Monday May 22, 2017
Movie Review: The Farthest (2017)
During the end credits, one of the talking heads/scientists questions the off-camera documentarian’s use of the word “she” to describe the two Voyagers that we sent into space in 1977 to collect data and send out a multilingual message of greeting, Mozart and Chuck Berry to other potential life forms. He says, no, we don’t anthropomorphize the Voyager spacecraft, adding, with a twinkle, “They wouldn’t like it.”
We need that twinkle because anthropomorphizing Voyager is part of what we, and this doc, have been doing for 90 minutes. It’s why the doc has such emotional heft.
12 billion and counting
“The Farthest” is a good intro doc for idiots like me who haven’t been paying attention. I mostly knew Voyager from its reincarnation as V’ger in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” I didn’t know both Voyagers were still out there. I didn’t know that in 2012 Voyager I became the first man-made object to reach interstellar space. I didn’t know what “interstellar space” was.
Distance is a big part of the anthropomorphization. We see (through digital animation) how far it’s gone, and we see (through actual photos it’s sent back) how far away we are, and we can’t help but feel a pang of ... loss? Concern? Solicitousness? It travels at 10 miles per second, to where no man has gone before, and it’s surrounded by the vast cold and not much else. It doesn’t even have close encounters with planets anymore: Jupiter, Saturn, and for Voyager 2, Uranus and Neptune. It doesn’t even have the company of the other Voyager: Voyager 1 is years ahead of 2 and on a different trajectory. Our greatest stories, from Iliad/Odyssey to “The Wizard of Oz,” are about going out and returning home, and the Voyagers can’t do the second. They can only send back messages. Increasingly distant messages.
That may be the thing that stunned me most watching this. How do we still communicate with these guys? How are we able to tell 2 to turn and take a picture of our solar system as it’s leaving it? I sometimes have trouble getting a signal from a router down the hallway and we can communicate with a spacecraft 2.7 billion miles away? Or, now, 12 billion miles?
And this is with mid-’70s technology! Each is the size of a gangly bus, and for each, its total memory is, according to one scientist, “240 thousand times less than in your smart phone.” You do a double-take. “Wait, did he say 240 or ... Really? 240 thousand? Whoooaaaaa.” You think of all Voyager has done despite those limitations, and all that we haven’t with the world at our fingertips.
We get a few pop culture moments. The Beatles, or one of its reps, apparently turned down the chance to be on the gold record we sent into the farthest reaches of space, which is why Chuck Berry is on it instead. (Are the Rolling Stones miffed they weren’t asked?) We see a clip of SNL psychics talking up the future news in 1978, one of whom, Steve Martin, says the big news story will be the four words we hear back from the farthest reaches of space, which indicate intelligent life elsewhere: “Send more Chuck Berry.” But there’s no “Star Trek: The Motion Picture” or other sci-fi incarnations here. It’s science.
I kept flashing on sci-fi, though. Ten years ago, I wrote a short history of alien-invasion movies for MSNBC, and what stood out during the research—the long hours watching those hokey movies—was the absolute paranoia of ’50s movies versus Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” in 1977:
At no point does anyone in Spielberg’s movie worry that the aliens might be less than kind. Sure, they kidnap our military pilots and small children, and they’ve obviously got superior technology. But look at the lights! Look at the pretty lights!
The Voyagers, which were sent into space the same year “Close Encounters” was released, assumed benevolence, too. We not only sent our music and messages and photos, we indicated where we were in case anyone wanted to come visit. Can you imagine if NASA attempted that today? What Fox News would say? Or Rush or Drudge? One scientist/talking head says here, “There’s never going to be another mission like it. It’s the first and last of its own kind,” but I’m curious why. Why aren’t we interested enough to make it happen again? Because of the paranoia? Because there’s no money in it? Because in space, no one can hear you profit?
The long and winding road
“The Farthest” isn’t even an American documentary. It’s Irish. It’s written and directed by Emer Reynolds, who works as an editor in the Irish film industry, but who’s done a few documentaries over the years: shorts one, TV ones, one on the Cuban Missile Crisis, and now this. She’s a big science geek, and did a whistle-stop tour of the U.S. to interview our extant Voyager scientists. What she comes away with is glorious.
Reynolds gives us a lot of shots of the earth looking up from a deep below, and we get the computer simulations of the Voyagers, as well as the actual photos they took, but what makes the doc work—and cue John Ford, please—is the human faces of these scientists: their smarts, enthusiasms, and pure joy in the journey. That we sent this piece of ourselves out there, and it’s still going, and it will likely still be going when you and I and all of our loved ones are long dead. “Four billion years from now,” says one, “when our sun turns into a red giant, Voyager is still going to be trucking out there, through the stars. We’ll still be out there.”
Sunday May 21, 2017
O Captain Your Captain
As the stomach turns.
Wall Street Journal sports editor Sam Walker has written a book about what makes a great team captain, and, anticipating it, or publicizing it, or simply tweaking the noses of Yankee fans everywhere, he has a piece on Deadspin about why Derek Jeter doesn't make the cut—and why it's not even close. It's called “Why Does Everyone Think Derek Jeter was a Great Captain?”
It's the greatest thing I've ever read.
OK, but nearly.
He brings up stuff I know all too well but not enough apparently do: How Jeter became captain in 2003, after the Yankees' great run, meaning the team won just one World Series under his stewardship—and that thanks mostly to Jeter's bete noir Alex Rodriguez; how Jeter never suggested moving away from shortstop when a better defensive SS came along (A-Rod again), not even in his dotage when he was, by any statistical measure, a massive defensive liability. Walker also brings up that awful farewell tour in 2014, when enemy teams bestowed gifts upon him, and enemy fans stood and applauded. The stomach turns at the thought.
But this is the decisive blow:
There's another crucial piece of context to factor in, here too—money. It's true that Jeter's captaincy coincided with an aggressive new MLB luxury tax that forced the Yankees to surrender a chunk of their revenue to support the league's poorer teams, but the Yankees still had more than enough left over to maintain a sizeable spending advantage. In fact, according to payroll figures over those 12 seasons, the Yankees outspent the No. 2 MLB team by more than $1 billion.
All of that money, and Jeter's supposedly brilliant leadership, produced the same trophy haul as the Florida Marlins.
Read the whole piece. It's nice seeing this Macy's parade balloon popped.
Saturday May 20, 2017
Ailes Obit I
“I would distill Ailes's genius down to the following formula: There is a person at a great distance from you who, simply by existing, insults your existence; therefore, that person does not have a right to exist. Ailes did more to degrade the tone of public life in America than anyone since Joseph McCarthy, and, even the day after his death, it is a struggle to write about him without borrowing from that tone.”
-- Stephen Metcalf, “How Rogers Ailes Degraded the Tone of Public Life in America,” The New Yorker
Saturday May 20, 2017
Movie Review: The Big Sick (2017)
“The Big Sick” is the funniest movie I’ve seen in years. It’s the best romantic comedy I’ve seen in longer than that. Its humor is sometimes whimsical, sometimes brutal, but always honest. It moves like life but makes us laugh more.
I went in not knowing much—other than the movie was written by and starred Kumail Nanjiani, Dinesh of “Silicon Valley”—and if you’re like me and you like not knowing much of the story, stop reading now. Seriously. Come back after you’ve seen it. Spoiler alert redux.
My wife Patricia read a piece in The New Yorker about it, so she knew this much going in: “Sick” is based on Nanjiani’s relationship with co-writer, and now wife, Emily V. Gordon. That’s why it feels like life. It mostly is.
Boy meets girl’s parents
Nanjiani plays Kumail, a first-generation Pakistani-American and struggling stand-up comedian who makes a living as an Uber driver. He’s treading water but doesn’t seem to mind. Nanjiani isn’t a great actor but he often has an amused gleam in his eyes—like he’s holding onto a secret or a joke, and to share it would just be too good. Weekends he visits his parents in a Chicago suburb, and his mom is forever trying to fix him up with single Pakistani girls. He’s got a box at home with their photos. He calls it the Ex-files.
