Sunday December 31, 2017
A Brief Conversation with Pres. Trump
The Bogart is from “Dead Reckoning,” a rare, non-Warner Bros. flick (Columbia) he made in the 1940s, co-starring Lizabeth Scott, which P and I watched the other night. It's good for two-thirds, then becomes kind of WTF.
The Donald was from an email the Trump team sent me—along with many others. Yeah, somehow I wound up on their mailing list. I think because I answered one of his idiot polls where the options are like: 1) Slathering, 2) Obsequious, 3) Way to go, boss!, 4) Other.
Donald, of course, was always WTF. 63 million of my fellow citizens are idiots and always will be. They will never live that down. We will never live that down. It's not just Trump's Hillary-bashing, Obama-bashing, Dem-bashing, FBI-bashing, NFL-bashing, MSM-bashing, immigrant-bashing, wall-building, sabre-rattling, Putin-worshipping, pathetic lying ways. It's the capital-F “Friend.” That he, or his team, would use “Friend,” and that people would buy it. And continue to buy it.
This is my last post of the year. There was an old Doonesbury strip where the gang was at a New Year's Eve party in 1979, lamenting the awful 10 years they'd been through. One of the gang repeated what his grandmother said about the worst of life, “This too shall pass,” and so they raised a toast: “To a kidney stone of a decade!” So we do with 2017. To a kidney stone of a year. But we passed that motherfucker. At least we did that.
Saturday December 30, 2017
Movie Review: Batman & Bill (2017)
It’s a helluva story.
The doc opens with Marc Tyler Nobleman, a writer of young adult nonfiction, talking to a class of elementary school kids. He shows them a slide of the bat signal, asks them if they’ve heard of Batman, and says of course they have. He’s been giving talks all over the world, from Chile to the UAE, and he hasn’t been in a classroom where someone doesn’t know Batman. Then he says this:
On every Batman story since the first, in 1939, there was only one name in the credit line: “Batman created by Bob Kane.” Here he is. And here’s the thing about that credit line: It. Is. Not. True.
We soon learn how Nobleman discovered that Bob Kane had a partner, Bill Finger, who created the bat suit, Batman’s origin, the bat cave, Robin, Gotham City, and who wrote several decades of Batman stories, but never got a line of credit. So Nobleman becomes determined to not only tell Finger’s story but to get his name properly credited in Batman comics, movies and TV shows. And after 10 years, and thousands of hours of research and detective work, he does just that. And justice is finally served.
Throughout, Nobleman is considered Bill Finger’s Batman. Several talking heads, including director Kevin Smith, say so, while the doc shows an animated Nobleman casting a long Batman shadow.
“I think there has to be one person who steps up and leads the charge,” Nobleman says. He’s that one person.
Here’s the thing about that line of credit: Is. It. True?
Mark of Kane
The doc lauds Nobleman in two ways:
- He makes people aware of Bill Finger
- He tracks down Finger’s granddaughter, who has the legal standing to challenge the Kane credit line
There’s no doubt about the second achievement. We see all that happening. But the first? Just how well-known was Bill Finger when Nobleman began his project?
I was pretty deep into comic books in the 1970s but I admit I never heard of him. There’s also that montage of Nobleman asking comic-con visitors, some dressed as Batman, a series of Batman-related trivia, and all of them nailing the questions until the final one: Who’s Bill Finger? “Him, I don’t know.”
So Finger wasn’t generally known. But within the comic book industry? Oh yeah.
The doc tells us that when Batman producer Michael Uslan was a kid, he was introduced to Finger as “the creator of Batman” at the 1965 New York Comic-Con. Shortly thereafter, Jerry Bails wrote a fanzine article, “If the Truth Be Known or A Finger in Every Plot!,” lauding Finger’s contributions, but Kane denied it in an article for Batmania magazine, and that ended that. Finger remained mostly unknown and died in poverty in January 1974. He began as a ghost writer and became a ghost.
Here’s what’s left out. Finger was inducted into the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame in 1994 (the same year as Bob Kane), and the Will Eisner Award Hall of Fame in 1999 (three years after Kane). In 2005, about the time Nobleman began researching his book, Comic-Con International established the “Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.”
Nobleman makes much of the fact that Finger died without an obit while upon Bob Kane’s death in 1998, The New York Times did a huge write-up on him. What he fails to mention? Kane’s Times obit credits Bill Finger in the second graph:
Batman and Robin, the characters that Mr. Kane created with his partner, Bill Finger, nearly 60 years ago, are some of the longest-lived comic-book heroes in the world.
What’s left out tends to elevate Nobleman; it makes it seem like only he knew.
But alarm bells really went off for me when the doc focused on the difficulty of getting a credit change for a longstanding comic-book character.
As example, we hear about the decades-long battle between DC Comics and Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster—including the 1947 case, in which Superman’s creators were awarded $94K but lost credit, and the 1960s case, in which the court sided with DC. Then Nobleman says this:
Long story short, Superman has been the subject of litigation almost from the beginning, and it’s been going on for decades at this point. ... And you know the Superman situation would not instill a lot of confidence that you can win.
Long story short? The doc fails to mention the 1970s case, in which Warner Bros., worried over negative publicity preceding “Superman: The Movie,” awarded Siegel and Shuster and their heirs $20,000 a year (later upgraded) as well as credit in all forthcoming Superman movies and comic books. Why was this left out? That’s huge. That’s precedent.
Is that the idea? They wanted Nobleman’s work with Finger to seem ... unprecedented?
Even Nobleman tracking down Finger’s granddaughter leaves me with more questions than it should.
It’s thrilling detective work. When Nobleman started, all that was known about Bill Finger’s family was he had a son named Fred. It’s Nobleman who discovers Fred died of AIDS in 1991. He’s also the one who discovers that Fred had a child through a previous marriage, and he tracks down the girl, Athena, via an online Florida wedding announcement and MySpace page. He visits her. We see footage of that visit—apparently for a doc Nobleman planned at that time. We hear her complain about how hard it’s been for her—knowing what her grandfather did but not getting family cred. “I still don’t have closure,” she says, near tears. “I was excluded from everything.”
But ... what year was this visit? 2006? 2007? Later we see Athena going to the premiere of “The Dark Knight” in 2008 and having a great time. Then before the premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” in 2012, DC/Warners wanted her to sign a document terminating rights to any kind of claim to the character.
“They wanted to keep me quiet,” she says.
It took her four years to realize this? What was she doing in the interim? The whole thing feels fuzzy. It feels like Nobleman wanted her to sue but she went to premieres instead. And it gets even fuzzier. Suddenly she’s with a guy named Dr. Travis Langley? Who’s that? Suddenly she’s getting pressure from comic book fans? I thought comic-conners didn’t know Bill Finger. Or is that before Marc’s book was published in 2012 and created a surge of interest?
But, yes, eventually she sues, and in Sept. 2015 they reach a settlement, and it’s announced that Finger will receive credit on the TV show “Gotham” and the movie “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Wait, just those? No, it appears those are just examples. It appears he’s getting credit the way Siegel and Shuster got credit for Superman. Even though the doc never tells us Siegel and Shuster got credit for Superman.
(I’ll only briefly mention the irony that when Bill Finger finally, finally got credit for co-creating one of the world’s most famous characters, it was on “Batman v. Superman,” one of the worst superhero movies ever made.)
Listen, it’s a helluva story, and I’m grateful that Nobleman did all he did to get Bill Finger the credit he deserved. I even recommend you watch it. But “Batman & Bill,” directed by Don Argott and Sheena Joyce (“The Art of the Steal”), focuses too much on him, and makes murky too much of the history. A better Bill Finger doc awaits.
Friday December 29, 2017
‘Overboard’: Early Candidate for Worst Movie of 2018
The trailer is two minutes long and there's not a laugh in it. It feeds off the misery of its characters—first the pretty blond, played by Anna Faris, and then the rich bastard, played by Mexican comedian Eugenio Derbez, who gets her fired, loses his memory, and is then fooled by AF's character into believing: 1) they‘re married, 2) he’s sterile (to explain away the blond kids), and 3) he works three jobs.
It's a gender switch on the 1987 original, starring Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, but just think of that plot: an American teaches a Mexican about the value of hard work. Thanks, liberal Hollywood. Thanks for sussing out the cultural moment.
Directed by the writer of “Meet Dave.”
Thursday December 28, 2017
Movie Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
The trailer looked pretty good, but then Hollywood is rife with movies that work as trailers but not as movies. The director of this one, Jake Kasdan, son of Lawrence, is notorious for just that. His oeuvre:
- “The TV Set” (2006): chronicling the ways TV networks butcher good shows
- “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story” (2007): a satire on music biopics
- “Bad Teacher” (2011): Cameron Diaz as a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, smokin’ hot teacher
- “Sex Tape” (2014): Husband and wife accidentally upload racy video to cloud
With “Jumanji: Welcome in the Jungle,” Kasdan finally has something more than a trailer.
