Friday February 28, 2014
Quote of the Day: Posnanski on Ken Griffey Jr.
“Junior was such a joy to watch play baseball as young player. He had this youthful exuberance, he exuded joy (he wore his hat backward, which drove the get-off-my-lawn grumps insane but was for people of his generation just about the coolest look ever), and there was that singular grace he played with — the way he ran after fly balls, the way he moved on the bases, the way he would turn on even the best fastballs, all of it just seemed impossibly lovely. That’s the word that comes to mind. Lovely. They used to say that Fred Astaire just standing against a building looked like a dancer. Junior standing outside waiting for the team bus looked like a ballplayer.”
-- Joe Posnanski, “No. 51: Ken Griffey Jr.,” in his hot-stove-league listing of the 100 greatest baseball players of all time. It's a nice piece, sad, too, but I'll be waiting to see the 50 players Posnanski thinks are better than Junior. I anticipate doing a lot of this: “No, no, no ... yes ... no” over the next few months.
My piece about Junior the month he retired.
Friday February 28, 2014
Movie Review: Enough Said (2013)
She should have told them sooner. Not for them; for us.
Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) is a middle-aged masseuse in southern California, who, as the movie opens, has to endure, silently and in light-comedic fashion, her clients’ foibles: one woman gabs nonstop, an elderly man has bad breath, a young, fit man lives at the top of a long set of stairs but never bothers to offer a hand with her heavy massage table. She says nothing about any of this. Instead, she gives us the Elaine Benes tics and mannerisms: some combination of endurance for their foibles followed by “am I bad person?” regret for what she’s thinking of their foibles. It’s not bad but it did remind me of “Seinfeld.” As did the masseuse thing. As did ... More later.
Early on, Eva attends a party with her friends Sarah and Will (Toni Collette and Ben Falcone), a couple forever squabbling about petty things, and there she meets both a new customer, Marianne (Catherine Keener), who apparently makes a living as a poet (the question that nobody asked that I’d ask? “How?”); and Albert (James Gandolfini), a sweet guy, who, like Eva, has an upfront-but-through-the-back-door kind of sense of humor. They connect in this manner. That’s the interesting thing about Eva: She tends to—as Elaine Benes would’ve said— blah all the time; yet it’s not talking, not being upfront, that gets her into trouble.
Despite not being attracted to Albert—he’s fat (stocky) and bald (bald-ing)—she goes out with him. And they hit it off. He’s funny, she’s funny. They talk like old friends. They talk, to be honest, a bit like George and Jerry on “Seinfeld”: about nothing and everything. At one point, Albert, who works at a museum of television history, bitches about one of those “Real Housewives” shows, and Eva agrees:
Eva: No brains, and the fake cheekbones, and the fake boobs. [Pause] Do you like fake boobs?
Albert: [surprised] No. No, I like real boobs.
Eva: Yeah. [Pause] I got real boobs.
Albert: That’s workin’ out for us then.
I liked them together. I liked him. He’s got a twinkle in his eyes and a gentleness in his spirit. He’s also the grown-up in the room. He’s got an acceptance of the foibles of the world, including, maybe especially, his own.
Marianne? The poet? Who is now Eva’s friend? Unaccepting. Her ex, for example, was also overweight, and he did awful things that drove her nuts. He liked guacamole, for example, but didn’t like the onions in the guacamole; so he used to put his chip in and swirl the guac until the onions were safely off to the side. Drove her nuts.
Guess what? Albert does the same thing! Guess what? Albert is Marianne’s ex.
Up to this point I liked the movie. It was trying to be an interesting story about people like us: people whose bathroom mirrors have dried toothpaste spittle on them. Even at this moment, during this reveal, I thought, “Well, that’s an interesting coincidence. Let’s see what happens when she tells them.”
Except she never does. And that’s what the movie becomes: not telling them. Either one of them. She takes Marianne’s intolerance of her ex into her relationship with Albert and tries to change him. She brings up his lack of bedside tables, his many brands of mouthwash, his ... stockiness. She says she’s going to buy him a calorie book. “Why’d I get the feeling I just spent the evening with my ex-wife?” he says at one point.
Eva realizes the Albert/Marianne connection halfway through the movie but we’re near the end before she’s forced, by circumstances, to own up to it. But by this point, she’s already blown it with Albert. Not to mention us.
“I don’t like any of these people,” Patricia said near the end.
I liked Albert. I also liked Peter, Eva’s ex, played by Toby Huss, who looked immediately familiar to me. He should, he’s been in everything from “Jerry Maguire” to “42,” but I recognized him as Jack, Elaine’s twinkly-eyed boyfriend who turns out to be the B-actor playing “the Wiz” in the schlocky east-coast commercial “Nobody beats the Wiz!” on “Seinfeld.” Peter is another adult in the room.
Isn’t it interesting how the men are the adults? I’ve noticed this more and more in stories created by women, “Girls” particularly, where Adam and Ray are relatively stable dudes, while the girls of the title go off on tangents and on each other. “Enough Said” was written and directed by Nicole Holofcener (“Please Give,” “Friends with Money,” “Lovely & Amazing”), but the women in it are fairly awful. Marianne is carping and bland; she seems like she’s floating in an ether of nothing. Her daughter, Tess (Eve Hewson), is spoiled and rude. Eva is just small. Only Eva’s daughter, Ellen (Tracey Fairaway), is worth a damn.
Lessons are learned, I suppose, but they’re lessons we know. Eva learns she should speak her mind more. She asks the young massage client at the top of the stairs to help her with her table, and he does, apologizing profusely all the way. So that works. She tries to reconnect with Albert. The ending of the movie is the picture on the poster: the two of them sitting on his back steps, maybe together, maybe not. It’s an ambivalent ending for a movie that still feels all tied up in a neat bow.
Thursday February 27, 2014
Gabriel Sherman: 'Paranoia is Essential to Understanding Roger Ailes'
This afternoon, Gabriel Sherman, author of “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Bombastic, Brilliant Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country,” which is much recommended, held an online chat on Reddit, and I arrived in time to ask him two questions.
The first—based upon this post—was kind of lame, since it asked what couldn't really be answered. Still, I was curious if it brought up anything interesting from Sherman. I've done enough Q&As to realize that the best questions can get you nothing while the worst can open up a goldmine. Not really a rationale for asking bad questions, but ... You ask what interests you.
Q: Do you feel Roger Ailes' paranoia, chronicled in the last part of the book, is a consequence of how he lived his life? I.e., he expects his enemies to be as ruthless with him as he's always been with them?
Sherman: Paranoia is essential to understanding Roger Ailes. I'm a reporter, not a novelist, so I can't be in his head. But following the adage that “action reveals character,” I think your question gets at something. Ailes has certainly justified his behavior in the past by projecting the worst motives onto his enemies. One instance: at NBC, at the apex of the anti-Semitism investigation, Ailes claimed his opponents were “un-American” because they were challenging his abusive management style. Ailes also talks of people being “spies,” which is revealing, since he's a man who has had private investigators follow people and spy on them.
If you've read the book, the second question is inevitable. McGinniss and Ailes were friends in the late 1960s, so ...
Q: Did Ailes ever mention anything about Joe McGinniss moving next door to Sarah Palin? He was once friends with the former, and never with the latter, despite the former being a conservative bete noire and the latter being a conservative icon. So I'm curious if he ever went on the record on the subject.
Thursday February 27, 2014
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Stephen Dedalus, eat your heart out:
We recently digitized some slides, and this was one of them. Age ... 4? Yes, that's a snowman. And, yes, he's dropping a hat. He already has one on his head, see? That's why he's dropping it.
I think I actually remember that logic. I think I made an error and so I made the error into a hat. Which he was dropping. Because he had one on his head.
Such logical stretches are what I have long forged in the smithy of my soul.
Wednesday February 26, 2014
Roger Ailes' Just Desserts
After reading Gabriel Sherman's “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Bombastic, Brilliant Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country,” and after spending a few weeks absorbing it, I came to this conclusion:
It's a story about just desserts.
First, let me say the book is, yes, a fair and balanced portrait of Ailes, the president of Fox News. It doesn't go for the low blow. It's not overtly partisan. It's not tabloidy. Meaning it's not like Fox News. It's researched and written by a professional.
It turns out that Ailes' own story undercuts Fox News ideology. The network is one of the great promoters of the notion that the wealthy, the “job creators,” deserve what they have, while the rest of us are more or less leeches. Fox's bugaboos are “socialism” and “redistribution of wealth.” The rich work hard for what they have. They should keep it. Why give it away to the less-deserving?
Ailes, too, worked hard to get where he is. No doubt. So how does that undercut Fox News ideology?
Because it isn't just hard work. It's never just hard work.
Ailes was also a relentless self-promoter and a bastard, A kind person might say he was driven but the rest of us would simply call him ruthless. He was a mighty, mighty sonofabitch.
Here's an example from late in the book. It's shortly after Richard Shea becomes town supervisor of Cold Spring, NY, where Ailes lives:
A few weeks later, Shea discovered just what life with Roger Ailes as a constituent would mean. On Sunday morning, January 10, he received a string of frantic phone calls from friends in town. Ailes had been calling around ranting about a front-page New York Times profile of him that appeared in that morning’s paper. “My takeaway was that this guy [Ailes] is pretty much threatening me,” Shea was quoted saying about the town forum. Friends told Shea he had made a big mistake. “You can’t mention Ailes’s name in the press,” they said.
Later that day, his phone rang. “You have no fucking idea what you’ve done!” Shea immediately recognized the voice. “You have no idea what you’re up against. If you want a war you’ll have a battle, but it won’t be a long battle.” “It was an accurate portrayal of the exchange,” Shea said calmly. “If you’re offended I’m sorry about that, but it was accurate.” “Listen,” Ailes seethed, “don’t be naive about these things. I will destroy your life.”
There's also his muckraking of other journalists, his “search and destroy” approach to the competition. Ailes' friends once called this “ratfucking”:
[Ailes] set up an anonymous blog called The Cable Game that took shots at his rivals. Ailes assigned Fox News contributor Jim Pinkerton to write the entries. “The Cable Game was Roger’s creation,” one person close to Ailes said. “Is CNN on the Side of the Killers and Terrorists in Iraq?” one headline read. “David Brock Gets Caught! (Although Secretly, He Probably Loves Being Naughty and Nasty),” blared another. The item’s text was accompanied by a photo of Brock posing in a skintight tank top with Congressman Barney Frank ...
Lewis’s staff regularly fed reporters with embarrassing news and gossip about Fox’s competitors. After Andy Lack was quoted in the Times declaring he was “America’s news leader,” a Fox PR person sent an email to reporters that featured the quote and a Photoshopped picture of Lack’s face superimposed onto Napoleon’s body. After MSNBC anchor Ashleigh Banfield generated positive headlines for her post-9/11 dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan—which featured her head wrapped in a shawl and her Clark Kent–style glasses peeking out—Lewis’s deputy, Robert Zimmerman, wanted to embarrass her in The Washington Post. “Take her out,” Brian Lewis told him. Zimmerman called Post reporter Paul Farhi and fed him a tip that foreign correspondents were laughing that Banfield, despite her intrepid image as a foreign correspondent, was scared to leave her hotel.
There's tons of this stuff in the book. Ailes didn't just try to destroy ideological opponents. He goes after like-minded folks who are disloyal or no longer useful. He terrorized three kids who for a time ran his small-town newspaper. They wound up fleeing the town as if from a monster.
At least Ailes' boss is a kindred spirit:
Long before the world would learn about News Corp’s practice of phone hacking, Murdoch was encouraging his executives to push boundaries, and to carve out their terrain and defend it, ignoring reputational concerns that normally bred caution. “At most organizations, there’s a lot of low-level people who want to take risks,” a former News Corp executive explained. “The further up it gets, more people say, ‘No, we can’t do that.’ News Corp is the opposite. People at the top are like, ‘What are you doing? Go out there and start something.’”
All of which takes us to the just desserts.
The last part of the book portrays Ailes as not just ruthless but paranoid. He feels he's surrounded by enemies. He's paranoid about the Chinese, and liberals, and who knows who, so he buys up properties adjacent to his own so his enemies can't get him. He's creating a kind of moat. He's walling himself up from the world. More than he already does.
Why? Because he assumes everyone is as awful as he is.
He's spent his life struggling to get to the top of the heap, and he's done it, more or less. And as he stands there, triumphant, he sees, all around, others struggling to get up to him, to do to him what he did to others. Some might in fact be interested in doing that. They want his place. Why not? It's a powerful place. But he sees these people everywhere. He sees ulterior motives everywhere because he always has ulterior motives. He sees plots everywhere because he always has plots. He's a tragic figure in this way. You'd almost feel sorry for him if he wasn't such a ruthless bastard ruining the country he thinks he's saving.
“The Loudest Voice in the Room” is worth your time. It's worth learning about where this man came from, where he's going, and what he's done. And what he's done to us.
Murdoch and Ailes, without ruth.
Tuesday February 25, 2014
Rupert Murdoch on the Downside of Watergate
“Though separated by class and culture, Ailes and Murdoch were men of the same mind. The self-appointed elites of journalism elicited their unbridled disgust. Watergate particularly stung, and Murdoch spoke of it in Ailesian terms, long before the two met. 'The American press might get their pleasure in successfully crucifying Nixon,' Murdoch told a friend, 'but the last laugh could be on them. See how they like it when the Commies take over the West.'”
Tuesday February 25, 2014
Movie Review: Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim (2012)
The audience broke into rapturous applause at the end of György Pálfi’s “Final Cut: Ladies and Gentlemen” (“Final Cut: Hölgyeim és uraim”) at SIFF Uptown in Seattle the other night.
My reaction in the back row: “Really?”
The movie’s a cute idea. Create a movie out of the history of boy-meets-girl cinema. Give movie lovers the ultimate movie.
So what’s the story Pálfi comes up with?
Well, the man’s eyes open as Jake Sully, Jim Carrey and John Savage. He gets out of bed as Ronald Coleman, showers as Michael Douglas, looks in the mirror as Jack Nicholson, shaves as Humphrey Bogart. Putting on his clothes he’s Charlie Chaplin. He looks in the mirror and points at himself as Jon Voight. Then he’s out on the street, strutting, as John Travolta ... and Choi Min-sik ... and William Holden. Then he bumps into the girl (Audrey Tautou, et al.) and is transfixed like ... Well, I lost track of them all. But you get the idea.
So it’s a cute idea. It required a lot of editing. Three years of editing, according to the trailer. The trailer also tells us these organizations (or maybe somebody at the festivals themselves?) felt this way:
- “An odds-on candidate for the greatest movie ever made.” – New York Film Festival
- “A true declaration of love for the 7th art.” – Festival de Cannes
- “If you get a chance ... fucking see it.” – Twitch Film
Except ... no.
I went out of curiosity, hoping to see something more than a YouTube montage. It is ... but not by much.