One night after his set, he’s talking up a cute girl, Emily (Zoe Kazan, granddaughter of Elia), who “whoo-ed” during his set, and he teases her about heckling him. She gives as good as she gets. Their repartee is charming. They sleep together that night, and as she’s getting ready to go, he objects: They haven’t had sex again yet. She: “I’m just not that kind of girl—I only have sex once on the first date.” They’re that rarity: the Hollywood movie couple who feel like they should be together.
Life proceeds. He’s up for a prestigious Montreal comedy gig, Mom keeps bringing in Pakistani girls for weekend dinners but he doesn’t let his parents know about Emily. It’s bad enough he’s an Uber driver/stand-up comedian rather than a doctor. But to date outside the religion? That would kill them. Or excommunicate him.
Eventually, Emily finds the Ex-files box, questions him, realizes he’s never told his parents they’re dating, and, in tears, asks if he can imagine a world in which they end up together. “I don’t know,” he says, so she ends it. Like the “Seinfeld” Band-Aid.
It would’ve ended there—without much of a story—but one night her roommate phones to tell him Emily is in the hospital. Why does the roommate send him? Why doesn’t she go? Who knows? At first, the illness doesn’t seem serious, then it does. The doctor, in fact, wants to put her in a medically induced coma, and Kumail is the only one who can give permission. A nurse informs him gravely that he should call her family. It’s a “shit gets real” moment and he’s not ready for it. He doesn’t know how to contact her parents, and, when he takes her phone by the bedside stand, he doesn’t know her password to get in. She’s unconscious next to him; so knowing what he’s doing is very, very unethical, he borrows her thumb. Shit gets real but remains funny.
The parents are Beth and Terry (Holly Hunter and Ray Romano), and when they show up they’re dismissive. They literally dismiss Kumail. This is the guy, after all, who hurt their little girl. Why is he even hanging around? But he stays.
The amazing thing? This is the brunt of the movie. It’s mostly about Kumail growing closer to Emily’s parents while Emily is in a coma. Boy gets girl, boy loses girl, girl winds up in medically induced coma, boy hangs out with her parents. For rom-coms, this is a breath of fresh air.
It helps, of course, that it’s Romano (the dry comedian as actor) and Hunter (the great actress who kills at angry, deadpan comedy). The looks she gives Kumail are priceless, but not as priceless as the moment she first walks into her daughter’s apartment, sees the familiar stuff, smells her daughter’s clothes. That's so touching. Later, we get this laugh-out-loud exchange between Romano and Nanjiani, one of many great ones:
Terry: Let me tell you something, Kumail. Love isn’t easy. That’s why they call it love.
Kumail: (Pause) I don’t really get that.
Terry: I know. I thought I could just start saying something, and something smart would come out.
Since I didn’t know this was based on real life—that the film’s co-writer is the woman in the coma—I kept going back and forth on what should happen. Obviously I didn’t want Emily to die. But would the movie be better for it? More memorable? Where could they go with the story if she survived?
Here’s where they go: The doctors finally figure out what’s wrong, she’s brought back, everyone’s happy, and she basically looks at Kumail and says, “Why are you here?” He’s grown in the relationship but she’s still back at square one.
“The Big Sick,” directed by Michael Showalter (“The Baxter,” “Wet Hot American Summer”), is a Judd Apatow production, which means it goes on a bit longer than it probably should: 119 minutes rather than the traditional 90 for rom-coms. But the extra time is taken up by life’s twists and turns, its ragged edges. And the movie still ends on a grace note that’s satisfying.
How lovely to get such a round portrait of this Pakistani family, too, which is both new to us and universal. The story of America is the story of assimilation; we encounter it over and over again in our history and literature—Irish-Americans, Southern-Americans, Jewish-Americans, African-Americans. Now this. When the great confrontation between Kumail and his parents (Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff) finally arrives, he asks them, essentially: Why did you come to America? Why continue with the old ways when we arrived here for the new? It’s a winning argument that doesn’t win—not immediately anyway. More ragged edges.
I feel like I’m still not telling you the best stuff about “The Big Sick.” The best stuff is the comedy—including a 9/11 line that absolutely killed when the movie played the opening of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival. I missed a lot because of the laughter ringing in the theater throughout the movie. I’m ready to see it again.
Friday May 19, 2017
Lancelot Links Can't Stop Reading the News
- It's tough to keep up these days—for obvious reasons. I think of the opening of David Remnick's great piece on Trump's first 100 days: “For most people, the luxury of living in a relatively stable democracy is the luxury of not following politics with a nerve-racked constancy. Trump does not afford this. His Presidency has become the demoralizing daily obsession of anyone concerned with global security, the vitality of the natural world, the national health, constitutionalism, civil rights, criminal justice, a free press, science, public education, and the distinction between fact and its opposite.” I wonder if productivity has gone down in the U.S. under his administration. Wouldn't be surprised.
- The big story of the week, in a week of big stories, was the New York Times' revelation that Comey has memos from his meetings with Trump; and during the Feb. 14 meeting, Trump supposedly told Comey to back off the investigation into Gen. Flynn. Right now it's he said/he said, but if there are tapes, as Trump has implied, and the tapes bear out Comey's claim, well, then it's obstruction of justice. The whole thing is Watergate on speed.
- Or maybe we don't need the tapes. According to the Times today, Trump told Russian diplomats in the Oval Office: “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. ... I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off.” This is according to documents summarizing the meeting. That sounds like obstruction of justice to me. So it's all about the validity of the documents. Which are apparently official White House documents.
- Before these more egregious Trump stories broke, Evan Osnos at The New Yorker was already answering the question, “How Trump could get fired?” The stuff on Reagan and the 25th amendment is particularly interesting.
- In other news this week, Roger Ailes died. The man who wrote the book on him, Gabriel Sherman, says he's going to miss him.
- Matt Taibbi isn't so kind.
- Neither is Vice.
- Nor Media Matters.
- New Yorker.
- Sherman references Janet Maslin's takedown of his book on Ailes, which you can find here. Makes me never want to read Maslin again. Our insiders need to get outside once in a while. Breathe the air there.
Friday May 19, 2017
Everything Old Is New Again
Apparently the president of the United States said something in the Oval Office that could lead to obstruction of justice charges and eventual impeachment—even prison. Right now it's he said/he said, but there are rumors of tapes. If they exist, will we need a subpoena? Don't touch that dial.
No, it's not Nixon '73 but Trump '17. Nothing this guy does is original. His whole scandal is like Watergate on speed.
Both images below came my way via social media yesterday. The first was in the wake of Trump calling the investigation into Trump/Russia ties, not to mention charges of obstruction of justice, a “witch hunt”:
Meanwhile, on Facebook, author Rick Perlstein posted this Art Buchwald column with the comment, “Some handy advice for Trump defenders from beyond the grave”:
Arguments that Trump and his supporters keep bringing up? 4, 5, 6, 8, 14, 25, 28, 29, 30. Sub in “Hillary” or “Obama” and you also get all the Chappaquiddick answers. Plus versions of LBJ, Truman and FDR.
Remember: He is not a crook.
Friday May 19, 2017
How I'm Like Ricky Gervais
- I'm always early, hate late people
- Hate noisy chewers
- Don't get “Lord of the Rings”
- Don't get subscribing to any one religion
- We both have loud laughs
Watching, I kept going, “Yeah ... yeah ... yeah.”
Love this line: “But we‘re all sinners according to your lot.” Your lot. Also on the trinity: “Sounds a bit far-fetched to me.” And the Mr. Universe line is a throwaway killer.
Has anyone as funny as Gervais ever laughed as much as Gervais? Most really funny people seem take great humor with a kind of nod of appreciation, but that’s it. Gervais still has his shotgun laugh. Both barrels.
Thursday May 18, 2017
Movie Review: Denial (2016)
So the Holocaust still happened. Good to know.
I’m not sure who “Denial” is supposed to appeal to. The protagonist, Deborah Lipstadt (Rachel Weisz), is unlikeable; her advocates, the solicitor/barrister team of Anthony Julius and Richard Rampton (Andrew Scott and Tom Wilkinson), aren’t given enough screentime to be interesting; and overall there’s just not much drama. Most of the drama, in fact, is provided by the unreasonableness of the protagonist, who favors emotional arguments in court over legal ones—but even this kind of drama only goes so far. Let’s face it: Hollywood, with its love of happy endings, isn’t going to make a movie in which a Holocaust denier wins.