Who should he/we thank for this? Screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, who worked together on “Community” and “American Dad,” and who this year made the leap into film with “LEGO Batman,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Jumanji”? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the world’s favorite action hero? Johnson and Kevin Hart, who continue to make a fantastic on-screen duo?
I’d say it’s whoever decided that board games were out, video games were in, and for god’s sake, make the kid the avatar.
And the nerds shall lead
Confession: I never watched the first “Jumanji.” Wait. Worse: I began it and stopped. Robin Williams did a kiddie version of his “Fisher King” role, every roll of the dice released chaos, and the backstories (1969, 1995) were convoluted and weepy.
This one begins where that one ends, with the Jumanji board game on the beach in 1996. It’s discovered, not by French girls, but by a jogging American dad (Tim Matheson), who brings it home to his teenage son, Alex Vreeke (Mason Guccione), who dismisses it out of hand. He’s into video games. When the game senses this, it simply transforms itself into one. Sure, why not? Alex chooses an avatar, begins to play, and gets sucked in.
Cut to: present day. Spencer (Alex Wolff) is a nerdy Jewish kid who is helping out his estranged childhood friend, now All-Star jock, Fridge (Ser-Darius Blain), by writing history papers for him. Bethany (Madison Iseman) is a social-media- and selfie-obsessed beauty queen who FaceTimes during class, while Martha (Morgan Turner) is ... uh ... what exactly? Shy? Dismissive? Basically she seems like a normal teen. All four get detention (the boys for cheating, the girls for sass) and are told to clean up the school’s cluttered basement. That’s where they find the Jumanji video game.
(Question: How did it get there? The Vreeke place is now shuttered, and the dad, who couldn’t handle the disappearance of his son, is the town nutjob. But someone, at some point, had to move the damn game. Did Dad give it to the school charity? And no one else ever tried to play it? Something for the DVD commentary, I guess.)
These kids, of course, do play it, and become their avatars:
- Spencer —> Dr. Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), the Superman of the game, all strength and no weakness
- Fridge —> “Mouse” Finbar (Kevin Hart), a zoologist who’s short, slow, weak, and who carries weapons for Bravestone
- Martha —> Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian), the super-fast, kick-ass Lara Croft type
- Bethany —> Prof. Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), a short, fat, middle-aged cartographer
Basically, the nerdy kids become powerful and are played by action heroes, while the popular kids become weak and are played by comedians. Each is still him or herself (Bravestone flinches at squirrels) but with the power of the avatar (Oberon is the only one who can read maps). And off they go, pursued by wild animals and biker dudes, to get a jewel, the Jaguar’s Eye, that the evil Van Pelt (Bobby Canavale) stole years earlier, and return it to the jaguar statue so the jungle can be restored. Or something.
It’s both fun and funny. The Rock plays off his WWE persona (eyebrow raise, smolder, “Rock Bottom”), Kevin Hart plays off his little-man-with-big-mouth persona, and Jack Black channels his inner beauty queen. Eventually they hook up with Alex, whose avatar is Seaplane McDonough, and who thinks he’s been in the game for a few months—not 21 years.
Each avatar gets three lives, represented by three bars on their arms; when they lose one (eaten by a hippo, pushed off a cliff), they lose a bar. And when they lose all three? The assumption—theirs and the movie’s—is that they die. Not just the avatar. Them. But it’s just an assumption. Maybe they lose that third bar and—whoosh—they’re out of the game, and back as themselves. Who knows? Something else for the DVD commentary.
It’s a shame the movie didn't go a bit deeper. Our five are literally living Atticus Finch’s edict to walk in someone else’s skin, but the lessons they learn are basically: 1) appreciate one other; 2) work as a team; 3) take risks. I often found myself drumming my fingers during these scenes. And couldn’t we get better commentary on/satire of the gaming world? Van Pelt, for example, feels more movie villain than video-game villain.
That said, it’s a good popcorn movie with a bit of heart. I liked the moment, for example, when Alex/Bravestone is feeling cautious because he’s down to just one life, and Fridge/Finbar tells him, “That’s all we ever get.” Or at the very end, when grown-up Alex (Colin Hanks) introduces our four to his daughter, Bethany, and says, “We named her for the woman who saved my life.” I actually got a little verklempt there.
Wednesday December 27, 2017
“What more could Putin ask for? Well, he could hope that his grotesque attack on the last U.S. election would lead to no serious effort to prevent it happening again. And lo, an American president has emphatically refused to lift a finger to defend the Constitution he is duty bound to protect. There's been no attempt by the White House to protect the integrity of our elections — just a constant disdain for those who worry about them, and a general, somewhat egregious, complacency.
”No American president in history has ever given Russia so much in so short a time. Congrats, Vladimir. You've achieved what no Soviet dictator ever managed to. Your asset in the White House, figurative or not, has given more than all the British and American traitors in the history of the Cold War.“
-- Andrew Sullivan, ”Putin's First Year in the White House," New York Magazine website
Tuesday December 26, 2017
Send Trump to Miss Gates' Class
“Very good, Jean Louise, very good,” Miss Gates smiled. In front of DEMOCRACY, she printed WE ARE A. “Now class, say it all together, 'We are a democracy.' ” We said it. Then Miss Gates said, “That's the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. Dictator-ship,” she said. “Over here we don't believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Pre-ju-dice,” she enunciated carefully.
-- from “To Kill a Mockingbird,” by Harper Lee, pg. 282
Sunday December 24, 2017
Box Office: A 'Star Wars' First; 'Last Jedi' Stumbles
Two years ago, the long-awaited seventh episode of the “Star Wars” saga, “The Force Awakens,” debuted during the weekend of Dec. 18-20, grossed $247 mil, and then, in its second weekend, Dec. 25-27, it fell off by only 39.8% to gross another $149.2. How good was that second weekend? At the time, better than all but 11 opening weekends in movie history.
This year, the eighth episode of the “Star Wars” saga, “The Last Jedi,” debuted the weekend of Dec. 15-17 and grossed $220 million—a drop-off, sure, but still the second-best opening ever. This weekend? Its second? It plummeted to $68 mil, a 68.9% drop, which is akin to the second-weekend drops of such crapfests as “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” (69%) and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (69.1%).
Not a very “Star Wars” thing to do. The question is why.
- Saturation? We had “Force Awakens” two years ago and “Rogue One” last year and now “Star Wars” is a regular holiday deal, rather than the thing you've been waiting decades to see.
- Backlash? The reviews were good (RT: 92%) but some of the aggragated audience reactions have not been (RT: 52%). It's still up in the air whether this is legit or some kind of sabotage. Some fanboys, apparently, aren't happy that the female characters are front-and-center in this one.
- Or is it just the dates?
Look at the dates for the second weekend of “Force Awakens”: Christmas day and the two days after. Prime movie-watching days. “Last Jedi”? The three days before Christmas day, when most of us are still running around and doing the dirty work of the holiday. That three-day shift could've made a huge difference. I'm not saying “Jedi” would've come near “Force”; I just don't think it would've fallen off in “BvS” numbers. We'll see how it does the rest of the week. I assume it'll pick up. Either way, it's at $365 million ($745 worldwide), and will become the biggest box-office hit of the year—as is true for every major “Star Wars” release save “Episode II: Attack of the Clones” back in 2002.
Five other movies opened this weekend in 2500+ theaters, and finished 2, 3, 4, 7 and 9. The Rock's latest, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” grossed $34, “Pitch Perfect 3” $20 (a third of “PP2”'s opening), and “The Greatest Showman” far back at $8.2. “Downsizing” lived up to its name, making only $4.6, but that was still better than “Father Figures” (“Mamma Mia” + gender switch - ABBA), which scrounged up only $3.2, an average of a paltry $1.1k per theater.
The best per-theater average belonged to the movie I wanted to see, but couldn't, because Fox in its infinite wisdom opened “The Post” in only nine theaters. Nine! Apparently it goes wide in January. Instead, P and I saw “Star Wars” on Thursday and “Jumanji” on Saturday. Mixed positives for both.
Merry Christmas, everyone! Treat yourself to “The Big Sick,” currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
Sunday December 24, 2017
God Bless Us, Everyone
“The rich will not be gaining at all,” Trump told the public of the tax plan. “You all just got a lot richer,” he told his fellow 1%'ers at Mar-a-Lago on Friday. Merry Christmas. https://t.co/K4EPfi37CU— Eyal Press (@EyalPress) December 24, 2017
Saturday December 23, 2017
Mayer Exposes Racist Nonprofit; Trump Quotes Them Praising Him
Yesterday on Twitter, Donald Trump quoted the founder of a new conservative nonprofit called Turning Point USA about the same time that The New Yorker posted Jane Mayer's exposé on them. Not sure which came first. The exposé, I think.