Maybe I was hoping for a better story? But this is the story:
The guy wakes up and goes outside and sees the girl. He follows her to a music hall, where she’s putting on a show. He goes backstage and asks her out. They go the movies. The next day it’s her turn to wake up ... as Snow White, Scarlett O’Hara, Eliza Doolittle. (The women waking up is so much better—not to mention more iconic.) The man’s waiting, reading a newspaper, smoking. Then they’re out dancing. Then they kiss. Then—boom!—sex. A lot of sex scenes, actually, some pretty racy. We get orgasm, and post-coital conversation, and talk of marriage. But then somebody bursts in! The rival! It’s a showdown. The old west. It’s knives, swords, lightsabers, fisticuffs. The hero is bloody and wounded! But wins! And proposes! And the girl says yes. She says yes like Molly Bloom says yes, over and over. I like that bit, actually. All of those yeses, one after the other. But this should be the end of the movie, right—the wedding—yet we’re only a third of the way through. What’s left?
What’s left is life. We get the everyday. The commute as Jack Lemmon. The time in the office as Ethan Hawke. A Chinese colleague plants a seed. He says he saw the man’s wife stepping out with another guy. The man dismisses it. At home she’s doing the housework as Paulette Godard. She answers the phone as Julie Roberts. Is it her lover? No, her doctor. She’s pregnant! She wants to share the news with the man. But, alas, he’s too busy. Or suspicious? “Don’t call me at work,” he says, and they drift apart on mutual misconception. One day he follows her and peeps in on her taking off her clothes. Oh, the pain! Except, no, she’s at the doctor’s. But he doesn’t know this. So he confronts her, slaps her, calls her whore. She runs to a friend’s. He mopes, sees a notice about war, signs up, goes off, and dies. Yes, dies.
So is that it? That’s the story?
No. Superman turns back time. I’m not kidding. And the man is able to go back to a moment where he communicates with the woman. And they reunite. And live happily ever after.
The big joke at the end? He’s now the undead, Gary Oldman of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and takes a bite out of Winona Ryder.
And that’s the end. Rapturous applause.
I’d given up on it long before. “Final Cut,” rather than an homage to cinema, flattens cinema for me. It reminds us how similar it all is. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy dies and becomes Dracula thanks to Superman.
I think my favorite moment was early in the courtship. She spreads her legs as Sharon Stone, he smiles as Norman Bates, then we see Maria’s face from “Metropolis” wink creepily. That made me laugh out loud. The only other times I laughed had more to do with Chaplin than Pálfi.
Over 450 films. Over three years of editing. And it still feels like something I’d appreciate but wouldn’t quite finish on YouTube.
Monday February 24, 2014
Quote of the Day: Harold Ramis
“I have a great respect for the moviegoing experience. It’s such a unique thing. You’re not getting up and walking around the house or flipping channels during the dull parts. You’re in a dark space, and the movie fills most of your field of vision. You’re surrounded by sound, and the colors are deeply saturated, and faces are fifteen feet high. If it’s done well, you’re really going to feel some big emotions or have some big belly laughs. That’s why I’ve tried to stay away from mild satire. I want an audience to feel something more powerful for their ten bucks. If they’re going to spend two hours with me, I’d like to take them someplace special.”
-- Harold Ramis, who either wrote, directed or co-starred in (or all three) “Animal House,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” “National Lampoon's Vacation,” “Ghostbusters” and “Groundhog Day,” in an interview with The Believer magazine in 2006. He died today at the age of 69.
Monday February 24, 2014
Harold Ramis: 1944-2014
Ramis (right) in “Stripes”: the triumph of the self-amused.
Harold Ramis. OK, that surprises. That’s unwelcome.
I was one of those guys who found SCTV in syndication in the mid-1970s, then found it again on PBS, then NBC late nights. I kept looking for it and finding it before its cast scattered into other, lesser projects. Or greater projects. Or both. Generally both. But my favorite episodes were those early episodes when Ramis was still on board.
He always seemed like he had a private joke going. He knew something was funny. Not the skit, necessarily. Everything else. Life. He was self-amused.
Apparently, in the early days of SCTV (the Chicago troupe not the Canadian TV show), he played the wild and crazy one. Then he came back from a trip to Europe to find a new guy, John Belushi, had usurped his role. So Ramis became the intellectual. That was probably a better fit anyway. He became “Specs.” The droll one. He became the guy with the private joke.
“Moe Green” is a private joke. On “SCTV,” Moe hosted this and that show, and became station manager for a time, but the name was stolen from “The Godfather.” For years, I couldn’t watch that tense scene where Fredo warns his younger brother, “Mikey, you don’t come to Las Vegas and talk to a man like Moe Greene like that!” without laughing out loud. Ramis basically ruined the scene for me. I kept thinking of Moe on “Dialing for Dollars” when the “prize jackpot giveaway,” for anyone who could name the late-night movie, was … (cue Ramis mopping his brow] … twenty-four dollars. Didn’t the late-night movie run long once? Wasn’t he calling people at like 2 am and getting grief? Didn’t he call the Pope? And his mother? I always liked those bits. I always liked Ramis mopping his brow.
You can tell the world he came out of: “Dialing for Dollars,” “Sunrise Semester,” late-night movies: that staid, surburban TV world. He mocked it all. Then he went on to bigger targets.
With Doug Kenney and Chris Miller, he wrote “Animal House.” With Doug Kenney and Brian Doyle Murray, he wrote “Caddyshack,” and directed it. Then he and Len Blum and Dan Goldberg wrote “Stripes,” and Ramis co-starred in it. As Russell Ziskey, the pacifist Jew who becomes the mad-dog soldier, he nearly upstages Bill Murray. That bit (above) where Ziskey overreacts to John Candy’s heart-felt talk? I did that for five years. So, yes, Ramis has some things to answer for.
In 1984, he and Aykroyd wrote “Ghostbusters” and it became the No. 1 movie of the year. Ten years later, he and Danny Rubin wrote “Groundhog Day,” and Ramis directed it. Apparently he and Murray had a falling out over that one. Murray wanted it more philosophical, Ramis wanted it funnier. Maybe that’s the tension that makes it work.
In its obit, The Chicago Tribune writes this:
As zany as Ramis’ early comedies were, they rigorously pursued a theme close to the heart of someone who grew out of the 1960s counterculture: characters rebelling against institutions, be they authoritarian college administrators and pampered rich kids (“Animal House”), a stuffy golf club (“Caddyshack”) or the military (“Stripes”).
I’d hold back on “Stripes,” which actually gave us a more nuanced perspective of rebellion. It’s one of the first post-Vietnam movies I encountered where the career military man, Sgt. Hulka (Warren Oates), is actually a positive force. The movie recognizes the emptiness in rebellion, in mocking everything and believing in nothing. In its own way, it led to “Groundhog Day,” where you can’t just be a jackass all the time and expect the world to keep spinning.
In the last 20 years, every once in a while, I’d see Ramis in a movie and smile. There he was as the genial (but overweight!) doctor on “As Good as It Gets.” There he was as Seth Rogen’s dad in “Knocked Up." I thought: Will he always play the Jewish dad from now on? Or is that Eugne Levy’s role?
Yeah, he made some schlock: “Stuart Saves His Family,” “Multiplicity,” “Bedazzled.” But he turned down more of it. I love his 2006 interview with THE BELIEVER magazine:
BLVR: Rumor has it that you turned down the chance to direct Disney’s remake of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner because you felt they weren’t interested in really exploring racism.
RAMIS: The way they wanted to do it didn’t have a lot to do with the colossal amount of pain and violence that swirls around racial injustice. It would’ve been like an episode of The Jeffersons. What’s the point? But who knows, maybe that’s as much as most people want. I can’t tell you how many people have told me, “When I go to the movies, I don’t want to think.”
BLVR: Does that offend you as a filmmaker?
RAMIS: It offends me as a human being. Why wouldn’t you want to think? What does that mean? Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?
I like this quote, too, where he basically articulates why the GOP is never funny:
It's hard for winners to do comedy. Comedy is inherently subversive. We represent the underdog, since comedy usually speaks for the lower classes. We attack the winners.
Early on, he even attacked the ultimate winner, who got him today:
If there’s anything to know, now he knows. Rest in peace, Moe.
Monday February 24, 2014
Movie Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)
The last time we saw Jack Ryan he was played by Ben Affleck and his fall 2001 movie, “The Sum of All Fears,” became a spring 2002 release because of a little thing called 9/11.
So it makes a kind of sense that the new movie, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit,” begins on 9/11. Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) is a student at the London School of Economics and wakes up from a nap on a campus bench. There’s a buzz, people rushing about, most running toward TV sets, where, yes, the twin towers are ablaze. Ryan is stunned. “You’re American, aren’t you?” a fellow student says. “Sorry, mate.” Like America, Ryan is awake now.
It’s not a bad beginning and it allows us to contemplate the various cinematic incarnations of Jack Ryan against the course of history.
He first showed up as Alec Baldwin to help Sean Connery defect from Russia a year before the fall of the Soviet Union. Two years later, he aged 18 years (from 32 to 50) by becoming Harrison Ford, who battled the smaller game after the Cold War: a renegade faction of the IRA and a Colombian drug cartel. With Affleck, he became young again (30) and matched wits with an Austrian neo-Nazi intent on blowing up Baltimore (hence the delay in the film’s release). Now, with Pine, though he’s a bit older (34), he’s starting over. This is a post-9/11 Ryan but oddly his foe is an old one: the Russians. An old Soviet faction wants to destroy America by 1) blowing up half of Wall Street at the same time it 2) sells off enough financial assets to sink the U.S. dollar and thus the world economy.
All in all, it’s not a bad action-thriller.
Zero to 60
For one, there are no “betrayals” within the CIA. That’s a nice change. (See the “Mission: Impossible” movies.) Plus the villain is good: director Kenneth Branagh. Plus some of the dialogue is very good.
At one point, for example, Ryan’s fiancée, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley), who only recently discovered Ryan was CIA, is having drinks with our villain, Viktor Cherevin (Branagh), in Moscow. He’s trying to win her over with Russian romanticism. She mentions regret, how awful it is, and he shrugs. “Regret, it piles up around us like books we haven’t read.” That’s a nice line. Adam Cozad (his first screenplay) or David Koepp (his zillionth)? Or someone else? Either way: good work.
But the movie takes a while to get going. After 9/11 we cut immediately to a helicopter in Afghanistan. Ryan is a lieutenant, arguing with his men about favorite football teams, when a missile strikes. He performs heroically but now we’re at Walter Reed hospital for rehab and recruitment into the CIA by Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who wants Ryan less for his heroic bod than for his analytical brain. Then they stick him undercover on Wall Street as a financial analyst. Then it’s 10 years later.
Nothing is really driving the movie at this point. He goes into work, helps a buddy win over a girl, can’t open an account—no, a bunch of them—from Cherevin’s company. There’s talk on the business channels of financial irregularities: Russia is opposed to some Turkish pipeline or something. That story is related to Cherevin’s accounts, of course. Aren’t they always? The background news story in the first act always blows up in the third.
At this point, Ryan, strictly an analyst, is pushed onto the field because nobody else can understand what he’s analyzing. He winds up in Russia for a meeting with Cherevin. Except the genial giant who picks him up at the airport (Nonso Anozie of “Game of Thrones”) tries to kill him in his hotel room. Ryan winds up drowning him in a foot of bathtub water, but he’s shaken. Harper has to come over to calm him down. Nice touch.
Costner’s good, by the way. So is Pine. Branagh is very good. Only Knightley, sadly, is off her game. Or maybe this is her game: to push her face into the scene with bright eyes and a curling, slightly self-aware smile. Plus her subplot—what secret is her boyfriend keeping from her?—is dull business.
The pace of the movie, to be honest, is uneven. It goes from zero to 60 too often. I like it revving at about 15, 20, but I know I’m an anomaly. I like the conversations between Ryan and Harper, Ryan and Cherevin. I like smart confrontation. At one point, Ryan and Cathy are arguing, and Ryan turns to Harper on a nearby couch:
Ryan: Can we have a minute, please?
Harper: No, you can’t.
That’s good. The last third is car chases and fist fights and damsels in distress. Ryan extracts Cherevin’s financial information from Moscow, sure, but could no one else stop the terrorist, Cherevin’s son, in lower Manhattan? Did that have to be Ryan, too? What are we paying the rest of the CIA for?
Zero to 50
The other Jack Ryan movies did OK box office. “The Hunt for Red October” was the sixth-highest-grossing movie of 1990 ($240 million, adjusted), while “Clear and Present Danger” (the Colombian one) was the seventh-highest-grossing movie of 1994 ($244 million, adjusted). This one is barely inching over $50 million.
At the end of the movie, about to meet the President, we get this exchange:
Harper: Any way you can get that boy-scout-on-a-field-trip look off your face?
Ryan: Not a chance.
Harper: That’s what I like about you.
Me, too. Apparently there’s not many of us.
Sunday February 23, 2014
Hollywood B.O.: Rare, Early Threepeat for 'Lego Movie' and 'Ride Along'
It's the last weekend in February and only two 2014 movies have topped the weekend box office charts: “Ride Along,” the buddy comedy starring Kevin Hart and Ice Cube, and “The Lego Movie.” That's rare. Movies, particularly at this time of year, are generally more disposable.
Compare with 2013 when by the eighth weekend we'd seen six 2013 movies top the charts: “Texas Chainsaw 3D” and “Mama” and “Hansel and Gretel” and “Warm Bodies” and “Identity Thief” and “A Good Day to Die Hard.”
Compare with 2012 when by the eighth weekend we'd seen eight 2012 movies top the charts: “The Devil Inside” and “Contraband” and “Underworld: Awakening” and “The Grey” and “Chronicle” and “The Vow” and “Safe House” and “Act of Valor.”
Last year, no movie reigned atop the box office charts for three weekends until “Gravity” did so in October. This year, it's February, and we already have two.
It helps to have lame competiton. Only two 2014 wide-release movies have been certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes: “Lego” (96%) and “About Last Night” (76%). “Ride Along” wasn't exactly for the critics, either (17%), but it's ridden the Kevin Hart wave to $123 million and counting. “Lego” is at $183 million and climbing. No other 2014 movie has broken $60 million.
So is this a trend? Are we finally tired of disposable movies? Are we coming together to watch the same thing again? To have the same conversation again?
Naw. So enjoy it while it lasts.
The weekend numbers via Box Office Mojo.
“The Lego Movie”: Keeping ahead of the other disasters.
Sunday February 23, 2014
'Henny Penny, When the Sky Fell' is Tamarian for ... ?
Ring a bell? In April 2003, when the press reported all the looting occurring in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam Hussein, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld didn't think it important. He said, “Stuff happens.” He talked about seeing on TV news the same shot of a man stealing the same vase over and over again. He said, “Is it possible that there were that many vases in the whole country?” The press corps, to its discredit, laughed along with him.