Some background: In 1996, David Irving (Timothy Spall), a British scholar on Hitler and a recent Holocaust denier, sued Lipstadt for libel for the depiction of him (as a liar, etc.) in her 1993 book, “Denying the Holocaust.” He sued her in British court, where libel laws favor plaintiffs. In U.S. courts the onus is on the plaintiff to prove libel, while in British courts it’s on the defendant to prove it wasn’t. So she and her team have to prove Irving a liar. Which they do. Many times over.
The scenes in the courtroom are supposedly taken verbatim from the trial transcript. Would that the rest of the movie was; we might have had something. As is, there's nothing. Seriously. There's no depth to any of the characters, there's little drama, we don't even get a clear idea of what about the Holocaust can be proven and what can't. When in doubt, writer David Hare (“The Reader”) and director Mick Jackson (“The Bodyguard”) simply send Lipstadt out jogging. I think we get four or five such scenes. It’s not an answer. To anything.
The creepiest thing about all of this? Many of the user reviews of the film on IMDb.com have been written by obvious Holocaust deniers. Some samples, without copy-edits:
- “I was not a Holocaust Denier ever but after watching the movie I became one. Not because of the historical facts exposed in the movie but I saw how the whole Holocaust saga had been hijacked by Jewish agenda.”
- “Irving,a famous best selling author,started having problems getting book contracts after the academic Deborah Lipstadt wrote about him giving him the Orwellian label of “denier”. He began to be blacklisted and his income was suffering and his response was to seek some justice.“
- ”David Irving is an extremely intelligent, well educated man. His work is very, very well researched. That is why they felt compelled to make this (really bad) movie about him, to try and discredit him."
What a shame a better movie slamming them and their man wasn’t made. They deserve it. They need to crawl back under their rocks and stay there.
Wednesday May 17, 2017
'You're getting on that plane with Victor Larsen!'
Noah Isenberg's book, “We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie,” has some interesting stuff on the censorship battles between Warner Bros. and Joseph Breen's Motion Picture Production Code. But the most intriguing examples of censorship are actually foreign:
When the film was released a year later in [Ingrid] Bergman's native Sweden, officially a neutral nation but one with lingering trade and diplomatic ties to Germany, it wasn't so much the sex that concerned the censors as it was the defamation of the Nazis (Rick's shooting of Strasser and Renault's kicking of the Vichy bottle were removed, as was Renault's wry comment on trashing Rick's Café after its doors are closed for business, “You know how that impresses Germans.”)
Of course, that was nothing compared to what happened when the film was released in West Germany after the war:
In West Germany, the initial release of the film in 1952 was a heavily edited, dubbed version (also shown during the early years in postwar Austria), stripped of all scenes that might disturb the delicate, halfhearted process of de-Nazification—Major Strasser is completely cut out, as are all references to the Third Reich, creating a film that's some twenty-five minutes shorter. Gone is the singing of the “Marseillaise”; gone, too, all anti-Nazi jokes and dialogue. The old Czech partisan Victor Laszlo becomes Victor Larsen, a Norwegian atomic physicist hunted by Interpol.
Would be fascinating to see this West German version one day.
Tuesday May 16, 2017
Movie Review: All Through the Night (1942)
By now, it’s more historical/cultural curiosity than anything—a battle between Damon Runyonesque gamblers (led by Humphrey Bogart) and a Nazi fifth column in New York City (led by Conrad Veidt) that’s so light-hearted I assumed it was filmed before we entered World War II. Nope. It was rushed into production after Pearl Harbor, then rushed into theaters a month later.
I watched it because I’m reading Noah Isenberg’s book on the making of “Casablanca,” and he brings up some of the similarities between the two movies. In both, Bogie starts out neutral, then becomes committed; Veidt plays the villain, while Peter Lorre scurries along the edges. Otherwise, there’s no comparison. “Casablanca” is a great movie and this one isn’t. But it’s got, as I said, cultural curiosities.
Bogie’s men, for example, are played by future ‘50s/‘60s sitcom staples: William Demerest, Phil Silvers and Jackie Gleason. Quite the trio. Gleason is the least funny of the lot and has the least to do. Silvers has a good bit where, during a fight, to confirm his opponents are Nazis, he shouts “Heil” at them, and if they respond in kind he clobbers them. Demerest, with the most screen time, is essentially playing the ever-crabby Uncle Charlie character he made memorable in “My Three Sons”: a gambler ironically called Sunshine. At one point, in the dark, Bogie asks, “That you, Sunshine?” He responds: “If it ain't, I've been doing a lot of suffering for the wrong party.”
We also get references to Flash Gordon, Joe DiMaggio, and practically every street in Manhattan. Best of all? Superman. Specifically the radio series, “The Adventures of Superman,” which had begun just two years earlier, on Feb. 12, 1940. Bogie is trying to convince a recalcitrant cop, Forbes (James Burke), that the Nazi hideout is in the auction house he says it is. As they enter the place, we get this conversation:
Bogie: The main office is right down this hall. This’ll open up your eyes.
Forbes: You’re scaring me. Sounds like the next installment of “Superman.” My kids will enjoy this.
I’m curious if Superman was mentioned in the movies before this. Besides via Max Fleischer, of course.
Historically, it’s interesting to see what we knew and didn’t. The femme fatale in the movie is Leda Hamilton (an uninspired Kaaren Verne), who collaborates because the Nazis have kidnapped her father and placed him in a concentration camp. A place called Dachau. So we knew about Dachau; we just didn’t know “concentration” was the wrong word—as evidenced by the fact that the movie has her father dying there “of natural causes.”
The rest is a tangle. A local baker, Miller, whose cheesecake Bogie’s character, “Gloves” Donahue, likes, is murdered. Leda shows up, they track her to a nightclub where she sings two songs, including the title number, and Bogie, enamored, tries to make his moves despite the pesky presence of the murderous Pepi (Lorre). After Bogie leaves, an argument backstage leads to another murder. When Bogie examines the body, he leaves one of his gloves behind, so he’s fingered for the crime. No pun intended.
With his men, including an overacting Barney (Frank McHugh), who should be on his honeymoon, Bogie leaps into the investigation himself. At a toy warehouse, Sunshine goes missing; at the auction house next door, Bogie is betrayed by Leda. But our heroes reunite, discover the Nazi connection, and escape with Leda, who's now on their side. There’s a chase in Central Park. Then to the cops? I forget. Basically it’s into and out of trouble for the whole long night, until Bogie and his men show up at a fifth column meeting, where the junior Nazis plan to blow up an American battleship. Our Broadway gamblers break up the ring and thwart the plan. Proving the old adage: “Well, there are certain sections of New York, Major, that I wouldn’t advise you to try to invade.”
In the end, we get a clever call to arms:
Leda: [to reporters] I feel it's about time someone knocked the Axis back on its heels.
Gloves: Excuse me, baby. What she means is it’s about time someone knocked those heels back on their axis.
Except the movie doesn’t end there. In keeping with the jokey tone, it ends with Bogie’s mom (Jane Darwell), who began the whole thing with her “feeling” that something was wrong, reiterating that line. “I’ve got a feeling, son.”
It was January 1942. Nazis wouldn’t be this funny again until “Hogan’s Heroes.”
Monday May 15, 2017
No. 2 Circle of Hell
Yankee broadcast is advertising “50 hours of Derek Jeter-themed material.” There is a 10th circle of hell, after all. . .— Bill James Online (@billjamesonline) April 30, 2017
The reason for all of those hours? Jeter, who may soon be the co-owner of the Miami Marlins, had his number retired this weekend in a lavish ceremony by the New York Somethingorothers. They now have zero single-digit numbers left. Unless you count zero.
Sunday May 14, 2017
This Is Not a Drill
“An attempt to obstruct justice is an impeachable offense. And Trump has just openly admitted to such a thing. When, one wonders, will the patriots in the Republican Party stand up and confront this? If Clinton had done such a thing, the House would be drawing up articles of impeachment right now. We saw their pusillanimity last spring as this malign buffoon manhandled his way to the nomination. It has not abated. Comey may have made mistakes; he may have had a Messiah complex; he may go down in history as a self-righteous prick who interfered in an election. But he is obviously and transparently independent — the key criterion for any FBI director. He has angered both Democrats and Republicans over the years — and this very ability to stand up to the Bush administration and the Clinton campaign at critical moments made him someone you could count on to get to the bottom of the Russia affair. ...