Mayer's piece is about how the nonprofit is both racist and has been flouting 501(c)(3) rules by engaging in politicking. Shocker:
Turning Point touts its close relationship with the President's family. The group's Web site promoted Don, Jr.,'s appearance for weeks, featuring a photo of him raising a clenched fist. Its promotional materials include a quote from the younger Trump praising Turning Point: “What you guys have done” is “just amazing.” Lara Trump, the wife of Don, Jr.,'s brother Eric, is also involved with the group. In West Palm Beach on Wednesday, she hosted a luncheon promoting Turning Point's coming Young Women's Leadership Summit. The group's twenty-four-year-old executive director and founder, Charlie Kirk, told me that he counts Don, Jr., as “a personal friend.”
That's not even the politicking. The politicking is giving the names and numbers of conservatives to help a presidential campaign—in this case, Marco Rubio's ill-fated one against Trump. As for the racism, one example Mayer gives is the org's national field director sending an email to a colleague stating, “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE. Like fuck them all . . . I hate blacks. End of story.”
Actually, the beginning of it.
Oh, and they also fired one of the few African-Americans who worked there, Gabrielle Fequiere, and allegedly on MLK Day. A final twist of the screw, I suppose, but I wound up having little sympathy for Fequiere, particularly after reading this quote from her:
My Democratic friends had told me that some Republicans didn't care about the poor and minorities, and I thought it wasn't true, but then I found the people they were talking about!
Good god, woman. Pay attention. Read. Use your brain—or half of it. Something.
Trump's addition to all of this was to quote the nonprofit's founder and executive director praising him:
“The President has accomplished some absolutely historic things during this past year.” Thank you Charlie Kirk of Turning Points USA. Sadly, the Fake Mainstream Media will NEVER talk about our accomplishments in their end of year reviews. We are compiling a long & beautiful list.
It's bad enough that Trump's source is this suspect, right-wing organization that'll probably be toast within a year. It's that he, the president of the United States, keeps quoting people praising him. How pathetic is that? How needy? How sad.
We gotta get out of this place.
Tuesday December 19, 2017
Movie Review: A Ghost Story (2017)
Halfway through the movie, which we watched at home, Patricia got up to get some ice cream. “Don’t pause,” she said. “I’m sure I won’t miss anything.”
Truer words. I don’t know if writer-director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) has been studying at the Hou Hsiao-hsien School of Holding the Camera on Nothing for Five Minutes, but at times it sure felt like it.
There’s M (Rooney Mara) sitting on the kitchen floor shortly after the death of her husband, and eating a pie a friend brought by. Good, she could use some meat on them bones. And there’s her husband, C (Casey Affleck), now a ghost, wearing a sheet, a literal white sheet, with eyeholes that looks like slanted lemons, standing just in frame watching her. And watching her. And watching her. Until after four minutes, maybe five, she bolts for the bathroom to throw up. (So much for meat on them bones.)
And ... scene. Finally.
“A Ghost Story” is an interesting experiment, and I enjoyed it more in the aftermath than in the watching. But top 10 for the year? I’ve seen a handful of critics who elevated it so; that’s why we watched it. Halfway through, as Patricia was going for ice cream, I wanted to strangle these guys.
It begins with a young couple living in a nondescript clapboard house. In bed, arm in arm, like young lovers do, she tells him a story:
When I was little we used to move all the time. I’d write these notes, and I would fold them up really small. And I would hide them in different places. So that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.
Tuck that away.
The house makes odd noises. At one point, in the middle of the night, it sounds like something heavy fell on their piano, and he, followed by she, goes to investigate. They find nothing, despite the ominous music.
“Is it the ghost story already?” I asked Patricia. “I thought he was supposed to be the ghost.”
A second later, he becomes the ghost. Car accident on a road that doesn’t have much traffic. There’s a stillness to the movie, and to this scene, and to the scene in the hospital where his body is covered with a sheet and then rises. Right, I thought, I guess that’s why ghosts have sheets; because we cover dead bodies with them. But who cut out the eyeholes?
He walks down the hospital hallway, a window opens in a wall, holds, and then closes. His opportunity to step into the Whatever? But something is keeping him here and he returns to it: his home, his wife. A piece of him waiting.
There’s a temporal dislocation to the movie, and, one imagines, to the ghost’s perspective. After the pie eating/throwing up, we see M heading out the door to work. And then again. And again. The same path, bedroom to front door, one right after the other. He remains. A man walks her to her door. He’s taller than C but less handsome. A consoling hug leads to a kiss, and then an awkward “Yeah, that was a bad idea” goodbye. Then rage from C, who knocks over a framed photo. She gathers it up, looks around. Is that why she leaves?
They were planning on moving anyway, and now she does, and the big question is if he’ll follow or remain behind. It’s the latter. A new family moves in: Hispanic mother with two kids. I like them running into the home, excited, on that first day. C is less enthused. Is it that he’s slow to comprehend? It takes a while for him to start dashing plates against the floor, but when he does they freak and move out. And des the boy see him? He seems to, but we’re not sure. We’re not sure of a lot.
Before M left, she wrote a little note, as when she was a girl, and put it into a small doorframe crack and painted over it; and in the aftermath of the family, and of kids partying there—with one dude, an annoying grad student or autodidact, expounding on the vastness of all, and the tininess of us—C tries to remove it. We don’t know how long it takes but he’s just about there when over his shoulder the blade of a bulldozer comes crashing through a wall. The place is leveled. C stays. A high-rise office building is put up. C stays. He wanders its hallways, then, from a top floor, leaps off and winds up in the same spot in the past. Now he’s with homesteaders. 18th century? 19th century? They’re killed by Indians. C’s like the Watcher in the old Marvel comics: a silent observer of the grim parade.
Before long he’s observing himself and M looking at the place for the first time. So, yes, he’s the ghost the heard that night; he’s the one who made the piano noise. Before long, there’s another ghost there—him—and I worried. Oh no, is this going to be like Sorcerer’s Apprentice? Like Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence? A room full of ghosts? And does his younger ghost-self see his older ghost-self? He doesn’t seem to, and he (and we) didn’t see anything the first go-round. Odd, because ghosts do see each other. Early on, C saw one across the way, and once the houses were leveled she declared, silently, via subtitles, “I guess they’re never coming back” and dropped out of existence. The sheet just crumpled, empty. That’s how ghosts go.
That's how C goes, too. In the second go-round, he finally pries her note from the doorframe crack, opens it, and drops out of existence.
Why does he stay? Immediately I assumed for her, but then I wondered if it wasn’t the house—that stupid, ugly clapboard. Or the spot? The land? The ending brings us back to the original supposition. It's a kind of continuation of “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” in which Casey kept catching up to Rooney. Jail couldn’t keep him from her. Now it's death. We never find out what the note says, but what it says isn't really important. What's important is that it frees him to die.
The movie’s moody and atmospheric, still and almost silent. Lowery’s a talented director. But he tried my patience too long in the beginning with those Hou Hsiao-hsien shots, and I grumbled through the rest of it. It’s twice as long as it should be. Ideally it should be 45 minutes but there’s no place for that kind of thing in our world anymore.
Monday December 18, 2017
Movie Review: Coco (2017)
My mother suffered a stroke last year that left her weak on her right side, dependent on walkers and wheelchairs, and without the ability to speak. She could say a few coached words, or a string of enthusiastic nonsensical words, but that was about it. She couldn’t write, either, so all the history inside her was lost to us in an instant. I go back to Doctorow: “We should have talked; we should always have talked.”
But she could still sing. Apparently that function is in a different part of the brain. In the car, we’d sing old Sinatra and Ella songs, old show tunes (“Oklahoma!”), and Christmas carols. If you started out, and she knew the words, she’d pick up on it and sing along.
That’s probably why the scene that really got to me in Pixar’s “Coco” is near the end, when 12-year-old Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez), back from the land of the dead, sings the song, “Remember Me” to his dying great grandmother, Coco (Ana Ofelia Murguia), and she, a mass of wrinkled flesh giving in to gravity and inevitability, slowly comes to life again. She smiles and sings and rises and remembers.
Of course, sap that I am, that scene probably would’ve gotten to me anyway.
That said, “Coco,” by Pixar standards, and despite its 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating, was a slight disappointment. It didn’t wow me like “Inside Out” or “Up” or the three “Toy Story”s.
Is it the familiarity of it all? Our hero goes out beyond his world, and has X amount of time to return or stay there forever?