Rumsfeld also said, “And it was just Henny Penny, the sky is falling.”
Henny Penny is a compatriot of Chicken Little, the central figure in a folk tale about false hysteria over imminent doom. Rumsfeld was suggesting that the press, which tends to go negative, or at least sensational, was being hysterical about the looting. The world wasn't coming to an end. Things in Iraq weren't bad.
Except they were. Allowing the looting—of not only stores and buildings but national museums and archives—was the U.S.'s first toward losing the peace; toward losing, as we said in an earlier war, the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people.
Watching “No End in Sight,” I guess I turned that phrase over in my head until it wound up in the past tense, where it sounded distinctly Tamarian. For the non-“Star Trek” geeks in the crowd, Tamarian is a language of metaphor where historical or mythological incidents mean everyday things. So “Sokath, his eyes uncovered” means understanding. “Temba, his arms wide,” means a gift. And “Shaka, when the walls fell,” means failure.
And “Henny Penny, when the sky fell”?
It means the opposite of Henny Penny. It means when an authority figure dismisses an imminent doom that is in fact about to occur. It means when an authority figure dismisses the evidence at hand for the storyline in their head.
It means the sky is about to fall.
Heckuva job, Rummy.
Saturday February 22, 2014
Revisiting the 2011 and 2012 Best Picture IMDb Rankings
Today's post, plus past conversations with Reed, made me look back at the 2011/2012 best picture nominees and their IMDb ratings to see how they‘ve changed over time. Were these films more appreciated now? Or did they seem ordinary once the buzz died down?
|2011 Best Picture Nominee||Feb. 2012
|Midnight in Paris||7.8||7.7||7.7|
|The Tree of Life||7.1||6.8||6.7|
|Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close||6.4||6.8||6.9|
The basic rule with IMDb ratings is that gravity matters; the numbers tend to go down. But some have managed to go up year to year. Which movies? “The Help,” “War Horse” and “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” which also happen to be, to me, the three worst movies on the list. Two years ago we started with the best pic nominees in the order you see. Now, “The Help,” of all movies, is No. 1, while “The Tree of Life,” of all movies, is last.
So it goes.
As for last year’s best pic noms? Gravity takes it toll, yes:
|2012 Best Picture Nominees||2013 IMDb
|Life of Pi||8.3||8.1||-.2|
|Silver Linings Playbook||8.2||7.9||-.3|
|Zero Dark Thirty||7.7||7.5||-.2|
|Beasts of the Southern Wild||7.5||7.3||-.2|
They all went down, “Lincoln”in particular. Their order remains the same, though. And I do think 2012 was a bad year for best picture nominees, so it's probably deserved. Of course “The Dark Knight” doesn't deserve to be rated the fourth-greatest movie of all time, but that's another discussion.
All down. Lincoln down with a bullet.
Saturday February 22, 2014
IMDb's Highest-Rated Best Picture Nominee is Rotten Tomatoes' Lowest: Any Guesses?
When you think of the 2013 best picture nominees, if you think of the 2013 best picture nominees, you might see it as a battle between the popular, technically innovative ones (“Gravity”) versus the quietly artistic ones (“12 Years a Slave”) versus the bombastic, artistic ones (“American Hustle,” “The Wolf of Wall Street”).
So you might think that a movie like “Gravity,” the seventh highest-grossing film of the year, would do well on a user-rating site like IMDb.com and less well on a critics site like RottenTomatoes.com. Similarly, “The Wolf of Wall Street,” Martin Scorsese's three-hour opus to chicanery and debauchery on Wall Street in the 1990s, would do well with the critics and leave plain folks cold.
But it's almost the opposite. These are the best picture nominees as ranked by IMDb score:
|The Wolf of Wall Street||8.5|
|12 Years a Slave||8.4|
|Dallas Buyers Club||8.0|
I assumed “Wolf of Wall Street” would be difficult for a general audience and would rank lower, while “American Hustle,” more accessible and fun, would rank higher. Instead this.
Meanwhile, over at Rotten Tomatoes, the critics hold up “Gravity” and bundle Scorsese in the trunk of a car and whack him:
|12 Years a Slave||96%|
|Dallas Buyers Club||94%|
|The Wolf of Wall Street||77%|
77%? Veering toward rotten? So I doublechecked what “top critics,” as opposed to “all critics,” thought. Surely when you weed out the online fanboys, Marty's numbers would go higher. Nope. They actually drop: 70%.
As for IMDb, some part of me was still thinking, “Well, not enough people have seen 'The Wolf of Wall Street,' so folks easily offended, and Americans are nothing if not easily offended, haven't weighed in yet. Once they do, its number will drop.”
Except the domestic box office for Scorsese's movie is the third-highest among the nominees:
|Movie||Domestic Box Office|
|The Wolf of Wall Street||$111,518,691|
|12 Years a Slave||$48,554,723|
|Dallas Buyers Club||$24,449,501|
And its worldwide box office? Zoiks!
|Movie||Worldwide Box Office|
|The Wolf of Wall Street||$336,979,691|
|12 Years a Slave||$118,310,402|
|Dallas Buyers Club||$30,449,501|
I always think of Martin Scorsese as popular with critics and less so with moviegoers and at the box office. I know: Sex + Leo = $$$. Even so, if you'd asked me yesterday which best picture nominee had the lowest-rated Rotten Tomatoes score, the highest-rated IMDb score, and the second-highest worldwide box office, I would've guessed half the movies on the list before guessing “The Wolf of Wall Street” ... which was, of course, my favorite movie of 2013.
So kudos, people. You surprised a cynical man.
Here's to IMDb and worldwide box office. RT critics can get off the boat now.
Friday February 21, 2014
'Live from D.C., It's ... '
Supreme Court Anonymous.
In the middle of “Clarence Thomas' Disgraceful Silence,” a New Yorker article celebrating eight years of nothing from one of our sitting justices, which includes a good primer on who speaks up when and how during oral arguments, author Jeffrey Toobin adds this throwaway thought:
The Court’s arguments are not televised (though they should be), but they are public. They are, in fact, the public’s only windows onto the Justices’ thought processes ...
As soon as I read it, I thought, “Hey. Why don't they televise hearings? I mean, wouldn't that be cool?”
Cool for me anyway.
Think of it. It would make the whole process less mysterious. It would open things up. It would make the court's decisions accessible to more Americans. What's the argument against besides tradition? Besides the notion that the television screen reduces everything? That lawyers, not to mention justices, might play for the cameras rather than to history?
Guess what? There's an entire Wiki pages on the subject. I'm late to the party.
Here are the arguments against televising SCOTUS hearings, with comments from me:
- Requiring the proceedings ... to be televised is a threat to judicial independence and, thus, the separation of powers. I don't get this argument. How is it a threat? To either one?
- Justice Anthony Kennedy ... argues that the measure would not align with the “etiquette” and “deference” that should “apply between branches.” Why? Are the justices indelicate during arguments? And aren't the other branches already on television? So wouldn't this ... balance things?
- Furthermore, some justices believe televising the proceedings would change the way they act in the courtroom. This is an understandable reaction. I wouldn't want to be televised at my job, for example. But I'm not making new law every day, either. It's not what you want; it's what the country needs.
- Justice Clarence Thomas also contends that televising Court proceedings would reduce the level of anonymity that justices now have and could raise security concerns. Is this is an argument against taking photos, too? Because we do that. And it's not like the Court will be a ratings bonanza. It'll be CSPAN for lawyers rather than ... say ... the Thomas confirmation hearing.
- Opponents also believe that television coverage would also take away from the mystery of the court and cause the public to misinterpret the Court and its processes. I get this argument least of all. Less mystery equals ... more misinterpretation? They don't think much of us, do they?
Thoughts? Anyone? Bueller?
Friday February 21, 2014
Movie Review: The Past (2013)
In Asghar Farhadi’s “Le passé” (“The Past”), we often see the thing before knowing what the thing means.
So a pretty woman, Marie (Bérénice Bejo), greets a man, Ahmad (Ali Mosaffa), arriving at the airport, with a smile and a wave, but he’s not her lover; he’s her estranged husband returning to sign the divorce papers. So her lover, Samir (Tahar Rahim of “Un Prophete”), lies in bed while she administers eyedrops to him. The next day, in by-the-way fashion, we discover he’s allergic to all the paint scattered around the house. So the oldest daughter, Lucie (Pauline Burlet), is distant and uncommunicative with her mother. The story behind that, with its many twists and turns, takes most of the movie to tell.
We first see the thing, in other words, then we find out its past.
This is a beautiful movie, by the way. There are small, exquisite scenes. It all seems so simple. I kept wondering, “Why can’t other filmmakers make scenes that feel this real, this straightforward, this interesting?”
I’m thinking of an early scene. Ahmad arrives and expects to get a hotel room, but Marie is putting him up at her place. Is he thinking they’ll sleep together? One last time? But he finds out she’s living with a guy. Samir. He’s dropped into a situation. As are we.
There are two kids playing in her small yard: a boy and a girl. You expect them to squeal with delight when they see Ahmad but it takes a moment before the girl, Léa (Jeanne Justin), even realizes who he is; and even then the boy, Fouad (Elyes Aguis), just squints, frowns, doesn’t get it. But he doesn’t like it. This new man helps blowdry his mother’s hair? That seems ... wrong. (To us, too.) He has to move bedrooms to accommodate him? Fouad does so petulantly, dragging his blankets and pillows around, saying “What a pain.” Ahmad is gentle with him, though. He talks to him. By now we know Ahmad is not the boy’s father but it’s not until Fouad drags his pillow and blankets back downstairs and knocks over the paintcan in the hallway, and Marie blows up, chasing him around, that we find out she’s not his mother, either. “You’re not my mother!” he shouts. Then she leaves for work at a pharmacy and Ahmad is left to clean up both messes: the physical and the metaphoric. He does so with calm and grace. He gives the boy the one thing he doesn’t have: power and control. “Is it because I’m here?” he asks, about the acting out. “Do you want me to leave?” he asks. There’s a pause. Then Fouad quietly shakes his head.
That the small, exquisite scene I was thinking of.
The movie keeps doing this. There’s a moment, halfway through, with Samir and Marie in their car. Tensions have risen in the home, and between them, because, you know, her ex is staying with them. They kind of look alike, too, Samir and Ahmad. At least Lucie points this out to Ahmad. Does Samir wonder about it? In the car, stuck in traffic, they’re silent. Samir is driving, manual, then finds Marie’s hand on his on the stick. A conciliatory gesture? He looks at their hands together, then over at Marie, but she has her eyes closed as if in reverie. Is she thinking of Samir ... or Ahmad? Or is she just tired? But he shakes her hand off, which startles her awake. Now she wonders: Is he angry?
It’s a small, everyday scene, but so much is suggested by it.
Revelations keep coming. What happened to Fouad’s mother? Turns out she’s in a coma. For much of the movie, Ahmad is like a gentle detective of the heart, trying to figure out why Lucie, who is not his child, (none of them are), is estranged from Marie. It’s like peeling an onion. One answer just leads to another, deeper answer.
First Lucie says she doesn’t like “that jerk,” Samir. Then she admits it’s more about her mother: Men stay for a few years, then leave, and Lucie is tired of it. Ahmad is implicated here, too. Then Lucie admits it’s the affair: her mother had an affair with Samir, and afterwards Samir’s wife tried to kill herself, and that’s why she’s in a coma. They caused it. With their affair. Awful stuff. Or did they? Samir doesn’t think so. He runs a dry cleaner, and five days before the suicide attempt his wife had a meltdown with a customer. The attempted suicide had nothing to do with him and Marie. His wife didn’t even know about it.
Except she did. Because Lucie told her. That’s the awful secret Lucie’s been carrying. That’s why she’s been distant. She can’t bear her own culpability.
In this way we keep getting deeper into the past until it threatens the stability of the present. Or is it merely clearing the way for the present? Or both?
The last third of the movie belongs to Samir, who begins his own detective work of the heart. Lucie called his wife at the dry cleaner’s the day before her suicide? But his wife wasn’t at the dry cleaner’s the day before her suicide. So is Lucie lying? Or is there another explanation?
Near the end, we get talk about letting go of the past, living in the present, yadda yadda. A lesser movie would’ve gone in this direction. It would’ve given us this wish-fulfillment fantasy, this correct way of being, this problem solved. Not here. Here, Samir visits his comatose wife, bringing along her perfumes and his cologne in a last-ditch effort to revive her. He’s heard the olfactory memory is our longest-lasting—Proust was right about that—and he wants to test it. But nothing happens. And we see him walking away from the room, and down the hallway, and away from the past.
A lesser movie would’ve ended there.
But Samir stops, turns, pauses. A better movie might’ve ended there: man forever caught between past and present, like Antoine Doinel at the shore.
Instead, Farhadi (“A Separation”) has Samir walk back into the room. He tries once more with the cologne. “If you can hear me,” he tells his wife, “squeeze my hand.” Then the camera pans to his hand in her open hand. We’re watching, waiting, for any movement. But there isn’t any. That’s it.
And that’s the best ending of all for “The Past.” A man being held, and not, by something that’s dead, and isn’t.
Thursday February 20, 2014
Fantastic Four Reboot: The World's Youngest Superheroes
The cast for the Fantastic Four reboot was announced yesterday, and, looking at the picture below, it took me a while to piece together who was who.
Sure, Sue Storm. But initially I thought Jamie Bell, with the ears, was Mr. Fantastic. Maybe because he looks older? And if Kate Mara is Sue Storm and Michael B. Jordan is Johnny Storm, one of them has to be adopted, n'est-ce pas? Unless Mr. or Mrs. Storm remarried. Or we're all colorblind like Stephen Colbert.
Reed, Sue, Ben, Johnny.
But my main thought was everyone's main thought: Wow, they're young.
I know. It's Ultimate Fantastic Four, in which our heroes are young.
Even so, they're young. Kate Mara, at 31, is the oldest. She was was born in February 1983. Jamie Bell came three years later, in March 1986. Both Jordan and Miles Teller were born in 1987: Feb 9 and Feb. 20, respectively. Which means Mr. Fantastic is actually the youngest of the Fantastic Four. No gray temples for you, buddy. It also means we have another British actor, Bell, playing a quintessential American superhero, Ben Grimm, aka The Thing. Wotta revoltin' development.
But at least they're all good actors. And it's directed by Josh Trank (b. 1985), who didn't do poorly with “Chronicle.”
Besides, it couldn't be worse than the previous “Fantastic Four” movies, could it? Could it, Fox Studios?
Thursday February 20, 2014
To Like and Be Liked in Return
Last night I watched “Generation Like” on PBS's Frontline and wanted to kill myself afterwards. It's about the online world, and social media, and how corporations pitch to kids and kids pitch to each other, and how little starlets are made from all this. And how money is made from all this.