”If this is swept under the rug, we take one giant step toward the authoritarianism Trump has always threatened. When a democracy believes its own president can put his finger on the scales of justice whenever his own interests are at stake, and get away with it, it is on its way to disintegration. I hope the Senate understands that this is not a drill. There needs now to be an independent prosecutor to take charge of the FBI case. If there isn't, the checks in our system will have failed.“
-- Andrew Sullivan, ”Trump Just Incriminated Himself," New York Magazine
Sunday May 14, 2017
OK, Can We Impeach NPR's Mara Liasson Then?
Here's a dialogue about the past week in politics between NPR's “Weekend Edition” host Lulu Garcia-Navarro and NPR National Political Correspondent Mara Liasson, which ran this morning:
Garcia-Navarro: What about the left? I see a whole political spectrum mobilized by Comey's firing. You know, you look on social media and cable news, they‘re calling for Trump’s impeachment. What do you think when you hear calls like that? Is it feasible?
Liasson: No. I don‘t. I think there’s a lot of magical thinking on both ends of the political spectrum. You know, his supporters think he‘s rewritten the rules, and they’ll tell me, “It doesn't matter what he does, it doesn't matter what his approval ratings are.” Remember during the campaign he said he could stand on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and not lose any voters. On the left, I think they are in the grip—many people, critics of him—are in the grip of this delusion that he's going to be impeached, or that we‘re in a full-fledged constitutional crisis. So this is a phenomenon of our very tribalized politics.
I can’t imagine a more blasé response from a political reporter to an unprecedented week in politics.
Reminder: This week, the president of the United States fired the director of the FBI, who was in the midst of investigating his presidential campaign. According to initial reports, the president did this because of the director's handling of an unrelated matter, and he did it only upon the recommendation of the attorney general and assistant attorney general. A day later, the president admitted on television, no, it was his decision, and that he fired the FBI director because of the investigation into Russian ties—which he feels are baseless. It's also been revealed that in January the president demanded the FBI director swear loyalty to him rather than to the Constitution. Later, the president tweeted a veiled threat to the FBI director if he should leak any information.
I could go on. Even The National Review (The National Review, Liasson) concludes there are only three reasons for James Comey's firing:
- the initial stated one (Clinton, emails)
- the Russia investigation, because POTUS feels it's baseless
- the Russia investigation, because it's not baseless
TNR disimisses 1) as both absurd and contradicted by POTUS, feels 2) is likely, but is open to 3).
The third one is definitely obstruction of justice, which is an impeachable offense. My question: Is 2) obstruction of justice as well? I'm looking for someone to answer that. Maybe a national political correspondent for a prestigious radio network.
But here's where Liasson really pissed me off:
Liasson: I talked to a conservative yesterday who accused the media of “Trump Derangement Syndrome” because CNN was focusing on the fact that Trump gets two scoops of ice cream when everyone else gets one at the White House. So I think that Trump is a divisive figure, and he's divided America even more.
Garcia-Navarro (amused): Trump Derangement Syndrome.
Liasson: Well, there was also Obama Derangement Syndrome on the right! So this is a real phenomenon, unfortunately, of our politics today.
Really? Obama insures millions, kills Osama bin Laden, opens up Cuba, tries to extricate U.S. ground troops from foreign wars, conducts himself with civility and propriety ... and the right-wing froths at the mouth. Trump tries to take away insurance from millions in favor of a tax break for the uber-wealthy, appoints dept. heads who despise their departments, enacts unconstitutional executive orders, signs more executive orders in his first 100 days than any president ever, is chiefly advised by his daughter and son-in-law as well as people tinged with anti-Semitic ties, blames everyone but himself, and fires the FBI director investigating him ... and the left-wing calls for impeachment. Can you spot the difference? It's a little easier than “Where's Waldo?” but I don't know if Liasson can see it.
The goal should be to strive for objectivity without descending into stupidity. Liasson, and most of NPR, are failing at this.
Saturday May 13, 2017
'Ineptitude So Surreal'
Americans were treated to yet another portrait of ineptitude so surreal as to qualify as a kind of performance art, or maybe slapstick. What other White House would schedule a visit by the Russian foreign minister and ambassador on the day after Mr. Trump fired the man in charge of investigating his campaign's ties to Russia? What other White House would bar the American media while admitting a Russian state photographer? What other White House would be astonished that the Russians would then distribute photos of their officials backslapping the grinning Mr. Trump inside the Oval Office?
It was a potent demonstration that Moscow has this president's measure. Let's hope that's all it's got on him.
Earlier, the editorial quotes Time magazine's cover story on Trump watching and rewatching moments of the James Clapper/Sally Yates testimony earlier this week, and reveling in what he interpretted as vindication for him—even as it was no such thing—as, the Times adds, “Vice President Mike Pence and several aides stood by silently.” That's what Pence has been this entire time: complicit in his silence. Never forget.
Saturday May 13, 2017
IMDb Needs to Fix Its ‘Known For’ Algorithm
I know. Not exactly high on the list of things the world needs to fix. Even so.
As you probably know, on each of its pages for any movie/TV person (star, cameraman, casting, set decoration, best boy, doesn't matter), IMDb.com lists four movies he/she is “known for.” Robert Redford, for example, is known for, in this order, “The Sting,” “Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid,” “All the President's Men,” and “Out of Africa.” Seems about right. For Audrey Hepburn, it's “Breakfast at Tiffany‘s,” “My Fair Lady,” “Roman Holiday” and “Sabrina.” Again: Yep.
But there are a few bugs in the system. Here’s Steven Spielberg:
Right. Not “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “E.T.” or “Jurassic Park.” Not “Lincoln.”
I get the first two. But “Catch Me If You Can” and “A.I.”? Really?
Then you notice the role they‘ve assigned to him for each of these movies: producer. And it all begins to make sense.
According to IMDb, its algorithm assigns a “weight” to every credit in someone’s CV. These include, among others:
- “The job performed on the title (a credit as director will have more weight than a credit as production assistant).”
- “The frequency of credits for a particular job in the context of the person's filmography (writing credits may have more weight for someone who is more frequently credited as a writer than as a producer)”
It's this second that's the problem with Spielberg. He currently has 162 credits as a producer. He has 56 as a director. Apparently this means that IMDb, the most popular repository of movie information we have, sees Spielberg, the most popular movie director of all time, as primarily a producer. And since Spielberg didn't become a producer until the late ‘70s and early ’80s, that eliminates movies such as “Jaws” and “Raiders” from “Known For” contention. (Oddly, he was a producer for “E.T.” so I'm not sure why “Catch Me” and “A.I.” trump that.)
The same is true on IMDb with other great directors who produce. In this universe, Martin Scorsese is “known for” being: 1) producer of “The Wolf of Wall Street,” 2) director of “Goodfellas,” 3) producer of “Shutter Island” and 4) director of “The Departed.” “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull”? Whatevs.
Actors who produce? Tom Hanks is primarily known for ... “The Da Vinci Code.” Drew Barrymore is primarily known for ... “Donnie Darko.”
Algorithms are tough, and IMDb's gets a lot right. But there are still a few bugs in the system.
Friday May 12, 2017
The Baby in Chief
Today, the president of the United States tweeted the following about his former FBI director, who had been leading an investigation into the president's connections with Russia, and whom the president fired earlier this week:
James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
The mind reels. He is either a) very stupid, b) very guilty, or c) both. The lack of class speaks for itself.
- James Fallows on 5 reasons why Trump/Russia/Comey is worse than Watergate.
- Donald Trump invites Time Magazine to the White House, and is basically horrible.
- The National Review (The National Review!) with a concise rendering of the three possible reasons for the Comey firing.
- The Washington Post on Trump's anger and impatience before (and possibly leading to his) firing Comey.
- John Cassidy at The New Yorker on the complicity of Trump's craven Republican enablers. (That's the title, yo.)
- From a few weeks ago: David Remnick's great takedown on Trump's first 100 days.
- This New York Times editorial is refreshingly straightforward and thus brutal.