Is it that Miguel doesn’t learn much on his journey beyond family history? In “Up,” Carl needed to learn that it’s the boring stuff that matters, and in “Inside Out,” Joy needed to learn to let others, such as Sadness, do their jobs. Miguel? Nothing like this. He's a smart kid, following his bliss, and he returns as ebullient as ever.
There’s no great sacrifice, either—the way Carl sacrificed his house for Russell and Bing Bong sacrificed his very existence (even the memory of his existence) for Riley. I think that's the key; you need sacrifice.
The set-up isn’t bad, I suppose. Miguel has music in his soul but his family is not only longtime shoemakers but against music, since Miguel’s great, great grandfather left his family to make his name in music and never returned. Miguel, though, wants to perform, like his hero Ernesto de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a long dead, lantern-jawed star of his great, great grandmother’s era. Then he discovers that Ernesto might be his great, great grandfather. That makes Miguel so determined to perform in the “Day of the Dead” music competition in the local plaza that, even after his grandmother, Elena (Renee Victor), destroys his guitar, he takes de la Cruz’s guitar from the mausoleum, strums it, and, oops, winds up among the dead—with a 24-hour window in which to return.
I like the border crossing. If your descendants put out your photo on the Day of the Dead, then you get to cross and spend the day as a spectral figure among them. I like the layers of death. You finally, completely die, or at least disappear from the Land of the Dead, when no one living remembers who you are. That’s about to happen to Miguel’s hapless companion, Héctor (Gael Garcia Bernal), nicknamed “Chorizo,” for supposedly having choked to death on one.
Miguel could actually return to the living quickly. He just needs to receive a blessing from a family member, via an Aztec marigold petal. But his family being his family, they demand he never plays music again. So off he goes in pursuit of another family member, de la Cruz, who is as big a celebrity in the Land of the Dead as he was in the living. He lives in a mansion surrounded by security, gives annual concerts, and receives incredible bounty from the living.
Turns out he’s also a thief and a murderer. Nice. He stole the music, and then the life, of his former singing partner, who turns out to be Héctor, who turns out to be ... wait for it ... Miguel’s great, great grandfather! Which is why he never returned to his family. He didn't choke on a chorizo; he was poisoned.
Eventually, of course, Miguel’s family unites against de la Cruz, who is revealed (to both the dead and the living) to be a scoundrel/murderer, and Miguel makes it back in time to sing the song to Hector’s daughter, Coco, so she can remember him, and allow him to remain in the Land of the Dead, and allow me to, you know, tear up.
Although, at that point, wouldn’t Miguel count as someone alive who remembers Hector? And what did they do at the border crossing before photography—i.e., for 99 percent of human history? Was it portraits/paintings then? Meaning only the rich made it back?
So many questions, Pixar.
But, for the movie, this is the big one: What did Miguel learn on his adventure? He learned...
- His hero was a jerk
- His great, great grandfather wasn’t
That’s about it. It’s really his family that needs to learn a lesson. Sadly, that lesson is obvious: Music is good. Or: Let your loved ones pursue their passions.
I liked “Coco.” It just didn't exactly take me to the moon.
Sunday December 17, 2017
Box Office: Nothing But 'Star Wars'
Three days, $220 million.
Trivia question: Which “Star Wars” movie is the only one that didn't wind up No. 1 at the U.S. domestic box office for the year?
It won't be “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” that's for sure. This weekend it grossed a cool $220 mil, the second-best opening ever—after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” which grossed $248 two years ago. 2017's biggest box office hit thus far is “Beauty and the Beast,” which grossed $504 million last spring. For “Last Jedi” to not overtake it, particularly with its 93% RT rating, would be some kind of stumbling record for the franchise. “Force Awakens,” for example, wound up grossing nearly four times its weekend opening: $936 million. I don't expect that for “Last Jedi,” but assume it'll wind up north of $600 mil. Probably closer to $700.
Is it ironic that the only studio to wide-release anything against “Star Wars” this weekend was Fox—the original “Star Wars” studio? The geniusese there decided to counterprogram against the most successful kids/family franchise ever with ... a kids/family movie, the animated “Ferdinand,” based on the story of the peaceloving bull. I guess they were going for that 2-to-3-year-old demographic It wound up a distant second with $13.5 mil.
Fox's animated division, Blue Sky, has never been a huge force. Their biggest hit was the “Ice Age” franchise, which has done better abroad than at home, but even there its popularity is melting like the polar ice caps. The last one, “Collision Course,” released last year, grossed just $64 mil here and $408 worldwide. But even it opened better than “Ferdinand” ($21 mil).
By this time next year it might all be the same company anyway, since Disney is buying Fox, or Disney is merging with Fox, or ... choose your verb. Should they is another question. Disney has already scooped up Pixar and Marvel. On the plus side, X-Men + Avengers. On the downside, monolith.
The fourth weekend of Disney/Pixar's “Coco” finished in third place with another $10 mil for a domestic total of $150. If it doesn't get stronger over the holiday season, when everyone's out of school, it could wind up with one of the weakest domestic totals for any Pixar film. It might be the first Pixar film, in fact, to do better in China, where it's been No. 1 three weekends in a row now and is already at $128.
BTW: “Wonder,” starring Julia Roberts and Jacob Tremblay, has been an under-the-radar wonder at the box office. In its fifth weekend, it finished in fourth place with $5 mil added to a domestic total of $109 million.
Among the Oscar contenders in limited release: “The Disaster Artist” grossed $2.6 in 1,010 theaters for $12m total gross; “Lady Bird” earned $2.1 in 947 theaters for a $26m total; “The Shape of Water” made $1.7 in 158 theaters ($3.6 total) and “Three Billboards” $1.6 in 944 theaters ($21.3m total). “Call Me By Your Name” expanded to 30 theaters and took in $500k for a $2.1 total. It's going wider next weekend. Just in time for everyone being too busy to see it.
As for that “Star Wars” trivia question? Here:
|Movie||Adjusted B.O.||B.O.||Year||Yearly BO Rank|
|2||Star Wars: The Force Awakens||$965,467,800||$936,662,225||2015||1|
|3||Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace||$757,494,400||$431,088,295||1999||1|
|4||Return of the Jedi||$723,181,600||$252,583,617||1983||1|
|5||The Empire Strikes Back||$704,239,800||$209,398,025||1980||1|
|6||Rogue One: A Star Wars Story||$539,743,700||$532,177,324||2016||1|
|7||Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith||$529,768,500||$380,270,577||2005||1|
|8||Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones||$464,469,500||$302,191,252||2002||3*|
|9||Star Wars: The Last Jedi||$220,047,000||$220,047,000||2017||?|
* Behind “Spider-Man” and the second “Lord of the Rings”
Friday December 15, 2017
Here are the box office totals—domestic, international and worldwide—for the five “Transformers” movies. Pay attention in particular to the last column: each movie's rank in terms of worldwide box office the year it was released. The series rose and rose and rose, and then...
|2009||Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen||$836.30||$402.10||$434.20||4|
|2011||Transformers: Dark of the Moon||$1,123.80||$352.40||$771.40||2|
|2014||Transformers: Age of Extinction||$1,104.10||$245.40||$858.60||1|
|2017||Transformers: The Last Knight||$605.40||$130.20||$475.30||13*|
* And counting (down)
Splat. The last was least.
No. 13 worldwide for the year (or #14 after “Last Jedi” gets rolling) would generally get you high-fives all around—unless the previous iteration was No. 1 worldwide and grossed half a billion more.
I read somewhere that Mark Wahlberg says he's leaving the franchise, but, given the above, would they want him back? I wouldn't be surprised if Dwayne Johnson gets the call, but how many more of these stupid franchises can he save? Or maybe they meld it with the “Fast and Furious” franchise? Fast, Furious and Transformed. Dom rides around in Optimus Prime. Why not? Both turned from face to heel in their most recent movies. It's all WWE now—in the movies and in the White House. It's movies and democracy transformed into idiocracies.
Thursday December 14, 2017
The bad news is the New York Yankees landed the biggest, strongest, loudest homerun hitter in all the fucking land, Giancarlo Stanton, 6' 6“, the guy who led the Majors with 59 last season, and who hit 'em out with insane exit velocities, and they got him for not much: a few mid-level prospects and a mid-level SS/2B, Starlin Castro (last season: .300/.338/.455; career OPS: .733; age next season: 28). Stanton is a near-duplicate of the Yanks' current wonderboy, Aaron Judge, 6' 7”, who led the American League last season with 52 homers, and who hit 'em out with insane exit velocities. Both play right field. Combine those two with catcher Gary Sanchez, who, for his career, has hit 53 homers in only 177 games, and, shit, it's bad news for Yankee haters out there. Teams always talk up a new Murderers Row but this is truly that. And they're all young: Sanchez just turned 25, Judge will turn 26 in April, Stanton just turned 28.