A lot of it is obvious—your likes are added to the pool of likes and constitute market research which is monetized—so why did it depress me so? Perhaps because it shows some aspect of my own desires (attention, fame, hits) turned to 11. Perhaps because it reveals how bad I am at this game. (Of course, I still think people want to read.) Perhaps because there doesn't seem to be anything else. It's just this airless, clueless world.
I think the most depressing moment was when author Douglas Rushkoff asked kids about being a “sell out” or the concept of “selling out” and they didn't know what it was. They couldn't define it. They had no clue.
Identifying yourself by what you like is an old concept. Milan Kundera wrote about identifying yourself by the method of addition (likes) or subtraction in his novel “Immortality” but he goes further:
Here is that strange paradox to which all people cultivating the self by way of the addition method are subject: they use addition in order to create a unique, inimitable self, yet because they automatically become propagandists for the added attributes, they are actually doing everything in their power to make as many others as possible similar to themselves; as a result, their uniqueness (so painfully gained) quickly begins to disappear.
Wanting to be liked is an even older concept. But that's all there appears to be in this world. To like and be liked by dozens or hundreds or thousands or millions. For doing what? Skateboarding? No, harassing girls. For singing? No, just talking. For pushing this or that corporate product. For being the person with 300K likes. It's all turned up to 11. It's icky.
After it was over, and not learning my lesson, I tweeted something about it, and that tweet was immediately “favorited” by someone else. But it was one of those fake Twitter accounts, with the pretty girl on it, and the garbled tweets, and a decided lack of followers. It was someone pretending to be human. There was no one there.
Wednesday February 19, 2014
You're Not Reading This
Here's a quote from Alex Pareene's excellent piece, “Wow. Facebook Just Did Something to Crummy Meme Sites. And What They Do Next Might Shock Everyone,” on Salon.com:
One of the open secrets of the Internet is that no one reads anything on the Internet. People do go around clicking on all sorts of things, but the majority of people who clicked on this piece stopped reading it a few paragraphs ago.
A few things:
- I always forget this open secret. Probably because I'm a writer. Some part of me always thinks, “If I just make it interesting enough ...” Some part of me is still thinking that.
- It's always nice to outlast others, even in something like reading.
- Read Pareene's whole piece. I don't keep up with all this—the switch in Facebook's algorithms and which sites it helps, etc.—but I do care about it. Not to mention the whole “What's the future of journalism?” discussion and the effect, positive or negative, Facebook could have on it. Google, too, by the way. I've been complaining about that for years.
Tuesday February 18, 2014
Song of the Day: ‘Plain Speak’ by Joe Henry
A blind man looks out from your eyes ...
New album is out in spring.
Tuesday February 18, 2014
Movie Review: No End in Sight (2007)
Charles Ferguson’s “No End in Sight” is the doc Fox News doesn’t want you to watch. It’s the era Fox News doesn’t want you to remember. It’s a time of massive, chest-thumping hubris, swagger, and general loutishness, and it’s all reflected here. I’ve watched it three or four times now. I’d make every American watch it if I could. This is our story. We made it happen.
Ferguson begins his doc near the end and ends it near the beginning, and both scenes, both quotes, are devastating.
The first is from Nov. 8, 2006, the day after the 2006 midterm elections, when Donald Rumsfeld finally stepped down as U.S. Secretary of Defense. His joie de vivre gone but his hubris undiminished, Rumsfeld said the following:
The great respect that I have for your leadership, Mr. President, in this little-understood, unfamiliar war, the first war of the 21st century. It is not well-known, it was not well-understood; it is complex for people to comprehend. And I know with certainty that, over time, the contributions you've made will be recorded by history.
Rumsfeld was right. The war was complex and little-understood; but it was little understood by him, and by Bush and Cheney and Wolfowitz and Bremer. They simplified it. They Hollywoodized it. They thought they were in one movie (John Wayne, WWII) when they were in another (“The Battle of Algiers”).
He was also right in this way: the contributions he and Bush and the others made have been recorded by history.
What’s always surprising about “No End” is how little it deals with the lead-up to the war: the bogus reasons we attacked in the first place: WMD, “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” the conflation of al Qaeda and Iraq. This is awful stuff, criminal stuff, but Ferguson gives it maybe two minutes of screentime. Because worse stuff came later.
First, we didn’t have a plan for post-war Iraq. Not really. We didn’t prep for it. We didn’t study.
But at least the State Department crammed and came up with recommendations: “The Future of Iraq Project.” Unfortunately, under NSPD-24, control for post-war Iraq was given to the Defense Dept., and Donald Rumsfeld, who promptly ignored State’s hard work.
Rumsfeld also ignored the recommendations of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Eric Shinseki, who, before the U.S. Armed Services Committee, suggested we would need several hundred thousand soldiers to keep the peace in occupied Iran, rather than the 100K or so Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz recommended as part of their newer, sleeker military. Criticized by Bush loyalists, Shinseki was immediately proven right.
The war proper began on March 20, 2003, and was effectively over by early April when Baghdad fell. But then the looting began.
Rumsfeld joked about it. “Stuff happens.” “Henny Penny, the sky is falling.” The “vases” thing. But it was real and it was—this word again—devastating. Iraq’s national museum wasn’t protected. Its national library and national archives were burned to the ground. Imagine if a country invaded the U.S. to save us from our own dictator and then stood around while our national archives and museums were looted? There goes the Spirit of St. Louis. There goes the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Americans might get pissed off. They might begin to wonder about their liberators.
“We’re Marines,” says Lt. Seth Moulton, one of the doc’s many effective talking heads. “We can certainly stop looting if that’s our assigned task.” But it wasn’t. It was the opposite of their assigned task.
Then came general lawlessness: kidnappings, rape, murder.
But at least we had a good team going in: ORHA, the Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, led by former Gen. Jay Garner, and including Col. Paul Hughes and Ambassador Barbara Bodine. Sure, when they arrived, the buildings had been stripped bare. “We had no phone lists,” Bodine says here, adding, “But we had no phones for a while, so ...” But at least they were smart and dedictated and knew something about the country they were in.
Except ORHA was then replaced by the CPA, the Coalition Provisional Authority, and Garner was replaced by L. Paul Bremer, who, like most everyone else suddenly in charge, had never been to Iraq, had no postwar reconstruction experience, and had never served in the military. Of course he spoke no Arabic.
As head of the CPA he made various disastrous decisions, such as granting foreign contractors immunity from Iraqi law (consider that for a moment), but Ferguson doesn’t even get to this stuff. That happened later. The more disastrous moves occurred within a month of his appointment. Before he even set foot in Iraq, he issued the following orders:
- He stopped the formation of an interim Iraqi government
- He created a policy of De-Ba’athification
- He disbanded the Iraqi military
The first edict meant the country remained occupied while its own people had no voice. So it was somewhat humiliating.
The second meant permament unemployment for 50,000 people—the very people who knew how to make bureaucracy and government work. So it made everything more inefficient at a time of great inefficiency. It also humiliated the people involved.
The third edict, disbanding the military, was, according to Ferguson’s doc, the worst of these decisions. In a time of anarchy and general lawlessness, the Iraqi military was one of the few organizations that could uphold the law and stem the chaos. Instead, we scattered them. We put 300,000 soldiers out of work. It humiliated the people involved.
And they had guns.
It’s horrific to watch. We get one bad decision after another. Our postwar Iraq experience is almost a test case in what not to do. It should be studied in this manner.
Maybe there was some rationale for these decisions, but the main architects of the war, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Bremer, et al., refused to be interviewed for this doc. Only Walter Slocombe, Bremer’s right-hand man, officially the Senior Advisor for Security and Defense to the CPA, bothered to show up. I’m sure he regrets it. He comes off horribly. Initially he’s smirking. Then he’s defending his awful, awful decisions. His eyes get shifty. By the end, he seems a hollow man.
So do I, to be honest. You know how devastated Father Vogler looks at the end of “Amadeus” after hearing Antonio Salieri’s long condemnation of God and man? That’s how I always feel at the end of “No End in Sight.” The doc is a testament to the dangers of hubris, of ignoring evidence, of having already made up your mind. Again, it should be required viewing. Because we may have moved on from Iraq, but a great portion of the country, a powerful portion, haven’t moved on from this mindset.
They were, in fact, bragging about this mindset even as people were dying. In 2004, an unnamed Bush aide, later identified as Karl Rove, told Ron Suskind the following in The New York Times Magazine:
We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors ... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.
“No End in Sight” is, I suppose, a judicious study of the actors of the Iraq War, and the new reality that the Bush adminstration tried to create there. It failed miserably, obviously, and that failure had consequences, massive consquences, for millions of lives, even as Rove and others have gone on to create “their own reality” elsewhere. Even as Rove’s 2004 taunt has become the central precept of the GOP and Fox News.
Ferguson ends “No End in Sight” with Pres. Bush’s words in his 2003 State of the Union address, in which he said the following about the impending war:
We will bring to the Iraqi people ... food ... and medicines ... and supplies ... and freedom.
Our representatives applaud.
Monday February 17, 2014
Why the Presidency Keeps Flip-Flopping Between Parties
I recently came across this quote from Karl Rove, which he said in The New Yorker in 2001:
As people do better, they start voting like Republicans ... unless they have too much education and vote Democratic, which proves there can be too much of a good thing.
It's cute, kind of funny, but focus on the first part for a moment. I think there's some truth there.
As people do better under Democratic presidents and policies, e.g., Bill Clinton's, they begin to vote Republican. But as they do worse under Republican presidents and policies, e.g., George W. Bush's, they rush to the Democrats to save them. Then they forget again and down the line vote Republican again.
Thus the presidency keeps flip-flopping between parties. Inevitably.
If I were an optimistic man, I'd say we'd wise up one day. If I were an optimistic man.
“I believe Ham Rove is right ... ”
Monday February 17, 2014
Derek Jeter's Hits Parade: Where Will He Wind Up in the Record Book?
When it comes to WAR, Jeter's better on offense than defense.
So my arch-nemesis Derek Jeter is hanging up his spikes at the end of the 2014 season. I get the feeling I'll miss him. I get the feeling I'll feel about him the way I feel about former Yankee Paul O'Neill, whom I despised until he retired, then admitted he was one tough out. I still remember that 10-pitch walk O'Neill drew in the bottom of the 9th of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series when the Mets were up by a run. A lot of ones at that point: Game 1, one out, one run ahead for the Mets. But O'Neill kept fouling off pitches from Armando Benitez. He finally walked and eventually scored to tie the game on Chuck Knoblauch's sac fly. Derek Jeter, Mr. Clutch, followed with a strikeout to send the game into extras. The Yankees won in 12 and never looked back. And it all started with O'Neill.
I'm sure I'll feel this way about Jeter. Someday. Maybe.
Joe Posnanski had a good recent post on being overrated and underrated and how it applies to Derek Jeter. He suggests that while Jeter may have been overrated in getting press, and coverage, and girls, and being one of People magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People, all of this may have led to him being underrated in terms of, say, MVP honors, where he has none. An argument can be made.
An argument can also be made on where Jeter will wind up on the all-time leaderboard. That's what's most intrigued me since the retirement announcement.
Jeter is currently 10th on the all-time hits list with 3,316, and disaster would have to befall him if he didn't make ninth (Paul Molitor, 3,319). And if he went out with a bang and reached 200 hits again, as he did two years ago, he could wind up as high as fifth (Tris Speaker: 3514). But that's as high as he'll go. Stan the Man is currently fourth with 3,630. That's now unreachable.
Jeter is currently 15th in career at-bats with 10,614. Another 400 vaults him past Brooks Robinson, Paul Molitor, Craig Biggio, Willie Mays, Rickey Henderson, Stan Musial, and Dave Winfield, and all the way into seventh place (currently: Robin Yount with 11,008).
Runs scored? Currently 13th with 1,876. He needs another 74 to get into ninth place.
And that's about it in terms of top-10 possibilities. Jeter is 84th in batting average (.312), 161st in OBP (.381), 430th in slugging (.446). He's 38th in doubles (525), 190th in homeruns (256), 127th in RBIs (1,261), 112th in stolen bases (348). Hit by pitch? That's a bit higher: 17th with 164. One behind Kid Elberfeld. Maybe he should go out that way: in a blaze of glory.
And the negative stats? He's 18th in career strikeouts (1753); another 70 puts him at 13th. He's 19th in grounded into double plays (272), and had 24 in 2012. If he did something slmilar he could wind up in 12th place (Ted Simmons, 287).
His 94.1 Offensive WAR (Baseball Reference version) ranks 22nd all time, but his Defensive WAR (-9.2) isn't even in the top 1,000. Is it near the bottom? Both could go down, too. They went down last year. FWIW.
I guess the big question is whether Jeter can add to his postseason numbers. Because the extended playoffs began when Jeter began, and because he generally led off for a resurgent Yankees, he is the all-time postseason leader in games, at-bats, hits, runs, total bases and strikeouts. One hopes that's it. One hopes he's seen his last postseason game. The ankle one.
His impending retirement also means this: In 2015, we'll have new active leaders in most batting categories: games, at-bats, etc. If he's still playing, it'll be A-Rod. If he's not, it'll be Ichrio. Both are currently Yankees. Trivia: Who is the active leader in games, at-bats and hits who is not currently a Yankee? Would you believe him?
Sunday February 16, 2014
BAFTAs Spread Wealth Between '12 Years,' 'Gravity' and 'American Hustle'
The British Oscars, the BAFTAs (British Academy of Film and Television Arts), had their awards ceremony tonight and spread the wealth like the socialists they are.
- Best Film: “12 Years a Slave”
- Best Director: Alfonso Cuaron, “Gravity”
- Best Actor: Chiwetel Ejiofor, “12 Years a Slave”
- Best Actress: Cate Blanchett, “Blue Jasmine”
- Best Supporting Actor: Barkhad Abdi, “Captain Phillips”
- Best Supporting Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, “American Hustle”
- Best Original Screenplay: David O. Russell and Eric Warren Singer, “American Hustle”
- Best Adapted Screenplay: Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, “Philomena”
- Best Foreign Language Film: “The Great Beauty,” Paolo Sorrentino
- Best Documentary: “The Act of Killing,” Joshua Oppenheimer
It's not a bad list. Apparently the Oscar race, too, is between “12 Years” and “Gravity,” which is a shame since I'd prefer a battle between “Wolf of Wall Street” and “American Hustle.” I like the “Philomena” nod here, though, since I like that movie more than most Americans, who apparently had trouble with the portions. BAFTA's doc and foreign-language film are mine as well. Actor, I'd go McConaughey or DiCaprio, but no one's giving the latter much chance and the former wasn't even nominated. Supporting actor, I'd go Fassbender or Leto. But it's not a bad list. It's a good mix.
Oddly, “Gravity” won Best British Film, a whole other category, but I don't see anything particularly British about “Gravity.” It's set in outer space, stars two Americans, is directed by a Mexican. Why not “Philomena”? Or “12 Years,” which was set in America but starred mostly Brits (Ejiofor, Fassbender, Cumberbatch) and was directed by a Brit (McQueen)?