Friday May 12, 2017
How Casablanca's Villain is a Hero
I'm reading Noah Isenberg's new book, “We'll Always Have Casablanca: The Life, Legend, and Afterlife of Hollywood's Most Beloved Movie,” and while it's not great, the third chapter is. That's when he recounts the number of refugees who helped make this movie about refugees:
Nearly all of the some seventy-five actors and actresses cast in Casablanca were immigrants. .... Hailing from more than thirty different nations, the majority of refugee actors in the film served merely as day players, performing small parts—generally either as Nazis or as refugees fleeing the Nazis—most without significant dialogue. Among them, however, were many distinguished European artists with illustrious pasts on stage and screen.
The one who intrigues me most is Carl the waiter, S.Z. Sakall, who was born in 1883 under the Austria-Hungary Empire and died in L.A. in 1955 at the age of 72. Think of all he lived through. He wrote a memoir with a great title, “The Story of Cuddles: My life under the Emperor Francis Joseph, Adolf Hitler and the Warner Brothers,” which could be great to read, but it's going for $120 on Amazon. Somebody needs to get that book back in print. Among the “trivia” about him on IMDb is this sobering note: “All three of his sisters perished in Nazi concentration camps.”
Then there's this note about Conrad Veidt, the distinguished German actor (“Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” “The Man Who Laughs”), who played the movie's villain, Maj. Heinrich Strasser:
Even an actor like Conrad Veidt, who left Germany of his own accord in 1933 (the same year he married the Jewish-Hungarian Lily Prager), was essentially a refugee by the time of the production. To express his opposition to the regime, the non-Jewish actor is said to have listed “JEW” in large block letters for his religion on a form he was required to submit with National Socialist authorities. The Nazis responded in kind, keeping his films from being shown anywhere in the Third Reich.
In his way, Veidt was braver than the actor who played the hero. When it was Humphrey Bogart's turn to face up to fascism—the right-wing, blacklist kind—he began to do the right thing, then folded. Maybe it's the character actors who have the character.
Thursday May 11, 2017
NPR: Drug Addicts Attack NJ Rep Whose Daughter Died at Age 11
Tom MacArthur (R-NJ) is the congressman who resurrected the repeal/replace Obamacare bill with the so-called “MacArthur amendment.” This is what the New York Times editorial board had to say about it:
The original Trumpcare bill, whose spectacular failure embarrassed the White House, had a public approval rating of just 17 percent because it would have taken health insurance away from 24 million Americans, many of them poor, sick and elderly. The new version would further tighten the screws on vulnerable Americans by letting insurance companies charge older people and people with pre-existing conditions much higher premiums than they charge younger and healthier people. It would also give insurers the freedom not to cover essential health services like maternity care and cancer treatment.
Yesterday, Rep. MacArthur met his constituents in a town hall in Willingboro, NJ, and NPR was there with him. In more ways than one. Their report on Morning Edition evinced much sympathy for the millionaire businessman and barely any for the citizens he's supposed to be representing—many of whom will lose health care if his amended bill makes it through the U.S. Senate.
While we hear some of the back-and-forth, at one point reporter Scott Detrow feels he has to “walk us through” the situation. He tells us, doesn't let us hear it, but tells us, that MacArthur talked about his daughter who died at the age of 11, then adds, “and the crowd responded by jeering and heckling him.”
We get the aftermath of this, with MacArthur admonishing the crowd, but not the actual jeering and heckling. I'm not sure why. Was it the whole crowd jeering him? Or a few people? In what context did MacArthur bring up his daughter?
Meanwhile, the main constituent we do hear from, who is complaining about losing her coverage, is a drug addict. I shit you not.
Basically on NPR, it's: a man who lost his 11-year-old daughter vs. a drug addict. Those are the battle lines. Which side are you on?
When his report was finally over, we got this back-and-forth with host Rachel Martin:
Rachel: Oh, Scott. That was intense.
Scott: You get that for about five hours.
Rachel: So was MacArthur just kind of standing there on his own? Was anyone in the room defending him?
Scott: Not too many people. This was one of the more Democratic parts of his district, and that's something he pointed out. ... But he did have some backers in the room, including Loretta Hence.
Loretta: I'm a little bit taken back. It's such a hostile crowd. And I got irritated with some of the people because they wouldn't give him a chance to talk.
Scott: You know, she wanted to hear what Congressman MacArthur had to say at the meeting, and she felt like the people in the room didn't want to hear what he had to say, they just wanted to yell at him? And i can tell you, that did seem to be the case with a lot of people in the room. It was more about getting in his face and pushing back rather than having a conversation. That's why MacArthur I think got frustrated.
Poor man. All he wants to do, after all, is not appoint a special prosecutor in the Comey firing and taking away health care from 24 million people. How awful that the drug addicts of New Jersey are preventing him from doing both. But thank god NPR is there to help him out.
Thursday May 11, 2017
My Impossibly Snobbish Salon Piece
The “Seven Samurai” photo Salon used confuses the issue, but I like the old “Jaws” paperback cover. This was everywhere in the summer of '75.
While I was in Rochester, Minn., last week I had another article on Salon: “Lost in translation: How often does Hollywood turn a great book into a great movie?” It's a piece that grew out of a Facebook conversation. As for my answer to the question in the subhed? I'd go with “Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest,” but mostly throw up my hands. The bigger point is that it doesn't happen often.
The piece generated a lot of comments, which I thought it would, since most people have an opinion on the subject. What I didn't see coming but should have? The commments inspired by this graf:
I was a bit thrown by the second category of answers because it's not what I had in mind and it's not in my wheelhouse. They're great genre novels that have been turned into great movies. Think sci-fi/fantasy (“The Lord of the Rings”; “Blade Runner”), westerns (“Shane,” along with two Coens: “True Grit” and “No Country for Old Men”), and crime (“L.A. Confidential”). I don't really read genre novels, so you can assess for yourself the greatness of those books.
I was saying “I don't really read genre novels” with a kind of shrug, not to mention laziness (I didn't want to read all those books just to write the piece), but that's not how it was interpretted. Here's the first comment, from a dude in Chapel Hill:
“I don't really read genre novels.” Reminds me of the woman on an episode of the '60s classic The Dick Van Dyke Show, who says snootily: “I don't own a television machine”.
Others piled on. It's kind of fun reading through them: “The snobbish dismissal of...” “This article is impossibly pompous...” Etc. etc.
Here's the sad part: These people don't know they've won. The movies they're championing, “Lord of the Rings” et al., are everywhere in the culture, while great authors like E.L. Doctorow and Norman Mailer are nowhere. We've become a candyland culture. If I'm snobbish, if I'm dismissive, it's because I think this is a problem.
Thursday May 11, 2017
Why Trump Fired Comey
From The Washington Post, whose investigative team spoke to more than 30 officials at the White House, the Justice Department, the FBI and on Capitol Hill in preparing its story:
Trump was angry that Comey would not support his baseless claim that President Barack Obama had his campaign offices wiretapped. Trump was frustrated when Comey revealed in Senate testimony the breadth of the counterintelligence investigation into Russia's effort to sway the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And he fumed that Comey was giving too much attention to the Russia probe and not enough to investigating leaks to journalists.
There will be more of this. We have a president who is the human equivalent of the worst of Fox News. He has a narrative in his head that ignores all other narratives and all other evidence and all other facts. You can get away with that if you're tucked into a corner of the cable-news world but not if you're president of the United States.
The great irony, of course, is that Comey created Pres. Trump—we wouldn't have Pres. Trump without Comey's idiotic moves last October—and in the end it ended him. He's Dr. Frankenstein and Trump is the monster. The sad GOP talking point on the Comey firing is that Democrats wanted this; they wanted Comey fired. Sure. But not in the middle of an investigation into Russian meddling in our election. Not by the monster.
Tuesday May 09, 2017
That NPR Report on Northerners Flying the Confederate Flag
It's took more than a minute into their nearly four-minute piece on northerners flying the Confederate flag before NPR brought up race.
During that time, two white Iowans who display the flag talk about their reasons for doing so: their affinity with the 1860s Southern cause. Says one:
Those people were fighting for states' rights, and the freedom to make their own way and to choose their own way against a tyrannical federal government.