The good news? Miami Marlins' co-owner and chief executive Derek Jeter is getting REEEEEEEAMED over this:
- New York Times: Derek Jeter Was Once the Captain. But Now He's the Apprentice.
- Yahoo Sports: The questionable treatment of Giancarlo Stanton was Derek Jeter's latest blunder
- Business Insider: Derek Jeter is under fire for the baffling Giancarlo Stanton trade
It does a heart good.
I get the corner he's in. Kind of. The Marlins are in debt, they're trying to unload big, expensive talent, but they don't seem to be getting much for it. The Stanton trade was the worst. He had a no-trade clause in his 13-year, $285 million contract (of which 10 years remain), so he got to pick which teams he wanted to be sent to. And apparently he chose the four LCS teams: Yankees, Astros, Dodgers, Cubs. And the other teams offered less. And so Jeter had no choice but to...
Nah. He had a choice. “Sorry, G., we're not getting good offers from those teams. See you in spring training.”
Stanton didn't want to stay with the Marlins; he wanted to go to a winner in his prime. So force his hand. Instead, Jeter just waved his. He waved Stanton on through. Also Dee Gordon (to us) and Marcell Ozuna (to St. Louis). In the last month, the Marlins have traded (and for not much) their two top guys in terms of 2017 WAR, and 3 of their top 5. The WAR total is 16.5 (wins), meaning instead of going 77-85, the Marlins would've wound up more like 61-101. I expect them to have that kind of season in 2018. All because of Jeter.
Now there's a chance he's not incompetent. There's a chance that he's an undercover Yankees spy and using the Miami Marlins to be a kind of farm system for the Yankees, the way the '50s Yankees did with the Kansas City Athletics. But most people just think he's over his head.
So. The Yankees are now poised for another dynastic run; they're ready to add to their already obscene advantage in pennants and rings; they're about to make my life miserable again. On the other side, Jeter looks like an idjit. I'm truly torn.
Jeter's last game in the Bronx: Me, me, me.
Monday December 11, 2017
The Seattle Film Critics Society's 10 Best of the Year
The nominees are out from the Seattle Film Critics Society, and they are ...
Wait, nominees? Even the New York and LA film critics don't do nominees...do they? They just award.
Anyway, despite living in Seattle (First Hill, represent!), and being a film critic (of a kind), I've never been anywhere near this group. Maybe with good reason. These are their nominees for best picture:
- Blade Runner 2049
- The Disaster Artist
- The Florida Project
- Get Out
- Lady Bird
- Phantom Thread
- The Post
- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Missing? “The Big Sick,” of course, which I watched again with friends last night and liked more than the first time I saw it—as the opening movie of the Seattle International Film Festival last May. And I loved it then. Right now, it's top 3 for me. With many more to see...
...such as “Call Me By Your Name,” which is winning awards up the wazoo but not here. For a second I thought it wasn't listed because it hadn't screened this far west, but the film is mentioned as part of “Best Ensemble Cast.” And that's it. No others. Neither best pic for “The Shape of Water.” Haven't seen yet so shouldn't say. Just ... surprising.
What's included and probably shouldn't be? “Blade Runner 2049” for starters. Then on to “Dunkirk” and wrap up with “Logan.” I'd put “Spidey” before “Logan.”
I guess I like the head bob toward the popular, but then why ignore “Big Sick”? And why all the sci-fi? Fucking nerds.
At least “Baby Driver” didn't make the cut.
Monday December 11, 2017
Movie Review: Black Legion (1937)
In an early scene, a bunch of machine-shop guys are hanging outside eating their lunches, wearing dirty overalls and 1930s-era working caps—called whoopee caps, which I think of as Jughead caps—and giving each other shit. Mostly they’re giving shit to Ed Jackson (Dick Foran), a big, beefy sort, who’s nursing a hangover because the night before he drank too much with the wrong dame, Pearl Danvers (Helen Flint). It’s all good-natured fun until Cliff Moore (Joe Sawyer) opens his yap. His target isn’t Ed but Joe Dombrowski (Henry Brandon), a handsome kid who’s reading a book with a sliderule.
“What do you got there,” he asks. “A honyock backscratcher?”
Honyock—I had to look it up—is an ethnic slur for Eastern Europeans. Most likely a compound of “Hungarian” and “Polack.”
Our hero, Frank Taylor (Humphrey Bogart), eventually tells Cliff to lay off, and we get this exchange:
Cliff: He’s always got his nose in a book.
Frank: It’s his nose, ain’t it?
Cliff: And a plenty big one at that.
Apparently Dombrowski was originally a Jewish character but got toned down in rewrites. The nose reference is all that’s left of that identity. Like Clementis’ fur hat.
Black Legion, White House
“Black Legion” is one of those Warner Bros. movies that were, as they used to say, “ripped from today’s headlines.” There really was a Black Legion, an offshoot of the Ku Klux Klan, with estimated membership as large as 125,000 in the 1930s. It was the usual mix of all-American nastiness: anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-socialist and anti-black. Malcolm X believed the Black Legion was responsible for the death of his father, while this movie is loosely based on the kidnapping and murder of WPA worker Charles Poole in Detroit in May 1936.
It’s also ripped from our headlines, isn’t it? At one point, Frank hears the following on the radio from a Father Coughlin-type sermonizer. The sentiments would not be out of place in a speech by Pres. Donald Trump today:
... hordes of grasping, pushing foreigners, who are stealing jobs from American workmen and bread from American homes. It is to combat this peril, to preserve and protect standards of living which made American workmen the envy of the world, that we, the challengers, have raised our rallying cry, “America for Americans!”
Think of that. Despite all the progress we‘ve made, an 80-year-old stock Hollywood villain doesn’t sound much different than the current president of the United States.
As a movie, “Black Legion” is a cautionary tale. From that lunch scene above, you’d suspect Ed might get involved in the Legion, maybe via Pearl Danvers, but no. Ed sobers up and proposes to Betty (Ann Sheridan). It’s Frank, our hero, who goes down the wrong path. And stays down it.
A foreman position opens up, everyone thinks he’ll get it, but it goes to Joe Dombrowski. Incensed, Frank hears the above radio broadcast and joins the Black Legion. Together, they burn down Dombrowski’s home, and ride him and his dad out of town on a rail, then celebrate with beers all around. Frank gets the foreman gig but almost immediately loses it again because he’s too busy recruiting for the Legion. This time it goes to Mike Grogan (Clifford Soubier), so they attack him, too. Cause he's Irish? Or because Frank is feeling, as our current media terms it, “economic anxiety”? Your call.
Yes, it’s a bit sanitized. The real Legion attacked Jews and blacks, rather than the Irish and Polish. Even so, what's fascinating about the film is that our hero isn't redeemed. Far from it. His wife and child leave him, he gets drunk with Pearl, then confesses all to Ed Jackson. When Ed demands Frank go to the police or he will, Frank panics, calls in the Legion, and they take Ed to the woods for a flogging. Instead, he’s shot trying to escape (by Frank), and the rest of the hooded Legion scatters.
Initially, at trial, they create a cockamamie story about how Ed Jackson was in love with Pearl, and that's what led to the tragedy. Odder still, they make Frank claim that he was in love with Pearl, too. It almost feels like this is the reason Frank finally breaks down on the stand and tells the truth. It's not the guilt at killing a pal, or the 11th-hour realization that xenophobia is bad; he just couldn’t stand anyone thinking he preferred the uglier woman.
As in the real Charles Poole case, all of them are sentences to life in prison. That's the end. Just that. So don’t join secret hooded hate groups, kids, or you’ll lose everything.
It was a tidy-enough lesson in 1937, but one we have to keep relearning, apparently. Once more from the top.
Saturday December 09, 2017
'Man Shot, 1 West 72'
I should've posted this yesterday, on the ... which was it ... 37th anniversary. Almost as many years as he spent on Earth.
What an inspired way to write the column, telling of the lives of the cops who picked up the body and brought it Roosevelt Hospital in New York. Part of it is brutal reading: another body, but not another body, in the violent country he desperately wanted to live in, on the cusp of our most violent year. He didn't even get an ambulance? Just cops picking him up and carrying him into the backseat of their patrol car? And still alive. And still aware. “Are you John Lennon?” A nod and a groan. The intersection of these cops' lives with the man they brought in. And that brilliant last line that feels more relevant than ever:
And Jim Moran and Tony Palma, older now, cops in a world with no fun, stood in the emergency room as John Lennon, whose music they knew, whose music was known everywhere on earth, became another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York.
Rest in peace, John. Rest in peace, Jimmy Breslin, 52 when he wrote this, 88 when he died earlier this year.
Saturday December 09, 2017
Movie Review: Transformers: The Last Knight (2017)
Why is the fifth “Transformers” movie subtitled “The Last Knight“? Besides the obvious attempt to cash in on the Batman franchise?