And what does this mean for the Oscars? Who knows? But the last time BAFTAs went for a best film other than the Academy's eventual best picture was in 2007 (“Atonement” vs. “No Country for Old Men”). The Brits actually had a good independent run there: “The Aviator” in 2004, “Brokeback Mountain” in 2005, “The Queen” in 2006. I prefer that list to the Academy's. Lately, though, they've been buddy-buddy.
Two weeks. Have you sent out your party invites yet? Have you received one?
Your BAFTA winner for best actor and best film ... but not best British film. Because nothing says 'British' more than two Americans in outer space.
Sunday February 16, 2014
Times Snodgrasses Fregosi Obit
This was the New York Times headline on the death of Jim Fregosi:
At least they got the “All Star” in there first.
It's not just the sentiment of the second part, it's the awkward construction. It's the passive voice. A man should never get the passive voice in his own obit.
And of course the headline recalls the Times hed from 1974 on the death of turn-of-the-century ballplayer Fred Snodgrass, which Ken Burns' “Baseball” documentary highlighted as part of the cruelty of baseball's long memory:
You live your life, make the Majors, go .300/.400/.400 in your first full season, become a banker and a rancher and a mayor, and what are you remembered for? Your Charlie Brown moment.
I wonder what Jim Fregosi would have said if you'd asked him what he remembered most about his career. Being a six-time All Star? Hitting .290 in the pitching-centric year of 1967? Leading the league in triples? Hitting for the cycle twice? One Gold Glove, some MVP votes, five different teams. But he gets no say in the matter.
At least he's remembered, which is more than most of us can say. There's comfort in that, Ernie Broglio.
Saturday February 15, 2014
Quote of the Day
“Civility itself took a dive with the rise of Fox, and has never recovered. The shouters, the boasters, the haters who show up at town hall meetings or pollute the Web with dark fantasies get their behavioral cues from Fox. O’Reilly is famous for telling guests to 'shut up,' for cutting off people he disagrees with, for smugly praising his own performances and bringing on sycophants to do the same. By comparison, Ron Burgundy is a model of humility.”
-- Timothy Egan, “Bill O'Reilly's Gift for the Ages,” The New York Times, Feb. 13, 2014
Cf. How Fox News and its viewers see themselves as the last bastions of the polite values of small-town America.
Friday February 14, 2014
Movie Review: Robocop (2014)
In the original “Robocop,” Alex Murphy (Peter Weller), a Detroit cop, dies, is reborn as a machine, and slowly becomes human again.
In this year’s reboot of “Robocop,” Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a Detroit cop, dies, is reborn as a machine, freaks out and tries to run away, then is reprogramed to perform at high, machine-like levels so he becomes, in effect, a passenger within his own body. “Alex believes he’s in control," Dr. Norton (Gary Oldman) says. “It’s the illusion of free will.” But when the database of all crimes committed in Detroit, including his own murder, is uploaded into his brain just before he’s trotted out to the press (smart, people), he freaks out again. So they drop his dopamine levels down to 2%, making him, in effect, so robotic he doesn’t recognize his wife and kid.
After all that, he slowly, sorta, becomes human again.
So, yeah, the story arc isn’t as clean.
Internecine vs. international
The original “Robocop,” directed by Paul Verhoeven and written by Edward Neumier and Michael Miner, was not only a great sci-fi/action movie; it was one of the better, more cynical movies I’ve seen about corporate malfeasance and infighting, big city bankruptcy, the marginalization of the news via entertainment, idiotic sitcoms and their catchphrases, as well as, you know, crime and the redemption of the soul. For most of the movie, Weller could only act with his mouth—everything else was covered—yet he still managed to convey so much. The movie had a lot of great lines, too, most of which I remember, some of which I still say:
- “Dead or alive, you’re coming with me.”
- “You a college boy?”
- “Oooh, guns guns guns.”
- “C’mon Sal, the Tigers are playing [raps on table] to-night. I never miss a game.”
- “I’ll buy that for a dollar!”
- “You give us a minute, we’ll give you the world.”
I don’t know if there are any good lines in this one. They revamp “I’ll buy that...” and “Dead or alive ... ” for the fanboys, but don’t come up with anything memorable of their own.
The news as infotainment, anchored by Leeza Gibbons, is gone now in favor of a Fox-News-like figure, Pat Novak (Samuel L. Jackson), of “The Novak Element,” who proselytizes for robot police officers. It’s the near future and the U.S. uses a robot army in places like “sunny Tehran,” where they police the streets scanning and terrifying the locals. This early bit isn’t bad. I particularly like how cowed the journalists are. They are essentially PR.
In the U.S., though, we have laws against robots with guns, the Dreyfuss law, since most Americans still don’t trust machines. Although one assumes they’re still mad about guns, guns, guns.
Ah, but the head of OmniCorp, Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), decides that if there’s an interim figure, a half-machine half-human figure, the public might accept him; and it might lead to the day, very quickly, when we accept robot police. At which point he’ll make a mint.
And hey, just around this time, Murphy is destroyed by a car bomb.
So while the battle between the Robocop and T-1000 programs in the original was corporate and internecine—WASPy Dick Jones (Ronny Cox) vs. scrappy Bob Morton (Miguel Ferrer)—the new one is public and political. Also international. Murphy doesn’t wake up in Detroit, as in the original; he wakes up in China, where you’re allowed to test this kind of shit.
The corporate folks fit easily into niches: the glib young marketer (Jay Baruchel), the cold female general counsel (Jennifer Ehle), the sadistic head of robot testing (Jackie Earle Haley), who thinks the half-human idea is bonkers and keeps calling Murphy “Tin Man.” Give Haley credit. He’s the meatiest villain in the movie. The others barely register. Vallon (Patrick Garrow) is supposed to be the new Clarence Boddicker. Not even close. His henchmen? Nothing. Even Keaton is a blank. Throughout I kept wondering: Whither Paul McCrane? Whither Ronny Cox? Whither Kurtwood Smith?
The wife and son (Abbie Cornish and John Paul Ruttan) are more prominent here but to no exact purpose. To be honest, they’re boring. The son is most effective in flashback: Murphy seeing images of him running from the press at school. The wife is just ... you know ... the pretty wife. Loyal and pretty. But you do know your husband only has a head and some lungs left, right? Is someone going to bring this up at some point?
Meanwhile, Joel Kinnaman ... Well, bless his heart.
Robocop vs. Robocop
The one upgrade is in programming. This Robocop, like a compact NSA, can access anything and everything—phone records, surveillance videos, etc.—to immediately determine the guilt or innocence of all that he sees. That’s an interesting area to explore—and we get intimations that politicians, with their own dirty secrets, are vaguely wary of this power. But it’s just a device here. It doesn’t go anywhere. Maybe it should’ve led to Paul Novak, the other villain who registers. Of course Sam Jackson always registers. Unless he’s Larry Fishburne.
As I sat there, bored, I kept wondering if I would’ve liked this “Robocop,” written by Joshua Zetumer and directed by indie darling José Padilha (“Elite Squad”), if I didn’t know the original. Maybe. But I do know the original. And the reboot is a massive step back. It’s not as satiric, not as gritty, not as meaningful. The original is about a man struggling to find his way back to his humanity; it’s about what’s left of us after the corporations get us. This one? It’s all over the map. I wouldn’t buy it for a dollar.
Thursday February 13, 2014
Seagal of Choice No Longer Steven
From an email I received today:
We wanted to let the readers of Erik Lundegaard know about the fan contest for “Dark Vengeance,” the newest Steven Seagal movie which is hitting Redbox February 27. In exchange for posting their best Steven Seagal fan artwork, fans earn the chance to win an Aikidogi, MMA fight gloves, or a wooden bokken signed by Seagal.
- Steve Seagal is still making movies?
- I have readers?
- I don't know what the readers I do have would do with MMA fight gloves or a wooden bokken. Although maybe I'm underestimating. Uncle Vinny? Reed? Daniel? Dad?
- Steve Seagal is still making movies?
Me, I was never interested. A range of emotion from A to B, as they say. The only Seagal I'm interested in are these.
Thursday February 13, 2014
Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2 (2013)
Here we go again.
I wasn’t a fan of the first “Kick-Ass,” which began as an ironic look at superheroes but quickly became, with the introduction of Big Daddy and Hit Girl (Nic Cage and Chloë Grace Moretz), another wish-fulfillment fantasy about superheroes—just with more kill shots and swear words.
“Kick-Ass 2” still pretends to be living in a world without superpowered beings but that doesn’t mean its characters can’t do superpowered things. Big Daddy’s gone, without even a picture to remember him by (Cage, one assumes, would get paid for that), but Hit Girl can still take out 20 people by herself. “Robin wishes he were me,” she says.
More, in the wake of Kick-Ass’s exploits, ordinary citizens have come forward to act as superheroes: Col. Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), Dr. Gravity (Donald Faison), Night Bitch (Lindy Booth). The Colonel is an old mob enforcer who has turned to the light side, and he, too, can take out 10 bad guys simultaneously in the manner of Batman-y, Matrix-y, Hollywood-via-Hong-Kong slow-mo martial arts madness. Hell, even Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) can do this now. He’s not a skinny kid anymore. He’s completely cut. He’s got a ridiculously sculptured body. Apparently all it takes is a good montage sequence. Fucking Rocky.
It’s a few years after the original movie, and Dave has hung up his Kick-Ass tights even as he hungers for more action. Meanwhile, Hit Girl, Mindy Macready, now raised by her father’s friend, Det. Marcus Williams (Morris Chestnut), enters high school: freshman to Dave’s senior.
But they’re on different paths. She makes a promise to Marcus not to be a superhero anymore, which leaves her to walk the more perilous path of schoolgirl popularity contests, while he wants to do nothing but fight crime. He does this by joining a team, Justice Forever, led by Col. Stars and Stripes. Their first big case? Breaking up a sex-slave ring run by Chinese triad members. They do it without breaking much of a sweat. Then they high-five each other and whoop it up. Then Kick Ass and Night Bitch have sex in a toilet stall.
Unbeknownst to all, Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), the former Red Mist, whose father, Frank (Mark Strong), a ruthless mob boss, was killed by Kick-Ass at the end of the last movie, is plotting revenge in his whiny, pathetic fashion. First he accidentally kills his mom by kicking her tanning booth. Then he hires MMA guys to train him in the ways of fighting. But he lacks discipline. Since he doesn’t lack for money, he simply hires his team of supervillains, including Mother Russia (Olga Kurkulina), a butchier Brigitte Nielsen, who, in one sequence, kills 10 cops, two by two, in a quiet suburban neighborhood. She also kills Col. Stars and Stripes.
Of course the cops react poorly to the death of 10 cops and crack down on all costumed wannabes, villains and heroes. When they show up at Dave’s house, Dave’s father, Mr. Lizewski (Garrett M. Brown), with whom Dave has been fighting, takes the rap, then dies in prison at the hands of Chris D’Amico’s goons, who take a cellphone picture and send it to Dave.
All this time, by the way, we’ve been getting bits of Mindy’s costumeless life. The popular, bitchy girls, led by Brooke (Claudia Lee), befriend her but don’t really. When Mindy wins some cheerleader tryouts, with her martial arts madness routine, even over Brooke’s sexyback number, she has to pay. What happens? A cute boy, whom she asks out, takes her into the woods, where the other girls say mean things and leave. That’s it. But she’s hurt. So she teachers them a lesson. How? By using a sonic device that causes people to vomit and shit at the same time.
The worst of times, the worst of times
Eventually, of course, she’s pulled back in, and there’s a big showdown at the supervillains’ lair. Kick Ass and Hit Girl walk in alone and D’Amico, now The Motherfucker, laughs and says, in essence, the two of you against all of us? At which point doors open and all the rest of the superheroes waltz in and stand and pose. It’s a superhero moment. Awful, unironic version.
I really do hate these movies. It’s partly the crudity, partly the stupidity, but mostly the lie: the lie that we’re too hip to want the wish-fulfillment fantasy. Feeling nothing via irony is, I suppose, just a short step from wishing to feel nothing through invulnerability, but they’re still both childish wishes. It’s the worst of both worlds.
Wednesday February 12, 2014
Little Don Segretti is Alive and Well and Working at Fox News
Some modern examples of “ratfucking,” Don Segretti's domain during the Nixon administration, as reported in Gabriel Sherman's “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country”:
[Fox News VP Brian] Lewis’s staff regularly fed reporters with embarrassing news and gossip about Fox’s competitors. After Andy Lack was quoted in the Times declaring he was “America’s news leader,” a Fox PR person sent an email to reporters that featured the quote and a Photoshopped picture of Lack’s face superimposed onto Napoleon’s body.
After MSNBC anchor Ashleigh Banfield generated positive headlines for her post-9/11 dispatches from Afghanistan and Pakistan—which featured her head wrapped in a shawl and her Clark Kent–style glasses peeking out—Lewis’s deputy, Robert Zimmerman, wanted to embarrass her in The Washington Post. “Take her out,” Brian Lewis told him. Zimmerman called Post reporter Paul Farhi and fed him a tip that foreign correspondents were laughing that Banfield, despite her intrepid image as a foreign correspondent, was scared to leave her hotel.
One morning in late fall 2001, Ailes called Fox & Friends host Steve Doocy and narrated a script for him to read. “Steve, just say that [CNN news anchor] Aaron [Brown]’s your dentist. Then have your co-anchor say, ‘He’s not a dentist. He’s on CNN!’ … No matter what happens, even if they torture you, say he’s your dentist!” Doocy obediently followed Ailes’s stage direction.
“Fighting with Roger Ailes is a full-time job, and I already have one,” [NBC News President Bob] Wright said.
The story gets worse during the Iraq War. The lengths they'll go to push their narrative. The lengths they'll go to end that narrative at Firdos Square.
This is a truly shameful period in American history ... and brought to you by Roger Ailes.
Fox News: We decide. You repeat.
Tuesday February 11, 2014
5 Responses to Fox News' Critique of 'The Lego Movie'
Here's Fox Business' main talking point:
Charles Payne: Is Hollywood pushing its anti-business message to our kids? First it was “The Muppet Movie”—remember they used an oil baron as the enemy—and a year later it was “The Lorax” ... Well, now it's “The Lego Movie” with a villain named President Business. Take a listen to him.
CLIP: President Business: Would you cancel my 2 o'clock? This meeting could run a little bit ... deadly.
Payne: Looks a bit like Mitt Romney.
Payne goes on:
Why is the head of a corporation, where they hire people—and people go to work, they pay the rent and mortage, they put their kids through college, they feed their families, they give to charities, they give to churches—why would the CEO be an easy target?
Monica Crowley piles on:
Hollywood has long been dominated by the far left, which is very anti-capitalist.
Rebuttals after the video.
- The “Really? Hollywood is anti-capitalist?” response: Hollywood brings in $10 billion a year, domestic. It brings in even more from abroad. Its product is one of the better, more globally recognized products that U.S. companies export. The American auto industry wishes it could dominate the field the way Hollywood dominates movies globally. So why is Fox Business getting all up in Hollywood's business?