Says the other:
They wanted their independence, they wanted a smaller government. I find that a lot in people. It's just that rebelliousness.
As for slavery? Or racism? Here's the first one again:
I dismiss it, because I'm not racist whatsoever. That flag doesn't mean that to me.
“But it does for many others,” adds reporter Sarah McCammon, who interviews a professor of history on the topic. But that's about the only clarifcation that's made. One side says this, the other side says that. Who knows where the truth lies?
Compounding the matter, the first guy also tells NPR his interest in “Civil War history and symbols deepened during the Obama administration, when he felt President Obama was overstepping his executive authority.” OK. How did Obama do that? Was it executive orders? Even though Obama signed fewer EOs than George W. Bush or Clinton? And Trump signed more in his first 100 days than any president ever? Can NPR give us (or him) those numbers? Of course not. Let the old men continue with their FOX News delusion. Right-wing media propagandizes, mainstream media simply reports on the result. And throws up its hands.
I'm so sick of this type of reporting. These guys can say the Confederate flag doesn't mean racism to them, but sorry, that's what it means. It's like saying the Swastika represents “nationalism.” Sure. A few other things, too.
NPR's piece does end with this chilling bit of information: In 2015, after Dylann Roof killed nine black people in a church in Charleston, S.C., one Confederate memorabilia outlet “saw a 10-fold spike” in sales.
Small government proponents, no doubt.
FURTHER READING: “Why the Confederate Flag Made a 20th Century Comeback,” from National Geographic.
Just another white man wanting his independence.
Monday May 08, 2017
M's Game: I'll Follow the Sun
Seager's moment in the sun.
My friend Jeff and I went to the game at Safeco Field yesterday, and while the M's spent the day chasing the Texas Rangers, Jeff and I chased the sun.
Gametime temps were mid-to-high 50s, with a bit of a Puget Sound breeze, so if you were in the shade, which we were, and would remain if we stayed in our regular 300-level behind-homeplate seats, you'd get a bit of a chill. Why bother? Elsewhere in the park, the sun beckoned. So in the 3rd inning, we followed it—first over to Lookout Landing along the third base/left field side, then eventually to the left field bleachers. Lots of others did the same. At one point I looked over into the center field bleachers, and the sliver that was in the shade was empty; everywhere else, it was packed.
Early in the game, Jeff and I talked to some British girls who were taking a spin along the west coast, and were returning to England the next day. This was their first game, so I assumed we could help them along. But they actually helped me. I've long known that baseball had grown out of the British game “Rounders”; what I didn't know was they still played Rounders in British schools. No professional league, though. But this gave them a base with which to understand the game. In the end, I think I had more questions about Rounders than they did about baseball.
As Jeff and I were moving around the park, the Mariners were not. Each of the first six innings, they put a man on board, but they couldn't get him past first base. No joke. We didn't reach second until the 7th inning when two separate Texas pitchers walked our first two batters. Then: fielder's choice, strikeout, and another walk to load the bases. Mariners manager Scott Servais then sent Danny Valencia (.220) to hit for Ben Gamel (.310), which seemed an odd move to me. But Valencia blooped a single to center and we got two to tie the game. The next inning, Kyle Seager, whose day it was (promotion: Kyle Seager baseball caps), hit a homer to right to put the M's on top. Edwin Diaz closed the deal and the M's won 4-3.
I've got to look up more on Rounders. Also why the Mariners created a stadium that has so much shade.
Monday May 08, 2017
Now You're the Villain in Our History: Thoughts on James Comey's Recent Testimony
Fastidious to a fault.
Last week, FBI Director James Comey appeared before Congress to finally explain why, 11 days before the 2016 presidential election, based on little evidence, and with Russia/Putin/WikiLeaks raging silently all around him, he went public with the fact that the FBI was reopening its investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. Even if, nine days later, we found out it wasn't.
Here's how it went back then. In a separate investigation into how much of a wanker Anthony Weiner is (I think he was corresponding with an underage girl in North Carolina), the FBI seized Weiner's laptop, and found metadata evidence of thousands of Clinton's emails. Since Comey had famously, or infamously, ended the FBI's investigation into the Clinton email debaccle in July by chastising the former secretary of state with “extreme carelessness” that “any reasonable person” would not have made, this new find put a wrinkle into that closure. And Comey, fastidiuous to a fault, hates wrinkles.
I could see two doors and they were both actions. One was labeled speak, the other was labeled conceal. Because here's how I thought about it, I'm not trying to talk you into this, but I want you to know my thinking. Having repeatedly told this Congress, we are done and there's nothing there, there's no case there, to restart in a hugely significant way, potentially finding the emails that would reflect on her intent from the beginning and not speak about it would require an active concealment, in my view.
And so I stared at speak and conceal. Speak would be really bad. There's an election in 11 days. Lordy, that would be really bad. Concealing in my view would be catastrophic, not just to the FBI, but well beyond. And honestly, as between really bad and catastrophic, I said to my team we got to walk into the world of really bad. I've got to tell Congress that we're restarting this, not in some frivolous way, in a hugely significant way.
That's his rationale. He chose the lesser of two evils because that's all he had. Then he offered a challenge to the room and to the country:
Everybody who disagrees with me has to come back to October 28 with me and stare at this and tell me what you would do. Would you speak or would you conceal?
Oh! Me! Choose me!
First, I wouldn't call standing pat concealing. Comey frames his dilemma as if there had to be an action, but that's not true. He could have taken the more circumspect route by quietly continuing both the investigation into Weiner's wanker laptop (and maybe its connection to Clinton) and the considerably more problematic investigation into ties between the Russian government and the Trump campaign (and its attempt to upend American democracy), without mentioning either publicly. Seriously, why go public with one and not the other? Because in Comey's mind, he'd already signed off on the Clinton one. “Concealing” would be “catastrophic” for his idea of himself.
At the same time he proudly defended that decision, he also tried to weasel out of it:
I sent the letter to Congress—by the way, people forget this, I didn't make a public announcement. I sent a private letter to the chairs and the rankings of the oversight committees.
Right. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) revealed it. Which everyone, including Comey, knew he would.
The part of Comey's testimony that isn't getting enough commentary? The fact that his investigative team assumed the Weiner laptop included the motherlode:
What they could see from the metadata was that there were thousands of Secretary Clinton's emails on that device, including what they thought might be the missing emails from her first three months as secretary of state.
“What they thought ... might be...?” Why did they think this? Did he ask them that? Why was that assumption there?
She was using a Verizon BlackBerry then and that's obviously very important, because if there was evidence that she was acting with bad intent, that's where it would be in the first three months.
“If there was evidence that she was acting with bad intent...?” OK, now why this assumption? Why were they assuming guilt before they could even look at the evidence? Based on what? Seriously, how many crimes must criminals attribute to this woman before everyone wakes up?
Anyway, there was more back-and-forth, more posturing. Ted Cruz was awful. You know how it goes.
Comey also said he felt “mildly nauseous” that he might have had “some impact” on the election. That's cute. Particularly during a week in which tens of millions of Americans might lose their health insurance.
My thoughts? Comey acted with a kind of extreme carelessness that any reasonable person would have avoided. Pulling at a loose end, he unraveled the whole thing and single-handedly changed American democracy for the worse. Knowing Russia was attempting to rig the election, he helped push the election in their direction and we wound up with a joke of a 45th president. No matter how much he tries to frame it in his favor today, that's what history will remember him for. And that's all history will remember him for.
Sunday May 07, 2017
Merci Mille Fois
FUN FACT: This is the first time in history that the President of France🇫🇷 will speak better English than the President of America.🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/SMw4PGDyPs— Mrs. Betty Bowers (@BettyBowers) May 7, 2017
Today's election results in France (66-33, good guys) is another reason to love France besides Marcel Proust, Jean Gabin, Jean Renoir, Max Ophuls, Henri-Georges Clouzot, Francois Truffaut, Louis Malle, Simone Simon, Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert, Marion Cotillard, Berenice Bejo, Olivier Assayas, Jacques Audiard, the whole of Paris, coffee shops, the shrug, and liberté, egalité and fraternité. Mille fois merci. Desolé pour notre president.
It's a reminder to the world: This voting machine kills fascists.