Glad you asked! You see, back in 484 A.D., King Arthur and his knights were about to lose an epic “Game of Thrones”-inspired battle against the Saxons when the man whom Arthur trusted implicitly, the wizard Merlin (Stanley Tucci), a comic-relief drunk, stumbles upon a crashed spaceship with a transformer inside. Wait, 12 transformers? That’s what Wiki tells me but god help me if I remember more than one in this scene. Anyway, Merlin’s innate ... comedy? ... somehow convinces the transformers to back his side in the war (no Prime Directive for these fuckers), so they transform themselves into a giant three-head “Game of Thrones”-inspired dragon, give Merlin an alien staff, and warn him that “a great evil” will come for it one day; then off they go to battle and win the thing for Arthur and England.
CUT TO: Present-day, post-Transformers-III-or-IV Chicago, where, in the ruins, four “Stranger Things”-inspired nerd boys are saved by a fierce, Eleven-inspired girl, Izabella (Isabella Moner), and her transformer pals, who are, in turn, saved by our hero from the previous film: failed Texas inventor and all-around good-guy dad Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg). Cutting loose the nerds, they go off to some safe-ish haven/junkyard to wait out the next step in the inane journey.
Did you spot it? Yes, Yeager is our “last knight.” He’s the guy who will save the day. How? Well, this odd little transformer will attached itself to him, mostly to his arm but also move around his body sometimes, which gives him the opportunity to reveal his tight abs to the Oxbridge-educated but standoffish hottie Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock), a direct descendant of Merlin. (Wahlberg here is like, say, Margot Robbie in the airport dressing/undressing in “Suicide Squad”: naively unaware of the effect his sexy body has on others.) Then, at a crucial moment, after Yeager and Wembley take a transformer-sub to the bottom of the ocean, and run from/fight the 12 guardian transformers there, not to mention Optimus Prime, who, like a WWE wrestler, has turned from face (hero) to heel (villain), because...
Fuck it. Enough to know that they resurface, there’s a battle, Megatron steals the staff, Optimus realizes the error of his ways because Bumblebee speaks, but he’s about to be executed anyway by the 12 guardian transformers when Cade shouts “NO!” and the odd little transform becomes ... EXCALIBUR! Yes! Arthur’s sword! And Cade stops the mighty blade of the guaridan transformer! And he saves Optimus! And now he’s ready for battle.
And so Cade takes Excalibur and ...
Actually, that’s pretty much it. That’s all he does with it. It doesn’t come into play ever again.
Remember when you were like 9 or 10 and you’d play at “war,” or some kind of imaginary adventure game, and it was basically, “And then this happens, and then this happens,” and “No! Those guys are over there! No! That guy’s dead!” Remember that kind of thing? No logic, no sense of connecting the past with the now, just the hell-bent movement forward? That’s this. That's Michael Bay.
This movie is so bad I kept flashing to that “Curb Your Enthusiasm” season in which Larry David is cast in “The Producers” because Mel Brooks wants it to fail. He’s sick of his creation and wants to destroy it and move on. Is Bay doing the same? Is he sick of his creation and wants to end it? Or is he simply boundary-testing how stupid we are? “Can they take something this dumb? Cuz I’ve about reached my limit. I can't make it any dumber. I canna dumb it down any further, Captain.”
The plot is basically: Optimus and army men chase our heroes, who are on a hellbent journey to find a MacGuffin (alien staff) that could lead to the end of the world, and which only they can gather. Once they find the MacGuffin, and once the bad guys immediately steal it and try to use it to destroy the Earth, Optimus and the military guys join our heroes for the final battle, which takes place, with a nod toward the movie's King Arthur opening, over England’s moun-tains green. And the good guys win.
Plus Anthony Hopkins as Sir Edmund Burton, the one who knows the backstory.
Plus Tony Hale (“Arrested Development,” “VEEP”) as the government scientist apparently in charge of everything who orders generals to use nukes against the Decepticons because ”magic isn’t real."
I kept wondering: In these movies, isn’t there always something that’s been left behind by centuries-ago transformers that today's transformers need to get a hold of to rule the world? Or save it? Shouldn’t someone do a study on this?
[Smaller voice] Oh no, I don’t have to do it, do I?
No, thank god. Or thank Rob Bricken at io9, a better man than I, who has already done it. Read his synopsis. He tears apart the movie, the series, and Michael Bay, with the necessary humor.
Final reminder: This is all about a toy robot that can turn into a car. Have we gone mad?
Friday December 08, 2017
Quote of the Day
“If there are alternative solutions, like finding another baker, why force the point? Why take up arms to coerce someone when you can easily let him be — and still celebrate your wedding? That is particularly the case when much of the argument for marriage equality was that it would not force anyone outside that marriage to approve or disapprove of it. One reason we won that debate is because many straight people simply said to themselves, ”How does someone else's marriage affect me?“ and decided on those grounds to support or acquiesce to such a deep social change. It seems grotesquely disingenuous now for the marriage-equality movement to bait and switch on that core ”live and let live“ argument. ...
”Nonetheless, here we are. And it is a hard case constitutionally. It pits religious and artistic freedom against civil equality and nondiscrimination. Anyone on either side who claims this is an easy call are fanatics of one kind or other. ...
“In other words, if the liberals were more liberal, and the Christians more Christian, this case would never have existed.”
-- Andrew Sullivan, on the Masterpiece Cake v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case argued before the U.S. Supreme Court this week, “Let Him Have His Cake,” on the New York magazine website. He also has sharp takes on other big events this week: Trump recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; Al Franken announcing his resignation from the U.S. Senate.
Friday December 08, 2017
Ms Get 2B Dee Gordon for CF
2B or not 2B? Apparently not, as yesterday Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto acquired second baseman (and perennial NL stolen-base leader) Dee Gordon from the Miami Marlins, with plans to move him to center field. Sure, why not? He‘ll cover ground anyway, and he’s got a glove. What did we give up? I‘ll let ESPN’s David Schoenfield talk:
Jerry Dipoto has said he wanted to acquire a center fielder for the Mariners ... so he acquired Dee Gordon from the Marlins. ... He's signed for three more seasons plus an option so he could be a long-term solution there. They did give up Nick Neidert, their top pitching prospect. He's not a flamethrower, but immediately becomes one of the Marlins' top prospects as well and Derek Jeter has dealt away his first major chunk of salary.
Man, I hate helping effin' Jeter.
Gordon will turn 30 in April, which generally isn't a good age for a speedster ... until we remember (because surely we remember) that Lou Brock set the single-season stolen base record in 1974 at age 34/35.
Gordon can also hit: He's got a .293 career average. What he doesn't do is walk (.329 career OBP) or hit for power (.367 career slugging). He's got 11 HRs in his career, 40 triples and only 90 doubles. That last is shocking. His best doubles season is 24: twice. I imagine we‘ll place him at the top of the lineup. But if he slumps at Safeco, as players have been known to do, we’re in trouble.
That said, his WAR last season was 3.1, which is equal to Jean Segura‘s. And it’ll be nice to have some speed on the basepaths. Here's a highlight reel from a few years ago:
Thursday December 07, 2017
- This is fun: A video countdown of the 25 best movies of 2017 according to David Ehrlich. We only match up a bit. I move “The Big Sick” way up and stuff like “Dunkirk” way back. I like story.
- The 10 best books of the year, according to The New York Times.
- Why, in China, did Pixar's “CoCo” underperform on its first day, then begin to kick ass? Apparently the translated title was poorly named.
- “CoCo” is so not underperforming in China now that Forbes has a piece on how well it's done there. And what does all of this say about our global box-office assumptions? That they ain't worth the quai they're based on.
- Speaking of: Can China go sci-fi? And can Sino sci-fi go global?
- Joe Posnanski has a new dude he's lobbying to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame: the Yankee-killing, bloody-socked, crazy-in-a-bad-way Curt Schilling. Here's Poz's opening argument.
- A day later, he added an entire column about Schilling. It's persuasive.
- Poz ain't exactly lobbying for Steve Garvey for the Hall, but he does tell a great story about him and a female reporter back in the '80s. It's classy, for a change.
- The Aaron Boone/managerial hiring continues to perplex baseball/Yankees fans. My main thought: He may be laid-back and affable now; but if the Yankees start with a losing record in April, I expect Yankee fans will remind him what his surname is.
- The arguments in the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Civil Rights Commission case before the U.S. Supreme Court didn't go well, says Ian Millhiser—if, that is, you think you shouldn't be able to turn away customers based on religious convictions. There are way broader questions here, though, that are fascinating, and haven't been explored enough. Overall, though, this feels like a fight both sides wanted. The Christian baker could've just told the gay couple, “I'm too busy”; and once he stated his case, the gay couple could've just said, “Fuck you, we're never coming back here, and we're telling all of our friends—gay and straight—not to come here, and see this money? It's not yours. And fuck you again.” Instead, this.