- The “No, Hollywood is pro-NRA” response: When a movie shows a corrupt politician, which they do all the time, is Hollywood being anti-government? When it shows a sleazy journalist, which they do all the time, is Hollywood being anti-mainstream media? Hey, how about this: Does almost every action movie ever made make Hollywood pro-gun? If I follow Fox's line of reasoning, that's the message I'd get from Hollywood. Those damn Hollywood people. They just love, love, love their guns. Let's face it: Guns in movies, being shot by heroes, are way more prevalent than villainous CEOs. So does that make Hollywood pro-gun? Pro-NRA? If not, why not?
- The “Sorry, but CEOs make good villains” response: Generally, you need a villain in a movie, and CEOs make good villains. Why? BecauseAmerican CEOs make 273 times what the average American worker makes. Fox Business is aware of this, right? They should be. They should be aware that the nature of the corporation is to put profits before people, which includes laying off longtime workers and hiring cheaper workers elsewhere, and that means many Americans, particularly those who have been laid off, don't have particularly positive views of corporations and their CEOs. Fox News, and Fox Business, should be aware of this. It's part of the sad fabric of life at the moment.
- The “Did anyone there actually see 'The Lego Movie'?” response: Payne's discussion is even more absurd for anyone who's seen “The Lego Movie.” Because—and please accept the usual SPOILER ALERTS—anyone who's seen the movie knows that Pres. Business isn't like Mitt Romney. He's like ... Dad. He is Dad. The adventures we see for most of the movie are in the mind of a young boy, Finn, whose father, one imagines, goes to work at a business the boy doesn't quite understand. Then he comes home and gets mad at his son for playing with the Legos; for messing up the carefully created dioramas they've made. So not Mitt Romney. Dad. Who, in the end, realizes the error of his ways; who, in the end, is loved.
- The “You missed the forest for the trees” response: There's actually a message in “The Lego Movie” more dangerous to Fox News than the one they're complaining about, and, again, please accept this SPOILER ALERT. It's a message about change, and its inevitability, and how it's preferable to stasis. It's a movie that celebrates the relativism of the building blocks of our society, the constant change, the infinite possibilities. Pres. Business, in contrast, wants everything the same. He's cranky this way. He likes things as they were. Which makes him sound like almost every cranky talking head and host on this network.
I hate doing this kind of thing. I really do. I hate being in a position to defend Hollywood. So much of what Hollywood produces is just crap. But it's not leftist crap. If anything, it's conservative crap. But mostly it's just crap.
By the way, Fox Business: Next time, try to come up with some examples less far afield than “It's a Wonderful Life” and “The Hudsucker Proxy.” And Ms. Crowley? Next time, try to sound a little less HUAC-y. That's creepy.
Monday February 10, 2014
Movie Review: The Lego Movie (2014)
“The Lego Movie” is a 90-minute commercial for a global product into which my nephew Ryan has already sunk (or we have sunk for him) something like $10,000. I believe that was his father’s estimate last Christmas.
It’s also the following:
- A satire of contemporary pop culture.
- A satire of overdone movie storylines.
- A meta-message on traditional Legos (the kind I grew up with) vs. its modern update (the kind with instructions).
- A morality tale about the folly of wishing for permanence in an impermanent world.
If, in other words, you’re going to see a 90-minute, synergistic, corporate commercial, this isn’t a bad one to see.
The ordinary special
Emmet Brickowoski (voice of Chris Pratt) is one of those Ken-doll-haired, construction worker Lego guys. He loves his life even though his life doesn’t really love him. His favorite song is everyone’s favorite song, “Everything is Awesome,” which plays all the time. His favorite TV show is everyone’s favorite TV show, “Hey, Where’s My Pants?,” which plays all the time. There are intimations that both of these things—song and TV show—are used as thought control for the masses. That’s the satire of contemporary pop culture I was talking about. It’s the world Emmet lives in. He goes to work, roots for the local sports team, buys $37 lattes.
But good ol’ Emmet, who has no close friends, gets caught up in a plot he hardly understands. He falls into a pit and winds up with the “Piece of Resistance” affixed to his back, which means he’s “The Special,” the one who has been prophesied to save the world from destruction—just as Neo was “The One” who would save his world from destruction, just as Harry Potter was the one who ... as Bilbo Baggins was ... as King Arthur .... as Jesus ... as yadda yadda. This plotline was the main reason I went to the movie in the first place. I wanted to see it satirized. I’m tired of how often it is used and how much it feeds into the id in all of us: making us think we’re the one rather than one in seven billion.
They don’t do a bad job with it:
Wyldstyle: You’re the Special! And the prophecy states that you are the most important person in the universe! That’s you, right?
Emmet: Uh ... Yeah. That’s me!
Except ... The Special is supposed to be a master builder and Emmet knows he’s not a master builder. He’s only good at following the instructions. He’s can’t do what the others can do: use his creativity to create virtually anything from the building blocks of their society, which are, of course, Legos. “I don’t think he’s ever had an original thought in his life,” says Wyldstyle, his kick-ass sidekick (voice of Elizabeth Banks).
The villain in all of this? Pres. Business (voice of Will Ferrell), who doesn’t like the notion that the building blocks of their society can be reconfigured into something else. He wants permanence and perfection. So he’s ready to use “the Kragle” to create that permanence. To keep everyone stuck in the same place.
In this battle, Emmet, despite having Wyldstyle on his side, along with the wise, wizened Vitruvius (voice of Morgan Freeman), who first prophesied the coming of “The Special,” not to mention Batman (voice of Will Arnett), and Superman (Channing Tatum) and Green Lantern (Jonah Hill) and the 2002 NBA All-Stars (including Shaq), despite all of these partners, Emmet still gets nowhere. He can’t do what he needs to do because he lacks both imagination and instructions. It’s not until he sacrifices himself—as Neo, Jesus, et al.—that he is able to return, stronger and smarter, and win the day.
“Sacrificing himself,” by the way, means falling into our world, a non-animated world, where we realize that this entire adventure is taking place in the mind of a young boy, Finn (Jadon Sand), who simply wants to play with his Legos. Unfortunately, his father (Ferrell again) likes creating the perfect Legos diorama and doesn’t like it messed with. He doesn’t want it changed. In fact, he’s ready, this Tuesday, Taco Tuesday, to use an old tube of Krazy Glue with several of the letters rubbed out so it reads “Kra--Gl-e,” to glue everything in place. To make it all permanent.
That’s what the battle’s been about all along. It’s a father-and-son battle over the son’s toys.
Old Legos vs. New Legos
Question: Does this final pullback into our world diminish any of the other levels of the movie? Early on, I was hoping for a better critique of our culture, a la “The Simpsons” in its heyday. But can you properly critique a culture through the mind of a young boy? It feels slightly off for me, less relevant, less cutting. It went the “Toy Story” route but without the big heart of “Toy Story.”
Plus the lessons of the movie, which was written and directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (“Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs,” “21 Jump Street”), keep shifting. Trying to create permanence in an impermanent world is obviously a bad idea; but the movie doesn’t really resolve the conflict between the Legos I grew up with during the 1960s (use your creativity to build what you want) and the model-kit Legos reboot from the 1990s (follow the instructions). I suppose the movie, and the brand, doesn’t want to resolve this conflict. Creativity is obviously better to promote in a movie but no one wants to kill a cash cow. No one wants to suggest the cash cow is the lesser thing.
The final lesson of The Special, too, is that we’re all special, which is a bit of a fudge on the meaning of “special.” But what the hell. I guess the greater lesson is something Vitruvius tells Emmet in the middle of his hero’s journey: “Don’t worry about what the others are doing. You must embrace what is special about you.” That’s a lesson worth repeating, no matter your age.
Sunday February 09, 2014
Quote of the Day
“It's just Fox.”
-- Karl Rove urging caution within the Bush camp in the early morning of Nov. 8, 2000, after John Prescott Ellis, chief of Fox News's decision desk, called Florida, and thus the election, for his first cousin, George W. Bush. Several networks followed, then rescinded their projections after it became apparent Florida was closer than expected. The early calls helped give Bush a decided advantage and legitimacy, and Gore a disadvantage and illegitimacy, in the messy month-long aftermath of the election. From Gabriel Sherman's tell-all book, “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News—and Divided a Country.” It's a good book. Buy it for the Fox News watcher in your life. Probably won't do any good but you never know.
Sunday February 09, 2014
SLIDESHOW: Patricia and Erik's New York Adventure
SLIDESHOW: In late January, Patricia and I spent a few days in New York—me for work—but it meant we took separate flights so I had a window seat on the way out. I know this shot is overused but ... It's me saying goodbye to the Cascade mountains ...
... and goodbye ...
And hello, gorgeous! (Click here for bigger version.)
Patricia arrived three days earlier, visiting her friend Karen while I prepped for the Boies/Olson interview, so she was there for the big snowstorm. I missed it by a day. My flight from Seattle to JFK, by the way, took 4.5 hours. Getting from JFK to midtown Manhattan? Two hours. It took an hour just to get my bag. Efficiency not a strong suit.
I love walking around New York because even the renovated buildings (St. Patrick's, above) are beautiful. But it was a bit cold for most walkabouts. I mean, I'm from Minnesota and it was cold.
Oh, Scribners. Whither us?
Even the Legos in New York are big. Don't get any ideas, Ryan.
Our first stop after the interview was MOMA. How many of these soups, btw, have been discontinued by Campbells? When was the last time they made Pepper Pot, for example?
I love this guy. He's got another hole in his rear, and I tried to get a photo of someone looking into it but most were wary of being so captured. As was I.
Love this as well: Jeff Koons' Pink Panther. That's Jayne Maynsfield holding Pink Panther. Or is Pink Panther holding her? And which of them is less real?
It's like an Edward Hopper painting of an Edward Hopper painting.
Over the weekend we stayed with friends on the upper east side, one of whom, Mirra Bank, has spent the last few years working on a documentary, “The Only Real Game,” about a province in India, Manipur, where baseball flourishes. Mirra had planned to visit the New York SABR convention in conjunction with her doc but worried we'd be bored. With SABR? And baseball? Bored? Don't think so.
And who was the guest speaker? Jane Leavy, one of my favorite baseball writers. We got to chat a bit, and, yes, I owned up to my hatred of the Yankees, so she signed my book, “For Erik: It's okay to hate the Yankees. I like you anyway.” She probably has to write that a lot. Her next project? Babe Ruth, possibly. I'm there.
SABR was Yankee country. You couldn't get away from it. It was actually kind of charming.
Not even on Broadway. Patricia and I saw “Wicked,” not “Bronx Bombers,” which hadn't officially opened yet. We liked “Wicked.”
Richard and Mirra recommended Bar Centrale for drinks after the show. I now pass on that recommendation. I also recommend i Trulli, an Italian restaurant, on East 27th.
The obligatory Times Square shot. Patricia's in the midst of getting a cab.
Our last full day when we went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I recommend the audio guides. They tell you not only what the piece is but how and when it found its way to New York.
Batman, 2,000 B.C.?
Even the Met's listing of all its art is a kind of work of art.
The view from the upper east side. *FIN*
Saturday February 08, 2014
Quote of the Day
“For Ronald Reagan, Taylor was a tool to convince voters that the government was in crisis. For Reagan’s detractors, she personified the candidate’s penchant for willful exaggeration. For Illinois politicians and prosecutors, the war against Linda Taylor and her ilk was a chance to vent some populist outrage and maybe launch a career. A murder in Chicago is mundane. A sumptuously attired woman stealing from John Q. Taxpayer is a menace, the kind of criminal who victimizes absolutely everyone.”
-- Josh Levin, “The Welfare Queen: In the 1970s, Ronald Reagan villainized a Chicago woman for bilking the government. Her other sins—including possible kidnappings and murders—were far worse,” on Slate.
Seriously, read this piece. It's insane. It should be a movie.
I was completely wrong on this story, by the way. I thought Reagan exaggerated things for political reasons but it was the opposite. In effect, he downplayed things for political reasons. He focused on the lesser crime of welfare cheating because it fit his small-government ideology and fostered the politics of resentment that led to his presidency. I'm sure he didn't even know there were other crimes. But it appears there were other crimes.
Seriously, read it.
Saturday February 08, 2014
Movie Review: The Monuments Men (2014)
It’s a surprisingly limp movie.
“The Monuments Men” is based upon a non-fiction book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter whose subtitle is more thrilling than anything in the film: “Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History.” Wow, cool! Except it isn’t. In the movie, I mean.
The book chronicles the exploits of 345 men and women from various countries who worked together to preserve the great art of Europe from Nazi greed and treachery. In the movie, these 345 are understandably pared down to seven. But were there no better stories to tell from the 345? The men in the movie seem disconnected from each other and from any kind of tension except a trumped-up kind at the end. I.e., Will they get to this-or-that mine before the Nazis, who want to destroy all the great art they collected? Will they get there before the Russians, who want the art as reparations for 20 million lost? And will they find the one piece of art, the Bruges Madonna and Child, that suddenly means so much?
Answer: generally yes, yes, and yes.
Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It’s a good seven, by the way. Every time one of them first showed up I smiled. Hey, Bill Murray! And Bob Balaban! Mon dieu, Jean Dujardin! Ah, good ol’ John Goodman. Then I stopped smiling. Because nothing interesting happened.
Richard Campbell (Murray) and Preston Savitz (Balaban) apparently don’t like each other. Why? Who knows? But they’re partnered up and they survive an encounter with a German youth with a gun. Later there’s a scene where they get packages from home. Savitz’s includes cheese and crackers; Campbell’s includes a phonograph his wife made and sent him. But where can he play it? He’s in the shower when Savitz plays it over the camp loudspeaker. It’s his wife talking, the kids talking, then the wife singing a very good rendition of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” But it’s like a not-bad scene from a not-bad episode of “M*A*S*H.” It has meaning only within our cultural memory. It pushes those buttons.
Garfield (Goodman) and Clermont (Dujardin) are also teamed. They, too, survive an encounter with a German youth with a gun. It’s a sniper, and Clermont storms the building only to find the sniper is, you know, 10. Again: meaning via cultural memory. Again: we’ve seen this movie before.
Meanwhile, in possibly the dumbest plotline, James Granger (Matt Damon) parachutes into the south of France then makes his way north to Paris, where he encounters Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), who was forced to act as secretary as the Nazis plundered a French museum. She’s brave enough in her encounters with her Nazi boss, Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), staring down his gun as he fled a step ahead of the Allies; but once Jimmy Granger shows up she turns into a complete idiot. She sits on crucial information she has because she doesn’t trust Granger, the Americans, or the Metropolitan Museum of New York. She sticks with the Nazis. Really? Those are her only options at this point: the Nazis or the Met. And she goes with the Nazis. When she finally has evidence we’re on the up and up—months later, after Campbell and Savitz recover art from Stahl’s home and incarcerate him—she’s ready to help Granger. More, she’s ready to sleep with him. There’s sexual tension. Actually, no, not even that. There’s sexual awkwardness. There’s nothing sexy about it at all.