Sunday May 07, 2017
Box Office: Which Hollywood Movies Gross More in China?
“Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2” opened to $145 mil in the U.S. this weekend, which is about $50 mil more than the original grossed opening weekend August 2014, but it's not exactly earth-shattering. It's the 17th-best opener ever, and the second-best this year, (after “Beauty and the Beast,” which opened at $174 back in March). But at this point, for this type of film, if it doesn't break $150, or $160, it's hardly news. It's Mike Trout batting .300 and hitting 30 HRs. It's what it's supposed to do.
“The Fate of the Furious” finished second. A distant second: $8 mil in its fourth weekend. The film cost $250 to produce and has earned back only $207 in the U.S., which would seem to be a failure. Except, of course, it's grossed nearly $1 billion abroad. In China alone, its receipts ($374 million) nearly double what it's grabbed in the U.S.
This is an increasingly common phenomenon: the Hollywood blockbuster making more in China than in the U.S. Here's a chart of Hollywood movies that have done that since 2014:
|The Fate of the Furious||2017||$373,921,406||$207,136,495||1.81|
|Transformers: Age of Extinction||2014||$320,000,000||$245,439,076||1.30|
|The Great Wall*||2016||$170,962,106||$45,157,105||3.79|
|Kong: Skull Island||2017||$168,384,464||$165,792,080||1.02|
|xXx: The Return of Xander Cage||2017||$164,066,583||$44,898,413||3.65|
|Resident Evil: The Final Chapter||2017||$159,548,686||$26,830,068||5.95|
|Kung Fu Panda 3||2016||$154,304,371||$143,528,619||1.08|
* Joint Hollywood/China production
Overall, it seems like a film festival in hell. It's sequel-laden with a focus on mechanized power: the musclecars of the “Furious” movies; Transformers and Terminators.
It's particularly interesting noting the movies that die here and are reborn there: “Warcraft,” which is a video game thing; “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” (they love Vin more than we do), and the most recent “Resident Evil,” which, in China, grossed nearly twice as much as “Beauty and the Beast” ($85 mil).
So are these sequels new to them and old-hat to us? Do they flock to the familiar more than we do? I have no answers, just questions.
China also has its huge homegrown blockbusters as well: the “Journey to the West” cycle, randy comedies like “Breakup Buddies,” and particularly “The Mermaid,” its first half a billion domestic grosser from last year. So far, none of these travel the way Hollywood movies travel. Will be interesting to see if they ever do. Would be interesting to see how the world changes.
Sunday May 07, 2017
Tweet of the Day
Sunday May 07, 2017
Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
This was the beginning of my review of “Guardians of the Galaxy” three years ago:
We know how the roller coaster goes. Our heroes, misfits all, fight more with each other than with the bad guys, but eventually, through a series of adventures and misadventures, they abandon the more pungent aspects of their personalities for the greater good and come together for the final, big battle, with swirling dervishes going pew-pew-pew, and, somehow, against impossible odds ... win!
That’s pretty much the description for the sequel, too.
With the original I asked the follow-up, “Do they make the roller-coaster ride fun?” I answered yes.
The sequel? Eh.
Sure, there are good bits. I particularly like the scene with the empath Mantis (Pom Klementieff)—who looks like a manga character as insect, all big eyes and probing antennae—who innocently reveals that our hero, Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), has feelings for the sexy green alien, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), causing Drax (Dave Bautista), his muscle-bound compatriot, to totally crack up. He points at him and shouts: “She just told everyone you deepest, darkest secret! You must be so embarrassed!” Even more brilliantly, he tells Mantis, bouncing up and down in his seat, “Do me! Do me!” I’ll never forget seeing that in the “Guardians” trailer before “Star Wars: Rogue One” last December, and how much my nephew, Ryan, laughed. It brought him such joy. Which brought me such joy.
There’s a lot of that kind of humor in the movie: our heroes as kids/pets (Baby Groot), or innocent adolescents (Drax), or rough/tough adolescents (Rocket Raccoon). The adult in the room is Gamora. The one woman. The rest are boys.
Have the Guardians reverted? Obviously Groot has—he’s Baby Groot now—but so did Drax. In the first movie, his main bit was an inability to comprehend metaphor. Even when Rocket explained that everything went over his head, he responded, somewhat affronted, “Nothing goes over my head. My reflexes are too fast.” Here, metaphor isn’t mentioned. Instead, he simply blurts out inappropriate comments. But at least they're funny. It's why he’s my favorite character in the movie.
You know who isn’t my favorite character? Star Lord. “Vol. 2” is a star-driven vehicle, and the main plot centers around that star (Peter’s reunion with his father, a Celestial named Ego, played with brio by Kurt Russell), but Peter/Pratt is surprisingly passive and unfunny throughout. He lets everyone else get the good lines. I don’t know if it’s because Pratt is super magnanimous or if he’s already bored with it.
I was often bored with it. How many blaster fights do we need? Worse, they’re battles without consequence, since we know none of our favorite characters will die. Until they telegraph the great sacrifice of the one who will: Yondu (Michael Rooker), Peter’s asshole surrogate father, who is here redeemed. He gives up himself to save his only son. You know the quote from “Wizard of Oz”: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard”? Writer-director James Gunn seems to strive for that feeling with Star-Lord. He’s always looking for his biological father (Ego), while his real dad (Yondu) was always in his own back yard. But it's forced. It's not good. Plus “Oz” gave us great songs.
So does “Vol. 2,” I suppose. The movie doubles down on a conceit of the first film: traversing the galaxy in the future, our heroes rely on low-tech entertainment (a Walkman) and forgotten Top 40 hits of the ’70s. That second cassette includes ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky,” Looking Glass’ “Brandy,” Glen Campbell’s “Southern Nights” and “Come a Little Bit Closer” by Jay and the Americans. We also get more '80s-era pop-culture references: David Hasselhoff, “Moonlighting,” Heather Locklear. I found these more annoying than the songs.
I did like the Zune joke. Before the final battle, Ego crushes Peter’s Walkman, so in the denouement, Yondu’s loyal lieutenant, Kraglin (Sean Gunn, James’ brother), hands him a replacement, the Zune, which he says everyone listens to on Earth. Big laughs from the Seattle crowd. It was nice to see Sylvester Stallone, too, but he shows up to no purpose. And what’s with that credits sequence with Ving Rhames and Michelle Yeoh? Are they a team? They’re not talking spin-off, are they? Please, no.
Again, “Vol. 2” is kind of fun, has some laughs, but there's too much pew-pew. There are too many battles without consequence. One wonders if there will ever be consequences for all of our battles without consequence.
Saturday May 06, 2017
Box Office: Derbez > Hanks, Watson
I was busy last week taking my wife to the Mayo Clinic, then playing catch-up at work, then trying to stay abreast of the week's nauseating Comey/AHCA debaccles, but I would be a bit remiss if I didn't mention the oddity that occurred in last weekend's U.S. box office.
It was the second-weakest weekend of the year ($99 mil overall), but that's hardly newsworthy.
“The Fate of the Furious” led the box office for the third weekend in a row, but, again, nothing to alert the news media. Or the bloggers.
No, it was really the new releases, which finished in second, third and fifth place, that stand out.
In second place, grossing $12 mil, was “How to Be a Latin Lover,” a broad comedy starring Eugenio Derbez and Salma Hayek. Initially I thought it a Mexican production, or a co-U.S./Mexico production, but it's from Lionsgate's new Hispanic entertainment division, Pantelion, which came about, in part, because of Derbez's previous film, “Instructions Not Included,” which, in 2013, became the fourth-highest-grossing foreign film of all time in the U.S. ($44 mil)—after “Crouching Tiger,” “Life is Beautiful” and “Hero” with Jet Li.
In third place, grossing $10 mil, was “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion.” From India. It became the third-highest-grossing foreign opener ever—after two Jet Li movies.
And in fifth place? “The Circle,” starring Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. It grossed $9 mil.
That's right: A movie with one of Hollywood's biggest and most beloved stars, along with Hermione herself, who headlines the biggest box-office hit of the year, “Beauty and the Beast,” was surpassed by flicks from Mexico and India. And in Donald Trump's U.S.
