organized hate.” “Philomena,” as a movie and a person, is all about forgiveness, but as a movie critic I have trouble forgiving Smith's review.
Sunday December 01, 2013
The Worst Movie Review of the Year
It belongs to Kyle Smith of The New York Post, writing about the film “Philomena,” starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.
Here's a snippet:
There’s no other purpose to the movie, so if 90 minutes of organized hate brings you joy, go and buy your ticket now.
“90 minutes of organized hate.” I can't remember the last time I ran across such a mean-spirited review about such a gentle, and genuinely heartwarming, movie. Here's Smith's full review.
And here's the real Philoemena's defense of the film.
I came across all of this last night after Patricia and I saw the movie, which we both loved. Can the film be read as an attack on doctrinaire (that is, anti-sex) Catholicism and doctrinaire (that is, anti-gay) Republicanism? Sure. But the greater takeaway is a lesson in the meaning of forgiveness, upon which Philomena's open letter to Smith concludes:
Just as I forgave the church for what happened with my son, I forgive you for not taking the time to understand my story. I do hope though that the families heading to the movie theatre to see the film decide for themselves – and disagree with you.