The Monuments Men are led by Frank Stokes (writer-director George Clooney), who plays his usual glib professional. He quickly realizes his mission is meant to fail, since he has little authority, and since the military men he’s dealing with would rather save a life than a work of art. This leads to many speeches, many voiceovers, on the value of art. But Stokes doesn’t have a story until one of his men, Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”), travels to Bruges, Belgium, to rescue, among other works, Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. The Germans still occupy the town so he sneaks in against orders, confronts them attempting to steal the Madonna, and is shot and killed. Was it worth the life of this man to preserve this work of art? Stokes doesn’t know. But he knows he’s gonna get the Bruges Madonna back.
Thus the search, amid the hundreds of thousands of stolen works of art, for this one piece. And guess when they find it? After the Germans have surrendered and the Russians are coming, and the men have recovered all 12 panels of the Ghent altarpiece in a mine in Altaussee, Austria, and everyone’s saying, “Go! Go!” before the Russians arrive, Stokes, hoping beyond hope, spies, in a back corner, a tarpaulin ... and uncovers it .... and there it is. Holy shit. That’s what the others say anyway, Balaban and Goodman and Murray, when they see it. Holy shit. But we don’t. We knew it was there. Because we’ve seen this movie before.
Smearing the glue
“The Monuments Men” should’ve worked. It had the talent, it had the story, it just didn’t connect things. If it did, it did so clumsily, smearing the glue, making the connection obvious.
Maybe it should’ve focused on two or three of the men rather than seven? Maybe it shouldn’t have relied so much on the cinematic shorthand and the face recognition of its stars?
It wants to be a World War II movie, a “Greatest Generation” movie, when maybe it should’ve been about crazy, obsessed art historians. Composer Alexandre Desplat, who usually does no wrong (“Un Prophete,” “The Tree of Life,” “Rust and Bone”), even composed a jaunty little whistling tune, some combination of music from “The Great Escape” and “Bridge on the River Kwai”; but it, too, is unconnected to anything on the screen. It falls flat. It recalls, as the movie itself recalls, Orwell’s Republican missiles from “Homage to Catalonia,” which, instead of thrilling with their whizz and explosion, sounded “like nothing so much as a man riding along on a bicycle and whistling.”
Friday February 07, 2014
Quote of the Day
“So was Mr. Cantor being dishonest? Or was he just ignorant of the policy basics and unwilling to actually read the report before trumpeting his misrepresentation of what it said? It doesn’t matter — because even if it was ignorance, it was willful ignorance. Remember, the campaign against health reform has, at every stage, grabbed hold of any and every argument it could find against insuring the uninsured, with truth and logic never entering into the matter.
”Think about it. We had the nonexistent death panels. We had false claims that the Affordable Care Act will cause the deficit to balloon. We had supposed horror stories about ordinary Americans facing huge rate increases, stories that collapsed under scrutiny. And now we have a fairly innocuous technical estimate misrepresented as a tale of massive economic damage.“
-- Paul Krugman in his column, ”Health, Work, Lies," on the overreaction and misrepresentation of Congressional Budget Office numbers regarding the Affordable Care Act. Basically, people will choose to work less since some won't need the job for the insurnace. The CBO, unhelpfully to Mr. Krugman, rounded out the hours lost to two million jobs, which the GOP and some news organizations have jumped on. My amateur question is this: If some choose not to work, doesn't this create job opportunity? For the man who retires because he doesn't need health insurance from his job, doesn't this mean the company will have to hire someone else for that position?
And here's The Daily Show's version of the debacle.
Friday February 07, 2014
'The Beatles Invade, Complete with Long Hair and Screaming Fans'
The Beatles, and Arthur, arrive at Kennedy airport: February 7, 1964. Photo by Bill Eppridge
Certain dates mean something to me. Some are birthdates: Jan. 11, 19, 23. February 25. April 28. July 4, 7, 8 and 13. October 30.
Some are assassination dates: April 4, June 6, November 22, September 11.
Then there's a date that doesn't have any contemporaries: February 7. That's the day the Beatles arrived. I'll always think of it as the day the Beatles arrived. Fifty years ago today.
I was always a bit backward-looking. I grew up with “Sgt. Pepper” and the White Album, and in the summer of '73, when I was 10, we got the red and blue albums, their greatest hits, and later, in junior high and high school, I picked up the remainder. I got them all. By college I was digging after scraps: “The Beatles Talk Downunder,” which is just that, recordings of press conferences from their 1964 trip to Australia. I read and re-read Philip Norman's biography “Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation.” I was collecting what articles I could. Some of them I stole from the college library. Awful, really. But I had this need.
I remember my father having to explain to me that the Beatles were always considered long-haired. I think we were looking at the blue and red albums in the summer of '73 and I mentioned I liked the Beatles better short-haired, and he said, “Actually that was considered long hair back then.” I couldn't comprehend it. I couldn't wrap my mind around it. That's how much influence they had. Would hair have exploded that way without them? Would rock 'n' roll?
Our family friend Lynn likes to tell a story from about 1969 when her son Ben and I were both 6 years old. I had traveled with them from Minneapolis to their summer place in Charlevoix, Michigan, and Lynn was in the kitchen, and Ben and I were down the hall in the bedroom where she could hear us talking. Apparently it went something like this:
Me: Mine's longer.
Ben: No, mine's longer.
Me: How can you say that? See?
Ben: [Pause] Well, if I pull on mine, mine's longer.
At which point she hurried to the bedroom to end the game ... and saw us kneeling in front of the mirror and pulling our hair down our foreheads towards our eyes. We wanted to be Beatles.
The foreignness of the Beatles when they first arrived is the thing that's hard to grasp for people like Ben and I who came later. When they arrived they were the freak show to the establishment. But then they became the standard and it was the establishment—skinny ties and greasy hair and overall squareness—that became the freak show. You pick up intimations of how they were viewed from contemporary pop cultural artifacts. The Way Outs from “The Flintstones.” The Mosquitos from “Gilligan's Island.” The articles of the day, with their references to long hair and “buginess.” The title of this blog post was the title of the New York Times article from Feb. 8, 1964 by Paul Gardner. It began:
Multiply Elvis Presley by four, subtract six years from his age, add British accents and a sharp sense of humor. The answer: It's the Beatles (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah).
In college I wanted to write a story about February 1964. I thought of a kid in New York devastated by November 22, 1963, and fearful, looking up at the tall buildings and thinking an assassin could be in any of them. Then the Beatles arrived and swept it all away with their energy and yeah-yeah-yeah music. They arrived and he was part of that mad rush at them. He wandered New York looking up at the buildings and thinking the Beatles could be in any of them.
It was supposed to be a microcosm of the way historians wrote about the Beatles and our early interest in the Beatles. They swept away scandal and tragedy. In Britain, the Profumo scandal in the summer of '63 led to Beatlemania that fall. In the U.S., November 22 led to February 7. We needed to think about something else.
But it would've been nothing without the music to go with it. Everyone still likes the music. My nephews, the kids of friends, they all like the Beatles. The Beatles swept away 1950s rock 'n' roll but nothing's really swept them away: not punk, not grunge, not rap. It's still here after 50 years. Fifty years. Shit, you know how long that is? Fifty years before I was born, World War I hadn't even started. It was that world. But 50 years later we're still living in the world the Beatles created.
Thursday February 06, 2014
Movie Review: Lone Survivor (2013)
“Lone Survivor,” the movie, starring Mark Wahlberg as Marcus Luttrell, is based upon Luttrell’s book, “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10.” It’s a good title for a book but a bad one for a movie.
If you’ve seen the trailer you know four Navy SEALS come across three goat herders in the enemy mountains of Afghanistan and let them go (crossing their fingers) rather than kill them. Then they’re pursued by the Taliban up and down those mountains. Mostly down. It’s the anti-My Lai story. Our men do the right thing and die as a result.
But with that background, and that title, what don’t we know going in? Which one survives? One assumes it’s Wahlberg, even without knowing he plays Luttrell, since he’s the star. So what don’t we know?
We don’t know this: the deus ex machina. For a moment, three-quarters through the movie, it looks like it’s going to be the traditional one: the U.S. military; the cavalry.
Nope. The deus ex machina is the most intriguing thing about “Lone Survivor.” It’s also the most glossed-over. It’s as if the movie doesn’t realize the story it has.
I thought it was brutal during the opening credits, when we got real-life footage of Navy SEALS during their insane training—e.g.: chained and dropped in pools so they learn to suffocate without panicking—but that’s merely to show us who these men are, and why they’ll cope with the brutality to come. They’ve been trained for it. They’ve been trained to keep going.
It begins, as so many of our stories do these days, at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan, where we meet our four young men. They wake up. They give each other shit. Two of them race around the airbase in shorts and tennis shoes but the skinny one, Danny (Emile Hirsch), loses in the end to the buffer one, Mike (Taylor Kitsch), who is something of a legend. They eat breakfast and give shit to the new guy, Shane (Alexander Ludwig), who is buff and beardless and wants to fit in. They talk about their wives or girls back home. One girl wants an Arabian horse but the dude keeps calling it an Arabic horse. Marcus is from Texas. Mike is respected.
Could we have learned more about these guys early on? Surely there was more to know. Instead, this shorthand. They’re guys in a beer commercial now.
Then off they go on a mission. Something about beers: Corona, Miller, Heineken. Something about Rick James. Something about Spartan Zero One.
Eventually we realize, “Oh, they’re Spartan Zero One, the beers are location points on the way to the target, who is Rick James, a.k.a. “Superfreak,” a.k.a. Shah (Yousef Azami), the dark-eyed Taliban leader who’s been assassinating U.S. Marines. They’re supposed to get in, kill him, get out.
They spot him, too. High up on the hill above their target, they have him in their sites. But they move to higher ground. Then the goat herders come: an old man, a boy, an angry teen.
Matt (Ben Foster, steely-eyed) counsels killing them. He nods to his brothers. “I care about you, I care about you, I care about you,” he says. “I don’t care about them.” Marcus is against it. It’s against the rules of engagement, he says. If it winds up on CNN they’re fucked, he says. Mike, the leader, follows Marcus’ logic and lets the goatherders go. But as the men climb to higher ground, the mission compromised, they lose communication with Bagram. Meanwhile, the angry teen bounds down the mountain like he’s a parkour expert. Our men are barely situated up top before they’re surrounded; before the firefight begins.
We know we lose three, right? So how many do they lose? That’s how I kept interested during all the fighting. I counted the kill shots. I got up to 23. Still the Taliban keep coming. There’s no end to them. And our guys keep getting hit, too, and wounded, and escaping by basically falling down the mountain, out of control, and smashing into trees and rocks. It is, as I’ve said, brutal. But they keep going. Until they can’t go on anymore. One by one, bloodied beyond recognition, they stop moving.
Until there’s one left.
So how is Marcus saved?
For a moment it looks like other SEALS at Bagram will save him. They show up in a Chinook helicopter. But the Taliban has an RPG and down goes the helicopter in a burst of flame. So much for my 23-3 tally. And Marcus is on his own again.
He crawls to a safe spot and rests; then he collapses into a pool of water. When he looks up, three Afghanis are standing there. They help him but he doesn’t trust them. They drag him to their village and feed him. Still he doesn’t trust them. But they go out of their way to save him. This is particularly true of Mohammad Gulab (Ali Suliman), the village leader. The Taliban come into their village and are told to leave. The Taliban return, and there’s a firefight, and the right-hand man of the Shah is killed in hand-to-hand combat by Gulab. It all feels like bullshit but most of it isn’t. “Why are you doing this for me?” Marcus keeps asking. Right. Exactly. That’s what we want to know.
We find out in an afterword. Gulab was simply following a code of honor called Pashtunwali. Its first principle is melmastia: “showing hospitality and profound respect to all visitors, regardless of race, religion, national affiliation or economic status.” Its second principle is nanawatai: “...protection given to a person against his or her enemies.” The third is justice, the fourth bravery. That’s why.
The movie ends with Luttrell’s rescue but the story continued for Gulab. From MensJournal.com:
Shortly after Luttrell was airlifted to safety by Green Berets in 2005, Gulab and his family became top Taliban targets. “They have a bounty on his head,” Luttrell says. “He’s been shot, his car’s been blown up, and his house has been burned down.” Gulab soon reached out to Luttrell, who arranged for the Afghan to visit him on his ranch northwest of Houston. ... Luttrell and Berg knew the film would bring renewed Taliban scrutiny upon Gulab and are currently working on obtaining U.S. visas for the Afghan and his family. “I knew we needed to get him and his family out of Afghanistan and offer asylum if he wants it,” Berg says. “But Gulab is a proud fighter. His attitude is, ‘I sleep with two AKs; if they want to come, they know where I am.’”
You know what the above sounds like to me? A movie. A better movie than this one. Unfortunately it’s about someone who doesn’t even speak English. Hollywood doesn’t tell those tales often.
At the end of “Lone Survivor,” in voiceover, we hear the following from Luttrell:
I died up on that mountain. There is no question a part of me will forever be up on that mountain, dead as my brothers died. But there is a part of me that lived. Because of my brothers, because of them, I am still alive ...
Well, one other guy helped.
Wednesday February 05, 2014
Movie Review: Red 2 (2013)
How did we get to this point? Where this is entertainment? Movie-star relics pretending to be Cold War relics zipping around the globe for a game of hide and seek the weapon of mass destruction?
Let’s take it from the top.
In 1979, a British scientist named Bailey created something, codenamed “Nightshade,” that could alter the balance of power. In Britain’s favor? That’s never raised. For some reason he was ... in Moscow? Am I getting that wrong? He was being guarded by CIA agent Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and maybe Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), rather than MI-6, when he was killed, and that was that, until suddenly some top-secret “Nightshade” document pops up on Wikipedia and everyone’s trying to kill everyone. The U.S. government wants both Frank and Marvin dead. Just cuz? Or do they think they’re the leakers? Whichever, they put a hit out on Frank. They hire the world’s top assassin, Han Cho Bai (Lee Byung-hun), and maybe old pal Victoria, too (Helen Mirren). But Victoria proves a pal, teaming up with Frank rather than killing him, while Han plays Kato to Frank’s Inspector Clouseau: popping up throughout the movie and failing to off him. Hi-ya! Later he teams up with everyone to save the world. Or at least London and Washington, D.C. Assassins of the world, unite!
All the old Cold War powers keep bumping into each other and people keeping dying. The U.S., in the form of Jack Horton (Neal McDonough), is particularly interested in keeping Nightshade hush-hush. We watch as Jack kills a five-star general in his Pentagon office when he suggests going public. The U.S.S.R., in the shapelier form of Katja (Catherine Zeta-Jones), tries to seduce Frank, as in days of old, which leads to the subplot of Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), Frank’s girl, wringing her hands over these matters and getting involved in the spy game. Which she totally wanted to do anyway.