It feels like a new thing, like a chance we might have. It reminds me of the ending to James Baldwin's 1955 essay, “Stranger in a Village”: “This world is white no longer, and it will never be white again.”
Saturday May 06, 2017
The Failure of the Will
George Will talks the talk. In a WaPost column this week, much shared on social media, he slams our current president out of the gate:
It is urgent for Americans to think and speak clearly about President Trump's inability to do either. This seems to be not a mere disinclination but a disability. It is not merely the result of intellectual sloth but of an untrained mind bereft of information and married to stratospheric self-confidence.
It's good stuff. What it doesn't include? Any kind of mea culpa from Will for supporting a Republican party that for decades pushed massive anti-intellectualism and a bullying stupidity over the airwaves and into our homes and eventually into Congress, the Supreme Court and now the White House. The trifecta. At any point, did Will question this? Wonder why he's on the same side as Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Matt Drudge, Sean Hannity? How about Andrew Breitbart, Steve Bannon, Lucian Wintrich?
He renounces Trump. That's easy. Is he ready to renounce the GOP that made him?
Thursday May 04, 2017
It's Been a Bad Day, Please Don't Take a Picture
This sums it up:
My family will go bankrupt trying to save our youngest member. And it won't be enough. And they're playing the theme song to fucking Rocky.— zac hug (@zachug) May 4, 2017
This celebratory atmosphere over stripping health care from the sick is one of the most obscene political spectacles I've witnessed. #AHCA— Peter Daou (@peterdaou) May 4, 2017
Most of the press has been awful, couching it all in horse-race terms, and constantly trotting out ruling party talking points without any kind of fact-check. (I'm looking at you, NPR.) It's a horror show. My anger simmers, boils over, grows. Paul Ryan does not want to be near me right now.
So the House passed their anti-Obamacare, pro-insurance company bill, 217-213. They still need the U.S. Senate to pass it, and that's a tougher get; but right now that's the only barrier to 24 million people losing health care.
I hope Bill Conti and Sylvester Stallone condemn this shit.
Crazy what you could've had, crazy what you could've had.
UPDATE: Daily Kos has identified 24 House Republicans who voted yes on this abomination of a healthcare bill and are in districts in which Trump got less than 50 percent of the vote. In anticipation of 2018. Let's mash these mothers.
Wednesday May 03, 2017
Kinda crazy to think that if Anthony Weiner wasn't a compulsive masturbator we might not be on the brink a nuclear war with North Korea.— Greg Saunders (@waltisfrozen) May 2, 2017
I liked the doc about Weiner that came out last year well enough, but in the wake of the Weiner/Comey/Trump circle jerk last October, and the awfulness of November, I couldn't bear to think about it again. It was touted as an Oscar nominee for best doc and I was like: No. Enough. Fuck that guy. Can't bear to even think about it.
Monday May 01, 2017
Another Day, Another Idiot Quote from Pres. Trump
This one was during an interview with Salena Zito for The Washington Examiner, a conservative magazine/website. They were talking Andrew Jackson, he brought up the U.S. Civil War in a way that made you wonder if he didn't realize Jackson wasn't alive during the U.S. Civil War, and then he added this:
People don't realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don't ask that question, but why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?
I don't know if he's trying to appeal to the usual racist cons, who claim secession wasn't due to their wanting to own human beings, or if he's just a massive dipshit, or both.
Monday May 01, 2017
Failure of the Press During the Blacklist and Beyond
Glenn Frankel's book, “High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic,” is a good reminder of all of the forces that went into ruining peoples' lives during the blacklist. McCarthy, who gave his name to the era, actually came around relatively late in the process. The big early guns were, in no order of importance, the FBI, HUAC, the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, the studio moguls, business interests, the Chamber of Commerce, and the usual array of near-fascistic right-wingers and bigots.
Oh, and the press:
The daily press tended to report [HUAC hearings] uncritically. The allegations of “friendly witnesses” like Sterling Hayden were repeated without question or rebuttal. Those who were named as Communists were not contacted by reporters and given the opportunity to respond. There were virtually no articles that questioned the committee's methods. The committee provided a libel-proof forum for accusations of subversion against named individuals who were not permitted to cross-examine their accusers. “The press does not merely mirror or report the hearing; it is an indispensable part of it—like a loudspeaker on a high-fidelity sound system,” wrote HUAC critic Frank J. Donner.
Media heroes were few:
Alan Barth, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, was one of the few mainstream journalists to object to this perversion of the press's role of government watchdog. “The tradition of objectivity ... has operated in this context to make the press an instrument of those seeking to inflict punishment by publicity,” he wrote. “Allegations that would otherwise be ignored ... as groundless and libelous are blown up on front pages and given a significance out of all relation to their intrinsic merit after they have been made before a committee of Congress.”
Imagine that: groundless accusations being blown up by the mainstream media. So glad we've matured past such a barbaric time.
Monday May 01, 2017
Here's a story from last week about the difficulty of overcoming your true nature. Also about the idiocy of construction companies even in rural areas.
A week ago Sunday, Patricia and I were driving down to Rochester, Minn., for a Monday/Tuesday appointment at the Mayo Clinic. We were driving my mother's old SUV and as we left the Twin Cities it had about a quarter tank left. I'm a pretty risk-averse guy—whenever the tank gets below the quarter-mark I usually fill it up. But here, as we drove down 52 South, I only saw gas stations on the other side of the highway. I kept waiting for one on our side. I figured: I can handle this. I'll subsume my true nature for the sake of efficiency.
And I kept waiting. And waiting.
Soon it was just cornfields everywhere, and the gas gauge was nearing empty. So when the next exit offered “gas” I went for it. Again, it was on the other side of the freeway. Worse, the station wasn't even visible. I drove a bit. Nothing. Where was it? A mile ahead? Two? I said, “Screw this” and got back on 52 South.
Then the gas gauge light went on, which never happens to me.
It would soon be dark, and I didn't like the idea of running out of gas in the middle of nowhere. No matter what, I thought, I'll get gas at the next exit.
That one looked promising. Near the town of Zumbrota, I could actually see the gas station, a SuperAmerica, on the other side of the highway. So we took the exit, drove over the bridge, and ... ran into an orange construction barrier. The road to the gas station was completely blocked. We could only go right or left: right was the exit ramp for 52 North, while left was the entrance ramp back onto 52 North. I shook my head. I looked around more carefully. The gas station was about 100 feet away but there was no way to get to it. It was that classic American dilemma: couldn't get there from here.
“Is this completely ...?”
“It is,” Patricia said.
I sighed. “Any thoughts?”
“Maybe try the other side of the freeway? There's a McDonald's there. Maybe there's something else, too?”
But there wasn't, so we returned to the construction sign, thinking we'd simply missed something. We hadn't. I parked next to the sign and got out.
“I'll see if I can just buy a canister of gasoline,” I said.
In the evening light, I walked down a steep hill full of spongy grass and into the SA. Two girls were chatting behind the counter.
“Did you know that the construction over there is blocking anyone from that side from entering this place?” I asked. They looked up, then craned their necks to the construction site. No, they didn't know. “So is there another way to get here?” I asked. The older girl mentioned driving further north about a mile and coming in from the eastern side, but I imagined myself getting hopelessly lost that way.
“So ... Do you have any canisters for sale?”
The girl looked blank for a moment, then perked up, “Yes,” and led me to a wall where ... there was nothing. “Oh, I guess we don't. I guess we're out.”
“Huh. How about one I could borrow?”
I wouldn't have been surprised if she'd said no, but she agreed. I thanked her, filled it up, carried it over the grassy hill to the car ... and couldn't figure out how to work it. The nozzle was made of plastic, and we figured you were supposed to pull back on it, twist it, and it would lock in place, allowing an opening for the gas to flow out. But it wouldn't lock into place. I actually had to hold it in place, and wound up spilling gas all over my hands. Even then it came out in a glurging trickle. Meanwhile, other cars kept driving up and looking as confused as we had by the construction signs. Patricia always gave them a shrug of commiseration.
Eventually we filled up the tank—about a quarter full—and I returned the canister, asked for a bathroom to wash my hands, washed my hands about five times but couldn't get rid of them smell. I also gave the girl $10 for her trouble. But I'd learned my lesson. Never subsume your true nature for the sake of efficiency. It's never efficient.