- Although Jennifer Rubin at the Post dismisses that argument and reminds us that once again the right's absurd culture wars are overtaking its business sensibilities: “It's odd that conservatives, of all people, want to politicize commerce. The glory of the marketplace is that anyone with money, regardless of religion or race or ethnicity, gets to partake in commerce.”
- “Art of the Deal” ghostwriter Tony Schwartz reminds us that if Trump lashes out it means he feels cornered. So here's to him lashing out.
- We may ask ourselves: How did we get here? In that spirit, Swedemason offers us Donald Trump channeling the Talking Heads.
- I've been saying this for a while: Republicans are interested in power, Democrats in purity, and that's why Republicans win and we have the shitty world we have. Dahlia Lithwick, in a piece about the sexual harassment wars, says it better.
- Is this my favorite story of the year? A neighborhood cat so likes to patrol around the library at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. (my sister's alma mater), they've barred him. As one tweeter states, the warning on the door reads like half a children's book.
Wednesday December 06, 2017
Movie Review: Snatched (2017)
Based on reviews (37% on Rotten Tomatoes), box office ($45.8 million, a 60% drop from Amy Schumer’s previous film), and word-of-mouth (crickets), not to mention the awful double entendre of the title, I expected “Snatched” to suuuuuuuuck.
It doesn’t. Mind you, it’s not good, but it’s not bottom-of-the-barrel.
It’s good enough, in fact, to make me wonder why it didn’t do better. And I hate myself for the answer I’m about to give: I think it has a little something to do with Goldie Hawn’s face.
It’s not that she looks old; that would be fine. She just looks like she’s had too much plastic surgery.
Murray not Murray
Schumer plays a classic Schumer character, a spoiled, solipsistic American girl named Emily Middleton. We first see her talking endlessly to a retailing clothing clerk about an upcoming trip to Ecuador with her boyfriend—who’s in a rock band. Except the clerk turns out to be the customer, Emily is the clerk, and a second later she’s fired for being, you know, awful. Then her boyfriend (Randall Park, “VEEP”) dumps her for pretty much the same reason. Schumer opens the movie like a classic Bill Murray character—losing everything in the first five minutes—except she’s less funny, and less endearing, doing it. It was always a neat trick how Murray managed it.
Anyway, the plane tickets are nonrefundable, nobody likes her, and that’s why she winds up traveling with her mom, Linda (Hawn), who is in her 60s, lives alone with cats, and assumes all strangers are potential criminals.
I have to admit: This seems like great casting. One era’s kookie blonde giving birth to the next. I just wish Goldie had let herself age as ungracefully as the rest of us. Instead, she went the Hollywood route, and her face has that stretched, vaguely platypus look. They also have her playing against type: instead of dingbatty, wide-eyed and inviting, she’s suspicious and closed off. (Or maybe that’s what happens to the wide-eyed and inviting over time?) Either way, she’s the straight person here.
In Quito, Ecuador’s capital, Emily just wants to drink and meet a cute guy, while Linda assumes the worst. Both get what they want. The cute guy takes them on an excursion and they’re rammed by a white van and kidnapped by Colombians. For ransom? Doesn't anyone know they have no money? But at least it answers the question: Why Ecuador? Initially I thought it was because they’d wind up in the Galapagos.
A few things I liked: In their various attempts to escape the clutches of Hector Morgado (Óscar Jaenada, who played Catinflas in a 2014 Mexican biopic), they accidently kill his henchmen ... who turn out to be 1) his nephew, and 2) his only son. The neophytes who—oops—cause the deepest cuts always makes me laugh. I also like the interplay between Linda’s frenetic, spoiled, stay-at-home son, Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz, “The Mindy Project”), and the laconic, career State Dept. official Morgan Russell (Bashir Salahuddin). Oh, and all the various saviors/rescuers that aren’t: Christopher Meloni’s jungle adventurer; the lesbian team-up of Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack, who make the leap but leave Emily hanging.
There are laughs in “Snatched.” I laughed. But not enough.
Tuesday December 05, 2017
Movie Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)
Afterwards, I asked Patricia if she could think of an actor who could play the lead besides Frances McDormand. Because I couldn’t. Allison Janney, maybe? Annette Bening? McDormand is perfect for the part. Chin up, working class, beyond world-weary but tough as nails, with an undercurrent of the maternal that might reveal itself at an odd moment—like when the cancer-ridden sheriff, in the midst of interrogating her, coughs blood into her face, and as she goes for help, she comforts him, calling him baby. It just slips out: that baby. That tenderness.
No surprise that writer-director Martin McDonagh (“In Bruges”) wrote Mildred for her. The punchline? She had to be convinced by husband Joel Coen:
“At the time he gave it to me I was 58 ... I was concerned that women from this socioeconomic strata did not wait until 38 to have their first child. So we went back and forth and we debated that for quite a while, and then finally my husband said, ‘Just shut up and do it.’”
One more thing to thank him for.
Mildred is less Marge Gunderson in “Fargo” than Elaine Miller in “Almost Famous”—berating Russell Hammond, then counseling him, then reminding him of his responsibilities. She’s Olive Kitteridge. She’s McDormand herself winning the Oscar for “Fargo”: that tough stride she took on her way across the stage.
I expected “Three Billboards” to be good but an eat-your-vegetables movie: the kind of dull indie that sacrifices plot for local Midwest detail. It’s not that kind of movie at all.
Burn after reading
No time is wasted getting to the billboards. Opening credits, they’re there in the morning fog, run down and dilapidated, their original messages a checkerboard of illegibility. So: a movie about a small Midwest town struggling to survive in the digital age?
Nope. A freeway was put in, not many drive this two-lane highway anymore, but Mildred, who lives nearby, has an idea. She contracts the local company for all three billboards and puts up this message in the manner of the old Burma Shave ads:
RAPED WHILE DYING
AND STILL NO ARRESTS?
HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?
So: a movie about small-town police corruption and one woman’s battle to bring the truth to light?
That’s how it seems, particularly when we meet Deputy Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a dim, small-town bully known for racial profiling. But then Mildred has a tete-a-tete with Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), he asks her advice, and after each of her suggestions he tells her of the civil rights violations involved. The further the scene progresses, the more you can feel your sympathies shifting away from her and toward him.
The movie keeps doing this; it keeps shifting on us. Willoughby is dying of cancer, Mildred knows and doesn’t care. Or she doesn’t let caring get in the way of her quest. Her teenage son, Robbie (Lucas Hedges, “Manchester By the Sea”), is embarrassed; she doesn’t care. And there’s Willoughby revisiting the scene of the crime, looking for clues. At the same time, the cops use what power they have. Mildred is hauled in, while her friend and coworker, Denise (Amanda Warren), is arrested to put pressure on her. Don’t forget how good Woody Harrelson is here. The scene after he coughs up blood, when he’s in the hospital room joshing with his wife (Abbie Cornish), and then alone, and the myriad of emotions that cross his face? The fear, mostly, and bone-deep sadness? Damn.
The crowning achievement in the battle with Mildred is his: He commits suicide. He has a perfect day with his wife and kids, and he wants them to hold onto that memory of him—not the one of him slowly wasting away—so out by the stable he puts a bag over his head and shoots himself. Watching, you know everyone will blame Mildred, and he knows it, too. He tells her so in a farewell letter. Plus the mysterious donor who paid for the billboards for another month? Him. So people will continue to blame her. The beauty of this is it’s not really malicious. His tone is amused, and she laughs, reading it. You can tell she already misses him. So do we.
Maybe too much. In the wake of his suicide, either the characters become unmoored or the movie does. The one-upmanship goes a bit over-the-top:
- Dixon throws Red, the local billboard owner (Caleb Landry Jones, “Get Out”), out his second-story window. In full view of everyone.
- Dixon is then fired by the new police chief (Clarke Peters of “The Wire”).
- The billboards are burned down—and Dixon is suspected.
- In retaliation, Mildred throws Molotov cocktails into the police station, but unbeknownst to her Dixon is inside.
Dixon winds up with third-degree burns on his body and face, and in the same hospital room as Red—the man he put there. He doesn’t get away with his crime; Mildred does. As does the murderer/rapist who set everything in motion.
If the second act seems like excess, and it did a bit to me, the movie rights itself. The third act is basically redemption. Dixon’s is the Colin Farrell/“In Bruges” role: the dim man who’s done bad things but whose moral compass is, or becomes, true.