I’ll be like the movie and cut to the chase: Bailey (Anthony Hopkins) is alive. He’s been kept in an MI-6 prison for the criminally insane for 32 years. Not because he was behind “Nightshade,” which was really something called “Red Mercury”—which was, and is, a WMD that’s completely undetectable (for now)—but because back then he wanted to use it on the Soviets. Bad form. Drawring outside the lines, as it were.
But why do they have to go to France to talk to “The Frog” (David Thewlis) anyway? Because he has a security deposit key that contains info on ... Bailey? How do they know this? Was it on the Wikipedia page? And why couldn’t they get a French actor for “The Frog”?
No, they go to Paris, because Paris is part of the bang-zoom, ping-pong, zip-a-dee-doo-dah of the movie. They begin at a Costco in Somewhere, America, which leads to incarceration and shootout in New York City, then same in Paris, then same in London, then same in Moscow, then back to London and the Iranian embassy there. By this point, Bailey, that sly dog, has conned Frank and Victoria (into setting him free), Jack Horton (into thinking he’d teamed up with him), and the Iranians (into thinking he’d sell them Red Mercury). But the last con belongs to Frank, who slips the ticking Red Mercury bomb onto Bailey’s plane, which used to be Frank’s, which used to be Han’s, and it blows up mid-air, setting off beautiful colors. And radiation? Are there after-effects we don’t know about? Please.
Overall, Mary-Louise Parker’s shtick gets old, Malkovich’s isn’t bad, and Willis doesn’t really have any. He seems ready for retirement. The Han subplot, meanwhile, is vaguely insulting, while the overall shtick (glib conversations about or while killing people) is vaguely nauseating when you think about it.
I liked Hopkins. He has a great line-reading, almost mumbled: “They really do throw us away after giving them the best years of our lives. Bit of a shame, really.” There’s something in the way he says it. It’s not just glib dialogue. It has ... what’s the word? ... meaning.
Monday February 03, 2014
Quote of the Day
Bill O'Reilly: Your detractors believe that you did not tell the world [Benghazi] was a terror attack because your campaign didn't want that out. ... That's what they believe.
Pres. Obama: And they believe it because folks like you are telling them that.
-- from the interview on FOX before yesterday's Super Bowl.
It's worth keeping in mind the following from Gabriel Sherman's “The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built FOX News—And Divided a Country”:
For Ailes, Obama’s meteoric ascent onto the national stage was yet another triumph of the counterculture and the liberal news media. “People need to be reminded,” Ailes told Fox News executives around the time Obama declared his candidacy, “this guy never had a job. He’s a community organizer.” A few days after Obama’s historic election, Ailes remarked during his morning editorial meeting, “There’s no reason to have a civil rights movement anymore, since there is a black man in the White House.” Obama’s victory changed the mission of Fox News. “When he started the channel, it was a campaign against CNN. But it is now less about the competition and more about the administration,” a former senior Fox producer said. “He honestly thinks Obama has set back the country forever. He feels like he is the only out there who can save the republic. He has said it."
Monday February 03, 2014
What's It Like to Live in a Championship City?
I began to think about it on the ride over to Jeff and Sullivan's house, Patricia and I with our drinks, our salad, our 12-Man cupcakes from Cupcake Royale. I thought about it particularly after I saw all the people in the streets, an hour before gametime, wearing their Seahawks jerseys: #s 3, 12, 24, 25, 80. I suddenly realized I'd never lived in a city that had just won a major sports championship. What was that like?
I grew up in Minnesota and when the Twins won the World Series in 1987 I was living in Taipei, Taiwan—about as far away as you could get without leaving the planet. When they won in '91 I was living in Seattle.
And that was that. Because Seattle hasn't won any major sports championship since 1979.
Sure, we had the M's in '95. That was exciting. And I was in the thick of it. But they never even made the World Series. They never even made Game 7 of the ALCS. They had a great run but they were never champs. Don't get me started on the last 10 years.
So I was wondering what it would be like in Seattle if the Seahawks won.
I'd never been on that positive end of a rout before, either. First play from scrimmage and we're up 2-0. Then 5-0. 8-0. The Seahawks were dominating completely at this point but the score didn't really reflect it. One long pass and the Broncos were back in it. But they didn't get that pass. 15-0. 22-0. I was thinking maybe the Broncos would get that great halftime speech, or something, but first play of the second half and Percy Harvin runs it back 87 yards for a touchdown: 29-0. That felt like the nail but I'm sure the nail was driven in earlier. The game was like a hardware store: You have your pick of nails. Final: 43-8. The only 43-8 score in NFL history, according to Nate Silver.
We got firecrackers and fireworks immediately—neighbors of Jeff and Sullivan. On the ride home, there were horns honking in Fremont. On 99 we saw the following digital-sign warning: “There are extra DUI officers on the road right now.” Downtown, groups of people out in Seahawks jerseys whooped it up. I saw pockets of enthusiasm. But that was about it.
At home I couldn't stay home, so I walked over to the Quarter Lounge and checked things out. Apparently there'd been 150 or so people there for the game, but when I arrived, 90 minutes after the final play, there were maybe 30. Some whooped it up. Most quietly soaked it in. On TV a local broadcast highlighted a celebration somewhere on Pike. Was it downtown? Or Capitol Hill?
On the walk up Madison I passed three guys, drunk and stupid, shouting and hitting garbage cans and dancing bad dances in the street. Horns honked at them. In celebration? In annoyance? A fine line.
On the walk down Broadway one guy high-fived me. That was it. But when I got to Pike it was Mardi Gras. Without the beads.
The street was cordoned off and cops stood on both Broadway and 11th. In the middle of it all, folks whooped, chanted, played call-and-response: Sea .. Hawks! ... Sea! ... Hawks! ... Sea!....Hawks! ... Wooooooooo! Beer bottles and cans littered the street. Everyone was filming everyone. I joined in that.
There was tons of enthusiasm but it had nowhere to go. Where did people want it to go? That would've been an interesting question. Toward what? I think just up in the air.
This is my city but it wasn't really my celebration. I haven't been a football guy since the 1970s. The only football jerseys I own are Minnesota Vikings jerseys. I only watched three Seahawks games all year—the last three. I was happy, sure, but just that, and more for my long-suffering Seahawks friends, Mr. B and the like, than for myself.
On the way home, up Broadway again, horns honked, people shouted, we played call-and-response:
Dudes in car: Sea!
Dudes in car: Sea!
Girls in car: Woooooooo!
One of my favorite Tweets during the game was this:
Karl Rove still thinks the Broncos have a shot at this thing.— Keith Conrad (@keithrconrad) February 3, 2014
On Facebook, a friend of a friend feigned ignorance about my friend's happiness for his city, asking what happened. I responded: We legalized pot, gay marriage, and won the Super Bowl.
It's not really my celebration but it ain't bad. Parade Wednesday.
Scenes from a celebration: Capitol Hill, February 2, 2014.
Sunday February 02, 2014
Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967-2014)
He surprised me (Freddie Miles stepping off his car with all the swagger of the rich and unaccountable in “Talented Mr. Ripley”), and saddened me (Scotty J.'s lament, “I'm a fucking idiot, I'm a fucking idiot, I'm a fucking idiot ...” in “Boogie Nights”), and now this one last sad surprise: Philip Seymour Hoffman dead of an apparent drug overdoes at 46 in his New York apartment.
I wrote about him for MSNBC in 2006 after he won the Oscar for best actor over Heath Ledger—his death seems to mimic Ledger‘s: alone, NY, drugs, too soon—and I haven’t stopped thinking about him and his characters since. Earlier this week, in fact, I was mulling over his Lester Bangs, counseling William Miller on rock 'n' roll and life, lamenting their collective lack of cool. I always thought cool was overrated, and that Cameron Crowe bought into cool too much, and you just had to look at most of Hoffman's performances to see how overrated it really was.
His first Oscar nomination was for a lead—in “Capote”—which is surprising, since he was so good for so long in supporting roles: Dustin in “Twister,” Scottie J. in “Boogie Nights,” Brandt in “The Big Lebowski,” Mitch in “Patch Adams,” Phil in “Magnolia,” Freddie in “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” Lester in “Almost Famous.” But then the Academy has usually been late to parties.
From the MSNBC piece, “Philip Seymour Hoffman Is Us”:
Hoffman makes these small, exquisite choices all the time. The look of horror on Scotty J.’s face as a coked-up Dirk Diggler loses it and tells off the crew. The get-along chuckle of Brandt, the manservant in “The Big Lebowski,” and the respectful way he acquiesces to everyone’s wishes, even the Dude’s, even to the point of calling him “Dude” in a respectful, manservant tone of voice. The pause he gives tabloid reporter Freddy Lounds talking to the FBI in “Red Dragon”: “It’s a pleasure doing business with you ... chumps.” What’s sadder? That “chumps” is the bon mot he pauses for, or that he doesn’t realize it’s not much of a bon mot? We watch Hoffman act the way we read the best sentences of the best writers. It’s worthwhile on its own.
Hoffman's manager got in touch with us after the piece appeared, saying how much he liked it. I wrote my editor that I wished I could believe it, but, whoops, I accidentally sent it to Hoffman's manager instead. No, she insisted. It's true, she insisted. Another Scotty J. moment. I am such a fucking idiot.
That was always the key to Hoffman's performances: we identify. Remember “Patch Adams” from 1998? Great box office, horrible film. Title character wants doctors to care. Nasty dean of med school doesn’t. Hence: conflict. Patch even has the typical, snobby, blue-blood roommate we’re supposed to hate. Except there’s a late-night confrontation between the roomies and the film is upended:
Patch (Robin Williams): Why don’t you like me? You’re a prick and I like you.
Mitch (Hoffman): Because you make my effort a joke! I want to be a doctor. This isn’t a game to me! This isn’t playtime! This is serious business. I have it in me to be a great doctor, but in order to do that I have to sacrifice if I want to be better.
Patch: “Better.” Better than me, hmm?
Mitch: I will save lives that could have otherwise not been saved. Now, I could be like you and go around laughing and have a good time, ha ha, but I prefer to learn, because the more I learn, the more likely I will have the right answer at the crucial moment and save a life.
The filmmakers give Patch the final word, but if you’re a thinking person you realize Mitch is right. More, you identify with Mitch. Most of us try so hard in life but there’s always some idiot who hardly tries at all and still passes us up. Mitch could have been a clichéd, reviled character but Hoffman gave him humanity.
All of which recalls something Hoffman told movie critic David Edelstein in a 2006 New York Times profile. Illuminating his struggle to keep Truman Capote less attractive in “Capote,” Hoffman said, “The way toward empathy is actually to be as hard as possible on this character. The harder you are, the more empathy you'll gain, ultimately, by the end.” When Edelstein questioned him on this — less attractive equals more empathy? — Hoffman added, “I think deep down inside, people understand how flawed they are. I think the more benign you make somebody, the less truthful it is.”
Sad sad sad. I wanted decades more of this.
Saturday February 01, 2014
Movie Review: Frozen (2013)
I saw the movie “Frozen” the same day I saw the musical “Wicked” on Broadway, which is about the most girly day a 51-year-old straight man in New York on business can have.
Both stories pass the Bechdel Test by a mile. Each is about two girls—one a princess, the other more tomboyish—who have powers others want to control. There are boys in the story, sure, but the most important relationship is with the other girl. Because each, in the end, sets the other free. Each, in the end, helps the other defy gravity.
What’s truly interesting, though, is how each story updates fairy tales for the 21st century.
Updating fairy tales
“Wicked” may have the more interesting take, since it upends the pretty-girl-is-good/ ugly-girl-is-bad dynamic. Its hero is Elphaba (Lindsay Mendez), green-faced, and the future Wicked Witch of the West, who is ostracized from birth and belittled at school, but who, with the help of Galinda, or Glinda (a hilarious Alli Mauzey), comes to realize her power and takes on the corrupt patriarchy as represented by the Wizard of Oz. As “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” did with “Hamlet,” so “Wicked” does with “Oz.” We go behind the scenes, as it were, and discover that the story we know isn’t the real story. The Wicked Witch is really good, and in cahoots with Glinda, and the Scarecrow is her lover. Most importantly, instead of the ugly becoming pretty via a kiss or love or happenstance, as in many fairy tales, the pretty, or the handsome, becomes deformed. The lesson isn’t “We are now beautiful and thus whole”; it’s “We are in love and thus whole.” It’s the triumph of the marginalized.
In Disney’s “Frozen,” we’re back to pretty, and princess and queens, not to mention Idina Menzel, who originated and won a Tony for playing Elphaba on Broadway, and who here plays Elsa, the older, more powerful sister. Elsa’s “Let It Go” song is basically “Defying Gravity” updated. Same idea. Here I am, fuckers, with all my power. I won’t be held back anymore.
The problem I had with the movie—besides being a 51-year-old man instead of a 10-year-old girl—is that for much of the movie Elsa holds herself back. Not sure what her gameplan is, to be honest. Does she have one?
Elsa has the power to freeze things with a touch of a finger or a wave of her arms, and as a teenager she nearly, accidentally, freezes her younger sister, Anna (Kristen Bell), to death. So she’s been counseled to keep herself under wraps, and does. Even after their parents die on the high seas, she hides from her sister in her room, and hides her sister and herself in their castle on the hill. But in becoming queen she must descend to be with the people. In doing so, she accidentally unleashes her power and creates a perpetual winter.
Hers isn’t the main story, though. Most girls presumably identify with Anna, the younger girl struggling to keep up with, and connect to, her older sister, and who follows the path of Scarlett, Rose, Bella, Katniss, yadda yadda, by getting to choose between two boys: Kristoff, an everyday iceman, and Hans, a prince. The movie does a good job of making this a tough choice for most of the movie ... until, of course, Hans reveals his evil machinations to take over both kingdoms. That makes it easier.
Here’s the twist. During the course of pursuing Elsa, Anna’s heart is partially frozen, which means she’ll die unless “an act of true love” saves her. And wouldn’t you know it, at the end, as she’s near death, here comes Kristoff racing across the ice. Except! Nearby, Hans has Elsa at a disadvantage and is about to kill her. So Anna intervenes. She sacrifices herself to save her sister. In doing so, she saves herself. That is the act of true love. It’s not passive reception; it’s active sacrifice.
I sat there and thought, “Not bad.”
Three of us watched the movie that night, all of us over 50, but interestingly the women weren’t impressed. At all. They expected greater, Pixarish things from the movie: wit, etc. True, there’s not much of that, and the songs aren’t very memorable, but I was impressed by the animation and the “act of true love” twist. So did our fourth when it was explained to him the next morning. The men liked the twist, the women didn’t. For what it’s worth.
Now I’m waiting on the “Wicked” movie. It’s too good not to put on the screen.