Indeed, for a moment, you think he’s going to be the hero: the one to solve the crime through extreme sacrifice—getting beat up to get DNA. Thankfully, things aren’t so clean in McDonagh’s world. But the act unites Dixon and Mildred, who set out on their own quest. For justice? For further injustice? Who knows? They don’t even know. It’s a beautifully ambiguous ending. The world is rotten, but amidst all that there’s forgiveness. The movie feints toward giving us what we want (justice) only to give us what we need. What we truly, desperately need.
Monday December 04, 2017
Is There a Shelf Life to the Effectiveness of a MLB Manager?
Boone's pennant winner in 2003.
The New York Yankees have a new manager: Aaron Boone.
Apparently some people in Boston call him Aaron “Effin'” Boone, after Bucky “Effin'” Dent, since both hit homeruns that won, or helped win, games for the Bronx Bombers over the BoSox in do-or-die situations. Me, I think Dent deserves the epithet; his was the decisive blow in the one-game playoff in '78. Boone? Once the Yankees came back against Pedro in the 8th inning of Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS in the Bronx, it was just a matter of time. If it hadn't been Boone, it would've been someone else. So, nah. He doesn't deserve the epithet.
Does he deserve the managerial post? Many are wondering. He's never managed before—at any level. He's never coached before—at any level. Andrew Marchand at ESPN asks the right question:
Boone is personable and well-liked, but even with those qualities, it's not hard to wonder: If he didn't hit that walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series to extend the Red Sox's curse, would he have even been considered for the job?
Here's a question that not many aren't asking anymore: Why didn't the Yanks re-sign manager Joe Girardi, who took the team to within one game of the 2017 World Series? Was it his decision to not contest a HBP against the Indians that wound up costing them the game in the ALDS—a series the Yankees eventually won? Was it the discrepancy between the Yankees 2017 run differential (+198, second-best in the Majors), and their won-loss record (91-71, 8th-best)?
Or did they just decide that 10 years as skipper was enough?
That last question got me thinking about whether managers with long tenures win pennants and World Series. And this led me to spending way too much time crunching the numbers. Here they are.
Of the 96 potential pennants since the beginning of the playoff era in 1969 (48 AL, 48 NL), only five have been won with a manager with more than 10 years experience. Most are in the NL: Walter Alston, a 20-year man in 1974; his successor Tommy Lasorda, with 13 years in 1988; and Tony La Russa twice, in 2006 and 2011, with 11 and 16 years tenure, respectively. In the AL, you just have Earl Weaver in '79. He's the only one.
As for winning the World Series? It's just Lasorda and La Russa. The longest-tenured AL manager to win the World Series in the playoff era is a three-way tie between Sparky Anderson in '84, Tom Kelly in '91 and Ned Yost in 2015. Each was just in his sixth year of management for that team.
Here's how the tenures break down for World Series-winning managers:
Basically if you don't win in your first four years, good luck. That's 71% of the titles right there. The Tony La Russas of the world are rare, rare beasts.
The obvious follow-up: Well, sure, but isn't this a result of the short shelf-life of managers in general? La Russa is a rare beast because most managers get canned sooner rather than later. They get blamed for everything—as you're doing right now. For the 2017 season, for example, only two of the 30 MLB managers had more than 10 years with his current team: Mike Scioscia (18 years) and Bruce Bochy (11 years). The average tenure was 4.8 years, and the World Series wound up as a battle between second-year (Dave Roberts) and third-year (A.J. Hinch) managers.
Even so, let's take a look at Mike Scioscia. He won it all with the Angels in his third year, 2002, then won five more AL West titles between 2004 and 2009. Since then? With a fairly fat payroll? In one of the weakest divisions in baseball? And with the best player in baseball on his team? The Angels have won just one division title, in 2014, then lost three straight games to the wild card KC Royals. Mike Trout has never been on a team that won a postseason game. In that series, which went into extra innings twice, his team held a lead for all of 1/2 an inning.
Or how about the winningest manager of the last 20 years? Joe Torre's Yankees won four World Series titles in his first five years at the helm. The next four years, despite better regular-season records, they won just two pennants and no titles—and these seasons are best remembered, and bookended by, excruciating losses to the D-Backs in the '01 World Series and to the BoSox in the '04 ALCS. (Good times.) And in his final three years, despite being stocked with a virtual All-Star team of talent, the Yanks couldn't make it past the ALDS. (Also good times.)
|YEARS||W (AVG)||L (AVG)||PCT||TITLES|
|1996-2000||97||64||.602||4 pennants, 4 WS titles|
Obviously a lot of factors go into a team's decline and failure. I'm just wondering if one of those factors might be the longevity of the manager. And I'm wondering if Yankees GM Brian Cashman is wondering the same thing.
Sunday December 03, 2017
NY and LA Film Critics Weigh In (For a Change)
Armie Hammer (foreground), and Chalamet, in “Call Me By My Name”
In the last few days, on the heels of the National Board of Review, both the NY and the LA Film Critics Associations announced their winners for the year. Both bodies, I believe, get together in person and duke it out. I don't know why they don't film it. Best short feature, yo.
Anyway, here they are:
|Category||LA Film Critics||NY Film Critics|
|Picture||“Call Me By Your Name”||“Lady Bird”|
|Director||Luca Guadagnino, “Call Me By Your Name,” Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water” (tie)||Sean Baker, “The Florida Project”|
|Actor||Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”||Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”|
|Actress||Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”||Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”|
|Supporting Actress||Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”||Tiffany Haddish, “Girls Trip”|
|Supporting Actor||Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”||Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”|
|Screenplay||Jordan Peele, “Get Out”||Paul Thomas Anderson, “Phantom Thread”|
|Cinematography||Dan Lautsen, “The Shape of Water”||Rachel Morrison, “Mudbound”|
|Editing||Lee Smith, “Dunkirk|
|Best Documentary||”Faces Places“||”Faces Places“|
|Foreign Language||”BPM“ and ”Loveless“||”BPM“|
|Animated Feature||”The Breadwinner“||”Coco“|
Not tons of agreement. Just on the dudes, the doc and the foreigners. Really looking forward to ”BPM,“ AKA ”120 battements par minute,“ which is about love during the AIDS crisis. French, bien sur.
Interesting that in NY, where they gave picture and actress to ”Lady Bird,“ the film's surest bet, Laurie Metcalf in supporting, went to Tiffany Haddish in ”Girls Trip.“ I'm all for awarding outright comedies but this doesn't feel like the year. Particularly with Holly Hunter in ”The Big Sick“ hanging in the wings.
”Call Me By Your Name“ and ”The Shape of Water" open in Seattle later this month.
Saturday December 02, 2017
Last Guy to Throw 300+ Innings in a Season, and Other IP Milestones
This post was inspired by my pitcher WAR/IP trivia question earlier in the week. Well, “inspired.” It's the table scraps of that post. It's the countdown to our present via the diminishing returns on innings pitched.
Here you go:
- The all-time record for IP: Will White, 680 (1879)
- Last guy to throw 650+ IP: Old Hoss Radbourn, 678 (1884)
- Last guy to throw 500+, 550+ or 600+ IP: Bill Hutchinson, 622 (1892)
- Last guy to throw 400+ or 450+ IP: Big Ed Walsh, 464 (1908)
- Last guy to throw 350+ IP: Wilbur Wood, 359.1 (1973)
- Last guy to throw 300+ IP: Steve Carlton, 304 (1980)
- Last guy to throw 200+ IP: Justin Verlander, 251 (2011)
Look at that drop after Bill Hutchinson. He threw 622 innings in 1892 and no one ever threw 500+, let alone 600+, again.
And look how long we held onto 350+ innings: 65 years! From 1908 to 1973, which is partly explained by the jump to the 162-game schedule in 1961. IPs were dying in the late '50s, the top numbers already consistently below 300, but they resurged into the solid 300s again with the extra eight games. The raising of the pitcher's mound in '62 didn't hurt, either. Then they really resurged in the early '70s. Why is that? Does anyone know? If it hadn't been for Mickey Lolich ('71) and Wood ('72 and '73), the last 350+ dude would've been Bob Feller in '46.
Of course, five-man rotations and the stratification of relief pitchers into set-up men and closers finally put an end to that, as well as to 300+. Steve Carlton was the last to manage that feat.
Is Justin Verlander the last of the 250+ guys? To get over that hump, you'd have to average 7 innings for 36 starts (that's 252 IP), and no one's started 36 games in a season since 2003 (Halladay, Maddux). The top-tier norm is now 34 starts, which requires 7 1/3 per. In 2011, Verlander made 34 starts, averaging 7.38 IP per. That's how he did it. Last year's league leader in IP, Chris Sale, with 214.1, started 32 games for an average of 6.69 per.
Last year only 15 guys managed 200+, but most, as indicated by Sales' league-leading stats, just eked over. Soon we won't even see 200+ anymore.